The notion for The Sweet, Sad Songs of W. F. Pine sprang from something I first learned in my teens, that my father’s mother - Lola Christine Michaelson Darby - died in 1932, when my father was a boy. Yet he never mentioned her; I learned my grandmother was my step-grandmother by mistake, when I found my "real" grandmother’s photograph hidden in a closet. While finishing my first novel, I began thinking about her and the influence she must have had on my father (who were her people, anyway?). Imagining an essay about understanding him by discovering her, I took the little I knew - that my grandparents had homesteaded in Douglas, Wyoming - borrowed the Douglas Budget on microfilm, and tried to find traces of her. And that’s all I found, traces. Maybe I could invent her, I reasoned, but as often happens with invention, I found the elements of the story - time, place, events, the very character of the characters - tumbling around until I was writing another story, though the loss of a mother remains.
Working on The Sweet, Sad Songs took me into new, pretty scary territory - writing about a distant time and place. I worked in isolation, as do most writers, and in trepidation, life hurtling along, while I holed up in a library ferreting out what crops a farmer might have grown in eastern Kansas in 1913, what resentments neighbors might have harbored, what diseases afflicted women and children, all so I could attempt to write believably and, maybe, movingly about characters who wander the streets of my mind alone. Like many others, I’m sure, I wept, grateful for my dumb luck, after I received the call from Amy Stolls. I remain grateful, for the support and for the time the fellowship granted me to work on this novel.
From the novel The Sweet, Sad Songs of W.F. Pine
Some eight miles north of the Pine farm, Dr. Peary is failing to deliver a baby. He kneels on Orla Hay’s bed, giving the forceps one last try. They are ten hours into this - Orla and the doctor, Orla’s sister and the neighbor woman. Up before light and ten hours without breakfast (he thought the delivery’d be quick: it is Orla Hay’s sixth), and the doctor’s tired and hungry and ready for this baby to be born. But the baby lies crosswise, and though the doctor tries, he cannot gain purchase on its head.
Dr. Peary may not know much (the Franklin School of Eclectic Medicine and Surgery occupied two floors above a five and dime), but he knows well enough he could lose mother and baby both. (He has before.) He knows Orla could rupture if she keeps laboring, and he fears the sister and neighbor know it, too. He can feel their fear, collecting in the room like afternoon shadows. Or maybe it’s his fear, for his heart is light as gas.
Curtly, he tells the sister to give Orla more chloroform and the neighbor to pass him the basin of bichlorid. Then he removes the long forceps from Orla’s womb and drops them into the solution. He rinses his hands and passes one in - his heart burning as he tries to discern the baby’s crowded parts: knee or elbow, shoulder or leg? Mrs. Hay moans as he probes, and the sister and neighbor glare, but he ignores them, as he must. He screws his hand around once more, and though Orla whimpers, his fingers find the feet - soft and slippery as little puddings. He gives them a tug and a twist.
(This he learned delivering calves, not that he brags about it.)
Now he’s got the feet, he wants this baby to come the way calves come - in a rainbow. (Pull them out straight and you’ve got Hell to pay.) The forelegs down, a calf should come quickly, but not too. You loop your rope around the legs and pull, and even if you’re pulling just right - in a gentle half moon - even then, the spine can crack or the hips lock. He goes too quickly with Orla, he fears not hip lock but head lock. But what’s too quick when a woman’s labored ten hours, the doctor’s half swacked from the fumes, and his back aches from leaning over the low bed? Dr. Peary looks at the tiny feet forked between his fingers. Why not? Why not brace his shoulder against Orla’s thigh and yank?
"She need another dose?" the sister asks.
Dr. Peary looks at her wearily. Such a stolid woman, with arms like bread loaves and flameless eyes in a broad, unsmiling face.
The sister lifts the bottle, as if offering a swig.
"No," he says. Chloroform may ease the pain, but it slows the birth. "No more."
"You want me to take over," she says, "so you can rest?"
He would like to rest. He would like to hand off this birth, but he catches a glance passing between the sister and the neighbor woman, an insider’s glance, worry shaded with contempt. Just what does this woman think she knows? That he’s not competent? Though he smiles and thanks her, he shakes his head. He has seen her coarse hands. Fever-breeders, he’s sure, and he won’t be blamed for fever.
"I’ll manage." He bends back to his labor to find wee ankles dangling. "Will you look at that?" he says, relieved for now he need do nothing.
He works his fingers up the rubbery legs, as if this way he could hasten the birth. Perhaps he does hurry it along, or perhaps the chloroform has released Orla from its stupor, for without warning she presses up growling, and half the baby slides out, newborn stool dripping into the doctor’s palm.
"Huh!" he blurts.
"What?" the sister says. "What’s wrong?"
"Why, it’s a girl!"
"A girl?" Orla says and falls back on her pillows.
Ann Darby is the author of the novel The Orphan Game (William Morrow, 1999, Harper Perennial, 2000) and co-author of The Dollhouse Murders (Pi Press). Her short fiction has appeared in The Northwest Review, The Malahat Review, Prairie Schooner, Organica, Ecotone, The Manhattan Literary Review, and The Best of Story Quarterly, among other journals. Her nonfiction has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Scientific American’s Cancer Smart. She has received the Prairie Schooner Reader’s Choice Award and the Bennett Cerf Prize. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. Once a dancer, she lives in New York City and Hillsdale, New York.
Photo by Eric McNatt