Dottie

by Rebecca Burns
And because she needed to convince herself she was doing the Lord’s work, the bedroom door was kept tightly shut and Evie was encouraged to play noisily. Feelings of doubt - horrible, needle-like fingers of worry that plucked at her insides – were cut off at the stump or crushed by the thump and crash of domestic life. Sometimes it worked - on days when her niece was there and the babies were quiet, she was almost certain she was doing what God wanted. How could she not be, when so many of Auckland ’s destitute trudged to her door, answering the discreet notice carried in the Observer? “Lonely widow of independent means seeks child to care for or adopt. All cases considered. Reply care of Mrs Amelia Gray, Cameron Street , Onehunga.” God must be helping her, she reasoned on some days, for the women came. They carried, in one hand, carpet bags of belongings - clothes, rattles, photographs in valuable frames - and, in the other, they held their children. Some were just days old; the eldest had been a boy of fourteen months, though he had been hard work and difficult to subdue. A few women handed money and babe over immediately, reluctant to linger; they sensed they would change their minds and chose the gnaw of poverty over eternal separation from their child. Others, desperate to believe their child would be cared for, cried and came back for many a “last kiss”. And Mrs Gray let them. For beneath it all, it was understood that the child would quickly disappear into that room upstairs, and go to the Lord. Their belongings would be dispatched to one of Auckland ’s many pawnbrokers or buried in the garden.

But at night, the gaudy paint of self-deception crumbled away, disintegrating like the dried paper on her walls. Since landing in the colony, flushed with early marriage and so terribly hopeful, she had discovered that heat from the north could reduce her picture-book house to toast: floorboards became brittle and threatened to crack, clouds of dust soured the rooms. The raw New Zealand clime stripped away all pretence, blanching the truth from her Hansel-and-Gretel house: she became paranoid that her neighbours would be able to see through the paper-thin walls and see the swaddled, etiolated bundles dying upstairs. The sun had warned her early of its power – it had stopped her husband’s heart, his very life evaporating through his skin until he became a dried-up parcel of a man, ready to tumble into an early grave. Now the sun stole down the stairs in hot streaks, lingering malevolently on the door to the babies’ room, and stifling sleep. On those febrile nights the grit of self-doubt threatened to become a sandstorm and overwhelm Mrs Gray. Hers was a tenuous faith, never indignantly righteous but mostly stolid. And yet, the fear of being judged harshly by her Lord was petrifying, and she could not sleep. Instead, she thought about their mouths: long after they had gone into the earth, after they had been swallowed by obliterating dryness, the pink slash of their lips broke into her thoughts. Tongues moved restlessly in their dry cages, seeking out milk that would not come. They cried emptily, yowls that pricked her dreams. And so it went on; an endless, wretched tussle played out in her breast. Some mornings she woke sweating, salty droplets pearling her skin in a silent echo of the babies’ tears.  

A cake stood on the kitchen table. Mrs Gray saw it as she entered the room, straightening her skirts. She was unusually smart this morning. Mrs Ellis of the Women’s Christian Temperance Society was due to visit, to solicit support for the Good Templars, no doubt. Mrs Gray had the air of money though no one in Auckland ’s fledgling society was sure where it came from. The cake was for Evie who was eight today. The girl was polite: a pleasure to care for really, whilst her mother worked. It lifted her heart to hear the child play about the house and her presence comforted some of the desperate that came to the door. At times she clung to Evie, in a way that bewildered the girl, just to be close to that warmth, that life pulsing through a checked dress. But on other days, she shrunk from Evie, frightened by her unfettered zest for experience. At those moments, when weak with doubt, Mrs Gray quaked at the dichotomy existing in her house: life and death, downstairs and upstairs, Evie and babies. The duality of this life on Cameron Street stretched Mrs Gray’s insides, her stomach and throat separated by an arc of acid, searing her chest. She felt it now as she walked into the kitchen. She looked at the cake and shuddered. The baker had delivered it yesterday and it now sat on the table, a waiting promise of sweet indulgence. It was smothered in white icing, soft domes whipped upright into plump curves. Except the sugary mix wasn’t soft when Mrs Gray touched it. A piece broke off in her fingers, brittle and bone-like. She laid it down with distaste and glanced out of the window at the garden.

The patch of earth behind the house was stark in its difference from the well-maintained flower beds at the front door. There, begonias and roses from home thrust their faces out towards the street proudly. Look at us, they seemed to shout – it takes effort to tend to us, to help us grow: but here we are, nonetheless. And yet, out the back, the garden was unkempt and wild. Rubble and vines competed for space in a narrow strip, tumbling together in a tight embrace. Tussock grass rose so high in places that it would come up to Evie’s chest, were she allowed to play there. Her aunt warned her off though, restricting her to the house. Looking through the kitchen window, Mrs Gray picked out a couple of small mounds of earth. They were still well hidden in the undergrowth.  

