“Bloody hell, they always wait too long to call me,” the midwife muttered with a thump of her cane and a stiff step into the cabin.
“Language, Hannah,” Jobelle admonished, her voice soft as she strolled into Hannah’s sight.
Hannah huffed. “Well, Emmilene’s not going to care,” the old woman tilted her head toward the panting woman lying on a lumpy straw mattress. “She’s probably been puffing for way too many hours, from the looks of her. Those ears aren’t hearing anything.”
The temperatures had risen with spring’s arrival, but the damp of early morningtime wrapped around her bones like a stiff cast. Hannah managed to get her body lowered to the dirt floor with a few choice curses. Jobelle gave Hannah a look, then settled herself down on the opposite side of the bed, her white dress filling with air then slowly deflating to the ground. Leaning forward, Jobelle whispered, a feather touch of words into the sweat-laden woman’s ear, “Don’t worry, she’s never lost a woman or child.”
Hannah glared at Jobelle.
The young woman in white smiled sweetly and said no more.
Hannah put her hands on the pregnant woman’s chest, seeing the age spots and callused bumps of her skin blending into the brown woven dress. The midwife felt the heart rhythms, the pace of each breath. Finally, the swollen belly, tightening with each contraction. Pushing harder, Hannah felt the baby within, and a hard kick in response almost brought a smile to her face.
“The little brat’s got spunk, I’ll give it that.” She massaged the womb through several contractions, drawing a picture of the baby within her mind.
With a creak of the lopsided frame, the cabin door opened, and a young man peered in. “Is the baby here yet?”
Hannah raised her eyebrow and bit back some words. Through tight lips, she tried to sound polite. “We’ll let you know when. Now out.”
Jobelle said softly, “It takes time. Don’t worry.”
The man’s eyes lowered. He took a step toward his wife on the straw bed.
“Out!” Hannah barked, and he closed the door. Hannah sighed. Childbirth was a powerful time, and she couldn’t have a nervous husband looking over her shoulder. Especially when she could feel every second of lost sleep from her midnight rise and trek to reach the cabin. Shaking hands reminded her that her body longed to give into age. Veins popped as she squeezed two fists, fighting the siren call of advancing age, and with a jut of her jaw, she reminded herself, she could not rest. Not now. When her hands opened, they were calm again, and Hannah carefully examined between the woman’s legs.
“Water’s not broken. Lots more labor to come, it seems,” the midwife said, the complete picture of this birth forming in her mind.
“You’ll need your slippery stick. Pop the water to speed things up,” Jobelle said.
“I know!” Hannah snapped back. “Let me do my job.”
Jobelle turned back to Emmilene. “It’ll be just fine. She just gets grumpy sometimes.”
The woman moaned.
Emmilene’s husband popped his head in again, his face still long with worry. “Is everything okay? I heard –”
“OUT!” Hannah hollered. She hurled her cane toward the door. It missed, clattered against plank walls, bounced once, and settled onto the dirt floor.
The man’s shoulders rose defensively, his face lengthened with the weight of added fear, and he vanished behind the door.
“Don’t worry, we’re doing great here,” Jobelle called after him.
Emmilene moaned louder.
Hannah looked at the cane resting peacefully on the other side of the room. “Devil mother’s tits, I shouldn’t have thrown that!” The outburst helped as she fought off weak knees and rose to her feet with a huff.
Jobelle watched silently. Her face, usually a white stone of unbreakable calm, had a fissure of concern in it. “Hannah? I’ve known you too long. Tell me.”
Hannah sighed, and her small eyes looked at Jobelle. “The baby’s breech. The labor’s been long and hard already. Emmilene’s heart’s too fast, her body too exhausted.” Hannah looked at the pregnant woman, who suddenly seemed very small on the straw mattress. “The void is already starting to pull them away.”
A translucent tear formed in Jobelle’s eye.
“I need my anger,” Hannah continued. “The strength’s gotta come from somewhere.”
Jobelle shook her head. “It always takes too much out of you,” she whispered.
