Excerpt of The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin
(Page 5 of 10)
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Outside, on the grass, watched by Adelia's dog, Mansur was singing nursery
rhymes from his homeland to amuse the other childrenall of whom had been
delivered easily with the aid of a neighbor and a bread knifeand it was a
measure of Adelia's desperation that at this moment she relished neither his
voice nor the strangeness of hearing a castrato's angelic soprano wafting
minor-key Arabic over an English fenland. She could only wonder at the endurance
of the suffering woman on the bed, who managed to gasp, "Tha's pretty."
The woman's husband remained uncharmed. He was hiding himself and his concern
for his wife in the hut's undercroft with his cow. His voice came up the wooden
flight of stairs to the stage part hayloft, part living quarterswhere the
women battled. "Her never had this to-do when Goody Baines delivered 'em."
Good for Goody Baines, Adelia thought. But those babies had come without
trouble, and there had been too many of them. Later, she would have to point out
that Mistress Reed had given birth to nine in twelve years; another would
probably kill her, even if this one did not.
However, now was not the moment. It was necessary to keep up confidence,
especially that of the laboring mother, so she called brightly, "You be thankful
you got me now, bor, so you just keep that old water bilin.' "
Me, she thought, an anatomist, and a foreigner to boot. My speciality is
corpses. You have a right to be worried. If you were aware of how little
experience I have with any parturition other than my own, you'd be frantic.
The unknown Goody Baines might have known what to do; so might Gyltha, Adelia's
companion and nursemaid to her child, but both women were independently paying a
visit to Cambridge Fair and would not be back for a day or two, their departure
having coincided with the onset of Mistress Reed's labor. Only Adelia in this
isolated part of fenland was known to have medical knowledge and had, therefore,
been called to the emergency.
And if the woman in the bed had broken her bones or contracted any form of
disease, Adelia could indeed have helped her, for Adelia was a doctornot just
wise in the use of herbs and the pragmatism handed down from woman to woman
through generations, and not, like so many men parading as physicians, a
charlatan who bamboozled his patients with disgusting medicines for high prices.
No, Adelia was a graduate of the great and liberal, forward-thinking,
internationally admired School of Medicine in Salerno, which defied the Church
by enrolling women into its studies if they were clever enough.
Finding Adelia's brain on a par with, even excelling, that of the cleverest male
student, her professors had given her a masculine education, which, later, she
had completed by joining her Jewish foster father in his department of autopsy.
A unique education, then, but of no use to her now, because in its wisdomand it
was wisdomSalerno's School of Medicine had seen that midwifery was better left
to midwives. Adelia could have cured Mistress Reed's baby, she could have
performed a postmortem on it were it dead and revealed what it died ofbut she
couldn't birth it.
She handed over a basin of water and cloth to the woman's daughter, crossed the
room, and picked up her own baby from its wicker basket, sat down on a hay bale,
undid her laces, and began to feed it.
She had a theory about breast-feeding, as she had for practically everything: It
should be accompanied by calm, happy thoughts. Usually, when she nursed the
child, she sat in the doorway of her own little reed-thatched house at
Waterbeach and allowed her eyes and mind to wander over the Cam fenland. At
first its flat greenness had fared badly against the remembered Mediterranean
panorama of her birth, with its jagged drama set against a turquoise sea. But
flatness, too, has its beauty, and gradually she had come to appreciate the
immense skies over infinite shades of willow and alder that the natives called
carr, and the richness of fish and wildlife teeming in the hidden rivers.
Reproduced with permission of Putnam Publishing. Copyright © 2008 by Ariana Franklin All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.