The Baby Quota
In the dim hovel, the mother clenched her body into one final, straining push, and the baby slithered out into Gaia’s ready hands.
“Good job,” Gaia said. “Wonderful. It’s a girl.”
The baby cried indignantly, and Gaia breathed a sigh of relief as she checked for toes and fingers and a perfect back. It was a good baby, healthy and well formed, if small. Gaia wrapped the child in a blanket, then held the bundle toward the flickering firelight for the exhausted mother to see.
Gaia wished her own mother were there to help, especially with managing the afterbirth and the baby. She knew, normally, she wasn’t supposed to give the baby to the mother to hold, not even for an instant, but now the mother was reaching and Gaia didn’t have enough hands.
“Please,” the young woman whispered. Her fingers beckoned tenderly.
The baby’s cries subsided, and Gaia passed her over. She tried not to listen to the mother’s gentle, cooing noises as she cleaned up between her legs, moving gently and efficiently as her mother had taught her. She was excited and a little proud. This was her first delivery, and it was an unassisted delivery, too. She had helped her mother many times, and she’d known for years that she would be a midwife, but now it was finally real.
Almost finished. Turning to her satchel, she drew out the small teakettle and two cups that her mother had given her for her sixteenth birthday, only a month ago. By the light of the coals, she poured water from a bottle into the kettle. She stoked up the fire, seeing the burst of yellow light gleam over the mother with her small, quiet bundle.
“You did well,” Gaia said. “How many is this for you again? Did you say four?”
“She’s my first,” the woman said, her voice warm with awed pleasure.
The woman’s eyes gleamed briefly as she looked toward Gaia, and she smiled. In a shy, self-conscious gesture, she smoothed a sweat-damped curl back around her ear. “I didn’t tell you before. I was afraid you wouldn’t stay.”
Gaia sat down slowly beside the fire, set the kettle on the metal rod, and swiveled it over the fire to warm.
First labors were hardest, the most risky, and although this one had progressed smoothly, Gaia knew they’d been lucky. Only an experienced midwife should have tended this woman, not only for the sake of the mother and child’s heath, but for what would come next.
“I would have stayed,” Gaia said softly, “but only because there’s nobody else to come. My mother was already gone to another birth.”
The mother hardly seemed to hear. “Isn’t she beautiful?” she murmured. “And she’s mine. I get to keep her.”
Oh, no, Gaia thought. Her pleasure and pride evaporated, and she wished now, more than ever, that her mother were there. Or even Old Meg. Or anybody, for that matter.
Gaia opened her satchel and took out a new needle and a little bottle of brown ink. She shook the tin of tea over the kettle to drop in some flakes. The faint aroma slowly infused the room with a redolent fragrance, and the mother smiled again in a weary, relaxed way.
“I know we’ve never talked,” the mother said. “But I’ve seen you and your mother coming and going at the quadrangle, and up to the wall. Everyone says you’ll be as great a mid-wife as your mother, and now I can say it’s true.”
“Do you have a husband? A mother?” Gaia asked.
“No. Not living.”
“Who was the boy you sent for me? A brother?”
“No. A kid who was passing in the street.”
“So you have no one?”
“Not anymore. Now I have my baby, my Priscilla.”
It’s a bad name, Gaia thought. And what was worse, it wouldn’t matter because it wouldn’t last. Gaia dropped a pinch of motherwort into the mother’s teacup, and then silently poured tea into the two cups, trying to think how best to do this. She let her hair fall forward, shielding the left side of her face, while she moved the empty teakettle, still warm, into her satchel.
“Here,” she said, handing the cup laced with motherwort toward the young woman on the bed and smoothly removing the baby from beside her.
“What are you doing?” the mother asked.
“Just drink. It will help with the pain.” Gaia took a sip from her own cup as an example.
“I don’t feel much anymore. Just a little sleepy.”
“That’s good,” Gaia said, setting her cup back by the hearth.
Quietly, she packed her gear and watched as the mother’s eyelids grew heavier. She unwrapped the baby’s legs to gently pull one foot out, and then she set the baby on a blanket on the floor, near the fireplace. The baby’s eyes opened and flickered toward the flames: dark, murky eyes. It was impossible to tell what color they might eventually be. Gaia sopped a bit of clean rag into her cup of tea, absorbing the last hot liquid, and then wiped it over the ankle, cleaning it. She dipped the needle in the brown ink, held it briefly to the light, and then, swiftly, as she had done before under her mother’s guidance, she pressed the pin into the baby’s ankle in four rapid pricks. The child screamed.
“What are you doing?” the mother demanded, now fully awake.
Gaia wrapped the birthmarked baby again and cradled her firmly in one arm. She slid the teacup, needle, and ink into her satchel. Then she stepped forward and took the second teacup from beside the mother. She lifted her satchel.
“No!” the mother cried. “You can’t! It’s April twenty-first! Nobody ever advances a baby this late in the month.”
“It’s not how late the date is,” Gaia said quietly. “It’s the first three babies each month.”
“But you must have delivered half a dozen by now,” the woman shrieked, rising. She struggled to shift her legs to the side of the bed.
Gaia took a step backward, steeling herself to be strong. “My mother delivered those. This is my first,” she said. “It’s the first three babies for each midwife.”
The mother stared at her, shock and horror shifting across her face. “You can’t,” she whispered. “You can’t take my baby. She’s mine.”
“I have to,” Gaia said, backing away. “I’m sorry.”
“But you can’t,” the woman gasped.
“You’ll have others. You’ll get to keep some. I promise.”
“Please,” the mother begged. “Not this one. Not my only. What have I done?”
Excerpted from BIRTHMARKED © Copyright 2011 by Caragh M. O’Brien. Reprinted with permission by Roaring Brook Press
. All rights reserved.
- Genres: Dystopian Fiction
- hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
- ISBN-10: 1596435690
- ISBN-13: 9781596435698