Not everyone was well on Verity Mountain. Had Ma Salt known that, she would’ve chosen not to pass the jug and tell fibs all night long. No matter how good it felt to lose her voice to rotgut wheeze and screaming laughter, she took her calling serious. As it was, when Liberty Riggs came haring down the path at dawn to fetch her back up to the Pitch place, Ma was, as they say, in a bad way herself.
“I’m up, I’m up, lead on, now,” Ma grunted, hauling herself out of the twigs and soft grass. With the Riggs girl’s help, of course, because Ma wasn’t about to stand on pride. “That newborn was sound as a bucket when I left her.”
“Julia says the baby’s coughing now to shake the whole bed,” Liberty said, and that was enough to convince Ma to force her own laboured breath into order and hurry on.
Ma was big and soft where she wasn’t hard as tacks—elbows, knuckles, and knees—and tongue, truth be told! She might let the Meara boy chop her wood for her, but she’d haul a child straight into life with nothing but the strength of her trunk and hands.
Now, the real village was all the way down in the valley, made up of near twenty families, give or take. The mountain itself was for more ornery folk. The Pitch place was all the way past the high-dwellers’ houses and up a bit of tricky footing, but Ma would be damned if she couldn’t make a trip in the daylight that she had in the dark, rum-headed or no.
By the time the first house came into view on the sidewinder path up the mountain, Ma was finally shaking off slumber. Cold breeze through the dawn-touched trees sure helped. Not a creature was stirring in the Riggs’ cabin, no doubt because Jimmy was somewheres in the eternal cycle of sleeping off a head worse than Ma’s was now.
“Pa ain’t up yet,” Liberty said stiffly.
“Neither was I,” Ma allowed, tweaking one of Liberty’s long brown curls. Liberty Riggs was a good girl, keeping busy whilst her pa…well.
They didn’t linger at the Riggs’ place, for babies took ill turns with a speed. Ma’s old lungs weren’t so convinced of the rush, however, which meant by the time they rounded the bend towards Knapp’s, Ma needed a rest. As they neared, Henny Knapp hollered, “You up to see to that poor widow?” It was an invitation to sit a spell, even if Ma had little desire to gossip with pinch-mouthed Henny.
“Christian of you to inquire,” Ma said. Ma settled as good a portion of her backside as she could onto an upturned bucket besides one of Henny’s daughters, Holly or Ivy. Ma had a hard time telling the redheaded Knapp twins apart, for all she helped bring them into the world.
This morning, Henny seemed particularly determined that at least this daughter would shell every single pea from the pile in their yard.
“Lord help that little baby, and bless you for your cares, Ma,” Henny said, pressing a handful of empty pea-pods to her skinny chest.
“Where’s that husband of yours got to? Oughtn’t he be mending your fence, here?” Ma said.
“Oh, Boland’s off checking his traps,” Henny said.
“Mm-hmm?” Ma said.
“Mm-hmm,” said Henny, eyes back on her big bowl of peas. Awful big bowl for most likely just two to eat, Ma thought.
“Mornin’, Holly,” Liberty said, fiddling with a couple pods. She blushed a bit, most likely because she had to guess at the redhead’s name, too.
“Mornin’,” said must-be-Holly, then.
“Well, can’t stop,” said Ma, once her breath was coming almost even. Ma made herself wave goodbye before she and Liberty headed out of sight.
“Deuced high, this dang hill we got,” she said to herself. Her feet were already hurting. Over her own huffing and puffing, Ma caught hummed strains of a hymn from out in the trees—Reverend Blind covering up the bubbling from his still.
A rustle shook the birch at the fork in their path. Ma made to grin and tease the preacher for his useless superstition, but it was the sullen buck Young Meara who emerged, fixed his blond hair and folded his arms. Quite casual.
“Young Meara,” Ma said, “ain’t you got school down in the valley this morning?”
“I got time,” Young protested. He almost managed not to glance behind when a corner of calico skirt and a strand of flyaway red hair hurried itself behind a stump.
