Archive for October 2014

bringing forth- installment #2   4 comments

here’s the 2nd in the ‘dark horses’ series. constructive criticism, comments and feedback greatly appreciated.

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Bringing Forth

Rain drums steadily on the hood of Kephalos’ himation, which is made of good fox fur but is soaking miserably through. The lower plains of Arkadia are merely chilly and damp, but high in this northern mountain region the rain has ominous knife-edges of ice, and the wind is cruel. Nothing but his frantic fear for his wife would bring him out on such a night. She has come early to her childbed, and this is their first, and she is so small.
The home of Stefano and Aglaia lies far below Kephalos’ mountain cave, but Aglaia is famed throughout their scantily-populated region for bringing women and babes through the birthing ordeal alive. Even if she has not always been so lucky herself.
The early evening darkness is thick, and no torch could survive this bitter night. Kephalos knows his mountain paths, but the rain and wind and darkness conspire to make his journey slick and perilous. He has already fallen hard twice, and he battles to keep his panic at bay, to slow his speed. A broken ankle will not help his little wife.
As he navigates the faint rocky trail he prays fervently to both Artemis Orsilokhia and Eileithyia to watch over his wife and baby, and curses the bad luck which has caused Eleni to begin her labor at such an inauspicious time. They have been saving both olive oil and wine for Aglaia’s midwifery gifts, and still reckoned on another full moon phase before it would be time to invite her into their home to await the ordeal. He left his white-faced whimpering wife alone over an hour ago, and it will be another hour before he reaches his destination. Then Aglaia will need to pack her medicinals and charms, and make the steep climb back up in the dark, which will take far longer than his precipitous flight down to the upland plain. First babies often arrive slowly. Can Eleni hold on until they return?
The wind whips into his eyes, stinging and blurring them. At first he thinks the tiny distant light may be a nothing more than tears and hope, but he wipes them with a sleeve beaded with icy droplets, and it continues to beckon him down the mountain, and he knows that Aglaia’s cottage is finally in view. He cannot tell if it is tears or sleet that streak his face.
Before he can reach the door he is stopped by the warning growl of the herd dogs, and he can see them lined up in the dim, damp yard, four of them, hackles spiked, lips rippling back from gleaming teeth. ‘Ho! Aglaia! Stefanos! Call off your beasts, it is I, Kephalos!’ A moment later firelight floods the slippery patch of earth before the threshold, and he is drawn into the warmth of the tiny hovel and its flickering hearthfire. Outside, the dogs whine in disappointment, and return to their watch outside the goats’ pen.
‘Gods above and below, Kephalos, Hermes Himself must be perched on your head to have guided you down in this weather! What could bring you out on such a cursed night? Here, Kiri! Warm some wine for our guest! Karissa, bring water for him to wash! Is there bread?’ Stefanos helps him out of his sopping cloak, and hangs it near the fire, wafting steam into the room. Gratefully Kephalos sinks onto a stool before the fire, stretching his hands and feet to its warmth. Little Karissa hurries over with a wooden basin of water, kneels at his feet while he washes, then gently begins to draw his goatskin boots from his feet, but he halts her, scattering water droplets, suddenly terrified that these scant moments spent taking his comfort will doom his errand.
‘No time, no time for wine or rest, Stefanos! Where is Aglaia? Eleni’s time is at hand, and I need to bring your wife back up the mountain or she will die! She is so small, Stefanos, and the babe comes too soon. Aglaia!’
Kiri turns from the kettle over the fire, her face frozen in shock, and the ladle with which is she warming the wine clatters to the hearthstones. Karissa, mouth hanging wide, retrieves the ladle and whisks it and the lustration bowl out the way, and retreats to a dark corner of the tiny room, drawing a small boy of no more than two against her side. Stefanos’ bushy brows snap together, his deep voice rumbling with dismay as he replies, ‘Kephalos, my friend, Aglaia was called away yester eve to the gathering down by the river for the Lenaia festival. A woman is brought to childbed there, and no midwives near. We did not expect to hear from you for yet another moon.’
