I’d been afraid to look, and let my breath out in audible relief. The chief fear with a breech presentation was that part of the umbilical cord would prolapse when the membranes ruptured, the loop then being squeezed between the pelvis and some part of the fetus. All clear, though, and a quick feel indicated that the cervix was very nearly effaced.
The only thing to do now was to wait and see what came out first. I undid my bundle, and—shoving the coil of sharpened wire hastily under a packet of cloths—spread out the waxed canvas, hoicking Lizzie onto it with Auntie Monika’s help.
Monika blinked and glanced at the trundle where little Rodney was snoring when Lizzie let out another of those unearthly howls. She looked to me for reassurance that nothing was wrong, then took hold of Lizzie’s hands, murmuring softly to her in German while she grunted and wheezed.
The door creaked gently, and I looked round to see one of the Beardsleys peering in, his face showing a mixture of fear and hope.
“Is it here?” he whispered hoarsely.
“NO!” bellowed Lizzie, sitting bolt upright. “Get your neb out of my sight, or I’ll twist your wee ballocks off! All four o’ them!”
The door promptly closed, and Lizzie subsided, puffing.
“I hate them,” she said through clenched teeth. “I want them to die!”
“Mmm-hmm,” I said sympathetically. “Well, I’m sure they’re suffering, at least.”
“Good.” She went from fury to pathos in a split second, tears welling in her eyes. “Am I going to die?”
“No,” I said, as reassuringly as possible.
“Gruss Gott,”Auntie Monika said, crossing herself. “Ist gut?”
“Ja,”I said, still reassuring. “I don’t suppose there are any scissors … ?”
“Oh, ja,” she replied, reaching for her bag. She produced a tiny pair of very worn but once-gilded embroidery scissors. “Dese you need?”
Monika and I both looked at Lizzie.
“Don’t overdo it,” I said. “They’re frightened, but they aren’t idiots. Besides, you’ll scare your father. And Rodney,” I added, with a glance at the little heap of bedclothes in the trundle bed.
She subsided, panting, but managed a nod and the ghost of a smile.
Matters proceeded fairly rapidly thereafter; she was fast. I checked her pulse, then her cervix, and felt my own heart rate double as I touched what was plainly a tiny foot, on its way out. Could I get the other one?
I glanced at Monika, with an eye to size and strength. She was tough as whipcord, I knew, but not that large. Lizzie, on the other hand, was the size of—well, Ian had not been exaggerating when he thought it might be twins.
The creeping thought that it still might be twins made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, despite the humid warmth of the cabin.
No, I said firmly to myself. It isn’t; you know it isn’t. One is going to be bad enough.
“We’re going to need one of the men, to help hold her shoulders up,” I said to Monika. “Get one of the twins, will you?”
“Both,” Lizzie gasped, as Monika turned toward the door.
“One will be—”
“Both! Nnnnnnggggg …”
“Both,” I said to Monika, who nodded in a matter-of-fact manner.
The twins came in on a rush of cold air, their faces identical ruddy masks of alarm and excitement. Without my saying anything to them, they came at once to Lizzie, like a pair of iron filings to a magnet. She had struggled into a sitting position, and one of them knelt behind her, his hands gently kneading her shoulders as they relaxed from the last spasm. His brother sat beside her, a supportive arm round what used to be her waist, his other hand smoothing back the sweat-soaked hair from her brow.
I tried to arrange the quilt round her, over her protruding belly, but she pushed it away, hot and fretful. The cabin was filled with moist heat, from the steaming cauldron and the sweat of effort. Well, presumably the twins were somewhat more familiar with her anatomy than I was, I reflected, and handed the wadded quilt to Auntie Monika. Modesty had no place in childbirth.
I knelt in front of her, scissors in hand, and snipped the episiotomy quickly, feeling a tiny spray of warm blood across my hand. I seldom needed to do one for a routine birth, but for this, I was going to need room to maneuver. I pressed one of my clean cloths to the cut, but the amount of bleeding was negligible, and the insides of her thighs were streaked with bloody show in any case.
It was a foot; I could see the toes, long ones, like a frog’s, and glanced automatically at Lizzie’s bare feet, planted solidly on the floor to either side of me. No, hers were short and compact; it must be the twins’ influence.
