Porcelain (Part 29)

Harriet stood there for a few long moments, a series of memories from her daughter’s life flashing by in her mind.  As they did, she kept her hand on the doctor’s arm, as he seemed torn between going to help her and turning away in embarrassment.  She knew that despite the uncomfortable nature of the situation, she was going to need his assistance with Olivia.  Taking a deep breath, and dismissing the memories, she stepped forward and grabbed the quilt to wrap around her daughter.  Once she had it situated in a way that provided some modesty to the situation, the doctor came over to assist her.  Working together, and against the dead-weight of Olivia, who seemed oblivious to the struggle, they managed to get her into the bed and covered completely back up.  Falling with a sigh into a chair, Harriet wiped the sweat from her forehead before speaking.

“Thank you doctor.  I think I’ve got it from here.”

“Yes, well I will check up on her just for a minute.  Just to make sure that she didn’t injure herself.”  He started toward the bed but Harriet raised her hand to stop him.

“Really doctor, it won’t matter, doesn’t matter anymore.  Leave her to me as she is.”

“Ma’am, I know you are tired from all of this.  Go lay down and I will check on her.  A little rest will do you well.”

“You’ve been good to her, you really have.  And me.  All of us. You truly have done your best to help and I appreciate it.  But we both know that there is nothing that can be done for her, nothing of substance anyway.  She is as she will be, and there cannot be much of life left for her.”

The doctor had started shaking his head half-way through Harriet’s comments and continued as he replied. “You are over-tired and despondent.  There is no reason to despair here.  She is ill, that is certainly true, but good medicine can assist and I am here to provide it. We owe,”

Harriet interrupted him, her voice starting to harden.  “You owe her nothing.  You have provided well for her and I release you from your service to her.”

“I cannot just walk away from this.  I have an obligation to provide my best care.”

“Doctor, I release you and bid you farewell.  You need to learn to understand when you are wasting your time.  Such a lesson will serve you well through your medical career.  Some living things cannot be saved.”  Harriet’s eyes, more a metallic steel now than their usual soft grey, met his, and they silently considered each other for several moments.  Finally he dropped his eyes and replied.

“My time is never wasted on trying to preserve the life of any person.  I do see here that you no longer want me to look after her and I will go, for now anyway.”  As he turned and picked his medical bag back up, Harriet briefly closed her eyes, steeling herself to dismiss him.  As he walked out of the room she called after him, her voice filled with a bitterness that reflected her own distaste for having to say it.

“Stay gone.”

The room closed in on her after that, the dreariness of a day that had turned from sunny to overcast adding to the somber feeling she felt in her heart.  It was just her and Olivia, her daughter, whom not so many years ago had been such a vibrant young woman, one full of enough adventurous spirit to strike out from the east coast toward the unknown territory of Kansas.  Harriet’s other cares and worries slipped into the background as she concentrated on being right there, next to and with her daughter, who had faded back into sleep.  She rose and went to sit on the bed, stroking Olivia’s hair, feeling her face and breathing in the slightly musty odor that emanated from her skin.  Her finger traced the ridge of her daughter’s nose, a sharp edge that had always given Olivia a slightly hawkish look.  She remembered when she would tweak it when her daughter was a little girl, calling her bird-beak in a way that would send Olivia into a playful pout.  Carefully she turned her daughter’s face, so she could see all of it, the way the wisps of her hair hung down and tickled her cheeks, the slight downturn of her lips, the mole next to her left eye.  It was so peaceful as she saw it now, soft and relaxed in repose.  She could feel her daughter’s ribcage against her own side as Olivia’s shallow breaths continued without seeming to notice her mother’s attention.  Leaning over, she kissed her daughter on the forehead, a kiss she held for almost an entire minute before rising and walking to the kitchen.

