Remembering history’s midwives

Poppy O'NeillPoppy O’Neill has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Leeds and in September will begin studying for an MA in the same subject at the University of Chichester. She writes short and flash fiction and is working on her first novel.

She tweets as @P_O_Neill

I was inspired to write this short story after reading about the history of midwifery in Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Rich explains how a belief in the inherent sinfulness of women’s bodies meant midwives were viewed with suspicion for centuries. Their knowledge and expertise was adopted by male physicians in the seventeenth century when men started to enter the field of obstetrics but, as women were barred from becoming doctors, midwives’ and wise women’s contributions to science and medicine were completely erased.

Hands of Flesh, Hands of Iron

A howl, a hum, a laugh of pain. I count out 10 beats of silence. I have time. Folk think the devil whispers in my ear. But I use my ears and eyes, good as anyone’s twenty years younger.

If you look north from here you can see the sea. A port sits at the bottom of the hill, and I walk easy down it with a good stick to steady me. Boats come and go, bringing sacks of sugar, coffee, tobacco. Flung from hands rough with salt and toil. But I’m not heading towards town today.

These are the last days of summer and a chill is weaving into the shadows. I slip between trees to my house, built myself without help from man nor magic. Under my sagging straw bed I keep a good supply of blighted wheat, mushrooms blooming, breathing out and into my dreams at night. It’s poison to healthy folk, and I don’t count myself amongst those. To my woman today though, it’s a tonic.

I rat-tat on the door and her mother opens. Her face a twist of fatigue and relief. We’re taught to hate each other, told we are born out of filth and stay in filth. That sin multiplies when women are together. That the sin and filth is in our wombs, our minds and our words – those parts of us men want no knowledge of. We know better, of course. Beneath words we know better and more.

Mary is slowing. Two days I’ve been here. Two days of me and her mother, wiping her face and neck with a cool cloth. The blight I’ve fetched will help her, give her body strength. We work and they call it nature. They harm and call it healing. This was always the way.

I work in silence. We don’t have words for what I do. Midwife – with woman. As if I’m here just to keep her company. Men make words, and they’ve no maps of the worlds inside us. Tributaries lead to deltas, valleys and mountains to scale. I listen, wait, rock her against my breast like she was my own, her mother looks away, into the fire with disgust or memory? I know not. Nor do I care to know.

At first light I duck out of the door. Nothing has happened that is not to be expected, the curse of Eve weighs heaviest the first time. There are others like me, that live away, apart, only joining with women in pain, never in friendship or prayer. Women fear us, what we know about them under their clothes. Men of Science take our knowledge and call it their own. Say they found it using their powers of logic, never dirtying their hands in the sweat of our suffering. I learned never to talk of such things with men while I was still a girl loitering about my mother’s skirts. She talked, told them of our gentle ways of poisoning pain away. They took her wisdom for their own and burned her alive. So I keep my silence around physicians when they come knocking.

Another night falls, another baby starts its roll down into the world. A boy comes to fetch me, I am needed in the town. I cast my eyes away from the Lord, how he despises us. I pause outside my door, and listen to the still night. Why so often at night? It is a peace to shatter, a woman’s chance to raise her voice without words. Down the hill swift with my stick and I am there, streets rise up around me. Rat-tat on the door.

The scene is peaceful. The children sleep behind a curtain, there are five, she tells me. The boy peeks at his mother before disappearing, but she is staring into the fire, lost in breathing. My role is to sit and accompany her. Her name is Jane and she needs no instruction, this is a task she has carried out many times. I hold a damp cloth to her forehead. She takes it between her teeth for the next pain, ground out noiselessly.

An hour later, my eyes fluttering shut on the rocking chair, a knock at the door. I open it a crack, two men – one a doctor, one Jane’s husband. Both recoil from me, my knowledge, my hands of flesh. I shoo them away. Their presence will break the spell and she is nearly at the end of her journey. I have heard whispers of what these man-midwives do – hurrying women with their manipulations of flesh, their hooks and other interferences. Then more often than not the mother is struck down with a deathly fever. Yet I am the heathen, the dangerous woman. I push the door closed against their weight. They are torn: disgust both pulls them away and implores them to come in. They choose to go. A shift in the air, Jane is chanting hexes and incantations against evil, repenting her sins. It is time.

I help her onto her knees and with her leave I feel for the baby’s head. All is not well. I know that only one heart will keep its beat through to the end.

She uses all of her might – the strength we keep hidden for these moments – and with my hands I free the small creature, a girl. Her mother’s tears run plentiful down their milk white bodies, but the baby takes only quiet, halting breaths. I say a prayer, squeeze water mingled with her mother’s sweat from the cloth and make a cross on her wrinkled brow.