I Love You, Jilly Sanders, page 13
“Well, that’s amazing!” Jilly said. “Can you believe that, Tage? All that agony—it just stops!” She shook her head. “That’s thanks enough for me!”
“Me, too,” Tage said. He carefully extricated himself from the bed. “I’m going to warm up the water. I’ll be right back.”
Jilly, too, climbed out of the bed. Gwen stroked a finger down the baby’s cheek.
“She’s pretty,” Jilly said, “even if she is covered with something horrendous.” She paused. “That does wash off, doesn’t it?”
Gwen snorted with laughter again. “I’m so glad you’re here, Jilly,” she said. She stopped stroking the baby and reached up to capture Jilly’s hand. “She’ll be soft as butter once we give her a bath.”
Looking at the two of them, so perfectly contented with each other, gave Jilly a shy feeling deep in the pit of her stomach. A feeling much like longing and desire wrenched her mind. “Have you thought of a name yet?” she asked, her voice almost a whisper in the dim and quiet and room. Her own mother had probably thought of a name for her—a name she might never know. Or maybe she hadn’t named her, hadn’t cared enough to give a name to the baby she left behind, hadn’t wanted to have a constant reminder that would make the baby real. And that’s what names did: they made people real.
Jilly tried to blink the painful thought away.
Gwen looked back down at the baby. Her eyes glowed like two dark bright diamonds in the candlelight. “I’m going to name her Ariana,” she said.
Jilly smiled. She reached over and touched the baby’s chubby cheek. “Welcome to the world, Ariana,” she said softly. The baby yawned, her dewy mouth opening into a bitty oval.
“I know,” Jilly told her. “It’s boring right now, but you never know what’s going to happen next.”
Jilly awoke to the sharp crack of a tree branch crashing to the ground. She sat up, disoriented. She hadn’t been able to take a bath last night, but when Tage and she had finished cleaning up the baby, Gwen, and Gwen’s bed, she had washed up and changed from her flannel pjs into jeans and a t-shirt. She’d ended up falling asleep on the couch in her clothes. Tage must have fallen asleep on the living room floor. She hoped Gwen was all right and the baby, too.
The thought of Ariana drove Jilly to her feet, and she went upstairs to check on the two of them. Ariana was fast asleep in the bassinet Otto and Cat had bought for her a month ago; Gwen was on her side, her braided hair curled up on the pillow next to her head. Jilly tip-toed out and went downstairs.
Tage was just coming inside. “You won’t believe what it’s like outside,” he told her. “Tree branches are everywhere. There’s even a few of those huge old trees that have snapped completely in two. Get your coat on and come outside for a minute. You can see the power lines down all the way up the road, too.”
Jilly grabbed her coat from the closet and shrugged it on. She followed Tage outside.
“Be careful,” Tage said. “It’s like walking on wet glass.”
Jilly felt the mist of rain on her face. The storm wasn’t over yet, but the damage was already incredible.
“I can’t believe everything looks so beautiful,” she whispered.
A deep and profound silence filled the air, broken only by the erratic snap of branches overburdened with the weight of ice. Ice coated everything, at least an inch deep, thicker in other places. Like distorted glass, it skewed the image of what it covered and changed colors from light to dark.
The moisture in the air made Jilly shiver as the clouds continued to rain ice onto everything. “It’s beautiful and kind of scary, isn’t it?” she qualified. She moved forward and grasped Tage’s mittened hand with her own.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. No wonder Otto and Cat didn’t make it back. They might not make it back today, either.”
“We’ll be okay,” Jilly said. “The worst has already happened.” She paused. “Or maybe the best has already happened.”
Tage grinned at her. “That was pretty amazing, wasn’t it?”
Jilly nodded. “Isn’t it weird? Having a baby is sort of like this ice storm: massively destructive, but beautiful and life-changing. The same thing with the baby: massively painful, but beautiful and life-changing. Do you think that’s the way God works?”
“What do you mean?” Tage asked.
