44. I Didn’t Know Such Kindness Existed

At first, Inglorion is not confident of his ability to locate the midwife and wet nurse, short of making embarrassing inquiries at the inn taproom. To his relief, Collatinus recognizes her name, and the next morning he directs Inglorion to the Amastacia farm, just inside the city walls.

As he enters the farmhouse gate, Inglorion gets the impression of tidy prosperity. There’s a poultry yard to one side where half-a-dozen lovely, dark hens scratch and murmur. The rooster walks up to the wire fence, fixes Inglorion with a penetrating glare, puffs out his chest, scratches the ground. “What a charming fellow you are!” murmurs Inglorion. “You have beautiful hens, and if I were a chicken, I would certainly fight you for them.”

Now, in midwinter, the garden is dormant except for a few herbs and greens. The farmhouse is pink with yellow trim, a combination Inglorion likes because he’s able to see both colors clearly. The door is answered by a maidservant wearing a flour-covered apron.

“Is this the Amastacia farm?” he asks. “I’m looking for Margaret Amastacia.”

“Yes. It’s baking day, though — I don’t know that she’ll be at home to visitors.” Indeed, now that the door is open, he can smell baking bread.

Inglorion smiles, says, “I’ve come a long way to see her. She delivered me, and was my wet nurse.” The maid still looks doubtful, so he adds, “I promise I won’t be any trouble. It would be cruel to deny me now that I’ve smelled it.”

“Very well,” says the maid, stepping aside to admit him into the tiny parlor.

A few minutes later, a handsome, fair-haired woman in her mid-200s enters the parlor. She’s tidied up hastily. Her hair is pulled back, but she’s flushed from the heat of the oven, and curls have formed at her temples and the nape of her neck. She’s removed her apron, but is still wearing a workaday calico dress. She’s buxom and strong, and when they shake hands he’s impressed with her grip.

“I’m Margaret Amastacia,” she says. “How can I help you? I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s baking day, and I can’t leave Hannah to handle it.”

“I’m Inglorion Fabius. I believe you delivered me and nursed me. I –”

She cuts him off, says in a stunned tone, “Fabius?

“Yes, madam. That was my child name.”

“You were the son of Tereus Shelawn.”

“Yes, his natural son.”

She sits down abruptly on the sofa, as if in shock. “How on earth did you find us?”

“I came back to Liamelia to make inquiries about my childhood. I found your name on a form at the orphanage. I hope I’m not intruding — I very much wanted to see you.”

“No, you’re not intruding. Not at all. I can hardly believe it. But, of course — your eyes, your hair. I –” She breaks off. “It’s a foolish thing, but Hannah is often careless. I’m worried she’ll let the loaves burn while we sit here talking.”

“Can I come back to the kitchen with you and help you out? If baking is like I remember, you probably need water drawn and wood cut by now. I won’t be as handy as your husband, but I did it all the time for the gardener on the estate.”

“I hate to ask you, but…” She smiles.

“Don’t be silly. If you delivered and nursed me, I don’t think we should stand on ceremony.”

She laughs. “Of course, when you put it like that. And Tom’s been out in the barn this morning with a sick heifer, so it would be handy. He leaves me a nice pile before he goes, but men never realize how much wood you go through on baking day. And water! I was going to draw more just now.”

“Well, I’ll start there. Drawing water is brute force, and I won’t sit here in the parlor while you do it. We can talk afterwards.”

She leads him back to the kitchen, peeks into the oven, and immediately breaks off to scold Hannah. “Dear, please try to remember to add a cup of water when you first put loaves in to bake. It’s the only way to get a tender crust.”

“It went clean out of my head,” says Hannah, “what with the visitor.”

“Never mind. I can use these for pudding if they don’t turn out. Please show Inglorion the well and the wood pile. He’s offered to draw water so we can start washing the pans.”

As he ties his hair back and pockets his rings and watch, Inglorion marvels at how strong farm women are. It’s easy enough for him to draw and carry several gallons of well water, but he wouldn’t relish doing it all day, every day, particularly on top of washing and ironing clothes by hand, cooking on a finicky wood stove, canning, milking and sewing. Collatinus always had a small home farm — really just a garden with a goat and chickens — and Inglorion remembers that the work was unremitting, even divided between the two of them.

Once he’s finished, Inglorion returns to the kitchen through the back door to see Margaret pulling two loaves out of the oven and putting fresh dough in. “I hope I’ve chopped enough wood for you,” he says. “Collatinus never baked or canned, so I’m no judge.”

“Every bit helps,” she says.”I know Tom will be grateful not to have to do it at noon. Sit down. We can talk while I get the next loaves ready. I had some walnuts, so I thought I’d make cinnamon rolls.” As she starts to roll out the dough she adds, “It’s so strange to see you. I often wondered if you would find me, and considered what I would say if you did.”

