The following is an excerpt from Jeffrey Colvin's novel. Colvin served in the United States Marine Corps and is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Harvard University, and Columbia University, where he received an MFA in fiction. His work has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, Painted Bride Quarterly, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Millions, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. He is an Assistant Editor at Narrative magazine.
Newborns are never afflicted with the malady. The swollen tongue, the reddish throat, the raw cough seem to afflict only babies older than six months. By the spring, in the village situated on a small knuckle-shaped peninsula just north of Halifax, all five of the stricken babies have now developed a high fever.
Having no luck with sweet milk and lemon bitter, worried mothers administer castor oil mixed with camphor, then a tea of beer’s root steeped with beech ash and clover. When desperate, they even place a few charms under the mattresses of the beds where the stricken babies lie crying.
In mid-April, with three more babies now suffering from the malady, health department nurses visit the village, their faces frozen even before they have examined a single new case. Why our children? several mothers standing in the yard of one house want to know. Hadn’t Halifax already given enough babies in the fire that leveled ten square blocks of the city months before, when the munitions ship exploded in the harbor? Then again, those had been white babies. No colored babies had died in that explosion. Was it now Woods Bluff’s turn to lose infants? And if so, how many—five, ten, all twenty-two?
The following week, after two of the feverish babies die, the mothers turn to the grandmothers, though many are leery of this option. Already several grandmothers have suggested that since the home remedies haven’t worked, and since neither nurse nor doctor has useful medicines, the afflicted infants must be bad-luck babies.
The grandmothers have ready answers.
It is an expression the mothers haven’t heard since they were children, though the fear of having a bad-luck baby has terrorized mothers on the bluff as far back as 1790. That was the year the first groups of cabins sprang up across the bluff, displacing the foxes, hare, and moose that ran through the thick Christmas ferns and sheep laurel. Back when no medicine could reinvigorate a baby whose body had begun to show the outline of bones, smothering was sometimes recommended. Take no action, and bad luck might infect the entire village. Best to end the child’s suffering midday, when injurious spirits would likely be bedside, feeding on the moisture of a weak baby’s last breaths.
Yet several mothers are unconvinced the deceased infants are bad-luck babies.
And even if the now-suffering babies are saddled with bad luck, who’s to say those old tales of smothering are true? Had anyone actually seen a mother place a blanket or pillow over a child’s face? And most important for these new cases: by what evidence will we make the diagnosis?
The grandmothers have ready answers. For several descendants of the Virginian who came up to Nova Scotia in 1772 as a messenger in the British army, a feverish baby had to be put to sleep if its father had recently had a limb severed above the knee or elbow. Death was also imminent if the baby’s fever came during the same month as the mother’s birthday. For the granddaughter of the Congolese woman who, in 1785, dressed as a man, sailed into Halifax Harbor on a ship out of Lisbon, Portugal, a feverish baby had to be smothered if the newborn was smaller than a man’s hand.
And for the largest group of grandmothers, those descended from the nearly 200 Jamaicans who landed in Halifax Harbor in 1788 after being expelled by British soldiers from their island villages for fomenting rebellion, a feverish baby’s fate was sealed if the child coughed up blood during the same month a traveling man arrived on your stoop selling quill turpentine, goat leather, or gunpowder. Hadn’t such a vendor made the rounds in Woods Bluff the month before? Why continue to nurse such a child? Death already had a square toe on the baby’s throat. It was only a matter of days, a week maybe, if the baby were a girl.
The mothers nod as they listen to the explanations, but over the next weeks only one baby is smothered, although Lovee Mills denies doing it. Near the beginning of May, however, another mother on the bluff seriously considers taking the grandmothers’ advice about ending her baby’s suffering. Her afflicted child is the cousin of the first baby that developed the fever. Adding to the mother’s exasperation are the noisy groups of neighbors that have been gathering outside her home each day at sunset, a few of them knocking on the door and asking outright if the bad-luck baby had been relieved of its worldly suffering.
With the fever threatening another baby, villagers in 1918 have a different view of the dogtrot cabin.
By now the malady has a name. It refers to the style of cabin where the woman and her extended family live. A dogtrot cabin’s construction—two rooms connected by a short breezeway in the middle—had confounded the villagers for years. Some suspected the man who built the cabin wanted a reminder of his home in Virginia. But a breezeway in a dwelling in Nova Scotia? Pure stupidity.
And now living in the cabin has caused two babies to get sick. Many blame the parents and the other members of the large extended family that lives there. Tight living made sense in 1782, they say, but this is 1918. If parents, grown children, and grandchildren are going to continue to jungle up in quarters that tight, what was the use of leaving prison? Even in the best families, sleeping foot to head too long breeds animosity. And if lies, jealousy, and ill will erupt easily in close quarters, why not a virulent fever?
“Will she do it?” someone in the crowd that has arrived at the dogtrot cabin this evening asks.
“If you mean smother the child, she had better,” another replies. “Or else one of us will.”
The cabin’s odd construction had also puzzled several of the rebellious Jamaicans who arrived in Halifax Harbor in 1788. Of course, by the time they first saw the odd dwelling, their minds had been addled by two years of confinement in the military prison on the western edge of Halifax. It took that long before Canadian military commanders believed they had sorted out which of the prisoners were combatants or abettors, and which were mere residents of the Jamaican villages torched by British soldiers.
The wait had been a horror in the cramped underground magazine and provisions spaces.
Eighty-two prisoners were moved to cells aboveground. From this group, squads of men were conscripted to repair damaged sections of the Citadel, help guard the city against French soldiers raiding its perimeter, and do road repair. One warm October day, a group of men on a road detail snuck off to walk the foot trails of Woods Bluff.
Most of the men had heard by then that the money being sent from London and Jamaica to house the prisoners had slowed to a trickle. With no firm offer yet from the government of Sierra Leone to accept them and their families, the men walked the trails looking for the cabin where military officials said a few families would soon be offered housing.
The first two families released from prison and driven by mule wagon out to the bluff never learned what happened to the family from Virginia that had lived there. But with the almanac predicting a heavy snowstorm within the week, they set about gathering dried grass and mud and fieldstones to repair the roof, chink the gaps in the logs, and mend the chimney. The men and women had their freedom. But they were facing a winter on their own in a cold, unfamiliar place. To them, this oddly built cabin seemed a present from God.
With the fever threatening another baby, villagers in 1918 have a different view of the dogtrot cabin. After hearing that the infant suffering inside the dwelling was not smothered but died on its own, they want nothing more to do with the cabin. Fearful that it is harboring bad air that might kill another baby, they chase out the families living there and set the cabin ablaze.
But what had their actions accomplished, the villagers wonder one afternoon in June, when word spreads that little Kath Ella Sebolt, who lives at 68 Dempsey Road, has developed the fever.
By now seven babies have died.
Fearing her daughter might be the eighth child to die of the fever, Kath Ella Sebolt’s mother, Shirley, goes in search of the handmade dolls she had purchased the previous winter. All ten of the dolls made by the neighborhood leatherworker were imitations of the Lucky Beatrice doll that had been fought over by a platoon of fathers in a pistol-shooting contest at the most recent Pictou County Exposition. What can it hurt, Shirley Sebolt figures, to slide her daughter’s doll under the bed where her daughter suffers?
That evening Kath Ella’s fever breaks. The next morning Shirley carries the doll to a house down the road. The next afternoon, similar dolls are slipped under other beds all across the village.
From Africaville by Jeffrey Colvin. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher Amistad, an imprint of Harper Collins. Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey Calvin.