“Holy royal bollocks, Jobelle!” Hannah grabbed her slippery stick from her bag and waved it in front of the young woman. “No one’s going to die here! You got that?”
Jobelle nodded and airlessly knelt before Emmilene, white skirt exhaling to lie flat on the dirt floor. She began to whisper words of comfort. That was all she could do. The rest was up to Hannah.
Muttering under her breath, Hannah lowered herself before the pregnant woman, composed herself for a moment, and slowly inserted the stick. With a controlled jab, Hannah felt the sac give way, and fluid began to trickle out. Quickly she removed the stick and put one hand on the swollen belly and another on the woman’s heart. Hannah’s eyes closed and she began to form the cord that connected her to Emmilene, and to the small life in the womb.
The bonds that form between women are invisible, though stronger than oak wood, more powerful than time or distance. As a midwife, Hannah had been trained to form those cords quickly, allowing her to share in the experience of childbirth. First, she began to draw the infant into her own womb, knowing full well the pieces had to be taken away carefully, like sculpting a marble statue. The unborn child was so small to begin with; she couldn’t take too much and risk the baby’s body collapsing, nor could she take too little and have too much burden placed on Emmilene.
Beneath her hands, the midwife felt the shape of the baby, forming the picture of the child in her mind. She began to slowly carve pieces away and transfer them to her womb, a sculptor whose work remained hidden within the bodies. The midwife’s stomach area, sagging and wrinkled, began to grow, just enough for her to feel her dress tighten. Contractions shook her frame as Hannah also took on the pain, keeping the cord connected between them.
Sweat tickled her forehead as it collected in the two deep furrows aged into her brows, then slipped down her cheeks. She could feel the baby howling in protest, then quieting. “Hold tight, little brat,” she muttered. Her stomach tightened in another contraction. She hoped it was enough.
Her legs cramped, her body shook, but she didn’t move. The next stage now. Through the midwife flowed the rage of the thrown cane, of aching knees, of trembling hands. She needed her anger, had been building it up to that very moment. Then with a gasp, Hannah released it into Emmilene as the gift of strength. The pregnant woman gasped.
“Push!” Jobelle cried. “Push now!”
“Push!” Hannah screamed.
Emmilene gave a weak gasp.
It wasn’t enough, Hannah knew. The void was darkening both mother and child. With her magic, she could see the dark gap, ready to swallow the lives teetering so close to the abyss of death.
They were losing the battle.
Hannah figured it would go this way.
If the void sought a victim, then it would get one. Hannah pushed the last of her anger and strength into Emmilene, and with a sagging stomach contracting and an old body tiring, Hannah grinned. She wasn’t done. Oh no. With a deep breath, Hannah gathered her soul, compressing it as tight as she could, and plunged it into the void. “Jobelle!” she screamed. Emmilene echoed the cry.
“I’m here,” Jobelle whispered. She’d been waiting for that moment.
Hannah didn’t hear.
The void was shaped by a person’s thoughts just before the moment of death. “Go into the dark with a smile,” people often said, a reminder to embrace death with joy, for the void could be many things depending on one’s mindset.
For Hannah, the void was the emptiness of waiting for the smallest sound of an inhale that would never come. It was the silence of a baby that would never cry for milk, of a mother who would never sing a lullaby while rocking her child. It was the dark of a past that followed her, everywhere, and it pulled Hannah in.
The void could be many things, but here, it was hell, and it was winning.
The dark surrounded her, molded to her limbs, and Hannah felt it sucking her in deeper like a black, rotted swamp, the nothingness devouring her limbs, working up her torso, then to her face to steal her breaths.
“Hannah, come back,” a featherlight whisper broke in.
At the sound of the voice, Hannah felt a cord pull her from the black swamp, shredding the dark woods, yanking her out of the void. A bond stronger than death. Her eyes opened, her stomach contracted, a sharp reminder where she was. Hannah quickly examined the mother. “Almost there, you little brat,” Hannah muttered.
“Push! Just one more,” Jobelle urged.
