“You’re not going to die, Bree,” I said. I spoke as soothingly as I could, and put a hand on her shoulder, but she must have felt the fear under my professional facade. Her face twisted, and she grabbed my hand, clinging so tightly the bones rubbed together. She closed her eyes and breathed through her nose, but didn’t cry out.
She opened her eyes and looked straight at me, her pupils dilated so that she seemed to be looking past me, into a future that only she could see.
“If I do…” she said, putting a hand to her swollen belly. Her mouth worked, but whatever she’d been meaning to say couldn’t force its way out.
She struggled to her feet, then, and leaned heavily on Jamie, her face muffled in his shoulder, repeating, “Da, don’t leave me, don’t.”
“I willna leave ye, a leannan. Dinna be afraid, I’ll stay wi’ ye.” He put an arm around her, looking helplessly over her head at me.
“Walk her,” I said to Jamie, seeing her restlessness. “Like a horse with colic,” I added, as he looked blank.
That made her laugh. With the ginger air of a man approaching an armed bomb, he put an arm around her waist and towed her slowly around the room. Given their respective sizes, it sounded a lot like someone leading a horse, too.
“All right?” I heard him ask anxiously, on one circuit.
“I’ll tell you when I’m not,” she assured him.
It was warm for mid-May; I opened the windows wide, and the scents of phlox and columbine flowed in, mixed with cool, damp air from the river.
The house was filled with an air of expectation: eagerness, with a hint of fear beneath. Jocasta walked up and down the terrace below, too nervous to stay put. Betty put her head in every few minutes to ask if anything was needed; Phaedre came up from the pantry with a jug of fresh buttermilk, just in case. Brianna, her eyes focused inwardly, merely shook her head at it; I sipped a glass myself, mentally checking off the preparations.
The fact was that there wasn’t a hell of a lot you needed to do for a normal birth, and not the hell of a lot you could do if it wasn’t. The bed was stripped and old quilts laid to protect the mattress; there was a stack of clean cloths to hand, and a can of hot water, renewed every half hour or so from the kitchen copper. Cool water for sipping and brow-mopping, a small vial of oil for rubbing, my suture kit to hand, just in case—and beyond that, everything was up to Brianna.
After nearly an hour’s walking, she stopped dead in the middle of the floor, gripping Jamie’s arm and breathing through her nose like a horse at the end of a twenty-furlong race.
“I want to lie down,” she said.
Phaedre and I got her gown off, and got her safely onto the bed in her shift. I laid my hands on the huge mound of her belly, marveling at the sheer impossibility of what had happened already, and what was about to happen next.
The rigidity of the contraction passed off, and I could clearly feel the curves of the child below the thin rubbery covering of skin and muscle. It was large, I could tell that, but it seemed to be lying well, head down and fully engaged.
Normally, babies about to be born were fairly quiet, intimidated by the upheaval of their surroundings. This one was stirring; I felt a small, distinct surge against my hand as an elbow poked out.
“Daddy!” Brianna reached out blindly, flailing as a contraction took her unaware. Jamie lunged forward and caught her hand, squeezing tight.
“I’m here, a bheanachd, I’m here.”
She breathed heavily, face bright red, then relaxed, and swallowed.
“How long?” she asked. She was facing me but not looking at me; she wasn’t looking at anything outside.
“I don’t know. Not an awfully long time, I don’t think.” The contractions were roughly five minutes apart, but I knew they could continue like that for a long time, or speed up abruptly; there was simply no telling.
There was a light breeze from the window, but she was sweating. I wiped her face and neck again, and rubbed her shoulders.
“You’re doing fine, lovey,” I murmured to her. “Just fine.” I glanced up at Jamie, and smiled. “So are you.”
He made a game try at returning the smile; he was sweating, too, but his face was white, not red.
“Talk to me, Da,” she said suddenly.
“Och?” He looked at me, frantic. “What shall I say?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Tell her stories; anything to take her mind off things.”
“Oh. Ah…will ye have heard the one about…Habetrot the spinstress?”
Brianna grunted in reply. Jamie looked apprehensive, but started in nonetheless.
“Aye, well. It happened that in an old farmhouse that stood by the river, there lived a fair maid called Maisie. She’d red hair and blue een, and was the bonniest maid in all the valley. But she had no husband, because…” He stopped, appalled. I glared at him.
He coughed and went on, plainly not knowing what else to do. “Ah…because in those days men were sensible, and instead of looking for lovely lasses to be their brides, they looked out for girls who could cook and spin, who might make notable housewives. But Maisie…”
Brianna made a deep inhuman noise. Jamie clenched his teeth for a moment, but went on, holding tight to both her hands.
“But Maisie loved the light in the fields and the birds of the glen…”
The light faded gradually from the room, and the smell of sun-warmed flowers was replaced by the damp green smell of the willows by the river, and the faint scent of woodsmoke from the cookhouse.
