Alta set the Dutch oven on the stove and smeared the bottom with bacon fat. The cast iron shone smooth as black satin. When the fat shimmered, she scraped in the chopped onion and gave it one quick stir. The smell of onion and bacon bloomed.
Judith poked her head in at the screen door. “Hey, sis. Something sure smells good.”
“C’mon in. I’m making stew for dinner.” Judith slid onto the bench behind the old oak table and plucked at a little triangular tear in the oilcloth covering the big rectangle. Alta glanced at her. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m feeling like the old woman who lived in a shoe.”
Alta turned to the chuck roast, bloody and marbled white with fat. “What do you mean?”
“You know. Granny always said, ‘There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do. If she’d known what to do, she wouldn’t have had so many children.’”
Alta chuckled. “You aren’t even married so you don’t need to worry about that.” She cut a look at Judith. “Or do you?”
Pink flooded Judith’s face from collar to hairline, nearly hiding her freckles. “Of course not! I’m not Rosie! It’s just… Well, Bill asked me to marry him. But I just don’t know. I don’t want to be like Ma. I don’t want thirteen children—nor six, neither!”
While they talked, Alta blotted both sides of the beef, tossing the bloody towel into the wash basket in the corner. “You should talk to Lena or Bessie. They’ve only got one each, so they must know what’s what.”
“But their sons are older than I am! That would be like talking to Ma—and what’s the use of that? If she knows anything about stopping babies from coming, she must not think it’s the right thing to do or there wouldn’t be so many of us!” She tossed her strawberry-blond curls, her eyes pleading. “I was hoping you’d tell me.”
A pained look flashed across Alta’s face. She picked up the slab of beef, rubbed salt and pepper into both sides, and scraped the wilted onions to the edges of the pot. She sighed. “I’ll tell you what I know—what I’ve heard and such.”
“Oh, yes, please!”
Alta dropped the roast into the Dutch oven, jerking her hand back from the popping oil. “Surely you know about rubbers?”
“Of course! Everyone knows about those.”
Judith blushed again. “I heard Bill joking with some of his poker buddies. One said something about sex wearing a condom feeling like wearing galoshes, and Bill said one good thing about getting married was not having to wear rubbers anymore.”
“Oh. Hmmm. And you say you and Bill haven’t…?”
Judith whipped her head back and forth so fast her curls flew out. “I told him right off that we would never go all the way unless we were married!”
When the first side of the beef had seared, Alta turned the roast with a long fork. At the end of the stainless steel handle, tapered scarlet Bakelite always made Alta think of a hot pepper. She favored this cooking fork, partly because Granny had given it to her. “Does he want kids right away?”
“We haven’t talked about that. But I know I don’t!”
Alta poured iced tea for both of them. “Well, if he won’t wear rubbers, I guess it’s up to you.”
“Why do you think I’m here! What can I do?”
The second side had seared. The beefy smell was heavy in the kitchen. Alta moved the pot to a cooler burner and dumped in a quart of canned tomatoes. The sizzling and bubbling quickly subsided to a simmer. The lid was too heavy for steam to escape, so a rich broth was guaranteed.
“Some of our cousins down in the hills talk about it a lot. Mostly they seem to try to keep their husbands’—or whoever’s—seed from getting through.” While the roast simmered, Alta collected the vegetables—dirt-brown potatoes, purple-and-white turnips, and sunset-orange carrots. “I don’t know how well any of these things work. One said to tie a square of sponge with string, soak it in honey or vinegar, and push it up against the opening to the womb.”
Judith looked aghast. “How?”
“With your finger, of course.”
“Ugh! Put my finger up there?”
Alta grinned. “Hon, there’ll be bigger things than a finger up there!”
“But… But… Won’t it get lost?” Judith’s voice was a high-pitched squeak.
“It can’t. The opening to your womb is tiny. And you have the string there to pull the sponge out after.” Alta started scrubbing the potatoes—so young they didn’t have eyes to bother with—using the toothbrush she kept for the purpose. “Personally I think that’s better than another thing they’ve used: tobacco shreds mixed with honey and cotton lint—just pushed up in there.” She glanced at Judith. “Up against that nob that feels like the tip of your nose.” She turned back to the potatoes. “I’ve heard of lots of things like that—like a paste of juniper berries smeared on your privates, outside and in. Cousin Ima said she’s used a lemon half with all the juice squeezed out, pushed up there like a cap—but she can’t always get lemons. Irma said she cut the fingertip off a rubber glove, but it was devilish hard to get in place.”
Alta dropped the chunked-up potatoes into a bowl of water to keep them from browning and to make potato water for the next bread-baking.
Green tinged Judith’s face. Alta said, “You could find a Catholic co-worker and ask about the rhythm method—the calendar method they sometimes call it. One thing I can tell you is that when you notice a creamy discharge in your panties, that’s when you’re likely to get pregnant. My doctor told me having sex as long as it looks like egg white is likely to get a baby. If that isn’t what you want, wait till four days after it disappears.”
The carrots and turnips were scrubbed and chunked, dumped into another bowl. Alta had nothing pressing while the beef simmered, so she sat across from Judith. “Listen, hon. Great-Granny talked about stoneseed root—said the Lakota swore by it—but if that’s around here, I wouldn’t know what to look for or where.”
Judith’s shoulders drooped and Alta patted her hand. “But there are things right in the kitchen you could try. I’m taking this from what my doctor told me not to do if I didn’t want to miscarry next time.” She looked aside. “You know Elwood and I lost another baby, don’t you?”
Judith leaned across the checked oilcloth and squeezed Alta’s hand. “Oh, sis, I didn’t think…I mean, I thought you wanted to stop after the two girls and would know what I should do. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.” Alta’s small smile quivered. “We’d just really like to have a boy.” Tears filled Alta’s eyes and she wiped them away with her apron.
“Oh, sis, what kind of person am I, making you talk about this when you want another one so bad!”
Alta shrugged one shoulder. “Don’t fret about it. It’s not like one has anything to do with the other. Now, according to Dr. Hodson, too much of any of these can cause you to lose a baby—and some will keep you from getting one in the first place: lots of aspirin, raw cinnamon, and laxatives.”
Alta rose, checked on the stew, reduced the heat, and wiped her eyes again before she sat back down. “I found an old herbal in that box of mixed goods I bought at the auction awhile back. The first section is growing and storing herbs. The second is recipes. And the third section talks about medicinal uses. According to the herbal, eating apricot kernels or roots of Queen Anne’s lace should trigger a miscarriage too. Or drink teas made of ginger root, rue, angelica, jack-in-the-pulpit root, pennyroyal, parsley, chamomile, or nutmeg.” She squeezed Judith’s hand again. “Ask around. Some women who’ve used them might not be willing to talk about it but some will. I think some of the teas need to be taken more often than others, some every day to build the effect.”
“I’ll never remember all that!” Judith wailed.
“Hon, you really need to talk with Bill about whether to have children, how many, and when.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you’re right.” Judith jumped up, face blazing scarlet. “Thanks, sis. I…I have a lot to think about.” The screen door banged behind Judith.
Her failure to give her husband the son he wanted—a son to carry on the family name—weighed on Alta’s heart like a river rock. She retrieved the herbal and sat down to read, hoping she might find something she’d missed before.
When the roast was nearly fall-apart tender, Alta added the drained vegetables to the pot. By the time the vegetables were cooked but not mushy, the biscuits would be done.
Alta dabbed her tears with the sleeve of her dress. She wished she had a recipe for Judith—and for herself.