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Hello, Shirley

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Anne could not see, but she could hear.

Shouts, distant and indistinct, like the cries of wheeling gulls, relayed inconsistently by the acoustics of the shore. They were not, she thought dimly, screams of distress. Those — the shrill whispers and urgent orders — were only remembered echoes.

“. . . the children to Miss Cornelia. Now! And call Dr. Parker . . .”

“. . . wrong with Mummy?

“. . . Gil . . .”

“ . . . come on, Walt, come away . . .”

What had happened? Sound and sensation without reason. Anne remembered a pull and pop low in her belly, a gush, and thinking oh it’s time, before everything went red and swirling and then deep, deep dark.

When one eye struggled open, she shut it again immediately. Even the watery light of early spring was too much for eyes that had remained closed for . . . how long? Days at least.

Anne tried again, blinking to give her pupils time to adjust. Her surroundings resolved into sense. Her own room. Her own bed. Mrs. Lynde’s tobacco stripe quilt over her, clean sheets under her. The window open to salt breeze and hyacinth and the children’s shouts from the yard.

“. . . can’t be a dragon without wings . . .”

“Mine! No, Nan, no!”

Beside the bed, Gilbert dozed in an armchair. How long had he been there? Shirt rumpled, waistcoat hanging open, tieless, and it seemed he had not shaven for quite a while. Brown curls in disarray, a silver streak at his temple. Even in sleep, his mouth sagged toward frowning. Surely that wasn’t right.

Anne tried to reach out a hand to him, but found that her limbs were cast of lead. She tried to call his name instead, but managed only a hoarse rattle through her parched throat.

With great deliberation, Anne focused on swallowing. She concentrated on bringing a bit of moisture into her mouth and swallowed carefully, wincing at a throat gone painfully dry. She tried again, and once more, until she thought maybe she could make a sound.

“Gil?”

Just a squeak, really. But Gilbert shot up in his seat, haggard face pale. His sunken eyes met hers and, for a moment, Anne thought that he would crush her to him, such was the naked intensity of his longing and relief. Instead, he sat forward and laid a hand on hers, feather-light.

“Anne,” he smiled. “Welcome back, darling.”

“Wa-ter.” She didn’t need to vocalize the request, only move her lips around puffs of air.

He scrambled for a glass on the bedside table, nearly knocking it to the floor in his haste. But he brought the rim to her lips gently and steadied it as she took one cautious sip. Anne’s throat was still rigid, but every swallow washed away a bit of the razor-stone there.

As soon as she felt that she could make herself understood, Anne turned away from the glass and toward her husband.

“Baby?” she asked.

Gilbert gave a tired smile and Anne felt her worst fears dissipate. But it was not the grin she had seen at Jem’s birth, nor the beaming satisfaction of the moment he introduced Walter to his big brother, nor the weary pride of settling their newborn daughters into her arms.

“Tell me,” she whispered, dread once again expanding to fill the absence of information.

“A boy,” Gilbert said quietly. “He’s downstairs with Susan. He’s . . . small. But alive. Susan’s been keeping him warm and fed. I’ll fetch them.”

Anne’s throat had gone unbiddable again, but she nodded and Gilbert went out.

Alive. Thank God. Small? What did that mean? Too early? No, the dates were right, she was sure of that. Due at Easter, and she remembered the daffodils and the leg of lamb and Jem shouting endless Alleluias at the top of his lungs on the walk home from church . . .

Moments later, Susan appeared in the door, stepping softly. Over her usual work dress, she wore a broad linen sash, knotted and lumpy in unexpected places. Anne could not quite make sense of it until it moved and she realized that it was a sling, keeping the baby nestled against Susan’s chest even as it left her hands free for work.

Anne attempted to push herself into a seated position, but Gilbert hurried to her side and placed a broad hand firmly on her shoulder.

“Relax, Anne-girl. You’ve lost a lot of blood and there’s no use making yourself faint.”

“Hold him?”

“Of course. I’ll help you.”

Gilbert turned to Susan and extracted the little bundle from its warm nest. So small. Anne felt a lurch of panic so strong she seemed to be lifted bodily from the bed. But no. The tiny face was a healthy brown, not ghastly pale; the hand that clutched the edge of the blanket was tenacious, not lax.

“Your son,” Gilbert said, placing him on Anne’s chest. He lifted her arms into position, holding them steady in his own hands as she held the baby.

Anne kept perfectly still until she could be sure that the steady rise and fall under her hand was her son’s breathing and not the echo of her own.

“Name?” she asked, blinking back a tear.

They had discussed names, but hadn’t settled. Marilla for a girl, or maybe Bertha, to honor Anne’s mothers. And for a boy, perhaps Willis or John. Anne had always admired John Blythe and would have liked to honor him, especially now when Gilbert’s mother was declining and John so forlorn.

Gilbert grimaced. “I wanted to wait for you. We never came to a decision. But . . .” he swallowed,  voice hushed. “I had to name him, Anne. For the baptism. You were both . . . both . . . well, you’re both alright now. But I had to name him. He’s Shirley. For you, darling.”

