River of Dust

By Virginia Pye

Unbridled Books
May 2013


Shortly before labor began, Mai Lin offered sacrifices to the gods and the family ancestors, although her young mistress couldn't even recall her grandmother's grandmother's name. Mistress Grace moaned with miserable, slow pains for many hours. Mai Lin gave her a special mixture of teas proven to move things along faster. She made Grace alternately bear down over a metal tub and then walk back and forth along the upstairs hall to bring forth the baby inside. The mistress had several baths, although she said that doctors in her country would warn against it. Ignorant doctors like Hemingway claimed that germs could swim up the woman's canal and infect the unborn child, something that Mai Lin plainly knew was false. The baby would come down the river to be born, so what was the harm of it getting wet beforehand?

In midmorning, the Reverend poked his head into his wife's bedroom and inquired after her health. Luckily, Mistress Grace was lying down at the time, and she quickly shut her eyes, pretending to be asleep. Mai Lin had been instructed not to mention that labor had begun, so he quickly left.

Later in the afternoon, he stopped by again, and this time the situation was more difficult to hide. Grace sat upon her chaise and paused between pacing. The pungent smell of the ointment Mai Lin had rubbed onto her belly was hard to miss, but Mai Lin's mistress merely smiled between gritted teeth.

"Mistress is better today," Mai Lin said to the Reverend, which was not a lie, for her cough had improved.

"Her complexion does appear brighter," he commented.

Mai Lin thought it remarkable that he didn't guess that the sweat on her brow and over her rosy cheeks was the first strain of the birth process. But then again, the Reverend had always been blind.

"Mai Lin, see that Doc Hemingway is called immediately if she goes into labor," he said before returning to his study on the first floor.

Mai Lin knew she should obey, but her mistress's eyes flew open, and she said, "Don't you dare. This is my baby. Lock the door."

Mai Lin did as she was told, lit the lamp, and rubbed more oils on her mistress's back and belly. There was much to be done, and having a man in the room would have disturbed the effort. She lit the sacred incense to welcome a new life into the world and handed her mistress pillows to scream into, for one loud yell would carry into the courtyard, and the Reverend would be knocking in no time with Doc Hemingway at his heels.

It was a grave responsibility, but Mai Lin had birthed more babies than she could count. She concentrated with all her being on every sign given off by her mistress's body. She sensed the pain as if it were her own. As labor progressed, her own body rose and fell with the contractions, and she told herself that this would be her last birth. She was getting too old for this. Still, she kept a hand on Grace so she could judge the intensity of the spasms. When it became too much and Mai Lin couldn't stand it any longer, she shouted again for her mistress to push.

In the hour of the rooster, of the fourteenth day in the month December, in the second year of the Emperor Pu-Yi, in the reign of the Qing Dynasty, Grace finally let out a howl that echoed off the compound walls and cascaded into the dirt road and plains beyond. Mai Lin knew that the donkeys and horses in their stalls perked up their ears at the sound. Ahcho, smoking his pipe in the back alley, tipped his head to the side and offered a worried smile. The Reverend, seated at the teak desk in his library, set down the fountain pen with which he had been scribbling his Sunday sermon and finally allowed himself to grasp that his child had been born.

But at a moment like this, Mai Lin didn't have time for distracting thoughts. The baby was in her hands. She set its wet and squirming body on a soft pillow and cut the cord at the navel with a pair of pinking shears. Then she applied a special poultice of ash, mud, and dung to the umbilicus. In the way that she knew best, she lifted the child in her arms, pressed it against her shoulder, and slapped the tiny back ten times. A yowl issued forth. She wiped the infant perfunctorily, wrapped it, and placed it in her mistress's arms.

"Your daughter," she said.

Grace, as red-faced as the baby and wet with perspiration, held her child against her cheek and wept. "My girl, my precious, precious girl," she said.

Mai Lin knew this was only the beginning, for now she must help her young mistress to breast-feed, which the master did not approve of and so would take place only in private. Stupid Westerners, Mai Lin thought. The Reverend would change his mind when he understood that animal milk was virtually impossible to come by now.

After wiping the floor and tossing the birth cloths into the metal tub, Mai Lin returned to her mistress's bedside. The baby had begun to root, and Mai Lin took this for a good sign. This girl baby with her pinched and demanding face was not faint of heart.

Mai Lin took her mistress's wrist between her fingers and felt for her vital signs, which, unlike the child's, now appeared to be startlingly weak. She studied Grace's suddenly pale face. Only moments before the mother had seemed robust, but her skin was turning gray and chalky, her eyes glazed. Mai Lin pressed lightly again on her thin wrist but could not hear the strong current of life that she was seeking.

Mai Lin swooped up the baby and placed her in a bed of blankets on the floor. She pulled back the sheet that covered her mistress's lower half. A pool of blood glistened in the lamplight between her legs. Grace began to writhe in pain. After several moments of examining the expelled matter, Mai Lin did not feel all that she wanted to feel. Something wasn't right.

