Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor
Margaret Blair Young
[p.71]Luisa was cadaverous. All of her life seemed centered in that great fruit. Her eyes were sunken, her face bloodless. I thought she was unconscious when I entered the bedroom.
Johnny had gone for the midwife. Dad was who-knows-where. It was just the women in the room now, and the premature event.
“You’re doing fine,” Mom whispered to Luisa’s inert arms.
Luisa’s eyes fluttered open. One side of her mouth turned up as if caught on a fishhook. She made a sound like a hoarse cat-a long, painful sound, as limp as the rest of her.
“Over in a second,” Mom said. “I know, Cookie. It hurts. Babies hurt.”
Luisa drew out her groan until it was a long, thin mew. She went flaccid. Instinctively I put my hand over her heart. She covered my palm with hers. She said something I couldn’t hear, and I put my ear to her mouth. Her hand came around my head, cold and limp as death.
“My gardenias,” she said.
“They’re fine,” I whispered. “Guzzling mango juice. Doing great. I fed them today.”
She lifted her lip into that lopsided grimace, her eyes still closed.
Mom told me the pains were about fifteen minutes apart. Hard labor was a long way off, she said, but things had started. Luisa’s water had broken; there was no going back now.
I could not imagine that this wilted body on the bed could really accomplish delivery. Luisa would die and the baby would be pulled from her like entrails from a chicken. Dead.
I thought an unaimed prayer: “Come on. Come on. Be.”
Mom told me to moisten a washrag with cool water and put it across Luisa’s forehead. (‘You’ve never seen sweat till you’ve seen a delivery,” Mom said. “Five weeks early. That’s not so bad. Lots of babies are five [p.72]weeks early, right?”
“You’re tired, aren’t you, Cookie,” Mom said to her. “Rest. You’ll need your strength for pushing. Sleep if you can.”
There were tears in the corners of Luisa’s eyes, glittering under her lashes. I dabbed them with the washrag, then folded and smoothed it over her forehead. She made a quivery noise, a rattling in her throat, like something from an ancient ritual.
“You’re fine, Cookie,” Mom repeated. “There is nothing on earth lovelier or harder than labor. Oh I know that. Scares the crap out of you when it’s you delivering, but brings you closer to the veil than the grittiest prayer you’ll ever make.”
Luisa murmured, “Yes.”
Mom stroked the washrag over Luisa’s brow. She said, “Some people say there’s a light in the room when a baby comes, like the angels are doing escort service. I want to see about that. I want the lights out so I can see if there’s some trail of glory from Heaven. Doesn’t that sound tremendous? A glacier of light for the kid’s spirit to slide down. Angels holding his hands. Gotta see it.”
Luisa moved her head.
“Oh yeah. It’ll be wonderful,” said Mom. “Old Boinky here, he’s probably saying ‘bye bye’ to all his friends right now. He’s probably watching us this very minute. I imagine he’s a little uneasy about getting born too. A little scared of how he’s going to get that body of his out.” She made her voice childlike. “You nervous, Boinky? A teeny bit frightened? Now don’t you worry. Everything’s set up just like it should be. Your Aunt Em and cousin Digs are right here to meet you. Things are fine. Just fine.” Back to normal: “Now Cookie, do you feel like you can sleep?”
“You might need to stop talking before she’ll sleep, Mom,” I said. I was the one sweating.
“Am I bothering you, Cookie?”
“No.” Almost inaudible.
“I’ll shut up and let you sleep,” Mom said. “Sleep between the pains if you can. That’s it.”
Mom seemed half-oblivious to the possibility of tragedy. Not that I would have expected otherwise. But I knew she wasn’t an idiot. Some-[p.73]where in that orange optimism of hers there had to be fears. She couldn’t be blind to Luisa’s diminishment.
Luisa tensed and let out an exhausted whine of pain. Her head moved from side to side on her pillow. The washrag slipped off her forehead. I took it and wiped her cheeks and neck. Mom held Luisa’s feet, as if that would sturdy her. “Breathe through your nose, Cookie,” Mom said. “Like your tummy is a balloon and you’re going to blow it up. Come on, now, Cookie, breathe with me.” Mom inhaled deep. Her mouth was a pucker, her eyebrows lifted high. “Again. Breath with me, Honey.” Luisa opened terrified eyes. She obeyed. Her mouth was shaking as she copied the pucker. It shook through all her breaths. Her knees shook too. Mom pressed harder on her feet. Luisa went limp again, closed her eyes, moaned, “Over.”
