Engrossed by the submarines stalking each other through the abyss, Maeve mistook the sound in the chimney for a clump of snow falling through the grate. But then the squeaking, softer and higher pitched than the baby’s, forced her to put down her library book. It was April in Cleveland, and though she still needed two blankets on the bed, it hadn’t snowed in weeks. Maeve stifled a groan as her knees took her weight, and gingerly shuffled over to the brick fireplace, gripping the crib railing for support. The flashlight she kept on the nightstand lit dimly when she rattled it, and the rippling drape of the heavy wire screens obscured her view, but she could just make out a pale shape against the dark stone. A baby animal—no, more than one. Probably raccoons, but she wasn’t about to put her head in to find out.
She scooped her sleeping granddaughter out of the crib and shut the door firmly behind them. The light spilled beneath Anne Marie’s bedroom door, so she rapped softly with her free hand and pushed the door open just a bit. Her daughter sat at the desk, framed in the dense yellow light from a brass lamp, one that used to be in Maeve’s living room. She was bent over her textbooks, asleep; a gentle nudge and she woke enough to be shepherded over to the bed.
Maeve turned off the lamp and retreated into the hallway, padding down to the living room at the other end of the ranch. She spread a doubled quilt, a remnant of the twins’ latest fort, on the floor, and placed the baby in the middle, then positioned couch cushions around the perimeter to be sure she couldn’t roll into the coffee table or the wall. She surveyed her handiwork and headed for the kitchen, only to return a moment later to swathe little Agnes in her robe.
She put the kettle on first, then set about searching for the number of the parish caretaker. The house, crumbly and isolated but functional, was the property of the church, which rented it to Anne Marie and Paul on very reasonable terms. The clock on the stove read quarter to 12; probably old Dennis would be asleep, and his wife too. Still, she couldn’t very well keep the baby on the living room floor all night.
It was Susan who answered, her voice slurred with sleep.
“Hello Susan. It’s Maeve Logan, from the house on East Anderson? I’m so sorry to bother you late at night, but we could really use Dennis’s help—”
“You mean that house way back in the woods, the one with the bridge and the gravel drive?”
“Yes, we have the church’s things out back, the crèche and the big sign for the summer festival.” Maeve wasn’t surprised that Susan recognized the house rather than her name. She hadn’t tried to make friends over the last four years. “The Monsignor told us to call Dennis if we ever had a problem—he gave us a hand with the mice last year, and the plumbing in the spring.”
“Dennis broke his leg last week. He can’t come over.”
That explained why Maeve had only seen straight-backed Susan in church on Sunday. “I’m so sorry to hear that,” she said. “Do you know who else we could call? I’ve got raccoons in the chimney. In my bedroom, where the baby sleeps.”
That got her attention. Maeve carefully stretched the cord to reach the stove and pulled down the box of teabags from the cupboard.
“I guess I could send Lesley over. She’s home on spring break. And she’s good with things around the house.”
Maeve had never met Lesley, and she had her doubts about the efficacy of a young woman in this particular situation, but there wasn’t anything else to be done. “Thank you so much, Susan. When should I expect her?” The tea bag bloomed like a crocus as she poured the hot water over it.
“Fifteen minutes, maybe 20. Good luck.”
“Thanks, and sorry again about the late call.” She took a sip of tea and added lasagna ingredients to the grocery list on the fridge. Though Susan wasn’t as friendly as her husband, she’d been helpful. It couldn’t be easy tending to an invalid and a college student while running four different church committees.
Twenty minutes: too long to watch the baby sleep or look out into the dark. Maeve listened carefully at the door to her bedroom, which had once been a den, and seemed to be headed in that direction again. Silence. She opened the door an inch, and then wide enough to reach in and flick the light on and off a few times. Definite rustling from the fireplace, but no movement that she could see, so she pressed ahead, moving as fast as her bad knee would allow. She pulled on a pair of corduroys and a sweater—the nearest things to hand, they’d have to do—and remembered to pluck her library book and reading glasses from the nightstand.
