Issue 62, Summer 1975
My daughter was born the day the Long War began. In the quiet times during labor, I listened to the explosions, wondering as I drifted into five minutes’ sleep whether the bombing had precipitated the contractions, or whether she was so remarkable a child that her entrance into the world should cause a war, a rearrangement of planets not entirely her own.
We are used to war in this country. I mean, we are used by war, as wood is used by flame. Trees have no knowledge of fire in their inner parts until the forest is ablaze, or until they are cut into kindling. I cannot imagine that one gets used to combat or that trees accustom themselves to burning.
I say “we” as if I were a native, but I was then and am still a registered alien. Nearly everyone here is foreign, immigrant, here because they're starved for land and space in which to breathe—but in wartime the air is thick with the smell of chemicals and the dust of blasted buildings, and all the land one can claim, even temporarily, is that. on which he stands or lies.
I am as foreign as the ones who drop the bombs. I came here, as the invaders say they come, looking for peace. Yet I could never get it into my head to move away from this crowded city which is always the first hit, giving the rest of the country time to mobilize and start sending supplies—blood, drugs, food, young people. This is a city which is always being rebuilt after the last raid. Of course it is never rebuilt.
I would have fought, though I was pregnant. I can handle a rifle, throw a grenade, or drive a jeep. I ‘ve done the organizing, too. I think of myself as a peaceful woman, and cannot explain this in myself, that I have killed face-to-face, but there it is.
This time, waking to sirens and detonations, I felt the contractions. Between the war and the baby, I would have a holiday from going to work. I washed and dressed, and into a bag I put my identification papers, the coins on the bureau, a handgun, an orange, and a handkerchief, laughing at the last addition. “Always carry a handkerchief,” my mother said. She could never have imagined this place.
In spite of the heat, I took my shawl. By nighttime, I might be a mother, a different person, and that person might use a shawl. I could have taken a book, to read it or to save it from the war, but books are heavy. I had few other belongings, and it hardly mattered if I left them behind.
My room was on the top floor of a stone building in the Old City. Generations of lodgers had lived there. Nearby stood one of the shrines, even older. Time is preserved in its walls like a fly in amber. Like amber, the walls are easily destroyed. A bomb turns stone to dust in an instant. The dust hangs in the air and the wind blows it away.
I lumbered down the stairs, two flights, and out into the early sun, then across the street and down into the shelter. My living space had been convenient, if nothing else. Someone else could pay the rent if the building stood to the end of the month.
Neighbors and strangers sat on the floor of the shelter. We greeted each other. Some of the children had gone back to sleep, and the old people as well. The card-players were at it already. I found a place for myself and began to be afraid. We were close to the border. Perhaps the borders had already changed, how was one to know? We had no radio. We could be taken prisoner, or we could die here, underground, trapped and deserted.
I also felt all the usual fears which, I know now, attend the birth of any child: that it would die, that it would be defective, that I would die, that I would be unable to care for it, that there would be pain beyond endurance, that there would be the indignity as necessary to birth as to making love.
Here we are, I said to the child in my belly, you and I in this country that prides itself on its modern hospitals and its superb medical care, and we are afraid of birth because there is a war—which is not an individual monster, but only people. People like mommy, I said, patting my belly.
The man in charge of the shelter—he was not the warden, the warden was dead and another had not been appointed yet—came to me and asked me how I felt. There were no medical persons in the shelter, he said. There was not even any aspirin. Someone had emptied the first-aid kit, leaving only snake-bite remedy. He looked at his hands and said that there were young children in the shelter. I asked if anyone knew how to deliver a baby, it was my first and I had never even assisted. He went back to the card-players.
After a few hours I decided to go to the hospital. True, it would be crowded with the wounded. Likely no nurses could be spared for maternity, but I would not be an added fear and an obscenity to the people around me. The deciding factor was this, that it was less likely that the hospital would be bombed than the shelter. If the trip through the streets was a risk, it held a chance, at the end, of safety.
They did not want me to go, any more than they wanted me to stay and bear the child in front of them. “I would feel responsible if anything happened to you,” said the man in charge.
“Well, you are not responsible,” I replied, at the same time thinking with such fear of going into the street that I thought I would vomit.
One of them, a boy too young to know about killing, gave me his sunglasses. Wrapping the shawl around me, no help for my shivering in the heat, no protection from the blind men in planes, I left the shelter. Some of them called luck after me.
I had to walk. Only military vehicles moved in the streets, and not many of those. Civilian cars and cycles stood abandoned, askew, as if tilted by an earthquake. You would think we’d get used to it, the war, since there’s so much of it, that we would drive in an orderly fashion to a safe place; but we never do. We leave the car, the door whining on its hinges, and run for cover. Later we try to find it again, though the landmarks and the street itself have been obliterated.
