With some Cherokee blood and little education, Fred Freeman's life had already been both harsh and hurtful despite being barely two brief decades in measure. But now the young man gasped his final breaths in that back bedroom of his family's crowded home. And as the aunts and uncles circled round him, there was nothing anyone could do but let him go.
Taken too soon by the Lord. That's what his loved ones said as they pulled the sheet over his pallid face and prayed for him to find peace in the hereafter. They weren't a churchgoing bunch, but they knew the decent thing to do was to pray in times such as these.
As the spirit was leaving Fred Freeman, his sister, Velma Freeman Allen, cried out. Hers was a howl not only of grief but also of surprise as a sudden gush of water fell from her womb. Just as her mother, Peg Freeman, had warned, the stress of her brother's death seemed to have induced an early labor. In the swirling chaos, Velma moved away from her brother's deathbed and into her own tiny bedroom, preparing her body to embrace the blessing of birth. Clenching her fists through contractions, she called out, "Go! Fetch Mayhayley!"
Mayhayley Lancaster was not only a friend to Peg Freeman, she was also a teacher, an activist, and, perhaps most interestingly, an oracle whose gifts were revered both far and wide, even by those most skeptical. While well respected in her Christian church, she was known to run the numbers and tell fortunes, cast spells and speak with spirits. But to women like Velma, who labored through home births in the south Georgia summer, Mayhayley was known above all else as a midwife. A life-giver. A godsend.
By the time Mayhayley arrived, Velma was writhing in pain, shrieking and sweating as female relatives scrambled to comfort her. "This labor ain't nothing like my first!" Velma screamed, a statement Mayhayley validated by announcing, "The baby is stuck!"
Quite experienced in matters of birth, the midwife solicited the women to help calm the mother, but despite steady reassurances, Velma seemed unable to bear the searing contractions, struggling to keep her breathing steady between waves of nausea and escalating spikes of pain.
Also, there was blood. Too much blood.
Mere hours after the death of Velma's brother, two more lives were now in peril as her body quaked and a baby boy was born blue. While Mayhayley's primary focus was on saving Velma, the wizened oracle took one look at the chalky shroud across the newborn's head and smiled. "A caulbearer," she said, proudly lifting the child into the air to examine the thin, milky membrane that draped his face.
Velma cried from the bed, eager to see her son, but the many women blocked her view, warning he had been born "behind the veil" and would likely not make it through the night.
"Cursed!" hissed a cousin, pushing the child away.
"Nonsense," Mayhayley argued. With tender hands she pulled the film from the baby's face and willed his color to change from a sickly gray to healthy pink. Then, with her one good eye, she gave him a close examination. "You're a special one, aren't you?" She turned her missing eye toward the door, tilting the marble-filled socket away for a better view. "Yes, yes. I can already see."
Mayhayley brought the baby to the bedside. "You've got one more reason to be strong now, Velma. This boy needs his mother."
Too frail to hold her son, Velma was growing weaker by the minute, even as the women cooled her with damp cloths and worked to stop the bleeding. With his mother teetering between life and death, the crying baby was set aside while the midwife's attention went to saving Velma.