She had given enough for one day. Back-sore and leg-tired, she felt a perfect right to brush off the skinny kid impatiently awaiting her return from work.
“Peace, boy,” she said, interrupting his urgent pleas and pulling back her sleeve as he tried to draw her away. “I’ve just come from a woman who’s had two babies. Find the other midwife if it’s so bad.”
“No, I’ve looked,” he begged. “The other is away. There’s only you, and the woman’s very young. They say if you don’t come it will be bad. She cries out.”
All women cry out, Hannah thought to herself, including the stall-keeper’s wife, the woman she had just left. The poor soul had five children already — or was it six? — all peering from behind a curtain across the room. The woman had laboured through the night, and when Hannah arrived early in the morning she found her slumped on a stool under a dirty shawl, her legs and swollen belly uncovered while her grey-headed auntie stood by, wringing her hands. The auntie had set out oil, salt, swaddling cloths and a large basin of water as if she expected to deliver the baby herself. But the fire under the basin had died, the water was cold and the auntie at her wit’s end.
“It’s not like any time before,” she wailed. “I was with her for the others; even the first was easier.”
What was different this time, Hannah quickly determined, was that not one but two babies wanted to be born and with no agreement on which should go first. Kneeling to her work, she commissioned the auntie to shoo the boys and girls out into the pale winter sunlight, a vain assignment. Their mother’s moans and cries drew them back almost at once to huddle behind the curtain and comfort each other in whispers.
The ordeal tested all the midwife’s experience and skill. Once she teased the baby boy into position, he almost fell into her hands, but the second baby, a girl, was turned the wrong way about. Not until the eighth hour, in mid-afternoon, did the girl make it out safely. And it was not until Hannah could see the mother at rest with the tiny perfect newborns, washed and wrapped on the bed beside her and with their brothers and sisters gathered about in awe, that she gave in to a surge of satisfaction at her part in the day’s drama. Not even the auntie’s last bleak comment took that away.
“What will she do with them all?” the older woman had muttered aloud after sending one of the daughters to tell the father about the births. “The stall in the square near the synagogue, it’s all they have.”
The day had turned cool by the time Hannah was done. It felt like it might even snow overnight. As she made her way uphill to her home, her thoughts were on how she would stir up the fire to make bread for her meal. Beyond that, she was looking forward to little more than her evening prayers before sleep. Then she saw the boy shivering by her doorstep, and her gaze narrowed.
“You are the midwife?” he asked.
“Who are you?” she asked in return. He was not one she had delivered, but she knew the house where his mother was a servant. It was on the other side of the village, down by the road to the city beyond, a house with a lot of visitors that week.
“I’m Dov,” he answered. He was about 10 or so, his face still childish, but he spoke with intensity and refused to budge when she tried to tell him to be on his way.
“How long?” she asked finally.
“They came to the house two days ago. She was in pain even then.”
Hannah looked away without speaking, then sighed.
“Wait for me,” she said finally. “I will need a clean apron.”
All births are different. At the moment of delivery, each one is a mystery.
The shepherds had settled for the evening at the edge of the village. The nearby hills were still green from the autumn rains, and sheep were grazing in the fields that sloped away from the road. The men had built a fire for warmth and sent their young lads to bring in the flock before dark. A small boy coaxing along a ewe and her lamb waved to Dov when he saw him hurrying by with Hannah. The boy was barefoot and muddy and wore only a ragged tunic, but he burst into a smile when Dov signalled back.
Hannah had visited the stone house before. She remembered that the family ate and slept in a large upper room built, like many houses in the village, over a long stable where produce and fodder were stored and cattle or goats sheltered at night. The child born on one earlier visit was now the tall, assured fellow she could see standing on the flat roof of the stable with the elderly householder and a stranger whose dark beard covered his chest. From above, the three men watched her approach, while an older woman beckoned from a door below.
“In here,” the woman said, pointing Hannah to a low space that smelled of dung and earth and straw. A flickering tallow lamp on a shelf at one end provided the only light. Hannah could see two women supporting a third, hardly more than a girl, who was squatting between them and straining forward in distress. Eyes shut tight, dark hair stuck about her face, she was biting on a bit of leather, trying to hold in her pain.
“My dear, don’t fear to be heard.” Hannah stepped into the small circle of light to take one of her hands. “We are here for you. You are safe.”
She used such words often with first-time mothers, assurances that she knew could turn out to be empty. This time would not be easy. The woman was at most 16 and gaunt with exhaustion. She had travelled from the north with her husband to join his clan for reasons that no doubt seemed urgent a fortnight ago. But when they finally arrived, no space remained for them with the other couples in the room above.
As latecomers, they had been settled instead amid the straw and sacks of grain at one end of the stable below. Only a long wooden manger separated them from the animals at night. Still, it was quiet and dry and the beasts provided warmth. The mother-to-be had privacy from the eyes and ears of the men of the house, and the women with her were kind. Leah, the stern daughter of the householder, and Rina, her sister-in-law, had been at her side all day. Both now looked to Hannah for what to do next.
“Let her rest,” the midwife instructed, and they helped the young woman lean back. She collapsed, arms thrown wide, head back, struggling to recover her breath. Hannah knelt beside her and brushed the dark hair from her face.
“Breathe as deeply as you can,” Hannah told her. “Let each breath be like one word in a song.”