Fifteen minutes later, she was halfway through her mug of tea and about to find out if the torpedo had hit the Russian sub when she heard the faint clanking of someone taking the bridge too fast. Then came the rasp of tires on gravel, and the shine of headlights through the trees, still black from the evening’s rain.
She flicked on the front porch light, waiting for the thud of moths to hit it. A decade-old Jeep, splattered with mud, pulled up under the branches of the huge pine next to the house. Lesley jumped down and shut her door softly. She was a short, stocky girl—woman, Maeve reminded herself—about 20, with a neat brown bob and unfussy clothes: jeans and sneakers and a green fleece anorak to ward off the early spring chill. Her keys dangled from a carabiner hitched to her belt loop.
“Hello,” called Maeve softly, since the twins’ window was open a crack, to catch the sound of the creek. “I’m Maeve. There’s no path up to the door—just go ahead and walk on the grass.”
“Okay,” Lesley said, picking her way over last fall’s pinecones and wet leaves. When she introduced herself, her handshake was firm and dry, and just half a second longer than Maeve expected; the girl was looking up at her, taking her measure.
“Thank you for coming out so late,” Maeve said, holding the door open. “Would you like some tea?”
Lesley scraped the mud and grass from her sneakers and shook her head. “I was still up, actually. And I’ll wait on the tea, thanks. Can you show me the problem?”
“In here.” Maeve flicked on the den light and handed the flashlight to Lesley. “I heard a sound coming from the fireplace. Some kind of small animal, but I didn’t get a good look.”
Lesley glanced at the crib as she made her way over to the raised fireplace. Maeve answered her unspoken question. “The baby sleeps in here with me. My granddaughter. She’s in the living room now.”
Lesley nodded, intent on what she was seeing in the fireplace. “Do you have a big shovel?” she asked after a moment. “Not a snow shovel—I mean something for digging in the garden.”
“I’ll go check the garage. What do you see?”
“Baby raccoons. Mother probably made a nest and they fell in. It’s not that I don’t want to touch them. If the mother smells human on them she won’t take them back.”
“I see. May I have the flashlight? Light’s out in the garage.”
She’d meant to have Paul change the bulb when he’d visited over the weekend—he was tall, and with her knee Maeve didn’t relish the thought of climbing one of the rickety wooden ladders in the garage—but she’d forgotten. And Lord knew Anne Marie had too much on her mind with board exams coming up to bother with fiddly little chores.
She had to poke around quite a bit before she found a shovel, heavy and coated with dried mud, in a corner. Solid metal, meant for turning over hard soil. A sexton’s spade, good for grave-making, Maeve thought. She picked up a small trowel too; if the raccoon babies were as small as she guessed, a big shovel might injure them.
Movement in the hallway startled her, but the shadow belonged to Lesley, who’d gone out to the car to get heavy work gloves. Back in the den her hair sparkled with water droplets from brushing the rhododendrons bordering the porch, and Maeve was reminded of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Lesley looked just like one of the sprites. A Puck or a Peaseblossom? Or a Hermia, little and fierce? Maeve wondered. Too soon to tell.
The girl nodded appreciatively at the trowel, understanding what Maeve intended. Angling the metal shovel so that the blade sat level on the stone lip of the fireplace, she gently pulled open the wire wrought curtains, wincing as they squeaked. Maeve took an involuntary step back and leaned out the door, listening for the Agnes’s cry.
“Don’t worry,” said Lesley. “They’re too small to move more than a few inches.” Gently, very gently, she reached into the fireplace with the trowel, lifted up one tiny form, and placed it on the shovel. Two more followed. “No sign of the mother,” she said. “They must have fallen while she was out hunting.” She prodded the ashes with the trowel, just to be sure, and then closed the curtains again.
