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The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Page 3

Kim Edwards

  “All right. Clean her up, please,” he said, releasing the slight weight of the infant into the nurse’s arms. “But keep her in the other room. I don’t want my wife to know. Not right away.”

  The nurse nodded. She disappeared and then came back to lift his son into the baby carrier they’d brought. The doctor was by then intent on delivering the placentas, which came out beautifully, dark and thick, each the size of a small plate. Fraternal twins, male and female, one visibly perfect and the other marked by an extra chromosome in every cell of her body. What were the odds of that? His son lay in the carrier, his hands waving now and then, fluid and random with the quick water motions of the womb. He injected his wife with a sedative, then leaned down to repair the episiotomy. It was nearly dawn, light gathering faintly in the windows. He watched his hands move, thinking how well the stitches were going in, as tiny as her own, as neat and even. She had torn out a whole panel of the quilt because of one mistake, invisible to him.

  When the doctor finished, he found the nurse sitting in a rocker in the waiting room, cradling the baby girl in her arms. She met his gaze without speaking, and he remembered the night she had watched him as he slept.

  “There’s a place,” he said, writing the name and address on the back of an envelope. “I’d like you to take her there. When it’s light, I mean. I’ll issue the birth certificate, and I’ll call to say you’re coming.”

  “But your wife,” the nurse said, and he heard, from his distant place, the surprise and disapproval in her voice.

  He thought of his sister, pale and thin, trying to catch her breath, and his mother turning to the window to hide her tears.

  “Don’t you see?” he asked, his voice soft. “This poor child will most likely have a serious heart defect. A fatal one. I’m trying to spare us all a terrible grief.”

  He spoke with conviction. He believed his own words. The nurse sat staring at him, her expression surprised but otherwise unreadable, as he waited for her to say yes. In the state of mind he was in it did not occur to him that she might say anything else. He did not imagine, as he would later that night, and in many nights to come, the ways in which he was jeopardizing everything. Instead, he felt impatient with her slowness and very tired all of a sudden, and the clinic, so familiar, seemed strange around him, as if he were walking in a dream. The nurse studied him with her blue unreadable eyes. He returned her gaze, unflinching, and at last she nodded, a movement so slight as to be almost imperceptible.

  “The snow,” she murmured, looking down.

  • • •

  But by midmorning the storm had begun to abate, and the distant sounds of plows grated through the still air. He watched from the upstairs window as the nurse knocked snow from her powder-blue car and drove off into the soft white world. The baby was hidden, asleep in a box lined with blankets, on the seat behind her. The doctor watched her turn left onto the street and disappear. Then he went back and sat with his family.

  His wife slept, her gold hair splayed across the pillow. Now and then the doctor dozed. Awake, he gazed into the empty parking lot, watching smoke rise from the chimneys across the street, preparing the words he would say. That it was no one’s fault, that their daughter would be in good hands, with others like herself, with ceaseless care. That it would be best this way for them all.

  In the late morning, when the snow had stopped for good, his son cried out in hunger, and his wife woke up.

  “Where’s the baby?” she said, rising up on her elbows, pushing her hair from her face. He was holding their son, warm and light, and he sat down beside her, settling the baby in her arms.

  “Hello, my sweet,” he said. “Look at our beautiful son. You were very brave.”

  She kissed the baby’s forehead, then undid her robe and put him to her breast. His son latched on at once, and his wife looked up and smiled. He took her free hand, remembering how hard she had held onto him, imprinting the bones of her fingers on his flesh. He remembered how much he had wanted to protect her.

  “Is everything all right?” she asked. “Darling? What is it?”

  “We had twins,” he told her slowly, thinking of the shocks of dark hair, the slippery bodies moving in his hands. Tears rose in his eyes. “One of each.”

  “Oh,” she said. “A little girl too? Phoebe and Paul. But where is she?”

  Her fingers were so slight, he thought, like the bones of a little bird.

  “My darling,” he began. His voice broke, and the words he had rehearsed so carefully were gone. He closed his eyes, and when he could speak again more words came, unplanned.

  “Oh, my love,” he said. “I am so sorry. Our little daughter died as she was born.”


  CAROLINE GILL WADED CAREFULLY, AWKWARDLY, ACROSS the parking lot. Snow reached her calves; in places, her knees. She carried the baby, swathed in blankets, in a cardboard box once used to deliver samples of infant formula to the office. It was stamped with red letters and cherubic infant faces, and the flaps lifted and fell with every step. There was an unnatural welling quiet in the nearly empty lot, a silence that seemed to originate from the cold itself, to expand in the air and flow outward like ripples from a stone thrown in water. Snow billowed, stinging her face, when she opened the car door. Instinctively, protectively, she curved herself around the box and wedged it into the backseat, where the pink blankets fell softly against the white vinyl upholstery. The baby slept, a fierce, intent, newborn sleep, its face clenched, its eyes only slits, the nose and chin mere bumps. You wouldn’t know, Caroline thought. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t. Caroline had given her an eight on the Apgar.

