Sylvie wished she hadn’t sent Marcus for the suitcase. Almost as soon as he was gone, she wanted him back. Under his scrutiny she’d felt exposed and vulnerable – naked and freezing under the water. But it was nothing compared to how she felt with the Crone’s eyes screwing into her back. The chill which crept through her when ever the Crone set foot in the room.
Sylvie thought she was smart. A blood test to solve the riddle. A legitimate excuse to make Marcus leave. Now she was alone and scared, trying to keep her fear from racing and fuelling the anxiety of the labouring woman.
Her knees ached, in fact her whole body felt ancient. Worn out. Used. There was a dull thump in her forehead, where the blood had crusted and tiredness threatened to cloud her judgement.
It didn’t take long to realise the labouring woman was not a woman, but a girl, probably no more than 16 and she was not part of the commune or whatever they called the enclave out here in the urban desolation. It was also clear something was not right – something outside of her understanding of human biology and birthing.
The girl refused to share her name, where she came from or how she got there and the other women in the room were mute to her questions. The inside of the girl’s arm had the silvery calling card of old track marks, but it wasn’t withdrawal which was competing with labour. The girl seemed to be utterly terrified. Not just of the labour but of the Crone, cowering into the nest of cushions every time she heard her rasping voice. Sylvie had done her best to protect and calm her.
Sylvie had fought the Crone, losing her professional calm and yelling, when she’d discovered the girl’s lips and mouth were burnt and blistered from being force feed garlic.
“Do not question, midwife, what we do here,” was all the woman said then turned her back on Sylvie. That’s when she’d really lost her col and hurled bunch of garlic at hunched, back of the old woman as she shuffled to the door.
Regaining her composure Sylvie had sunk down into the birthing nest, gently sponging the girl’s mutilated lips with melted snow and stroking her brow, singing softly the old birth songs taught to her by Maia. Her hands massaged the slight hips and back, feeling the bones and ligaments shifting to release the babies.
But labour was faltering despite the girl being calmer. This wasn’t the rest and be thankful which segued into birthing. This was the warning things were not progressing as they should. The girl’s skin burnt and when Sylvie flashed the pen light into the girl’s eyes, the pupils failed to respond.
Now Sylvie sat back on her heels waiting. But waiting for what? At least the crone was gone now – for good. Sylvie had ocked the door after her last exist and pushed a chair under the knob. Then under the baleful stare of the three women trapped in the room with her, she stepped out a protective spell. If the Crone was who Sylvie suspected she was, she wouldn’t try to force her way back in.
Halting at the door, Sylvie closed her eyes and reeled when she felt the energy rising. It was then she realised this wasn’t a birth house. It lay onto of one of the lines of power which ran through the city.
– – –
The girl slept fitfully, the contractions at a complete stand still. The three women clustered by the altar and looked on as though it were a spectator sport and they were full of knowing of how to do it better.
“How many births have you been to?” Sylvie stretched and went over to them. She couldn’t get it out of her mind, the power which she had been able to raise when she’d sealed off the door to keep the Crone out.
One in a tattered red dress, with a serpent pendant clasped at her throat stepped forward.
“None of us. We are priestesses.”
“Teleia is not coming back, is she?” ventured a woman in a purple dress, but with the same pendant in the hollow of her throat.
The three women looked nervously at each other.
“You have a midwife here, among you>”
“Why is she not attending this woman.”
“She is unable to come.” It was the woman standing at the back, in the flickering shadows. She stepped out into the light.
“And you three?”
Simulataneously three hands went to the serpent pendants, as though an invisible strings pulled them in symmetry.
“We had no choice.”
“I’m guessing you were dragged kicking and screaming in here?”
She turned and went back to the girl, taking the rag from the earthen bowl by the cushions and throwing it at the group of women. The rag cart-wheeled through the air, tiny droplets coming off it like sparks off a Catherine Wheel, catching the light from the fire as they fell.
The last woman to speak caught it.
“Keep it on her head. And you two, stoke the fire. We need to get the temperature up in here.”
– – –
With the other women occupied Sylvie settled down next to the priestess.
“I’m Sylvie,” she said.
