The blood had come hard from her, so much of it that, when Vaclav Skala awoke in wet bed linens to find her curled up against him on her side, moaning and glazed with sweat, rosary beads twisted around her clenched fingers, he smiled at the thought that she'd finally broken her water. He pulled back the quilt, a wedding gift sent six years before from his mother in the old country, and kissed Klara on the forehead before climbing from bed to light the lamp. He struck a match, and there it was, streaked down his legs and matted in the coarse hair on his thighs — dark and half-dried smears of his wife's blood.
And it kept coming. He saddled his horse and rode shivering under a cloudless midnight sky to the Janek farm to fetch Edna, the midwife. By the time they made it back, Klara's eyes were open but glazed in such a way that they knew she wasn't seeing through them anymore. Her pale lips moved without giving voice to her final prayer, which entreated the child to come or her own spirit to stay, either one.
When the baby arrived, their fourth boy, blood slicked and clot flecked, he appeared to have been as much ripped from flesh as born of it. Klara was lost, and Edna tended to what had been saved, pinching the little thing's toe to get the breathing started, cleaning him with a rag dipped in warm milk and water, wrapping him in a blanket.
Vaclav Skala stood at the foot of the bed, grinding his back teeth slowly against a stringy mash of tobacco he'd chewed flavorless half an hour before. He watched Edna, a slight young woman with narrow hips and long hair as black as her eyes. She bunched pillows beneath the dead woman's shoulder blades and behind her head before resting the baby on his mother's stomach. Taking one of Klara's breasts between her thumb and finger, she puckered the nipple so the baby could get hold of it. The little thing threw his hands up about his face and worked his legs beneath the blanket, and Edna held him unremittingly to the breast until he hollowed his cheeks and found it with his mouth. "It's no hind milk in her yet," she said, "but he might get some of the yellow mother's milk. We'll be needing a wet nurse. It's several up county who might do it."
Vaclav stepped back into the doorway and looked down the dark hallway toward the room where his other three boys were sleeping. "We'll be needing a hell of a lot more than that," he said. "Let him get what's left of her if he can. He's done taken the rest."
Just before dawn, after Edna had washed the body and wrapped it in clean bedding, Vaclav carried it out and up into the loft of the barn so the boys wouldn't find her when they woke. Then he dragged the drenched mattress from the house and out through the young pear grove to the hard-caked plot of earth where he planned one day to build his stable. There, beneath the wash kettle, he kindled a fire with last year's fallen mesquite branches. The mattress was soaked through and heavier than Klara's body had been, and Vaclav found himself cursing its weight even while he recalled how Klara had stitched the ticking and stuffed it with goose feathers before their wedding night; how, when he lay pressed for the first time between her tender skin and the soft warmth of the bed she'd made for him, he'd startled his bride, so loud was his laugh.
Now, as the horizon gave way to the pink glow of another south Texas dawn and the mockingbirds came to life in the pear grove, Vaclav worked his knife along the mattress seam, undoing his wife's work, as he would find himself doing for years. With several inches of the stitching cut away, he reached in and pulled out the feathers, one bloody handful after another, and fed them to the fire, which spat and sizzled before blazing into yellow flames and thick white billows of smoke.
In the near pasture, the cattle stood lowing against the fence, and had Vaclav been paying attention the way he usually did, he would have puzzled at their behavior, wondering what it was that kept them clustered against the fenceline instead of in the center of the parcel near the three square bales of hay he'd set out for them the day before. Instead, he stood staring into the fire, adding the steady fuel of feathers, looking into the flames so he wouldn't have cause to look at his hands, which were chapped and creased deeply with calluses and stained with the blood of the only woman he'd ever been fond of.
The townsfolk would assume, from this day forward, that Klara's death had turned a gentle man bitter and hard, but the truth, Vaclav knew, was that her absence only rendered him, again, the man he'd been before he'd met her, one only her proximity had ever softened. He'd known land in his life that, before a few seasons of regular rainfall, had been hard enough to crack a plow point, and he knew that if, by stubbornness or circumstance, that earth became yours to farm, you'd do well to live with the constant understanding that, in time, absent the work of swollen clouds and providence, your boots would fall loudly, giving rise to dust, when you walked your fields.
With the sun breaking clear of the horizon and the ticking gutted of its down, Vaclav whittled his knife against a brick of lye soap and added a handful of shavings to the boiling kettle water. He squinted against the sharp fumes of Klara's strong soap, and when he got the bloodstained ticking into the kettle, the water roiled and frothed red like so much sick stew.
Softly, a cool wind came up from the north and swirled the smoke around the kettle and out into the newly lit morning. Across the pasture, hidden in the far hedgerow near the creekside stand of trees, three half-starved coyotes raised their twitching snouts to catch a breeze laced of a sudden with the hot, iron-rich scent of blood. Their mouths flooded with anticipation as they hunkered their bellies low and inched forward, shifting their feet beneath them and waiting, their reticence born more of caution than patience. In the pasture, the cows went to lowing again, pressing themselves together against the fencewires.
With a twisted mesquite branch, Vaclav moved the ticking around in the boiling liquid and then threw that wood, too, on the fire. When he turned toward the house and weaved his way through the grove, he found the back door swung open, his three young boys standing just inside wearing nightclothes and wet cheeks. The oldest, Stanislav, was only five, but he held on to his brothers' shoulders the way a father would. The wind gusted enough to ripple Vaclav's shirt, and when it calmed he heard the baby crying inside. Standing in the bare yard, he took his plug of tobacco from his shirt pocket and tore off a portion with his teeth. Edna appeared behind the boys and turned them away from the door. "Their breakfast's gone cold on the table," she said. "They're asking after her."
He nodded and spit tobacco juice into the hard earth near the porch, and then, without washing his hands or taking off his boots, he stepped into the house where, for all but one wailing newborn, as in the pasture and the hedgerows, even hunger had been plowed under by fear.
Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.