A Midwife’s Tale
I didn’t know which door was the right one until I heard the scream. The young lad they sent to fetch me was a terrible guide who didn’t even offer to carry the birthing chair I struggled to keep from touching the muddy ground. He looked strong enough, stout as an ox, but rather he kept glancing back at me with an anxious stare as we passed cottage after cottage, all lined up in a row.
“That one, boy. Open the door. Can’t you see my hands are full?”
He ran ahead while I trudged along behind him, leather bag in one hand, chair in the other. Of course, he didn’t open the door. He just knocked politely, and another shriek resounded from inside. No time to catch my breath, I shooed him aside, used my elbow to work the handle open, and stepped inside the dim interior. It was such a relief to put down that chair. Already my shoulder was aching, but there was no time to fret about it. A young woman sat on the floor, her skirts wet from the puddle of birthing fluid beneath her while her husband hovered in worry.
“Quickly now, boy. Help me get her into the chair.”
Too late; the poor lad had already run off—likely out of fear of what was to come, as if such things were more terrible than a battlefield. Suppressing a sigh, I approached the soon-to-be mother and lifted her skirts. It wouldn’t be long. If I dallied, she would have to remain on the floor.
“There now, dear, you’re very brave. I just need you to get up. Here, let me help you.”
Her husband retreated while I pulled the poor girl up by her armpits. Her face was a mask of agony, her spine a curve. When she was on her feet, I pulled the birthing chair to her. It was a sturdy thing that had seen the delivery of a hundred children. Both seat and back were padded in leather, and a deep curve was cut from the bottom. The carpenter had even carved the sun emblem of Aeas into its back, just like the polished copper brooch pinned to my shawl.
When she was finally seated, I reached for my bag and drew a sponge to dab at her forehead.
“There we are, much better. What’s your name, dearie?”
“La– Laia.” She wheezed the word while she squirmed.
“Laia. What a beautiful name. I’m Berenise. Now, it’s almost time, so I need you to breathe deeply and stay brave for just a little while longer.” I drew a bowl from my bag and thrust it in the direction of her husband. “Fill this up with water, would you?”
Laia clenched her teeth and groaned once again, and I lifted her skirts to check her progress.
“Be quick, the baby is coming.” I scolded him into action and he jumped to do as he was bid. “Now, Laia, push! Push with all your strength.”
Laia’s lips pulled back over white teeth. She whimpered and she strained.
“Oh, come on, Laia, you can do better than that. Be strong. PUSH!”
She gulped for air like a drowning sailor, and let it out with a great shriek. Her body went completely rigid as she pushed.
“There, I can see the head. Stop pushing. Where is that water? The baby is almost out.” Relief washed over me; Laia was a strong woman. The moment he laid the bowl by my side, the baby started to slide right out of its mother and into my waiting hands.
“It’s a girl.” I smiled.
Now, when babies are born, they’re covered in a sticky film made from the humors of the mother. Often these humors cover the nose and fill the mouth of the newborn. Therefore, it’s necessary to clean it away so the child may breathe. On some occasions, it’s necessary to slap them on the rump to get them breathing, but that was not the case here. The moment I wiped her face, Laia’s new daughter began to sputter and cry. Truly there is no happier sound.
Cradling her on my lap, I focused on the birthing cord next: a long fleshy rope that connected the infant to her mother. This cord must be severed. Doing so, however, would result in bleeding that could kill both mother and child. Therefore, the cord must be pinched in two places, then cut in between. To do this, one required strong pieces of thread that could be tied tight and knotted, squeezing the cord shut. Once done, all it took was a sharp blade for cutting and you were done.
“Is she healthy?” Laia gasped.
“Oh, she’s beautiful,” Swaddling the infant in fresh linen, I held her up for her mother to hold. “Have you chosen a name for her?”
“Nia… Her name is—” Laia screamed in surprise and pain.
Quick as a mouse, I took the swaddled baby from her and handed it to her husband, who pressed me in a panicked voice: “What’s wrong? What’s happening?”
Crouching once more in front of Laia, I gave a peek. She was still in labour. “A second baby. Twins. Stay strong Laia, one more great big push.” The scream which followed was a primal thing that, quite frankly, surprised me. I hadn’t thought the girl had it in her. “Again! Just like that. Push!”
Laia groaned and pushed, and I saw the first sign the second baby was coming. But something was wrong; it wasn’t the head. The baby was coming out backwards.
“That’s enough, Laia. Stop pushing.”
I had to be careful. If not delivered properly, both mother and baby could die. In situations like these, it is necessary to guide the baby out without getting it stuck. If it did, I would be forced to push the baby back up in the womb to turn it around. But doing so could result in the birthing cord becoming wrapped around the baby’s neck like a noose. If that happened, I would have to cut the mother open; something that would almost assuredly be a death sentence.
