excerpted from "Nests," originally published in Faultline, May 2001
Though Kimi had been a midwife her entire adult life, she had been forced to reduce the scope of her patients in recent years to tribal and migrant mothers. The mothers of third-generation Scandinavian families living in and around the coastal town of Salish, Washington had started to demand formal educations from their midwives, or else lose them to private nurses that a brand-new, state-of-the-art county hospital had promised to provide.
“Certified nurse midwives, eh?” Kimi had announced one frustrating afternoon. She had been admonished that morning by a new mother from West Salish Estates who had, in the course of interviewing Kimi, pronounced her a “backwoods layperson.”
“Might as well be a voodoo doctor to that girl,” she groused.
Kimi went on to explain to Shoshi that day how easily their white neighbors were seduced by the glittering authority of the new county hospital, with its nurses in perfect white cotton and its expensive machines, which ran out, in paper streams, the technical progress of a woman’s labor.
“Hell, all you have to do is look into a woman’s eyes to know what stage her labor is at,” she told Shoshi. “How a machine can know better, I don’t know.
“But it doesn’t matter, eh? The machines may cost the poor white people of this county a whole year’s pay, but to them, it’s worth it.”
“Because it makes them believe they are different from us, Shoshauna.” She shook her head. “All babies come into the world in pretty much the same way, eh? Even you know that.”
Shoshi grew to understand that her mother and her mother’s mother and all the mothers before them had managed to bring dozens of babies into the world there at the edge of Shoalwater Bay, without the shining arsenal of tools and machines that the fancy new hospital offered now. And they were equally successful with their deliveries. She had also often heard it said that it was through the hands of Chukwinninuk midwives that the town of Salish had been truly birthed. Now, at age twelve, she recognized enough of the children born into her mother’s and her grandmother’s bare outstretched hands to know well enough it had to be so.
The hospital had come along after a decade of oystering and land-owning tensions had thickened hostilities between the Chuks and their white neighbors. Folks had since grown more neighborly. After all, the Chuks, being federally unrecognized as a tribe, had little legal means for pursuing any claims to sovereignty, so challenges to landowners and commercial interests dried up, leaving only the shadows of their animosity.
It meant Kimi would still work. But it was the rare occasion when she would deliver a white baby. Then, it would be only for the poorest farm women who lived at the foot of the Willapa Hills, just outside the town's limits. There, the fields were still littered with stumps left over from timber days, the encroaching brine marsh continued to finger its way into the lowlands, cheating the soil with its salinity. Kimi’s only other white patients came to her as pregnant, unmarried girls, which Kimi always turned away. She didn’t believe in abortion, or even adoption.
When Shoshi turned nine, she began to admire the urgency of her mother's work. The knocks on their door after midnight, the clamor of metal tools inside buckets tossed into the back of their pickup, the quick prayer Kimi recited outwardly to the bay beyond their front porch before leaving for a laying in. These mysterious callings held Shoshi's fascination, bearing her out of the despair her father carried around with him in a bottle. And like all nine-year-old girls, she loved the freshness of newborn babies, their dollish cries and miniature features. She wanted to take part in the miracle, even if only to understudy. It was in her blood.
One early morning, news arrived that Trina Kierkegaard, an older farmwife who had miscarried twice before, was at term and ready to give birth. Shoshi rose to the sounds of hushed voices -- Clearwater urging Kimi to stay home, Kimi muttering like a wounded dog,
“I have to go, Clearwater! It’s my job.”
“When is it a job when you don’t get paid?”
“Maybe this time...” Kimi turned her back to him and pulled on her coat.
Shoshi jammed clamming boots onto her bare feet and wrestled a thin sweatshirt over her nightgown, cursing as a hangnail snagged inside a sleeve.
"Mama Kimi, can I come, too?" She sucked her bleeding fingertip, avoiding her father’s dark piercing stare.
"It's six in the morning, Shoshauna. Go back to bed." Kimi leaned against the front porch railing, hands crossed over her breasts as she surveyed the misty shroud which saturated the beach. There was no evidence of the bay beyond the fog, not even the expected sounds of tides and seagulls.
"I'll be out of your way. I'll do whatever you want."
"You're not ready."
Kimi sighed. "I can't babysit you while I’m delivering a baby, eh?"
"When was the last time you ever babysat me, Mama Kimi?" Shoshi leaned in. "I babysat the little cousins just last week --"
It was then that Clearwater tottered onto the porch, rubbing his face with one hand while holding a bottle of beer in the other.
