Feña woke up, the sheets wet and sticky beneath her. Her hand crept to the side where Pedro was snoring and shook him weakly. Pedro hated being woken up in the middle of the night.
“Pedro, I think it’s starting.”
“What? What is starting?” Pedro blew a jet of air through his nose.
He sat up.
“Go get Mamita Mercedes,” she said.
Mamita Mercedes was the local midwife, a bony woman with soft hands that could lure the most obstinate baby out of his mother’s womb. She smelt of wood smoke and eucalyptus drops she liked to suck on.
Mamita Mercedes knew all there was to know about the secrets of nature: how to cure warts with herbs and incantations, how to get rid of the spell of the evil eye, how to abort unwanted foetuses, bring rain or sun according to the season. Mamita was a witch and a doctor, paracetamol and butterfly powder equally important in her hand-knitted bag.
“You sure?” Pedro was not eager to leave the warm bed.
“The waters broke.”
He pulled on his trousers and lit a candle.
“You just hang on, Feña, I’ll be right back in a jiffy.”
Feña squeezed the bulge of her stomach. The baby was not moving. She dug her fingers deep into the skin hoping to stir him into life. Nothing. She lay still.
The door squeaked letting Mamita Mercedes in.
“Blessed be the house and all who live in it.”
“For ever and ever, amen.” Feña mumbled doubling up in pain.
“How are you, daughter?” the old woman enquired.
“The baby’s not moving”.
Mamita bent over Feña, her cold hand palpated the woman’s belly then sneaked into the opening of the womb.
“Easy there, it’ll take only a moment.”
She probed blindly, nimble fingers estimating the dilation, softness and thickness of the cervix.
“He’ll sure need some help,” she whispered.
From her bag she took out ointments, a bundle of rags she washed scrupulously after each labour and her famous forceps blessed by a cardinal in the capital with holly water straight from the Vatican’s fountains. She approached the stove and poked at the embers, then threw in some sticks and a log. The fire caught with a puff. She filled an iron pot with water and sprinkled dried arnica flowers and ribwort leaves on the surface. In went the forceps as well.
The door opened and Pedro peeped in through the crack.
“Off with you,” Mamita scolded.
“The birthing room’s not a place for a man.”
Pedro retreated obediently.
“He’s not moving,” Feña wailed.
“Be quiet girl, we’ll get him in no time,” the midwife sounded cross and impatient.
The water boiled. Expertly reaching in Mamita extracted the forceps and dried them on the rags.
“It’ll hurt now,” she warned. “Hold on to the headrest.”
Feña’s eye sockets expanded with terror. The metal forceps resembled an instrument of torture. She screamed as the woman inserted the tightly-fitting tongs into her vagina.
“Shout girl, shout. It’ll help.”
But Feña needed no prompting as she shrieked and thrashed on the pillow.
Minutes ticked by. Mamita’s forehead was beaded with sweat from the effort of trying to extract flesh from with flesh.
“One more pull, girl, just one more and I’ll get him out” she puffed as a drop of sweat trickled from the forehead to her chin.
Feña felt tissue tearing and a bulky shape slid between her thighs. She closed her eyes expecting a wail.
Mamita stood with her back to Feña holding the baby in her arms.
“A boy?”Feña whispered.
Mamita shook her head.
Feña was disappointed. It was her first and Pedro wanted a son. Suddenly, she was aware of the silence.
“Why is she not crying?”
Mamita turned around showing her the bloodied bundle in her arms.
“God’s taken her, daughter.”
Feña looked uncomprehendingly at the old woman with the stillborn child.
“Nooo!” The moan was long and bounced off the walls.
Mamita deposited the little corpse on the table and covered it with a towel.
“Not your fault, girl, nobody’s fault,” she said matter-of-factly and shrugged.
Feña was crying quietly now.
“Who knows? It was not her lot to live. Thank God you are alive. You’re young and strong, there’ll be many more.”
Exhausted, Feña slept.
When she woke up, morning was already heavy with sun and filled the room with fluttering lights. Pedro sat at the table, his eyes bloodshot, fingers hugging a glass of cheap red wine.
“You all right?” he asked without as much as lifting his gaze to look at his wife.
“Yes. Where is she?”
Pedro pointed with his chin in the direction of the window.
The baby, strapped with a leather belt, sat semi-erect in a chair.
She was not pretty. A wrinkled monkey face, stiff black hair on the pear-shaped head, probably misshapen from the forceps, her eyes closed tight. She was dressed in a tiny starched white dress, two foil-covered angel wings attached at the back. Sun played in them now bathing the baby’s face with light, for a moment giving an illusion of flight.
“Mamita got her ready,” Pedro said.
Feña nodded. She couldn’t have done it herself. Soon, people would start coming to say goodbye to the angel, to pray to the dead girl, so innocent straight from the mother’s womb. She would take their prayers to God. Surely, she would have his ear for a few moments.
Feña didn’t get up. She was too tired and the baby seemed to be sleeping.
A woman entered the room, bent her head in a silent greeting and knelt in front of the angel, then pinned a piece of paper onto the girls dress.
“May my son find a good wife,” it said. “One that will bear him healthy children.”
The woman got up and walked to the table.
“Wine?” Pedro offered.
“Just a sip.”
He poured and she gulped it down.
“In no time she’ll be in heaven” she said. “May God, in his mercy, receive her and shower all the blessings on our village.”
One by one, the room filled with people and the girl’s dress was soon speckled with pieces of paper.
“Let Angelica’s fits go away.”
“The corn harvest, Holy Child, let it be abundant.”
“Sacred baby. Ask God to take away my husband’s ulcers.”
“Little angel, make Rodolfo come back from the city to his family.”
They knelt and prayed, each asking for a small miracle, a favour so insignificant that God, in the abundance of his compassion and infinite love, would not, could not refuse to grant it.
From the bed, Feña watched the endless procession completely dry-eyed. Not an emotion stirred in her heart. Silently, she was saying her own goodbye to the angel.
Author Notes: Based on a real tradition in the south of Chile not long ago.