fancy-cuts
Type
Fiction

Josephina Anna Maria

This story was published in Overland no 12 in June 1958. For  our sixtieth anniversary, Tara Cartland has revisited the story as part of the ‘Fancy cuts’ project.

Wind tore through the darkness, and rain was beating down in heavy showers, the night one of the Sicilian wood-carters came to the door of Ryan’s Hotel and hanged on it so that its shrunken panels rattled. Michael had shut-up at nine o’clock; bolted the windows and barred the doors against the wind and rain.

Roused out of his sleep, he got up, thrust his arms into an old overcoat, and barefoot went to open the door, cursing the fool who was out on such a night and might want a bed at that hour.

Mary heard him open the door, and the noise of wind and run rush in over Denari’s voice. She had been in bed with a cold all day. Michael had strapped a whisky pack to her back and shoulders before he went to bed himself, a few hours ago.

“But she’s ill. She can’t go out,” Michael shouted.

The Sicilian cried out in a broken, distraught way; and Michael slammed the door.

“What is it?” Mary called from her bed.

Mick went to her.

“Denari says his wife’s bad. You can’t go, I told him. I will not have you running about after these people, and yourself ill. Why can’t they make their arrangements? Didn’t the woman know what was going to happen? They’ve just got into the way of depending on you, and be-God, it’s got to stop. Does he think I’m going to have you catchin’ your death going out on a night like this?”

“It’s her first baby, Mich. The poor thing –”

Mick went out of the room to fasten the bolts of the door again. When he returned to the bedroom, Mary was standing with her clothes on. She had wrapped a shawl round her head and chest: dragged on her stockings and shoes.

“I’m going, Mick,” she said. “How could I rest, thinking of the poor soul, and nobody to help her.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Mick blustered. “Go back to your bed, woman.”

But her knew there was no arguing with his wife when her face took that set look: her eyes were seeing four mounds of earth which covered her own babies, down near the Salt Lake.

“Get the lantern. And we’d better take a couple of blankets,” Mary said. “It’s a broken-down shack Denari’s living in. Scarcely a stick of furniture or a rag in it. I’ve got my own things in a bag here.”

They went out into the wind and rain. Wrapped in great coats and carrying their bundles, they stumbled along the road by the light of the lantern Mick carried, until they came to the railway line, where three or four Sicilians, who carted wood for the mines in Kalgoorlie, had built themselves huts and makeshift shelters of bags and kerosene tins.

A light was burning in one of the huts. Mich and Mary could see two or three men standing in the doorway: a long moan and sharp sibbing howl came from it.

“Denari!” Mich called, as they came up to the doorway. “The missus would come,” he explained to one of the men who moved towards him. Mary went into the hut.

The woman was there on a bunk against the wall, sitting up and rocking herself backwards and forwards, rain pouring down through the roof, all round her. The bunk she was sitting on was wet, and the blankets about her. The only light in the place stood in a box to screen it from the rain: there was no fireplace in the hut. The men in the doorway gazed at the woman helplessly. They had given her wine to dull her pain, and half-drunk, with tumbled hair, Mrs. Denari, as she was called, stared at Mary Ryan from a swollen face, dazed, anguished eyes.

“Me no understand meself,” she moaned. “No understand.” A shaft of agony shattered her screaming cry.

“See if they’ve got a fire anywhere, and get some water hot,” Mary said to her husband.

She knew at a glance that this was no ordinary case of child-birth: but there was no place to move the woman: no time to take her anywhere before the child was born.

“Here, you,” she commanded the men standing round the doorway, “get something to cover that hole in the roof, can’t you? And Denari, hold up your wife while I put this dry blanket on the bed.”

Denari supported the heavy, shuddering figure, muttering with rough tenderness.

She was wearing her everyday clothes: had no nightgown, it seemed. There were no sheets for the bed; for a pillow, a sugar bag, stuffed with feathers, lay under her head. And so, squalling and hustling, Josephina Anna Maria ushered herself into the hut. Her father named her as soon as he saw her. The rain christened her.

A fat, husky baby, she was, all red, with a mat of sooty fluff on her head, and the bright eyes of a little animal. Mary wrapped her in the other blanket she had brought, and went on attending to the mother. When she had washed Mrs. Denari and made her as comfortable as possible, Mary lifted the baby again. To risk washing the child in that draughty place would be madness, she decided.

“I’ll take the baby back with me, Denari,” she said. “And bring her back in the morning.”

“Si, si, signora,” the man agreed gratefully, glad enough to have somebody to look after the little creature.

Through the wind and rain which had never stopped all night, Mick and Mary tramped back to the hotel with the baby rolled tight in her blanket. So, swiftly, fate had dealt with them. There had been no time to think about what they were doing. Mary had gone to that other woman in her need because she could not have it on her conscience to do otherwise; and she had brought Josephina Anna Maria back with her because there was nothing else to do. She could find no baby clothes in the hut: nothing to wash the child in. And the mother – a fearful stench hung over her.

“Will the woman die?” Michael asked. The wind snatched her words away: but he knew the indignation that went with her exclamation.

“And the child?”

Mary did not reply. Michael guess with what fierce tender arms she was holding that small body against her own, protecting it from the rain, dashing into their eyes and soaking into their thick coats. They plodded home along the track, seeing long pools of dark water by the swaying, gleam of the lantern. A gust extinguished it. They had to make the rest of their way in darkness.

In their kitchen, a fire was still smouldering in the great stove. Michael threw more wood on and lighted a lamp which showed the crockery glimmering in rows on the shelves, his own chair and Mary’s, the table between them. Mary laid the baby on the table while she pulled off her own wet clothes and changed into dry ones.

