Summary: Anne struggles with and triumphs over depression after the birth of her son Jem. Slightly AU to Anne's House of Dreams, the fifth book in the series.
Author's Note #1: I almost gave this story an M-rating, just to be on the safe side. I decided against it because there's no sex, and while there is some stuff of a sexual nature, I tried to write it in the gentlest, least graphic way possible. Still, if you're easily shocked or really uncomfortable reading M-rated content, then please proceed with caution. There is a happy ending, but the path to it isn't exactly pretty.
"Were those women - Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. Hammond - good to you?" asked Marilla.
"Oh," faltered Anne. "Oh, they meant to be. And when people mean to be good to you, you don't mind very much when they're not quite - always."
- Anne of Green Gables
Anne never nursed Joy - she never had a chance to - and she knows that no matter how long she might live, it will haunt her to her dying day. Their mother's milk is the healthiest, most nourishing thing for newborn babies, especially ones who were born weak and small, as Joy had been. If only Anne had insisted on nursing her right away, then perhaps...
One sad, lonely day, a few week after she lost Joy, Anne suddenly remembered what she said to Marilla, when it still seemed that she would have to leave Green Gables. "My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes. That's a sentence I read in a book once, and I say it over to comfort myself." She wanted to both laugh and cry at her childish naivety. She knew nothing - nothing - back then about buried hopes. But now, after losing Joy... now she knows all too well.
She can't change what happened to Joy, but she can make sure that things are different with Jem. And they are. Anne makes sure to nurse him right away. After Susan and the nurse have cleaned up her and the baby, and laid him gently back in his mother's arms, Anne unbuttons her nightgown at the neck and cradles Jem against her chest. She knows that some mothers struggle with this, and so a relieved sigh escapes her when Jem latches on easily and begins nursing.
The tremble in her arms is slight at first, but soon, they're shaking wildly, uncontrollably. Anne tries to stop it, mentally scolding herself that this is not how mothers hold their newborns, but her arms continue to shake, as if determined to be free of the baby in them. Jem squirms and screws up his face, but before he can cry, Gilbert notices from where he's sitting on the edge of their bed. He scoots closer and calmly lays his hands on Anne's arms, steadying her.
"Anne, darling..." His hand leaves her arm for a moment to pick up a cold, wet washcloth from the basin on the nightstand. He dabs at her cheeks, and Anne realizes that there are hot tears coursing down them. "It's all right," he soothes, laughing a little. "I know. I feel like crying myself, I'm so happy."
For once in her life, words won't come. Anne just nods, her throat thick with emotion, unable to answer, unable to explain to Gilbert that she isn't crying because she's happy. She looks down at Jem, still nursing, and guilt and shame wash over her in waves. Her baby is less than an hour old, and she already almost dropped him. A sense of dread settles in the pit of her stomach.
What is wrong with her?
For the next few times that Jem cries, Anne gives him a bottle. But then her breasts feel full and sore, and so the next morning, hesitantly, she tries nursing him again. The first rays of sunrise are just peeking in through the curtains, and the bedroom has never seemed lovelier or more peaceful as sits Anne sits propped up against the pillows, rocking Jem in her arms. Once again, he latches on easily and starts nursing right away when she offers him her breast, and once again, Anne is suddenly, inexplicably overwhelmed by a feeling of shame - there's no other word for it - so strong that she can hardly bear it.
Her heart burns with guilt when she can't resist the urge to be free of her own baby. She gets up from bed and, fumbling, lays Jem back down in his crib. He cries, and Anne feels like crying right along with him. The hot, shameful tears won't stop running down her cheeks. A few fall and land on Jem's red, screaming face, and he cries louder.
"Anne?" She turns to see Marilla in the doorway, bringing her a cup of hot tea with milk - her favorite kind - for breakfast. But the cup is shaking in Marilla's hand, and her face is anxious and confused. "Anne, whatever is the matter?"
When Anne doesn't answer, Marilla rushes to her side. "Is it... is something wrong with baby?" But then she looks him over in his crib and seems even more confused. Jem is obviously healthy to be bellowing like an ox. "What's the matter?" Marilla asks again, putting one hand on Anne's arm as she takes in her tear-stained eyes, which are almost as red as her hair.
"It's... it's nothing, Marilla," Anne stammers, her voice shaking as badly as her arms did when she tried to nurse Jem yesterday. "I'm all right... I'm fine."
But she isn't - and anyone can see that.
She hasn't knelt beside her bed to say her nightly prayers since she was a little girl, but she does it now. She still regrets never nursing Joy, so why is reacting this way whenever she tries to Jem? Diana had told her that nursing Anne Cordelia was one of the most beautiful things about having a baby. She can't understand why it doesn't feel that way for her, and she prays for God to help her, but her heart is still heavy and troubled as she climbs into bed.
In her dream that night, the soft, fluffy feather-down quilt tucked around her disappears. Gilbert's warm, solid body close beside her disappears. In her dream that night, Anne finds herself once again shivering under a thin blanket on an uncomfortable cot. It's as vivid as if she had never grown up, never lived at Green Gables, never left that lonely house in the clearing among the tree stumps.
