Derisa pulls her scarf up over her head as she hurries down her garden path and out onto the quiet, dark street. It is frosty; in the gardens icy fronds flash white in the light of a full moon, which is partly obscured by clouds pregnant with the possibility of snow. Once again Derisa reflects on the fact that labour so often seems to start around this phase of the moon. The air is biting, freezing her lungs as she breaths in; her breath hanging like fog as she exhales. It is 3 am but Derisa is not sleepy. A baby is coming and she has work to do. Setting her face in the right direction and hitching her heavy bag higher up onto her shoulder, Derisa begins the twenty minute walk to Malina’s house.
Even if she’d never been there before, Derisa would have been able to spot the house from the bottom of the street. A light is on in the downstairs window. Gently opening the garden gate, she feels her way carefully up the dark path to the front door and takes a moment to compose herself, taking three long slow breaths, calming her pulse and letting her shoulders drop. She bends the finger of each hand gently down to touch the thumb in a precise, ritualistic movement – a habit she is hardly aware of – and then knocks softly on the wooden front door. The door is on the latch and swings slowly open to her touch. She quietly steps over the threshold, sets her bang down and takes off her boots and coat, all the time using her eyes and ears for clues to the state of affairs. Just as she takes one step further into the house, she is rewarded by a low moaning coming from the kitchen.
Silently, Derisa moves up the dark hallway towards the sound. She knows Malina is alone and doesn’t want to startle her. As she approaches the doorway she catches sight of her, leaning on the kitchen worktop, breathing heavily and bending her knees with each out breath. Derisa sinks to the floor, instinctively matching her breathing to Malina’s, and waits. The moans subside and Malina stands upright, rubbing her back and stretching as though she has been asleep, and turns towards Derisa. She knew she was there, and appreciated how she had melted into the small space. They lock eyes and Derisa smiles broadly, happy and excited for Malina, who visibly relaxes now she is no longer alone. She starts to speak, but another wave is beginning to tighten and twist inside her – hot, radiating, engulfing.
There is a look of panic in Malina’s eyes and her breath is quick and ragged. Her whole face is an entreaty. Reacting to the silent plea, Derisa stands, steps closer and places a hand on each of Malina’s shoulders. She looks deep into her eyes, smiling, and begins to breathe, long and slow, in through her nose and out through her mouth, the out breath curling out from between her softly parted lips with a gently sigh. Malina can’t help but mirror her: clutching at Derina’s shoulders, allowing herself to sink, deep, deep into the depths of Derisa’s dark brown eyes and matching her breathing to the old woman’s.
Derisa begins to dance. Slowly, gently, she bends her knees and sways from side to side in time with their breathing. Malina follows, experimenting with the movements. She finds that if she circles her hips it feels as though the huge sensation can, somehow, find a way out, like water running down a plughole. And so they stay, dancing together in the candlelight, in the cramped kitchen, for who knows how long; words unnecessary. As Derisa runs her hands down Malina’s back and hips she can feel her changing from unyielding rock to soft butter. ‘There we are’. she thinks to herself, ‘now she has rhythm’. She looks deep into Malina’s eyes again and sees a new stoicism and a growing knowledge of the tools within. Nodding approvingly, she turns and begins searching the kitchen for food and drink to sustain Malina on the journey.
Some time later they find themselves in the bedroom, Malina on all fours on the bed, the waves coming so regularly now that she barely has time to rest her head on the pillow and catch her breath. Her cheeks are flushed and she feels hot. ‘As soon as this one is done, I need to get my clothes off’, Malina thinks, but as she feels the white heat begin to dissipate, she can do nothing but sink, exhausted, back into the pillow, picking at the hem of her dress. Derisa understands, and gently begins to lift her dress up and over her head.
Sweat sparkles in the lamplight and a stray strand of hair is stuck to Malina’s face. Derisa smooths her hair back with mother’s fingers, offers a sip of sweet tea and wipes her face and neck with a cool cloth. The waves are coming like clockwork now, the rhythm unrelenting, each one building to a peak and forcing Malina to rock backwards and forwards, letting the intensity escape from between her lips in a low, keening moan. Derisa’s senses are on high alert. She runs her hands over Malina’s lower back and down, over her buttocks and feels the telltale mound of the sacrum, lifting up slightly to allow the baby’s head to pass underneath. She feels the tension in her buttocks and thighs and instinctively begins to massage this area, kneading her knuckles into the flesh until she feels the muscles surrender under the heat and pressure of her hands.
Another wave begins and Derisa sniffs the unmistakable aroma of birth – a fragrance lying somewhere between seaside ozone and sex. It’s a big one. Derisa murmurs in Malina’s ear, her voice gentle and monotone, lulling the labouring woman and helping her float up and over the wave. At the peak, Malina shrieks and Derisa feels the bag of waters bursting before she hears the quiet splash of liquid hitting the towel between Malina’s knees. Bringing the bedside lamp closer, Derisa peers at the wet towel. The waters are clear and she whispers a silent prayer of thanks to Arianrhod, Goddess of rebirth and weaver of time and fate. “Your baby is coming, sweetheart”, she whispers and Malina begins to shake, tears running down her cheeks and dripping onto the pillow.
“I just can’t….can’t….no….I don’t want to do this anymore….can’t….” Malina gasps. Derisa lays a warm, reassuringly heavy hand on her shoulder and murmers, “you are doing it, you and your baby together. Let your mind step aside. Your mind is full of NO. Experiment with how it feels to change that to YES.” With that, the next wave began to crash against the shore of Malina’s body, the peak so powerful her back arches like a cat. Derisa hears the familiar catch in Malina’s voice; the little grunt that signals the baby is beginning to nudge downwards. The word ‘yes’ loudly fills the room; sounding supernatural and jarring in the silence of the night. Malina’s eyes widen, as though confused by the source of the cry. Realising the primal scream came from her own lips, she searches for Derisa’s face and is met with the widest, most reassuring grin she could have hoped for. All is well. All is well. All manner of things are well.