Maeve couldn’t tear her eyes away from the pitiful creatures lumped together on the shovel. When she was nine, her cat, Pepper, had disappeared all day, only to be found that evening in the company of five tiny kittens, black and gray. The next day her father took them away, and he wouldn’t answer her questions when he came home. Pepper recovered, though she never grew accustomed to her new indoor confinement. But Maeve had from then on been wary of attachment to small, mewling things.
“I expected them to be pink, like gums,” she said to Lesley, jerking her chin at the gray fur on the shovel blade.
“Maybe they were when they were born,” Lesley said absentmindedly, whisking loose dirt and ashes back toward the fireplace with her glove. “I think right now they’re a few days old. I’m not sure, though. Raccoons aren’t really my specialty.”
“And what is?”
“Oh. Um, herpetology—reptiles and amphibians. I’m studying newts and salamanders right now, but lizards are my favorite. I have a bearded dragon named Laura Dern. When I get my own place I’m going to get an iguana.” She grunted quietly as she hefted the shovel, trying to keep it perfectly level.
“Goodness. Aren’t they rather large?” Maeve asked, stepping out of the way to let her pass.
“Yeah. That’s why I have to wait till I graduate. Sometimes they need a whole room.”
Maeve shuddered at the thought of sharing her home with a reptile, but then reflected that she knew more than one person who’d bedded down with a snake.
Outside, Lesley paused on the porch to let her eyes adjust to the darkness. A cool breeze tugged at them, and Maeve rubbed her hands along her arms. When the branches stopped creaking, they could hear the creek through the thicket of trees separating it from the lawn. Lesley rolled her shoulders back and marched through the wet grass down the whole length of the yard toward a large flat-topped rock, a glacial boulder abandoned thousands of years ago. Last summer, after reading about the Titanic, Matthew and Grace had staged an excavation, wanting to see how much of the boulder was sunk beneath the surface. With their little spades and trowels—including the one now sitting on Maeve’s fireplace—they’d dug a trench all the way around the boulder, perhaps a foot deep, shining flashlights past the roots and worms. But there was no end to the rock that they could see.
Maeve winced when Lesley gently slid the raccoon babies onto the boulder, its surface no doubt colder than the air around them.
Lesley noticed. “I don’t want to step on them accidentally,” she explained. “Hopefully the mother will get them real soon. Their sense of smell is good.”
As they walked back to the porch, Maeve asked, “Can we tempt her with something?”
“Don’t see why not. Do you have any canned tuna?”
“Yes. Would you like that tea now?”
“Sure. I’ll be right back after I put the shovel away. Milk, no sugar, please.”
Maeve checked on the baby, set the kettle to boiling again, and rummaged through the pantry to find the tuna. The kids didn’t like it much, and she didn’t think she could eat a whole can anymore, so it was in the back, behind the ravioli Paul liked. By the time she found it Lesley was ready with the can opener. A smear of ash streaked her forehead where she’d brushed her hair out of her eyes. “Golden lads and girls all must / as chimney sweepers come to dust,” Maeve whispered when she’d gone outside. She shook her head, in amusement or alarm. When had she become so maudlin?
When she came back in from setting out the bait, Lesley found Maeve carting a load of books from the dining room to the den to stack in front of the fireplace. “Just in case we have any more visitors,” she said. Lesley took an armful from the table—her muscles groaned with the weight—and read the spines as she stacked them. Thick paperback thrillers, library books, worn copies of Shakespeare and Charlotte Brontë and Carl Sagan. And medical textbooks heavier than the ones in her dorm room.
“Are you a doctor?” she whispered as Maeve hefted Agnes back into her crib. The little one fussed for a minute and then found her thumb. Maeve tucked a blanket around her shoulders.
“No. I used to be a teacher. Third and fourth grade, plus coaching high school drama after school. The anatomy books are Anne Marie’s. My daughter. She’s studying to be a doctor. Her husband’s back in Texas, working in the oilfields. I’m just here to watch the kids.” The kettle whistled, and Maeve moved as briskly as her stiff knee permitted to turn off the stove and pour.