“Well, doesn’t do to dally,” Ma said to the world at large.
“Mornin’, Young,” said Liberty in Ma’s wake. Young didn’t answer that Ma could hear.
The Reverend’s tune out in the woods turned to an old lullaby. Music followed them for a few minutes, skipping like a dragonfly amongst the tall, straight trunks. Would’ve been nice, in a ghostly sort of way, if Ma hadn’t to haul her old bones all the way up the mountain. Good work to be done, though. Besides, by the time Ma’d sung a few more verses herself of tuneless morning complaints, they reached the Pitchs’ doorstep.
“Here we are, here we are,” Ma panted, smiling. Practised eyes took in the scene of mother and child quietly abed. Bit too quietly, for a newborn. Julia Pitch spared a glance away from the baby’s face, which was hidden against her breast.
“She won’t breathe right, Ma,” Julia whispered, as much from her screaming during three days of labour as from uncertainty. Seeing as none of the men of the mountain—young or old—would claim the new child, Julia Pitch had a good sight of uncertainty ahead of her. Had spirit, though, and just said the baby was hers if she was asked, hers alone and that’s enough. It was enough, for Ma.
A brisk rub warmed and cleaned Ma’s hands, the night’s dirt falling away in pills. She spared a pat for Julia’s straggling straw-blond braids before getting down to business.
“Now what seems to be the trouble, little one?” Ma lifted the baby high.
“She’s blue as a berry!” Liberty Riggs said.
Ma shot her a look. The girl ducked back, not quite outside—in case she was needed, or because she couldn’t resist a snoop. Letting that pass for now, Ma brought the baby into the window’s watery light.
Little Nameless was indeed almost breathless, her tiny lips just starting to turn ice-blue. Ma shivered and sucked her teeth, not wanting to show her unsettlement in front of Julia and Liberty—not sure she wanted the sickness itself to gain a power from her slip in self-faith. After all, Ma knew well what such a slip had cost before.
When all were well, and there were campfires and moonshine to be had, Ma Salt would tell mostly not-true stories, even outright lies for laughing and screaming over. But when the folk up Verity were sick, she told the stories of her life. Now, as she had many, many times before, she told her life to pain and fever and death, so it would know what she’d withstood. It would know it could be beat, and she was the one to beat it.
Licking a thumb, Ma made sure the baby’s nose was clear. “Now when I was but little, I thought to teach myself to swim,” she began. Story cadence was as familiar as a brisk waltz. Time was of the essence, so this story was brief, but it would still help Ma focus down, and keep the other two girls from fretting themselves sick.
Veiny hands tapped the baby’s back, careful like flouring biscuits. Not a cry, though Nameless’s limbs twitched as if in a bad dream. Ma continued, “Well, I sank all the way down to mucky stone, until a frog startled me so bad I opened my mouth. In the water came, filling my lungs and belly.”
Sucking her bottom lip under her teeth, Ma settled the baby belly-down along her arm, cupping Nameless’s soft chin with cracked fingers. Ma tapped the baby over the back again, listening careful though she didn’t miss a beat of the tale. Never one to be put off a story, once she was started.
“Well,” Ma said, “you know I thought I’d disappear. Burst like a bubble and gone. But just then, in my thrashing and such, I whacked my nose right into that ol’ frog’s stony lair.”
Nameless’s tiny heartbeat pattered like a paw against Ma’s aching wrist. Ma frowned, turning the baby onto her back, laying her along a steady arm. “Might think I was done for, then? Not so. Woke me right up, that did. And I pushed my way back up to shore, coughing myself silly.”
Ma kneaded fingertips under the tiny ribcage, praying for a good, stiff cough. “That’s how I got this crooked nose of mine, and how I learnt the right way to set a nose, too.”
So absorbed in her work was she, that for a moment Ma didn’t hear Liberty Riggs join her words in singsong. “So I came out ahead, way I see it. And I still got that secret space the water carved out, see, deep in my chest.”
