"Where is the baby?" his wife asked, opening her eyes and pushing hair away from her flushed face. "Is everything all right?"
"It's a boy," the doctor said, smiling down at her. "We have a son. You'll see him as soon as he's clean. He's absolutely perfect."
His wife's face, soft with relief and exhaustion, suddenly tightened with another contraction, and the doctor, expecting the afterbirth, returned to the stool between her legs and pressed lightly against her abdomen. She cried out, and at the same moment he understood what was happening, as startled as if a window had appeared suddenly in a concrete wall.
"It's all right," he said. "Everything's fine. Nurse," he called, as the next contraction tightened.
She came at once, carrying the baby, now swaddled in white blankets.
"He's a nine on the Apgar," she announced. "That's very good."
His wife lifted her arms for the baby and began to speak, but then the pain caught her and she lay back down. "Nurse?" the doctor said, "I need you here. Right now."
After a moment's confusion the nurse put two pillows on the floor, placed the baby on them, and joined the doctor by the table. "More gas," he said. He saw her surprise and then her quick nod of comprehension as she complied. His hand was on his wife's knee; he felt the tension ease from her muscles as the gas worked. "Twins?" the nurse asked.
The doctor, who had allowed himself to relax after the boy was born, felt shaky now, and he did not trust himself to do more than nod. Steady, he told himself, as the next head crowned. You are anywhere, he thought, watching from some fine point on the ceiling as his hands worked with method and precision. This is any birth. This baby was smaller and came easily, sliding so quickly into his gloved hands that he leaned forward, using his chest to make sure it did not fall. "It's a girl," he said, and cradled her like a football, face down, tapping her back until she cried out. Then he turned her over to see her face.
Creamy white vernix whorled in her delicate skin, and she was slippery with amniotic fluid and traces of blood. The blue eyes were cloudy, the hair jet black, but he barely noticed all of this. What he was looking at were the unmistakable features, the eyes turned up as if with laughter, the epicanthal fold across their lids, the flattened nose. A classic case, he remembered his professor saying as they examined a similar child, years ago. A mongoloid. Do you know what that means? And the doctor, dutiful, had recited the symptoms he'd memorized from the text: flaccid muscle tone, delayed growth and mental development, possible heart complications, early death. The professor had nodded, placing his stethoscope on the baby's smooth bare chest. Poor kid. There's nothing they can do except try to keep him clean. They ought to spare themselves and send him to a home. The doctor had felt transported back in time. His sister had been born with a heart defect and had grown very slowly, her breath catching and coming in little gasps whenever she tried to run. For many years, until the first trip to the clinic in Morgantown, they had not known what was the matter. Then they knew, and there was nothing they could do. All his mother's attention had gone to her, and yet she had died when she was twelve years old. The doctor had been sixteen, already living in town to attend high school, already on his way to Pittsburgh and medical school and the life he was living now. Still, he remembered the depth and endurance of his mother's grief, the way she walked up hill to the grave every morning, her arms folded against whatever weather she encountered.
(c) 2005, Kim Edwards. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Penguin Group.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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