The other woman remained mute, reapplying the compress with an unexpected tenderness.
“You can think what you want,” she said, turning to Sylvie. “But sometimes you have to play out the part destiny chose for you.”
Sylvie pulled up her knees to her chest, as she’d done as a child.
“It is hard for someone like you to comprehend.”
“Maybe if you explained I would understand better.”
The woman shook her head, removing the warm compress.
“We are all here to do a job. Everyone.”
“Her temperature indicates a massive infection of some kind. I have nothing with me to treat that. Even if I had my suitcase with all my gear.” Sylvie reached out and gently grasped the woman’s forearm as she reached out for the earthen bowl. “Please, can you tell me about her?”
The woman shook her head.
“At least tell me your name then.”
“Tisi and the others are Alec and Meg.”
“Ok Tisi, how about we broker a deal. I won’t question what you do, if you don’t question what I do.”
Tisi nodded. Sylvie released her arm and watched the rag submerg in the water, cool and release its filth, then be wrung out and reapplied to the feverish forehead to begin the process again.
The fire roared to life and the room warmed steadily. New candles were lit from old ones. Sylvie watched, waited and silently prayed that she knew the right thing to do. The girl’s pulse was weakening and the contractions had yet to begin again. Both heart beats remained strong but the mother was struggling.
Sylvie turned her satchel upside down and a small jar clattered to the floor. Maia called it The Elixir of Life and Sylvie, with nothing else to call upon, prayed to the Goddess the sweet, thick liquid was just that.
The girl lay on her side, her breathing erratic and her enormous stomach pushing out as though it were trying to escape from her emaciated body. Sylvie crawled up next to her, unscrewed the lid and dipped her forefinger deep into the rich warmth. With the jar between three fingers, she used the other two fingers to push back the girl’s lips.
“No… stop!” yelled Tisi, lurching across the next of cushions and knocking Sylvie out the way. The jar flew from Sylvie’s hand and Tisi landed on top of Sylvie. She looked up at Tisi in confused anger.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“She might bite you.”
Sylvie pushed her off and crawled away from both the other women. The entire situation was finally clear to her.
“You purposely infected a pregnant woman.”
When Tisi didn’t answer, Sylvie scrambled through the cushions for the jar of honey, rescuing the small amount which had remained in the jar.
She picked up the sticky jar and climbed out of the cushions. She scooped out the last of the honey and positioned herself so Tisi couldn’t tackle her a second time. Pushing the girl’s lips back and Sylvie applied a thick smear of honey to the gums, the inner lips and the rough tongue.
Tisi had crawled free as well and was standing away, with her Alex and Meg on either side of her. Sylvie wiped her fingers down the front of her track pants with a defiance she hadn’t felt she was a tiny girl. The three of them took a step backwards as she stood up.
Sylvie moved across the room with an unchecked fury which had been waiting years to be unleashed.
“What was she what – some lab experiment? A lost junkie who wandered in here? What the hell are you women doing?”
Tisi squared her shoulders.
“Reclaiming what was taken from us,” Meg said, the fire catching the red highlights in the tattered material of her dress.
The girl moaned behind them.
“There were experiments, but she wasn’t one of them. We found her out there, attacked by The Dogs,” said Tisi. “That’s what Teleia calls them, the Old Ones who roam around looking for blood. She’d been raped and mauled. We bought her back here. We expected her to die… or change.”
“They’re going to kill me,” screamed the girl.
“Who knows she’s here?” Sylvie asked.
“That’s why the midwife wouldn’t come. She doesn’t even know?”
Tisi nodded her head.
“I’m sorry you were bought into this Sylvie… but we all have a part to play in the Prophecy. Then we can all be free.”
“Prophecy? Give me a break.”
“It is said a woman will bear two children from her womb at the same time, one dead and one alive. A child who will free us from the virus.”
“The end will be the beginning and the beginning the end,” added Alec.
“And you fed her this bullshit.”
“It is what we believe.”
“Oh shit… I get it now. Tisiphone – avenging murder. Alecto – unceasing and you Megaera – grudging. The Three Fates.”
“I don’t want to die.” The words sliced through the air.