“You gave up your job to come help your daughter?”
“No, I had to give up my job years ago, when she was born. That was back in the ’50s—as soon as they found out you were pregnant, off you went. For your own good, of course. And the children’s.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Sometimes. I liked teaching math and helping the older kids put on plays. They were nice kids, mostly. It just wasn’t what I’d planned to do. I wanted to be a scientist—an astrophysicist, if you can believe it—but my family needed me to get a job right away, as soon as I was done with college. Back then, where I lived it was either teaching or nursing or secretarial work. I hadn’t taken the right classes to be a nurse and I didn’t want to spend my days writing down what other people said, so teaching it was.” She didn’t mention how her best friend, Harriet, had come home from the bank one night bruised and shaking after rejecting her boss’s advances.
Lesley nodded, no doubt glad that she’d been born 40 years after Maeve. She blew on the surface of her tea, making ripples that threatened to slop over the rim of the mug. Maeve took an ice cube from the freezer and dropped it gently in Lesley’s cup.
The girl offered a smile, the first since she’d walked in the door. She traced the rim of her cup with her fingertip. “Do you think—do you think maybe we should sit out there? Watch over them until the mother comes back?”
Maeve hesitated. The tea was hot, the inside of the house warm and quiet. Her knee was throbbing. “I guess so,” she said slowly. “We have some aluminum folding chairs in the garage, if you wouldn’t mind heading back out there. I’ll find us something to eat while we wait.”
A few minutes later they met in the yard, halfway between the house and the boulder, the gravel drive a border at their backs. Maeve offered Lesley a ham and cheese sandwich. The bread, homemade, oozed butter on one side and strong mustard on the other. They ate in companionable silence. Periodically Lesley shined the flashlight over the boulder, training the beam on the furry lumps, which looked completely inert to Maeve. But her eyes weren’t as good as they used to be.
“You think there could be predators out here?” Maeve asked.
“Coyotes, maybe. We might hear them, but owls are almost totally silent.”
Maeve shuddered. A few weeks earlier Grace and Matthew had dissected owl pellets in science class and added the tiny bones they’d found to their collection of oddities, a fact Maeve discovered when putting away their socks. Now they were in charge of folding their own laundry.
“If coyotes can smell us, or see us, won’t the mother raccoon stay away too?”
“Raccoons are pretty smart, and she’s a mom, right? I think she’ll know that we aren’t a threat this far back. Besides, I bet she’s out in those trees somewhere, looking for food. We’re downwind of the trees and the rock. My dad taught me how to tell, when we used to go camping.”
“Where’d you go?”
“Oh, everywhere. Cuyahoga Valley, down to Hocking Hills, the Adirondacks and the Catskills. A week in Yellowstone, for my graduation present.”
“Is that how you got interested in herpetology?”
If she was surprised that Maeve had remembered the word, Lesley didn’t let it show. “I think so. I found a baby snake on a trail once—we were up at Acadia, in Maine, for my tenth birthday—and I just loved the way it moved, like a wave, but with a purpose, you know? It was nothing special, just a rat snake probably, but then I saw all these other hikers acting all scared, keeping their distance. I loved not feeling afraid. So I got a pet salamander—did you know they can regenerate their legs and tails?—and then a corn snake. I decided that while every other kid I knew obsessed over puppies and cats and dolphins, I’d be the one who loved reptiles, the ones nobody else wanted to understand. Or protect.”
“And yet here you are, in the dark, watching over a few mammals.” In the moon’s weak light Maeve could see Lesley absentmindedly wearing a bald spot in the grass with her sneaker.
“It’s good practice. I want to join the Park Service after I graduate. Besides, Dad asked me to help out. He would have come, even on his crutches, if I hadn’t been home. Actually, he’ll probably be over tomorrow. You need a cap on that chimney. But Susan will make sure he brings someone else to get up on the roof.”