Julia let out a faint, rough laugh. Truth be told, Ma was fairly sure most of the mountain could tell her stories along with her, word for word. And if it meant poor Julia showed a little more colour under her freckles, then Ma was just alright with that. Especially seeing as it was time for last resorts.
Ma tilted the baby, cupping the back of the tiny skull between her thumb and forefinger. Careful not to harm Nameless’s fragile jaw, Ma pressed her other thumb just enough against the baby’s chin to open that cherub mouth. Ma chuckled fondly at its sweetness, inclined to make a joke and ease her heart, hurting for the baby’s listlessness. “That’s how I can yell so loud,” she said, “and why I snore like a wild—”
There was a face inside the baby’s mouth. Down the gullet, pushing aside the pink tongue, was an open set of dark blue lips, like the bowl from Spain that Henny Knapp had gifted Ma for the birth of her twins. There were no teeth, but the gums were the purple of a nasty bruise.
As Ma gaped, struck dumb, that inner mouth pursed, and the wedged head rotated, exposing a sharp nose, and a pair of frog’s-eggs eyes. Flat all the way down they were, like when Ma saw a bobcat as a girl. Flashing with darkness, as though the gaze snatched the moonlight away. Still, Ma could tell the bobcat’s eyes looked right at her—as she could tell those of the thing down the baby’s throat did, now.
Now, Ma Salt had been taught like everyone that sicknesses were devils or demons or somesuch, and she prayed over the fitful as much as she ground herbs and knew how to wrap broken ribs. To actually see a devil—she’d never even dreamed of it. Ma’s own gullet near clenched itself shut in fright.
“Liberty Riggs,” Ma barked, making the two other girls jump. “You fetch me honey from the table, a long spoon, and one of them millet sacks. While you’re at it, light a taper.”
The Riggs girl did, and Julia said, “Ma? Is it something I did wrong?”
“Don’t you fret.” Ma found herself sweating. Holding the little blue baby in her arms, staring back at the evil froggy eyes, Ma had to swallow down the remembered panic of a distant winter. That was a thought that would do no good, here.
Rallying herself, Ma glared, and soothed the baby’s head with her supporting hand. Ma said to the thing down the throat, “Don’t you get comfortable.”
Ma tried everything she knew, and a few things she guessed. She even had Liberty take a whack at it, worried that her old arms might be finally failing her. No good—little Nameless had stopped even clenching her fists.
Julia was beside herself, though she hadn’t the energy for it, so she just cried quiet tears. Now and again, she’d say, “Please.”
Ma’d kept a firm litany of boasts til this moment, as was her wont. When a baby really couldn’t breathe you didn’t have so long at all, maybe minutes, but all Ma’s big talk seemed like hours ago. Julia held her baby close and pressed her mouth to her daughter’s cheek. Liberty Riggs shivered over by the door, round dark eyes red with tears.
Ma Salt looked down at the little nameless baby and felt a winter cold out of place to the steamy end of September. Lost, Ma said, “I don’t know what to do.”
The face in the baby’s mouth cringed, shrinking. As though Ma’s words had struck a blow where all her efforts had not. The baby gave a shudder, and began a weak cough. Ma clasped her hands in prayer.
“Baby mine, you’re all I’ve got,” Julia said into the baby’s cheek, her little ear, her tiny palm. “I’m sorry I didn’t want you before, but I do now, I swear.”
The baby gave a pant, coughing in earnest. A good cough at this point was nigh on a miracle, so Ma got an inkling.
“Let me see,” Ma barged in, peering into the baby’s mouth.
Yes, the creature was smaller, she was sure of it. Froggy eyes the colour of poison tea still blocked the baby’s throat, but they pitched and rolled as if in fear. The thing squirmed, exposing its dark blue maw to release a hoarse puff of agitation.
Ma said under her breath, “Shit on a Sunday. Liberty Riggs!” Ma aimed a crooked finger at the dazed girl by the door, cheeks wet but now more startled than upset. “What’s something true you ain’t never told another soul?”