The atmosphere in the room undergoes a profound, yet intangible transformation. Both women feel lifted; energy is boosted. A look of focus and determination settles on Malina’s face. Pushing away doubts about not knowing how to push the baby out, finally, she lets go into a place of complete trust. This body has got her this far – perhaps she can trust it to carry her the final furlong. She begins to notice the change in the sensations; each wave progressively feeling a little more expulsive. Derisa steps away a little. She knows this is when a woman steps through a portal into a place of profound power and focus if only they can feel private and safe. She surveys the room: everything they may need is within reach. A small pile of towels sits on the corner of the bed and the cord tie and scissors are over there on the dresser. She offers Malina a sip of drink between each wave, feeds her little bites of fruit and biscuit, turns up the heater in the corner of the room and sits back on her heels. Waiting, witnessing.
The undeniable smell of birth pervades the room and a small trickle of red runs down Malina’s inner thigh. She is working hard and the external signs of that work are beginning to be visible. At the peak of a wave, her vulva begins to part, just a little, then softly close again as the sensation ebbs. Derisa feels satisfied and pushes on old, familiar worry to one side: labour is going well – the chances of the baby being compromised is tiny. The goddesses are fickle, yes; but most of the time, they do not hex proceedings. Malina is beginning to understand the rhythm: the wave begins to build and she is engulfed with an overwhelming urge to bear down. It feels like she is turning herself inside out; the feeling so intense that she is convinced she will split in half. The wave flows through her, reaching a peak and, without thought, she rears up, onto her knees, her arms reaching up above her head. Derisa understands. She rises to her feet, grabs her scarf and throws it over the ceiling rafter conveniently located above the bed and places the ends in Malina’s hands. Now, with each wave, She can pull herself up to squatting, matching the intensity of her pulling on the fabric to the power of the push below.
It helps. A small but intrusive anxiety has been buzzing inside Malina’s mind like an irritating insect. She doesn’t want Derisa to see her shitting. Now in a squat position, she feels more private. She lets the end of the long scarf drape down over her thigh, affording her a modicum of modesty. Derisa mops her brow and the back of her neck with a cool, damp washcloth and murmurs, ‘good, good, you’re doing so well my love.’ Malina looks up at her. ‘Am I?’ she retorts. ‘How can you tell?’
‘Feel for yourself’, Derisa responds. Tentatively, Malina reaches between her legs and feels inside herself with one finger and instantly feels her baby’s head, about two knuckles depth away from the exit. It feels firm and covered with wet hair. Her spirits rise wildly, energy coursing through her and a prayer to the goddess bubbles out from between her lips like water over rocks in a mountain stream. ‘Sweet Arianrhod, help me bring my baby earthside.’ And then to her baby: ‘Come on little one, let’s do this. I’m ready.’
She proudly indicates to Derisa how close her baby is to being born by pointing to her finger and Derisa grins. ‘Well aren’t you the clever one! Let’s get that baby round the bend.’ Each wave now opens Malina a little more. Soon Derisa can see the smallest slither of head if she lays her ear on the bed and peers up between Malina’s legs. From opening and closing like a blinking eyelid, Malina’s vulva is now open all the time, showing an ever increasing expanse of infant skull as each wave envelops her. At the widest part, just above the ears, Malina gives a screech and then breathes quickly and shallowly, as though stepping into ice cold water. This moment is infused with sanctity – a sacred silence descends; time seems stretched, world stops turning. Both women hold their breath for what seems like an eternity, as Malina’s child emerges infinitesimally slowly and then, all of a sudden, flesh slips over flesh and a face is visible.
Malina’s child blinks in the half light, peering into the unknown, hovering between worlds. Both here and there; a creature caught twixt water and air. Malina collapses forward onto her hands and knees, letting her lungs fill with cleansing breaths. She sudders, almost imperceptably, as the child stretches inside her, pushing feet against her ribs like a swimmer kicking off from the wall. They see the baby’s head turn slowly to face Malina’s inner thigh. A pause and then, as a wave builds within Malina’s body for one last time, Derisa sees a neck extend, a shoulder appear and then, in one wet, bloody movement, the baby’s whole body slithers out, resting for one moment on a towel draped over Derisa’s hands and is passed instantly through Malina’s thighs and laid on the bed below her.
Derisa moves away, crouching on the floor next to the bed, eyes on the baby. A tiny mewing sound, skin turning from pale violet to a ruddy pink and a little fist reaching up towards Malina, all tell Derisa the child is doing well. A fat, juicy cord connects Malina to the baby, twisting like an orange peeled in one go, obscures the child’s genitals. No matter, time enough for labelling and naming later. Malina’s hands are still on the bed either side of the wiggling infant. Her breathing is still heavy, as if she has been running and come to an abrupt halt. Her eyes are fixed on her child. She can neither see nor hear anything else other than the face of the small creature on the bed. Slowly, she sits back on her heels and looks for Derisa. Their eyes meet and Derisa nods and smiles. Reassured, Malina touches the baby’s face and body, very delicately, with her finger tips, then encircles her child’s abdomen with her hands. With the next breath the baby is lifted and nestled between Malina’s breasts. This is Derisa’s signal to move. She helps Malina to turn over, checks the mattress is protected, covers mother and baby with another towel and then tucks them both under Malina’s grandmother’s quilt.