Winter seemed reluctant to release its hold. The faint suggestion of a reprieve could be seen in the tiny buds on the stunted shrubs in the yard, but the cut of the wind was as fearsome as it had been since Jim had set out for the mainland in late October. Shona had received two packages from him, but nothing since the New Year. She wondered if he would come back in time for the birth.
Gaunt and bitter she struggled out to the shed, the child inside her belly kicking and punching, just as everyone else in her life had been wont to do. When she thought of it at all she would wish for a girl who might grow up to help ease her burdens. Such thoughts were followed by guilt that she could wish any child into a world that would treat her with unremitting disdain.
The shed was dark and smelled of damp and manure. The solitary cow watched mournfully as Shona fetched her stool and bucket, crouching down awkwardly to draw the little milk that the creature could supply on it’s meagre rations. Shona would dip the stale bread left over from the week’s baking in the creamy warmth and try to feel satisfied. It would be the only solid sustenance she could expect until the boy walked over day after next with her mail.
Danny was a good boy, chopping up the logs for her fire and raking out the byer when he stopped by. Shona wished that she could reward him for his good natured efforts with more than a tight smile and a refreshing tankard of water, fresh drawn from the well. She could not spare more if she were to survive.
Returning to the house with the cow’s hard won offering Shona became aware of the cramps and a growing ache deep within. Alone and afraid she filled a large pan with water and set it on the stove, took clean cloths from the press and prepared to cope with the imminent arrival of her first child.
Danny enjoyed the walk to his neighbour’s croft, but on a day like today, with the sun on his back and the cutting wind turned mild, it couldn’t be bettered. It was a welcome break from the hard labour that his Da said would make a man of him. He was surprised that Shona had not turned out her cow given the change in the weather. When it registered that there was no washing on her line he quickened his pace, wondering what he may find.
She was sitting in a chair by a the cold stove, nursing an unmoving bundle of rags. Danny entered and she acknowledged him, her face grey as death, hopeless and worn like so many of the women on the island.
‘Is the child alive?’ Danny asked, unsure how to put the question kindly.
‘Aye’ she responded dully, ‘but for how long the way I’m fixed out here?’
Danny swallowed and relayed the message he had been coached to pass on when this moment arrived, the reason why his Da had spared him.
‘Ma said to tell you we would have it. Mary can’t seem to have bairns. She would take care of it, and we’d make sure you got by to the spring.’
Shona looked down at her daughter, a solitary tear silently forming, then running down her grimy cheek.
‘Jim wouldn’t want a girl, he said so before he left. A mouth to feed and no use in the fields.’
Danny was back and forth between the crofts all day. When Shona’s pantry was stocked and the cowshed cleaned out and replenished he took the sickly looking child away. Shona never saw her again, but news from the other island told her she survived.
When the last of the snow melted and the leaves burst forth from the hedgerows Jim came whistling along the road, delighted if surprised to find a healthy cow and a clean house where he had left apparent destitution. His wife met him with a smile and welcomed him to her bed.
‘What happened to the bairn?’ he asked as he sat down to the supper she prepared.
‘Stillborn’ she replied, a darkness passing across her face, ‘but it would have been a girl.’
‘Probably for the best then’ he responded, mopping the thick gravy from his plate with the last of the bread and sitting back with a satisfied sigh.