Once there, Harriet set about her mission without any delay or hesitation.  Taking out her remaining supply of dried belladonna, she began crushing it in her mortar, her strong but thin hands working the plant over and over again, until it became a fine powder.  Finally satisfied that is was soluble, she poured it into a tea cup and then added warm water and several teaspoons of sugar.  As she stirred this solution, she watched out the window as a large crow bobbed up and down on the top branches of a Inkwood tree.  Setting down the spoon, she walked back toward the bedroom, where she set the cup down on the nightstand.  Pulling the portrait from under the covers, she tucked it in her daughter’s arms after slowly pulling Claudia’s torn dress out of her hand.  Waking Olivia up with a sharp shake of her shoulder, she coaxed her into a partial sitting position before placing the cup to her lips.  Taking it without question or even a glance at her mother, Olivia drank it down quickly, choking slightly as the last of it crossed her lips.  Laying back down, she pulled the portrait of Claudia close into her chest with a small smile on her face.  A short time later, with her mother watching her from the doorway, she trembled briefly and took one last troubled breath.

… to be continued

Porcelain (Part 28)

The time since Claudia’s departure had passed slowly and less than gracefully, both for Harriet and Olivia.  Although her daughter’s condition did continue to deteriorate, Harriet remained adamant that she stay at home.  Doctor Warren had argued, vigorously at first, and then in a way that seemed determined to satisfy his professional conscience.  He did continue to provide what help he could, although that of course fell short of bathing Olivia and cleaning her up when she refused to get out of bed to relieve herself.  Those tasks fell to Harriet and she performed them as well as she could, given her age and remaining strength.  Olivia’s lack of grace during this time was about more than her physical needs, as her mistreatment and abuse of her mother escalated sharply once Claudia was gone.  As Harriet had described it to the doctor, her daughter was always either asleep, delusional or frothing at the mouth with rage and obscenities.  Olivia was most quiet when she was lost in that fantasy world she had constructed, carrying around her daughter’s portrait and dress.  She would talk to these objects constantly, or set them up somewhere and play a game of marbles or jacks.  Never once, among all of that illusion, did Olivia ever ask about Claudia or how she was actually doing.

The weather had turned cold by the fourth week after Claudia left, and several wood stove’s were going all of the time to fight off the unseasonable chill.  She had been up late, sitting near the cooking stove and sipping tea when a piercing scream from Olivia cut through her reverie.  Reaching her daughter’s bedroom door, she found her thrashing about in bed, the double quilt she usually covered up with hastily strewn off to the side.  Wanting to avoid Olivia’s flailing arms, she stopped several feet short of the bed.

“What is it?  What is wrong?”

“The cold is coming for me, it comes for me again!  Bring me to the fire to warm my bones!”

These words brought Harriet abruptly back to that scene in the bedroom following Claudia’s birth, those similar strange visions that had accompanied her high fever.

“Please stop throwing yourself around like this.  I cannot help you unless you stop.”

“You cannot help me mother, not now, not ever!  It’s the cold that comes for me and I need the fire to warm my bones.  Find me the god-damn fire!”  Olivia finished with a howl while reaching upward with her arms toward the ceiling and beginning to bang her head backward into the headboard.  Seeing her opportunity, Harriet dove onto her daughter, attempting to grab her head while Olivia bucked in rage underneath her.  Ultimately, her strength failed, and Olivia was able to cast her off the side of the bed, where her head slammed into the nightstand and she was knocked unconscious.

When she came to, the house was quiet but getting cold and her daughter was asleep, curled up with Claudia’s portrait and dress.  Easing herself into the chair, Harriet felt the gash in her temple and then attempted to stretch out her limbs.  Finding herself relatively intact, she walked slowly to the kitchen and tended to herself as best as she could.  When the doctor asked her the next day what had happened, she merely shrugged and waved off his attempts to look at the dressing she had placed over the wound.

Following that event, Olivia’s moments of wakefulness decreased significantly.  Her mother, relieved of some of the strain of constant care by this change, was able to tend to a few details that had been neglected.  One of these was to send a telegram to Wyatt, inquiring about her granddaughter’s welfare.  The reply she received, which reflected the better parts of the situation in Denver, cheered her up significantly.   It had been the right thing to do, the correct decision, to send Claudia to her brother.  Certainly there would have been nothing good that could have come from having such a young child endure the continued downward descent of her own mother.

The final day of that descent was signaled in a way that Harriet understood could mean the end was very near.  Just after midnight she was awakened by a sharp, high-pitched whistle, one that seemed close-by, just outside the house.  Instantly wide awake, her heart beating rapidly in her chest, she held her breath and waited.  The whistle sounded again and this time she rose, grabbing her blanket around her and sitting down in the rocking chair.  She whispered quietly to herself.

