Granny-Witch and the Dead Rabbit
Biddy Kelly dissected the dead rabbit’s belly with a scalpel knife and pulled out its ovaries. The urine samples she’d injected into them a week ago had caused the rabbit’s immature ovaries to enlarge, meaning Ester Crites was, in fact, pregnant. Biddy disposed of the dead rabbit, washed her hands up to the elbow, and sat down at her kitchen table to write a letter:
The rabbit is dead.
Within days, 34-year-old mother of two and newly widowed Mrs. Ester Crites was sobbing at the kitchen table in front of Biddy. Ester’s brown hair matted against her tear-stained face in a waning moon shape that reminded Biddy of her cousin, Ruth Ann. Both women had their lives turned completely upside down by the mines and experienced more loss than Biddy thought any human ought to. Ester pulled a strand of matted hair off her face and pushed it behind her ear. She tapped her foot against the poplar floor, probably unconsciously, making rhythmic pitter-patter sounds with the sole of her shoe just like Ruth Ann used to do to help diffuse her temper.
Although Ruth Ann had been a few years older and four weeks further along, she’d sat in the same kitchen chair at the same kitchen table in the same situation back in 1907, almost two years ago. Ruth Ann’s husband, Deacon, had lost his life after they’d drilled too deep. He’d gone back into the collapsing cavern to help a trapped senior pick-man everyone just called Torque-finger.
Afterwards, Torque-finger came to see Biddy for arthritis treatment in his leg. Ruth Ann, in a fit of grief and anger, probably over her dead husband, Biddy reasoned, had threatened to tell the company about Torque-finger’s visit. That could’ve gotten them all run out of town at best or killed at worst. Miners aren’t allowed to see anyone but the company doctors.
Ruth Ann had pointed her index finger at Torque-finger and shouted, “You’re just a sour, selfish old man who doesn’t care about nobody but himself.”
The indignant look on Torque-finger’s face as it’d grown red suggested he was well-prepared to give her what’s what, but then Ruth Ann had started sobbing so heavily snot bubbled out of her nose. Torque-finger had stormed off without settling the bill.
Every Sunday since, Biddy watched Torque-finger’s wife, Ada, walk up the mountain with flower bunches to put on Deacon’s grave. After Ruth Ann died, Ada started bringing flowers for Ruth Ann. She never missed a Sunday, even if it was raining. Biddy figured it must be the guilt making her do it.
Biddy handed Ester a freshly laundered, off-white handkerchief from the folded stack on the table.
“Thank you,” Ester said as she took it and blew her nose.
“What do you want to do?” Biddy gently questioned, earnestly remembering Ruth Ann’s suffering. Ruth Ann hadn’t just lost her husband; she’d lost her home and what little income they expected to have. Scrip wasn’t good outside company stores, so Ruth Ann had spent the last of it on a small leather-bound journal. Gilded at the edges, the journal looked like a little Bible, but with thicker pages and empty inside.
“What can I do?” Ester asked, “Burnwell is only giving us three days to get out of company housing and Virgil is too young for the mines to take him.”
“Thank God for that last bit,” Biddy said. “You don’t want Virgil to end up like that McKinney kid who got his legs cut clean off by a motor car down there. He was only 14. Little boys don’t belong in the mines.”
“Grown men don’t belong in the mines, either,” Ester said and then buried her face in the handkerchief.
“I know, honey, I know.” Biddy handed Ester another clean handkerchief, which Ester took, nodding in gratitude. Her face had gone red and blotchy from the tears in the same pattern as Ruth Ann’s—across the cheeks and nose. Ruth Ann had cried so hard she’d nearly made herself sick. So, Biddy had dampened a dish cloth with cool water and draped it around Ruth Ann’s neck to help ease the nausea. Although they were only cousins, they’d always behaved more like sisters. Taking tea or lunch together, they’d found time for each other most days. Biddy hadn’t performed the surgery more than a handful of times, but Ruth Ann was the first patient she’d lost this way.
Ester straightened herself up. “I can’t keep it.”
“Are you certain you want to do this?” Biddy asked. “It’s the last you have of him.”
Ester nodded. “I still have Virgil and Rubylynn to remember him by.” She looked down at her hands and fiddled with the handkerchief. “And I think another mouth I’m struggling to feed might make me resentful. More resentful than I already am at Jedidiah for dying.”
For weeks after Deacon’s death, Biddy remembered Ruth Ann scolding Deacon’s memory late at night, cursing him for the self-sacrificing act that left her widowed.
“I understand,” Biddy said, gently touching Ester’s wrist. “No one at this table is judging you.”
Ester nodded without looking up, probably in an effort to let go of the guilt. “One needs to be practical in situations like this.”
“It will be quite painful. And although you’re not far along, there’s still a chance you may not survive,” Biddy told her. “Have you any arrangements for Virgil and Rubylynn?”
“There’s the tent camp, but it’s full of fever,” Ester bit her bottom lip to fight back tears. “There’s already so much tension between the camps and the mine operators. Neighboring companies have already hired thugs because of the unrest.”
