On his twentieth wedding anniversary, and pondering various presents he might acquire for his wife Amanel, Viktor Drovnovich, a land manager in the eastern section of Pskov Province, scanned the offerings in Karpenko’s store front as he headed home from a three-week separation. The trip would take him two days, with a night spent at Madame Estelle’s Inn on the Tver road to halve the journey. He looked forward to that stop, for he left Madame Estelle always carrying good will and good spirits, warming him up for the return home.
Earlier on this assignment, which took him away from home for long stretches, he had met and talked one lengthy afternoon with Karpenko. He trusted the shopkeeper and, having missed the anniversary celebration because of this assignment, felt a deep need to carry home a sign of his thought. And so it was, driving his carriage up to Karpenko’s shop that his gaze fell at length on a watering vessel sitting like an icon against the back wall of the display. A taste of custom and antiquity slipped into his consciousness. A number of images settled upon him, after which came awareness of the vessel’s fashionable handle and its mysterious display of age. One of the images was an elderly craftsman with a miniature hammer tapping metal into shape.
Drovnovich recalled at the instant an old custom that had not taken place years earlier in the marriage, the washing of the midwife’s hands after the birth of his daughter, and he did not know that his wife, of late, had been unfaithful to him, with a music teacher from another village.
This day also marked the birthday of his only child, Anyet, now thirteen, for whom he had purchased a set of books on the history of music, and a piano now a delicate diversion in her life. The two events tumbled him all the way back to Anyet’s birth and the midwife Zyridia. The balance of the day, after the birth, centered on Zyridia leaving the Drovnovich home without having her hands washed of the birth, as was the custom.
Both Drovnovich and his wife worried about the omission for a long time, their not having a proper vessel for the ritual in the new marriage. Having no more children, and no need for such a vessel, and as Anyet grew into a young beauty filled with love and talent for music, the worry fell away from their concern.
But here, in front of him, as prominent in the shop window as if it had come posted to him, advising him of an unpaid obligation, loomed a vessel they would have used in the washing of Zyridia’s hands.
It was a vessel from the far past, “An aquamanile,” Karpenko soon disclosed, “as old as the rivers, I swear to you, Drovnovich, as old as the rivers, and carried by cavalry riders and other soldiers through the long years, the way prizes are captured from strange towns they pass through. Often these warriors tender such prizes into family hands or, by need, outward for token gain. So it came to me, from the far west, I swear on the holiest of pacts.”
In its deep past, dreamy and dramatic Drovnovich wondered what the vessel had contained above and beyond its regular use: What brew for what mind, what panacea for what pain, what elixir for what medieval alchemist searching for his grain of gold? As an aside, he put in a prayer for its holiness, for its next liquid measure would add a final signature upon the midwife and finish the blessings on his child.
Karpenko’s hand, in a grip on the present, dropped onto his shoulder. “Aha, it is a prize,” he exclaimed with sovereign authority, “worthy of any midwife,” which said he knew of Drovnovich’s past problem. Zyridia, in her own way, had said nothing at her departure, but the look on her face remained at Drovnovich’s doorway far beyond mere recall.
Drovnovich felt accessible to a further image that leaped upon him as he remembered his father, a soldier for years, coming home from one campaign with a noisy sack over his shoulder. The contents were never seen by young Drovnovich, but he remembered the family had dined like royalty for weeks and weeks of that leave until his father was re-assigned, sent west, and never to be seen again.
Once, years later but before he met Amanel at a fair, an old soldier passed through their village and confirmed that he had tended his father as he lay dying at the edge of a forgotten village in the west.
“He said your name a few times,’ the old soldier said, “like it was a prayer. It has taken me many years to get here. Once I began moving with the horses to all the fairs, I knew I would find you someday. But it was a small village, the village of his death, and quite like yours, though the name is gone forever.”
His father’s history had come to an end, but Zyridia’s was not finished, or Amanel’s.
As Drovnovich drove his carriage along the flat road toward Madame Estelle’s for his overnight stay, he smiled often at Karpenko’s arguments about authenticity.