‘I know! I too! But the child comes, timely or not, and Eleni cannot manage the birthing without help. Oh, Stefanos, what am I to do? There is no one else, and the Lenaia gathering is too far. We could never make it back to her in time!’
Kiri’s eyes meet her father’s across the bowed back of the despairing man. He gazes at her steadily, then nods. Briskly she returns to the kettle of warm spiced wine, ladles some into a bowl and thrusts it into Kephalos’ hands. ‘Here, drink this. You need to restore your strength. I have helped my mother before, I will come with you and help Eleni bring her child into the world.’
Kephalos takes the wine numbly, staring at her. ‘You? But Kiri, you are just a child yourself. How can you-‘ He breaks off, seeing her as if for the first time. She is no longer a little maiden, but fully thirteen years old, ready for marriage and children of her own. The skinny wild-haired girl whom he has seen scampering over the mountains with her goats is now looking back at him with serious eyes, and a calm demeanor.
‘I have not assisted at a birth without my mother there to supervise, it is true,’ she says, ‘but I have been present and helped her many, many times. And there is no one else. Wait but a moment while I gather what we will need, and I will come with you.’
While Kiri begins loading strips of coarsely woven cloth, pads of wool and bags of herbs into a basket, Kephalos bemusedly accepts a clean rag, and dries himself roughly before the fire, then swallows the bowl of wine in two great gulps and begins pulling on his still-damp and steaming outerwear. By the time he is ready Kiri is beside him, a sharp bone knife wrapped and tucked into the bottom of her neatly packed basket. Stefanos himself fetches her warm himation and wraps it snugly around her. She smiles at this gesture of solicitousness from her normally imperturbable father, and leans against him for a moment, savoring his warmth and strength. He tilts her face up to him and gazes searchingly into her eyes. ‘Little thistle, you have grown much in the last year. Ever since you came back without your white goat and with the two kids, you have been different. And not just because you are becoming a woman.’ He sighs. ‘This is a woman’s task, and I would not have it fall to you, but you bring pride and honor to our home by taking it on.’ He presses his forehead briefly to hers. ‘You are my good girl. Go, and do what you can for Eleni. May the gods go with you.’ She flings her arms around his neck, then turns to the wide-eyed children pressed against each other in the corner.
‘Karissa, Patrokles, be good, and help Father. Tend the fire, and make sure the goats are cared for. Mother will return soon.’ She kisses them swiftly, then turns to Kephalos, who is waiting impatiently by the door. ‘Sir, have you a torch?’
He replies roughly, ‘No torch will stay lit on such a night, wench, what would you? I know my way. Follow me closely, and make haste!’ And with a whirl of wind and wet, the door opens, then closes behind them.

The long dreary night is barely half-spent when the two soaked, freezing, exhausted travelers reach the dimly-lit entrance to a small cave, high in the Parnon mountains, mercifully sheltered from the worst of the winds by a massive outcropping blocking the northern elements. The fitful flicker of a dying fire draws the tired pair up the final approach, but they look at each other worriedly at the silence. No moans of a woman in labor, nor yet the wails of a newborn reach their ears above the hiss of the sleet.
‘Eleni,’ breathes Kephalos as he steps into the narrow opening, drawing Kiri beside him, eyes frantically searching the dim interior. Only a few coals glow in the crude hearth. A heap of furs lies in a careless pile before the fire. It is brutally cold and damp, the walls dripping with condensation, but after the terrible climb in the storm, it feels like a haven. But Kiri has no time to appreciate the relative stillness, and small suggestion of warmth. She sees a limp, white hand extended from under the furs, still as a stone. With a muffled exclamation she pushes forward, and gently pulls the furs back from the small woman who lies there, eyes closed, belly grossly swollen.
‘Build up the fire, quickly, you fool!’ she hisses at Kephalos, all respect due to an adult man forgotten by both of them as she falls to her knees and begins examining the still form. Glancing desperately over his shoulder as he works, Kephalos obeys her unquestioningly, bringing armfuls of dry wood from the back of the cave and blowing gently on the embers to cause them to flare and dance. He notes with dread that almost none of the pile of logs and twigs left next to the hearth for Eleni to use in his absence have been burned. It is a miracle that the fire did not altogether die.