Brianna’s shift was wet through, and stuck to her skin. I dug my thumbs into her back, just above the hips, and she squirmed hard against me, trying to ease the ache. Jamie sat with his head down, clinging doggedly to her hands, still talking soothingly, telling stories of silkies and seal catchers, of pipers and elves, of the great giants of Fingal’s Cave, and the Devil’s black horse that passes through the air faster than the thought between a man and a maid.
The pains were very close together. I motioned to Phaedre, who ran away and came back with a lighted taper, to light the candles in the sconces.
It was cool and dim in the room, the walls lit with flickering shadows. Jamie’s voice was hoarse; Brianna’s was nearly gone.
Suddenly she let go of him and sat up, grabbing at her knees, face dark red with effort, pushing.
“Now, then,” I said. I stacked pillows quickly behind her, made her lean back against the bedstead, called Phaedre to hold the candlestick for me.
I oiled my fingers, reached under her shift, and touched flesh I had not touched since she was a baby herself. I rubbed slowly, gently, talking to her, knowing it made no great difference what I said.
I felt the strain, the sudden change under my fingers. A relaxation, then once more. There was a sudden gush of amniotic fluid, that splashed across the bed and dripped on the floor, filling the room with the scent of fecund rivers. I rubbed and eased, praying that it would not come too fast, not tear her.
The ring of flesh opened suddenly, and my fingers touched something wet and hard. Relaxation, and it moved back, away, leaving the ends of my fingers tingling with the knowledge that I had touched someone entirely new. Once more the great pressure, the stretching came, and once more eased slowly back. I pushed back the edge of the shift, and with the next push the ring stretched to impossible size, and a head like a Chinese gargoyle popped out, with a flood of amniotic fluid and blood.
I found myself nose to nose with a waxy-white head with a face like a fist, that grimaced at me in utter fury.
“What is it? Is it a boy?” Jamie’s hoarse question cut through my startlement.
“I hope so,” I said, hastily thumbing mucus from nose and mouth. “It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen; God help it if it’s a girl.”
Brianna made a noise that might have started as a laugh, and turned into an enormous grunt of effort. I barely had time to get my fingers in and turn the wide shoulders slightly to help. There was an audible pop, and a long, wet form slithered out onto the soggy quilt, wriggling like a landed trout.
I seized a clean linen towel and wrapped him—it was him, the scrotal sac swelled up round and purple between fat thighs—checking quickly for his Apgar signs: breathing, color, activity…all good. He was making thin, angry noises, short explosions of breath, not really crying, and punching the air with clenched tiny fists.
I laid him on the bed, one hand on the bundle as I checked Brianna. Her thighs were smeared with blood, but there was no sign of hemorrhage. The cord was still pulsing, a thick wet snake of connection between them.
She was panting, lying back on the crushed pillows, hair plastered wetly to her temples, an enormous smile of relief and triumph on her face. I laid a hand on her belly, suddenly flaccid. Deep inside, I felt the placenta give way, as her body surrendered its last physical link with her son.
“Once more, honey,” I said softly to her. The last contraction shivered over her belly, and the afterbirth slid out. I tied off the cord and cut it, and placed the solid little bundle of her child in her arms.
“He’s beautiful,” I whispered.
I left him to her, and turned my attention to immediate matters, kneading her belly firmly with my fists, to encourage the uterus to contract and stop the bleeding. I could hear the babble of excitement spreading through the house as Phaedre rushed downstairs to spread the news. I glanced upward once, to see Brianna glowing, still smiling from ear to ear. Jamie was behind her, also smiling, his cheeks wet with tears. He said something to her in husky Gaelic, and brushing the hair away from her neck, leaned forward and kissed her gently, just behind the ear.
“Is he hungry?” Brianna’s voice was deep and cracked, and she tried to clear her throat. “Shall I feed him?”
“Try him and see. Sometimes they’re sleepy right afterward, but sometimes they want to nurse.”
She fumbled at the neck of her shift and pulled loose the ribbon, baring one high, full breast. The bundle made small growf noises as she turned it awkwardly toward her, and her eyes sprang open in surprise as the mouth fastened on her nipple with sudden ferocity.
“Strong, isn’t he?” I said, and realized that I was crying only when I tasted the salt of my tears running into the corners of my smile.
Sometime later, with mother and child cleaned up and made comfortable, food and drink brought for Brianna, and a last check assuring that all was well, I walked out into the deep shadows of the upper gallery. I felt pleasantly detached from reality, as though I were walking a foot or so off the ground.
Jamie had gone down to tell John; he was waiting for me at the foot of the stairs. He drew me into his arms without a word and kissed me; as he let me go I saw the deep red crescents of Brianna’s nailmarks on his hands, not yet faded.
“Ye did brawly too,” he whispered to me. Then the joy in his eyes bloomed bright and flowered in a face-splitting grin. “Grannie!”
“Is he dark or fair?” Jamie asked suddenly, rising on one elbow beside me in bed. “I counted his fingers, and I didna even think to look.”