  The city streets were badly plowed and difficult to navigate. Twice the car slid, and twice Caroline almost turned back. The interstate was clearer, however, and once Caroline got on it she made steady time, traveling through the industrial outskirts of Lexington and into the rolling country of the horse farms. Here, miles of white fences made brisk shadows against the snow and horses stood darkly in the fields. The low sky was alive with fat gray clouds. Caroline turned on the radio, searched through the static for a station, turned it off. The world rushed by, ordinary and utterly changed.

  Since the moment she had let her head dip in faint agreement to Dr. Henry’s astonishing request, Caroline had felt as if she were falling through the air in slow motion, waiting to hit land and discover where she was. What he had asked of her—that she take his infant daughter away without telling his wife of her birth—seemed unspeakable. But Caroline had been moved by the pain and confusion on his face as he examined his daughter, by the slow numb way he seemed to move thereafter. Soon he’d come to his senses, she told herself. He was in shock, and who could blame him? He’d delivered his own twins in a blizzard, after all, and now this.

  She drove faster, images of the early morning running through her like a current. Dr. Henry, working with such calm skill, his movements focused and precise. The flash of dark hair between Norah Henry’s white thighs and her immense belly, rippling with contractions like a lake in the wind. The quiet hiss of the gas, and the moment when Dr. Henry called to her, his voice light but strained, his face so stricken that she was sure the second baby had been born dead. She had waited for him to move, to try to revive it. And when he didn’t she thought suddenly that she should go to him, be a witness, so that she could say, later, Yes, the baby was blue, Dr. Henry tried, we both tried, but there was nothing to be done.

  But then the baby cried, and the cry carried her to his side, where she looked and understood.

  She drove on, pushing back her memories. The road cut through the limestone and the sky funneled down. She crested the slight hill and began the long descent to the river far below. Behind her, in the cardboard box, the baby slept on. Caroline glanced over her shoulder now and then, both reassured and distressed to see it had not moved. Such sleep, she reminded herself, was normal after the labor of entering the world. She wondered about her own birth, if she had slept so intently
in the hours that followed, but both her parents were long dead; there was no one who remembered those moments. Her mother had been past forty when Caroline was born, her father already fifty-two. They had long since given up waiting for a child, had released any hope or expectation or even regret. Their lives were orderly, calm, content.

  Until Caroline, startlingly, had arrived, a flower blooming up through snow.

  They had loved her, certainly, but it had been a worried love, earnest and intent, layered with poultices and warm socks and castor oil. In the hot still summers, when polio was feared, Caroline had been made to stay inside, sweat beading on her temples as she stretched out on the daybed by the window in the upstairs hallway, reading. Flies buzzed against the glass and lay dead on the sills. Outside, the landscape shimmered in the light and heat, and children from the neighborhood, children whose parents were younger and thus less acquainted with the possibility of disaster, shouted to one another in the distance. Caroline pressed her face, her fingertips, against the screen, listening. Yearning. The air was still and sweat dampened the shoulders of her cotton blouse, the ironed waistband of her skirt. Far below in the garden, her mother, wearing gloves, a long apron, and a hat, pulled weeds. Later, in the dusky evenings, her father walked home from his insurance office, taking his hat off as he entered the still, shuttered house. Beneath the jacket, his shirt was stained and damp.

  She was crossing the bridge now, her tires singing, the Kentucky River meandering far below and the high charged energy of the previous night melting away. She glanced again at the baby. Surely Norah Henry would want to hold this child, even if she couldn’t keep her.

  Surely this was none of Caroline’s affair.

  Yet she did not turn around. She turned on the radio again—this time she found a station of classical music—and drove on.

  Twenty miles outside of Louisville, Caroline consulted Dr. Henry’s directions, written in his sharp close hand, and left the highway. Here, so near the Ohio River, the upper branches of hawthorns and hackberry trees glittered with ice, though the roads were clear and dry. White fences enclosed the snow-dusted fields, and horses moved darkly behind them, their breath making clouds in the air. Caroline turned onto an even smaller road, where the land was rolling, unconfined. Soon, across a mile of pale hills, she glimpsed the building, built of red brick at the turn of the century, with two incongruous low-slung modern wings. It disappeared, now and again, as she followed the curves and dips of the country road, and then was suddenly before her.

  She pulled into the circular driveway. Up close, the old house was in a state of mild disrepair. Paint was peeling on the wood trim and on the third floor a window had been boarded up, broken panes backed with plywood. Caroline got out of the car. She was wearing a pair of old flats, thin-soled and scuffed, kept in the closet and flung on hastily in the middle of last night when she couldn’t find her boots. Gravel pushed up through the snow and her feet were immediately cold. She slung the bag she had prepared—containing diapers, a thermos bottle of warmed formula—over her shoulder, picked up the box with the baby, and entered the building. Lights of leaded glass, long unpolished, flanked the door on either side. There was an interior door with frosted glass and then a foyer, dark oak. Hot air, redolent with the scents of cooking—carrots and onions and potatoes—rushed and swirled around her. Caroline walked tentatively, floorboards creaking with every step, but no one appeared. A strip of threadbare carpet led across a wide-planked floor and into the back of the house to a waiting room with tall windows and heavy draperies. She sat on the edge of a worn velvet sofa, the box close by her side, and waited.