“That things in life arrive in pairs of good and bad—that you can’t have the most wonderful things without having the most terrible things, too?”
“It seems that way, doesn’t it?” Tage said. “Maybe we wouldn’t appreciate what’s good so much, if we didn’t have something bad for comparison.”
Jilly was glad he understood what she meant. Last night, when she saw Ariana clutched in her mother’s arm, she’d felt an indescribable joy laced with an anger directed at her own mother. Maybe I was an ugly baby, Jilly thought, because how else could her own mother have dropped her off all alone and left her to strangers? Ariana wasn’t even hers, but Jilly felt the fierce longing to protect the baby at any cost rising up within herself every time she looked at her. She could only imagine what Gwen must have been feeling.
But that circled her right back around to her own mother. How could she have done what she did and survived the pain and loss? Or hadn’t she loved Jilly enough? Were there some mothers who couldn’t love their babies?
Jilly took off running across the ice-crusted snow and ended up skidding several yards before slipping and falling with a resounding whack.
Tage slip-glided across to her. “Jesus! Are you okay?” He stopped beside her and offered her a hand up. “Why’d you do that?”
Jilly tried to laugh, but the sound wavered thin and dry in the damp air. “I don’t know. I thought maybe I could ice-skate,” she lied.
“I’ll teach you,” Tage said. “Come on.” He slid off and she stiffened her knees as he dragged her along after him. She allowed him to lead her, refusing to dwell on the heart-stripping thoughts of her mother.
The two of them shoe-skated back and forth across the yard, laughing, letting the newly-falling rain drench them to the skin as they played like children on the ice. “Hey! Are you two practicing for the Olympics?”
They slithered to a stop and saw Cat and Otto approaching from the end of the driveway.
“Hey!” Jilly yelled back, waving her hand in greeting. “You aren’t going to believe what we’ve been doing!”
She looked up at Tage and grinned. Then, still holding hands, the two of them skated forward to tell Otto and Cat the news.
“We didn’t dare travel back last night,” Cat said as they all went into the house. “Believe it or not, we ended up sleeping in Ned’s living room. Now that’s an interesting man. Wait until you see the list of titles he gave me to have you read, Jilly.” Cat winked at her. “You’re going to be the best read home-schooled girl on the planet.”
“Yeah, well, there’s other lessons I’ve learned lately that are going to stay with me for life,” Jilly said.
“Where’s Gwen?” Otto asked. “We were worried about her. That girl has got to be close to having that baby by now.”
Tage let out a whoop. “Closer than you know,” he said.
“What is going on here, you two?” Cat said, dragging off her wet coat and hanging it to dry on the back of a kitchen chair. “You both look like you’re about to burst.” She took Otto’s coat from him and hung it on a different chair. “Out with it,” she said.
Otto and Cat stared at them expectantly.
“Follow me,” Jilly said. She led the way to the stairs.
“What in the world?” Otto said.
“No questions!” Jilly replied.
When they got to the top of the stairs, she went down the hall and eased open the door to Gwen’s bedroom. Gwen was sitting up in bed, Ariana sleeping peacefully in her arms.
“I heard you coming,” Gwen said.
“Oh my God!” Cat said. “Oh my God!” she r
Gwen smiled. “Otto and Cat, I’d like you to meet Ariana Joy Lovara, my daughter.” She placed the baby into Cat’s waiting arms. “I’m giving her the last name of this gypsy couple that lived with us for a while at the commune; do you think that’s all right? I used to pretend they were my real parents until they left the commune. They wanted to take me with them, but the commune council wouldn’t let them. I think they’d like it if they knew I gave Ariana their last name.”
She didn’t wait for an answer before she continued, “And I wasn’t all alone. Tage and Jilly helped me. Jilly actually delivered Ariana safe and sound into my arms.”
Otto sank weakly onto the foot of the bed and stared, speechless, at Gwen and turned to look at the baby. “How . . . ? When . . . ?” He reached up and rubbed his chin. “I can’t believe my eyes,” he said. “When was she born?”