Anne considered this. “I thought . . . John . . .”

“Middle name,” Gilbert said, hazel eyes glistening. “Shirley John Blythe.”*

Anne’s eyes prickled, but no tears came. Water. Soon. She blinked down at the tiny boy named in tribute to her, and moved her thumb across his back.

“Hello, Shirley,” she whispered.

The baby did not stir, did not wake at the sound of her voice. Not like Joyce, the wee white lady who had opened her luminous eyes and taken in her fill of the world at a single glance. Shirley did not squall like Jem, nor fuss like Walter, nor sigh like Nan, nor coo like Di. He slept on serenely, putting by strength for another day.

Anne wished to hold him forever, but she could not. Gravid arms sagged, even in Gilbert’s bolstering grip, and Anne did not want to be holding Shirley when she lost consciousness, as surely she must.

“Susan?”

“I am here, Mrs. Dr. dear,” said Susan, brisk as a pocket watch.

“Take him?”

“Indeed I will.” Susan lifted Shirley with the exquisite dexterity of work-worn fingers that could sew an invisible seam in gossamer cotton voile as easily as they could slaughter and pluck a chicken. “Never you fear, Mrs. Dr. dear,” she said, settling her charge against her own bosom. “Susan is at the helm.”

“Have you fed him yet this hour?” Gilbert asked.

“No. This blessed boy has been sleeping like an angel since his last feed. But I will go down and warm his milk and wake him if I must.”

“Thank you, Susan.”

When she had gone, Anne twitched her fingers to call Gilbert’s hand to her own. He held it softly, caressing with his thumb, lingering over the place where her rings should have been.

“Wha . . .” Anne began, but could not continue.

Another sip, another try.

“Happened?”

A muscle twitched in Gilbert’s cheek, bulging as he fought the ungovernable frailty of his own voice.

“It’s called . . . placental abruption,” he explained, voice so low Anne had to watch his lips. “It means . . . a tearing. In the womb. Hemorrhage. You . . . you lost a lot of blood, Anne-girl.”

“Why so small?”

Gilbert blew out a breath. “I don’t know exactly. It’s possible that there was a small tear for a long time, and perhaps he wasn’t getting the nourishment he needed. I don’t think we were wrong about the dates. But it’s hard to know for sure.”

“Gil?”

He met her eyes unguarded, and Anne could see in those hazel depths what this birth had meant to him. There was a desperation there, and a fear that had not yet been soothed away.

“He will live?”

A nod and a frown, bulwark against more general collapse. “Yes. At least, I think so. He’s very quiet, but I haven’t noticed anything wrong with his lungs. Small, but growing. Miss Cornelia has organized some of the mothers in town to bring some of their own milk in rotation, morning and night. He hasn’t been strong enough to eat on his own, but Susan and I feed him every hour, a few drops at at time. He gained three ounces last week and another four so far this week. He’s well over five pounds now.”

Over five? Jem had been ten. Even the twins . . .

“Weeks?”

Gilbert sniffed once, compressing his lips. “You’ve been . . . asleep . . . a long time.”

Anne blinked, widening her eyes to ask the question she could not speak, paralyzed throat or no.

No,” he said quickly, gripping her hand more tightly. “No, Anne. You’re not going to die either. Not now. You’re awake, so you can take more fluids. That will help your body replace the blood you’ve lost. Here, take another sip. And we’ll feed you lots and lots of iron — you like liver, don’t you?”

Anne screwed up her face and, for the first time, Gilbert chuckled. “Doctor’s orders, I’m afraid. But first perhaps some beef broth . . . tea . . .”

“Gil?”

“Yes, love?”

“Rings?”

He closed his eyes, long enough that it couldn’t fairly be called a blink. “They’re here,” he said, reaching a brown finger into his watch pocket and drawing out the gold band and the circlet of pearls. “They were very loose. I didn’t want you to lose them.”

Anne stared at her own hand, willing it to rise from the quilt, stretch itself toward him.

“They will still be too big, I’m afraid,” he said.

Anne held her hand aloft. Her arm began to tremble with the effort, but she did not relent. Gilbert slid his own arm under hers, cupping his hand delicately around her elbow and letting her forearm rest over the steady plank of his own. With his free hand, he slid first the pearls, then the wedding band onto her ring finger.

“Pearls for tears,” she breathed.

“Yes,” it was not a word, but the sob that he could not hold back any longer.

Anne wanted to hold him, to cradle his head to her chest and stroke his hair. But the thing was impossible. She could feel the dark yawning to receive her again and knew she had only moments of consciousness left.

Concentrating on each syllable, she breathed, “Come. To. Bed.”

Gilbert did not protest that she was too weak to be jostled, though she was. Instead, he slipped off his shoes and eased himself under the tobacco-stripe quilt. Careful not to impose on her body with any but the lightest touch, he nonetheless placed his head on the pillow alongside hers.

Anne could not hold her eyes open any longer. Eyelids fluttering, she managed to say, “Saved. Us.”

“You’re both safe.”

Anne could not see, but she could hear.