“Not again, not the third time.  Not again.”  She knew that three strange sounds in the night, if they came closely together, foretold the death of someone.  This signal had announced the death of four other people close to her, and each time it had been a similar whistle.

When it did sound the third time,  Harriet shuddered, her teeth briefly chattering as she fought the realization that this may well be the last day of her daughter’s life.  When she had stopped trembling, she went to check on Olivia, who remained alive and asleep in her bed.  Too much on edge to sleep, Harriet waited in the sitting room for the sun to come up while keeping an uneasy eye on her daughter’s bedroom door.  It was past ten a.m. before she gave up her vigil, after once more checking on her daughter, and went to sit on the porch.  Nibbling on cold toast, she passed the remainder of the morning in an effort to convince herself that this one time the omen was going to be wrong.  As Doctor Warren strode up toward the house she rose to greet him.

“You look worried, and worn out ma’am,” he stated, jumping past the usual formalities.

“I am.  It has been a long evening.”  Her voice was barely a whisper and the doctor had to lean in to hear.

“Olivia then?  Another episode?  Is she ranting again?”

Harriet shook her head.

“What then?  Are you ill?”

A long moment passed, one in which she considered telling him about the whistle and what it meant, or could mean, but she knew it would have no effect on him.  He was not someone prone to believing in such things.

“Just a long night.  Sometimes I cannot sleep well, you know.”

“Yes, well, it will not do to have you getting ill.  Come inside and rest and I will look in on her.”

As they walked into the house a sound from Olivia’s room was followed by a cry, one that sounded more like a child than a grown woman.  The doctor pushed Harriet into a chair.

“Please, I’m sure she is just getting herself wound up again.  Sit here and I will go see.”

Harriet reluctantly complied and her weary eyes followed the doctor.  He was one step into the room when he stopped short with an exclamation.

“What the devil is this?”

Quickly getting up, Harriet was at the door several seconds later, to find her daughter sitting on the floor.  Olivia was naked, except for the small dress, which she had somehow managed to get over her head, with one arm also burst through where the armhole used to be.  The portrait was held against her chest.  As Harriet entered the room, her daughter looked at her, eyes younger than her years and an innocent but hurt tone to her voice.

“Mommy, my dress doesn’t fit.”

Porcelain (Part 27)

The train ride to Boston passed in much the same manner as the six weeks at the house had, with Ambrose taking whatever opportunity he could to torment Claudia.  The boy, cruel but clever enough, had realized that he did not need to touch Claudia to get her to tears.  Instead, he would just maneuver himself into her line of sight whenever he could, and then mock her, usually by pulling his arm out of his sleeve and then trying to pick things up with the empty cuff or poking himself where his arm used to be.  Although Wyatt saw great strength in the girl when dealing with adult condescendence and mistreatment, the actions of children around her own age had a very great effect on her, although she always refused to speak with him about it.   In the final weeks at the house, Wyatt had foreseen that the coming trip was going to present such opportunities for abuse and torment toward Claudia and had managed to change his ticket to a separate compartment for himself and the girl.  Such arrangements did minimize the chances that Ambrose had to torment her; however, the boy took full advantage of what he did get and by the time the train pulled into Boston, Claudia had not not spoken in five hours.  Her face had remained pressed up against the window for that entire time, her fist curled in a ball as she wet herself, refusing to walk out and down the corridor to the restroom, where she knew the boy would be waiting.

As the whistle of the locomotive shrilled to announce the train’s arrival, Wyatt stepped out of the compartment after handing Claudia another dress to change into.  Standing outside the door, he glared at Ambrose, who stood near his parent’s compartment playing with a tin whistle.  The smirk on the boy’s face had Wyatt clenching up his own fists, trying to resist the impulse to walk over and box the youngster’s ears.  Isaac and Lydia emerged moments later and walked past him without a word.  Wyatt collected Claudia up several minutes later, hoping that his son’s family had gone far enough ahead to be lost in the crowd, a wish that fortunately came true.  That left Wyatt and the girl once again standing together outside a busy station looking for a hansom.