When the flames are leaping and crackling again, and some degree of light and warmth begin to steal into the dark cave, Kephalos dares ask the question burning behind his lips. ‘Kiri, is she dead? Is my Eleni dead?’ He cannot yet think about the babe.
Kiri’s answering smile is swift as she glances back at him, before she turns her attention back to the still form, a worried frown returning to her brows. ‘No, but Hekate Psychopompos is near. Eleni is unconscious, but her body yet works to expel the babe. Can you heat some water for me? I must clean her so that I can examine her, and help the child from the birthing canal. Pray! Pray to Artemis to keep her back from the brink!’
The two of them gently reposition Eleni near the fire on clean furs, Kephalos bundling the soiled, partially frozen ones and tossing them unceremoniously out of the cave. He crouches by his wife’s head, holding her small, boneless hand in his large one, stroking her hair, murmuring unintelligibly to her. Kiri kneels between the sprawled legs, washes her hands in a small basin of warmed water and herbs, then coats her right hand in olive oil from a vial in her basket. With her left on on the woman’s abdomen, feeling for the ripple of contractions, she gently works her right hand into the birth canal, working her way toward the baby. She flashes a quick smile at Kephalos. ‘I feel the head. The baby is positioned correctly, and the cord is not wrapped around the neck. If we can ease it out, we may save Eleni yet.’
‘And the child?’
‘I don’t know. I can’t know until it’s born. Ah! Here comes a birth pang! Kephalos, let loose her hand, and listen. Put your hands here- thus, on her belly- and when I say, push. She is too weak, and has lost so much blood. We must help her expel this child.’
They work together, in the red light, the wind’s howl distant and barely noticed. And some time later, in the deep dark of night, Kiri’s oiled hands pull the limp, tiny baby from between Eleni’s inert thighs.
Kiri finds that the many times she has helped her mother have created a mental flow that her hands follow, clearing the babe’s mouth and nose, pressing lightly on the chest, finally placing her own mouth over the small face and breathing gently into the open mouth. Her heart leaps when she sees the ribcage rise and fall, ever so slightly, and hears a gurgle no louder than a kitten’s mew. A quick glance, and she catches Kephalos’s eyes and smiles into them. ‘Your daughter lives, at least for moment. Take her, sir, and massage her gently. Wrap her in this fur, here, keep her warm, and keep rubbing her. I must see to Eleni. Her labor is not yet done.’
As Kiri works over the unconscious form of Eleni, she can hear Kephalos’s soft sobs and murmurs as he cradles his new daughter. And as Kiri slides the placenta out of Eleni’s body, she is gratified to hear a tiny, plaintive wail. As the wavering sound fills the small cave, a weak voice whispers from the furs by the fire. ‘Kephalos? Is that our baby?’ and is answered by a great noise, half roar half sob.
Smiling, Kiri slides an arm under Eleni’s shoulders and lifts her to a slightly raised position, resting on the bunched furs, then removes the baby from Kephalos’s arms and places her on Eleni’s drastically deflated belly.
‘Here is your new daughter, brave Eleni. Your birth milk is in. Put her to your breast, and feed her. She has had a difficult journey.’ And as Eleni nurses her baby in wonder, Kiri finishes washing her, packs absorbent wool between her thighs, and winds strips of cloth around her hips to hold it in place. The bloody furs are moved aside, and the clean ones which Kephalos has ready are wrapped around mother and child, who barely notice the fuss and solicitude, so rapt are they with each other.
It is imperative for the blood and effluvium of the birth to be cleaned and removed from the area of the cave lest predators are attracted. Wearily, Kiri washes the placenta and places it in a kettle to be boiled for broth to nourish the new mother after her ordeal, and then begins the unpleasant task of gathering the unsalvageable furs and cloths and finding a suitable spot for disposal. Digging a hole is not an option in the icy wet night, and it is too treacherous to simply find a far place to abandon them. Fortunately there is a steep cliff around the mountain’s shoulder and not too much higher. With a cry for the offering to be accepted by Eleuthyia and Artemis, Kiri flings the sodden, strong-smelling bundle into the winds, followed by a fervent song of thanks.
