MADE FOR THIS: AN EXCERPT
All she wants is to scream. Stop. It’s written in every wrinkle on her forehead, in her tightly shut eyes and in the quiet tears that slither down her cheeks now. A rivulet clusters into a droplet at the very tip of her chin and waits, prays maybe, before offering itself up to her bosom. Drip. Drip. Then calm. The wrinkles come undone and Mrs. Forester’s face relaxes into her porcelain features, her alabaster tone, though, infringed upon by a rosy color in her cheeks. She sighs and opens her eyes, finds her sister, Mr. Sheppard’s wife, sitting at the foot of the twin-sized bed, Mother next to her and then me at the bedside in the wooden rocking chair her husband hand-carved for her—for this. I don’t rock. There’s not enough space to in the suffocating room that barely squeezes the bed, a meager chest of drawers and this chair I sit in within its four walls. The one window closed, the blind drawn. But room or no room, this isn’t an occasion for rocking. Rather I stare back at her, this unclothed woman whose dark brown hair is plastered to the side of her face with sweat. She reaches out to me with her eyes, begging me to make it stop. Just please. I want to. Hold her hand and tell her it’s almost over. But I don’t. She should be happy. She should be proud. And she is. Behind the pleading it’s there. A ‘look at me’ kind of glint that shines through her hazel orbs. I don’t know what my stare says to her in return, but I quickly look away to her swollen feet, the soles firmly planted on the bed linens. The delivery sheets are what we call them.
“They have to be white, pure and spotless to ensure the unborn lives a long, cleanly life,” Mother told me years ago.
She was sewing together the fabric for another mother’s delivery sheets then. This too is her job. Monitor the expecting. Prepare the sheets. Deliver the babies. I never asked if the purity of the newborn’s life is jeopardized when the sheets get stained, when the floodgates of the mother’s insides open up. Because they do. I watch them open time and time again. Like now. I only get to count sixty ticks by the secondhand in the room when Mrs. Forester’s break is over. The chamomile Mother fixed as a pain reliever for her to drink has worn off and Mrs. Forester scrapes the sheets into her fist, a sudden gush of blood descending out of her to settle into a puddle on the bed. She breathes in quick, suffocating gasps that she tries to quiet, but that escape her anyway like bleats. With a flagging of her gloved hand, Mother signals to me and I quickly grab for the towel on the side of the bed. But Mrs. Forester snatches my wrist. I can feel her shaking her head—no. I take a quick glance up at her. Her eyes beneath her furrowed brows say no. But I take my wrist back, roll the towel tightly and fight to grab hold of her jaw as she shakes her head wildly before I finally manage to pry her mouth open and wedge the towel within.
Mrs. Sheppard looks away from her sister, over her shoulder at the darkness behind her that’s more comforting than her sister’s shame. To be forcibly kept mum isn’t exactly a desirable trait in a woman—a wife and mother at that. Unlike Mrs. Forester, Mother and I learned the virtue of silence. In pain, in anything, our lips are stitched and whatever happens in here never leaves this room. Mrs. Forester wrestles to spit the towel out, but one look at Mother as she rises from her seat and Mrs. Forester submits. The soon-to-be mother bites down hard. That’s all she can do in what’s expected to be a quiet delivery.
In a high-pitched whistle, the heater in the corner screams for her. I scream for her, inwardly. It’s pain. But I scream for a different kind of pain.
I feel Mother and Mrs. Sheppard tracking me with their eyes as I all but bolt to the closed bedroom door. The unasked question, where are you going, floating in the darkness between us. I should be there. In case something goes wrong—an unruly umbilical cord wrapping around the baby’s neck, a breech birth, they’ve happened before—I should be by Mother’s side. But the girl’s sister is there as the placeholder for their late mother and that’s all Mother really needs. An extra hand, someone to call for the wagon just in case. Mother’s always been the one to have a back-up plan. I open the bedroom door ever so slightly to let the tiniest bit of light into the room. The dark is easier on the baby’s eyes, Mother always said. So I slip through the crack and close the door behind me. My paler than normal ivory hand nestled around the doorknob. I can’t let go. Holding on keeps my hands steady. The knob, warm and there to hold and—
I spin around to see Mr. Forester across from me. A lanky man who doesn’t quite fill out his clothes as Johnny does. Johnny with arms and legs that stretch and pull at the fabric of his clothes as if ready to burst through. No, not Mr. Forester. All his garments hang on his broomstick figure. He hides his hands in his roomy pant pockets and waits for a response. I look from his eyes down to his scratched lace-front shoes. It’s only him and me in the room. The last thing I need is for someone to find me staring directly at a man who isn’t my husband.
“Mrs. Forester’s contractions are closer together now,” I say, “so it’s about that time for her to start pushing.”
“Are you sure? You seem,” he pauses to search for the right word, “You seem as though there’s something wrong.”
“No. No, no, no. Everything’s fine—”
I accidentally meet his eyes, but I quickly return my gaze to the white tiled floors.
“Just needed a quick breath before the final stretch.”