Losing the battle with her worries, a heavy tear fell onto the unkempt collar of Ester’s cotton button-down dress. “If I leave Virgil in that tent camp, how long will it before someone hands him a gun and says, Shoot to kill, boy?”
“I have some connections in Chicago,” Biddy said, “but, Rubylynn and Virgil would need to learn new ways to survive in the city. It would be a completely different life.”
“A completely different life is better than no future in the tent camp,” Ester said. “Jedidiah never would have wanted that for them.”
“He wouldn’t have wanted hardship for any of you.”
“No, he really wouldn’t have. He was a good man,” Ester agreed. “What do we need to do?”
“I’ll send a letter to Chicago tomorrow, but you and the children will need to move into the guest room today,” Biddy said. “If you’re certain, we should begin the procedure immediately. The longer we wait, the riskier it becomes.”
Biddy remembered how Ruth Ann had cried from the pain of passing clots the size of river-skipping stones. The women had known the increased risks Ruth Ann would face given the difficulty she’d had conceiving at 38. Biddy had tried evening primrose and pelvic deep tissue massages to help break up the clots and reduce the pain, but the fever still came.
“I’m certain,” Ester decisively confirmed.
Women in Appalachia didn’t talk much about the implications of dead rabbits in sewing circles or over tea, but Ester knew she’d need to get her affairs in order. The mountains have never been an easy life, especially for women. Families did what they needed to do to get by, and even the good Lord himself knew better than to ask questions.
“The tea will leave you quite weak, and we’ll need to do blood pressure, temperature, stool, and urine examinations daily,” Biddy said. “Once we start, we can’t stop the process. You’ll need to stay here until you establish regular menses.”
“I understand,” Ester said.
“Although you’re within the 12-week limitation, if the tea isn’t completely successful, we’ll need to go in surgically,” Biddy said. “It likely won’t be possible to have children after the procedure.”
“The mines killed the only man I ever wanted to have children with.” Ester folded the used handkerchief sharply and plopped it down beside the other one wadded up on the table.
“Fair enough.” Biddy offered Ester another fresh handkerchief from the laundered stack. “What questions do you have?”
Ester took the clean handkerchief, nodded gratefully, and asked, “Are schools good in Chicago?”
“Some of the best,” Biddy said.
“That’s a relief to know.” Ester dabbed tears starting to form on her bottom eyelashes with the clean handkerchief. “What’s the family like?”
“My own,” Biddy said. “Mary Jones is my cousin. She used to teach school years ago, but now she’s got a successful dressmaking business in the city. Lost her husband and four children to yellow fever in Memphis back in ’67.”
“How awful!” Ester said.
“It was, but Mary is resilient.”
“With so much loss, how does she manage to find the will to get out of bed and do what she needs to do every day?” Ester asked.
“The same way we all do; she out-stubborns the grief.”
Ester gave a small chuckle of recognition and said, “I suppose that is what we do.”
“If anything happens, the children will be well cared for.”
“Thank you,” Ester said. “I don’t think I have any other questions right now.”
Biddy stood up from the table. “Then let’s get started.”
“What would you like me to do?” Ester asked.
Biddy slid some stationery and a pen over to Ester from the opposite end of the table. “Make a list of items we need to collect from the company house while I make your tea.”
Biddy filled a steel kettle half-full with water in the kitchen sink as Ester began writing. Biddy pushed its fitted top on tight and placed the kettle on a heating burner. Then she pulled a cheese linen square, tea bag string, herbs, spices, honey, and some blackberry moonshine from the overhead cupboard.
Ester sniffled but continued to write furiously and deliberately, like she was writing a letter to President Taft himself. Ester knew exactly what was hers and what was company property because one had to. As tension deepened between miners and company operators, the message was becoming clearer by the day.
Meanwhile, Biddy sprinkled dried pennyroyal she’d powdered herself into the center of the cheese linen. She added a little mugwort, parsley, ground black pepper, and ginger. Before the pains had started, Ruth Ann had insisted Biddy’s recipes needed to be preserved for future generations. Since Biddy refused to write anything down because didn’t need to, Ruth Ann had followed her around with the small leather journal recording everything Biddy made—from blackberry pine soda to the tea she made now. Although Biddy told her it was a version of pennyroyal, Ruth Ann had renamed it “Miner’s Widow Tea” in the journal.
“It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue,” Biddy had criticized.
“Maybe not,” Ruth Ann had said, “but it’s accurate.”
Biddy tied the pile up into a small pouch with the tea bag string leaving a long tail. Tonight, she’d light a candle and say a prayer for the dead rabbit.
Andi Stout is an Appalachian writer from West Virginia currently living in Pennsylvania. She is the author of Pushcart nominated, Tiny Horses Don’t Get A Choice. Andi’s work has appeared in Something Involving A Mailbox!, Northern Appalachian Review, Fire Poetry, Still: The Journal, Longleaf Pine, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact among others. Andi earned her MFA at West Virginia University. She also hosts an educational YouTube series called “Conversations with Writers” on her IntensiveWriting channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1jbnvBehTGtjhpS5-bquTQ/videos.
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