Shawna gripped Aneela’s hands in her own, and Aneela smiled her gratitude, even though Shawna couldn’t see her face. Unable to bring a baby of her own to the birthing bed, Shawna had set aside her own sorrow to share the bed with Aneela, providing comfort and support until the baby was born.
Jobina moved to the head of the birthing bed to fuss over Aneela, and Shawna waved her away. “Enough, aba Jojo, let her be. How is the baby? Why does it not come?”
Jobina tsked and pushed Shawna’s hands away, checking Aneela’s heartbeat and eyes. She smiled to the laboring woman and said, “The baby is doing fine. She will come when she comes. You can not rush her any more than you can rush a man to do your bidding.”
The women laughed, catching her phrase. One called out, “You can rush a man to bed, aba Jojo. That’s how we end up here!” They laughed again. Another said, “I remember when my bébé was born, he was so stubborn and would not come for three days. Do you remember, aba Jojo?”
Jobina nodded, and the women took turns sharing their birthing bed tales. Aneela wondered why any of them thought she would want to hear them right now. What was it about a pregnant woman that inspired mothers to share the intimate details of their own birth stories? She shivered, and Shawna rubbed her shoulders, whispering in her ear, “You are so brave. You’re doing a great job, Aneela-ser. My heart-child will come soon, and we will celebrate—after you sleep! Pay them no mind. Rest now, and be ready for the next one.”
Aneela nodded gratefully and dropped her head against Shawna’s shoulder, half-listening to the women’s tales. They were comforting, in a way she hadn’t expected. Growing up as the only girl-child among the Prince’s servants, Aneela was more comfortable with men’s rough and ready ways than the mysterious and intricate politics among the women. She had not wanted to leave, even when she became old enough to attract the men.
It was Shawna who decided it, the night she pulled a drunken soldier off of Aneela and knocked him on his backside, dragging the crying girl back to her own room to clean her up and calm her down. Aneela never left. But she still found the other women more intimidating and mysterious than the men.
As she learned her way, she had made friends over the past two years, and she was grateful for their support around the birthing bed. She looked over to Sofia, who gave her a warm smile. Aneela rolled her eyes and Sofia laughed. She proclaimed loudly and often that she never wanted to lie on the birthing bed, but she was the first to arrive after Jobina was called. Aneela worried that their friendship would suffer after the baby came. Seeming to read her mind, Sofia leaned forward and took her hand from Shawna.
“Have you decided on a name for my heart-child, Aneela-ser? I can’t wait to snuggle her close—and hand her back to you when she needs cleaning up!”
Aneela laughed and nodded. “I do have a name, and she will be the first to hear it,” she said teasingly.
“As it should be,” another older woman chimed in. “When aba Jojo lays the child in your arms, you must call her name to draw her soul from the other world and bind her to you in this life.” The women murmured agreement, and Aneela nodded again. “Yes, aba, I will do it.”
Jobina returned to the foot of the bed. Aneela felt the waves of pain radiating from her core once more. Her grip tightened on Shawna’s fingers, but no matter how tight, Shawna never pulled away or complained. The women sensed the change and hushed in expectation. Aneela could feel the warmth of their love and encouragement, even as she struggled against the pain.
“Try not to fight it, Aneela-ser. I know it’s hard, but try to relax and let it carry you. The baby will come. You don’t have to do anything to make it so. And you can’t stop it. Relax, and let the baby come. We’re all ready to meet her!”
Aneela grunted. “Me too, aba. Me too.” She cried out, a long ululation torn from her
Jobina hissed and they all stilled. Aneela arched against Shawna until Jobina cried out, “The baby comes! Get ready! The baby comes!”
The women joined hands around the birthing bed. They swung their hands up and down, chanting the sacred tones their mothers handed down. Aneela felt another great wave of pain, but with this one, she felt herself flow into it, down into her belly and out through the women surrounding her. Her head dropped back and she sighed as Jobina called out, “Here she is! The baby is come!”
Shawna whispered into her ear, “Now, Aneela-ser. Now! Call your baby to you! Call her by name”
Aneela roller her head, too exhausted to lift it. She couldn’t see Jobina wrapping her baby in the new blanket Sofia had made. She croaked, “Carina, my bébé, come into my arms! Come live this life as the child of my body and my heart.”
The women’s chant took up the name. “Carina! Carina!”
Jobina lay the bundle on Aneela’s chest, and Shawna lifted Aneela’s arms to wrap around it. Aneela looked down into her baby’s eyes and smiled.
Dogs in house:
Houdini, Brindle, Bacon
Albinoni, “Adagio in G Minor”
March word count: