The following is an extract from Mary Beth Keane’s new book, Fever.
You can read Meredith Jaffe’s review of Fever HERE.
PROLOGUE – 1899
The day began with sour milk and got worse. You were too quick, Mary scolded herself when the milk was returned to the kitchen in its porcelain jug with a message from Mr Kirkenbauer to take better care. He was tired, Mary knew, from the child crying all night, and moaning, and asking to be rocked. And he was worried.
They’d tried to spare him – Mary, Mrs Kirkenbauer, and the nanny had taken shifts with the boy, but the boy’s room was just across the hall from his parents’, and the boards of the new house creaked and whined, and the women sometimes forgot to keep their voices lowered, and finally Mr Kirkenbauer had emerged from the master bedroom in his nightshirt to ask what could be done. “Give him to me,” he’d said to Mary at the start of her shift, just as the bleary-eyed nanny hurried back to her small room at the rear of the house.
At two o’clock in the morning none of them cared about being seen in their nightclothes. She’d handed the boy to his father, a baby really, still a baby; they called him a boy because he’d started calling himself a boy, but it wasn’t true just yet, in six more months, perhaps, yes, but not yet, not with those fat legs and cheeks, that unsteady, tottering step, the fact that he still loved a lap more than any chair. Mr Kirkenbauer had observed in a whisper, “He’s very warm.” He put his pursed lips against the boy’s forehead. Then he handed the child back to Mary and sat on the chair in the corner as she rocked the boy and told him all the wonderful things the morning would bring.
Did he want to see a sailboat? Mary asked. Did he want to throw rocks in the river? Did he want a warm bun straight from the oven? But the child only stared, and cried, and wrapped his hot arms around Mary’s neck, tight, like they were at sea, and she his buoy, and he was terrified of losing his grip.
Mary tried not to make too much of the milk being sent back, of the expression on the butler’s face that was meant to mime Mr Kirkenbauer’s, and she reminded herself that Mr Kirkenbauer was exhausted when he complained about the milk, they all were, and who knew what tone he’d really used when he gave the message to the butler, who had struck Mary from her first day as a nervous type. Mrs Kirkenbauer was still upstairs, sleeping or trying to, and the nanny was giving the boy a cool bath, his third in as many hours.
A light rash had bloomed across his chest, and in the very early hours of the morning Mrs Kirkenbauer had suggested a plaster of bread and milk, or running to a neighbour for linseed oil, but Mary had said no, she’d seen the rash before, there was nothing for it but rest and trying to get the boy to eat something. The Kirkenbauers weren’t the richest family Mary had ever worked for. Their kitchen was not as modern as most where Mary had cooked. But they were kind people, they paid her good wages, and other than a few specific requests from Mrs Kirkenbauer, Mary had leave to do the shopping and serve whatever she liked.
Sometimes, after supper, Mrs Kirkenbauer pitched in with the scrubbing, which Mary was baffled to discover she didn’t mind. A mistress who hung around the kitchen with her hands in pots and pans and pantry would normally be intolerable, and if Mary had been told this was the way it was going to be she never would have taken the job in the first place, but now that she was there, and had gotten to know them, she was surprised to find that she didn’t mind a bit.
Mrs Kirkenbauer had three sisters in Philadelphia and said she missed female company more than anything. Mary continually tried to take the temperature of her mistress’s ease, so that perhaps, one day, she’d work up the nerve to ask her a question. Had she always been a person of means, or only when she married Mr Kirkenbauer? The Kirkenbauers didn’t know many people in Dobbs Ferry yet, which meant they seldom entertained, which meant Mary rarely had to cook for more than the three in the family and the staff and herself. The house looked at the Hudson, and on Sundays when the weather was fine they had picnics on the riverbank and always invited any among the servants who had not travelled home to their own families for the day.
Mary took the jug of milk the butler extended toward her. “Is it really gone?” she asked as she lifted it to her nose. “It’s gone,” she confirmed, clenching her teeth against the urge to vomit. She walked quickly to the narrow back door to throw it out. There was a faint sucking sound as the milk pulled away from the jug, and Mary watched it fly through the air as a solid thing until it landed, about six feet away, a white lump in the wet grass.
In a few seconds the foul smell filled up the space between the lump and the doorway where Mary was still standing. She fetched the kettle, just boiled, and hurried outside to stand over the wet lump with her head swivelled away as she poured the steaming water over it. She turned back just in time to watch it disappear in curdled rivers, get caught up in the green blades, soak into the ground.
“Is that the end of it?” The butler asked, worried, casting his eyes toward the long hall that led back to the dining room.
