Yesterday I was exhausted after work. I’d delivered a breech baby, you see, under threat of being beaten to death, and it was quite the ordeal. Plus, it was my first attempt at being a professional midwife.
Not in real life, of course. In my current work-in-progress.
If you’d like to read the scene, I’d appreciate some feedback. Does it make sense? Can you visualize the events? What emotions are YOU feeling as you read?
Thanks much! The setting is ancient Rome, 42 BC. Here are the scenes (two are connected):
The hour I had dreaded for weeks finally arrived.
Two weeks after the conclusion of the winter Saturnalia festival, an insistent nudge on my shoulder woke me from a deep sleep. Sabina crouched next to me, her eyes huge in the lamplight. “Come!” she hissed, pinching my arm to bring me fully awake. “Octavia has begun her travail.”
“I’m coming.” I sat up, pulled my hair back and tied it with a leather strip, then slipped into a clean tunic and searched for the basket I had filled with materials. I nodded at Sabina, then followed her to the bedroom Octavia had been using. Her elderly husband, Gaius Marcellus, sat on a chair beside the bed, his face pale in the dim lamp light.
“Bring more lamps,” I told Sabina. “And a basin of clean water.”
I walked to the old statesman, who seemed bewildered to find himself amid so many women. “Would you rather wait in the garden, sir? There’s a lovely moon in the sky.”
The man’s gaze crossed mine, then he took my none-too-subtle hint and pulled himself out of the chair. “You will call me when my son arrives?”
“Or your daughter.” I stepped aside to let him pass.
I lingered a moment in the doorway. “HaShem, author of life and children,” I whispered, closing my eyes, “guide my hands tonight.” In a flash that was barely comprehendible, a name came to me: YHVH Tzvaot, YHVH of angel armies. Armies that inspired confidence.
When I opened my eyes, Octavian stood before me, clad only in a light robe. “Chava,” he said, his eyes gleaming black and dangerous in the lamp light, “My mother took you off the farm because you assured her that you could deliver a baby. But know this—if you have lied, or if any harm comes to my sister or her child, I will have you beaten to death.”
He spoke in a clear and calm voice, meaning every word. My stomach tightened further as Octavian stepped back and nodded. “Now do your work.”
YHVH Tzvaot, may your angel armies assist me tonight.
I turned to Sabina and took the basin she held. “Now,” I told her, my voice trembling, “I need you to wake Amphion and ask about the stool I had the carpenter build. When you’ve found it, bring it here.”
“Amphion will know. I need it.”
While Sabina hurried away, I nodded at Octavian, then turned to my client. Octavia was a healthy young woman, neither malnourished nor obese, and should have a normal delivery. She was dozing, one hand on her bare belly and the other tucked beneath her pillow. She did not seem to suffer from any of the emotional excesses that might cause a difficult delivery. Grief, joy, fear, anger, or extreme indulgence, I had read, could make things difficult for mother and midwife alike.
I took my supplies from my bag and arranged them next to the basin of water: a small container of clean olive oil, soft sea sponges, squares of wool, swaddling cloths, a pillow, a sharp blade, and a bit of woolen string. One pregnant mother. One midwife. One birthing stool on the way.
I blew out a breath and sat to observe my patient. Dominus paced outside the doorway, but I tried to ignore him as I took deep breaths to calm my pounding heart. I was beginning to think we had responded to a false report when Octavia opened her eyes, bit her lip, and screamed through her clenched teeth.
“Shhh,” I said, rising to help her. “Breathe deeply. Purse your lips and pant like a dog through the pain. You’ll be fine.”
She obeyed, but her gaze kept flicking at my face as she panted. When the pain had passed, she relaxed and looked directly at me. “Who are you?”
“Chava. Your mother brought me from the farm, remember? ”
She narrowed her eyes. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
I forced a smile. “With help from my God, I know I can do this.”
“I’m not so sure of my god—even though I sacrificed a goat to her yesterday.”
Octavia rose onto her elbows to brace for another pain as Sabina appeared in the doorway. “Amphion says your stool did not arrive.”
I felt my stomach drop. “What?”
Everything I had learned—everything I knew—depended on having a proper birthing stool. I had ordered a stool exactly like the one pictured in the scroll—it would have armrests for the mother to grasp during delivery. It would have a sturdy back against which the mother would press her hips in order to push. The front of the seat would have a crescent-shaped cutout through which the baby would be delivered. I would have assistants stand at the back and sides of the stool in order to keep the chair from moving.