"-- and Daddy just yesterday --"
"I have to go now, Shoshauna. You already know how your father needs you here." Kimi grabbed her bucket and began to step off the porch.
"Daddy needs me here? For what? For me to bottle-feed him?"
Kimi paused to consider Clearwater, who was leaning against the side of the house. Beer foam clung to his unshaven face as he pulled the newly opened bottle away from his lips.
"Just take her," he replied. "Forget that we need money, that we need more than a year’s supply of cow’s milk to survive, forget that what we need is for you to get a real job."
Kimi glared. "You know what you need? You need a bib." She thrust the bucket handle into Shoshi's hands. Without a word, they carried it together by its curve to the truck.
"Whatever you do, you must keep everything clean," Kimi instructed her as she drove. "Scrub your hands, wear a smock, cover your face" came the intermittent commands, words punctuating an urgent conversation Shoshi could see was taking place inside her mother's head. Kimi would grimace momentarily, then relax, then she would cluck her tongue before grimacing again.
By the time they arrived, Shoshi was terrified -- by the dirt under her fingernails, by the shabby clothes she'd thrown on, which weren't in the least bit clean, by the stern look in her mother's eyes that was as much a part of her midwife's uniform as her apron and headscarf.
"I'll be good," she promised Kimi in a tiny, shaking voice she knew did not have the confidence of a real midwife's apprentice.
Kimi handed her a blue bandanna. "Put your hair up."
At the Kierkegaard barn, they found Trina struggling in a bed of straw covered by soft wool blankets, a damp rag between her clenched jaws. Shoshi flinched, though not at the way Trina clamped her teeth and struggled against the devil in her back. It was the barn: the way it reeked of animal soil, the way the motes of straw floated in thick clouds every time anyone stirred. Barn swallows perched over them in their little nests, flapping with the regular return of Trina's knifing screams.
“It’s so dirty,” she couldn’t help whispering.
Kimi walked ahead of her. “Welcome to my world.”
For an hour, Shoshi helped her mother press against the hard roundness of Trina's back with a cold pastry pin made of marble. They’d found in the dry sink in the farmhouse kitchen. When Trina's breathing grew more labored and she moved to bear down, Kimi sent Shoshi to boil more water and to find more linens in the farmhouse. The girl, thankful to relieve her thin, fatigued arms, ran out of the barn, up the adjacent porch and into the front parlor. Inside, she found Mr. Kierkegaard, a tall, leathery man with thin wire spectacles and brown teeth, reading the Bible.
"Can you help me bring some water to boil?"
Shoshi began to worry how long her errand might take. There was no running water on the property. Worse than that, there was Mr. Kierkegaard, climbing in and out of the house like a Frankenstein monster -- five slow trips hauling five kettles up from the well, one at a time. Shoshi joined him for one trip, but had to stop. Her arms were still shaking from the work she had done massaging Trina's back labor, and she lost half her kettle on the way to the kitchen.
Trina's throaty screams, and Kimi's sharp voice directing her, pierced the foggy space between the house and the barn where Shoshi waited for Mr. Kierkegaard to reappear. Finally, she could stand it no longer. Rifling through cupboards in the kitchen, she found matches for lighting the pilot under the kitchen stove, then she stoked and fed the parlor stove another log. It was in the parlor that she finally found him, standing inside the doorway, as six watched kettles came to boil over six circles of flame. Kimi demanded them immediately.
Shoshi looked over at the tall man. He stood there, stoic, long arms dangling like a marionette's, a permanent dull smile stitched across his face.
"Can you help me again?" she asked him -- a child asking a child a question, she thought -- tugging at his sleeve when he didn't respond right away. "Can you help me carry the water?"
"Towels, Shoshauna! I need towels!" came Kimi's voice. Mr. Kierkegaard stood at the door to the porch holding two pots of boiling water with hands protected by oven mitts. "Go on," Shoshi nodded, smiling, "take the water in. I'll be right back."
The linen closet in the main hall was empty of anything practical. All Shoshi could find were hand-embroidered napkins, marriage pillow cases, hand-tatted lace cozies and a couple of delicate gauze aprons meant to be worn for the holidays.
Breathless in her helplessness, Shoshi flung herself down the hallway to the stairwell, and started to run up when she saw Mr. Kierkegaard standing in the doorway. He still held two pots of boiling water. Shoshi glanced at the kitchen stove, at the wood stove in the parlor. The four remaining pots bubbled over into bursts of steam where the water hit the hot iron plates.
