THE CALL FOR THE MIDWIFE

It was an angry evening, far from still. The insistent wind was charging up the valley, testing trees and scattering leaves, that before they could contemplate a landing were whipped away by bitter fingers. Only the skilful adjustments of the murderous crows seemed untroubled.

There was the good side to the job, the velvet nakedness of new-born babies and sweating Mothers with sunshine faces, but also the not-so-good. In times when the only ambulance was an incumbent box van reflecting every bump in the road, and the only light was a swinging oil lamp, getting to where the midwife was called to attend, wasn’t easy.

 She knew the baby was due in the distant cottage, but in between was the eddying wilderness of ‘Red Marsh’, no roads, no clear-cut pathways. When the time came, she would have to walk to a route planned through the wayward tangles of hawthorn and clatter of the reed beds. Things around the disguised shallows of the lake changed week by week, the way complicated by ramblings of carefree cattle.

Sat at home, on the slate in the deep window, the rising fingers of cold crept up through her body whilst she waited. It was a surprise, nevertheless, when the call came.

“Right… let’s get this show on the road,” the midwife said to herself. “You’re not to let the walk put you off.”  Making ready her small leather medical bag, she bit her bottom lip, to prove that other things could be far more painful. “That family needs me.”

  Leaving, she could see the gable end of the distant cottage lit up like a sail on the sea’s horizon, smiling against the black clouds.

“Quickly now.” There was a positivity in her voice. She made for the gap in the dry-stone wall, the usual access for picnickers of a summer’s day and lovers of a balmy night. As she turned sideward, a rock rattled from the top stones, dislodged by her purposeful hands. There was no one to guide her, Jack was away, and now that the sun was sinking from the sky, things looked frightening. Nevertheless, she had a duty, and duty was everything.

As she fell into the menacing landscape, leaving behind the comfort of home, the steady flame from the fresh candles in the windows, seemed unconcerned, whilst the oil lamp swinging from her wrist rattled a protest. The blustery charge of the wind stirred the bushes, the thorny branches shouting as they flexed, cracking whips stinging her back.  

“Don’t you even think of it!” she warned them.

 Her determination was inherited from her Mother, whose voice was now ringing around her head. Even when the Titanic sank, rather than dwelling on the poor souls that were lost, the midwife lent an imagined hand to the survivors. Life had to go on, and that included new life.

From over the surrounding hills a dark cloud scudded across the sky, not so atmospheric though, a ‘murder’ it travelled as one, its rippling constituents bonded by family. The crows returning to the roost had seen her.

“Devil’s children, black and wicked you are! I can well do without your interference!” As they followed their glide slope, losing height and lowering undercarriages, a shouting came from all directions. It was evil, not one voice, but the echo of many. The midwife straightened her back, she knew they were returning on mass, the sky above never seemed to recover its fading hue. The black paint polluted the canvass, obliterating any impression of evening.

Her skimming eyes struggling to pierce the dark, searching for the demons as they fell from the sky, was disorientating and attention diverted, she slipped from the path without realising. Her feet sank almost immediately into the black stagnant water that overflowed the lake, the putrid smell of rotting detritus and gurgling from the air driven down into the mud, indicative of an immoral presence reaching up from below. She grabbed at the tall grasses but withering over the winter months, they had left only a white dart at right angles to the marshy ground, which snapped with an almost inaudible click.

“Don’t you… just don’t, that’s all!” she said almost politely, when a course barrage of swear words would have been more appropriate.

“Caw, caw!” A sudden shout from a crow in a nearby tree placed her heart in her mouth, but she swallowed hard recovering her weakening stance.  She continued to hear the bark of the disdainful thing from over her shoulder as the night closed in, but in silhouette, it finally came into view. “What have we here then? What a delight.” The words were in her head, but they were no less distressing.

“Leave me alone. You won’t stop me! Come hell or high water you won’t!”