Mrs Gray moved to the sideboard, taking out her best china and embroidered napkins. She would offer Mrs Ellis a piece of cake which, no doubt, the older woman would accept eagerly. Those on a mission could always be tempted with good things to eat. Once a policeman had come to her door, suspicious but apologetic. He had questions about the steady stream of women who visited the house on Cameron Street . Fortunately the babies had been dosed that morning and the door to their room was tightly shut. He spoke briefly of searching the house, but she distracted him with English chocolates and sugary tea. He was a poor man, after all, and unused to such delicacies from home.

Mrs Gray laid the china plates out on the kitchen table and took out two silver spoons from a drawer. A bottle of Godfrey’s Cordial rolled to the front. It was almost empty. There were only three children upstairs at the moment, but one, an unusually hearty girl of six months, had persistently vomited the mixture back. Mrs Gray was sure the child did it deliberately, and that she resisted the sleep the liquid would bring. She remembered how the girl’s mother had arrived at her door late one evening, quietly weeping and painfully thin. She’d murmured the child’s name softly, repeatedly, before handing her over. Mrs Gray had tried to avoid hearing her - names meant identity and identity meant attachment – but Dottie’s sheer weight, borne out of her mother’s desperate love, hooked an anchor around Mrs Gray’s heart. Usually the children came when their mothers were at the end of their endurance, the push of infant bones under their skin telling a multitude of sad stories. But not Dottie: this child was plump, babbling, and totally disarming.  She had grabbed at Mrs Gray’s arms as she held her, and Mrs Gray felt the strength in her little bones. And, although Dottie had waned a little in the three days she’d been upstairs, the child hung on. Mrs Gray had to force her to swallow the cordial, pinning her arms by her side for longer than she liked. She didn’t like to touch the children. She thought about Dottie more than necessary.

It was almost nine o’clock and Mrs Ellis would be here soon. She had been here once before, last summer, and they had taken tea in the parlour. A stout, robust woman, Mrs Ellis unnerved Mrs Gray with her vitality. She was always moving – hands, eyes, all caught up in a fluttering cycle of motion. She had admired Mrs Gray’s cushions, and then her books, and then her collection of icons on the walls, moving rapidly between them until Mrs Gray felt quite dizzy. Mrs Gray preferred calmness and smooth order. She disliked sudden, hurried movements or bursts of speech: they did something unsettling to her stomach. It seemed as though the lunge and crackle of Mrs Ellis’s energy worked as a hook, jerking Mrs Gray’s insides about so that she felt breathless and sweaty. She hoped the cake would be a distraction and keep Mrs Ellis pinned to the kitchen table for the duration of her visit.

A muffled cry from upstairs: Dottie again. Glancing at the small clock beside the stove, Mrs Gray saw she had only a few minutes before Mrs Ellis was due to arrive. She snatched the cordial bottle from the drawer and hurried from the room. At the foot of the stairs Dottie’s cries sounded louder – unlike the other babies, she had not become quieter as time wore on. Weaker children whimpered towards the end, a cat-like noise Mrs Gray could ignore. But Dottie, robust and stubbornly strong, seemed to have been incensed by the denial of milk and, when awake, wailed constantly and piercingly; an arching sound that raised goosebumps on Mrs Gray’s arms. And with the sound came memory; with that scream for life came the echo of death - for Dottie reminded her of the first child she sent to the Lord. Her sister’s eldest, conceived and born in sin. A boy, puny and belligerent, determined to scratch his way to life despite his mother’s disinterest and rejection. He became an opportunity for Mrs Gray, bereft and penniless. She offered to help and her sister’s lover, a wealthy married man, had gladly handed over enough money to smooth away the problem.

But, inexperienced, Mrs Gray hadn’t been able to get the dosage right. The boy hung on for days, bleating for milk until, eventually, nerves shredded with the effort of keeping him secret, she spoon-fed him cordial until he didn’t wake up. Sometimes she wondered if Evie looked like him, had he been allowed to live.

With her hand on the door handle, the crying stopped. Dottie did this, this cat-and-mouse game that made Mrs Gray feel as though the baby was in charge. Not her, the woman holding the glass bottle. Wanting to preserve her supply of Godfreys, Mrs Gray had spent the first day Dottie was present in the house darting up and down the stairs, exasperated but bemused by this child who filled the house with vigour. If she stopped crying, Mrs Gray crept back down the stairs; but a squeal would soon bring her stumbling back up. And if she went into the room, Dottie would smile up at her from her crib made from a wooden box and lined with straw. Toothy, round-faced and grinning through the incredulity of her situation, Dottie wormed her way through the fibrous surface of Mrs Gray’s heart. But still the woman pinned her down and dosed the baby with Godfreys.