“Early this morning,” Gwen said. “Very early. I think it was shortly after one-thirty.”
Jilly nodded. “I was so scared, I can’t even tell you what I was feeling!” she said. But she was staring at Gwen in amazement, trying to absorb what Gwen had said about the Lovaras. The two of them were alike in ways Jilly hadn’t even recognized. Gwen, too, hadn’t really had a mother; Gwen, too, had longed for a family to love her.
“I was scared, too,” Tage admitted.
“But they came through without missing a beat,” Gwen said. “We tried to wait for you two to return, but you must have been caught in the storm.”
“It wasn’t just that,” Otto said. “We tried to come home, but the police were out full force, stopping everyone. They said electrical wires were snapping everywhere and it wasn’t safe for anyone to be out. The Red Cross is even setting up shelters all across the North Country.”
“They were going to transport us to the nearest one,” Cat said. “But Ned offered us the use of his living room and we accepted.”
“This morning we snuck out of town,” Otto said. “The whole place looked deserted; there isn’t a light shining anywhere. We did hear on Ned’s radio that the rain is expected to last all day. There are millions of people without power, and nobody knows when it might be back on.”
Ariana let out a tiny squeak, and Otto stared at her open-mouthed.
Cat stepped forward. “Here you go,” she said, and before Otto could make a sound of protest she bundled Ariana into his arms.
Jilly smiled as she saw his entire body stiffen with nerves. He sat up straight as spaghetti and looked as though he might snap in two if the baby wiggled. Then Ariana opened her blue-black eyes.
“Would you look at that,” Otto whispered. “I think she sees me.”
Ariana performed her yawning trick and gave a miniature hiccup. Her bottom lip quivered. She hiccupped again. They all gathered around her, exclaiming in delight.
“She is smart, isn’t she?” Gwen said, and they all made sounds of agreement.
“Let me hold her,” Jilly said.
Otto placed Ariana into Jilly’s arms. “I’m going downstairs to get my journal,” he said. “And the Bible. This young lady ought to be recorded properly, don’t you think?”
Jilly couldn’t believe her ears. To be recorded properly! Maybe she was in that Bible! Proof in black and white that Jane Sandra had given birth to her! She leaned down and kissed Ariana’s downy cheek. The baby’s skin felt like satin, so she kissed her again. Oh, it was unbelievable! To feel such instantaneous love was like receiving an unexpected gift.
When Otto came back, moments later, she handed the baby back to Gwen and went to watch as he opened the Bible.
They were all recorded there: Otto and Mirabelle and Jane Sandra.
But not her.
There were only empty spaces under Jane Sandra’s name.
That didn’t mean anything, she knew. After all, Jane Sandra had left before Jilly was born, and Otto didn’t really know his daughter had a child. Maybe Otto would write her name down under Jane Sandra’s now, Jilly thought, holding her breath in anticipation.
But he turned to a fresh entry page and in the birth column, down toward the middle of the page, he wrote: Ariana Joy Lovara b. January 6th, 1998. He blew gently on the ink, drying it before he lifted his head and looked at Gwen. “I’ll let you put in the other information when you’re ready,” he said.
Jilly saw the top of the page contained spaces for the mother’s name and the father’s name, as well as a space for a marriage date. These were followed by the section for children born to the couple, and below the birth section was a section for deaths.
A whole neat system to keep track of a family, she thought. There wasn’t one thing she could write on a page like that except for her own name—and she wasn’t even sure where that originated.
Ariana gave a gusty cry.
“She’s hungry,” Gwen said.
“I better be getting home to see what’s going on there,” Tage said. “I have some milk and stuff in my refrigerator that might be spoiled by now.”
“Why don’t you come back here afterwards?” Otto suggested. “There’s no point in being all alone over there during this storm.” He stood up. “In fact, why don’t I go over to your place with you? That way if you run into a spot of trouble, you won’t be alone.” He turned to the females in the room. “We’ll be back later.”
He smiled at Cat, who looked at him expectantly. “No more than three hours,” he clarified, and when she nodded, Tage and he left the room.
