'Pig's feet and hairy buttermilk.'
She spread the tablecloth and set the Delph. There were Polish cartoons on television, followed by the Angelus' boring bongs. My mother looked out the window and smoked while I ate. Her green eyes went grey whenever it rained and her hair was braided halfway down her back. After the washing up, she sat by the fire and read her Westerns. Gusts sobbed in the chimney and the fire spat and crackled.
'Book any good?'
She slapped it shut, shook a Major's from the box and broke the filter off.
'Too many descriptions. I know what a tree looks like.'
The long nights were hard going. There was nothing to do but stare at the fire or listen to the wind howl around the eaves. The sound reminded my mother of the night I was born.
'You were a typical boy,' she muttered under her breath. 'You came early.'
She screwed the truncated cigarette into a holder, lit it, took a deep breath and hawed a coil of smoke rings.
'It was about the thirty-fourth week.'
Then she leaned down and cranked the bellows, sending firefly flurries up the chimney. The fire blazed and crackled. She let me climb onto her lap, and her long fingers latticed across my stomach.
'There was a storm waiting to happen. The air was full of it.'
Her voice was deep and hypnotic, her breath warm against my crown. I closed my eyes and could almost smell the bonfire smoke drift through the halting site, could see children running around with no trousers on, dogs tearing plastic bags of rubbish asunder. Air pressure like a migraine, pitchfork lightning and growls of thunder.
My mother described how when the storm struck she covered all the mirrors and crawled under her quilt and spread her hands over the swell of her belly, as though to protect me from the flashes of light and the noise. Fear churned her insides, travelled downward and became a clenching of pelvic muscles. She prayed it was a false alarm, tried to will the pangs away, but they intensified.
Her waters broke, soaking her leggings. She grabbed the bag she'd packed and out she went into the furious night and knocked on caravan windows. Nobody answered. Fear came upon her in great black waves. Panic welled up in her chest. But just as she despaired of finding help, a man appeared, unsteady and reeking of stout and sweat, but a man all the same, and he said he'd oblige her with a lift.
He was so jarred it took his Fiat three goes to exit the roundabout. Raindrops burst like pods against the windshield and water coated the road in a gleaming slick. My mother screwed her eyes shut and tried not to vomit or pass out as the waves of pain broke inside her lower parts.
They barely made it. A nurse helped my mother onto a trolley and wheeled her into the elevator cage and up to the delivery ward, no time for an epidural or any of that, just gas and air, my mother gumming on the apparatus like a suckling calf, hair plastered across her forehead, grinning at the midwife.
'You wouldn't happen to have a Baby Power's in your bag of tricks there,' she slurred.
'Be quiet and keep pushing,' said the midwife.
Breathing and pushing and moaning, gas and air and more breathing and pushing and moaning, and then I slithered out. The midwife scooped me up and the obstetrician cut the cord.
'A boy?' my mother asked, lifting her sweaty head.
'Aye,' said the midwife, as she wrapped me in a terrytowel.
'Any extras? Harelip? Flippers?'
'Whisht,' said the midwife.
The obstetrician looked me over, pronounced me hardy as a foal.
'He used to kick like one,' said my mother, and sank back into the pillows.
The recovery ward was full of nightgowned, slippered women, their faces flushed with fatigue. The rooms were warm and stuffy and my mother couldn't sleep. Soon as she could walk she called a taxi and took us home to the caravan. She padded the top drawer of an old teak dresser with blankets for a bassinet and placed me in it. Then the trouble started.
Excerpted from John the Revelator by Peter Murphy, copyright @ 2009. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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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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