The wind is no less sharp, but the stinging pellets of sleet have subsided by the time Kiri has finished the birthing broth and presented it to exhausted but elated Eleni. Kiri also makes sure there is food for the father prepared, plenty of wood for the fire, and a clean stack of fresh wool pads and furs so that mother and child can stay clean and dry. Kephalos looks up from his wife and daughter dazedly as Kiri packs her basket, looking at her in stricken dismay. ‘Kiri, you must stay! You cannot walk home in this darkness, but I cannot leave Eleni and the baby yet. And we have gifts, the gifts we have put aside for Aglaia are yours, I must carry them down for you. Stay, and rest!’
But Kiri shakes her head. ‘Mother may not return today, and there is work to do. Father is taking some of the goats for trade, and the little ones are not yet able to tend to the rest on their own. I can make my home without help, and when Eleni is strong enough to be on her own, you can bring the doula gifts to us. The rain and sleet have stopped. I’ll be fine.’ And nothing they can say can dissuade her, and truly, Kephalos and Eleni are too wrapped up in their new child and each other to protest for long. Soon Kiri is on her way down the mountain, warmed by a draught of spiced wine, fortified by a strip of dried meat and morsel of bread, her feet securely tied into a handsome new pair of goatskin boots.
An occasional star peers through the ragged wrack of clouds as Kiri works her way along a path so narrow and stony it is barely visible in full daylight. Sure-footed as she is, she moves her feet carefully forward, testing each step before putting weight on it, watchful for loose rocks and jagged thorns. No snakes will venture forth in the damp cold, but other dangers walk the mountains, and Kiri is alert despite her exhaustion.
But even though Kiri knows the local mountain pathways well, a dark stormy night with no sleep can fool the most experienced traveler. At a point where she expects to be halfway home, Kiri is dismayed to find that instead of the cedar grove she should be entering, she is being led by the tiny path deeper into the mountain fastness, and the soaring buttresses of stark stone rising around her are entirely unfamiliar. She halts, puts a hand to her head, tries to get her bearings. The footing is so treacherous that she has had to focus on each step she has taken, trusting her instincts to guide her down the right path. Has she made a mistake? At no point does the path she knows wind so, in such unfathomable patterns.
Kiri stands in the midst of strange escarpments, so tall that the black sky is almost blotted out. Even the wind has not followed her into this place. The silence is profound.
When the moaning begins, Kiri at first thinks it is the wind. Or perhaps her tired brain recalling Eleni’s faint moans as her senseless body did its work without her volition. And almost without volition Kiri lifts her head, and follows the sound.
Boulders and broken rocks litter the ground, making an already difficult terrain even harder to navigate. Kiri inches her way forward, using her stout stick to feel ahead before she takes a step. Even with the good skin boots on her feet, they are battered and sore, and Kiri is cold and exhausted. Yet she keeps moving forward over the loose scree, stabbed by broken shrubs and thorn bushes, trying not to twist an ankle on a rolling rock. As she feels her way around an outcropping of stone, her hand encounters emptiness. She stands at the mouth of a cave.
A drawn-out groan shivers around her.
A faint gleam, like no light Kiri has ever seen before, illuminates the back of the cave, indicating a narrow passageway. She stares at the dim green glow, a memory stirring deep in her subconscious, and with the twitch of memory, a twist of terror. Her heart seems to lurch to a halt, then start up again with slow, irregular slams. But she takes another step, then another, working her way to the back of the cave, to the cold, dim glow.
The passage leads back, and down, into the guts of the mountain. The rock walls are cold, and slick. Kiri makes her way for some time, she does not know how much time, the passageway lit by the eldritch light which does not ease her fear even though it makes walking easier. After a few minutes, or an eternity, Kiri steps into an open space, the walls falling away from her questing fingers, the ceiling gaping above her.