“I—I wish I could wear britches!” Liberty said.
Little Nameless sucked a breath in through her nose, and the purple mouth creaked its dismay.
“Run, girl,” Ma turned Liberty around by the shoulders, “and fetch all the folk—tell ’em Ma Salt said to drop everything and come up quick.”
Liberty tore off, flat out ignoring the path. With a brisk nod, Ma turned back to the weakly wriggling baby and her blearily hopeful mother. “I ain’t never managed the knack of making oats that don’t break a person’s teeth!” Ma said.
The poison-tea-purple thing whined like a stubborn cork.
“Don’t like that at all, do you?” Ma grinned sharp. Then she said, “It’s something to do with secrets, Julia. Help your baby—tell it something true.”
Julia sniffled, then started desperately reciting her entire secret recipe for eggy bread, wiping away her tears.
That Nameless was a fighter, alright, her tiny chest pumping like a grown-up’s heart. Shivering with hope, Ma and Julia spit out just about every little thing that came to mind, revelling in the baby’s strengthening coughs. But by the time Liberty dragged the other grumbling mountain-dwellers into Julia’s single room, the baby’s cheeks had yet to show pink, and Ma had just about had enough.
“Alright,” Ma announced, facing her folk, “in truth, I should’ve told y’all to call me by name long ago, put a stop to this ‘Ma Salt’ business—ain’t got a right to a title, though I did like it more than a little. I do have a right to be a braggart, and I’m not shamed to say this child is not to be taken. Because I will not allow it.”
The baby yawned in a near-silent squall, revealing the wriggling thing inside. Seeing the poisonous face writhing stuck, every single mountain-dweller gasped and recoiled. Reverend Blind tried to pray and swig from his flask at the same time, dribbling rotgut all over Julia’s clean plank floor.
“Now,” Ma said, “that evil little thing is an infection, and living in all these filthy lies is letting it take hold. We’re letting our truth out like pus from a wound. Only way to get rid of it, and save this child, is to scrub ourselves down. G’on. Not a speck left.”
“I been messin’ with your fenceposts for years,” Young Meara said. Painted posts marked the trickier paths through the woods. Almost everybody on the mountain relied on those posts when they partook of the fruits of the Reverend’s still. The room at large let out a cry of protest. Young Meara shuffled his feet.
“I’ll peek in the mail a time or two,” Boland Knapp said.
“Maybe if you bothered delivering it a time or two, we wouldn’t mind so much,” Ma said.
Before the bickering could start, Jimmy Riggs—who’d been staring at the blue-lipped baby like a haunting—opened his mouth as if in a dream. He said, “Ain’t got through the day without a drink an hour in longer than I can remember.”
It may not have been a surprise to anyone, but Liberty breathed hard and looked away. Ma said, “I knew, Jimmy, but I liked your company around the fire too much to try anything to change it.”
Henny Knapp said, “I order my soup stock dried from a catalogue.”
“I always hated your soup,” Ivy said, thrilled, “even when you add chicken for Christmas.”
Taken up by guilt, Liberty said to Holly, “I been kissin’ your beau.”
Taken up by the spirit of things if nothing else, Ivy added, “So have I.” Young Meara went scarlet.
“Well,” said Holly to Liberty, “I been kissin’ you, so I suppose I haven’t room to judge.”
Liberty turned stone white, but Jimmy surprised everyone by putting an arm around his daughter. Though he shook his head, he seemed more amazed than fussed by the revelation. He said to Liberty, “Sometimes I forget you’re still there, honey. I’m so sorry.”
“I cocked up the mixture on my still last summer,” said Reverend Blind, “and I couldn’t find all the jugs. Been waiting ever since to hear somebody died or went blind.”
“I wouldn’t keep coming back if I had any money to get the hell off this mountain,” Boland Knapp said to his wife.
“I never liked you none, son,” Ma said to him, “and I’m only half-sorry.”