I try to smile and through my peripheral vision I see him nod.
“Have the Elder and young miss Forester gone?” I ask.
“They stepped out quickly. You know you women. They’re probably prettying themselves up to welcome the baby.”
At this I do smile and my eyes wander in the silence to the day’s first rays peeping through the sheer curtains to splash across the floor. Mr. Forester’s mother and young unmarried sister had been proper enough to arrive in the wee hours that morning as the women on the husband’s side are expected to do. They joined him in the living room as Mother and I spread the sheets and locked them out. Only the women on the wife’s side are allowed into the delivery room. The husband’s family must just sit and wait, but wait they must. It’s tradition.
“More than twelve hours now my wife’s been in there,” Mr. Forester says.
“If the process was quick, sir, it wouldn’t be such a beautiful event.”
“Beautiful,” he repeats.
“And yet you’re out here.”
I clasp my hands.
“I’m really only needed at the end,” I say.
“It must be a different experience being the woman of words and being the woman on the bed,” he says.
“I expect it is,” I say.
He knows me, about me. Everyone does, but his fidgety hands that dip in and out of his pockets only to end up tucked beneath his pits remind me he doesn’t mean to admonish me for not being a mother. No. His thoughts aren’t in this room. They’re in the one I left.
“There’s really no comparison to what I do and what your wife is going through,” I say.
It’s what he wants to hear. It’s a truth.
“I should get back,” I say and turn away, turning the doorknob. I slip from the light into the darkness ahead of me, behind the door. I see only black at first. My back against the door, I close my eyes, take in the thick scent of blood and sweat, and open my eyes to finally see.
With the sleeves on Mother’s floor-length, nurse’s dress rolled up to her elbows, she kneels on the bed over Mrs. Forester. Two of her gloved fingers lost inside the woman, prodding in and around Mrs. Forester’s expanding entryway to reveal little tufts of moist hair that cover a pale blue scalp. Mrs. Forester tilts her head back and clenches her fists, her entire body trembling as she pushes. More and more then stops. The whole of the baby’s head taking shape below her belly now. And more trickles of blood as the baby’s crown rips her open just a little more. She yanks at the towel in her mouth. Her sister leaping to her feet to stop her from taking it out. Both of them shaking their heads, wordlessly saying completely different things. Don’t dishonor our family. I can’t do this anymore. Mrs. Forester with a look of defeat on her face, a familiar look, the same look every woman on the edge of delivering had, the look of hatred that begs now for her own death rather than the baby’s life. There’s never any getting used to this scene even as merely an onlooker. Not the mess, the scent inside the room. Not the room itself, dark and confined. Not knowing that pain. That pain. Could I even endure it, this sacrificial feat? Could I be the woman to offer herself up, allowing a body to tear her apart to free itself? The beautiful savagery. Could I really be the woman on the bed?
Mother taps the soon-to-be mother’s swollen ankles twice, the sign that it’s time to push again. The woman’s chest rapidly rises and falls with her breaths. Her shoulders falling from fatigue. She seems determined not to push anymore, but Mother grabs hold of the balls of the woman’s feet and forces her knees to her chest. Tears dripping from Mrs. Forester’s lids and nose. Finally, she submits to Mother’s demand and pushes again. It’s enough this time. The baby’s coming and Mother calls me over with a nod of her head. My feet carry my reluctant body to her and I take over, holding Mrs. Forester’s legs in place. Another push. And Mother scoops her hands into Mrs. Forester to pull the rest of the babe’s body loose.
The hiccupped cries start and stop and start as the babe takes the first few breaths. A cry that echoes the mother’s relief that the worst is over. A cry that I would quietly envy if I was her, if I so longed to scream, too. She strips the towel of her mouth and sighs. That’s all she can do.
Mother stands with the pale child wiping the feet and arms and plump cheeks. She looks over her shoulder back at me, waits for me to budge, but I don’t. Instead, the chest of drawers behind me braces me now and it’s Mother who turns to me with the child. The closer she gets, the farther back I push into the chest. My back, molding to the carvings in the wood. What if I drop the child? What if I pull too hard on the cord? But there’s nowhere I can go and Mother rests the child into my arms that brace for the embrace without letting me know. My arms fold around him as if they were made just for this—for him. The baby’s a he, I can tell now. He opens his dark eyes and looks up at me. I bring him closer to my face, my lips against his ear.
“You believe in life,” I begin.
The Church’s creed, the first words he hears. This is my job. To relay his and every child’s first lesson ever since I was old enough to understand where babies came from. Around thirteen years now. It’s fitting, the Elders think. After all, I am the girl whose first word was ‘life.’
“Hurry up and find it already!”
My eyes dart up from the baby at Mrs. Forester’s shout. The new mother fidgety, palms planted on the mattress’ sunken surface, jerking the bed, her whole body. Pain not written in her face now, but anxiety, impatience as Mother’s hand and wrist are missing inside her once more. Mother’s search paused, though, as she too gazes up at the new mother.
“Please,” Mrs. Forester gasps.
Mother turns to me.
“I was already finished,” I say.
