Anna Cser lay on the floor of her living room.
Her back was red and crawling with an itch. She had been lying for hours on the sackcloth the midwife had laid out for her, and the burlap had left a platoon of faint crosshatches imprinted on her skin. Maddening bits of the flax were clinging to her. She was cloaked in a thick hide of summer sweat, and all the impossible bits of filth she had failed to clean from the room had floated to her, freckling her with speckles of dirt and dust.
Her stringy brown hair hung wet around her neck and shoulders. She took quick swipes at her forehead to push the strands from her brow, but they soon found their place again and plunked big stinging droplets of sweat into her eyes, which rolled down her face as tears.
Anna gasped. She gripped the sackcloth with both hands and pulled herself up on her haunches. Pain ripped through her. She could hear herself shrieking at it, and she could hear the midwife shouting hoarse instructions over her.
She guided a breath up slowly, carefully, around the edges of the pain, and concentrated hard on the midwife’s words. She had done this before, Anna reminded herself, and she could do it again.
She soon felt the midwife’s hands on her belly. Auntie Suzy had placed a warm, wet cloth across her abdomen, and now pressed it to her gently. A faint smell of cooking oil rose off the compress, part of an elixir that the midwife used to soothe muscles.
The pain slowly dissolved. Anna lay back breathless on the sackcloth. Her legs shook with exhaustion. The palms of her hands burned where she had clenched the burlap too tightly.
Anna was small for a Plains woman. Had she been beautiful, others might have viewed her as petite, but Anna was all knobby bones and reedy muscles, a haphazard geometry of hard angles that had her moving through the world as if bumping into it.
Her skin was nearly translucent. Her thin blue veins were like stained glass, as she had not a lick of fat on her. She was as spindly and rawboned now as she’d always been, except for her pregnant belly.
Auntie Suzy had been with Anna for most of the afternoon. She circled around her, padding heavily in bare feet across the cool, earthen floor. She had left her boots on the porch when she had arrived earlier in the day with Anna’s husband, Lewis, whom she had not seen since. She wondered and worried where he had gone.
Auntie Suzy wore, as ever, a black cotton dress with an apron fastened over it. In her apron pockets, she kept her essentials. One held her corncob pipe and a small pouch of her favorite tobacco, along with a case of striking matches. In the other was a glass vial filled with her solution, capped with a wooden stopper and concealed in white paper.
She considered this one of her greatest magics.
The midwife ferreted in her pocket and withdrew her pipe. She lit it and took a long, studied draw as she considered the possibilities. Lewis never went far. She thought he could be in the stable, or perhaps he was still at the bar. The midwife exhaled a small, ghostly cloud of white smoke, which curled out of her mouth and hung briefly in the air in front of her before dissolving. Where was Lewis? That was the question.
The living room depressed Auntie Suzy. It was small and the ceiling was so low she could nearly touch it with her chubby hand. The walls were bare, except for a few Catholic icons fitted inside homemade frames. They hung loosely from pegs with the rough twine Anna had taken from the stable. The Catholics were an unenviable lot in Nagyrév, the midwife thought, the poorest of the poor, and landless, like Anna.
A battered credenza leaned crookedly against the far wall. A ragged towel hung from a peg, as did a calendar, given out free by the village council. There was a mishmash of items arranged on the floor and table: an old wooden pail that Anna used to fetch water from the well, a step stool, a few bowls, some of them cracked and chipped, and a paraffin lamp, for which Anna never seemed to have oil. There was a single wooden bench to sit on—nothing more. In the evening, Anna slept in the room with the children on straw mats they rolled out. Sometimes Lewis came in from the bar and passed out there, filling the room with his rasping snores.
It was a room filled with poverty’s clutter, a heartbreaking mix of threadbare essentials scattered among the few tattered keepsakes of an unfulfilled life. Auntie Suzy felt cheated by it. Everything together had about as much value as the dirt she swept from her own walkway, but Auntie Suzy was also unnerved by the sight, as it brought to mind her own scarcity and hardship of long ago, which she hated to think of.
A door led to the kitchen, the only other room in the house. It was without a latch. Nagyrév was a village of doors without latches or locks. Normally, this suited Auntie Suzy quite well, but not this day.
She cast her eye on the door now. It was marred with scrapes and deep gashes and looked to her as if it had been salvaged from an even more decrepit house. It hung crooked in the frame, with weak slivers of light passing through the uneven seams into the living room. Throughout the afternoon, Auntie Suzy had wandered to the window to stare out onto the hodgepodge of whitewashed cottages. They were laid as randomly as fallen twigs on a forest floor. The houses were tiny, most had no more than four rooms, the rest only two, and they were packed tightly on narrow side streets. The village was a spaghetti of dirt roads and paths strewn with such homes. The midwife could see the old Plains proverb was true, that a peasant built a house wherever a brick happened to fall out of his cart.
Auntie Suzy took another slow draw from her pipe, keeping her gaze at the window. She could see Anna’s toddler daughter. Anna had fashioned a doll for her out of corn husks and twine. The little girl often liked to play with it on the thin patch of grass out front by the ditch, but the midwife could see her now in the small yard, plopped down right among the chickens.
The midwife had also seen Anna’s son coming and going from the yard. He had earlier ambled out of the gate with a long, hardy stick and a wooden bucket. He was seven years old and had spent much of the summer down by the Tisza, fishing with his homemade rod and reel. But he was back now, tasked with keeping an eye on his little sister.
Even with the door closed, Auntie Suzy could hear chairs and benches scraping across the barroom floor. The pub was attached like a third arm to the Csers’ tiny cottage, and Auntie Suzy listened to the timbre of voices rise and fall as the pub began to fill again with its afternoon crowd.
A loud racket jolted the midwife from her reverie. She turned toward the door. She could see the door handle jerking up and down.
There was no way for Auntie Suzy to bar the door shut. The bench was too short to jam under the handle and she could find nothing else in her sparse surroundings that would do the trick. The room had become a trap.
What the midwife had been dreading all morning was happening.
The door was flung open wide. It banged against the wall and ricocheted back.
Excerpted from THE ANGEL MAKERS: Arsenic, a Midwife, and Modern History’s Most Astonishing Murder Ring by Patti McCracken, published March 14 by William Morrow. Copyright © 2023 by Patricia Nell McCracken. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.