“You’re as committed to this us the three of us,” Tisi said.
“I will let you out if you want to. All of you.”
The three shook their heads.
“Tell us what we have to do?”
And in that moment, Sylvie knew she couldn’t do it alone, as much as she hated the three women who stood before her.
– – –
It took all of Sylvie’s prowess to calm the girl. When she lay quietly, Sylvie showed her the tiny dried flower bud which had been in the bottom of her satchel with the honey.
“This is a Rose of Jerusalem,” she said. “It is a birthing flower. It looks dead doesn’t it, but it isn’t. It’s waiting to bloom. The petals open slowly as heat and moisture wakens them. Your body is like this – it is opening, slowly and gently. It is what it is designed to do.”
She passed it to the girl.
“It feels worse than anything I’ve ever felt before.” It was the first time she’d spoken to anyone and the words although barely audible seemed to fill the room.
“The more you are afraid the more it will hurt. Do you think you can imagine you are this flower.”
The girl nodded, looking at the tiny bud in her sweaty palm.
“It’s ok to have been afraid, but you don’t need to be afraid anymore. I blew zombies to bits to get here and be with you. And I’ll do it again if I have to. I will kill anyone who tries to harm you or your babes while I am here. Do you think you can trust me?”
The girl nodded again, damp lanks of dirty blonde hair falling onto her forehead.
“Ok… we’re going to get you up. You’re going to walk, work with gravity to open the last of your cervix.”
“Yes you can.”
When Tisi bent down to help her up, the girl cringed.
“No one here is going to hurt you sweet heart, no one. I promise.” Sylvie kept her voice low and melodic and the girl let Tisi touch her.
Between the two of them they hauled the girl to her feet and began the slow perambulation around the room. The drafts, coming in from various different directions upset the stoic burn of the candles, distorting their shadows on the wall. The pungent tang of garlic was still thick in the air, along with the harsh smell of the candle smoke.
The girl groaned and stopped as the contraction washed through her body, her legs bending and her back arching backwards as she opened her mouth and release a piercing scream.
“Breathe out slowly, sweet heart. It will help you with the pain.”
“no.. no.. no..”
“Sh… shhhhh. Yes… yes… Breathe…” and she exhaled slowly close to the girl’s ear.
“Noooooo! I can’t”
Between each contraction they walked. By the time they returned to the nest of cushions the screams had become moans, animalistic urgings of a body bringing forth new life.
When the girl started screamed she was going to die, she couldn’t do it and began begged for forgiveness and for them to take her own life, to end it, Sylvie smiled.
“Your babes are close, sweet heart.”
When the maelstrom inside the girl’s body subsided Sylvie lead her over to the fire.
“Open your hand and look at the flower.”
The girl shook her head.
“I crushed it.”
“No, look,” Sylvie urged and when the girl’s small fingers opened, the petals of the flower opened with her. “See…”
The girl’s eyes devoured the majestic spread of the petals and the way the flower filled her small palm.
Sylvie walked away and left her to absorb the lesson of the flower in her hand. She found an unlit candle on the altar. She offered up a prayer as the flame sprung to life. Tisi, Alec and Meg followed her. They each took a handful of rosemary, lavender and clary sage and threw it onto the fire.
“A crash course on breech birth,” Sylvie said once they had completed their rites. “There are four rules. Don’t push until completely dilated. Upright – work with gravity. Hands off – don’t touch the baby as it emerges. Warm room – don’t give the baby a reason to breathe before the head is out.”
Alec and Meg, you will both kneel, one knee up and the other down to form a birthing seat for her. Tisi will stoke the fire. Do you understand me? If it is a long second stage, you can swap.”
The three women nodded. Alec and Meg followed her to where the girl stood silhouetted against the flames.
“Gather up some blankets, towels, cushions. We need to make a birthing space here, close to the fire.”
When the space was ready Alec and Meg got down as directed. Sylvie took the flower from the girl and put it on the floor where she would be able to see it. Settling her on the knees of the women, Sylvie looked her in the eye.
“If you breathe with me, your body will relax and do all the work for you. When you feel the urge to bare down, to push, I want you to wait. You understand.”