“One more!” Hannah echoed, sending strength through the cord that still connected them, that still sent shivers of pain with each contraction. In her mind, Hannah pushed alongside the mother.
Emmilene threw her head back, sweat flinging into the plank boards, and silently bore down with strength and rage pulled from the cord. It was time. Hannah moved her hands into place before the mother’s open legs.
A wet mass of baby slid out and fell limply into Hannah’s embrace. Hannah looked at Jobelle for one alarmed moment. Beneath the coat of blood and tissue, the infant was blue and still. Quickly, Hannah breathed deeply, bent over, and exhaled onto the child. All Jobelle could see was air, but Hannah felt she vomited as she transferred the extra mass through the cord connecting them, back into the baby. The tiny limbs grew thicker, heavier, and the small body grew pinker. Streaks of red birth fluids, forming shallow rivers along newly formed wrinkles of newborn flesh, dripped onto the straw bedding. Hannah placed the child on a clean spot near the mother.
It was done. Emmilene gulped air flat on her back, Hannah gasped and leaned back onto the dirt floor, Jobelle watched, and all noises faded into nothingness until there was only the silence of three women waiting to hear one sound above all.
Nothing. Then, like the rising spring sun, lightness came, first with a soft mewl, a hiccup, then a squall that grew to fill the room.
“That’s my brat,” Hannah smiled.
Jobelle frowned. “She’s a beautiful baby girl.”
“They’re always brats,” Hannah muttered, but she lifted the child carefully into the mother’s arms. “Your daughter, Emmilene.”
Smiling, Hannah noticed no signs of the dark void around the two now. As it should be. “I’m going to catch my breath a second, then let the daddy know. Shit it all, shouldn’t’ve thrown my cane.”
With the mother and baby well and settled, Hannah returned to her house, where she looked for three things: her chair, a beer barrel, and a mug. There was little else there. She poured herself a full cup and settled into the chair, made of hard, solid wood that forced her to sit at an uncomfortable straight angle. She didn’t need comfort right now, though; she needed control. Try though she might, she couldn’t stop her hands from shaking.
“It takes more out of you each time.” Jobelle strolled into sight.
“Just let me get drunk, have a hard sleep, then I’ll be fine for the next one.” Hannah willed her hands to still. A small bit of beer made a shallow, brief stream on her lap. “Bloody hell,” she muttered.
“Language,” Jobelle shook her head.
“You should be talking, you old liar, you. Telling that girl I’d never lost anyone.”
Jobelle knelt before the old woman, her white skirt pillowing out. “Just one mother. Just one child. In all these years. You were so young. I remember.” Her hand reached out and almost touched the wrinkled face. “I forgave you long ago. Can’t you forgive yourself?”
Hannah’s hand gripped the cup, her small eyes looked away as her body clenched with the familiar weight she’d born for years. Guilt was a power of its own. It gave her the strength to jump into the void. But more than that, it formed the cord that bound her to Jobelle and pulled her back from the dark every time. Hannah knew she’d be lost without that connection.
Hannah couldn’t look at the young woman, knowing what she’d done to her. What she continued to do to her. Yet she would gladly return to her version of the void, her hell, over and over again for the chance to save another mother, another child. The midwife shifted on the hard wood beneath her.
“You were my first,” Hannah finally said. “The first mother I’d ever lost. You need to be the last.”
Jobelle bowed her head. She knew what Hannah used her for. The cord pulled the midwife to life just as it pulled Jobelle from the void. Still, there was no bitterness in Jobelle’s voice. “You have saved so many, Hannah. Let yourself rest. Let me rest.”
Hannah’s hand trembled as she tried to drink another sip of beer. “I may have saved some, but it’s not enough. Never enough.”
Jobelle closed her eyes and let the argument go. In a distant part of the house, a ghostly cry sounded. Jobelle looked up and smiled. “She always misses me when I go out with you.” The young woman in white stepped through the wall to find her infant.
The midwife closed her eyes and tried to forget the narrow thread between birth and death. It was always so close. Too close. Slowly, she brought the beer to her lips and drank in silence.