It was a pretty house in the countryside, spacious with gleaming wooden floors and wide windows. A generous porch out the front, and an orchard, although the trees are bare and skeletal at this time of year. On this night, the roof was thickly carpeted with white, its edges forested with icicles. The wind howled, and the sky promised more snow.
Inside, a fire roared in the grate. The room was stuffy enough to make you forget the snow piled outside, shining pink where the sunset splashed across it.
Another day gone, and still so little progress. Another day done, the snow even thicker, and still no midwife.
Eleyna had been trying so hard to be brave, but it had been going on so long now, and it had been an arduous labour. Surely this would break even the strongest woman, body and soul.
Josef knew, of course, that all women toiled to bring their children into the world. They dig deep, into another part of themselves, and discover previously unknown reserves of strength and courage. They might act out of character, or make animalistic noises, in response to the force of nature surging through their bodies. In the earlier hours, he had marvelled at his wife’s beauty and power. She was sweaty, her face puffy, and her hair all undone, but she was more beautiful and more dear to him than ever. He had been excited, then. But it had been such a long time. Such a terribly long, long time.
He remembered his own mother’s wisdom: first babies can be reluctant to leave their cosy red homes. Yet he also knew, in his heart, that this… this was not normal. Something was wrong. He chewed his lip and mopped her brow and suppressed a primal howl of his own helplessness. It ate at him that he could give her so little comfort, that he couldn’t just make it all better. He couldn't fix it. He couldn't take up this task for her. Do I really want to though? He shoved the thought away, put his arms around her, and kissed her forehead.
Of course I would, he tells himself, unconvincingly. Of course.
He’d made quite a good living as a doctor, but this was women’s work. It was far beyond his skill. He had sent for the midwife two days ago. She should have been here long since.
The air was thick with the smell of vomit, cut through with sweat, and now fear as well. He didn't dare leave her side. She groaned again, feet braced apart on the floor, knuckles white against the bedpost, sweat beading on her face. He could see her belly tighten and harden. Each muscle and rib stood out starkly (she had long since torn off her night dress and cast it aside). The weaker sex, he thought faintly.
This time, it sounded different. There is the suggestion of a straining grunt at the very top of it, and he feels his pulse quicken. Please, no. Not yet. Where is the midwife??
Time crawled by. Gradually, that grunt became more noticeable, and longer, until her body was straining uncontrollably for the length of each surge… and still time marched past. No baby. With no midwife, either, was that a blessing, or a curse then?
At last, there was no strength left in her body, only the force of the pains themselves. Her body sagged as one ebbed away, and stayed lifeless and still until another re-animated her muscles. Sometimes she stayed slumped for minutes at a time, and other times the spasms came hot on the heels of each other and wracked her mercilessly.
Eleyna was lost to this world. Not dead, but not on the same plane as the rest of us either. Inside her mind, she was deep in a kind of labyrinth. The maze turned in on itself and promised no ending, fierce cramps wringing her at each turn. She had forgotten, by now, why she was even here. That there was a baby to scoop to her breast after all this was done. Josef buzzed at her like a gnat, wafting useless cups or a cool cloth at her. She barely had the vigour to swat him away. He coaxed some liquid or other past her lips, and she would force it down obediently, only to lose it again moments later.
Even as a mere man, and even without his skill in doctoring, he could see she was exhausted. He offered her water, sweet tea, honey, broth - she could manage no more than a few sips and then would be violently sick. She is dehydrated. She needs energy. She needs a woman to tend to her! His powerlessness clawed at him.
She threw her head back, her back arched, and hoarse cries tore at her throat, until even that left her, and no sound came out at all. Her eyes were red and blotchy - tiny blood vessels burst from the effort. Perhaps it will never end. The thought caught him off guard, and he shook it away, like a dog might try to shake off a flea. The thought that followed was too terrible to articulate, even inside his own skull. He swallowed his rising panic, convinced that something was quite, quite wrong. Something was preventing this baby from being born.
She looked up at him with tears in her eyes and her voice came out as a croak.
“I can’t feel him move,” she said, “I’m sorry.”
She has no energy left to hold herself upright. He was a doctor by trade, but science was his passion. He prided himself on his engineer's curiosity for how things worked. He knew that some force must help propel the baby from his mother’s body. He could see that even her contractions have lost their fire, and she had little to no reserves left for pushing. The baby would be relying heavily on gravity to make his descent. Eleyna had long since stopped standing by the bed and bracing herself on the bedpost, and had laid curled on her side. He coaxed her up, placed a wad of old, clean blankets on the floor between her knees, and then held her upright with his arms under her underarms. He’d never been a religious man, but he prayed fervently. It was all he had left. Neither of them had slept - not properly, not more than a few minutes snatched here and there - for the last few days. He begged her to push, though she’d been doing exactly that fruitlessly for hours already.
The room smelled musky, like sex.
“Please, my love, please - he has to be born now. He has to.”
When the baby slipped from her body, the gamut of emotions was raw. He thought he had no spark left to feel anything at all, let alone so forcefully. It was like feeling absolutely everything all at once. Relief, hope, joy and terror all jockeying for position. The baby was out, but pale and floppy. And Eleyna was - oh gods, would she live?
He settled her into the bed and placed the baby at her breast. A girl, not a boy as they had thought. The tether anchoring them together seemed enormous, thick and blue and vital. He shrank from cutting it, at least until he was able to tie it off securely. There was more, wasn’t there? The afterbirth? What should I do now? What theoretical knowledge he had seemed to have fled, and fatigue threatened to suffocate all his other functions.
“Oh, my baby! Baby, I thought you might never come!” She murmured softly to the bundle, which was pinking up gradually in her arms, and taking stronger breaths. “Perfect,” she said, smiling. “So perfect.”
He watched in awe the baby find her way to the breast with very little help. She was squished looking and bruised, but strong and bright-eyed.
The placenta took a long time. Perhaps her womb was as weakened and tired as the rest of her after such a long toil to dislodge the baby. Eleyna grimaced, the feeble tightenings still uncomfortable. Josef plopped the red mess into a bucket, and turned his attention back to his wife.
Eleyna’s eyelids fluttered, and she looked, for a moment, as though she might be sick again. Her arms slackened, and so did her eyes.
“Eleyna? Eleyna?” He put a hand out to stop the little one from falling, and gasped in horror at the red seeping through the blankets. When he pulled them back, the mattress was sodden with blood. The smell of it hung menacingly in the air. Eleyna’s face was grey and shiny.
Thank you for reading! As always - please leave a comment so it's easy for me to reciprocate.
Briefly - the story behind the story: this is an excerpt from something much longer. It's sort of a prequel to this one:
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content