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grace under pressure

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The pain narrowed her vision to a tunnel. There was nothing to see, anyway, just her muscles straining, her body splitting, an agony so powerful that she couldn't remember anything before it.

She breathed in harsh gasps. She sobbed. A world away, her husband patted her arm, but she hardly knew he was there.

The midwife said, "Almost," but she'd been saying it for an hour at least. An eternity.

Then it happened. The baby came squalling into the midwife's arms, screaming so loudly that the woman cried too, in relief.

She hadn't thought she was strong enough for this, but babies came whether you were ready or not, her mother had always said (sometimes wistfully, sometimes worn, depending).

"It's a--" the midwife said, and stopped.

*

The baby lay against the woman's breast. He was small, but not dangerously so. His skin was still flushed from the trauma of birth, but he slept and she rested her hand on his back.

"You can't be serious," her husband said.

Every part of her ached. She felt like her soul was slowly leaking out of her body into the ruined sheets. Her husband should have taken the sheets and hung them out their window, a symbol of the new life inside, lurid black red against the wall. He should have put down the dark ones her mother had packed into her dowry trunk, soft and thin, easy to wash.

The baby had ten perfect fingernails. He had dark hair on his head and identical tiny ears.

"You can't be serious," she said, wanting to cover the baby's ears, even though there was no way he'd understand this conversation.

"It's not right," her husband said. "What did you do?"

"Nothing," she said. "Nothing. He's perfect."

Her husband slammed the door behind him.

Alone, finally, the woman picked up her son, careful to support his head, and looked closely for the first time.

He had the cutest little hooves. The soft fur on his body began just below his swollen navel, silky and dark, like the hair on his head. His tail was just a tiny nip of fluff, more of a potential than a real tail yet. The hooves were covered in something soft and squishy, like a foal's, and his little knees bent backwards. He needed a bath. The midwife hadn't wanted to touch him once she'd seen, and the mother didn't have the energy to get up and draw the water herself. There was blood in his fur, her own.

She put him to her breast and waited for her husband to return as the room slowly darkened into night.

*

It was agonizing to use the chamber pot, but she managed. It took a while. The baby slept peacefully though. She could hear his soft breathing.

A diaper was going to be awkward, but he needed something. She wiped him off and walked carefully over to her trunk at the foot of the bed. There was just enough early dawn light for her to lift the lid and find the cloth.

Would it hurt his tail to tuck it in under the diaper? She hoped not. She tried to be gentle. He squirmed but didn't cry.

That done, her next concern was to clean their bed. Moving slowly, she took off the sheets and lay down clean ones. She took off her night dress and put on a fresh one. She felt a lot better after that. Hungry, exhausted, but cleaner.

After a couple hours, since her husband still hadn't returned, she took the baby with her to the kitchen and tore pieces off the loaf of bread she'd baked earlier that week, eating half the loaf in record time. She touched the baby's little nose.

"Not for you yet," she said fondly.

There was a hunk of cheese in the larder and she took it back to the bedroom with her to save another trip. She had to feed the baby again and then they both went back to sleep, cradled together.

It was hard to keep track of time with a newborn, but she thought it was the fifth day when she decided that her husband wasn't coming back. It seemed that no one was coming. She wasn't sure what he had told everyone. If he'd said she was dead, or that the baby was, her family would have come to take care of her. She wondered what the midwife had said, and to whom.

She put a long dress on the baby, long enough to cover his feet. It was something she'd worn as a baby. She had plenty of them in her trunk. There was an adorable pair of tiny knitted slippers packed in with them.

She held them up and laughed a little to herself, and then tucked them back away.

*

She sold everything, or just about. The trunk was too big to carry with her, and as for the rest of it, her husband had forfeited it when he'd left. She dragged it all out into the street and took all offers, sinking into the remaining kitchen chair when no one was looking through her things.

No one asked where she was going, or where her husband was. But they gave her money or food or supplies in trade, and didn't haggle much. She had the baby in a sling across her front and mostly he slept, like newborns did. No one asked to hold him or congratulated her. One didn't, usually, when they were so small, in case. But usually people would acknowledge the child in passing. Instead, they were quiet and passive. They did not stare. They did not look, exactly.

It was midday, hot and quiet, when the travelers passed by in a small group. They were dusty and travel-worn, but in good spirits, joking amongst themselves as they came up the path. A woman stopped at her little makeshift stand and examined the last remaining items. Her hands stopped on the little knitted booties. The traveler looked at the mother.

"Never worn," the mother said.

The traveler woman smiled. "Won't he grow into them?" she said.

The woman shook her head. "You can have them. Free," she added after a moment's consideration.

"Good luck to you," the traveler said, picking up the tiny shoes. "And your son."

"Thanks," the mother said. She watched the woman leave, hurrying to catch up with the group. Then she picked up her bag, resettled her son in his sling, and walked toward the forest, humming a little to herself.