“I’m glad Pa’s never here,” Holly said, leaning against Liberty. Liberty shook off some of the shock of her secrets told without her say-so and took Holly’s hand for comfort.
“I don’t believe in God,” said Henny Knapp, and it didn’t sound like a new thought.
“I still do,” Jimmy whispered, kissing Liberty’s hair.
“Well,” Reverend Blind said, hanging his head. “I’m the father.”
Jimmy startled with a confused frown. “I’m the father.”
“I’m the father!” Boland stood straight, clenching his fists.
“I don’t care,” said Julia, and everybody shut right up.
A beat or two of the angels’ wings passed, as they say, and the baby kept coughing. Didn’t take more than an acorn to choke a small child, which meant though the demon was shrunk, there was work yet to be done.
Ma was so proud of her folks hopping to, and listening to her right off without a quarrel. But just as she had helped birth almost all of them into this world, she must’ve unwittingly helped to birth that monster in the baby’s mouth, too. She was not exempt. That little blue demon was hanging on by a thread, by a last untruth. And there was one story she had never told, not in darkest fever nor in deepest confidence.
Ma cleared her throat, and made her tongue say it. “That bad winter, when I lost my man and child? I was looking down a long, cold road to death. I gave my man and my boy the easy way with a poison brew—they were already sick, from influenza and starving and, Lord-knows, weren’t awake to know anything at all. But I didn’t have the stones to take it myself. That cup sat there staring at me, froze solid, until—you remember that sudden thaw? Nobody could have seen that coming. And then I lived. So who knows if they could’ve, too? I’ve tried to never let a damn one of you loose from the world since. But they died because of my choice.”
Folk would die as the Good Lord willed or no, but it bore being said that far, far fewer died than had lived under Ma’s care. Ma was proud of that. But the winter always brought dreams of a quiet house and two blue bodies. She’d thought it kept her honest, kept her doing work needed to be done. If she couldn’t do that anymore, Ma didn’t know what she’d do. Lie down and sleep forever, she’d expect.
But, damn it, Ma would always be proud that, at that moment, the baby gave a free, beautiful wail. A blue doll-looking thing shrunk to no bigger than her pinkie-nail scrambled free of little Nameless’s angry lips, making to lose itself amongst the blanket wrinkles.
“Liberty!” said Ma, but she needn’t have fretted—the girl had already grabbed the tin cup from off Julia’s table, and clapped it straight down on the bed, trapping the evil thing for sure.
“Back away, darlin’!” Ma said, grateful to be instantly obeyed one last time. Then Ma stuck her hand right under that cup and pinched the horrible little thing in her old fingers.
Thinking hard of that deep space she’d always imagined the water dug in her chest as a girl, Ma popped the horrible thing in her mouth, gnashed her teeth once in vengeance, and swallowed it down to that deep place forever. If Ma didn’t open her mouth for a thing but truth, then maybe someday it’d be shrunk to nothing, and gone for good.
“What is your name, Ma?” Julia asked.
Startled, Ma answered soft, “Why, it’s Esther.”
“And so’s yours,” Julia said, firm, looking the baby in the squinting eye. “You are little Esther Pitch, and you’re nobody’s but your own.”
Story copyright © 2017 by Dayna K. Smith
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Richard Wagner
Dayna K. Smith writes from north Chicago. While her novels brew and her cookies bake, you can find her comics work in Volumes 3 and 4 of the Ladies’ Night Anthology. She carries the banner of the Intrepid Souls from the 2015 Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD, which involves a fish, clouds, and, well. She should know better, after writing this, than to keep a secret, but it really is a long story.
Richard Wagner is a graphic designer and illustrator living in the United States. His academic schooling consists of a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with an emphasis in painting and drawing as well as training in graphic design and illustration. For nearly nineteen years he taught college-level graphic design and photo-illustration classes while also freelancing. He now works on his own and enjoys focusing solely on being a designer/illustrator.