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.”

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