“There’s more. There’s plenty,” Mary said. “That was only what I was saving for bread, but I forgot, last night, when I made the bread I used the buttermilk. I was too quick. The ice is low. I broke off big pieces to put in the child’s bath, and what’s left of the block needs more sawdust. They need a right icebox here is what they need. They need one of those zinc-lined jobs. I put the good milk in the back of the box, but this morning—” Mary thought she heard a footstep in the hall. She raised a finger to the butler to wait.
“This morning?” he said. They were alone. The recently cut timbers of the house creaked under the weight of the night’s lashing rain, and now, even with every single window open and every door propped wide, the air was thick and hot. It settled on everything and all morning the collar of Mary’s dress had felt like a noose.
“Nothing.” It was no use explaining. Mr Kirkenbauer was waiting in the dining room with his bowl of dry blueberries and his coffee still black. “Here,” Mary said, putting a fresh jug onto the butler’s salver. She’d have to make new bread for lunch to make up for the mistake, even though there was nearly a full loaf on the counter from yesterday, even though that loaf would be fine with a little toasting, a pat of butter spread on top.
“How’s the child this morning?” the butler asked. His room was on the third floor, and thanks to that distance he had gotten a full night’s sleep.
“No better, no worse. Poor thing.”
The butler nodded. “About the milk, Mary. It’s only to be expected in this heat. That’s probably why the child feels feverish. I feel feverish myself.”
Not all butlers were so kind, but it seemed to work from one extreme to another in every house she had cooked for. Either the staff was a team that signalled one another with silences or a clandestine nod, or they were competitors, each one trying to smudge out the others’ good work.
Mary had been with the Kirkenbauers for only a month when the boy got sick, and later, when she looked back, she struggled to remember exactly what circumstances had brought her there, all the way up to Dobbs Ferry, when there were plenty of open positions in Manhattan. Alfred was still finding good work in 1899. He was still getting a clean shave every other day, earning Friday wages he handed over to Mary to pay a portion of their rent, their food. The agency had often wanted to send her to New Jersey, or Connecticut, or over to the western side of the Hudson where the trains didn’t reach, but she always refused unless they were short-term jobs that paid too much to decline, and ultimately those families usually went with a lesser cook, someone who couldn’t get a job with a Manhattan family.
But Mary could get a job with a Manhattan family, so why had she agreed to go up there to Dobbs Ferry to a woman who was not a proper mistress but half servant herself, the way she leaned in to the pot to be scrubbed, the way she cast her eye around the kitchen for grease. Maybe it was because when she met Mrs Kirkenbauer at the agency there was something about the woman she liked. She didn’t ask Mary if she was a Christian. She didn’t ask if she was married or planning on getting married.
She asked only about her cooking, and when the woman talked about food, about the responsibility of getting meals together every day of the week, she seemed to be speaking from experience.
“Have you ever made sauerkraut, or do you always purchase it?” Mrs Kirkenbauer had asked during their first meeting, and Mary admitted that she’d never done either, without adding that no employer she’d ever worked for had wanted sour cabbage and its sharp aroma anywhere near the floral patterns of their halls, the intricate mouldings of their ceilings. If Alfred had an evening yearning for it he went out to the streets in search of the roaming sauerkraut man and the steel drum he wore around the city.
“Would you be willing to learn if I showed you once? Are you a quick learner?” How far removed is this woman from her native Philadelphia’s version of the Lower East Side, Mary wondered, but simply answered “Yes.”
Was that all it took to get Mary to agree to leave the city that summer? Had the wages been better than she remembered? No. Years later, when she had all the time in the world to think about it, every hour of the day if she chose, every single minute, nothing seemed to add up, least of all seeing a younger version of herself step off a train to await pickup by Mr Kirkenbauer himself because they had no full-time chauffeur.
Alfred had begged her to decline the job. He’d wanted her to find something closer to home, promising a Fourth of July fireworks show she’d never forget.
He’d already begun stockpiling the rockets and sparklers, and planned to invite everyone in their building to watch. But the Fourth of July fell on a Tuesday that year, and Mary didn’t want to organize her summer around one single day, so she left Alfred alone on Thirty-Third Street to fend for himself.
Maybe that was the spring when he told her once and for all that he’d never marry her. Not because he didn’t love her, but because he didn’t believe in it. In the old country, fine, some customs could not be shaken, but what was the point of America if two people couldn’t do as they pleased?
Funny how she grew so used to Alfred and the way they were that it was hard to believe there was ever a time when she wanted him to marry her, a time when she thought that he would, eventually, when his mind came around to it, when he admitted to himself and to her it was only the right thing to do. It was even harder to believe that she’d ever considered their not being married their biggest problem. Maybe the summer of 1899 was when she finally admitted the possibility that the things he said were really the things he believed.