boston 1883 courtesy geographicus.com

boston 1883 courtesy geographicus.com

Having come in on the New York & New England Railroad, the final transfer of their long journey to the coast, they emerged directly into the heart of the wharf district in Boston.  The sharp smell of the salty air was mixed with the pungent odors from the wet docks and the decaying fish that pooled along the edges.  The noise was startling and overwhelming, both to Wyatt and the young girl, and they both simply stood on the edge of Atlantic Avenue for fifteen minutes, wide-eyed and slightly slack-jawed.  The water traffic along the wharf was varied, with fishing boats, tugs and small sailboats competing with cargo ships that seemed to move in slow-motion compared to the other boats.  Slightly farther off in the distance were several large passenger ships, moored at the foreign docks and awaiting the crowds that would soon temporarily move in for their voyage across the ocean.  Behind them, toward the land side, all kinds of large buildings rose up, with the Old Colony Depot, the Post Office and the United States Hotel being most prominent.  Denver might have seemed like a large town to Wyatt, but he had to admit that this was beyond anything else he had seen in his life.  Claudia, initially just as shocked as her great-uncle, recovered more quickly and was well into asking questions before Wyatt shook himself and began to pay attention to her.  As they walked toward the U.S. Hotel, which Wyatt had arranged on his own after finding out about Isaac’s plans for their one and a half days in Boston, he had to admit that he was enjoying the experience despite its strangeness.  Having been on the move for much of his life, he thought that maybe he had been content for too long with his settled-down home in Denver, and that this trip was going to revive some of his spirit.  As they walked into the hotel Claudia had looked up at him with a one word question.

united states hotel boston 1883 courtesy goodoldboston.com

united states hotel boston 1883 courtesy goodoldboston.com


Patting her hand, he happily replied, “Not here dear, he is most definitely not staying here.”

commercial and fleet boston

commercial and fleet boston


boarding house boston

boarding house boston

The next day, their only full one in Boston, Wyatt was determined to go out and walk the town with Claudia, and they had set off directly after breakfast.  Although he was pleased to be away from Isaac’s family, at least until they were aboard the ship, some malicious part of him wanted to see where his son had managed to put his own family up for their stay.  Knowing the address, but of course not the town, it took them two hours  of walking to find it, a dilapidated and leaning building on the corner of Commercial and Fleet Streets.  At first glance Wyatt could not determine which part of the structure was most likely to fall in first, although it all seemed to be leaning away from the water.  Shaking his head, the two of them kept on walking and were able to see many of the nearby sights, including Faneuil Hall and the famous Common and Public Garden.  When they returned to the U.S. Hotel that night, both of them worn out and hungry, they took advantage of the restaurant and ate well, with Claudia finishing up with two bowls of chocolate ice cream.  Before they retired for the night, Wyatt asked the girl to sit down on his bed.

“You know that tomorrow we are going to be sailing away, across the ocean, on a ship.  I won’t bother to promise you that this trip isn’t going to be rough.  Although we have our own compartment on the ship also, it is small and we certainly cannot stay in it for all of the six days we will be aboard.  Besides, I want you to see the ship and have what fun you can.  I am certain that Ambrose will be up to his usual games.  You do understand me Claudia?”

The girl just nodded her head.

“So, let’s just promise each other this.  We stick together okay? And I will keep that boy off of you as much as I can.”

In response, Claudia just took his hand and squeezed it.  At about that same moment, her mother, one arm wrapped around the portrait of her daughter, shuddered and let out one last breath.

…to be continued

Porcelain (Part 26)

And so went most of the next six weeks of Claudia’s time in Wyatt’s house.  Torment, outbursts and silence.  Isaac, his wife and son spent virtually no time with Claudia other than at meals, and the whispered conversations they had in the hallways were certainly pointed in her direction.  It had not been apparent to Wyatt initially; however, he soon grew to understand that Isaac himself considered Claudia to be a burden, both to his family and his future plans.  The discussion they had in front of the fireplace two weeks after her arrival was typical.

“I ask you again father, what provision have you made for this girl?  What about her care and room and board once we are away from this place and the two of you are living under my roof?”
“I have provided you and your family with a home for some time and you seem to be rather ungrateful for that consideration and kindness.”

Isaac wrinkled up his nose.  “That is hardly the point as I have done my fair share around here to earn my keep.”

