Frances heard a shriek as she approached the cottage door. Joseph hovered outside the threshold, twisting his cap in his hands. “She’s bad, Frances. Says she can’t take the pain.”
The old woman gave him a dismissive wave. “Ah, she’ll be fine, lad. It’s nature’s way.”
“What should I do?” He was barely more than a boy, less than a year married. His face, normally nut brown from working in the fields all day, had a grey cast to it.
Frances shouldered past him, Margaret right behind her. “Just stay out of the way, boy, and let us work. I’ve never lost a baby nor a mama yet, and I don’t intend today to be my first.”
Inside the cottage was dark, air thick with the smells of smoke, sweat, and urine. Frances could dimly make out Essie’s form writhing on the small bed against the far wall. “Margaret, get the window open and put on water to boil,” she said, rummaging in her bag of supplies. The packets of powders and herbs went on the cottage’s rickety table; Margaret would know without being told how to mix them.
Frances carried the birthing stool and linen to the bedside. “Now then, young Essie, let’s have a look at you.”
Essie’s round face glistened, her cornsilk hair flattened against her scalp. “Oh, Frances, it hurts something terrible. I think something’s wrong.”
Frances pushed back the blanket and peered between Essie’s legs, pressing one hand against the swollen belly. “Nonsense, girl. Your mother said the same thing when she birthed you, and you were no trouble at all. We’ve time yet.”
While Margaret boiled water and brewed the herbs, Frances got Essie out of bed and on her feet. At first she resisted, but Frances eventually got her to walk a circle around the small room. When Essie’s next labor pains struck, the old woman helped her sink into a squatting position on the low birthing stool. “Margaret, hold her up.”
Margaret set aside the cup of brewed herbs and moved to support Essie’s lower back. She was a thin, fragile-looking girl, but Frances knew she was far stronger than she seemed, and holding up Essie’s limp weight posed no challenge. Frances eased down onto one knee, wincing at the stiffness in her bad hip. Pushing up Essie’s skirt, she leaned down to check her again.
At first glance, it appeared to be the start of a normal crowning. The lips of the vulva were stretched over a round, smooth surface, one a little bigger than a balled-up fist. Then Frances frowned and took a closer look. It was the right size to be the baby’s head, true, but it was too dark, too shiny. Even if Essie had been bleeding, it wouldn’t have stained the scalp that deep, gleaming black.
When Frances leaned up, Margaret’s sharp brown eyes were watching her. Breech? she mouthed from behind Essie. The midwife shook her head.
“Essie, bite down on this, now. I’ve got to reach in.” She passed Margaret a leather strap and smeared her fingers with goose grease from a small jar.
Essie tensed and let out a groan when Frances slipped her fingers past the mass. Frances felt around the sides of the object, pulse quickening with each moment that passed. The shape her fingers traced was a smooth ovoid. No limbs, no face, no bones. In place of soft, yielding flesh was a slick carapace or shell, hard as stone under Frances’ fingers. As she explored, there was a flutter, some tapping from within, a pulse or a kick.
“What is it? What’s wrong with him?” Essie’s voice came out shrill and garbled around the strip of leather.
Frances forced herself to meet Essie’s eyes. Poor girl, she thought. And it’s her first. “We can’t know till you’ve birthed,” she said, and could see that Essie was too scared to ask again.
The rest of the labor Frances handled like any other, instructing Margaret to rub Essie’s back when the pains came, applying salve to prevent tearing and blood loss. When the time came to push, Margaret moved to ready the linens. Frances watched her face, could see the shock pass over her features when she saw what was coming out. But then the girl steeled herself and looked away, busying herself with preparations. Frances took Essie’s hand in her own arthritic fingers, not allowing herself to wince no matter how hard the girl squeezed.
It came out smoothly, and Frances could see right away that Essie was in no danger. Margaret caught it as it slipped from between Essie’s legs, a perfectly even, black shape, like obsidian with the edges smoothed away. There was no cord, nothing attaching it to Essie’s body. Margaret’s hands trembled as they held it, her throat working as she swallowed convulsively.
“Why isn’t he crying?” Essie gasped. “Why isn’t he crying?”
She leaned forward and saw what she had delivered into the world, and the scream that ripped from her throat seemed to pierce Frances down to her bones.