AGUAZÁN, A MOUNTAIN VILLAGE IN SOUTHERN SPAIN
TUESDAY, 13TH MAY NINETEEN FIFTY-TWO
When Spaniards talk of giving birth, they say ‘dar a la luz.’
Give to the light.
On a day bristling with omens, the midwife made her reluctant way across the plaza, pausing beneath an orange tree to count the clangs of the church clock. Three hours until midnight. She’d been looking forward to this birthing. An opportunity to winkle out some answers. Now, though, she trudged over the cobblestones, trembling from the roots of her hair right down to her toes, and wondering, Is it true a child born on Tuesday the thirteenth is cursed and must not be allowed to draw breath? What if it lives?
The priest called it ‘a pagan belief’, called the people of Aguazán ‘ignorant, cruel and godless.’ At mass that morning, he’d thundered, ‘Every child is a child of God.’
But what if he’s wrong?
If the child is cursed, and lives, and bad things happen, will I be blamed? Por Dios, what am I meant to do?
The plaza was deserted, apart from swifts wheeling and screeching overhead. Passing the fountain, Pili longed for a drink: her mouth was as dry as a communion wafer. But, with a glance at the darkening sky – it would soon be teeming with bats – she shuddered and tightened her headscarf and forced her thick old legs to hurry.
It was a scary walk to the Sanchez home. Although the evening was abnormally mild, all doors were closed and the maze of cobbled streets chillingly quiet. There should be children playing, old folk sitting by their doorsteps … maybe someone strumming a guitar or the clack-a-clack of a girl practising castanets. Instead, cats lurked in shadows and a nightjar churred.
Tuesday the thirteenth … Pili had been lucky so far: thirty years a midwife, and never called out on a Black Tuesday. She supposed people respected her duty to save life. Families took care of Black Tuesday birthings … and afterwards, what could the priest do – except glare and mention confession – when they asked him to enter in the Family Book, Stillborn?
But María Sanchez was an outsider, a loner without family, possibly ignorant of the procedure … If it comes before midnight, what must I do? Pili’s chest felt tight, she couldn’t get her breath. ‘Ay mí! Most Blessed Holy Mother,’ she whispered, ‘spare me from delivering a child on this evil day.’
The new electric lanterns came on, but they were almost useless and soon swarming with moths. She squinted down Calle Morera, trying to pick out the Sanchez house.
A door opened a crack, casting a slice of yellow light across the cobbles. ‘That you, Pili-the-midwife?’
Recognising the shrewish voice of Angustias Sanchez, sister of María’s husband, Pili called a greeting.
‘Trust her,’ the woman squawked. ‘Today of all days. Go up. She’s on the bed.’
‘You’re not coming to sit in?’
‘With that little whore?’
The door closed, leaving Pili to open the one next to it and grope her way, in near-darkness, up a narrow brick staircase. Remembering it led directly into the upstairs room, she called several times, introducing herself.
A square of grey light from the window slanted across the matrimonial bed. On it, María Sanchez lay biting a fist. All alone, poor girl.
‘Soon be over,’ said Pili in her most motherly tone. ‘Second babies are always easier. Good, you’re prepared,’ she added, setting down her basket and noting a wooden crib, two large pitchers of water and a pile of rags lined up beneath the window. The lamp, on a small bedside table, flickered and smoked. She fiddled to turn it up. ‘When did you start?’
‘A few, not strong.’
A sweet voice. Pili remembered it now. But was it sweetly innocent, or the song of a Jezebel? That debate still raged. ‘When did your waters break?’
‘Soon after the fifth hour.’
Pili stifled a groan. ‘You must be well on.’
María Sanchez groaned aloud. She, too, was surely praying it would wait for midnight.
Pili touched the girl’s forehead. ‘You’re feverish. Let me examine you.’ She pulled back the sheet. It felt limp and heavy. Drenched with sweat. She put her wooden horn onto the belly and listened. ‘Bueno, a strong heartbeat. Let me feel inside.’ María hesitated, then opened her legs, revealing a birthing sheet marbled with old, rusty stains. She flinched when Pili stuck her fingers in.
‘Tranquila,’ said Pili. ‘I brought your first one safely into the light – Ángel, no? I suppose he’s next door with Angustias and her tribe?’
‘Sí.’ Muttered with a sideways glance at the wall dividing the two Sanchez houses.
‘You’re fully open.’ Pili’s voice quivered, in spite of her effort to sound professional. ‘Won’t be long.’
‘Nooo!’ María’s fever-bright eyes rolled up to look at a wooden crucifix on the wall above her.