That doesn’t make it right. This we all know, yet Mother and Mrs. Sheppard sigh, relieved that the twelve hours or so of silence weren’t wasted by Mrs. Forester’s uncontrolled shout. Mother gets back to work, digging, reaching deeper into the new mother.
“Hush,” Mother whisperingly hisses, “Just because the child’s been welcomed doesn’t mean you can start screaming now. The placenta’s been retained. I’m searching for the rest of it. Just…stay still. Don’t dare disgrace your husband or your father now.”
The woman clamps down on her lips, biting long enough for Mother to continue scraping and for the beet colored sack to slide out between Mrs. Forester’s legs, weighty and viscous. Mother severs the milk colored cord still attached to the child, strings the needle and thread, stitches the numbed skin of the new mother, and wipes her forehead with the back of her arm.
“Glory and honor to you, Mrs. Forester,” Mother says, her disciplinary tone drenching the praise as she takes the boy away from me to give to the new mother.
Mrs. Forester fusses with the baby, tries balancing his head with the rest of his body and tucks him into a nook between her forearm and bosom. But he squirms in her arms. Rejection. He didn’t reject—
Mother kneads me in the side with her elbow.
“Glory and honor,” I say and bow.
I help Mother strip the delivery sheets from beneath the new mother. We move quickly. Mrs. Forester’s sister helping her off the bed, onto the rocking chair while Mother and I undo the stained bedding and replace it with untainted white ones Mother also sewed together. The stained sheets, dumped into a pail in the darkest corner of the room. To the husband, the birthing process is pure, clean. He isn’t supposed to see it otherwise. Mrs. Sheppard helps her sister back onto the bed with the babe, helps us dress her too in a frill-collared nightgown.
With every trace of the past few hours erased, we’re finally allowed to open the door, welcoming in the spindly rays that crawl from the living room to brighten the thick black that surrounds us. Mr. Forester follows and the Elder and young miss Forester too all lined up, one behind the other. They crowd Mrs. Forester, the boy. The young girl sits on the bed—are your hands clean?—Mr. Forester stands over his wife and child, the Elder next to him, arms outstretched—my turn. A boy. Whispers, laughs, tears. He looks just like you, no like you, like both of you. Mrs. Sheppard dabs her sister’s forehead with a cool towel—you must be tired. Mother stands at the foot of the bed and I behind her.
“I wonder what they’ll name him,” Mother says.
The farther back I am, the less the family will notice me I feel. This is their moment now, I an invader to witness it.
“He looks like a David,” she says.
No. He looks more like a Noah, but I don’t say this to her.
“Can you stop that,” Mother slaps my hand away from my mouth.
I glance down at my bloody quick and grab a bandage from Mother’s medicine kit.
“What are you ten? I thought you got rid of that habit.”
I squeeze the stinging finger.
“Johnny’s group probably already left for the protest,” I say.
Mother looks to the clock and back to the family before us.
“The earlier they leave the better the spot.”
“It’s generous of Providence Jones to let him co-organize our congregation’s involvement in the event.”
“It’s about time,” Mother says, “Can’t find a man more against this abortion blasphemy than Johnny.”
“Well, he isn’t a junior Providence yet. And you know how strict Providence Jones is with things like this. The men have to be of a certain rank to gain responsibilities like helping with the protest,” I say, “It’s just, it’s like a parting gift.”
Mother glares at me and pulls me out of the room.
“You stop that nonsense. You’re not going anywhere.”
“The former Mrs. Sterling had three years before Providence Jones expelled her,” I whisper, “Johnny and I only have four months until our third anniversary.”
“Are you still drinking those teas?”
“Everyday, twice a day as you told me to.”
There’s nothing really to say. I don’t respond.
“When was the last time you bled?” Mother asks.
“Regularly? Not since the last time I told you. Two months ago. There’s been some spotting here and there lately.”
“See. That in itself is a good sign.”
“It comes and goes.”
“I will not let you get expelled, get,” she pauses, “excommunicated from our Church. You’re not going anywhere. You just keep trying. Your time is coming. By God’s grace.”
She casts her darkened eyes on me.
“By God’s grace,” Mother says again.
I look to the floor and nod. She, to the bedroom. There’s silence and then,
“That baby reminds me of you,” Mother says, “Same eyes. That same hair,” she continues, “He could be—”
“Are we walking to the protest?” I ask.
She turns to face me.
“Are we walking?” I ask again.
“It isn’t going anywhere. Besides, it hasn’t even started yet. Give it another hour or two.”
“It’s my place to be there.”
“It’s your place to be here, too. For right now, at least.”
“It’s,” I pause, “Johnny’s day.”
Mother narrows her eyes at me.
“I bet that’s what it is. Look at me,” she takes me by the forearm, “Look at me.”
She shakes me from my gaze at the bundled babe inside the room to look into her dark brown eyes covered slightly by a few loose strands come undone from her stiff up-do.
“It’s Johnny’s day,” I say once more.
“You know better than to covet your neighbor.”
“Mother, you’re the one who said it.”