Clean Sheets
Erin McKnight
Break
The wind found her this morning as she stripped the bed. Languid currents drifted through the window and encircled tired legs, but a cool breath against her skin murmured that even the gentlest breeze moves with intent across the plains.
Now, she hangs linens on the clothes line. As she untwists yellowed sheets and frees them from their moistened creases, her body begins its own stretching.
A storm is brewing.
She tries to hide between the sheets, hoping their very flatness will guise a body carved by sharp fingers of the wind, but the fabric surrounds and clings--and this pain knows her.
Wind ripples up their fronts, puckering plain cotton. Wind sweeps down their backs, forcing them to sail. As it gusts, rushing along the untidy hem of a hand-made dress, it orders her to stop pegging.
She will not.
As the sheets whip into her swollen body, she braces herself against the howling; as they blow around her face, she defies the suffocating furor. It is only when she feels the warm trickle from between her legs that she burrows her hands into the small of her back.
The tempest roars, but it's her blustering that batters against the windows.
"Ma?" her son calls.
Her anger subsides at the sound of his voice.
"Get the midwife."
Her eldest runs because until this day, he's never seen red on his mother's clothing.
She makes her way to the house, refusing rest when the spasms surge and her tent of a dress billows. The children scatter, and she is alone. Once inside, she sinks into the wooden embrace of a rocking chair and is again the calm center, as memories are evoked of the eight she suckled while witnessing the emergence of an amber sky. How many more nights of her life will pass as she wobbles in darkness, patting a small back?
It's been twenty years since her blood first pooled, but when fresh drops trickle along the grain of the wood--teetering on the edge of the seat, and then flopping atop one another on the floor--she fears that it will again leave her body in torrents.
She crawls to the room the girls are preparing. They had expected still-damp and heavy sheets, but the wind had seen to it that they would be manageable in trembling hands and would settle smoothly.
And so as she now rests her head against the doorframe, she smells Kansas.
Her son returns. Having heard so often how his arrival almost killed his mother, he knows this sibling's entry into the world won't be easy. He watches from below as the man in the coat ascends the stairs. His presence in their home means owing money they don't have, but wet stairs tell the boy it was the right thing to do.
The doctor closes the door. She is on the floor: back to him, fragile wrists bent, palms flattened. As he moves before her and opens his calfskin bag, he knows there isn't much time. It was in this room a lifetime ago that his father had taught him to deliver a baby in trouble. It was this very woman, then just a mess of a girl, who had noticed his trembling hands and whose eyes had begged him to calm the storm inside.
But tonight, his hands don't tremble. Tonight, she doesn't watch as he attends to her.
Once it is over, he washes his hands, drapes his coat over his arm, and is gone.
The last time this doctor had left, she'd felt smothered by heavy blankets and concerned faces, but on this evening—after she places the baby in the drawer—she slips into a stark bed to find calm between clean sheets that won't require her attention tomorrow.
Erin McKnight was born in Scotland and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa. She holds a B.A. in English, and will be starting her M.F.A. shortly. She is an assistant editor for The Rose & Thorn Literary E-Zine. Erin's writing has appeared most recently in Double Dare Press and Siren: A Literary & Art Journal, and is forthcoming in The Rose & Thorn and Ginosko. She now lives in Virginia.