Maeve was thrown by the informality of the first name. “Susan?”
Lesley shrugged. “She’s my stepmother. My mother left when I was one. Just disappeared. Dad doesn’t talk about her, so most people assume Susan’s my mom.”
“I see. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry. And I’m sorry about your mother.”
“Me too. But Dad is great.” She flashed the light at the rock again. The small shapes were still there. “Anyway, your daughter must be happy to have you here.”
“She is.” Maeve thought of Anne Marie asleep on her books. It was hard not to focus on the costs of her choice—the dark circles under her eyes, the weight she’d lost over the last four years, her quiet sobs when she thought her mother and the children were sleeping—instead of the outcome. She’d be a good doctor. Her kids would be proud of her, and at the end of her life they’d be able to say she’d helped people, hold out mended patients as proof.
What would they say at the end of Maeve’s life? “Beloved mother,” probably. There wasn’t a name, a profession, for the groove her life had worn. She had been, for 40 years, reliable as the pole-star: even when so worn by her cares she thought her bones would show, at the first call for help she’d unearth a new reserve of strength. But here in the dark, for the first time in a long, long spell, the arc of her life felt like a choice.
She pushed aside the thought as quickly as it welled up, continuing as if she hadn’t paused at all. “And Paul’s glad too. I’m not so sure about the twins, though,” she said, attempting a laugh. “Their experiments don’t always mesh with my rules.” Lesley didn’t say anything, so she went on, “Speaking of the kids, I have a favor to ask. I don’t think my knee can get me out of this chair more than once, and who knows how long we’ll be out here. Would you pop back in the house and put the kettle on again? And just listen at the door to the den? Agnes is a good sleeper, but just in case . . . ”
“Sure,” said Lesley, jumping up and reaching for their mugs. Thrilled at the chance to escape, Maeve thought.
She waited until she couldn’t hear the clank of Lesley’s keys anymore, then pushed herself out of the chair with a grimace. In the deep dark her eyes found Ursa Major, her favorite, and she counted the pinpricks of light around the constellation until her knee didn’t bother her so much. Then one step, and another and another, until the near-liquid coolness of the boulder brushed her leg.
Her hand hovered over the tiny raccoons, sinking lower and lower in search of warmth. She was touching their soft fur, their miniature starfish hands. Cold. The wind stroked the soft new ferns behind the rock. There wasn’t much time.
Lesley had just finished pouring when Maeve stepped inside, wiping her right hand against her corduroys, the wale like fur against her fingers. Nearly breathless, she gulped the tea without thinking and burned her mouth. “The mother came back,” she said, around her tender tongue. “Carried two in her jaws, right into the woods. Quiet and quick—I almost missed her. Grabbed the last one just a minute ago.”
“I can’t believe I missed it!” Lesley said. Then she shook her head, as if to toss the regret from her orbit, and offered Maeve a sheepish smile. “It’s so late—let me put away those chairs for you, and then I’ll get going, let you catch a few hours of sleep.”
Maeve sighed, gratitude deflating her. “Thanks. And thank you for being here tonight.” But when Lesley turned at the door she braced herself. Couldn’t the girl see that her bones were showing?
It wasn’t the question Maeve expected. “Could I come back sometime, Maeve? Maybe take the kids down to the creek, look for salamanders?”
“Of course. They’d love that. Me too.”
With a small wave Lesley disappeared into the night. The house settled into its creaks and whispers, cradling its sleepers against the wind.
Before she stumbled back to her room, Maeve washed her hands three times in scalding water. She passed her fingertips over the baby’s velvet head, wondering if Agnes, little lamb, dreamed of creatures even smaller than she: a salamander regrowing its leg, raccoon kits nestled in a bed of ferns, the sine wave of a baby snake.
And over them all, glimmering in the darkness, the great bear. Beloved mother.
Header photo by Free-Photos, courtesy Pixabay.