Jamie Forest, ex-New Yorker, is on her way to her cabin to prepare for her first Thanksgiving in Minnesota when she sees through the swirl of snow a ghostly apparition. It turns out not to be a ghost, but a young woman in labor. Not only is she about to deliver, but she doesn’t speak English. Jamie can’t ask her what she is doing in a lowland bog in the middle of a snowstorm. With the snow falling, she becomes an accidental midwife delivering a healthy baby girl in the backseat of her car. In the aftermath, it’s clear the new mother is afraid someone will take her baby. Three days later, a young woman is found drowned in Black Crow Pond. Is she Jamie’s new mother? As she seeks answers, Jamie learns that winter in the Northwoods can be both beautiful and deadly.
The car filled with the aroma of fresh baked pumpkin pies for my first Thanksgiving in the cabin by Lake Larissa. Since my cooking skills did not include making pies, I’d ordered them from the bakery in town. Tomorrow I would thaw the twenty-two-pound turkey sitting in a box in the back seat and use the tattered Betty Crocker cookbook I’d bought at a garage sale to make a stuffing for it. I would show my skeptical Minnesota friends that even a girl from New York City could make a Norman Rockwell feast.
I was driving on the highway between town and the cabin in an area the locals called the marsh. It was a lowland filled with high weeds, cattails and skeletal tamarack. It had the air of desolation and loneliness, a wasteland before coming upon the Northwoods forest. I never liked driving the five miles across it.
As I breathed in the spicy nutmeg of the pumpkin pies, I was reminded of the Thanksgiving in New York when my mother and I came across the snow lady. I must have been about seven and we were on our way to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. A light dusting of snow covered the park as we walked by the bench where she lay. She was wrapped in an olive- green blanket with a thin layer of snow covering her.
Something about the color of the skin on her face intrigued me. I ran to her before my mother could hold me back. Close up I saw her eyes, wide open, clouded and unseeing. As my mother pulled me away, I remember crying out. “Mama, is that lady a ghost?”
“No, honey, she’s just sleeping.”
She hurried me to a bakery across from the park where she told me to stay in front. She went back to talk with the clerk, and I stood in the doorway inhaling the rich smells of pumpkin pies.
Later, when the parade was over and we were walking back by the park, the bench was empty. “Mama, I guess the snow ghost lady waked up.”
Mama grabbed my arm and tugged me along. All she said was, “It’s not ‘waked’ honey, it’s ‘woke.’” Mother was a stickler about grammar.
Today I noticed how a light snowfall had dusted the weeds in the ditch just like that day in the park. With a light shudder, I brought my thoughts back to the present. While I mentally ticked off the tasks to do before Thanksgiving a sudden snow squall blew across the road. The swirling snow created hypnotic patterns on the pavement. As I watched the dancing snow in front of me, I thought I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye.
“What was that?”
It looked like a ghost shrouded in a white haze. Ahead on my side of the road, it weaved in and out of my sight. The snow squall thickened, and the apparition disappeared. Did I really see a ghost?
Squeezing my eyes shut for a moment, I muttered, “Come on Jamie. You know there are no ghosts.”
I slowed down, creeping forward in hopes that I had imagined the movement. I had too much to do before Thanksgiving to have to deal with someone drunk on the side of the road. For a moment, the air cleared. I saw nothing on the road or on the shoulder.
Just as I was speeding up, the ghost lurched back on the shoulder from the tall, boggy weeds of the ditch. This time I saw it was a human dressed in a white puffy jacket and white pants. I slammed on my brakes as the person in white turned and staggered onto the road. In the millisecond it took for the brakes to hold, I prayed not to hear a thump against the car.
The car skidded to a halt as my heart pounded so hard, I felt it in my eyes. Quickly unstrapping my seatbelt, I threw open the car door and dashed out. A gust of wind sent icy stinging snow into my face and a chill down my back. The ghost stood in front of the car swaying. She was no phantom, just a young woman, possibly a teenager. She grimaced in pain.
“My God. Did I hit you?”
She continued to sway.
Was she drunk? I stepped closer to her. “Are you alright?”
Moaning, she bent over, clutching her stomach. I saw the swell of her belly beneath the puffy jacket. When I reached her, she gasped, “Bebe coming!”
I took her arm, hoping for a passing car to flag down. This part of the road had little traffic after tourist season. Still, I strained to hear a car approaching. All I heard was the sweep of wind whistling through the weeds. Guiding her back to car, I helped her into the passenger seat. “It’s okay. I’ll get help.”
I tried my phone knowing the cell reception in the marsh was spotty. Please have some bars.
Next to me, her face reddened as she started to bear down. My knowledge of women in labor was limited to season one of Call the Midwife. Even so, I knew she shouldn’t be pushing until I got help.
“Don’t push,” I pleaded. “We have to get you to the hospital.”
She ignored me. “Bebé coming!”
What now? I shut my eyes, picturing the television midwives. I needed to look, to see if the baby’s head was coming out.
“Back seat. We need to put you in the backseat so I can check for the baby.”
As she cried out, I noticed her Hispanic features—the tangle of dark hair that had slipped out of a ponytail and the smooth tan of her skin. “Do you speak English?”
I tugged at her to get her out of the front of the car and into the back. This time I kept up a mantra from my limited knowledge of Spanish. “Está bien.”
Shoving the box with the frozen turkey and the boxes of pies onto the floor, I eased her into the back seat. “I have to look.”
She grunted with effort. I got as close to her face as possible and showed her how to blow with her lips closed like the laboring women on television did.
While she panted and blew, I pulled down the white pants and underwear. They were soaked. I didn’t want to look. I wanted to be happily on my way to the cabin.
The top of a little head with dark hair shown through. “Crowning,” I gasped, remembering what the midwives had called it. What did they do next? My brain stalled as I swallowed back panic. Come on, Jamie. People have babies every day. You can do this.
I didn’t hear the car pull up behind me as I bent over to get closer to the baby. My mind was on autopilot. Catch the baby, make sure it’s breathing, keep it warm. My Spanish disappeared as I repeated over and over. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
Linda Norlander is the author of A Cabin by the Lake mystery series set in Northern Minnesota. Books in the series include Death of an Editor and Death of a Starling and Death of a Snow Ghost. The fourth book, Death of a Fox will be released in May, 2023. The first book in her new series, Liza, Mrs. Wilkens and the Ghost Mysteries will debut in 2023. Norlander has published award winning short stories, op-ed pieces and short humor featured in regional and national publications. Before taking up the pen to write murder mysteries, she worked in end-of-life care. Norlander resides in Tacoma, Washington with her spouse.