The shelling was very close, so that the ground trembled. Ahead of me a building burned. I was afraid nearly to paralysis that it was the hospital—that I was trapped, now, outside the shelter, walking to a safety that did not exist. A military person carrying a rifle shouted to me from across the street,’ ‘For god’s sake, get inside!” as he ran, unpursued, alone, following no one, in the opposite direction.
The weight of the gun in the bag dragged on my wrist. The boy’s sunglasses proved too small for me, so I threw them aside—though not liking to discard a gift—and went squinting into the sun. It was like the dream of wanting to run and being unable to run. I wanted to pick up my child, sling it like a pack across my shoulders, and run. My shadow loomed on the wall of the building beside me, fell away into the alley between. The pavement scalded my soles through my shoes. Then a contraction came and I forgot the sun and the heat and even the explosions. When I could see again, I found that I had been walking, I had not even wavered from the sidewalk.
I walked the three blocks to the hospital. People lay or sat about, crowding the first-floor corridors. Some held children. A man cradled a dog in his arms and crooned to it, but the dog was dead. I walked down a hallway, hoping to find some private place, trying not to stumble over arms and legs and tubing that fed blood from jars into people on the floor.
A man in white stopped me. “I’m in labor,” I told him. He looked at me keenly, and asked if I expected complications. I told him no, only a baby. He laughed then, saying, “You’re young and strong,” and apologized that there was no bed. He told me there had been a hit near the terminal at the morning rush hour, and many had been hurt, so his facilities were overcrowded.
Someone said, “Here, lady, sit here,” and I saw two men in uniform at my feet, looking up at me. “There, now, good girl,” said the doctor. He patted me and went off. The older of the two men called hoarsely to the others who sat along the wall,
“Move down, move, make room,” and they moved. I sat with my back against the wall, and it was a great comfort.
The man who had hailed me offered me a bit of dried beef.
“I have an orange, “I said. He nodded, but broke off some of his share and gave it to me, and I chewed it. He might have been forty or fifty, but because of the bandages and the dried blood on his face, I couldn’t tell. He had lost an eye and part of his leg trying to join his regiment at the front, and he laughed shortly as he said it. The other, who was quite young, sat shaking his head and singing softly from time to time.
“Knocked him silly,” said the one-eyed man. Then the lights in the corridor went out.
At length a doctor stopped beside me, shining a flashlight across me and then stooping to tell me her name. She put her hand on my arm. “I’m sorry to be so long, “ she said, “they told me you were here. How are you?”
“I will do,” I told her.
She glanced at the man in uniform and then at me. “I’ll be back,” she said, and gave me the flashlight. She talked then to the man on my right. Around us, medical people worked and murmured in the gloom; an occasional light bounded and came to rest and hung there.
I gave the flashlight to the man with one eye. We set aside the shawl to wrap the baby, and I took off my underpants, so as to have a cleaner cloth with which to wipe her. He put all this safely aside, and sat next to me as I lay on the floor, scraping the sweat from my face with his hand. Sometimes his nails caught my hair or his callouses chafed my skin, but he was not afraid of any thing he might see or be called to do, so it was good to be with him. If it had not been for him, I would have kept the gun at hand.
He held the orange to my mouth from time to time, for me to suck. They were silent all around me, and I was ashamed to cry out. Once when he put his hand against my face, I bit his finger almost to the bone when the pain came, but he did not cry out either. Later I wondered if he had been ashamed, too.
Near the birth, he said to me in my own language, “Now you must shout.” I was amazed to hear the words, but the amazement drowned in the confusion of pain and straining. “How can I shout,” I said when I had my breath again, “how can I shout when he is so brave?” and nodded to the man on my right, who had not made a sound the whole time; and to the others who crowded the corridor as if they still waited for their buses.
“This is not that,” he said impatiently. “You must shout now. Bear down hard. I read that somewhere, do you know what it means? Bear down and shout.”
I bore down and shouted, and she was born and shouted with me before she came quite free of me. He put her on my belly while he wiped her. Then he cut the cord with his pocket knife and tied it off like a sailor, saying, “You have a daughter.”
“Is she all right? How is she?”
He gave her to me. I could see her in the beam of the flashlight. All around us had looked up at her cry, and their faces lighted or despaired, according to the person, to see her and hear her bawl. I named her Thor, for the red god of strength and war, and put her to my breast.
Her hair grew in black curls all over her head, and I laughed, touching them. So that's who your father was. When he was happy, his face lighted like a candle. I don’t know if I loved him. Certainly I captured his heart for a bit. But loving hardly matters; in the end you're alone just the same, married or free. Better to have captured his conscience—any man”s con- science—then we’d have a roof, daughter, and maybe a little less anxiety about food.
When I woke from my thoughts and from dozing, I found that my head was cradled in the lap of the one whom the war had made simple, and he held the flashlight; that the man who was half blind had delivered the afterbirth and tidied me as best he could, covering me with the shawl; and that the man to my right was dead.