Twelve midwives have come already.
Have bustled through the sharp wind with their bundles of charms and bitter herbs.
Have sighed and prayed and despaired.
Frau Mueller now, her cold hands on Ilsa’s belly, prays to the Virgin, the Virgin’s mother, and all the Holy Mothers. Calls on them to ease the infant out, to end the heaving pains of five long days.
Above Frau Mueller’s mumbled prayers, Ilsa hears the tall pines creaking, and the thought occurs to her that birthing time is nothing like ordinary time (with the small hours between sunrise and nightfall marked by the day’s chores, rootling pigs and bubbling pots). In her labour, she seems to understand the turning of time as the trees must know it – where whole years could pass swift as breaths.
Perhaps her baby too has become more vegetable than human – a nestled seed, tiny once, that’s grown and spread its strong, deep roots.
So deep, though, that Ilsa’s begun to fear that uprooting this child might rip her apart entirely.
That, afterwards, there will be nothing left of her.
It’s midnight when her husband comes. Ilsa’s sure it’s because her end is near, and she grieves for the loss of him; aches for the child she’ll never know.
But as Jacob stammers his plan, flushed and hopeful, she realizes he’s not here to bid farewell at all.
She’s held the piglets on her lap when Jacob gelds them – bundled a cloth over their heads, pulled their little legs apart to expose the two pink lumps (the skin there taut like an unborn baby’s foot pressed inside its mother’s belly).
She’s watched him make the cuts and pluck out the testicles, neat and sleek as a pair of red berries. And she’s seen how, afterwards, the animals hardly care – just scurry, squealing, back to their mothers and suckle frantically.
It would be like that, he’s saying. Do you see? I could do that.
Make a cut and take the baby out.
It sounds so easy, so absurd, so terrifying. She wants almost to laugh, to say, Will the baby pop out sleek as a berry? And, after, will I scurry off, hardly remembering?
But no words come.
She lets the sound of the wind fill her head, and pulls the rough blanket over her own face.
She knows they talk in the village, mutter about her strange story. Enough that her husband was there, but that he cut her belly open like an animal and pulled the child out – unthinkable!
But Ilsa doesn’t care.
Each morning, she leans her back against the tall pine while her baby girl nuzzles her like a piglet.
She looks up through the canopy, murmurs her thanks to God, to Jacob, to the infinite chain of mothers who have come before and who bind her to the earth like roots; imagines her daughter’s daughters, and all their daughters that will be, branching out finer and finer until she can’t even see them against the sky.
Becky Tipper’s short (and very short) fiction has appeared in publications including The Honest Ulsterman, Prole, and National Flash Fiction Day anthologies, and has won the Bridport Prize for flash and a Tom-Gallon award from the Society of Authors. Becky is Reviews Editor at The Short Story. Find her online at www.beckytipper.com and on Twitter @mercian_woman.
Engraving of ‘The Virgin and Child Seated by a Tree’ by Albrecht Dürer (1513), courtesy of the National Gallery of Art (USA), Rosenwald Collection 1943.3.3518.