"Go!" she screamed at the man. He flinched at the power in her girl's voice. "Go out there! Now!" Shoshi pointed and he turned, looked out the door, then began to walk down the steps.
Shoshi took the stairs two at a clip, up two landings until she found herself in the dim space of a bedroom. Next to the bed, which had already been stripped of its linens, she found the crib. It was beautiful, with a smooth curved back like a sleigh, made of warm, polished hardwood. Even in the dim light coming through sheer curtains, Shoshi could see how it glowed with the shine and fragrance of many layers of lemon oil applied in expectation. Inside the crib, Shoshi discovered two large stacks of fluffy cotton diapers folded into pristine white squares.
Her slim, exhausted arms balanced the diapers while she scrambled down the stairwell. A short step she hadn't noticed coming up the stairs sent her sprawling across the hall in a gangling dance. Her arms clung to the folded cotton and prevented their tumbling.
Mr. Kierkegaard stood outside the barn, still holding the same two pots of hot water.
"I'm coming, Mama Kimi, I'm coming," Shoshi gasped as she dashed across the barnyard to the opening where moans and loud whispers of "Keep trying!" and "Push harder!" could be heard.
When Shoshi rounded the corner, she stopped in her tracks. Kimi held her hands between Trina's legs, and black blood was everywhere: on Kimi's apron, Trina's thighs, the wool, the rags. Shoshi sucked in a deep breath, noticing the sweet cloy of straw. It sent her reeling.
Dizzy, it was then that she noticed the swallows defecating from the loft -- little drops which fell in a slim line from the rafters to the manger, splattering the laboring mother's cheek.
"Oh no, Mama Kimi," Shoshi muttered in horror, before witnessing, past Kimi's rounded back, as a shadow-shape of blood, hair and bone was twisted out from Trina's prone figure with a pair of tongs.
Mr. Kierkegaard's towering form broke Shoshi's fainting spiral in that moment, though not before she watched the diapers in her arms fall, cloud-like dominoes, onto the muddy ground below.
excerpted from "The Intuitions of Mim," originally published in Fine Print, 2000,
and finalist in the Authors in the Park annual literary contest.
This story appears in its entirety in Zacatecas in Summer 2003.
At a campsite along the dunes, every fire she lights blows out.
Mim remembers a lagoon, a jetty and the beach where she nearly drowned as a kid. It was the undertow that did it. A sheet of water coursing over her face, flecked with bubbles and sand like fancy imported glass. She recalls wiggling kelp sucked back by the sea, its elastic tendrils taking her with it.
She hikes barefoot to the shore.
The lighthouses are still there, the blue-bleached shells of mussels from which only seagulls will eat and the giant seaweed bullwhips the tide leaves back. Mim enters the beach--is embraced by it--as if it’s an old, familiar room.
--What am I gonna do? Drive until I find my place in the world?
She would know it. There would be a pink, stucco-sided diner with a Waitress Wanted sign in the window and driftwood chimes hanging from the gutters. Maybe there would be an apartment above it, or an upright trailer to let out back. The tips would be good in the summer, the food would be fried and salty. She would date the short-order cook if he was cute and straight. On days off, she would command the beach any time she liked, or smoke clove cigarettes inside the laundromat to piss off the old people. Off-season, she would read ragged paperbacks, listen to the drizzle, watch for whales through a quarters-only telescope. Maybe she would be poor, but there is content for Mim in the idea of humble living, with its freedom to be, to simply be.
Someone has planted a driftwood cross on the beach, necklacing it with sand dollars. Mim takes in this shrine, the lighthouses, footprints, dune grasses and sands rippled by tides into superficial seafoam crusts.
--This is my world.
At last light, she is back at camp, eating all the chips before catching fire to driftwood. She didn’t pack a chair or a sleeping bag, but she has her pocket knife, which carves for her a roasting stick from greenwood. Over mediocre flames, it cooks hot dogs, which she eats dry.
Next site, there are trailer people who are her parents' age. They wave. Campground folks are always friendly. She hopes they stay away, aware she looks young for nineteen. Instead, they marry themselves to lantern-lit rounds of rummy and S'mores. Mim guesses they don't have kids. All parents suspect all kids. People who aren't parents don't have that knack.
She makes a bed of her car's back seat, which means she doesn't sleep at all this night. A Japanese car, it is too small even for her. Through the back window she watches for shooting stars which never come and wonders if anybody misses her.
A L S O
Read "Madam's Curse," originally published in Words of Wisdom, 1999,
and reprinted in Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism (2002)