Malina felt the hot, wet child between her breasts wriggle and lift its head away from her sternum. Looking down, she meets her baby’s gaze for the first time. With eyes as huge and dark as the depths of the sea, curls of wet, black hair stuck down in seaweed strands and ears as delicate and intricate as the shells she picks up on the beach, Malina wonders if she has given birth to a selkie-child. She runs her palms over the baby’s back and buttocks, exploring, hungry for every detail, yet feeling it all to be strangely familiar. Cradling the baby in both hands she lowers it down onto her lap to drink everything in: a boy, she has a son. She runs her fingers over the boy’s chest and belly, all the way down to his toes. He stares at her intently, eyes serious, mouth a perfect bud, and Malina feels unable to tear her gaze away. He squirms in a way she recognises, and the pink tip of a tongue emerges, tasting the air. A little fist is raised towards her and a small frown appears between his brows. Malina understands and lifts him back to where they both feel safest – her chest.
She wriggles down the bed a little more, reclining back into the cushions behind her. Both of them are warm under her grandmother’s quilt and Malina feels a bliss she has never before experienced. Burying her nose in her son’s hair, she inhales him and it is better than that expensive perfume she once smelt in the Taramco Plaza Mall. And with that thought comes a wrenching in her womb. She looks up for Derisa but she is alone. Straining her ears she can hear her bustling in the kitchen and opens her mouth to call her but realises she needs to breathe through this sensation. As it subsides, Derisa appears, carrying a tray with a teapot, cups and slices of cake she doesn’t recognise, and places it on the bedside table next to Malina.
‘My belly had a pain again’, Malina whispers. Derisa smiles and places a hand on Malina’s shoulder. ‘Good, that’s good. The afterbirth must be born, just like the baby. But stay calm, it won’t be as intense as pushing out the baby.’ Seeing Malina relax, she looks at the baby, head bobbing on his mother’s chest, fists closed tight, embracing and massaging her left breast. Drawing back the quilt, Derisa sees his little feet stepping into Malina’s belly-space, in a crawling motion. ‘Can I look between your legs just to check things are as they should be?’ asks Derisa. Malina nods and re-covering mother and child, Derisa lifts the quilt from Malina’s feet and up and over her thighs. There is a very small puddle of blood on the towel under her buttocks. The cord is thin and white, snaking up between her legs and over her belly. Derisa is satisfied and tucks Malina back under the quilt.
The baby is redoubling his efforts to reach the nipple now. Feet and hands making him a four-legged creature, crawling and mewling his way, each head bob bringing him closer. Derisa had learned many years ago that this first coming together rarely requires any direction if the dyad are undisturbed. She pours tea, helps Malina take a sweet sip and a luxurious mouthful of cake and sits back on her heels to wait. Malina looks at her. ‘He knows what to do’, she smiles and watches as he guides himself astutely to nature’s dark target. Before long, he lands himself squarely, his chin firmly embedded in the breast, nipple wafting its delicious scent right up his nose, and he tips his head back, mouth gaping hungrily. Then, letting himself fall, his open mouth closes over his prize; a nipple erect from all his false tries and caresses.
As he begins to suckle, Derisa observes that Malina is getting another cramp. Her free hand reaches down to her belly and rubs it through the quilt but she appears unfazed by the sensation, almost unconscious of it. All her attention is on her child, enraptured by his passionate suckling. The expression on her face is one of pride: what a talented child she has, who knows what to do to stay alive so soon after birth! After a few minutes the baby’s suckle begins to slow, a look of sleepy bliss spreading across his face. His tight fists have relaxed and his spread fingers now lay delicately on Malina’s breast. She is captivated by his perfect, tiny fingernails. His head feels heavy against her arm and Derisa notices. She pushes a cushion under Malina’s elbow. A sigh escapes from between Malina’s lips and she lets her head sink back into the pillow behind her. Derisa feeds her more cake and tea and looks at the baby, now sound asleep on his mother’s chest.
‘Can I check you again?’ she asks and Malina nods. Under the quilt she sees that blood loss is still minimal but a small amount of fresh red blood is on Malina’s thighs.
‘It feels horrid and heavy.’
‘Good, I think your placenta is ready to come. Do you think you can stand or kneel up?
Malina looks uncertain, but with Derisa’s help, manages to wriggle herself to the edge of the bed, baby still clutched tight to her chest. ‘You might be fine, right here’, murmurs Derisa, helping Malina to perch right on the edge of the mattress and part her legs a little. Along comes another cramp and another little trickle of blood and Derisa notices the cord lengthen, just a little.
‘Can you cough or clear your throat?’ Derisa enquires. ‘It can help it come out.’
As Malina coughs, Derisa can see her soft belly harden and protrude, creating pressure in her pelvic floor. In a moment, the placenta appears and Derisa guides it out gently. It lands with a small splash in the bowl she reserves for this very purpose.
Derisa makes a satisfied humming sound and Malina emits a relieved groan. ‘What a relief! It felt so heavy!’
‘Are you ready to cut the cord?’
‘No, not yet.’
Malina didn’t know why. It just suddenly felt important and unbearably sad thinking about her child being separated from the life-sustaining warmth of his placenta. And Derisa doesn’t argue, just nodding and turning her attention to the placenta, thinking as usual of her mother, who had taught her that placenta means ‘flat cake’ and how to check the cake is complete, without tears or pieces missing. It looks good, but she will wait to examine it in detail until after it has been separated from the baby. For now, she helps Malina back under the covers, places the placenta bowl on the bed next to her and gently asks permission to touch her belly. Feeling down Malina’s soft, empty abdomen, she finds the hard surface of the womb, already returning to its usual size.
‘It will continue to shrink. You might feel it cramp when you feed him. That’s good and nothing to worry about.’
And with that they both look at the sleeping baby, who is making little snuffling noises, look at each other and smile. Malina takes Derisa’s work worn and veiny hand and squeezes it. A tear runs down her face.
‘Thank you’, she whispers.
‘It is my honour’, Derisa replies, pouring more tea.
They eat cake in companionable silence, picking crumbs out of the selkie-child’s hair.