The boy stirred. Joe almost wretched as he worked the floppy, little body from under the covers, soiling himself up to the elbows in a soup of feces, urine, and sweat. This was worse than a calf with the scours. He spread a towel on the floor near the hearth and went to work, bathing and diapering the little fellow before he could even think of feeding him. The boy whimpered a bit, but by and large was unaware of his bath. Finally, clean, dry, and dressed in one of the gowns, Joe settled back in a chair to spoon him some milk doctored up with Dr. Marvel’s Wonder Tonic. Had Joe only realized it was mostly alcohol, he’d have dosed himself before starting the bath. The boy even roused enough to sip from a tin cup before lapsing back into sleep on the flannel-covered hay.
That job finished, Joe touched the woman’s shoulder. She sprang back screaming like he was a bear. She showed considerable spirit for a woman who’d so recently left the grave. Appalled at the bruises on her face and the cut over her eye, he dropped his eyes. Surely he hadn’t hit her with the shovel as he covered her grave. Stepping back, he gestured to the baby, holding his nose to show it needed bathing. He pointed to the boy lying asleep on the hay bed and to the bath supplies. The woman clearly was humiliated at being befouled, pulling the cover back over herself. Joe had laid her bundle of clothes on the foot of the bed, figuring she’d want it first thing. She shooed him out. He gave her a few minutes out of consideration for her dignity before letting himself back in, finding her struggling to dress, her right arm useless. How could he have been that rough getting her to the grave? Pained, he helped her into her dress, looking at her as little as possible. He helped her to the table, though it was clear she was repelled by his touch. Once she was seated, he poured her a cup of coffee, thick with cream and a healthy glug of Dr. Marvel. When he saw she was strong enough to manage, he turned his attention to the baby girl.
She was as warm and pink as her brother, crying out in protest at being stripped and bathed. Finally, warm, clean, and dry, he offered her to her mother to nurse. The woman looked at him as though he’d asked her to nurse a pig, gesturing the baby away. Realizing there was no choice, he poured some of the warm milk into the bottle and fed the baby himself. She wasn’t having any of it, pushing the nipple out of her mouth and howling. Looking to the mother for help, she shook her head as though it was no matter to her. The woman must be addled from the fever and the grave, he thought. He was finally able to get enough milk into the baby to satisfy her, between the bottle and the cup. She was asleep before he laid her on the makeshift bed next to her brother. When he turned back to the battered woman, she was dozing in the straight chair. She jumped then moaned when he touched her shoulder, but allowed him to help her into the hay with the children.
That being done, he turned to the mess awaiting him. Building a fire under a tub outdoors, he set water to boiling. He’d never faced a pile of washing like this, only doing his a few times a year. He stripped of his dirty shirt, shaved some of the soap into the water, and got to work. Shaking out the worst of the soil, he plunged as many of the diapers and clothes into the tub as would fit and stirred them around with a stick until the mess was indistinguishable from the wash water. When he was satisfied he’d done all he could, he fished the laundry out of the malodorous soup and hung it on the fence, not bothering to rinse. The bedding, done with fresh water and soap looked little better, but the entire lot eventually achieved a universal stiffness as it dried, the soil having been mixed with soap and universally distributed.