Magan wiped a damn cloth over the forehead of the Maiden as the girl nearly bent backwards in agony, everything but her head and legs rising up off of the rug she was laying on. She glanced towards the midwife Cheira as the severe gray-haired woman bustled around the tent, preparing for the inevitable birth. “Mistress,” she asked, “is there nothing we can do for her?”
Cheira did not look up from her work as she answered, “There is little we can do for her. She is too tiny for the child. Its birth will kill her, no doubt.”
The words seemed harsh but Magan nodded her head in agreement as the old midwife was wise in the ways of her craft. It was also told in the prophecies of the Toba that the mother of their savior would die bringing them into the world.
Still, it was a terrible fate for the Maiden. Losing one so young was a cost to the nation but if she was truly bringing forth the savior as the elders thought then her loss would be afforded.
As the Maiden screamed and reached back to dig her fingernails into Magan’s bare thighs, the young woman gritted her teeth through it. She could feel Cheira’s eyes upon her and knew that this was one of the tests she much go through as the midwife’s assistant. If she did not, she would have no chance to have a viable role in society except as one of some man’s wives.
Unlike many of those her age – like the Maiden writhing on the floor before her – she had never had a longing to live as merely a possession. Or to die “nobly” as the mother of their child savior after having been taken by all of the high priests to make sure that holy blood would be present. Seeing that the nation continued as the one who made sure its children survived was better than bearing those children.
Cheira finally concluded her preparations around the tent and moved to where Magan and the Maiden were positioned in the center of the tent. As the old woman knelt down next to her, the young girl opened her eyes for the first time since Magan had been called into the tent to assist with the birth.
“Please,” she begged as she licked cracked lips, “please help me.”
“There is nothing that can help you, my child. I am sorry,” soothed Cheira as she brushed hair away from the girl’s face. “The life you bring to the world, though, will assure you a place by our Mother’s side.”
Magan’s heart clenched as tears filled the Maiden’s eyes and had to look away as she whispered in a broken voice, “I want to live. Please. Please.” She then groaned between bared teeth as pain consumed her again and her fingernails dug into Magan’s thighs again, this time drawing blood.
Cheira shook her gray head and reached out to lay a withered hand on the girl’s heavily swollen bare belly. “The child has not yet turned,” she stated safely, “there is still much time left before we are done.”
Frowning, Magan asked, “Will she make it, Mistress?”
Shrugging one of her shawl covered shoulders, the midwife answered, “Perhaps she will survive to birth. Perhaps we shall have to cut her to withdraw the child because of her size.”
The thought of cutting the Maiden open made Magan shiver and she again was thankful of her luck at being chosen as the midwife’s assistant. Otherwise she might already have been married and with child herself. And as her slight frame was similar to that of the other girl and they were of age, she might very well be doomed to die herself.
She must have made some expression in concordance with her thought for Cheira laughed and said, “It is just as the herdsmen do to the cows, my child. Sometimes she simply cannot give birth without aid. Such is the same situation here.”
“But she is not a cow,” pressed Magan as she leaned over to wet the forgotten cloth in her hands. As she laid it over the Maiden’s sweating forehead, the midwife snorted.
“We are all animals according to the Toba. We eat, we shit, we fuck, and we die. The only difference is that we believe we are better than our cattle.” The old woman leaned over and jabbed the tip of a bony finger into the center of Magan’s forehead. “Be careful that you do not voice your thoughts too often, child. You are allowed to think beyond your bounds but not to speak them. The men may worship the Mother but never doubt that it is they who control our lives.”
She had never heard such a to the point speech before and had never thought that the older woman would share a similar mindset to her.
Cheira flashed a yellowed smile in her direction then she leaned over to press her ear against the Maiden’s belly. She listened for a moment then leaned back with a humming sounds before stating, “The child is beginning to turn. Perhaps the girl will survive longer than I expected.”
“Might she deny the prophecy?”
As soon as the words were out of Magan’s mouth, she knew they were blasphemous. Denying the prophecy of the Maiden’s death would be denying the Toba itself according to the priests.
The midwife did nothing more than look at her meaningfully and Magan bowed her head. “Watch how I voice my thoughts,” she muttered. “I apologize, Mistress.”
That made the old woman throw her head back in laughter and she said, “It is not I you must guard yourself against, child! And who am I to judge you, when you have discovered one who thinks as you do?” Leaning forward, she grinned that yellow grin again. “We are two of a kind, you and I. I was not lucky enough to have a teacher like I and was nearly abandoned.”
Magan’s eyes widened and she started to open her mouth to ask what that meant, when the Maiden’s fingernails dug into her thighs again. She yelped in surprise and grabbed the girl’s arms as Cheira leaned forward to listen to her belly again. When the old woman’s eyes widened, Magan knew something was wrong.
“The child is stuck,” she stated stonily. Her withered looking hands latched onto the Maiden’s elbows and with a quick press of her bony fingers she had freed Magan. “Run to find Kossa, child. We will need his expertise if we are to succeed in this.”
Knowing that men were forbidden to enter the birth tent unless cases of extreme emergency, Magan stumbled to her feet and bolted from the tent. She only run a handful of steps towards the lightened walls of the city when a rough hand grabbed her arm in the dark. As she spun towards whoever it was who had grabbed her, she was relieved that she saw Kossa’s scarred face in the dim light that extended from the torches around the tent.
“She needs you,” Magan managed to say. The mute merely nodded and released her, making his way to the tent with his big hands resting on one pair of the knives that bristled from his belt. She followed him back towards the tent, intent on going back inside to help, but Kossa turned and held up a hand. “I need to help Cheira. It is my job.”
The big man shook his head and pushed her back a step before pointing at the ground as if to say ‘stay’. He then bent down and disappeared into the tent, pulling the door flaps sharply closed behind him. Magan stared at them for a moment then strode forward purposefully into the tent, fully intent on fulfilling her job.
The sight she witnessed as soon as she stepped inside the tent made her stop in her tracks and her stomach flipped uncomfortably, bile rising in her throat. Slapping a hand over her mouth, Magan lunged out of the tent and was sick on the dusty ground. As her stomach continued to heave, she closed her eyes in an attempt to get rid of the image of the Maiden’s expression of betrayal and shock.
She had not even known the girl’s real name.
The other girl’s earlier pleading repeated through her head and she choked on a sob as she sank back against one of the tent walls. As Cheira’s withered hand touched her shoulder, Magan sniffed and looked up with the question, “How could we?” on her lips.
“Because it is a midwife’s task to make sure the children of the nation survive, no matter what,” answered the midwife. She then bounced the wrapped bundle in her arms before leaning down to place it in Magan’s arms. “And as my new assistant, your new task in addition to assisting me is to care for this child.”
Magan blinked, too shocked to speak, and wrapped her arms around the child as she had done while helping to care for her younger siblings. She looked down at the red face of the newly born girl and saw the face of her dead mother again in her mind. When she looked up at Cheira, the old woman nodded sharply.
“Our job is not an easy job, my child. Learn and accept that now or you will be abandoned.”
“I will not be abandoned, Mistress,” assured Magan. “I have learned my lesson.”
The midwife flashed her a yellow grin before she turned away and Magan looked down at the tiny form nestled in her arms.
“And I will not fail you as I failed your mother,” she whispered. “I promise.”