Real smart. But then, he wasn’t smart where Gaia was concerned. Was it that different now, really? He would never hurt her now, but still she didn’t care enough for him. He didn’t know if she ever would. He couldn’t understand this sick thing inside him that made him love her so intensely even when she kept holding back the last sliver of herself.
“Is there a problem?” Peter asked.
Leon took to the path, leaving Peter to follow. At the top of the cliff, the homestead huddled, waiting. A few sheep scavenged between scrub and windswept trees, while the clotheslines cut a black web across the fresh orange glow of the sky.
Near the far edge of the cliff, the stone cottage clung to the ancient rock, and a row of square windows was yellow with lamplight. A woman’s sharp cry cut through the early morning, and Leon slowed.
Childbirth. He couldn’t think of a single place where he’d be less welcome. The clannish thing that happened to women around babies and blood, the way they all became so wise and exclusionary, was not for him.
He glanced back at Peter, who’d stopped by the garden gate.
“No way am I crashing that party,” Peter said.
Leon laughed. “Afraid?”
“Mlady Adele hates me almost as much as she hates you.” Peter turned back. “I’ll check out the barn. Get me when you’re ready to go.”
Leon swiped a mosquito from his cheek and took the front steps slowly, listening. Only the soft wind hummed in the grass, and a couple of distant frogs bellowed from down in the marsh. He was about to knock when he had a better idea: spy.
He backtracked off the porch and walked quietly around the yard, peering in each window. To the left, toward the cliff, the windows revealed the living room where he had once confronted Gaia. The space was tidy, with a couch and chairs, books and dried flowers. A loom was taut with rows of white strings. An oil lamp illuminated a pile of neatly folded cloth diapers on a table, and at the sight, he remembered the early days of taking care of baby Maya, back when she was so tiny and frail, back when holding her was the closest he could get to Gaia.
He touched the pocket of his shirt again, over his heart. You don’t propose for the last time until you’re certain of the answer. Someday, certainly, she would say yes. He had to believe that. He just had to know when the time was right.
He turned and began around the stone house to the right, to where another window revealed a small bedroom, paneled in golden wood. The bed was angled in a way that he could see the bare feet of Mlady Adele, who lay on her side. Her husband Bachsdatter Luke was beside her, holding her hand, smiling tightly. Gaia was rubbing her back in deep, slow strokes, talking to her gently. When a soft moan came clearly through the opening of the window, Leon instinctively drew back, but he soon realized he was in no danger of being seen through the screen. Gaia was focused with undivided concentration on the mother before her.
Leon had never seen Gaia at work as a midwife, and he was hungry for every detail of her. Her face glowed with a serious, attentive expression. Her hands were gentle and sure. Her brown hair was tied back, but a strand of it curved loose along the line of her left cheek, like a smooth ribbon beside her scar. Gaia was alive in a way he’d never seen before.
She smiled now, and reached for her locket watch to check the time. “You’re doing very well,” she said, her voice just audible to him. “Now breathe again with me. Ready?” She took a few sample breaths herself, guiding Mlady Adele along.
“How’s my baby?” Mlady Adele asked.
“Your baby’s fine,” Gaia said. “Your baby’s in just the right position. Trust your body. You’re doing a beautiful job.”
“I should have come into the village, but I was having such cramps, and then the bleeding started. I was afraid to move.”
“I know. You did the right thing staying here,” Gaia said. “I would have told you the same thing.”
“See? You’re going to be all right, Adele,” her husband said.
“But is it too early? Is this too early?” Mlady Adele asked.
“It’s fine,” Gaia said, in a smooth, reassuring voice. “Truly. You’ve got a little fighter in there with a good, strong heartbeat, and he or she is going to be fine.”
Leon could see Mlady Adele relaxing, too, and then a sharp banging noise came from out of Leon’s line of vision. Mlady Adele jumped and gave a new cry of pain.
“Sorry,” said another woman’s voice.
“I’m going to die!” Mlady Adele said. “I just know it. My cousin died with her second child. I told you. Remember? Her labor was just like this.”
Gaia began soothing the mother all over again, her expression as reassuring and loving as before, but now Leon saw a subtle shift. Gaia was battling tension of her own. He was aware of it only because he knew her well, but it was there. Behind her, a tidy, blond woman moved forward carrying a metal bowl, and Leon caught sight of Mlady Maudie. She ran the lodge in the village with short-tempered efficiency, but here she looked out of place.
Gaia straightened. Her gaze was considering, thoughtful. She rested her hand lightly on the mother’s shoulder. “Give me one minute, Adele,” she said softly.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m stepping out for one minute, no more,” Gaia said. “You have Luke with you, and you can see me right through the door.” She pointed toward another door at the back of the room. “Okay?”
Adele mumbled something.
Leon plunged along outside the building. When he came to the corner and the screen door opened, Gaia wasn’t alone. She was drawing Mlady Maudie out to the back stoop. Leon stopped, bracing a hand on the stone wall.
Gaia took a look over her shoulder into the house again, then turned to Mlady Maudie. “I need you to focus,” she said. “You’re upsetting her.”
“I’m not suited to this. I don’t have the temperament,” Mlady Maudie said. “I told you I didn’t.”