Grace tossed and moaned, clearly in as strong pain now as she had experienced during actual labor. Mai Lin had no choice but to clamber up onto the bed. Despite her thick, long skirts and awkward legs that had little strength anymore, she nonetheless made herself sit astride her mistress.

Grace's head was tipped back, her mouth gaping, her eyes open and apparently unseeing. She did not seem to notice that Mai Lin now sat atop her, but she would notice it in the next moment. For Mai Lin used all her tiny body's strength, all her years of accumulated wisdom and power, and thrust her weight steadily and forcefully into her open palms. She pressed down upon her mistress's engorged uterus.        

Grace let out a scream that made her birth sounds seem like whispers. This was a cry of pain the likes of which Mai Lin had rarely heard before, and she had heard a great deal in her many years. Although Grace appeared terribly frail, the sound that came out of her had the fury and desperation of a tiger caught in a trap. Her mistress's weak arms flailed, and her bony fists struck Mai Lin repeatedly with surprising force. Mai Lin did not flinch or give up. She took in a second large breath and pressed all her weight down again. Grace's eyes opened wider, and she stared at Mai Lin in disbelief.

"You're trying to kill me!" she screamed.

Mai Lin shook her head at the foolish young woman but couldn't take the time to argue or explain. Instead, she reared up one final time and composed all her strength into a single long push. As Grace's screams and accusations slammed against the plaster walls and her hands battered the old woman's ribs, Mai Lin began to hear frantic pounding at the bedroom door.

The Reverend shouted, "Unhand my wife. Let me in, you old crone."

The final effort was done. Mai Lin had nothing left in her, and she hoped the same was true of her mistress. She lost her balance and fell forward onto Grace's sweat-soaked body in her simple white chemise. Mai Lin cared about the foolish girl in spite of herself. Then she regained her composure and carefully slid off the bed. She stood on unsteady legs as pain shot through her bent back, but she chose to ignore it.

Instead, she pulled the sheet away again and carefully inspected the bloody evidence, but still remained skeptical. She lifted the lamp and had no choice but to reach up inside her mistress. Mistress Grace writhed and arched her back, but Mai Lin was quick and sure. Her fingers finally grasped the cause. She pulled it out and did not flinch at the sight, nor was she made queasy, but instead, like a true scientist, Mai Lin carefully studied the proof in her hands until she felt certain she had found the offending remains of the birth sack.

The knocking on the bedroom door had continued all this time, and the Reverend's threats grew steadily more hysterical. Mai Lin heard several male voices now discussing in what manner to break down the door. She whipped her long braid off her shoulder, adjusted her many skirts and sashes and pouches. She cleaned the blood from her hands on the bedsheet and finally hobbled to the door. She opened it slowly and stepped aside.

The Reverend charged into the room, shouting and pointing at her. But at the sight of his wife lying exhausted in a pool of blood, he stopped his nonsense and threw himself forward to hug her and hold her weak hand. Doc Hemingway entered with less fanfare but more purpose. He held his stethoscope out and set down his black bag, the sight of which for some reason made Mai Lin laugh as she flopped down upon the chaise longue.

The Reverend turned to her and shouted, "What have you done to my wife?"

Mai Lin let out a sigh and pointed to the baby on the pillows. The blind Reverend had not even noticed his child. He finally grew quiet as he went to the baby and crouched beside her. Mai Lin let out a disgusted sound as she rose and went to the awkward father who didn't even know how to pick up his own offspring. She swooped up the baby in the swaddling clothes and placed her in her father's arms.

"A boy?" he asked.

She waved a hand at him, the dried blood on her fingers catching the light. "Be grateful that both your girls are alive."

Mai Lin could see a slight wash of disappointment flit over the Reverend's face before he determined to beam. She stepped away. The silly man had no idea of his good fortune.

At the bedside, she stood opposite Doc Hemingway.

"How did you save her?" he asked Mai Lin.

"The only way."

The Doctor leaned across Grace's sleeping body, waiting for more, but Mai Lin was too tired to talk to ignorant people.

"I will send over my maid to clean this up right away. You have done more than enough for one evening," the doctor said.

With the baby held in his stiff arms, the Reverend stepped forward and asked Hemingway, "Is my wife going to be all right?"

"It appears she hemorrhaged after the birth. Is that right, Mai Lin?"

Mai Lin nodded from her seat nearby and reached into one of her pouches for more betel quid.

"A very dangerous condition," Doc Hemingway explained. "I have lost several patients in this way. You are extremely lucky she had such good care."

The Reverend looked across at Mai Lin, and the man of so many words seemed to have forgotten them all. She held out her arms, and he came forward and gratefully handed her the baby.

"Your wife will be terribly weak," Doc Hemingway said as the Reverend rejoined him at bedside. "She has lost a great deal of blood, and it will take her months to recover. She will require bed rest and good sustenance, which will certainly be a challenge, but I believe Mai Lin will know best how to handle her condition."

The Reverend looked across at the old amah, and from his lips finally came an outpouring of gratitude. Mai Lin didn't care about the words that tumbled from the Reverend. As he continued to thank her, she lifted the baby to her shoulder and patted it in the only proper way.