“Dim the lights,” says Aunt Elizabeth

“Tell her it’s time.”

Someone stands, moves to the wall, the light in the room fades to twilight, our voices dwindle to a chorus of creaks, of husky whispers, like grasshoppers in a field at night. Two leave the room, two others lead Janine to the Birthing Stool, where she sits on the lower of the two seats. She’s calmer now, air sucks evenly into her lungs, we lean forward, tensed, the muscles in our backs and bellies hurt from the strain. It’s coming, it’s coming, like a bugle, a call to arms, like a wall falling, we can feel it like a heavy stone moving down, pulled down inside us, we think we will burst. We grip each other’s hands, we are no longer single.

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The Commander’s Wife hurries in, in her ridiculous white cotton nightgown, her spindly legs sticking out beneath it. Two of the Wives in their blue dresses and veils hold her by the arms, as if she needs it; she has a tight little smile on her face, like a hostess at a party she’d rather not be giving. She must know what we think of her. She scrambles onto the Birthing Stool, sits on the seat behind and above Janine, so that Janine is framed by her: her skinny legs come down on either side, like the arms of an eccentric chair. Oddly enough, she’s wearing white cotton socks, and bedroom slippers, blue ones made of fuzzy material, like toilet-seat covers. But we pay no attention to the Wife, we hardly even see her, our eyes are on Janine. In the dim light, in her white gown, she glows like a moon in cloud.

She’s grunting now, with the effort. “Push, push, push,” we whisper. “Relax. Pant. Push, push, push.” We’re with her, we’re the same as her, we’re drunk. Aunt Elizabeth kneels, with an outspread towel to catch the baby, here’s the crowning, the glory, the head, purple and smeared with yoghurt, another push and it slithers out, slick with fluid and blood, into our waiting. Oh praise.

We hold our breath as Aunt Elizabeth inspects it: a girl, poor thing, but so

far so good, at least there’s nothing wrong with it, that can be seen, hands, feet, eyes, we silently count, everything is in place. Aunt Elizabeth, holding the baby, looks up at us and smiles. We smile too, we are one smile, tears run down our cheeks, we are so happy.

Our happiness is part memory. What I remember is Luke, with me in the hospital, standing beside my head, holding my hand, in the green gown and white mask they gave him. Oh, he said, Oh Jesus, breath coming out in wonder. That night he couldn’t go to sleep at all, he said, he was so high.

Aunt Elizabeth is gently washing the baby off, it isn’t crying much, it stops. As quietly as possible, so as not to startle it, we rise, crowd around Janine, squeezing her, patting her. She’s crying too. The two Wives in blue help the third Wife, the Wife of the household, down from the Birthing Stool and over to the bed, where they lay her down and tuck her in. The baby, washed now and quiet, is placed ceremoniously in her arms. The Wives from downstairs are crowding in now, pushing among us, pushing us aside. They talk too loud, some of them are still carrying their plates, their coffee cups, their wine glasses, some of them are still chewing, they cluster around the bed, the mother and child, cooing and congratulating. Envy radiates from them, I can smell it, faint wisps of acid, mingled with their perfume. The Commander’s Wife looks down at the baby as if it’s a bouquet of flowers: something she’s won, a tribute.

The Wives are here to bear witness to the naming. It’s the Wives who do the naming, around here.

“Angela,” says the Commander’s Wife.

“Angela, Angela,” the Wives repeat, twittering. “What a sweet name! Oh, she’s perfect! Oh, she’s wonderful!”

We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice, I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears. Nevertheless we are jubilant, it’s a victory, for all of us. We’ve done it.

She’ll be allowed to nurse the baby, for a few months, they believe in mother’s milk. After that she’ll be transferred, to see if she can do it again, with someone else who needs a turn. But she’ll never be sent to the Colonies, she’ll never be declared Unwoman. That is her reward.

The Birthmobile is waiting outside, to deliver us back to our own households. The doctors are still in their van; their faces appear at the window, white blobs, like the faces of sick children confined to the house. One of them opens the door and comes towards us.

“Was it all right?” he asks, anxious.

“Yes,” I say. By now I’m wrung out, exhausted. My breasts are painful, they’re leaking a little. Fake milk, it happens this way with some of us. We sit on our benches, facing one another, as we are transported; we’re without emotion now, almost without feeling, we might be bundles of red cloth. We ache. Each of us holds in her lap a phantom, a ghost baby. What confronts us, now the excitement’s over, is our own failure. Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.

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