The humid, swampish scent of birth waters, sweat, and blood rose like fog from Lizzie’s body, and I felt my own sweat running down my sides. I groped upward, hooked a finger round the heel, and brought the foot down, feeling the life in the child move in its flesh, though the baby itself was not moving, helpless in the grip of birth.
The other one, I needed the other one. Feeling urgently through the belly wall between one contraction and the next, I slid my other hand up the emergent leg, found the tiny curve of the buttock. Switched hands hastily and, with my eyes closed, found the curve of the flexed thigh. Bloody hell, it seemed to have its knee tucked up under its chin … felt the yielding stiffness of tiny, cartilaginous bones, solid in the squish of fluid, the stretch of muscle … got a finger, two fingers, circling the other ankle, and—snarling, “Brace her! Hold her!” as Lizzie’s back arched and her bottom scooted toward me—brought the second foot down.
I sat back, eyes open and breathing hard, though it hadn’t been a physical strain. The little froggy feet twitched once, then drooped, as the legs came into view with the next push.
“Once more, sweetheart,” I whispered, a hand on Lizzie’s straining thigh. “Give us one more like that.”
A growl from the depths of the earth as Lizzie reached that point where a woman no longer cares whether she lives, dies, or splits apart, and the child’s lower body slid slowly into view, the umbilicus pulsing like a thick purple worm looped across the belly. My eyes were fixed on that, thinking, Thank God, thank God, when I became aware of Auntie Monika, peering intently over my shoulder.
“Ist das balls?” she said, puzzled, pointing at the child’s genitals.
I hadn’t spared time to look, concerned as I was with the cord, but I glanced down and smiled.
“No. Ist eine Mädchen,” I said. The baby’s sex was edematous; it did look much like a little boy’s equipment, the clitoris protruding from swollen labia, but wasn’t.
“What? What is it?” One of the Beardsleys was asking, leaning down to look.
“You haff a leedle girl,” Auntie Monika told him, beaming up.
“A girl?” the other Beardsley gasped. “Lizzie, we have a daughter!”
“Will you f**king shut up?!?” Lizzie snarled. “NNNNNNNGGGGG!”
At this point, Rodney woke up and sat bolt upright, openmouthed and wide-eyed. Auntie Monika was on her feet at once, scooping him out of his bed before he could start to scream.
Rodney’s sister was inching reluctantly into the world, shoved by each contraction. I was counting in my head, One hippopotamus, two hippopotamus … From the appearance of the umbilicus to successful delivery of the mouth and the first breath, we could afford no more than four minutes before brain damage from lack of oxygen began to occur. But I couldn’t pull and risk damage to the neck and head.
“Push, sweetheart,” I said, bracing my hands on both Lizzie’s knees, my voice calm. “Hard, now.”
Thirty-four hippopotamus, thirty-five …
All we needed now was for the chin to hang up on the pelvic bone. When the contraction eased, I slid my fingers hastily up onto the child’s face, and got two fingers over the upper maxilla. I felt the next contraction coming, and gritted my teeth as the force of it crushed my hand between the bones of the pelvis and the baby’s skull, but didn’t pull back, fearful of losing my traction.
Sixty-two hippopotamus …
Relaxation, and I drew down, slowly, slowly, pulling the child’s head forward, easing the chin past the rim of the pelvis …
Eighty-nine hippopotamus, ninety hippopotamus …
The child was hanging from Lizzie’s body, bloody-blue and shining in the firelight, swaying in the shadow of her thighs like the clapper of a bell—or a body from a gibbet, and I pushed that thought away …
“Should not we take … ?” Auntie Monika whispered to me, Rodney clutched to her breast.
“No,” I said. “Don’t touch it—her. Not yet.” Gravity was slowly helping the delivery. Pulling would injure the neck, and if the head were to stick …
One hundred ten hippo—that was a lot of hippopotami, I thought, abstractedly envisaging herds of them marching down to the hollow, there they will wallow, in mud, glooooorious …
“Now,” I said, poised to swab the mouth and nose as they emerged—but Lizzie hadn’t waited for prompting, and with a long deep sigh and an audible pop!, the head delivered all at once, and the baby fell into my hands like a ripe fruit.