A horse is lying in the center of floor, grunting softly. Its neck is stretched out, nostrils flared, while the long tail swirls over the hard stone floor. The distended abdomen ripples, and Kiri can see the push of membrane against the straining vulva. The horse is a mare, and she is about to give birth.
Black eyes rimmed in red meet Kiri’s. An explosive snort echoes throughout the rock chamber as the mare swings her head up in warning. But another contraction seizes her, and her head drops back to the hard floor with a sigh. Her hind legs jerk taut, then scrabble. The pale green light intensifies for a second, then dims. Kiri stares in shock. The dark mottled hide, the tangled, matted mane, the beautifully-shaped head explode in her brain with a memory she had tried so hard to forget. The memory of a dappled mare made of moonlight and pearl, the mare from the plain on the way to sea, the mare who went dark on a night of wonder and terror.
The mare strains, her groans emanating like distant rolls of thunder. Kiri is rocked from her fearful stasis by the sight and sound of a birthing mother in crisis, and before she can think, she finds herself kneeling at the mare’s hindquarters, reaching without looking into her basket for her olive oil and soft wool pads. Gently she cleans the blood and effluvium from the vulva, and as the next contraction wracks the mare, she can see a pair of small hooves protrude from within the membrane, then recede away again. Kiri takes a deep breath, searches in her basket for the carefully-wrapped knife, and silently awaits the next contraction. Normally she would stroke the animal, murmur reassurance, perhaps even sing softly, but she does not dare touch or speak to this creature. Her tongue seems glued to the roof of her mouth with fear, even as her hands go about their accustomed work.
When the tough membrane again protrudes, Kiri is ready. She makes a short, quick incision, causing the mare to jerk and grunt, and now can reach in and grasp the small, soft hooves and prevent the body of the little creature from receding back into the mare. And at the next contraction she pulls hard, bringing the forelegs and a small twitching nose out into the air. Three more contractions, and a wet black foal slides onto the cavern floor.
The mare is up in a trice, and Kiri scrambles back against the wall, pulling her basket with her, out of reach of the sharp hooves and wicked teeth. The dark mare tears at the membrane covering the limp little form, then begins licking it roughly, nostrils rippling, small grunts and nickers bursting from her as she works. In moments the foal sits up, wavers, slides down again, but perseveres, and after a few tries, stands on ridiculously long, wobbly legs, mewling like a kitten. The mare turns broadside to the foal, bumps its little sea-horse head with her stifle, and the baby reaches under her and begins to nurse.
For long moments the only sound in the green-lit chamber is the greedy sucking of the little black foal, and the soft whickers of the mare. Her fear momentarily forgotten, Kiri watches in wonder, which grows to amazement as she notices that the tiny, furiously switching tail, is the same eerie green as the cavern light. And with that realization, fear falls back on her like a heavy cloak.
At her intake of breath the mare’s head swings to regard her. There is no vestige of warmth or pity in their black, fire-rimmed depths. But before Kiri can scream, or faint, or beg for mercy, she is released from the lock of those eyes. The mare nudges the foal, now slow and sated, from her udder. It rubs its milk-slobbered muzzle on her flank, then slides slowly to the floor, and in less than a minute is asleep, tiny flanks rising and falling contentedly. And with a groan, the mare too falls to her knees, then heavily onto her side. But not to rest.
To Kiri’s shock, the hard ripples of birth contractions again begin to seize the mare. Kiri frantically cleans her hands on a twist of wool, and crawls back to her position at the mare’s hindquarters.
Something is thrusting its way out of the opening, but there is no membrane, or shape of tiny hooves. What is emerging from the straining mare is a shapeless, sinuous mass of shadow. It writhes, wet, and spills onto the cave floor, flowing like vapor. The mare screams once, then falls silent, gasping. Kiri’s outstretched hands touch the glutinous, gleaming darkness, and she too screams, weakly, miserably, at the shock of cold. She scoots back, duty forgotten, everything forgotten, desperate only to get away from heaving shadow, clutching her stricken hands in her lap. The impossible mass slips out of the heaving body of the mare and lies quivering on the floor of the cave. It seems both solid as freshly spilled viscera, and as wispy as mist. Kiri tries to focus on it, but her eyes skitter away from it, unwilling to even attempt to make sense of something so clearly not part of her reality.