Using my fingers, I slipped inside the mother, pressed against the baby’s hips, and gently rotated it to its side. Only when it was angled thus was I able to free the first leg. Then round again, twisting the body ever so carefully the other way so as to free the second.
“What’s wrong?” Laia gasped. “Why isn’t it coming out?”
“Shh, it’s all right. He’s coming along just fine. This one is a boy,” I replied in my most soothing tone. “Halfway there now.”
I took the baby by the hips and wiggled him out up to the armpits. The process of turning and freeing his other limbs began again, and when both arms were out, his head followed immediately. The sound of a second baby crying joined the first. Thank Aeas, he lived.
I wiped him down; I tied off and severed the cord in two places; and I wrapped him in fresh linens. I was just about to hand him to his mother when I noticed he stopped crying.
He moved. He breathed. He appeared to be healthy and happy with eyes that were already open. Eyes the color of a polished gold coin which stared straight at me. It was such an odd look for a baby born scarcely a moment ago. His eyes were filled with curiosity, focused and intent. I could not recall a single newborn ever staring so queerly.
“What’s wrong? Why are you looking at him that way?”
“Nothing! It’s nothing. Here.” I handed the boy to his mother to hold. “Oh, my dear Laia. I am so happy for you. Two healthy children. Oh, and you were so very brave, too.”
“Lugh, his name is Lugh.” Laia smiled as she held him to her breast. Twelve years of midwifery, and more children than I can recall, moments such as these never lost their ability to move me. And by the time Laia’s placenta was freed from her womb, I had completely forgotten the oddness of her son. With the aid of her husband, we got Laia to her bed and I began to clean the mess left behind. After, I took up my chair and my bag and departed with the tickle of thanks in my ear and a heavier coin purse.
“If you require a wet nurse, you need only send for me.”
I doubted she would need it. I’ve known women capable of caring for five babes at a time, and Laia was young and full of life. She would manage two just fine.
Still, it was only polite for me to offer. So you can imagine my surprise when the next day there was a knock on my door, and an urgent summons to return. A squirming bundle of linens was thrust into my arms the moment I stepped inside the small cottage.
“Take it. Just take it away!”
“What in Aeas’s name is the matter?” I protested.
The baby grunted and fussed in irritation. I wasted no time in feeding it. Gods, it was hungry. It stared at me while it fed. Those gold-colored eyes, striking when first saw them, were even more remarkable a day later: larger, clearer, and, dare I say, older. I have never been a superstitious woman, but I saw a lifetime behind those eyes. It was a notion I could not for the life of me explain, and yet deep in my soul I knew it to be true.
“You see! You sense it, too. I can see it on your face. He’s cursed! My poor baby is cursed!”
“Laia, I haven’t the faintest notion what you’re talking about. He’s just a baby. A normal healthy baby.”
A very hungry baby. Had she been feeding him? His skin was a healthy color. Indeed, he positively glowed.
“He’s cursed! You bewitched him! I know you did. Now take it away before you put a curse on the rest of us.”
My jaw dropped. Never in all my years had I ever been accused of such a thing; but before I could gather my wits and offer protest, her husband shouted, “You heard her. Now, best you be gone and don’t ever come back.” He pushed me out of the cottage. The door slammed shut, and the baby screamed.
I have no children of my own, but I have delivered and cared for children most of my life. The sounds of a fussing baby are naught but noise to me. Babies cry because they want something, because they are irritable, because they simply want to hear their own voice. The cries this strange child, Lugh, made were something different, something only a parent or someone who had cared for children for a long time would recognize. They were the sounds of true distress, of fear and pain.
“There now, sweet Lugh. It’s going to be all right. I will not harm you,” I whispered to no avail.
Nearby people turned their heads to see what was wrong, women mostly. Mothers and fathers who, like me, understood the difference. What could I do but hold him close and try to reassure him? Surely he did not understand that his parents had rejected him.
He screamed. He cried. He flailed his tiny limbs as hard as he could all the way back to my home.
He cried himself into exhaustion, slept fitfully, and when he woke he remained inconsolable. I kept vigil and prayed to Aeas while he screamed as though tortured, and while the noise was a burden I could bear, the fear in my heart grew intolerable. He’s not eating. He would grow weak without food: stunted and dull-minded. Aeas have mercy, he could even die. Even during those times when he tired himself out—the most opportune moment to trick a stubborn child—he refused. Of course there are ways to force a child to eat, but more often than not it did more harm than good. I could not risk it. I had to wait until he lost his resolve.
But he didn’t. His affliction went on all day and long into the night. The morning’s first light peeked through my window and I determined that I must not lose my resolve, either. I would return to Laia and talk her out of her madness. Yes, he was strange, but he was still a child born from her own womb. I had heard the tales of strange births, of Fey Folk and Cambion slithering from the wombs of the cursed. Monstrous, deformed things with horns and tails. Eyes black as night with souls to match. But these were silly tales. The true Fey kept to their island in the south. The Cambion were naught but beast men from the wilds.