“I came back to find out more about my birth and childhood. I’ve always known the bare facts, and those are uncomfortable enough. The more I learn, the stranger it seems.” It’s hard to know what to ask. He likes Margaret, though, and it’s easier because he did household chores for her, and he’s sitting in his shirt sleeves at the kitchen table, watching her mix cinnamon, sugar and chopped nuts. “I was healthy and well-fed when you brought me to the orphanage. I think something went wrong while I was there, or soon thereafter. I didn’t speak until I was eight or nine, and I was violent. I’m told I was a musical prodigy, but that ended when I went to work on the estate. I still don’t understand what happened and why, and I don’t have any memories of that time.”

She tucks the rolls neatly into a baking pan, covers them with a damp dishcloth. “Well, I don’t know how much use I’ll be. I don’t think anyone knows what matters from those early years. The more time I spend with children, and the more infants I deliver, the less I feel like I know.”

“Do you remember my birth?” He sounds wistful as he says it.

She joins him at the kitchen table. “Of course I do. It’s hard to talk about it, though, even with Tom. Now that Tereus and Lavinia are dead, I suppose there’s no harm in telling you.”

She considers, then says, “Your father brought me in too late. She was almost dead. She’d been in labor for days — she was exhausted, dehydrated. She’d been refusing food and water. He’d tied her to the bed, I think because he was afraid she’d kill you. I believe that was her plan.

“It was a horrible situation. He had no idea what to do for her, and of course was reluctant to seek aid or advice. I was able to deliver you, thank God. It was a breech presentation — she couldn’t have done it alone.” She breaks off. She’s looking off into the distance, as if witnessing an arresting and terrible scene. “You were born with a caul, you know. It’s so rare. I’d heard of it, but never seen it. It was uncanny, as if you had no face. I was shocked, and then I realized what it must be.”

She shakes away the memory. “You were both very weak, but I got you breathing. I was afraid to give you to her, to even try to let you nurse. She was weak and exhausted, but very determined. 

“I had just had Anna, so I was nursing at the time. It’s not something I would ever do, but you were weak and hungry, and I was afraid for you. I didn’t think Tereus had found a wet nurse — he was counting on her to do it, which was crazy — she wouldn’t and probably couldn’t. So I put you to my breast.

“You were so very tiny and thin and pale. You were born with silver eyes, you know, just like hers. Some people might have said you looked devilish. But I knew that you were hungry and afraid, and so I fed you. It was a terrible scene. You can’t imagine. I can say, ‘He kept her in a mineshaft,’ but unless you see it… He’d been brutal to her, too. I was afraid for her, for you — for myself, if I’m honest, because I knew I couldn’t take his money and forget what I’d seen. 

“And yet your needs were so simple. You were hungry, so I fed you. You were like a little, pale cat. It was very sweet. You went straight into trance, just curled up on my breast while I was sitting there. I thought, everything was so ugly — it was really shocking, evil is the only word. But you were very sweet, and you needed me, so I said I would take you home and nurse you. I took you home that night, and went to report it to the military police the next morning. I knew it was wrong — what I’d seen.”

“It was you, then? I always wondered how he got caught.”

“He knew it was me. I was the only person he ever brought there. He threatened us, of course — me, my husband, my child. We were so relieved when they took him into custody. It was hard. My husband worked on the estate, you know, and he was fired that very day. But we kept you for 18 months, when your mother fled, and all through that miserable court-martial, until you were weaned. I kept thinking that you needed us — how dire your circumstances were. I really thought you would both die after that hard labor. You were a very strong, clever little baby. And very sweet, too. You were really lovely, even then.”

She smiles at him. “We loved you very much, you know. My Anna — she was a very easy baby. An easy delivery, quick to nurse, never fussy. You were very fussy. You would scream inconsolably, for hours. I knew something was wrong, that you were in pain, poor honey. We tried everything, and in the end I realized it was the sun. I think you had sick headaches, even then. Oh, it was awful! You would cry and you couldn’t keep anything down.” She sighs, shakes her head. “Anna was so easy, and we loved her for that, and because she was ours, and our first. But, oh — I loved you, too. Nothing was easy for you. People said you were devilish, and you acted possessed half the time. But you had this incredible sweetness, and you needed us so much.”

They sit quietly for a moment. Then he says, “Thank you so much, Margaret. I didn’t know such kindness existed.” He hugs her, and kisses her cheek soundly.

She returns his embrace, laughing, protesting, “No, no!  I have all the thanks I need — being able to feed you when you were hungry. It was so beautiful. You were helpless, and I was glad to help, and to see you thrive. I was amazed that something beautiful came out of that scene — his cruelty, her misery.”

“Did you see me after that? Do you remember what I like? I don’t remember anything before Collatinus took me. He told me facts, and I remember those, but I don’t have any memory of the other children, how we were treated, what the place was like. Nothing.”

“We did watch you, of course. But I knew so little. We had Augustus and later Claudius, and we were caught up in our own lives. I knew that you were safe, that you had enough to eat. I did worry that you’d been harmed by all that. And you were a funny one, especially as a child — very smart, very serious. You had sick headaches, awful hysterical spells. It was sad, of course, but my husband was very firm with me. We’d done what we could, and I’d taken such risks already.”

He says, “You saved my life, and probably my mother’s, as well.” He smiles suddenly, and hugs her again. “It makes me very happy to know that you were watching out for me. I didn’t know anyone cared. That’s a wonderful thing to know.”

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