“I feel so weak,” the young woman barely whispered. “I did not know it would be like . . . be like this.”
“Oh, my dear, how could you know? What would any of us do if we knew ahead of time? But believe me, when it is over you will know such happiness.”
“Every day, I was happy,” she said. “I gave thanks every day.”
Above, they could hear voices of the men at prayers, the father-to-be reciting psalms through his great dark beard. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? . . . He will not suffer thy foot to be moved . . . Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness.”
It was dark outside when the stable door opened and oxen and goats crowded past Dov, who was standing outside with the shepherd boy from across the road. The boys followed the animals inside to put down their hay, then lingered silently in the dark, as if transfixed by the tableau beyond the manger. Leah waved angrily at them to go: males in a birthing room were bad luck.
“This is not a place for men — or boys — tonight,” Hannah concurred.
“Please,” begged Dov, “let him sleep in the straw. Tonight is very cold. He helped me, and I told him you were kind and that I would stay with him.”
“Who is he?”
“He came with his brothers and the sheep. He is called Fivel. They live in the hills.”
“He should stay with his brothers. They will wonder where he has gone.”
“No, only in the morning when they need someone to run.”
The shepherd boy stood with eyes downcast, avoiding Hannah’s gaze. He was smaller than Dov, but she could see how the men found him useful. His legs were scarred by the tough barbed grasses of the dry land, and his hair was matted with burrs. But he looked hardy and would be quick to fetch a wandering ewe or lamb. Now he had strayed into the keeping of a new friend.
“Sleep in the straw back there,” she ruled, finally. “Make sure we don’t see you.”
“They are just boys,” she added to pacify Leah. “Nothing bad will happen if they stay out of the way.”
The boys retreated into the darkness among the animals, and Hannah remembered the stall-keeper’s children earlier in the day and how anxious they’d been and how even she had feared for one of the twins. The little girl’s safe birth had been as much a matter of prayers and luck as of midwife dexterity. All births are different, Hannah reflected. At the moment of delivery, each one is a mystery.
The intervals between the spasms that gripped the mother in the stable were growing shorter. She gasped at the start of a new contraction. Hannah examined her progress, took her hand and assured her it would be soon, it would be soon.
The infant arrives headlong in the usual commotion of blood and fluids and exclamations and frantic effort. The helpers raise the mother into a position halfway between standing and squatting, and while she strains with her last strength, Hannah kneels before her to guide the baby into the flickering light. She holds a boy, as slippery and helpless as any newborn, and as much a miracle.
Hannah cuts and ties off the cord and wraps the bloody afterbirth in straw. Leah washes and swaddles the child in woollen cloths before placing him on his mother’s breast. Rina hastens to tell the father about the birth of his son. The man’s first words when he descends from the upper room are in praise of the Maker and His mercy enduring, but he has to peer about in the dim light before he can set eyes on his outstretched wife and nuzzling child. Hannah holds up the lamp and watches as he stands with head stooped under the low beams of the ceiling, gazing at the figures resting together on the mat in the straw.
She likes the way his face softens as he looks at them and is impressed at the earnest way he asks about the mother’s travail. Maybe he reproached himself for setting out with her on such a long journey so near to her term. He seems a bit old for a first-time father, she thinks. Perhaps he has been married before and lost a previous wife in childbirth. Then she tells herself, enough! It is not for the midwife to know what stories lie behind each birth.
The father speaks to the mother, says her name. Slowly she returns from some distant place, and a smile forms as she opens her eyes and looks up at him. She lifts a hand to support the baby and to tug at the blanket to cover her breast. The man drops to one knee beside her, and the other women step back when he reaches out to ask a blessing for the infant.
Now he is eager to return to the upper room to announce the birth of his son. He stands, thanks the sisters-in-law, remembers to give two coins to Hannah, turns to go — and stumbles, bumping his head on a beam and scattering straw as he struggles to stay on his feet. He swears and looks around angrily. He has tripped over the two boys who had crept forward to see better and have now scuttled back among the animals.
“Who are they?” he shouts, pointing into the darkness. “What are they doing here?”
Hannah goes to speak, to accept the blame, but instead it is the mother whose voice, strained and hoarse, is heard.
“We let them stay,” she says. “I want them to see.”
The husband seems about to object, but she motions toward the boys.
“Come and look at my baby,” she bids them. “Is he not beautiful?”
They edge forward cautiously and stare in wonder.
“Oh, oh,” they exclaim. “How tiny he is.”
“What is his name?” Dov wants to know.
She tells him and then looks at Fivel, whose eyes are so bright but who hardly dares to speak.
“Can I be his friend?” he asks and quickly covers his mouth.
“Of course,” she says. “Would you like to be his friend?”
“Yes, I would. Yes.”
Then, abruptly, Fivel breaks off, squeezes by the startled women, dodges around the father and past the sleeping animals. He pushes open the stable door, and they hear his footsteps as he dashes across the yard. His shout in a high voice carries back to them as he heads to the encampment across the road.
“Come and see the baby,” he cries. “Come and see the baby!”
Hannah sees that the mother and child have drifted into sleep. She picks up the infant and cradles him in her arms. Then she rests him on the hay in the manger and heads home.
This story first appeared in The Observer’s December 2017 issue with the title “The unremembered midwife.”