Out of the depths of darkness, two voices emerged.
“… a blizzard to catch her, Jones, but we better have a back-up.”
“I want her dead, Jones, and before she gives birth. Do you understand? Before she gives birth.”
“As you command, Mr. Anderson.”
“And Jones, find a place for our new headquarters.”
“As you wish, Mr. Anderson.”
John Snyder couldn’t remember a winter storm half the equal of what laid waste to south-central Indiana that Christmas Eve, and Centerville was the target of its most malignant manifestation. In his seventy rawboned years of living in the Indiana country, he had never before felt the inexplicable dread this blizzard provoked.
Irritated, he looked up at his friend Sarah Rainey who was busy cleaning mixing bowls at the institutional sink. Her kitchen occupied the largest of seven red brick buildings at the Whitewater County Children’s Home, an orphanage filled to capacity with youngsters who had been lonely, abused, and homeless.
“I don’t remember no storm in the weather forecast, Sarah. If those boys could just be right once in a while ….”
“No kiddin’. I can’t remember a blizzard as mean as this one, either. Usually it warms up before it snows, but this? Why, the windows are froze up even on the inside.”
“Sprung up all of a sudden, too. Don’t see how they could miss callin’ this one. But you know, it was clear as crystal, no clouds, and no wind; everything peaceful right up ’til I turned in last night.”
John felt even more grateful than usual to be sitting in the warmth of Sarah’s gigantic kitchen at the square oak table, enjoying rich black coffee with a generous serving of pumpkin pie. She always made extra, knowing how much he liked it. Twenty others were cooling on the side table for dessert at the Christmas feast, but the caretaker hated to wait that long.
“Sure hope it breaks by the kids’ git-up time,” Sarah mused as she stirred a simmering pot on the wood stove, flames just visible through a tiny crack in the top. The stove was well preserved black iron trimmed with shiny nickel, and more fun to use than the modern gas range at the opposite end of the long counter. The broth of vegetable scraps and turkey necks brewing for gravy filled the kitchen with moist, fragrant warmth. The smell of fresh breakfast rolls seeped from the edges of the ovens.
Outside, the howling, blinding snow continued to pile up. Silvery swirls of frost adorned the windows.
John shuddered and thought of another terrible storm many years before. His younger brother had been outside, packing hay around the barn doors to keep the wind out so the cattle wouldn’t freeze. Then he headed back toward the house but didn’t make it. John had been the one to discover him frozen to death with his hand still reaching out for the kitchen door, his pale, lifeless face with the eyes still open.
Snyder’s insides knotted up as he remembered. And here it was, years later, nearly five in the morning on Christmas Day, with sixty-five children of all ages waiting for Santa Claus to visit their forlorn residence. The jolly old elf was relying on John to do the legwork, to haul the presents for each child from their hiding place in the barn.
John thought of the short amount of time left to do it, but continued to sit at the table. He just didn’t want to face going outside. A person could die in a storm like that. He knew it too well. A hundred yards lay between the warm kitchen and the old brick barn, and multiple trips meant multiple hundreds of yards through that wind with armloads of stuff for the main hall. He wasn’t sure his threadbare Navy wool coat would be enough to shield him from the elements.
Sarah studied him with concern. “You gonna get started?”
“Thought you was gonna do it this year, Sarah,” he chuckled, shifting a myriad of wrinkles around on his sun-beaten face. Then he took a deep breath, held it in, and added, “You know, I just don’t like this storm.”
It was unnatural: way too sudden and way too cold for southern Indiana.
He got up, pulled on his old leather gloves, tucked them inside the sleeves of his coat, yanked his cap over his ears, and moved to the back door. His hand on the knob, he hesitated again, and then he headed out.
The piled-up snow fell into the kitchen with a soft squish and blew across the floor in a gust as he opened the door. John put his hand up across his eyes, trying to look through the swirling whiteness for some kind of landmark. He knew where the steps should be, three short ones to the ground, so he ventured out. The softness of the snow let his foot down all the way to the first step. It was solid. Then he found the second one and started for the third.
“Close the door!”
He could hear her calling. He had forgotten the door. Maybe she would get it. Suddenly his right foot caught against something buried in the snow. He lost his balance and pitched forward face-first into the deep, stinging powder, filling his nose and mouth with frigid softness, choking him. It jammed inside the collar of his coat and up the sleeves around his wrists. The numbing pain was so sudden and intense that for an instant John accepted his fate. He was going to freeze to death as he had imagined, right outside the door, just like his brother.