I must make her see reason!
And so, with Lugh in my arms, I departed for Laia’s cottage one final time. Lugh struggled and squirmed the entire way there. His mournful cries, though softer, were no less desperate. My anxiousness turned to anger, and when I thumped my fist against the door, I imagined myself thumping that idiot woman right on her head. I WILL make her see reason.
Laia’s husband opened the door. “Oh, it’s you. Best come inside, there’s something wrong with Nia.”
I breathed deep and counted silently in my head to quell the affront to my dignity, but I only made it to four before Lugh thrashed his tiny arms. Resigned, I stepped inside and headed straight for the bed where Laia lay with Nia bawling in her arms.
“She won’t eat. She just cries and cries and she won’t eat at all.” Laia’s voice cracked.
The poor woman was exhausted, and despite everything, I began to feel sorry for her. Nia was likewise full of distress, but when I approached, her affliction ceased like the snuffing of a candle. Cries turned to coos that melted my heart into a little puddle.
“There now, Nia. Did you miss us? Look at you. So beautiful. Be a good girl for your mum.” It was such a sight, that I almost didn’t notice that Lugh had calmed down as well. His arms waved wildly still, but it was different: they were happy, excited little gestures. “Yes, we’re back. Back home safe and sound. Everything is all right now.”
I offered Lugh my breast, Laia did the same for Nia, and thank Aeas, they both began to feed.
“Oh, they just missed each other.”
Laia glared. Her husband went outside, so I found a chair to settle down comfortably in and hummed an old tune while the children ate. Both fell asleep immediately after they had their fill.
“Would you like to hold him for a bit?” I offered to Laia, who shot me a glare for my trouble.
Too tired to respond, I said a silent prayer and drowsed. Perhaps time would mend this family; in the meantime, I would simply have to be grateful for the short peace.
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A Midwife’s Tale
The newborn twins slept, ate, and slept again. So peaceful, that they didn’t even stir when the door burst open. Laia’s husband returned, and he wasn’t alone. Blackened armor, golden helm, white cloak draped over the shoulders. Through the door I spotted several more soldiers donning pale helms waiting outside.
“That’s her. The witch and the demon child. They’ve already bespelled my daughter, it’s only a matter of time before they get to me and my wife too.”
I have never been a fearful woman, but that flippant, mean-spirited accusation pierced my heart like an icicle. I rose to my feet, and the Inquisitor approached. His golden helm, for all its pomp, and glorious shine was uncomfortable to look at. How can one take measure of a man without seeing his face, his smile, or his frown? Though I could just barely make out his eyes through the holes, it was not enough to get a sense of him.
Those holes for eyes angled towards the baby first, then rose to the copper brooch pinned to my shawl. For a brief moment I expected him to take it from me. Though we both served the same goddess, we did so in very different ways. The red sun painted on his armor was an angry, vengeful thing, while my copper was warm and kind.
“State your name, and your business in this house.”
“I am Berenise Apame, priestess of Aeas. I have been in service to the goddess since my seventh year when I was first taken to the Temple in Koventry. It was there I studied under the tutelage of Soranus himself. I am skilled in the arts of medicine and midwifery. I was summoned to this household to help deliver these children and serve as a wet nurse.”
“Why didn’t you report the child when it was first birthed? I’m told that its unusual nature was evident from the start.”
“There was nothing to report. His appearance is a little strange, it’s true. But there is nothing to suggest he might be dangerous.”
“Did your training at the temple include the identification of unnatural birth defects and the inherent dangers they pose?”
“The temple does not deal in supersti–”
“In other words, no. Which is exactly why you should have reported to us immediately,” His helm angled towards Lugh who gurgled at him in response. “Come with us. Bring the child with you.”
I bit my tongue, and followed the Inquisitor while Lugh rested comfortably in my arms. “Take the girl as well. I wish to study them both,” he added almost as an afterthought.
The words were not meant for me. The waiting Inquisition soldiers entered the cottage, and the sounds of violence followed. Laia and her husband screamed in protest. Nia started bawling.
“Unharmed!” the lead Inquisitor shouted, and Lugh joined in on all the commotion with cries of his own. Every thump, every scream, every sound of struggle felt like a slap against my face, and I twitched with every blow.
It wasn’t until the first soldier exited the cottage with Nia in his arms I realized that I had been holding my breath. She was alive. Terrified but alive. Laia wailed from within, but there were no sounds from her husband. I was ushered to a horse-drawn cart covered in a soft bed of hay.
“Please, may I hold the girl as well?” I asked in my most non-threatening tone, and to my surprise I was allowed to do so.