There was no secret code to crack, no door she could knock upon to make him come around. She was not a woman who should have to convince a man to marry her. There were plenty who would trip over themselves for the chance. That was it, she remembered, a lifetime later, when she went over the details of that summer once again. That must have been it. Her pride was injured. She wanted to teach him a lesson. She wanted space from him to think, maybe to work up the courage to leave him, to try for a different kind of life. So she went away that summer, and wished him the best for his fireworks show, and told him she’d be home on Sundays or she wouldn’t, depending on her mood.
“And there’s a child, isn’t there?” the woman at the office had said during that first meeting, glancing at her notes. Mary noticed that Mrs Kirkenbauer’s clothes were exquisite, every stitch in its place, the fabric somehow skimming her slim figure and hiding it at the same time. She was younger than Mary, with a beautiful German face.
“Yes, one, a boy. Is that a problem?”
“Of course not,” the agent had said. “Mary loves children. Don’t you, Mary?”
“I do,” Mary said in a flat voice.
Mary did not love all children, but she did love that boy. Within forty-eight hours of her arrival in Dobbs Ferry she saw that there would be no way to keep baby Tobias out of her kitchen, so she told his nanny to leave him, set him up on the floor with a toy and let him watch. The clever boy played happily until his nanny was out of sight, and then he reached his hands up to Mary to be lifted so he could see for himself what she had on the stove. “Spoon,” he said, when he wanted a taste. “Hot!” he warned when he saw steam coming up from a pot.
She gave him a new word every day and he stored it, trotting it out a few days later like he was born knowing it. It got so it was lonely in the kitchen without him. When he was there with her she talked to him all afternoon. “You are a good boy,” Mary would say, and he’d beat his chest and say “good boy.” When she dressed in the mornings, long before anyone else in the house was up, she looked forward to the tug of his chubby hand on her skirt, his fat little legs sticking out beneath his short pants. She listened for him coming down the hall before breakfast, running as fast as he could manage toward her kitchen, to see her, to press his soft cheek against hers and say her name.
And then came the morning when he didn’t run to her, the morning when he walked, slowly, and when he got to the kitchen just sat in a corner and watched in silence, his plump cheeks rosy and hot when she touched them.
When she lifted him his body was slack, like he was already asleep, and when she carried him he rested his head in the nook of her shoulder and abandoned himself to her, legs splayed across her hips, arms hanging at his sides. “Bread with jam?” she said to him, a test, the treat he loved most in the world. But he just looked at her, glassy-eyed, like he’d gotten older and wiser overnight and had moved beyond the excitement of bread and jam. As if the boy who loved bread and jam was another boy entirely and this was a new boy, a more serious boy, a boy who knew as much as any adult. For a few minutes, as she swayed with him in the kitchen and listed all the things he loved to eat, she pretended to herself that she didn’t know.
“Tobias isn’t feeling well,” Mary told the nanny, and the nanny told Mrs Kirkenbauer. The three women convened in the parlour, where Tobias had fallen asleep on a pillow.
“Too much sun yesterday,” his mother said, as she put her hand to his face. “And he had all that pie after dinner last night.”
“Should I ask the doctor to come?”
“No,” Mrs Kirkenbauer said. “Sleep will cure him. He’ll be better by supper. Leave him where he is.”
But he did not get better; he got worse, and after four days of the doctor coming by to tell them that there was nothing to be done except draw the cool bath and try to get him to eat, and on the same day as Mary served Mr Kirkenbauer milk that had gone thick and sour overnight, Mrs Kirkenbauer began to feel low, and then the nanny, and then the butler, and then the gardener, who came only twice a week, always taking lunch with them when he was there.
After Tobias they all seemed to get sick at the same time, in the same hour, and God forgive her but she ignored the others until she got that baby into the tub. “Tub,” he said, a whisper, when she put him in the water, keeping a hand under his arm so he wouldn’t slip. She floated chunks of ice she’d hammered from the block and told him they were icebergs, and he a sea captain, and it was his job to make sure the ship didn’t run aground. He didn’t object to the cold. He didn’t demand a toy. He didn’t ask for his mother. He didn’t cry.
After the bath, after his fingers had gone to raisins and she was afraid to leave him in there any longer, she wrapped him in a clean sheet and told him stories while he curled up in a ball like he was still a newborn, his knees tucked up to his chest. He looked more like a baby in the sheet, his curls damp, his cheeks so pink that a portrait of him at that moment might have made him look like a healthy child, the healthiest, like he’d just spent an hour running outside on a chilly winter’s day.
And then, on the seventh night of his illness, after a few hours of rocking, while the others called for her from distant rooms, his little body went limp, felt heavier in her arms. His head against her shoulder was a ton weight, his legs like anchors across her thighs. The hot flutter of his breath that had tickled her neck for the past several hours had disappeared. Mary rocked him faster, telling herself he’d be better after he’d had a good sleep for himself. He hadn’t had a proper rest in a week and now he was just having a sleep. Just sleep. A good, sound sleep.