The sound of Sarah’s voice brought him to his senses. “For land’s sakes, John. Be more careful! What are you doing?” She shivered with the rush of frigid air as she watched John struggle to his feet, then bend over again to poke in the snow at the bottom of the steps.
“Look at this. Tripped on it going out.” John lifted something large out of the snowdrift, brushed it off, and carried it across the slippery linoleum to the kitchen table. Sarah closed the door with a heavy thud before joining John in scrutiny. It was a wicker picnic basket with a handle and a well-worn quilt for a cover.
John scooped some snow off one corner of the quilt and slowly lifted it back. His heart sank when he saw it: the tiny, ashen blue face of an infant. It looked like an exquisitely formed, strangely colored porcelain doll. He stepped back and nudged Sarah forward. Let her take over from here. Let her have the difficult job of lifting out a dead baby.
Sarah scooped out more snow and folded back the other corners. A worn tee shirt many sizes too big and stained with blood covered the baby’s body. Sarah lifted up the shirt. The tiny blue body was diapered with an old cotton scarf knotted at the fringed corners.
A small plastic bottle of water was wedged alongside. She pulled it out and held it up.
“Look, John, frozen solid.” He took it from her with a grunt.
She carefully lifted the baby out of the basket and pressed it into her soft, full bosom. “Let’s see if I can warm you up, baby,” she whispered.
Tears ran down John’s cheeks as he looked at the lifeless form. The children who came to them were all needy, but this was the youngest and most pathetic he had ever seen.
After a few moments, Sarah tucked her fingers around the left side of its chest to check for a pulse. Her eyes lit up. “John, I think I feel a heartbeat.”
John was skeptical, “Don’t see how the critter can be alive, with that water froze up.” His voice was husky as he reached out to touch one of the little legs, “Seems like it’s warmin’ up though. Don’t that beat all?”
The baby’s color gradually improved. Within a few minutes, the heartbeat became stronger and its eyelids fluttered. Sarah held her face close, breathing life and warmth into its face and cradling its head in her hand. “Come on, precious baby. It’s your Grandma Sarah talking. Come on and live. Come on, Sweet pea.”
Abruptly, as if a decision had been made, the baby took a breath and let out a screech, mouth wide open, tiny tongue quivering between neat rows of gums. Its body flushed pink. With another blast of sound, its face turned red with exertion. Then it began to breathe quietly. Dark blue eyes opened wide.
The tall rough-hewn man and the round soft woman met the baby’s gaze, wrinkles of joy surrounding their tear-filled eyes.
“Lands a’goshin’,” Sarah mused. “John, did I ever tell you the story about my first child? It was like this baby in a way. I had just given birth and I overheard the doctor whisper to the nurse, Stillborn. How sad. And she whispered back, It’s probably better this way. Then my baby started in this same kind of crying. Humpf. So they handed it over to me.”
John grunted. “Sure looked dead to me. Don’t believe much in unnatural miracles, but this here sure looks like one.”
Sarah gently laid the baby back down on the table and began to take off the sodden scarf tied between its legs. “John, over in the second drawer, find a dish towel, will you? I’ll use it for a dry diaper. And bring me a warm wet cloth to wash this baby, and an extra dry one. And a terry cloth from the bottom drawer for a blanket. And get the cornstarch out of the cabinet. Will ya’ look at this, it’s a boy.”
John did as she asked, and then helped hold the baby while she cleaned, powdered, diapered, and bundled. He was fascinated with the efficiency of females, especially this one. It seemed she never ran out of energy.
She never ran out of directives, either. “Go fetch the headmaster.”
Fetching the headmaster meant a trip halfway across the orphanage through the storm. John hesitated, then reached for the door, seconds too late to open it before a newcomer burst in.
“Morning, John. Morning, Sarah. Merry Christmas.”
“Mornin’, Ted, Merry Christmas.” Sarah answered.
John nodded his greeting, glad he didn’t have to make the trip.
The headmaster, Theodore Arthur Hoeven, was a slender man of medium height, his narrow boyish face nearly hidden by a thick cap and scarf. His gold-framed glasses immediately frosted over in the moist air of the kitchen, so he pulled them off as he set a bag of groceries on the table.
