Jan/Feb 2016  •   Fiction

The Midwife and the Owl

by Ben Daitz

Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton

Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton

She would listen to the war stories of her father and his friends, Toby and Arturo, lucky survivors in the same infantry company, sitting, rocking on their front porch, remembering Guadalcanal. But years later she realized how much her father didn't say—had left out. In that way, her story was much the same—a solitary, secret, foxhole perspective. She knew other women who told of coat hangers and catheters, and potassium permanganate crystals, and enemas of castor oil and turpentine, and poultices of moss and seaweed, of spells cast, and last rites—stories like hers, but never told rocking on front porches.

In the late afternoon of her 17th birthday, she found the owl dead on the ditch bank, shot right through the middle of its chest, its head looking back over its shoulder. She had been walking along the irrigation ditch and had spotted the owl lying in a long shadow. One of its wings was extended, the other, hunched at the shoulder, shrugged to meet a full-fringed face bewildered by the failure of a banked turn. She'd picked it up, amazed by its girth and weight, and she carried it, arms extended in front of her along the ditch bank, like an offering to an altar.

She hadn't the slightest idea of what to do with it. She briefly considered bringing it back to her house and burying it in the family pet cemetery that already held two dogs and a Nubian goat. She propped the owl against a gnarled cedar fence post, tucking the extended wing under a strand of barbed wire. Kneeling there, she genuflected and sprinkled some sandy soil on the owl's head. Then she walked home, considering how to lie to her mother about the abortion she would have in Juarez, tomorrow or the day after, she wasn't sure exactly when.

The Mexican curandera was a traditional healer and a midwife, and her friend Sylvia had found out about her. They had driven through the endless mud street colonias of Juarez, chauffeured by a cab driver with olive-colored sunglasses and a thin, mid-lip mustache. Both of them were filled with such dread, they held hands in the back seat of the cab and grimaced sideways at each other the whole way.

They were welcomed into the curandera's house by a young woman, a one-legged woman who hobbled around them, leaning on a crudely carved wooden crutch, viewing them from every angle like a seamstress fitting a gown. She summoned a boy, perhaps five or six years old, who dashed off in his tattered underpants to fetch the midwife. The owl almost made her turn back and forget the whole thing. The owl was in a woven wooden cage sitting on an old pine trastero, and Sylvia had called her attention to it soon after they'd walked in the room. She actually started out the door after she saw it, and Sylvia had pulled her back, not understanding the owl connection.

The midwife followed behind the boy's shrill, herald call, "Ahorita viene!" She was dressed totally in black. A reboso around her shoulders draped a thin frame in threadbare black cotton. She looked like a mourning grandmother, like her own grandmother looked, mourning lost sons, and brothers, and husbands. Black for her uncle Ramon, decades after he died of starvation on the Bataan death march. Black for her cousin Damasio, doing ten years for burglary and stabbed in the heart with a shiv on his birthday.

"Sientense ustedes, porque no sienten?" the midwife asked, directing them to kitchen chairs with crimson seats encased in their original plastic showroom wraps.

She could only think of the trastero and the wall behind her, where the midwife's family photos were arranged, much like her own family's were: oval portraits of mestizo faces hung above a similar cupboard, but with the Virgin of Guadalupe as their centerpiece, not an owl.

"De donde vienen?" the midwife asked, and before they could answer, "Quieren unas refrescos, una coca, cafe, o algo?"

She sat there in the front room with the owl at her back and dug her nails in her palms. The midwife spoke in rapid fire Spanish, a squeaky mouse voice seeming to escape from her nose more than her mouth. Her upper lip wore a gray-white mustache like a puckered, crusted milk line. Her hair, when she removed her black lace mantilla, was loosely woven in a salt and pepper braid dropping like a dirty waterfall to her waist.

The midwife, like the woman with the crutch, eyed them up and down the whole time, her black eyes lingering mostly, she thought, on Sylvia, whose hips were broader, whose breasts were fully capable of love, whose legs had circled at least three boyfriends she knew about, and who by all rights should have been the pregnant one.

"Somos de Nuevo Mexico, de una pueblita," Sylvia volunteered, taking control, much as she had done throughout their schoolgirl lives together.

The midwife's bedroom was her clinica, her consultoria, a sunken mattress on a metal bed frame her exam table, a white gooseneck lamp her only light source, except it held no bulb.

She was spread frog legged. Her still slim tummy leading a quivering, slopping path to Imelda's black eyes peering at her over her crotch.

Her dreams of that day were in black and white. She had no concept of what Imelda was doing, was going to do. She knew nothing of abortions, of miscarriages, of menstrual cycles, of fertility, of fucking. She knew nothing about love. She had watched her mother. She had few other options. On the bus trip to Juarez, Sylvia told her not to worry, to trust her. It was four hours of Sylvia's love life piled on top of unremitting nausea.

When the midwife reached for the steel speculum wrapped in a pillowcase, she was thinking of Steven holding her and telling her he loved her. When the midwife told her she was putting it in her, she thought of Steven bringing flowers out from behind his back. Then she felt a hot stab of pain, making her toes curl and making her reach back to grab Sylvia's waist, so she hugged her friend's belly to her head.

She got chills on the way back in the bus, shaking chills and fever like she had never experienced. She lay huddled, shivering on the bench seat in the back of the Greyhound and retched into a sick bag. Then the pain came on in frightening spasms, doubling her knees to her chest, and Sylvia held her hand and wiped her sweaty face.

The bus driver drove them directly to the old hospital, carrying her into the emergency room in his arms. That was the last thing she remembered. Doc Webster, the missionary GP, told her father she might die.

She was in septic shock, beaded bacteria running rampant in her bloodstream, flooding across her heart's valves, flushed through her spleen and liver, splotching her skin red and purple. Doc Webster filled her veins with all the antibiotics in the pharmacy. He wrapped her in cold wet sheets. And her father and mother and Father Gabe said rosaries in shifts and lit candles on the windowsills. She almost died. And then, days later, she awoke from her dream as the midwife's owl was flying out the door, and she was flying after.

She never blamed the midwife, nor the owl. She told the folktale of La Tecolote, the owl woman, to her class: the old New Mexican story about the village curandera, who was killed—falsely accused of being a witch—but who came back as an avenging owl. And she told the children the Navajo legend, about The Creator telling the owl people will listen to its voice to foretell the future, but she decided to skip the Navajo story about the skinwalker, the evil witch who can appear as an owl and follow you forever. And in leaving that story out—she knew she was very much her father's daughter.