The mare slowly, slowly heaves herself to her feet. The flames of her eyes flare, then burn dim. The foal sleeps peacefully at her feet, tiny ribcage rising and falling rhythmically. The mare turns to her second-born, and begins to lick the mass silently. Wet whispers fill the cave.
Kiri wonders if she is going mad. She sees, but does not understand, the emerging form of a girl-child.
After a few minutes, or another eternity, the whispering ceases, the mare stands motionless. At her forefeet lies an impossible thing.
Kiri is staring at the tiny body of a newborn baby girl, as perfectly formed as the little one she left in the high mountain cave. Except that the fragile neck ends in the head of a foal.
Its eyes are closed. The baby ribcage barely lifts and falls.
The mare is perfectly still, except for the flaming eyes which blink slowly, fixed on her daughter. When the placenta slides out, unheeded, it hits the cave floor with a wet glopping sound that startles a small shriek from Kiri’s throat, but the mare does not so much as twitch an ear her way. Her terrible gaze never wavers from her child.
The tiny nostrils flutter. The tightly-shut eyelids tremble. Kiri’s fingers dig into rock.
‘You should leave.’ The voice is male, pleasant, slightly musical.
Kiri’s head snaps around, finds no one there, then her eyes widen as she sees the black colt, still lying on the floor of the cave near the mare, now awake, head up, looking at her. He tosses the greenish forelock out of his eyes, and the lips pull back in a ghastly semblance of a grin. ‘Listen to me, little doula. My sister will be fully present very shortly now. I’m afraid she won’t show gratitude for your service.’
Kiri chokes. The mare takes a step back, a hind hoof lands in her placenta with a squish. The nightmare on the ground emits a gasping sound.
‘Go.’ The green in the colt’s eyes intensifies. ‘Now.’
Kiri scrambles backwards, only just remembering to grab her basket as she puts as much distance between herself and nativity tableau as she can. Never daring to take her eyes away, she backs into the passage. But before she can completely escape, the colt heaves itself to its feet on legs that are already less spindly, more sturdy, holding up a body bigger and more mature. ‘The path to this place is deceptive. I will send you a guide. Follow it faithfully, and be back on your familiar road before Helios drives his chariot over the horizon. Do not dawdle. ’ A disturbing lilt of laughter underlies the smooth voice. ‘A clever girl like you might escape the labyrinth unaided, but we won’t chance it.’ In a more serious tone it continues, ‘You have done well this night, little doula. Whatever happens, remember that.’
The green light intensifies. Kiri turns and flees.
At the mouth of the cave she trips over something, almost falls hard, catches herself just in the nick of time. She turns to see something vaguely shaped like a large stone, but with the faint green glow that is now both familiar and terrifying. She stifles a scream before making out the shape of a mountain tortoise, blinking wise eyes at her under its faintly gleaming shell. She understands. As it turns and begins to make off at a surprising swift pace, she follows.
The path turns and twists, doubles back on itself, wraps around boulders and scree. Exhausted, mind numb with fear, Kiri is sure that the night is endless, and that she is trapped in some dark dream from which she can never escape. So when the tortoise stops and cranes its wrinkled head back at her, she numbly waits for the next horror to befall her. Her bleary eyes slowly take in a familiar landmark, an ancient knotted pine with a deep crevice in its roots, and she realizes there is a faint grey light emanating from beyond a mountain path that she knows. The tortoise, no longer looking like anything other than a typical mountain tortoise, lumbers slowly off.
Kiri takes a deep breath, and, trembling, looks behind her. The path she knows continues up the mountainside. Nothing looks different or unfamiliar at all. There is no sign of the tortuous road which has taken her from the cave of dread.
Kiri turns her face from the mountain, and walks home in the growing light.

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Posted October 27, 2014 by suzmuse in Uncategorized