“Here’s the stuff you wanted me to pick up for you, Sarah.” Ted scrutinized the quilt-laden basket as he pulled off his cap. “What’s all this? Sarah, are you holding a baby?”
“We just found it outside,” Sarah said.
“I tripped over it on the stairs,” John added.
“You mean you found it in that basket, outside in this storm? Was there a note with it?”
“Nope,” Sarah said, “just a bottle of frozen water and the quilt.” She extended the bundle to him.
Ted took the foundling in both hands and held it up. The baby’s face seemed to glow, its dark eyes wide with the handling.
“It’s a boy,” Sarah said.
“Hello, there, baby. You have quite a face. Welcome to life.” To Sarah, he said, “How old do you reckon he is?”
“Looks newborn to me.”
“He’s sure looking me over.”
“I think we should take this baby over to your place,” Sarah said. “Jane might really shine up to it, with your, I mean … your not having any children and all.”
A flush came up Ted’s neck and a frown flickered across his forehead. “You’re right, Sarah. Let’s do that.” He unbuttoned his coat enough to free his left arm from its sleeve, then tucked the baby close and began to button the coat back up.
“I’ll walk back with you,” Sarah declared. “Just hang on a minute. That baby’s gonna’ want something to eat pretty soon.” She shook out the damp quilt and packed the basket with some provisions for the baby and some pie for Ted and Jane. She put on her hat and coat and declared herself ready for the short journey.
“Okay then, let’s go.”
Sarah turned to John, “Look, the bread needs to come out in fifteen minutes when the timer goes off. If I’m not back, take it out of the oven and set it on those racks there. Don’t forget to use the mitts. And put some more wood on the fire after the bread comes out.”
John spoke up, “Ted? Could use some help with the toys.”
As he and Sarah made their way across the parking lot, Ted could feel the infant squirming against his body, and it sent chills of excitement up his spine. Its eyes had pierced and challenged him. Its timeless expression had amazed him. And to think it survived the terrible cold of the blizzard …. He had seen many babies and children during the five years they had been at the Home, but none of them had affected him the way this tiny one did.
The storm had ended and early dawn lightened the sky. Their breathing made white clouds in the frigid air and the snow squeaked noisily underfoot. It was too cold even for Sarah to talk.
Ted noted the blush of excitement on her face. He and Jane had known her for many years, ever since their first job after seminary, and had been glad when Sarah decided to come with them to the orphanage when Ted became headmaster. He knew Sarah had meant no affront. Worse, though, she was right. After fifteen years of marriage, the hollow emptiness remained. Caring for the orphans had certainly helped, but it was not the same as having a baby to call their own.
The pounding in his chest and dryness in his mouth amazed him. He wondered whether Jane would feel the same way, whether she might want to adopt this one, or whether they even could.
He thought of the adoption legislation he had helped draft for Indiana as a member of the Subcommittee for the Welfare of Children. Passed into law just the year before, it had smoothed out the procedures for adoption and made allowances for certain special circumstances. He wondered whether they would qualify.
Ted held the heavy oak door for Sarah, clicked it shut behind him, and followed her through the dark family room into the silent kitchen. “Jane? Oh, Jane. We have a surprise for you.”
The excitement in his voice brought her down the stairs from their room in seconds, a thick robe and slippers covering her slender frame, her curly blond hair still tangled from sleep. Her eyes shone with curiosity.
“What is it, Ted?”
Ted approached her with an impish grin, coat bulging, one sleeve dangling.
He undid the top buttons and gently placed the bundle into her outstretched arms.
“A baby?” She lifted the edge of the terrycloth wrap and gazed at the infant’s face for a full minute. “Hello, little one. Who are you? Where did you come from?” She looked up, “Ted?”
“John and Sarah found him a little bit ago on the back stoop covered with snow. There was no note. It’s incredible he’s alive.”
Sarah set her basket down and grinned with satisfaction. “I brought his basket with some stuff in it.”
“Thanks, Sarah.” Then Jane looked into the infant’s face again and began to waltz slowly around the room with him, singing softly, “A child is born, a child is born, for unto us a child is born …”
I have raised up one from the north, and he shall come: From the rising of the sun shall he call upon my name: And he shall come upon princes as upon mortar, and as the potter treadeth clay.