I helped clean up after breakfast and took my time about it, hoping to put off Lena’s little midwife school, but it didn’t work. Lena was fast and efficient, and with Charlene helping too, we soon had the kitchen spotless.
That meant it was time to sit down at the dining table and start learning again. I could think of about a thousand other things I’d rather be doing than learning about babies, but I really did try to pay attention. I “took notes” about food and herbs, and I think now I finally understand what vitamins and calcium are, and why these things matter. We also talked about how to keep from getting sick. I already knew about soap, alcohol, and iodine, but Lena had a way of explaining things that made it easy to understand why they helped prevent infection.
But when the talk turned to conception and pregnancy, I wanted to leave the room. It called up too many uncomfortable memories. Still, I forced myself to sit through it, and I have to admit Lena cleared up some things for me that hadn’t made much sense before. But when she started talking about childbirth, it was too much. “I’ll have Charlene home long before then,” I said. “She’ll have a proper midwife or a doctor, and I won’t need to know any of this.”
I went in the kitchen, where Lena had been soaking a pot of beans for supper. I drained off the water, added some fresh water, salt and chile, and set it on the stove to simmer. Lena had a nice stove—one of those really old ones from two hundred years ago that one sometimes finds in country houses and small towns, but almost never in the city.
I wonder why city people almost never have cast iron stoves, when they're so much more durable than cheap electric city grills. As I was thinking about this, Lena came into the room. “I’ve got Charlene studying some diagrams,” she said. “So would you like to tell me what’s bothering you?”
I pretended to misunderstand her. “I’m just wondering what else you were planning to cook with those beans tonight.”
I didn’t fool her for a minute. “Pregnancy and childbirth are natural things. It’s important for a woman to understand them and not be scared.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“Well then, what’s the problem?”
When I didn’t answer right away, she started some water boiling and set out cups for tea. “So when was the last time you had a checkup?”
“In the fall. I'm fine.”
Lena gave me a skeptical look.
“Really. I saw the midwife in Estrella. She said I was completely healthy.”
“Okay.” She began pulling out ingredients for making corn bread and I went to help. We worked in silence for awhile, stopping only for Lena to pour boiling water over some dried rose hips and raspberry leaves to make a sour tea for us to drink.
“Vitamin C,” I said. “And you thought I hadn’t been paying attention.”
She wasn’t impressed. “So tell me what it is about childbirth that scares you so much.”
“Nothing. It’s just that there’s so many things that can go wrong. Women die that way. I already know as much as I ever want to know about it.”
“And what do you know?”
A simple question, but I felt like she had backed me up against the hot iron stove. There was a level at which I really did want to tell her about the rape, the baby and the complications that had ended with a tiny grave in the garden. I think she could’ve helped me make sense of it all. But silence is a strange thing. Once you start out refusing to talk about something, each lost opportunity to speak makes it less likely you’ll ever get the courage to break the silence.
I had almost made up my mind to try and explain, when Charlene came barging into the kitchen in her usual brazen way. She saw we were drinking tea and pouted. “What, none for me?”
So we made her some, too, and after we got the cornbread in the oven and the flues adjusted properly, we went back to the dining table. And this time I sat through the whole distasteful lesson, even though I could feel Lena’s eyes on me the entire time, as if she could see straight into my soul. It took all my willpower not to fidget or leave the room at a few points, and I think she noticed I wasn’t writing anything down. And the lesson on basic infant care didn’t interest me in the slightest.
Luckily it didn’t appeal much to Charlene, either, although for a different reason. “Oh,” she said, “I already know all that. I have sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins. . . I’ve been burping and diapering kids since I was still a kid, myself.”
So we made short work of that lesson and talked instead about common childhood illnesses and nutrition for children and nursing mothers.
And that was it. It was by no means a thorough class like what we would’ve learned if we had wanted to be real midwives. But it was enough to keep us from doing anything stupid, and I couldn’t help but wonder if things might not have turned out different for me if I had known all of this a year or two ago.
But there was nothing to be gained by thinking about that. Supper was ready and we put the books and diagrams away, with me hoping to never have to use this knowledge or study it again.
After supper, we settled in front of the fire. Charlene continued studying, but I offered to help with knitting or mending, and was given a coat with holes in the pockets that needed patching. I worked silently while Charlene and Lena talked about babies. And then we had some manzanilla tea and went to bed.
“You seem a little happier tonight,” I told Charlene.
She smiled. “I guess I’m feeling a little less scared. It helps to know what’s going on. Just because I grew up around babies doesn’t mean anyone ever told me much about how they got here.”
“They come from the stork,” I said, trying to make light of the subject.
“Right. The stork.” She threw herself onto her bed. “Or a cheating bastard with the railroad who probably had a girl at every depot.”
This was the first time Charlene had offered any information about a boyfriend, and I searched her face for clues. “So I guess he wasn’t the type to settle down?”
“No,” she sighed. “When I told him I thought I was pregnant, he gave me some money and told me to get rid of it. And then I guess he talked to his boss and asked for a different route, because I never saw him again.”
“You’re sure nothing happened to him?”
“One of my regulars saw him in a different town, with another girl. Nothing wrong with him but cowardice.”
“A woman is always better off alone than with a coward.”
She said it like she didn’t really believe it, but I was tired and the conversations of the day had already roused enough of my old demons. I didn’t feel up for taking on any more weighty issues. So I got out my book and read aloud to Charlene until she fell asleep.
I guess we’ll head out in the morning. There’s another, smaller town up the road that we should have no trouble making by evening. Lena has a map and says we’ll go over it in the morning. It’ll be good to have her insight. Locals always know the land better than strangers, and the further east we go, the more like a stranger I’m starting to feel.
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