When she lived with the Hammonds, Anne had slept on a narrow, lumpy cot in the dark hallway off the kitchen. During the day, the blankets were folded and the cot was stored away in the hall closet. In all the years that Anne lived that family, she never had her own room, nor a part of a room, nor any small space to call her own.
Meg and Peter, Mrs. Hammond's most recent - and, Anne prayed, her last - pair of twins, were still crying babies during the last winter that Anne lived with their family. It was the coldest, most bitter winter that she could remember, and even though she couldn't have imagined it possible, the small house seemed even more crowded since the new babies were born.
Late one especially cold night, when the winter wind roared about the little house and rattled the glass in the windowpanes, Anne was fast asleep, curled up on her cot in the hall, when the babies' crying woke her. A moment later came the sound of old bed springs squeaking as Mrs. Hammond got up and, grumbling under her breath, stomped into the nursery.
Anne wanted nothing more than to turn over and go back to sleep, but as as soon as she closed her eyes, they flew open again. Mrs. Hammond was calling her.
"Anne! Anne Shirley, get in here!" Those seemed to be Mrs. Hammond's favorite words, although she wasn't yelling them quite as loudly now as she usually did, since everyone else in the house was asleep.
Anne threw off her blankets and rushed down the hall, gasping a little when her bare feet hit the cold floor. In the nursery, which wasn't much more than a large closet off the master bedroom, she found Mrs. Hammond, disheveled and bleary-eyed, holding Peter. He was crying miserably and tugging at the front of his mother's nightdress. The twins had been so whiny since they were weaned, especially at night.
"Here, take him," Mrs. Hammond said, dumping her baby into Anne's arms so suddenly that the girl almost dropped him. He continued to wail, but she sighed and rocked him, swaying back and forth a bit, half-asleep on her feet. But she certainly woke up when she felt Mrs. Hammond's hands fumbling with the front of her nightgown. Too shocked to stop her or ask what she was doing, Anne stood frozen while she undid the first few buttons, baring her chest to the chill night air. She shivered, not knowing if it was because of the cold, or what was happening, or both.
"There," Mrs. Hammond said, and turned Peter's head towards Anne's chest. She was only eleven, and her breasts were still quite small, but Peter clamped his toothless gums onto one and began sucking, like he had when his mother nursed him. Anne gasped - it hurt - as a wave of shame and nausea overtook her, and she swayed a bit, dizzy. The silence seemed strange and unsettling without Peter crying.
"There," Mrs. Hammond repeated, sounding satisfied with herself, as if she had just made everything better. In the dim light, she didn't notice - or didn't care about - the flush in Anne's cheeks or the tears in her eyes. "Just let him suck on you until he drops back off to sleep." With that, she turned and left the room, drawing her bathrobe tightly around her, and Anne heard the bed squeak as she climbed back in.
Anne pressed her lips together, certain that she would that throw up if she opened her mouth. Peter was big for his age and heavy in her arms. Her breasts ached horribly. Luckily, Peter went back to sleep soon, and Anne immediately laid him down in his crib, then crept back to her cot in the hall. She barely managed to hold back the tears until after she had laid down and pulled the blanket over her head. Then she buried her face in the pillow and sobbed - great, gut-wrenching, chest-heaving sobs that seemed to last forever - until finally, she cried herself back to sleep.
Anne jerks awake, surprised for a moment to find herself warm and safe beside Gilbert in their comfortable bed in their home in Four Winds. Her arms are still aching from holding Peter, and her cheeks still burning with shame. She rolls over in bed, presses her face into a cool spot on the pillow, and takes a deep breath, trying to calm herself.
She's never spoken to anyone about that night. She's never even let herself think about it, and until this dream, she had been successful in imagining that it never happened. Was it just that one night - or had there been others like it? It makes her wonder if there are any other unhappy memories from her life before Green Gables that she's forced from her mind.
Jem cries in his crib against the wall, and Anne quickly gets up and crosses the room to him. She picks him up with tears in her eyes and a strange sense of peace in her heart. She had been wondering what was wrong with her. Surely every other woman in the world could nurse her baby easily, so why couldn't she? But Anne knows now that it wasn't her fault, that it wasn't because of anything she did. No, it was because of what was done to her. It was Mrs. Hammond's fault, and she, not Anne, was the one who should feel ashamed of herself - wherever she was now.
When she nurses Jem this time, she waits for the sense of shame to overpower her again, but it never comes. Now that she understands its source, the shame is gone. Anne sits down in the cushioned rocking chair beside the window, the moonlight casting a silvery glow on her features, and lets Jem nurse for as long as he wants. Her eyes slip close and she hums contentedly, rocking back and forth. She knows now what Diana meant when she said that this is one of the most beautiful things about being a mother.
Author's Note #2: In some ways, this story is tagged less to the books than the movies, in which Anne's life with the Hammonds looked pretty darn crappy. It is also completely AU to Before Green Gables, the "authorized" prequel to the series published in 2008. I have not read this book, as I feel that LM Montgomery would have preferred it if Anne's life before she arrived at the Bright River train station was left to each reader's imagination.