Enjoy this excerpt from The Twelfth Child
In the spring of 1912, Livonia Lannigan’s body grew round and firm. Her breasts became heavy and her stomach swelled to a great size. She took to leaving the waistband buttons of her dresses unhooked but even so could barely fit into the clothes she had worn just one year ago. The cotton bodices pressed tight against her tender breasts and she worried that it might stifle the milk flow needed for the baby so she loosened them whenever she was alone. Last summer her ankles and feet had not swollen, now they throbbed and were thick and heavy as ham hocks. All of these discomforts were of no concern to Livonia as she was thankful for the size of her stomach, surely an indication that this baby was growing robust and healthy. When walking became painful she sat on the front porch, rocking back and forth so slowly that at times she appeared motionless. For hours on end she would remain that way, waiting to feel movement from the baby that would come in September. Every night she crouched down with her knees pressing against the hardwood floor and her hands folded across the rise of her stomach. “Please God,” she would pray, “help me to deliver a healthy son for William.”
Her first baby boy had died before he was christened or even named. The birth came two months early, on the second Wednesday in August—a day when William rode off to the Lexington Market long before the cock crowed. Livonia blamed no one but herself, for it was she who felt such a burning hunger for the cool breezes of the Rappahannock River. It had been a brutal summer—almost no rain, the earth so dry that gritty dust rose from nothing more than the flutter of a bird’s wing, and a dark red sand settled into Livonia’s pores and stripped her hair of its luster. On that fateful day, her only intent was to cool herself; to sit beneath a shady oak tree and perhaps dangle her feet into the edge of the water. She saddled Whisper, a mare named for her gentleness, and rode out beyond the meadow. The animal moved along at an easy canter, slowing when she came to a dry stream bed or overgrown thicket, seemingly aware of the precious cargo she carried. No one could have known that a flock of wild turkeys would tear across the pathway and startle the poor mare so that without warning she’d rear up and throw the rider. Late that afternoon the animal returned home with an empty saddle; she stood there alongside the barn and waited.
William did not return from Lexington until almost nightfall. The much needed rain had started that afternoon and on three different occasions he was forced to climb from the wagon and walk the skittish horse through a flooded gully in the road. He was wet and weary when he arrived home and it angered him that Livonia had not lit a lamp in the window. He did not see the still-saddled mare until he pulled close by the barn. As he guided both animals into the barn, he wondered if Livonia would have been foolish enough to go riding in this weather; and a sense of dread settled over him as he hurried to the house calling out for his wife.
When William heard nothing but the sound of his own voice echoing back from the mountains, he took a lantern in his hand, folded an extra blanket beneath the mare’s saddle, and started across the meadow in search of his wife. The rain had washed away any trail she might have left, so William had to rely solely upon his understanding of Livonia’s nature to figure out which way she had traveled. He rode for three hours, calling her name out as he went, “Livonia, Livonia.” He finally came upon her lying in the mud of the narrow pathway and nearly unconscious; a bloody baby was locked in her arms. The baby’s eyes were closed and its tiny fingers curled into fists. When William lifted the dead baby and saw it was a boy, he let out a wail so mournful that folks say it echoed up and down Massanutten Ridge for days afterward.
William Lannigan was a man who worked from sunup ‘till sundown. He plowed and planted, harvested the crops and whatever produce he didn’t use to feed his family, he carted off to market in the back of a horse drawn wagon. He single-handedly loaded his bushel baskets of apples onto the wagon and traveled twenty-three miles back and forth to the Lexington Market. Even in the drought years when many Shenandoah Valley farmers abandoned the fruitless land, he stayed, worked the farm, and eked out a living for his family. When the orchards failed, he planted corn and beans and tomatoes. His father before him had done the same, only his father had three stropping sons to help with the labor. William, being the eldest, had inherited the farm. A farm he would one day pass down to his own eldest son. But last November William turned fifty-six; he was feeling the weight of a man who had fathered seven girl babies and two boys, three if you include the dead child of his fourth wife Livonia. Not one of his boys had lived to see five years of age. William had already made his decision—if Livonia failed to produce a healthy baby boy this time, he would burn the crops and let the land lay fallow for all eternity.