Mom patted Luisa’s ankles. “Good job. Damn, you’re good. Oh, what am I saying? There are probably a hundred angels around us here, and off I go using my mouth. God should really strike me mute sometimes. I mean that. He really should. Oh, but you were perfect, Cookie! You see how it works? Just like blowing up a balloon. Oh yeah. You’re going to do great.” She looked at her watch and glanced at the bedroom door. “How far is that aldea where the midwife lives?” she asked. Trying to act casual.
“Not far,” Luisa managed.
“Well those rascals,” Mom said. “They’ve probably stopped for a soda pop or a taco. Did they think we were kidding about this labor stuff? Those rapscallions!” She laughed, but shot me a quick, desperate look.
“I’ll check if I can see them coming,” I said.
The curtains were drawn and the kitchen lights dangled brilliantly. I had no clue to what was waiting outside until I opened the front door. There was a slide of lights out there. I gasped and thought “fire” and then “angels” until I realized what it was: the Zarahemlites and their neighbors were holding a candlelight vigil for Luisa. A group of women-women Mom and I had romped with in the stream as they washed; the processing woman; the egg-sorter woman; anonymous women I had seen at the marketplace—about a dozen of them—were kneeling reverently a little distance from the cabin. Others—hundreds of others—were coming to join the prayers, two by two, holding long, [p.74]white candles. They were coming in utter silence, though a few of the kneeling ones were counting beads. Their rows of candles shone like an ascending runway. All around them, hardly distinguishable, were fireflies; above them stars. This was a light show.
The nearest ones saw me. A couple of the women I had worked with gave me knowing smiles, though none broke the stillness.
I watched the trail of candles zigzag around trees and chicken coops. Two by two, the faces above the candles appeared. Each light moved slowly downward as its holder knelt. Within five minutes there was a magnificent throng of candles and brown faces. Mostly women, but one or two men.
I held up both my hands in a gesture of thanks. They were watching me expectantly. With my hands up like that, it seemed I was ready to give a message. I did not want to talk, their reverence was so moving, but they were waiting for my news.
I said, “Nada.” I meant that nothing had happened yet. It sounded, I know, like a statement of nihilism, full of pessimism. But it was the best I could do with my Spanish. “Nada. Gracias.”
Their faces were devoted. I wondered if Johnny had any idea how much they loved their Luisa. I suspected he did.
I repeated “Gracias” several times, until the jeep lights appeared at the rim of the hill.
Johnny had to have seen the candles. He flashed his headlights on and off several times, like the Woodward Avenue bus driver had done to tell me hello from his distance.
The crowd turned its collective face to the lights. Johnny revved the engine. The jeep could be loud with some prodding from the gas pedal. It made the kind of VARROOM little kids imitate with toy race cars. A good, long, high-speed noise that seemed to echo off the hills to signal an earthquake or heavenly visitation; a noise like rushing waters or a crackling wind. The people watched the roaring lights come over the hill and through the same zigzag they had just negotiated. Johnny honked, flashed his brights, pulled up next to them. The midwife had arrived.
The candles made her face quite visible as she got out of the jeep. It was the most wrinkled face I had ever seen. More wrinkled, even, than Primitivo’s. It was a study in oval: the face shape itself was oval, as were [p.75]the wrinkles extending from forehead to chin, and those around her baggy eyes and around her flaccid cheeks. She had a set of the most incredible jowls I had ever seen on man, woman, or dog.
She grinned. She had no teeth that I could see. As I had done, she held up both her hands. But where my message had been impotent, hers was full of power: it was herself, her merciful arrival, her ancient, victorious presence. She was wearing several black shawls with long fringes. As she lifted her arms she looked magical and bird-like-something you’d expect on Halloween. She cackled too, like a happy, benevolent witch. Thrilled to be on hand for the Gringos.
The people smiled gratefully, watched as she went inside-limping and hunchbacked but energetic still-with Uncle Johnny. Then they returned to their prayers.
Inside the cabin, Johnny was boiling water and noisily sorting out medical instruments; Mom was going in and out of the bedroom, doing miscellaneous tasks like unfolding blankets and fluffing pillows; the midwife was happily-laughingly at times-barking out instructions in a mix of Spanish and her shrill dialect.
I asked Mom how I could help. She told me to wet the washcloth again. I took it from Luisa’s forehead, telling her as I did about the women outside. She gave a vague nod. “Our way,” she said.
“So how far apart are the pains?” I asked Mom.
“Ten minutes. She’s doing great.”