‘Sorry,’ – patting the girl’s clammy hand – ‘I wish I could say otherwise.’
The lovely face contorted as if to cry – but then, with her head still tilted back on the pillow, María flashed Pili a sideways look of defiance. ‘No. Mañana.’
‘May God hear you.’ Said with an eye-roll. ‘Do you want anything? Water?’
‘I brought a tortilla.’
Pili sniffed. ‘I’ll get on with my plaiting, then.’ She lowered herself onto a wooden stool by the bed and rummaged in her basket. Besides her instruments and disinfectant, and the tortilla, it contained a bunch of softened esparto grasses. ‘I’m not a fancy weaver like you, but my thirteen-strand plaits are as good as cash. A profitable way to pass the time, no?’
The girl had closed her eyes. Her face was deathly pale, except for two fiery blotches on her cheeks the size of one-peseta coins. Her forehead shone in the lamplight, beads of sweat gleaming like pearls. With her smooth skin, full lips and almond-shaped eyes – even with the green-and-yellow remains of a bruise round her left eye – María Sanchez was stupendously beautiful.
Has she committed adultery? But how, without the whole village knowing? Although they had not accepted her, and the girl kept to herself, the people of Aguazán were so fascinated by María Sanchez, she couldn’t do pipí in her yard, or someone reported it.
Several times, the lamp went out, crackled and flared back to life. The church clock tolled ten. During the ensuing silence, María wailed, ‘Por Dios, it goes so slowly.’
Moments later, she gasped and went rigid. Pili put down her plaiting and made a hasty sign of the cross.
Maria rammed a fist in her mouth, choking a scream. Rapid breaths whistled past her knuckles, and sinews pushed out from her neck. Her face turned scarlet and her eyeballs bulged from their sockets like electric lightbulbs.
‘Por Dios! Girl, are you fighting it?’
No answer. She’s not listening.
In all her years, Pili had never witnessed such determination not to bring a child into the light. No proper midwife would condone this unnatural behaviour. She opened her mouth to tell María to push.
But if it comes before midnight? She pressed a hand over her mouth and watched – while her stomach knotted.
Finally, María collapsed, panting and groaning, in a tangle of wet sheets. Her lips were blue.
The baby’s heartbeat sounded weak. Pili’s face went cold, then hot. I should have told her to push … She wouldn’t have listened … Still, I should have told her … Flat-voiced, she said, ‘It’s dangerous, fighting it, for you and the child.’
María’s lashes swept up, revealing eyes red-veined and wide with fear. ‘It’s not dying? Tell me –’
‘It will if you don’t let it come.’
María winced, and her hands cradled her belly. ‘Not before midnight. Better dead than …’ Her sob erupted like a hiccup. ‘But it mustn’t die, it’s so special.’
Pili reached across and patted a hand. ‘They’re all special.’ Seeing María’s tears, she added, ‘You’re only – what – eighteen?’
‘There’ll be plenty more.’ Maybe the father’s ‘special’ … ‘Why special?’
No answer. The tears were now a silent flood. Pili smoothed the sheet over María’s belly and attempted a half-laugh. ‘Wait till you’re having your tenth.’
María turned away.
A moth circled the lamp. Pili clapped her hands over it and brushed off the dry mess. She picked up her plaiting, but couldn’t settle to it. Birthing rooms were usually busy, full of women’s gossip and giggles. This room was eerily quiet, apart from the hissing lamp – and its periodic sputter and crackle, plunging them into darkness, then flaring up. It was a relief to hear through the dividing wall an occasional child’s cry or the sharp voice of Angustias.
On the brass bedstead, a gecko sat unblinking, a harmless little thing, like a baby dragon. Those children would pull off your tail … throw you in the fire, watch you sizzle…
Sighing, she took up her rosary beads and prayed a decade, breaking off to fiddle with the lamp. Cooking smells wafted through the half-open window – onions … fish … burned olive oil – a stink of mule dung from the street. A cricket screeched, stopped, started up again. Framed by the window, a thin moon rose over the rooftops and disappeared. The gecko continued staring.
Watch out for children. Cruel little devils … She thought of her first-born, little Federico with his poor twisted limbs and crossed eyes. He wanted to join the children playing in the street … but they wouldn’t leave him alone, would they? Taunting and terrorising him … grown-ups watching and sniggering… Telling Pili’s man, Don’t waste good food on it … ‘It’, as if he wasn’t human, as if he didn’t deserve to live, just because…
‘What hour is it?’