“Fair share of eating for sure, and using my firewood and other provisions.  Certainly not your fair share of providing for your family.”

“I’ve done my part,” Isaac replied lazily, “but that’s in the past and we need to talk about the future.  What about that girl?”

Wyatt took a long look at his son and let the pipe smoke escape out his nose in a billowy wreath of contemplation.  The expectant look in Isaac’s eyes, one that demanded only the answer he was looking for, made the older man grimace in disgust.  Finally he snorted and replied.

“She’ll be provided for, don’t you worry your pitiless heartstrings about it.  I have money enough to provide for her room and board, and I’ll take care of her myself.  You can go about showing her no more attention or consideration that you have up to this point.”

“That you will do, but it’s not what I am concerned about.  What about when you die, and you certainly will, you’re an old man and have no business taking on a child.  What about then?  Whatever money you have won’t be enough to see me through the trails of raising her up the rest of the way.   Children are expensive.”

“Yes, they certainly are,” Wyatt replied ironically, a tone that was lost on his son.  “If I do go, and there is no saying I will before she’s grown up, then you damn well better believe I expect you to finish the job and see her into the adult world properly.”

“You expect too much father, much too much.”  With that, Isaac pushed himself out of his chair and walked from the room trailed by a wary look from Wyatt.

writing slate

writing slate


During those weeks leading up to the departure for their voyage, Claudia continued in her somber way, although she did at least begin to speak with her great-uncle, asking him questions about books he would read her and listening to his stories from his gold-mining days.  As the two of them spent most of their time together, either taking walks or sitting by the small stove in Wyatt’s room, he soon came to understand that Claudia was much more intelligent than she appeared.  She had a definite knack for assessing the world around her and was poignantly aware of the feelings that Isaac and his family shared toward  her.  As she had put it, they did not want her around, a truth that Wyatt reluctantly affirmed, not seeing the sense in disputing something the girl clearly understood quite well.  She also could talk much better than Wyatt expected from a three-year old and could make a decent effort at writing the letters A and B.  They were practicing that, sitting on Wyatt’s bed with a battered double-sided writing slate between them, when Isaac stopped outside the room on the night before they were to leave for Boston.

“Be ready at ten.”

“Yes, I know.  We’ve already packed.”

“More teaching of nonsense to that girl I see.  She’s too young to understand letters.”

“She does well enough,” Wyatt replied, lifting the slate up to show Claudia’s erratically drawn letters.

“Unrecognizable.  I know your answer but I must ask you again.  Have you considered my request that we drop her off at the Orphan’s Home tomorrow instead of dragging her across the ocean with us?”

denver orphans home courtesy denver library

denver orphans home courtesy denver library

A cold look from Wyatt was the only reply.

Taking out his watch and then snapping it forcefully closed, Isaac turned with a curt “Very well then,” and walked toward the kitchen, where his wife stood by the table with glowering eyes.  She started to speak to him as he approached; however, Isaac held up his hand and motioned her to silence.  Grabbing her arm, they both walked off toward their bedroom.

The next morning was warm for the season, and with winter having set in earlier than usual, the change was a welcome way to begin their journey.  Two hansoms and a larger cart for luggage had been arranged and there was much activity as drivers assisted with loading while sloshing through the melting snow with their stovepipe boots on.

stovepipe boots courtesy espinoza boots

stovepipe boots courtesy espinoza boots

Wyatt had arranged for his place to be sold once he was gone and the man who would be handling that for him was also there, with some last minute papers needing a signature.  Lydia had a firm hold of Ambrose, refusing to allow him out into the muddy roadway, where Claudia was walking around stomping into mud puddles and smiling to herself.  Her unusual activity and cheerful manner were odd enough to cause both Wyatt and Isaac to pause and watch, Isaac in consternation and Wyatt with a large grin on his face.  Turning to sign the papers, he muttered, “good to see that girl smiling,” just as Isaac announced they better all get aboard the hansoms or they were going to miss the train.  Wyatt lifted Claudia up, ignoring the mud-spattered dress and wet shoes she wore, and then climbed up beside her, patting her knee and chuckling.

“We’re going to be okay girl,” he stated as they pulled away.

… to be continued