  The room was overheated. She unbuttoned her coat. She was still wearing her white nurse’s uniform, and when she touched her hair she realized she was still wearing her sharp white cap, too. She had risen at once when Dr. Henry called, dressing quickly and traveling out into the snowy night, and she had not stopped since. She unpinned the cap, folded it carefully, and closed her eyes. Distantly, silverware clattered and voices hummed. Above her, footsteps moved and echoed. She half dreamed of her mother, preparing a holiday meal while her father worked in the woodshop. Her childhood had been solitary, sometimes very lonely, but still she had these memories: a special quilt held close, a rug with roses beneath her feet, the weave of voices that belonged to her alone.

  Distantly, a bell rang, twice. I need you here right now, Dr. Henry had called, strain and urgency in his voice. And Caroline had hurried, fashioning that awkward bed out of pillows, holding the mask on Mrs. Henry’s face as the second twin, this little girl, slid into the world, setting something into motion.

  Into motion. Yes, it could not be contained. Even sitting here on this sofa in the stillness of this place, even waiting, Caroline was troubled by the feeling that the world was shimmering, that things would not be still. This? was the refrain in her mind. This now, after all these years?

  For Caroline Gill was thirty-one, and she had been waiting a long time for her real life to begin. Not that she had ever put it that way to herself. But she had felt since childhood that her life would not be ordinary. A moment would come—she would know it when she saw it—and everything would change. She’d dreamed of being a great pianist, but the lights of the high school stage were too different from the lights at home, and she froze in their glare. Then, in her twenties, as her friends from nursing school began to marry and have their families, Caroline too had found young men to admire, one especially, with dark hair and pale skin and a deep laugh. For a dreamy time she imagined that he—and, when he didn’t call, that someone else—would transform her life. When years passed she gradually turned her attention to her work, again without despair. She had faith in herself and her own capabilities. She was not a person who ever got halfway to a destination and paused, wondering if she’d left an iron on and if the house was burning down. She kept on working. She waited.

  She read, too, Pearl Buck’s novels first and then everything she could find about life in China and Burma and Laos. Sometimes she let the books slip from her hands and gazed dreamily out the window of her plain little apartment on the edge of town. She saw herself moving through another life, an exotic, difficult, satisfying life. Her clinic would be simple, set in a lush jungle, perhaps near the sea. It would have white walls; it would gleam like a pearl. People would line up outside, squatting beneath coconut trees as they waited. She, Caroline, would tend to them all; she would heal them. She would transform their lives and hers.

  Consumed by this vision, she had applied, in a great rush of fervor and excitement, to become a medical missionary. One brilliant late-summer weekend, she had taken the bus to St. Louis to be interviewed. Her name was put on a waiting list for Korea. But time passed; the mission was postponed, then canceled altogether. Caroline was put on another list, this time for Burma.

  And then, while she was still checking the mail and dreaming of the tropics, Dr. Henry had arrived.

  An ordinary day, nothing to indicate otherwise. It was late autumn by then, a season of colds, and the room was crowded, full of sneezes, muffled coughs. Caroline herself could feel a dull scratching deep in her throat as she called the next patient, an elderly gentleman whose cold would worsen in the next weeks, turning into the pneumonia that would finally kill him. Rupert Dean. He was sitting in the leather armchair, fighting a nosebleed, and he stood up slowly, stuffing his cloth handkerchief, with its vivid spots of blood, into his pocket. When he reached the desk he handed Caroline a photograph in a dark blue cardboard frame. It was a portrait, black and white, faintly tinted. The woman looking out wore a pale peach sweater. Her hair was gently waved, her eyes a deep shade of blue. Rupert Dean’s wife, Emelda, dead now for twenty years. “She was the love of my life,” he announced to Caroline, his voice so loud that people looked up.

  The outer door of the office opened, rattling the glass-paneled inner door.

  “She’s lovely,” Caroline said. Her hands were trembling. Because she was moved by his love
and his sorrow, and because no one had ever loved her with this same passion. Because she was almost thirty years old, and yet if she died the next day there would be no one to mourn her like Rupert Dean still mourned his wife after more than twenty years. Surely she, Caroline Lorraine Gill, must be as unique and deserving of love as the woman in the old man’s photo, and yet she had not found any way to reveal this, not through art or love or even through the fine high calling of her work.

  She was still trying to compose herself when the door from the vestibule to the waiting room swung open. A man in a brown tweed overcoat hesitated in the doorway for a moment, his hat in his hand, taking in the yellow textured wallpaper, the fern in the corner, the metal rack of worn magazines. He had brown hair with a reddish tinge and his face was lean, his expression attentive, assessing. He was not distinguished, yet there was something in his stance, his manner—some quiet alertness, some quality of listening—that set him apart. Caroline’s heart quickened and she felt a tingling on her skin, both pleasurable and irritating, like the unexpected brush of a moth’s wing. His eyes caught hers—and she knew. Before he crossed the room to shake her hand, before he opened his mouth to speak his name, David Henry, in a neutral accent that placed him as an outsider. Before all this, Caroline was sure of a single simple fact: the person she’d been waiting for had come.