Mom hadn’t reapplied her lipstick in hours. It was flaky and creased in her pucker lines. I noticed, too, that she had some silver hairs. I had forgotten she dyed her hair.
The midwife was taking Luisa’s clothes off. Luisa was a rag doll, willing but lifeless. When at last she was naked, the disproportion between her thin arms and legs and that full, stretched stomach was grotesque.
The midwife put her ear on Luisa’s navel, then cupped her hands around the solid lump of her middle. She seemed to be measuring the child. Luisa groaned. Again the midwife measured and again, as though she were not satisfied. Then she stood and proudly announced, “Hay dos.”
“Twins,” Mom gasped. “Oh hell.” For the first time, her composure was gone. She turned her face so Luisa wouldn’t see, and pressed her eyes. Of course, when she turned back a few seconds later, she was [p.76]beaming like a bride. “Two for the price of one,” she gushed.
“Price,” moaned Luisa.
“Twins! How about that, Cookie? Hey, did you hear how I understood that Spanish? You’re a good teacher. The best.”
The midwife was silly with mirth. I could not understand a word she said, but she seemed to be teasing Luisa. She talked incessantly, laughing, gesturing, smiling patronizingly through all her instructions as though she were addressing the babies, not their mother. I would have thought her senile if I hadn’t watched her hands working over Luisa’s crotch. Those wrinkled hands were expert and agile. They massaged Luisa’s thighs and perineal muscles, then made a circle that indicated how big Luisa would have to get before the birth could proceed. Through all of this, she chattered gleefully on and on. Sometimes, between pains, she demanded that Luisa respond to her teasing. She displayed her pink gums and repeated insistently, “Eh? Eh? Eh?” until Luisa gave an answer, however weak. During the pains themselves, Mom breathed with Luisa. The midwife observed this enthusiastically, opening her eyes wide, clapping her hands, exclaiming, “Buenissimo!” and “Que mujer!”
Johnny came in and laughed tight along with the old lady. They were affectionately mocking the delivery, joking about the thinness of the cervix and the veil.
But this birthing didn’t stay pleasant. Sometime late into the labor, the midwife measured Luisa’s opening and made a futile gesture with her hands. The night was half over, the pains almost continuous, and dilation had stopped. The midwife changed her expression from glee to anger so abruptly it was melodramatic, manic-depressive. She scolded Luisa for her smallness, shook her finger and spoke sharply.
Luisa’s eyes rolled back in her head. She said, “Padre Nuestro que estas en los Cielos, santificado sea tu nombre.”
The Lord’s Prayer. She was reciting it like a catechism.
“Hagase tu voluntad como en el cielo asi tambien en la tierra.”
Her fingers were moving on her chest, counting invisible rosary beads. She was reverting to a Catholic right there in the childbed. She cried as she recited.
“El pan nuestro de cada dia, da nos lo hoy, y perdonanos nuestras deudas como tambien nosotros perdonamos a nuestros duedores.”
[p.77]Barely audible. A whimper. A plea. Johnny’s expression changed too, from amusement to a sublime tenderness only he could manufacture. None of this was bothering him. He could watch her decompose, I thought, and get loving inspiration from her bones. I hated him.
“Y nos metes en tentacion, mas libranos del mal, porque tuyo es el reino y el poder y la gloria por todos los siglos, amen.”
Her eyes shut tighter. Her naked stomach moved, tightened.
“Ay Dios!” she said. “Madre Maria, ayudame.” She whimpered, gave two little sobs, calling again and again on the Virgin.
The midwife was making vigorous circles where the babies would emerge. Her face was grave. There was no teasing now.
Mom rook Luisa’s left hand (Johnny was holding her right one) and said, “We’re here, Cookie. You’ve got to get your strength up. Come on, now. You’re going to do just fine. We’re all with you.”
Like the whole lot of us would stand guard. No angel of death would wrap her up with us beside her.
“It’ll be over soon,” said Mom. “Oh I know this hurts. Cookie, I’ve been there. I know.”
“Luisa,” said Johnny, “Luisa, sweetheart, I’ve loved you—loved you with all my heart. It’s been worth it.”
Luisa panted, sighed, and let her head fall sideways on the pillow. Her eyes were glazed and half-open.
Mom patted her hand. “Come on,” she shouted, trying, as it were, to scream into the next world. “Come on, Cookie! Almost done! Everything’s fine!”
Luisa did not respond.