‘Por Dios, María.’ Pili’s outburst was magnified by the clatter of her rosary beads on the floor boards. ‘Midnight won’t come any sooner for you asking.’ She groped for them and fisted away a tear. ‘Sorry. Rest now, ready for the next one. What about some tortilla to give you strength? Made with my own potatoes and onions.’
During several further contractions, Pili urged María to push. But she spoke half-heartedly, and felt her scalp prickle with a sickening mix of misgiving and guilt.
Eventually, the church clock tolled another hour. When the eleventh clang faded, silence resounded, broken only by María’s sob.
Pili yawned, although far from sleepy. The whole pueblo was waiting for twelve chimes. Only then would they close their eyes and give in to sleep, after first thanking Aguazán’s Virgin, Our Lady of Remedies, for saving them from catastrophe.
‘Paco’s in Bar Miguel, then?’
María’s jaw twitched.
Pili hesitated before tentatively adding, ‘I’m guessing you’ve him to thank for that bruise?’
‘He’s changed, no? Since the trouble with the landowner’s son? A monster, that El Malo.’
María gagged and leaned out of bed, dry heaving.
‘Mama mía! Where’s the pot?’ Pili passed María a handful of rags and groped under the bed. Vaya! That’s upset her. A vile possibility struck Pili. What if he’s the one? … With El Malo, she wouldn’t have had a choice, poor girl …
María spat into a rag, threw it down and lay back, panting.
Ay, but then, why call it special? … ‘Sorry, dear, sorry for mentioning … Er … Have you chosen the names?’
‘It’s not up to me.’ A sad little whisper.
‘AAAAY! Let go!’
María was gripping Pili’s arm so hard the fingertips were pressing onto bone. ‘Promise me,’ she whispered, panting, her breath sickly, ‘promise me, if I die, you won’t let it live.’
Pili wrenched her arm free and rubbed it. ‘Madre mía. That’ll be bruised. What a wicked thing to suggest.’
Grabbing a two-handed fistful of Pili’s hessian birthing apron, Maria tugged her close. ‘Promise. No one wants it.’
‘Let go! … Hostias!’ – smoothing the apron – ‘Serve you right if I cleared off … You won’t die, silly girl, long as you stop fighting Nature. Anyway, Paco’s family would care for it.’
‘Ángel they love. This one they hate. Don’t let it live without me – Aaaaaaaaaaeeee!’ María reached behind and gripped the bedstead. Her chest heaved and her voice whistled through gritted teeth, ‘Holy Mother of God, not yet.’
‘If you keep fighting that child, it’ll be dead before it sees the light.’
It was a waste of breath. Unconvincing, anyway.
What if it dies, or she dies? Cold little mouse-feet scurried up Pili’s spine. She watched the struggle, gripping a brass ball on the corner of the bedstead until her knuckles ached.
At last, the contraction fizzled out and María lay back, drenched and obviously spent.
Footsteps clattered up the stairs, bringing the glow of another lamp and grotesque shadows jerking over the ceiling, and sending a gecko darting under the crib.
María’s sister-in-law Angustias burst into the room, all squinty eyes and jutting chin.
A toddler followed her, yelling, ‘Mamaaaa!’
Pili started to comment he was the image of his handsome father Paco Sanchez; but Angustias hissed, ‘Mamá’s busy! I said stay with the others.’ She crammed a dummy into his mouth and pushed him away. ‘Qué pasa?’ She glanced from the now-silent María to the empty crib on the floor and shrugged. ‘Pfff.’ She swept out, dragging the toddler downstairs.
Pili let out a long, long sigh. When all was quiet, she asked, ‘Why d’you say they hate it? … María? Why do they hate this child?’
No answer – but her eyelids had flickered.
‘What about you? Do you want it?’
The eyes snapped open. ‘Claro que sí! More than my life. But not today. You understand?’
Pili pursed her lips, and used her apron to sponge María’s forehead. ‘Look at you, you’ve gone and burst your eye-veins. They’re all red.’
‘How long ’til midnight, d’you think?’
‘What d’you want me to say?’ snapped Pili. In thirty years, even with all the tragedies, she’d never known a birth so nerve stressing. She coughed – the room felt stifling – crossed to the window and opened it wider.
Dirt particles from the cane ceiling spun down through the lamplight. ‘What’s that?’ María’s wide-open eyes looked ghoulish, the whites dark with blood.
‘Vaya! My shadow’s frightened something up there. A gecko, I expect. I’m going down for some air.’