Then she bathed the infant before the fire, swabbed out the bright eyes which should have been half closed still, and rubbed the plump little body all over with olive oil. She dressed it in the garments she had made for her own babies, and put Josephina Anna Maria to sleep in the clothes basket.

Michael went about mixing a hot toddy, grumbling at the shiftless ways of people who brought children into the world as though they were puppies, and took a man’s wife out of her home, to look after them, when she had been too ill to hold up her head all day. He took the hot drink to Mary when she got into bed at last; and scolder her roundly for all she had done.

“Oh, well,” Mary murmured drowsily, “she’s a beautiful baby, isn’t she, Mick?”

 

They slept well into the morning. Cows were lowing against the fence to me milked, and two or three gins with their children shivering under the verandah, when Michael turned out to open the house, sweep the bar, and get breakfast for himself and Mary. He waved his broom at sight of the blacks.

“Be off with you,” he yelled. “You’ll be having babies, next, I suppose. Hauling a man’s wife out of bed to be lookin’ after you.”

Aboriginal women usually went off into the bush, with one of the older women of their tribe, before a baby was born. The cooboo first saw the light of day under a tree, or beside some sheltering rocks, and was none the worse for it. But some of the younger gins, who had learnt the ways of white folks and liked to imitate them, would beg for Missus Ryan. And Mary had gone to see them, now and then, more out of curiosity than because she thought it was necessary to interfere with their old women, crude and drastic though their methods appeared.

But this morning, Michael was in no mood to be bothered by Polly Ann, Bidgee, Lucy and the rest of them when they came round the kitchen door for scraps of food and old clothing, flooded out of their camps though they might be, and looking forlorn and draggled scarecrows in the fresh sunlight.

Later, Mary declared she was well enough to get up and go about her work. The baby had slept until daylight, blethering a little, and then Mary fed her with warm water and Josephina Anna Maria had gone to sleep again. Mary, herself, looked quite excited, having the child to look after. She said the cold was not so heavy on her after all. It had done her no harm to be out in the night air; and would Michael go up and see how Mrs. Denari was: take her some milk and a billy of hot tea.

Indeed, he would not, Michael swore. Let Denari come down and tell them how his wife was. It was the least he could do, the lazy hound, to let a woman lie there with the rain pouring down all round her, and never turn a hand to mend to roof: or give her anything but that mucky hole to live in.

Men who went into the bar for something to warm them, before going to their work, that morning, found Michael surely and taciturn. Mary had to send one of the blacks with the billy of tea and bottle of milk for Mrs. Denari.

Denari himself came back with the gin, his swart face sagging under its high cheek bones; fear and horror of the night in the beads of his eyes.

“Is mad,” he gasped. “Throw herself about. Shout and cry out. Toni and severino hold her while I come for you.”

Mary took off her apron, wrapped her shawl of Donegal tweed round her shoulders, and went with him. But, by the time she reached the hut, the woman on the bunk was lying heavy and unconscious.

“Maddalena! Maddalena!” Denari exclaimed, gazing down on her. “She will die?” she asked Mary.

Mary’s head moved slowly in acquiescence. There was nothing to do as far as she knew. Denari followed her as she went out of the hut.

A short, thick-set man, with small eyes, and black brows which met in tufted bristles over a blunt nose, he looked scared and dumb-founded at this calamity which had overtaken the pleasant, easy-going way of his life. He muttered something in his own language, and Mary guessed he was asking if there was nothing he could do.

“There isn’t anything you can do for her,” Mary said. “Except moisten her lips with a little water, now and then.”

Her anger against the man was so great she could not look at him; and Denari followed her with the eyes of a dog that has been kicked, he does not know why, as she went away over the earth, washed clean and cool by the rain and flashing silver where pools and puddles still lay.

Was he to blame that he had no money to buy a fine house for his wife; and that there was no doctor or priest for hundreds of miles in any direction?

In the evening, Michael said one of the men from the wood cutters camp had told him Mrs. Denari was dead. He forbade Mary to go and lay out the body; assured her he had told them men what to do, sent a sheet of canvas to wrap the corpse in: candles to burn beside her.

Mary saw Denari driving a dray and horses he used for carting wood, towards the Salt Lake, next morning: men from the camp walking after it in freary file. Michael would not let her join them; but in the afternoon, Mary carried the baby down to the rough mound then men had left on the end of the lake.

She put the child in a shawl on the ground, while she gathered a few early wild flowers and spread them over the grace: promising the woman who was dead to be a mother to Josephine Anna Maria all her life long, if need be.

A little further along were the four small mounds of red earth, under their coverlets of salt crystals, where her own babies lay. As she stood there in the milk air, beneath a cloudy blue sky, with samphire on the end of the lake throwing a broad fringe, emerald, rose and mauve, about her, Mary thought of Maddalena Denari and of her own babies.

In summer, the lake stretch, snow-white and dazzling in the sunshine, under dim pale skies. Many a prospector in the early days, lured by gleam and shimmer of the salt, thinking that there in the distance was water in abundance, had perished and been embalmed where he fell on its broad expanse. But today there was water in the lake: the samphire had the fragrance of violets.

So strange, it seemed to Mary Ryan, the the Denari woman should be lying there with her children, and she be walking the earth with the foreigner’s baby. The poor slatternly woman with her, Mary Ryan’s babies, so loved and yearned for before they were born: and she with the child no one had looked forward to, rejoiced over, in the queer world into which she had thrust herself.

Yet how did she know what was in the mind of the woman who was dead, Mary asked herself. She had known no more of child-bearing than Mrs. Denari when her first babies were born – and died during those first years of drought and typhoid on the goldfields.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Katharine Susannah Prichard was an Australian author and co-founding member of the Communist Party of Australia.

More by