The child whimpered as Mrs Gray opened the door. The room was dark, heavy curtains blocking out all light. The air was stale and thick with decay. Babies had succumbed here, some very quickly, their tiny bodies leaving faint odours that treacled together in a suffocating firmament. Dottie lay in the middle of the room, breathing shallowly and almost hidden by shadows. To her left and right were the prostrate forms of younger children. From their rigid shapes, Mrs Gray could tell they had passed to the Lord in the night. It had happened quickly but unsurprisingly, for both had arrived sick and emaciated. Not plump and hearty like Dottie.

But when she looked closely at the child, something had changed. Dottie’s eyes had glassed over and her lips were dry and taut. She had the unmistakeable look of a baby close to death.

Mrs Gray picked her up. The baby was much lighter than when she had arrived three days before. She wouldn’t need to swallow much of the cordial for it to be over. Mrs Gray almost felt relieved and raised the bottle to Dottie’s lips. But – as the baby’s lips parted, hoping for milk, she thought of Evie. Fervent, earnest Evie, roaring with life and joy. She imagined the girl’s face when she saw her birthday cake, and how she would sit excitedly down at the table, her own cupid-bow mouth open to eat. Those lips – and now there was realisation. Dottie and Evie could so easily have swapped places. It hit Mrs Gray with a jolt. She had been responsible for the death of Evie’s brother, despite the jangling of her nerves – would she have dispatched Evie had her sister rejected her also? And thus, with that question, the shuddering reality of her present and past crimes, barely suppressed under the surface of respectability, slid into view.

Mrs Gray felt something crease within her: a cord of self-control, stretched by the pressure of the last eight years, buckled and she felt the sensation deep in her stomach. Her insides felt as though they had turned into molten mass and liquid panic rose up in her throat. Without realising what she was doing, she dropped the bottle of Godfreys and pressed Dottie to her breast. She smelt unpleasant – she had not been cleaned during that time – but Mrs Gray squeezed her tightly. Tears started to flow down the woman’s cheeks. Dottie looked up, eyes rolling slightly in the back of her head.

Mrs Gray stumbled from the room, flinging the door open wide. Sunlight streamed in, picking out tiny particles of dust and illuminating the darkened shapes of Dottie’s two dead companions. They lay in silent repose as Dottie was carried down the stairs by Mrs Gray, now sobbing freely. She burst into the kitchen, sweeping aside the items on the kitchen table – cake, plates, spoons crashed to the floor. She lay Dottie carefully down on the wooden surface and stripped her. She then filled the sink with water and, tearing her embroidered napkins into strips, began to wash the child.

Dottie watched. The rush of movement had snapped her attention back onto the world and her eyes cleared a little. Seeing this, Mrs Gray smiled and cooed. “Baby, baby. Mama clean you, give you milk.”

She dried the infant on a kitchen towel. A bottle of milk stood in the corner of the room, the coolest place in the house and, sitting on the kitchen floor with Dottie on her knee, she retrieved a spoon and began to tip some of the liquid into the child’s mouth. Dottie swallowed hungrily. Mrs Gray’s tears dripped down onto the child’s head, moistening her skin.

There was a movement in the doorway. Mrs Gray head snapped up. A woman stood there – Mrs Ellis – her face pale and shocked. In her hand she held a bible and velvet purse. The two women stared at each over the debris on the kitchen floor.

Mrs Ellis stood rigid, stiller than Mrs Gray had ever seen her. Like a pillar of salt, she thought a little hysterically, the chiding weight of the baby lying heavily in her arms. She looked down. Milk had brought colour to Dottie’s cheeks and her eyes were round and bright. She glared up at the broken woman holding her so tightly, and Mrs Gray wondered at the barefacedness of the child. She carried no hint of sin in her flesh, and yet - Dottie’s skin, satin to the touch, reminded Mrs Gray of a priest’s cloak. And, with that recognition, came the heavy weight of judgement. Dottie was judging her, she felt, quite certain of that fact. She quailed, feeling undone, unbuckled by this soft, warm bundle, and thought of the babies that had gone before.

“Where did this child come from?”

Mrs Ellis, her voice faint and tremulous, had regained some composure. She stepped further into the kitchen, straddling broken china with her unfashionably long skirts. Her glance switched rapidly from Mrs Gray to Dottie, feverish movements that usually made Mrs Gray feel dizzy. But at that moment, clutching the weakened child she had tried to kill, Mrs Gray felt sucked from the world of the ordinary. She looked at Mrs Ellis dazedly.  

“From upstairs,” she whispered. She watched as Mrs Ellis sped from the room. For a woman who was never still, Mrs Ellis’s step was purposeful – until she entered the silent bedroom, whereupon she stumbled and fell back down to the kitchen.