Pili lit a candle and trod slowly over the rough floorboards. The staircase was the basic sort, steep, narrow, no handrail. Her legs quivered as she clomped down, sliding fingertips along the wall where many hands had made it greasy.
Partway down was a shelf holding a plaster statuette. When Pili held the candle closer, the Holy Mother gazed back, one glass teardrop glistening on Her cheek. Cautiously, Pili turned and knelt on the brick step, put down the candle, closed her eyes and whispered, ‘Most Merciful and Gracious Lady … if this child be cursed,’ – the very word made her break out in goose bumps – ‘I beg You, tell me what I should do. Send me a sign.’
Slowly at first, like wisps of smoke, an apparition formed behind Pili’s eyelids. It was a picture she’d seen once of San Ramón Nonato, the patron saint of midwives. Save the child, he said – and vanished.
Our Lady heard me! She sent the saint! Trembling, Pili crossed herself.
Save the child … So no more delay. Anyway, it couldn’t be cursed – not after this miraculous intercession. Aleluya! Pili’s chest swelled with relief.
‘María! María! Wonderful news!’
‘I was praying to Our Lady, and guess what? She sent San Ramón Nonatus – none other! So it can’t be cursed! Stop fighting it, María. Bring it into the light.’
María’s blood-reddened eyes turned up to the wooden crucifix above the bed. ‘Gracias a Dios.’
‘Let me feel.’
‘No need! Already it comes. It comes, Pili, it comes!’
It looked easy. A deep in-breath, a grunting out-breath, a high-pitched gasp, one enormous push – and out it slipped. María lay back, breathing hard.
The lamp flared, then died, plunging the room into blackness.
María groaned. ‘Wretched lamp.’
The darkness felt dense like black velvet. The candle, too, had gone out. Pili looked around, fear gripping her throat – until she noticed a thin beam of light. It came – no, it was shining onto – the pale body of the newborn, lying in shadows between its mother’s legs. Pili turned, seeking the source of this freak light.
At that moment, the lamp hissed and flared up, the room returned to normal and the infant issued a cry.
‘It lives!’ cried María. ‘Gracias a Dios. Boy or girl?’
Pili released the breath she’d been holding and peered at the sex. ‘Boy.’
‘A boy! Welcome to the light, my Gabriel, my sweet prince.’ María sounded euphoric. ‘Pass me him, pass me him!’
Gabriel? A gypsy name … ‘Wait, I’ll cut the cord.’ While rummaging in her basket for the scissors, Pili remembered the strange light. Was it a flash from the lamp?
Or another sign from Our Lady!
She asked María, ‘Did … did you see that flash of light, how it shone on the child?’
‘That wretched lamp’s been playing up all night, no?’
She hadn’t seen it, then. ‘This was … different.’ Now Pili thought about it, the light could have emanated from the statuette. She crossed herself. ‘I think Our Lady …’ She scarcely found breath to speak. ‘… shone Her light on the child.’
‘Our Lady shone Her light on him? A miracle!’ María, too, crossed herself. ‘I told you he was special! Quick! Cut the cord, let me hold him.’
When Pili picked up the child, when she held him near the lamp – and caught a glimpse of his face – her throat jammed and her knees buckled.
She told herself she’d been deceived – by the lamp or the birth mess – and forced herself to look again.
She looked. Blinked. Peered harder, eyes popping. The room began whirling, her ears made a weird shushing sound.
Madre de Dios. Her heart began pounding fit to burst out of her chest.
It is cursed.
She staggered backwards, letting go the baby, letting him fall onto the bed.
Maria screamed. The infant began to cry, a thin, pulsing wail.
While Pili regained her balance, María reached for him, grunting with the effort. ‘What’s wrong?’
Apart from that vile thing on his face, the child appeared perfect. But Pili felt a chill to the marrow of her bones. Born on Tuesday the thirteenth, they’ll say he’s an evil freak, an aborto … Father Ernesto’s mighty voice roared in Pili’s ears, Every child is a child of God, a part of God’s plan.
‘Tell me what’s wrong, woman!’
What will Paco Sanchez do? She regarded the infant – so forlorn, lips quivering, limbs jerking, tiny hands grasping air – and stretched out a trembling finger.
Maria snatched him up. ‘Holy Mother of God, what’s wrong?’
You’ll see soon enough. Pili knelt. Gracious Lady, Mother of God, help this child … She longed to ask, Why? Why send him to be cursed and hated? But it was not for her to question God’s purpose.
Still, she couldn’t help wondering, What is God’s plan for Gabriel Sanchez?