AS SHE LAY IN BED, awaiting with some dread the onset of the next contraction, Naty couldn’t keep from thinking about her mother. Mother: who had birthed her, along with her five brothers and three sisters. Mother: whose magnificent, sturdy birthing hips she had inherited. Mother: still living, with her brothers and sisters, in that tiny house in the raucous market district of Agdao half a world away.
Not for long, she thought hopefully, not for long.
“Soyez prêt. Contraction à venir,” a soft voice said. She felt the tightening in her stomach, and she strained against the pain. It lasted, she felt, for a very long time. When it finally released her, she gasped for air.
“Gently, gently, Naty,” reminded another voice, closer to her ear. “Remember to breathe, oui? Hands open, do not clench.”
She nodded and managed a wan smile at Madame Bernard. Bright gray eyes, tracked by a thousand wrinkles, smiled back from behind the surgical mask, and a gloved hand squeezed hers warmly.
“Soyez forts,” the head nurse said encouragingly. Very soon now.”
Must childbirth be this painful? Naty wondered. But for every sting and knot that wracked her body, she felt closer to her mother. This was a special pain that they would share.
Then again: where she was she had all the facilities and amenities that a modern hospital gave. Her mother had not. Her mother had given birth to all of them at home, save for her youngest brother, whom her mother should not have had at her age. For all of them, it was the same old and toothless midwife who assisted.
“Dilatation du col de l’utérus: 9 cm,” the robot nurse at the foot of her bed announced. The nurse was really nothing more than a tree of hands on wheels. Those mechanical hands, though, were as gentle and smooth as its voice. She barely felt them as they repositioned her thighs to a more comfortable position.
“Tres bon, Naty,” Madame Bernard said. “Il ne sera pas longtemps.” She was grateful for Madame Bernard’s reassuring presence. In all, there were four nurses in attendance. Excepting Madame Bernard, they were all machines.
“Contraction,” the robot nurse warned her again.
Again it came, a spasmic wave. She felt like a giant hand twisted and turned her insides, then stretched them apart until they should break. She gasped, started to clench her fists, but remembered to keep them open. She imagined pushing her hands against an invisible wall, huffing in gulps like she was taught. Just when the pain subsided, it came again without notice from the nurse. She screamed.
Naty felt herself cut adrift. The pain was there, and it wasn’t.
From above her bed she saw herself, the small brown nakedness of her body cradled in the immaculate whiteness of the hospital bed. White except where her sweat drenched it to dankness and where her blood splattered it crimson.
Higher still she floated, and with x-ray eyes saw the rooms beside hers. Birthing rooms, too, and in them, women whose acquaintance she made in the months in the complex. In 1221 was Merpati, whose name meant “Little Dove,” still waiting for her water to break, and yet already looking wildly at the robot nurses; would they sedate her? They didn’t like doing it, unless they had to. In 1223 was Chinara, whom they had just brought in; her body, a beautiful ebony, darker than Naty’s own, looked so tiny, too tiny for her massive bulge; would they have to cut her open? Too bad for her.
For a brief moment, her mind’s eye took in the entire wing. Rooms upon rooms of women, all of whom she knew by face and by name through those months: all of them, alternating between agony and anticipation. All of them, bellies full to the bursting. Like her.
The thought brought her back to her own belly, stretched full and round with the life within to the point where it broke out in dark red spots. She ran her palm over it, barely touching, still surprised at the smoothness of its skin. In response, a kick.
In all those months, her growing belly and its precious cargo had been her source of pride. But it carried with it its own prick of hurt, because not till the last did her mother finally acknowledge it.
“Show me,” her mother had said during their last videocon.
This was after they had talked about her brothers and her sisters and the house and the money that was to come. And Naty had to stand away from the camera when she lifted her gown so her mother could see it in its fullness.
Her mother had bitten into her knuckles to hold back her tears. Unable to say anything more, her mother moved out of view.
I wish, I only wish… But her sister had come onscreen, and so Naty had pushed away the thought and put on a smile.
“Dilatation du col de l’utérus: 9.5cm,” said the robot nurse. Madame Bernard whispered in her ear: “Est temps, Naty. Soyez forts!” Madame Bernard left her side to go to the foot of the bed. The robots, one on each side, placed her feet against the pedals on the side.
A thousand daggers stabbed at her pelvis and her legs. Her cervix burned with a fire so intense she thought it would tear. Instinctively, she reached down, brushed her fingers against a crown of wet hair before a hand moved it away.