The children seemed comforted by each other’s presence, their earlier distress nothing more than a distant memory by the time the cart began to move. Their tiny arms reached out towards each other while I held them and whispered soothing words. “There now, all is well. No reason to fret.”
In truth, it was I who needed comfort. My hollow murmurings were lies, not a balm, so I sang a quiet lullaby instead.
The Inquisition soldiers carted us out of the village to Oxue, a small fort some miles away. A single stone building, and a horse corral surrounded by a log wall. When we stopped I was led inside. One would never have guessed the size of the place simply by observing the outside. The masons had dug deep into the earth to make room for a floor underground.
The children and I were trundled down a set of stairs to a small room behind a heavy wooden door. There was a bed, a crib, a wash basin, and a table with a stack of fresh linens, which was good since both babies had soiled themselves and were in need of changing. And even though the soldiers had provided the necessary means to care for the twins, I was fully aware we were being placed in a cell.
“Food will be sent shortly. Get some rest. We’ll talk tomorrow,” the Inquisitor explained in a tone so polite that I almost believed that his intentions were good.
True to the Inquisitor’s word, I was sent a plate of salted meat and bread crusts along with a cup of wine. It was palatable looking, but my stomach was too sick with worry to eat. I busied myself with fussing over the children as a distraction. Surely the Temple would catch wind of this, I told myself. My superiors would set them straight, admonish them for this nonsense. I changed the children’s linens, I nursed them, and I laid them in their crib to sleep. So peaceful. It was almost enough to make one forget the absurd dilemma we had found ourselves in.
Aeas, Holy Mother, please watch over them. Be their refuge, and their strength. Shield them from adversity, and grant discernment to your followers. Where there is fear, let there be hope. Where there is ignorance, let there be wisdom. Be generous with your compassion, that it might fill our hearts.
Whether it was infectious tranquility, or the solace of prayer, my appetite returned with such fury that the cold fare tasted like a festival feast. Then I laid down on the bed and prayed myself into a deep slumber.
The sound of metal boots against a stone floor woke me. How long had I been asleep? A single tiny window tucked way up high near the ceiling revealed a night sky. I rose from the bed as the cell door opened. Was this the same golden-helmed Inquisitor who ordered our transportation here? He took the helm off his head and placed it on the table, revealing the face of an older man with small eyes, loose jowls, and a nose shaped like a hawk’s beak.
It was not a kind face.
“Twins.” He clucked his tongue as he regarded the sleeping infants. “I have never heard of such an occurrence before. Defective births are known to be singular, but this… this changes everything.”
“I don’t understand. What does this change?”
“Priestess Aparne, I have been tasked with determining the cause of such birth defects in an effort to develop a curative. The current school of thought suggests that mothers who give birth to such creatures have been infected by an undetermined affliction or bane. Others say that it is the result of bad breeding, however, that theory has been disproven on a number of occasions. This birth suggests that there is something more at work. After all, if infection was the cause, why weren’t both children affected?”
“A curative? You believe you can make the child more normal?”
“Oh no. The child is beyond hope. The sister too. After all, one can never be too careful. She might otherwise grow up with more subtle faults that cannot be allowed to pass on to children of her own. No, the curative is for the parents so they might go on to have proper children. You see, I have come to believe that a man’s seed has everything needed to create life, but it is the mother’s womb which sculpts the children and gives them their humanity. If on the other hand the seed is lacking, the result is a life unworthy of life. In this particular case, the father was only sufficient for one fully human child. Not two.”
My blood ran cold, and I clutched my broach. Life unworthy of life. Aeas have mercy, he means to kill the children.
“So far our research has been focused on mothers, with little success. However, I think I finally have enough evidence to show we must focus on fathers as well.”
The tension in my hands was enough to create a tear in my shawl. The broach came free, and for the first time in my life I noticed how much the ray of light from beneath the sun resembled the point of a dagger.
“Of course this is just a theory at the moment. One that cannot be given proper attention until all other possibilities have been ruled out. The father of these children told me you spent an excessive amount of time handling the defective child. What do you have to say about this?”
The Inquisitor turned around to face me, but it was too late. It was as though my hands moved of their own accord. They raised the broach high, and plunged the copper point deep into his neck. The Inquisitors eyes bulged impossibly wide, and he opened his mouth to cry out. But no sound came forth save a choking noise and a rivulet of blood.
I backed up to the wall and pressed myself to the stone. My expectation was for him to draw his sword and strike me down there and then. But he didn’t. Instead he pulled my broach from his neck which only accelerated the bleeding. His mouth contorted painfully, and the gurgling sounds of strangulation continued as a red froth bubbled over his lips. He stumbled to the floor, his face turned purple, and he died staring at my copper sun broach still clenched in his hand. He was dead. I killed him.
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