After a while, she laid him in his crib and went to tell Mr Kirkenbauer, the only other member of the household who was not sick. “He’s gone, sir,” she said, and put her hand on his shoulder before she realized what she’d done. The doctor said Mrs Kirkenbauer should not be told if she was to have any chance of recovery, and so Mary tried to keep the news from her face when she went in to nurse her. But, one week later, Mrs Kirkenbauer died as silently as her son, and the butler the day after that. The nanny and the gardener recovered.
Two weeks after the boy’s death, after seeing to his little funeral suit, Mary packed her things and walked to the train station, leaving Mr Kirkenbauer alone to decide what to do about all those dresses, that big, infected house, all those toy boats, the wooden horses, the collection of little shoes and caps. Maybe it was the timber, people said. Where had it been shipped from? Maybe it was the slope of the land and the way the water ran off down to the river. Maybe it was the pipe leading from the indoor privy. Maybe it was all the pickled herring and pigs’ knuckles Mrs Kirkenbauer asked her cook to buy in town. Maybe the mistress didn’t know how to run a house, being the daughter of a Philadelphia grocer and the granddaughter of a cabbage-shaver. How lucky for her, the neighbours said, to have caught the eye of Alexander Kirkenbauer. How unlucky for him.
People said the old country was full of death, Mary’s old country and everyone else’s. The American papers would have a person believe Europe was one large sick ward, the people dying in ditches, blown over by every stiff wind. Alfred’s Germany was like her Ireland, from the sound of it: people fighting every minute to stay on the side of the living, killing one another over a bowl of rabbit stew, and praying every day that the roofs of their shelters would stay where they were.
When babies were born everyone willed them to live, but there was no surprise when they died, eventually, almost all of them, including the two Mary had cared for herself, bringing them eight, nine, ten times a day to the teat of a neighbour’s goat so they could suckle what Mary’s sister couldn’t offer, having died bringing them to life, and what Mary couldn’t offer, being only fourteen at the time, and having no babies of her own. The goat let them suck, but they died anyway, first the boy, and then the girl, and that’s when Mary’s nana told her it was time for her to leave Ireland, to leave while she was able. In America, Nana said, people didn’t die so easily. It was the air, she supposed. The meat.
But people died in America, too, Mary learned quickly.
It was just a sneakier death, a crueler death, in a way, because it always seemed to come by surprise. She didn’t notice at first, but then she began to see it all around her. A meal pushed away for lack of appetite. A nap in the afternoon. A tired feeling that turned into a head cold, a rash into a ring of fire, a head cold into a fever that ravaged the person, left him beyond the reach of help. If they didn’t die of illness, they died in fires; they were run over by streetcars, drowned in the river, suffocated after slipping into a coal hill and unable to scramble back to the surface.
Neighbours, strangers on the street, peddlers at the market, children, priests, landlords, ladies. They all died, and every death was brutal. So what’s a body to do? Mary thought as she stared out the train window at the Hudson and counted the minutes until she’d see Alfred again.
But that warm, clever little boy this time. The more she instructed herself to think about other things, the more she thought of him, like lifting a black tarp to glimpse something horrible below. Glimpses were all she could manage. His face. That peculiar, angled light in the Kirkenbauer kitchen. The dead weight of him.
Recently, when she and Alfred were talking about marriage and managing to not raise their voices, he’d asked whether she wanted a child. If she wanted to have a child, then that was different. Then they’d have to be married for the child’s sake. “But I thought you didn’t want that,” Alfred pointed out, and she realized it was probably something she’d said. Not because she didn’t think she’d love a child, or because she didn’t think she’d be a good mother. She knew she’d love their child fiercely, entirely.
She’d think about him or her every minute of her life, and that was the danger. They were so fragile, and it was so long until they grew strong. She thought of her sister’s babies curled against each other in their cradle, and then the girl alone, how at only eight days old she seemed to be searching for her brother, her newborn fists closed so tight Mary believed for a day she might live. She thought of Mr Kirkenbauer, the day he picked her up from the train, how he had no idea what was coming.
I’m sorry I left, she’d say to Alfred, who would be surprised to see her home so soon. But she wouldn’t tell him what had happened, because how could she possibly explain to anyone about that boy, that baby? How could she begin? Thinking about him for a single second—the strong grip of his small hand, his belly, the happy swing of his leg on the chair when he bit into a piece of orange—any thought of him at all brought a roaring into her ears like she’d been plunged into the ocean with a weight tied around her foot.
No, she decided. No. She’d go home and try to forget and do as she’d always done, which was work hard and be thankful every day for her good health, her life.
Extracted from Fever by Mary Beth Keane – Published by Simon & Schuster.
MORE HOOPLA BOOK EXTRACTS