Early one April morning, 1863, father had awakened to find mother standing at the window in her peach chemise, shuddering with a horror she couldn't name. He coaxed her back to bed and bore her convulsions the whole night through. The next evening when he returned from the works he found her seated on the stoop. She was pawing her belly and weeping tearlessly but with abandon. Believing it to be a spiritual ailment, he read to her from the letters of the Apostle: "But though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day," and she strained to find comfort in the old cadences. But her melancholy was incurable and the paranoiac fits bulged in time with her growing belly. She had believed herself fruitless. The new roundness of her stomach could barely convince her that this haunting, as she called it, was maternal and not demonic. For the next seven months mother quavered, soothed only by readings from the New Testament. Her torment would not fully subside till I was delivered from her womb.
Under the shadow of Mount Diablo, with a terrible warble which filled the little company house, Abicca Witherow squeezed me into the world. The labor began one indigo morning when she spasmed awake in tears. Then she struggled an entire day and night, clear to the following afternoon. The midwife, Sarah Norton, darkened my parents' door as a bulk of shadow. She had the stout hands and mannish arms of one who pried at wombs for hours on end, and wore a string slung crosswise on her breast, dangling with pouches of fresh and dried herbs. Tisanes, roborants, analeptics, caustics, tonics, and salves all of old-world or Indian concoction. She put her mouth to mother's twitching ear.
"First thing is to calm those nerves, dearie." She gave four pouches to father. "Each in a separate pot. Boiled." And as he dashed out, she stood smiling down upon her tremulous patient. "We're bursting, aren't we, dearie? The little thing's eager for air. Here's a comfort for you."
Her black hair stranded downward as she bent and slipped hooks from eyes, spread open the belly of her own blouse, bunched the undershirt clear. She moved into the light and showed mother the long blue scar running from her navel to the dark pubic swatch.
"And still the child was lost," she said. "But yours won't be anything as bad as that. Yours wants to come, so don't shudder, sweet."
Mother's head thrashed on the damp pillow. Years later she told me: "I just had to give myself up to her, shadowy though she was. And she delivered me well, but I was happy to have her gone."
Finally at dusk I was born. Fatherwho knelt by the bed with his left hand cracking in mother's grasp till the knuckles nearly broke, and with his right hand wiping her nose, which bled as eagerly as her wombhe said the room seemed to tremble at my coming. But both my parents assured me that once I kicked free of the belly I glowed with a healthy infant-light which healed the nine-month malaise.
They named me Asher. I never learned why, but now I think it a good name for someone born in the night amid culm banks and black-water drainage bogs.
It means much that Sarah Norton delivered me. With her callused pagan hands, she gripped my knuckly arms, yanked me from blue amniotic to gray November night, lifted me wailing, slashed my cord, swaddled me, and imparted to me something unreckonable. I still do not understand it fully, but I've always listened to its reverberations. They say the woman delivered six hundred infants in her lifetime, and in a quiet ritual of hers she planted a cottonwood tree for every one of those babies. Dreaded apothecary of secret medicine, maven of birthing and its converseeven now I often have visions of her: hunched in hillside greenery, breaking up the moist earth to set my own cottonwood seeds in place, then patting the soil firm with extra care.
From The Green Age of Asher Witherow by M. Allen Cunningham, pages 1-14. All rights reserved, no part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Unbridled Books.
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