“I don’t care if you’re not naturally good at it,” Gaia said sharply. “When I’m gone, there’ll be nobody else. You need to practice.”
“I can’t!” Mlady Maudie said. “I do everything wrong. I don’t have the patience. You said yourself I’m upsetting her.”
“Because you’re not trying enough,” Gaia argued.
“I am trying. But the closer I get to her, the worse she gets. Just let me leave.”
Gaia was still for a moment, her expression fierce, calculating.
“If you leave, it will be better,” Gaia said. “But only for Adele. For every mother who comes after, once I’m gone, it will be worse because you’ll have that much less experience.” Gaia’s startled gaze flicked toward Leon, and she turned to face him. “Who’s there?” she demanded.
Leon jumped, then stepped forward. He’d hoped Gaia would be happy to see him, but he was wrong. She barely seemed to register who he was. Unsmiling, she slowly lifted a hand to her necklace. Moans came from the doorway behind them. Gaia faced Mlady Maudie again.
“You will stay,” Gaia said. “You will be quiet, and listen, and watch. Leon, take off your boots and come in.”
Terror rooted Leon to the ground. She couldn’t be serious. Already she was back inside, and as the screen door closed, he stared at it in disbelief.
Mlady Maudie laughed briefly. “She’s terrifying, isn’t she?”
“Are you staying?” Leon said.
“After that? What choice do I have?”
“What does she expect me to do?” he asked.
“How do I know?”
He could hear Gaia’s soothing voice again, and a gasping noise from the mother on the bed. He shucked off his boots, propped his hat on a peg, pulled open the screen door, and cautiously entered the bedroom.
Soft light glowed from the globe of an oil lamp on the table, and a second lamp had been placed near the foot of the bed on a chair. On a narrow shelf, a wooden candelabra with three lit flames silently dripped wax, as if night had been prolonged in this room and dawn were still hours away.
Adele’s frizzy, superfine hair was drawn back in a ponytail, and spidery bruises ringed her eyes, giving her an unearthly, fragile appearance. With one hand, she gripped the edge of the bed, and with the other, she held tightly to Gaia as she breathed a series of forced, measured breaths. Her forehead crumpled. She closed her eyes, strained with pressure for a moment, and then collapsed backward again.
“Good,” Gaia said. “That was so good. Not much longer now.”
Stunned, Leon stared at the hugeness of Adele’s belly. Her gown was hitched up, leaving her heavy, pale legs bare. Normally he would have instinctively looked away, but now, instead, some uneasy form of compassion drew him quietly nearer.
“What can I do?” he asked, his voice low.
Gaia glanced up, her eyes a quick flash of relief. “Wash your hands,” she said, and nodded to a basin on the dresser. “Over there. You can help support her.”
Leon met the startled gaze of Adele’s husband, but before Bachsdatter could say anything, Leon rolled back his sleeves and began to wash. Gaia kept up her steady, reassuring talk, repeatedly telling Adele how well she was doing. Mlady Maudie silently passed Leon a towel, and when he turned, Bachsdatter, a compact, weathered man with a gray beard and sunken eyes, was focused again on his wife.
Leon took that as acceptance enough.
“I feel another one coming,” Adele said, her voice rising in urgency. She reached for Gaia.
“Support her back,” Gaia said to Leon. “Here, on the other side.”
He shifted around, opposite to Bachsdatter, and following the other man, he set his hands firmly behind the mother’s back. Adele’s gown was clammy with sweat, and for an instant he thought she would recoil at his touch, but Adele was concentrating inwardly, and he wasn’t certain she even realized he was there. He braced his hand to hold her, and when the next contraction was over, he looked to Gaia, wondering if he should let Adele back down.
“So good,” she said to Adele. “Your baby’s close now. You’re doing so beautifully.”
“It hurts,” Adele said, her eyes closed. “It hurts my back.”
“Do you want to try squatting? It might help,” Gaia said. “We can help you up.”
Adele nodded, and with a look to coordinate with Bachsdatter, Leon gripped beneath Adele’s left shoulder and helped her into a squatting position.
“Do you want to move to the floor? It’s firmer,” Gaia said.
“No. I’m good here,” Adele said. “Like this. Just like this.”
Gaia rearranged a clean cloth beneath her. Leon kept expecting something fast, a primal bursting or some sort of fanfare or agony, but Adele only strained and then drooped in a cycle that seemed to go on forever at its own unhurried pace.
“That was a good one,” Gaia said, after another round. “Do you feel like pushing? I can see your baby now, Adele. The head’s right there. Your baby’s coming.”
Leon shifted his grip for a more comfortable hold, gentle and firm, and steadied Adele’s back. He could hardly believe he was doing this. He glanced over at Bachsdatter, who was holding Adele’s hand and supporting her from the other side. Bachsdatter made a soft joke. Though he looked worn with care, a protective gentleness about him did something strange to Leon inside. He looked at Gaia again, wondering at her connection with these people, and at the powerful connection between Adele and her husband.
And then he felt it silently including him, too.
A faint breeze stirred through the room.
Gaia’s voice was still going, a stream of encouragement. “That’s right, Adele. Your baby’s coming. That’s the head now! You’ve done so well. Just a little more. Almost there.” She was reaching down below Adele, who was sagging again.