“Mrs – Gray! There are -”

“You do not need to say it,” Mrs Gray said. She drew herself up, getting shakily to her feet. She felt as though she had become transparent, weak beyond measure. She sat down awkwardly on a kitchen chair. Dottie, sated for now, had fallen asleep. Mrs Gray laid her gently down upon the table. “Would you like to sit, Mrs Ellis? I cannot offer you tea, I’m afraid.”

Mrs Ellis’s breath was coming in short gasps, her chest rising and falling like the bellows of a church organ. She sat down uncertainly, her eyes travelling over the sleeping baby. She clutched her bible to her chest.

The tighter Mrs Ellis coiled around that holy book, the looser Mrs Gray felt. Her very bones felt fluid and malleable. It was as though she was changing shape inside her skin. She could see into the parlour over Mrs Ellis’s shoulder. Silver frames and trinkets rested alongside crucifixes on the mantelpiece. The awkward juxtaposition of crime and faith.  

Mrs Gray began to speak. “You came for a donation, yes? I don’t suppose you want one now you - know.” She sighed and reached out to stroke Dottie. “Mrs Ellis, this colony grinds the very life from you. The heat. The pressure of society luncheons, and calling cards. Growing the brightest flowers. Observing the unspoken rules relating to behaviour and faith. Some came out here thinking they’d left those shackles on the quayside, but convention floats. It emigrates right alongside us, ready to trumpet any misdemeanour or indiscretion. Like my sister’s.”

Mrs Ellis wrung her hands, and her skin shone. “Mrs Gray, do you run a baby farm? Please, tell me you don’t,” and she squeezed her bible tightly.

“I’ve read that’s what they call it,” Mrs Gray said slowly. “Yes, I suppose I do. I hadn’t really intended to but - I wanted to help my sister.” She found herself crying again. “I told her to come out. Before Henry died, I was so full of hope. I thought this place was wonderful. It didn’t seem to matter where you came from, as long as you were willing to work. You could make your own kingdom of heaven out in the backblocks or right here in the city. But Alice became – what do you call it? A fallen woman. She found – we found – that everyone judges out here, just the same. I judged her.”

“This is a wicked thing,” Mrs Ellis mumbled, rocking slowly. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.”

“Yes, I see that now,” Mrs Gray said and drew Dottie to her again. “I should have done so all along. But what were we to do? My sister didn’t feel as though her child was a reward. If Alice had kept the boy – if I’ve allowed him to live – she would never have found work or a husband.” Dottie’s eyes fluttered behind blue-veined lids and Mrs Gray felt the matching beat of her own heart. “And then there would be no Evie. So the boy – he had to die, don’t you see? To have a child out of wedlock is a sin.”

Mrs Ellis shook her head vehemently. “But so is the slaughter of innocents! Evil, evil, evil!” Animation warmed her cheeks and she slapped her bible down on the table. “I also came out here full of hope. I have been disappointed – by the intemperance and proliferation of grog shops. And I, too, understand the resentment of women enslaved by their bodies and the will of men but – there are other ways! The Lord teaches us to love our brothers and sisters equally, not to help them murder their own children!”

“Maybe,” Mrs Gray said quietly. “Maybe God would have forgiven her. Maybe our society would have looked kindly on my sister, and her boy, and she could have made a life here. But she wouldn’t have married and had my niece, treasure that she is.”

“Her boy might have been equally so,” Mrs Ellis said, archly. “Only, you never gave him that chance, did you? And the others. What have you to say of the others that have died in that room upstairs?”

Of those Mrs Gray could say nothing. Her sister had not been discreet and word had spread; a week had not passed after the death of Alice ’s son before another woman appeared on her doorstep, child in one hand and pound notes in the other. It was too tempting to a woman newly widowed and frightened. But now, with Dottie nestled on her lap, the child’s warmth spreading like a stain through her thighs, the Lord spoke to Mrs Gray. He spoke in a much clearer way than ever before. He seemed to be saying that behind her now gathered a fumid collection of souls, of the children she had despatched. They had come to fetch her. They waited patiently, for Mrs Ellis to leave or have her arrested, and for Dottie to be saved. Mrs Gray could taste them. She licked her dry lips, and thought of the bottle of Godfrey’s Cordial lying in the room upstairs. She felt something akin to relief.
Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. Her story collections – Catching the Barramundi (2012) and The Settling Earth (2014 – were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), winner of the Black Pear Press Short Story Competition in 2014 and, in 2016, was been listed for competitions including the Evesham Festival of Words and Music, the Chipping Norton Festival, the Sunderland Short Story Award, and the Green Lady Press Short Story Award. She has also been profiled as part of the University of Leicester's "Grassroutes Project", a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. Her debut novel, The Bishop's Girl, was published by Odyssey Books in September 2016.

© 2009, Rebecca Burns