I watched the scene as if from a great distance, as if I were under water. Everyone seemed frozen, bending over the still, pregnant body. All the faces but Luisa’s were full ofpity and anguish. Luisa’s had no expression. I thought, now they’ll cut into her and take the babies out. They’ll use one of the knives Johnny boiled. Luisa is dead, I thought, and Mom is a compulsive liar.
Unconsciously I was moving toward the bedroom door. I heard the knocking outside like thunder. I went to it numbly, half expecting to find a faceless, black-robed figure pointing his scythe at the bedroom. The invited guest.
It wasn’t Death, it was Dad. Beside him were Alberto, Piggott, and [p.78]a Latin guy with soft, gentle eyes who I somehow knew was Daniel Castillo.
I said, “You’re too late.”
Piggott moved me out of his way and strode into the bedroom. Daniel Castillo went behind him. I watched from the kitchen as Daniel anointed Luisa’s head with oil. Piggott gave a long, inaudible blessing. His hands seemed much larger than Luisa’s head. Someone who didn’t know the Mormon ways might think he was slowly crushing her skull. “No good,” I said. “Too late.”
“Julie,” said Alberto. (How long since he had called me that?) “Julie, remember: you must awake your faith.”
Luisa’s hand moved.
“You see,” said Alberto, “the statue comes to life.”
“Alive,” I murmured.
Dad whispered. “She was just asleep. Women sleep before the last stage.”
“I wouldn’t be too certain, sir,” said Alberto.
“Well, son,” whispered Dad, “as you might have heard, uncertainty is one of my pastimes.”
We watched Luisa through the bedroom door. Her face went tight. Dad said, “Here it comes.”
She cried out “Jesus!” pronouncing it “Hey Zeus”—like she was calling to Mount Olympus. Her mouth stretched into a grimace. She growled.
“Hombres afuera,” said the midwife, shooing Piggott, Johnny, and Daniel Castillo into the kitchen. Then to Luisa, “EMPUJA!”
The bedroom door shut behind them. There were two separate worlds now.
“Do you want to go in?” Dad said to me.
“Pretty gory, isn’t it?” I said.
“Go on in,” he said. “They might need you.”
I did. Luisa was sitting on the bed. Mom was bracing her, hoisting her up from the armpits. Together they were breathing sharply. The midwife grabbed my arm and put me on the side of the bed. It was my job to bring Luisa’s knees to her chest when the midwife said, “Ahora.”
“Ahora!” I pushed the knees into the chest and mom pushed in on the shoulders. Luisa screamed and bore down.
[p.79]“No!” shouted the midwife. Luisa, she said, was making too much noise. The midwife mimicked her. “No como una cachina,” she insisted, making pig noises as though she could humiliate Luisa into proper labor. “Asi. Asi.” The old lady modeled the way to push a baby out. She clenched her fists and held her breath. Even her incredible wrinkles seemed to tighten. Luisa went purple with her soundless imitation. The midwife nodded, rewarding her with a satisfied smile. Luisa tried to smile back; her teeth were chattering uncontrollably.
“Ahora!” said the midwife.
I think I will never hear the word again without hearing earthy, bestial, strangled breaths of a woman in labor.
“Ahora.” It went on for nearly an hour, the midwife mimicking, shouting, scolding, mocking, teasing, laughing, shrieking. “Ahora!” Then Luisa gave us a look of terror, a wide-mouthed, wide-eyed look like the mask of tragedy. She panted a high-pitched “Ya, ya, ya.” The first baby’s head, guided by the midwife, was born. It came out bloody and compressed and seemed to blossom in the midwife’s hands. Two more pushes, and the rest of the body emerged. A boy—tiny, unnaturally wrinkled and red, but very much alive. He gave a lusty wail and peed onto the midwife’s chest.
Luisa fell back into Mom’s arms. Mom lowered her to the pillow and let her rest until the next set of pushes began, about fifteen minutes later. The second baby was a boy as well. He peed on his mother as the midwife held him up.
Mom shouted to the closed door, “John, you’re the father of twin boys!”
John yelled the news to the crowd outside. We heard him, and his echo: “Gemelas! Varoncitos!” We heard the applause of the Zarahemlites too, like a rainstorm.
Luisa lifted her arms. She was still shaking. Mom held one boy and I held the other against her breasts. Luisa sobbed and brushed her finger across her babies’ cheeks.
“Oh damn!” Mom said then. “I can’t believe what an idiot I am. I left the lights on, can you believe it? Why there could have been angels tap dancing on the bed. There could have been a whole aurora borealis on the ceiling, and I had to go and leave the damn lights on! Can you believe it? I may not see angels again till I die. Damn!”