I DIPPED A LITTLE more water from the steaming cauldron into the washing bowl and added cold water from the bucket. The warmth of it stung my hands; the skin between my knuckles was cracked from the long winter and the constant use of dilute alcohol for sterilization. I’d just finished stitching Lizzie up and cleaning her, and the blood floated away from my hands, dark swirls in the water.
Behind me, Lizzie was tucked up neatly in bed, clad in one of the twins’ shirts, her own shift being not yet dried. She was laughing with the euphoria of birth and survival, the twins on either side of her, fussing over her, murmuring admiration and relief, one tucking back her loose, damp fair hair, the other softly kissing her neck.
“Are you fevered, my lover?” one asked, a tinge of concern in his voice. That made me turn round to look; Lizzie suffered from malaria, and while she hadn’t had an attack in some time, perhaps the stress of birth …
“No,” she said, and kissed Jo or Kezzie on the forehead. “I’m only flushed from bein’ happy.” Kezzie or Jo beamed at her in adoration, while his brother took up the neck-kissing duties on the other side.
Auntie Monika coughed. She’d wiped down the baby with a damp cloth and some wisps of the wool I’d brought—soft and oily with lanolin—and had it now swaddled in a blanket. Rodney had got bored with the proceedings long since and gone to sleep on the floor by the wood-basket, a thumb in his mouth.
“Your vater, Lizzie,” she said, a slight hint of reproof in her voice. “He vill cold begetting. Und die Mädel he vant see, mit you, but maybe not so much mit der …” She managed to incline her head toward the bed, while simultaneously modestly averting her eyes from the frolicsome trio on it. Mr. Wemyss and his sons-in-law had had a gingerly reconciliation after the birth of Rodney, but best not to press things.
Her words galvanized the twins, who hopped to their feet, one stooping to scoop up Rodney, whom he handled with casual affection, the other rushing for the door to retrieve Mr. Wemyss, forgotten on the porch in the excitement.
While slightly blue round the edges, relief made his thin face glow as though lit from within. He smiled with heartfelt joy at Monika, sparing a brief glance and a ginger pat for the swaddled bundle—but his attention was all for Lizzie, and hers for him.
“Your hands are frozen, Da,” she said, giggling a little, but tightening her grip as he made to pull away. “No, stay; I’m warm enough. Come sit by me and say good e’en to your wee granddaughter.” Her voice rang with a shy pride, as she reached out a hand to Auntie Monika.
Monika set the baby gently in Lizzie’s arms, and stood with a hand on Mr. Wemyss’s shoulder, her own weathered face soft with something much deeper than affection. Not for the first time, I was surprised—and vaguely abashed that I should be surprised—by the depth of her love for the frail, quiet little man.
“Oh,” Mr. Wemyss said softly. His finger touched the baby’s cheek; I could hear her making small smacking noises. She’d been shocked by the trauma of birth and not interested in the breast at first, but plainly was beginning to change her mind.
“She’ll be hungry.” A rustle of bedclothes as Lizzie took up the baby and put her to the breast with practiced hands.
“What will ye call her, a leannan?” Mr. Wemyss asked.
“I hadna really thought of a girl’s name,” Lizzie answered. “She was so big, I thought sure she was a—ow!” She laughed, a low, sweet sound. “I’d forgot how greedy a newborn wean is. Ooh! There, a chuisle, aye, that’s better …”
I reached for the sack of wool, to rub my own raw hands with one of the soft, oily wisps, and happened to see the twins, standing back out of the way, side by side, their eyes fixed on Lizzie and their daughter, and each wearing a look that echoed Auntie Monika’s. Not taking his eyes away, the Beardsley holding little Rodney bent his head and kissed the top of the little boy’s round head.
So much love in one small place. I turned away, my own eyes misty. Did it matter, really, how unorthodox the marriage at the center of this odd family was? Well, it would to Hiram Crombie, I reflected. The leader of the rock-ribbed Presbyterian immigrants from Thurso, he’d want Lizzie, Jo, and Kezzie stoned, at the least—together with the sinful fruit of their loins.
No chance of that happening, so long as Jamie was on the Ridge—but with him gone? I slowly cleaned blood from under my nails, hoping that Ian was right about the Beardsleys’ capacity for discretion—and deception.