How could I properly deliver a baby without a stool? I had caught Barabell’s baby, but Barabell was a slave, and she had positioned herself like a cow. Octavia, on the other hand, was a high-born lady, and not about to get on the floor. I had been brought to Rome for the express purpose of providing her with the best possible birthing experience . . .
I closed my eyes. What would Urbi do? She would smile and pretend that she’d always meant for the situation to unfold this way. Then she would work her magic and charm everyone in the room . . .
“Sabina.” I pasted on a reassuring smile. “I would like you to find a clean cloth and soak it in the warm olive oil. Then go find another slave, someone Octavia knows and trusts, and bring her back with you.”
Sabina hurried away while I stood in the doorway and watched her go. I felt as though I stood at a crossroad, one path leading to midwifery and home, the other leading to a lifetime of slavery. One route held risks and dangers, the other was more predictable.
I could call for Octavian now, tell him I’d been wrong to mislead him, and urge him to call for an experienced midwife. He’d be angry and he might have me beaten, but he wouldn’t kill me.
Or I could turn and go to Octavia, comfort her, and trust in the God of angel armies.
I drew a deep breath and turned toward my mistress’s bed.
Six hours later, Octavia was no closer to delivering her child. She was no longer drowsy or relaxed, but suffering in the grip of regular pains and terrified that something had gone wrong. Furthermore, for the last several minutes I had been able to see the child—but not his head. Instead I saw pale blue flesh, a smooth section of what looked like a baby’s bottom.
“Something’s wrong,” I mouthed to Sabina while Marcellus held his wife’s hand and chanted prayers to Juno Lucina. “The head is supposed to be the first thing to come out. Instead, I see hind parts.”
“Then pull it out,” Sabina said, staring past me at the weeping woman. “Our mistress suffers.”
I grabbed a linen square and wiped perspiration from my forehead, then drew a deep breath. The baby had to come out, that much was certain. But how? I had wanted to use a birthing stool, barring that, the ideal position was to have the woman lean against another woman for support. Marcellus might possibly support his wife; if not, Sabina would oblige. But this baby was not behaving like the other I had handled. This infant was upside-down, and appeared to be stuck at the mouth of the womb.
I lifted the lid off the crock of olive oil and poured a generous amount into my palm. “Mistress,” I said, offering Octavia an unsteady smile, “I am going to pull your baby out. Master, would you sit behind your wife and support her as she labors?”
Marcellus gave me the wide-eyed look of a man who has just been asked to stand on his head. “I will not.”
Nodding reluctantly, Sabina climbed onto the hard mattress and positioned herself between Octavia and the wall.
“Mistress Octavia, please take Sabina’s hands, and squeeze as often and as hard as you like. I am going to begin now.”
I moved the lamp closer to the bed, then slid two oiled fingers between the baby’s leg and the flesh that held him captive. I could see the child’s buttocks and part of its thighs, but all movement had stopped. As Octavia screamed, I placed my left hand beneath the little body and turned him so that his back faced the ceiling. Then I slid one of my oiled fingers under his little leg, pushed upward slightly, and freed it from the womb.
The leg dangled freely, and the resulting movement elicited a shift in the baby’s body, bringing down the other leg as well. Elated by this progress, I patted the little body and considered how I should proceed. The arms would have to be freed, but how? I bit my lip, then turned the body until the child’s back—which was completely covered by skin, thanks be to HaShem—faced the wall. I slid an oiled finger beneath the flesh of the womb, then felt the little arm. As Octavia groaned, I hooked it with my finger, then gently but firmly pulled it toward me. An arm appeared, with a hand and five tiny digits. Smiling, I turned the slippery body again and repeated the procedure. A second arm dangled free.
Now . . . the shoulders and head. If I didn’t get this right, the child might die. Might already have died, as I dithered in indecision. I turned the baby so his back faced the ceiling. With my right hand supporting his belly and the other on his back, I slid the fingers of my oiled right hand into the birth canal and stopped when I felt the tip of a nose. I spread my fingers, taking care not to touch the child’s eyes, then used both hands to pull, changing my angle when I felt resistance. Then, in one smooth movement, the infant was free. I lifted a perfectly-formed baby boy and held him up for his parents to see.
I placed the child on a pillow, then used a rough towel to swipe a layer of mucus from his face. Almost immediately, the baby began to cry, and Octavia’s cries of distress became sobs of joy.
I used a sea sponge to clean the newborn with warm water, then swaddled him tightly and gave him to his mother. And then, feeling weak with relief and humbly grateful, I looked at Marcellus . . . and saw nothing but approval and pleasure in his dark eyes.
Somehow I had successfully handled a difficult birth . . . and needed neither hyena or an amulet to do it.