“Oh, I can’t do that,” she could hear the shadowy bird say. “He wouldn’t be pleased. No! I have a responsibility to him and might, if performing my duties as expected, recover the white of my feathers!” She gritted her teeth, grabbing at the surrounding bushes for purchase, but felt the quick bite of barbs from an incurring bramble. The glassy purple of the crow’s eye gathering the last of the light, advertised a wicked intent.

“Don’t you look at me like that!” she snapped.

“Such pretties out in Red Marsh, out for who knows why, out but not yet back! Caw caw!” A tit-for-tat repost was absent as she turned away from the cackling animal, biting her lip again.

  A deep mirroring of the sky across a bland expanse of nothingness, the lake emerged from the clatter of the reeds and grabbing of the brambles. It appeared secretive, the wind chided surface keeping out prying eyes, hiding its treasured contents from all. Whether it was a false trail laid down by the cattle or not, the midwife pulled her feet from the mud as it took in a quick breath, disappointed that it couldn’t retain its victim. She forced one stride after another. A slip and she was in up to her ankles, in up to her knees, shallow then deep, she couldn’t be sure which way to go.  

There was a fretting of the crow’s wings as she felt its sinful draught over her head.

“Not down here pretty. Not down there, far from safe pretty!” She turned again, her body compass the only guide, the white of the cottage having disappeared.

 

As the notifying latch on the door clicked and clacked, Jack stepped into the cold house, shaking his frame of the blustering weather that had invaded his clothing. The candles in the windows had collapsed, low flames sitting over rolled folding’s of wax. He looked in the back kitchen, shouted up the narrow stairs but concluded, as the candle finally expired, that his wife had been called out to an impending birth. 

 

When recharging rays of sunshine crashed through the front bedroom window, the cottage across Red Marsh, was lit up once again. Jack had seen it, reminding him that it was there that a baby was due. He had fallen to sleep the night before, expecting his wife to return in the early hours, but his brow scarred, his front teeth stepped over his bottom lip. She had taken far too long, complications or not! He dressed quickly.

Pausing at the style in the wall, his fingertip touch was light and timid, no threat to the loosened stone. Step tentative, a fear was pounding in his chest.

“Oh my, what am I to find?”

The surrounding hills were bathed in sunlight, clear of any early mist and awake with the flickering wings of birds looking for a meal to start the day. Flitting from branch to branch in the bare trees, their vivacious colours shot across Jack’s nervous eyes, as he looked up from scanning the ditches along the path. Their sweet song was more than he could stand.

“Go away, leave me alone… please… leave me alone. Can’t you see I’m struggling with the day?” With a gentle breeze, the reeds around the lake waved a welcome, the water’s surface calm and inviting, but the irony of a pleasant day was all Jack could see.

The muddied path had begun to dry, his feet unchallenged as he kept his direction, but there were no tell-tale imprints from where he expected his wife to have trodden.

“Please God. Oh Please.” His voice trembled, his balance wayward, fingernails to his mouth. Then, the  ‘hello’, from the shadow of a crow in the tree behind, forced his fears from his stomach to his throat. The pleasantries of the day were finally nullified by what he believed were the dark eyes of an impending tragedy.

“Caw, Caw.” The only other thing in Jack’s mind was his wife’s face, even if the scattered murder knew differently.

As he began to climb out of the valley his pace was quickening, the higher ground of the heathland was free of binding mud, suspicious trees and bushes, giving a good view all around. The delicate smells from the heather should have been calming, the cool breeze relieving, but not so his panic.

It was then that he saw what he had dreaded. A brown shape between the scattered boulders, a midwifery bag alongside, a body lay almost peacefully but for the conquering crow stood on its back like a prize fighter taking the applause. As he ran quickly towards her, the bird slowly and lethargically opened its wings and rose into the sky, to be picked up by an accomplice’s hand and carried away. Jack fell to his knees.

“No! No! Oh God… no!” He looked up into the heavens for something divine return his wife’s departed spirit. “What did she do to deserve this? Why, why? When she, all the doctors and nurses alike, set their life to helping people? What do they do it for? Is it really worth it?”

At that, the distant cry of a new-born baby rose from the cottage.

A life for a life. Perhaps then he understood.