“I guess Tage has seen more than enough of me,” Gwen said. Her lips curved into a wry smile. “He sure ran out of here when I mentioned feeding Ariana, the poor kid.”
Jilly laughed. “I’ve seen more of you than I wanted to, too,” she teased. “But it was worth it.”
“Babies are a perfect creation, aren’t they?” Cat mused as Gwen opened up her top to offer her breast to the baby. “If I have one regret in my life, it’s that I didn’t have at least one child.”
Gwen stared down at the baby who fed hungrily. “Babies keep the world going,” she crooned. “But being a mother isn’t always free from pain.”
She sounded so melancholy Jilly felt the threat of tears deep in the back of her eyes. “It’s hard, isn’t it?” she whispered. “To feel love like that?”
Cat cleared her throat. “It’s love that keeps the world going,” she corrected. “Love for babies, love for each other . . . . Without that emotion, we’d all be reduced to beasts.”
Gwen glanced over at her. “Oh ho!” she said, her voice teasing. “It’s like that, is it?”
“Hmmm,” Cat said in a perfect imitation of Otto. “I must tell you two there’s something about a man who falls in love with you all over again each and every day that is irresistible.”
“I’ll bet Otto’s got Otto loves Cat written in his journal,” Jilly told Gwen. They grinned at each other, but Cat only smiled.
“Hmmm,” she said again. “But those are only words; Otto rediscovers the emotion each day!” She stood up. “And that, girls, is what makes him the ultimate man with whom to fall in love!”
Eight days later the electricity was still not functioning. Tage had moved in temporarily, and each morning he helped cart snow and chipped ice into the house to melt on the gas stove so they could wash up. Jilly was ready to scream.
“I never realized how much I love electricity,” she said, her voice a mournful wail. She plunked another chunk of ice into the roaster on the burner so it could melt.
“It’s always once something is gone that you miss it the most,” Tage said.
“But, except for those modern conveniences, I’m having a great time.”
“You would be,” Jilly said, her voice grumpy. She hadn’t done a stitch of laundry in eight days; she hadn’t taken a real bath in that long; they’d gone grocery shopping in Digg’s with a flashlight—not that the store had any
“Think about it,” Tage said. “We’ve had this time to spend together, and we never would have done so if not for this storm. We got to fall in love with Ariana, too,” he added. “She was born into this beautiful still air, like the whole world slowed down and waited for her arrival.”
“She’s special,” Jilly agreed, her good humor restored by the thought of the baby sleeping in her bassinet upstairs. “Let’s go look at her, want to?”
Tage nodded and they raced up the stairs.
Gwen was somewhere downstairs with Cat, so they had the room—and the baby—to themselves. They kneeled, one on each side, by the bassinet.
“Look at her little fingernails,” Tage said. “They aren’t any bigger than a ladybug’s wings.”
“Look at her eyelashes,” Jilly said. “They’re so long and they curl right up at the tips.”
“Are you two examining that poor child again?” Otto asked. “She can’t even grow an inch without one of you in here.”
“Us?” Jilly said, swinging her head around toward the sound of Otto’s voice.
“What are you doing in here?” They were all guilty of baby-watching.
“I’m looking for Tage. I’d like him to help me get something out of the attic,” Otto said.
“Sure,” Tage said. “If she wakes up, try to keep her awake, would you?” he said to Jilly. “I like to look at her eyes. I think they’re turning a lighter shade of blue.”
Jilly waved him away and reached inside the bassinet to touch the top of Ariana’s hand. She had little dimples where someday her knuckles would stick out.
She heard Gwen call her name up the stairwell, and she whispered, “Goodbye for now, Ariana. I’ll be back to check on you later.”
Downstairs, Cat was trying to haul another bucket of snow and ice into the house.
“She won’t let me lift anything,” Gwen complained. “I tried to tell her I’d be fine, but .. .”
“You shouldn’t be lifting anything heavier than the baby,” Jilly said. She’d heard Cat tell Gwen that a million times already.