“Poussez! Poussez!” she heard Madame Bernard say, but the nurse seemed so very far away.
She pushed with all her might. Unable to keep the strain, she slackened, but the pain was searing. She screamed. Through tightly shut eyes tears squeezed through.
“Poussez, Naty! Just a little more! Peux voir la couronne!”
Mechanical hands pressed her shoulder against her bed. She gripped the rails on her birthing bed so tight that they shook. She pushed once more. And once more. Once more still.
Suddenly the pressure broke, as if a great burden had passed. Painful still, but not as before. She heard a gasp for breath, then a tentative cry. Madame Bernard cradled a tiny bloody mass in her hands: a head. Then out slid an arm, then another. Madame Bernard gently tugged and freed the rest of the baby from her womb.
One robot nurse deftly cut the umbilical, as another moved in with a blanket to wipe away the blood and the fluid. The third nurse stepped in and drew the rest of the placenta from her uterus. They did so with programmed ease.
Now the baby coughed once, twice, then found its voice and screamed at the top of its tiny lungs. With that, it seemed to draw all the pain away from Naty.
“Un enfant en bonne santé!” beamed Madame Bernard. “So handsome.”
The infant’s cheeks were ruddy red, but the rest of him was light and pale, especially beside Naty’s own dark complexion. His hair, wispy and blonde, clashed with the wiry black curls on Naty’s head. And those eyes, those blinking yet-unseeing eyes, a deep blue…
Madame Bernard had taken a few steps to the door before she paused and turned. She rocked the baby gently in her arms. Its earsplitting cry subsided into a whimper.
“Would you like to hold him?” Madame Bernard asked. By the sound of her voice, she was not just being polite but truly concerned.
“Merci, mais pas,” Naty said, shaking her head. It hurt too much to think that she would never again see the life she carried in her womb all these months. Or she would see him but not know it was him. No, better this way.
The robot nurses wiped her down, moved her to a clean bed, and spread a warm blanket over her. From the corner of her eye, she espied the observation room. Through the glass, she saw Madame Bernard present the precious cargo to the anxious couple: the Sperm and the Egg.
The Sperm was a distinguished gentleman, tall and wiry but a little stooped, with a shock of white hair that must have been, in his youth so long ago, blonde like his son’s. The Egg was a stern and thin woman with penetrating blue eyes. They were old, much older than even her own mother.
Where they had watched her labor with intensity and interest, now all their attention was focused on the baby.
Their son, she reminded herself. Their son. Not mine.
She forced herself to think of her own mother and sisters and brothers. For this successful delivery, she would be well paid. A bonus of e40,000, stipulated in the contract. Almost three million pesos. With this money which she would send home, her family could move to a better house. Their own house, this time. Maybe.
And then? In three months, another Sperm and Egg. And perhaps, one more just after that. The waiting list for surrogates was long, but their value went down with their age.
Yes, maybe two more. And she might have enough to see her through. Or maybe three.
Thankfully, she inherited her mother’s magnificent, sturdy birthing hips.
Half a world away, in the tiny kitchen of a little house in the crowded market district of Agdao, a woman prematurely old held midnight vigil beside a picture of her daughter. She told the beads of her rosary in murmured prayers. That was all she could do.
“Ma? Are you still awake?” Her youngest daughter, bleary from sleep but wondering why she was not in bed, peeked from their bedroom door.
“Just thinking of your sister. Go back to bed.”
“Alright. Don’t stay up too late.”
Alone again, she turned back to her distant daughter’s picture, taken not too long ago. Her fingers were on her rosary, but her mind was on the bedtime stories her grandmother told her from when she was a girl.
One story went like this: that if a beautiful virgin should wander too close to some dark corner, she might find herself in the wondrous land of the engkanto, the otherworldly immortals. And her grandmother warned: if she should eat from any the foods the engkanto offered, she would be theirs. Beautiful virgins, her grandmother said, were prized because they could bear the engkanto’s changeling children. The engkanto, in spite of their terrible power, were barren.
Only after many years would these lost women wander out of the woods, white-haired, used, and forgotten.
She traced the curve of her daughter’s smiling cheek over and over again. Of all her children, they said, it was this daughter who most inherited her looks. Of whom she was proudest.
Tears fell on the picture. She hurriedly wiped them away.
Published in the November 3 issue of The Philippine Graphic. Dominique currently teaches computer courses at the Ateneo de Davao University.