The girl nodded.
She stroked the girl’s hand, listened to the heart beats then placed a hand on her massive stomach waiting for the womb to stir beneath.
The candles and the fire leapt when the womb stirred.
“Don’t push, breathe with me… long out-breath. That’s a girl.”
Tisi left her place by the fire to wipe the girl’s face with a cool cloth when the surge passed.
“You are doing brilliantly,” Sylvie said, her eyes full of admiration and encouragement.
The girl moaned, tears wetting her cheeks. They breathed together through three more contractions before the girl cried out, “I have to push.”
A low guttural cry tore through the room making all the tiny hairs on Sylvie body stand up. A gust of wind followed and extinguished all the candles. Alec and Meg attempted to pitch the girl from their knees.
“Don’t you dare move,” Sylvie threatened. She looked up at the girl from where was she crouched between her battered feet. “It was too light. It is perfect now. Relax.”
But Sylvie had felt the chill like the others and it wasn’t just the cold air, something else was trying to get in.
The girl’s eyes snapped open and her body stiffened. Another cry ripped from her mouth and her body born down. Sylvie saw a small round lump trying to push free.
“Gentle now sweetheart.” Sylvie applied counter pressure to the girl’s perineum careful not to touch the rosy bottom of the baby.
On the next contraction the bottom emerged and baby hung with its legs dangling down, hidden from the stomach upwards. The girl grunted and worked to catch her breathe. Sylvie wanted to urge her to keep pushing but she held herself in check. A deathly second sense was crawling over her skin like a plague of bugs.
Everything was fine, she assured herself. Everything was going the way it was intended to.
She checked for a prolapsed cord and seeing everything fine, Sylvie moved back and waited, shrugging off the dread.
As the next contraction started Sylvie reached into the void and positioned herself to catch the baby under the arms as it dropped into the world. As it fell free from its mother, Sylvie felt herself in a free fall of her own, as though she was being sucked through time, out through the back of her head.
The sensation of the warm, wet skin of the baby hitting her outstretched hands bought her back with a start. The moment nothing more than a split second of disorientation. She slipped one hand behind the head and the other under the bottom. Alec and Meg to help the girl to lie down. The baby opened its eyes and coughed, then a cry filled the room. The room filled with the heady, metalic-laced scent of amniotic fluid.
“He’s normal,” the girl sobbed when Sylvie held him up for her to see. “Oh my God, he’s normal.”
Placing the boy on teh girl’s stomach Sylvie watched as he crawled slowly upwards, the girls’ hands stroking him gently, but not hurrying him. When he reached her breast he attached himself and begun to suck furiously.
As he did, the girl cried out again. Her body stiffening.
“It is OK. You can birth the second one here… relax.”
Sylvie grabbed some string and tied off the first baby’s cord and cut him free with her scalpel. She motioned for Tisi to hold the girl’s leg up to give the second baby space.
When Tisi lifted the leg Sylvie recoiled at the tide of blood free-flowing from the girl, soaking out into the old blankets and towels, inching its way towards her.
“Tisi, you have to go out. You have to get my case. She’s going to die other wise. And the other baby.”
“We have one live baby, that’s all that matters.”
“No it isn’t.”
“Our work is done.” Tisi dropped the girl’s leg and got up. The three priestesses drew back.
“Don’t you leave me here alone,” yelled Sylvie.
The girl began to convulse as the door opened and they were gone. The baby pulled away from the nipple and began to wail.
“You stay with me… you stay with me,” Sylvie urged the girl, coming up to her head and lightly slapping her cheeks.
The girl’s eyes rolled into the back of her head and her body shook. Sylvie cradled her head and when the eyes rolled back the pupils were gone.
Sylvie scrambled away and grabbed the baby away from its mother, hugging it close to her as it screamed. She shuffled backwards on her bottom from the mother, crushing the Rose of Jerusalem as she went. The girl twisted and writhed in impossible ways. In the final moment he threw her legs apart, her back arched and her womb disgorged the second baby in one massive contraction.
As the second baby open its mouth to howl an angry salutation, an explosion tore through the night, cracking the walls and showering the birth room in a thick layer of dust.