“This aquamanile carries full authority with it, my friend Drovnovich, full authority. I can almost see a black-robed teacher and craftsman hammering it out of base metals that he had thinned for the purpose. With every hammer hit, every corner or edge filed to true smoothness, I can see him calling on the Great Overhead to embellish it with good works. It will become for you a purity, this vessel, a purity. It will make amends for the original slight, make for a new truce in life. And if you will, call the midwife to your home and bestow the forgotten goodness upon her. She will smile once more in your home. It shall be warm again. Anyet, at her beloved piano, shall help her celebrate.”
Drovnovich, as he rode, was pleased with Karpenko’s touch on history. Did the two not think alike? It was a good sign.
A short way from Madame Estelle’s Inn, Drovnovich placed his hands on the package containing the set of books for his daughter and the antique watering vessel, half thinking how one measures a valuable commodity. The touch coming back through his fingers was sincere and carried promise. His smile was authentic, and the reins sat light in his hands. Life was good. A fine meal was before him, a few glasses of wine, a friendly conversation with Estelle, and a needed sleep.
Estelle, a favored friend, must have seen his carriage coming down the road, for she met him at the front steps. She spent much of the evening, before Drovnovich went off to sleep, gabbing with him and other roomers, flitting and dancing around the parlor like a damsel fly, colorful as ever.
“Drovnovich,” she exclaimed at one point, “I am pleased to see you again. It has been a few weeks since you have travelled on this road to my place of business. It is a treat to have you here once again in my rustic abode.” She again offered a hand, which he kissed lightly, like a count or a baron from the cities.
“My pleasure, Madam. It is pleasant here. Always a joy to rest my bones, settle my mind. Soon, after this delicious wine holds me, I will retire. I have accomplished half my journey. Tomorrow comes and I will see my darlings.”
Estelle said, “Sleep well in this halfway home, rough it is, but halfway on your journey.” To which she added, “I have placed netting about your bed to keep bothersome insects away and a resilient piece in the window. We have had some complaints recently from our guests and I want to make sure you will not be disturbed. May only the stars enter with their shine and the dreams of Morpheus be yours this night.” She kissed him on the cheek.
Drovnovich slipped the aquamanile out of the package and set it on the mantle above the crude fireplace for the night, exposing its charm, letting dreams ensue from it, thinking of Karpenko’s final words.
After a solid sleep, Drovnovich rose in darkness, placed the aquamanile hastily back in its package and wrapped it up again. He ate a meager breakfast of rolls and coffee, said his goodbyes to Estelle and her servants and drove off in the carriage in early light, his spirit riding miles ahead of him.
At home he enjoyed the company of his daughter playing a few songs. Anyet, at receipt of her gift, was thrilled, reading portions of the books at will, finding new energies coming at her. With a serious hug, she clasped her father and thanked him many times. “You are so thoughtful, father, I wonder how you think of such gifts.”
Then he retired to bed with Amanel. His sleep was as good as the one the night before. Sleep called him quickly just as he heard Amanel say for the third time that the vessel was a fine present and would be commissioned the following week, after Zyridia had come back from a long visit elsewhere, and after he had, she was sorry to say, gone off on his new assignment.
Drovnovich was in Tver many days later, checking on a huge holding of his employer, when word came that Amanel, hysterical, had run out of her home with the piano teacher right behind her, screaming that a spider in the watering vessel had slipped Cossack-quick into her ear. It was said that when she heard music rising from the inside of the vessel, she placed it close to her ear to better hear the sounds, which must have given the spider the chance of release.
Amanel died in the arms of Zyridia later that afternoon, after the midwife had been called to assist her. And Zyridia’s hands, unknown to Drovnovich, had not as yet been washed.
Image – Google images.
4 thoughts on “Midwife Legacy by Tom Sheehan”
This look into what is rapidly, regrettably, becoming the deep past is as fresh as ever due to your skill. Another excellent turn on your part.
I’m a big fan of Russian literature, modern and tsarist times, and this rings very true to me – Chekovian, Gogol-like, with a sprinkling of Tolstoy. I liked the nice touch of the netting around the bed (needed in a Russian summer as it happens!) and how there’s a suggestion it was connived that the insect that ultimately kills Amanel was perhaps somehow intentional? Love the ending as well. Great stuff.
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The curse of the unwashed midwife’s hands bides its time but ultimately strikes. An “old fashioned” tale, entirely in a good way. Very nice.
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As excellent as always no matter what the subject matter.
All the very best my fine friend.