Copyright 2006 by Bill Branley

(Note: This story won the 2006 Emerging Writer Award from Humanities Washington, a state arts foundation based in Seattle, Washington. The story was originally printed in Arts News, published by the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council. It was adapted from the author’s serialized fiction blog “Night Watch.” )

“The what?” David looked at his wife.

“Doula. D-O-U-L-A,” Angela said. “Where have you been for the past nine months?”

He paused. This was a time to be agreeable and non-critical, which meant not pointing out that she had said ‘doula’ with a mouthful of food. “Sorry. I just didn’t catch what you had said.”

“Oh, oh, oh!” Angela laid one hand on her stomach and with the other she gripped the dining room table. 

“Another contraction?” asked David.

She nodded, with her eyes closed. He could see pain in her face, and felt a churning in his own gut. With each contraction, his anxiety increased. He felt this way when large, life-changing events loomed ahead. And he knew this one was close: he fully expected that on this night their second child was going to be born. 

“Should we call the doula?”

She exhaled. “Not yet.”

The doula was a labor coach. This was different from a midwife, he had learned. The doula wasn’t going to deliver the baby: she was going to help Angela through labor. The midwife would deliver the baby. He hadn’t known that childbirthing had become so compartmentalized. 

Angela looked at him with a determined expression. “She said to call when contractions are ten minutes apart.” Even at forty weeks pregnant, she was beautiful. Dark curls framed her flushed face and emphasized her deep brown eyes. She had given up her family name of Tortorich, which went so perfectly with her looks, in order to take his totally ordinary name of Smith. Angela Smith. She had made other sacrifices, too. Their first child was born after four days of labor followed by a Cesarean. When she got pregnant again she made a vow to do it differently.

“Trust me, I know what you want,” he said. “A totally natural childbirth. No drugs, no c-section. You want that baby to slide out like a fish.”

“David, fish metaphors should not be used with a person who doesn’t like seafood.” Pause. “Oh my.”

“Another? That was quick!”

“No, that was a kick. Wow, he’s a strong one.”

“How do you know it’s a he? You said you didn’t want to know.”

“I don’t really know, I just feel it. He’s kicking the way Tony kicked.”

Tony was their first child, now three and having a sleepover at a neighbor’s house. 

“I’m still hoping for a girl,” he said.

She reached over and laid her warm, puffy fingers on his arm. She was a walking bag of blood and emotions. “I just want it to come out.”

“Tonight,” said David. “It’s going to be tonight. I’m ready.”

“Oh that’s good to know. The husband is ready. Thank God. Let’s have the baby.” Angela got up from the table and carefully balanced herself before taking a step. “It’s time for another walk.”

They went out into a June evening. As David debated whether to lock the house, the screen door slipped from his fingers and closed with a whack.

Angela froze. “David, you know I can’t stand the sound of that door slamming.”

“It slipped. I was checking for my keys.”

“You don’t need to lock it. We’re only going around the block.”

They reached the street. Angela raised her face to the last of the day’s light and sniffed the air. The sun was down, but traces of color lingered. Clouds formed in the south, and a pair of tall swaying birch trees caught the sun’s rays with upturned leaves. 

“It’s going to rain,” said David.

“Rain would feel good,” said Angela. “The plants need it. My asparagus is drying up.”

“But didn’t you say the baby kicked whenever you ate asparagus?” asked David.

“But one day he’ll be out, and I can eat asparagus again.” 

“Ouch.” She looked like she was going to collapse. David held her shoulders; they were warm. Her whole body was a warm bath with a baby in it. She was a steam engine, idling, waiting to be called to service. He had read that a pregnant woman lying on a sofa burns more calories than a thirty-year-old man walking up a hill. He could feel concentrated energy radiating from her body, mingling with the evening heat.

“That was a doozy,” she said.

“Maybe we should go back.”

She looked at her watch. “They’re getting close enough. Call the doula.”

He whipped out his cell phone. At last, he had something to do.

Her name was Victoria. Twenty minutes and two contractions later, she swept past David into the house, leaving in her wake a whiff of incense and perfume mixed with moist summer air. David felt the swish of her long, flowing skirt and heard the creak of sturdy sandals. The doula had arrived. With hardly a handshake and a how-do-you-do, she asked David to put a kettle of water on for tea and then disappeared into the bedroom, where Angela waited.

David read the business section of the paper while the electric kettle slowly warmed and rattled and began to emit steam.

He poked his head into the bedroom. Candles glowed from the nightstand, the dresser, and a small footstool by the window. They gave off an unfamiliar scent: sweet, like lilies. “Water’s almost hot. What kind of tea would you like?”

“Oh thank you, David,” said Angela, sitting up in bed, leaning against a wedge of pillows. Even in the dim light he could see that her face was brighter and more relaxed. She was now in the doula’s hands. 

“I brought some herbal tea for stress reduction,” said Victoria, handing David two tea bags. “We both need it. Would you like a cup, too?”

“No, thanks. I’m going to have coffee.”

“Hmm,” she said. 

When he returned with the tea, Angela’s shirt was pulled up over her belly. Victoria pressed gently on the sides and bottom of the bulge. They studied it with a look of wonder. Backlit by candlelight, Angela’s stomach reminded David of a basketball. Her face, in profile, was a series of curves from forehead to chin. The light emphasized the new puffiness that had come into her face in the last few weeks. She was looking more like a baby even as she was about to have one.

“The head’s right here,” said Victoria. She guided Angela’s fingers to a place low on the abdomen. 

Angela looked at David as she patted the spot like she was comforting a child. “I feel him,” she said, then winced as another contraction seized her. David wondered if Victoria was timing the contractions.

“I brought tea,” said David. He stood there, waiting for someone to shoo him away.

Victoria took both mugs and handed one to Angela, who raised it to her mouth and drew in the hot beverage with extended lips. The steam rose and mingled with the curls of her hair. 

“How do you feel?” David asked.

“Much better.”

“Great. When do we go to the hospital?”

“Not for a while,” said Victoria. “We want to do as much of the labor at home as we can.”

Later they went for another walk. The rain had come and gone, leaving fat droplets of water on the grass. It was the kind of summer night David liked. Looking down the street, he saw steam rising from wet pavement into the glow of the street lamps. The illumination was softened by the moist air, as though a filter had been applied. It was not a real street scene, but a painting of one.

“Oh,” exclaimed Angela, holding her stomach. Her ‘Ohs’ were not short, but long and drawn out, like a moan or a hum or just a syllable.

He stopped in the middle of the street while she rested a hand on his shoulder and took several deep, controlled breaths of air. It occurred to David that his thoughts and Angela’s had been worlds apart. She was not gazing at the summer scene before them and dreaming of how it looked. No, every inch of her being was focused on the task at hand. 

“Victoria says they’ll get worse. I can’t imagine it,” she said, almost crying.

“Angela, you’re doing great so far. I’m really proud of you.”

“By this time, with Tony, I was already on pain relievers,” she said.

“I don’t remember that detail,” he said.

“I remember every detail. Only now do I appreciate what the pain relievers were doing.”

“You mean, how much pain was being relieved?”

She chuckled. “Don’t make me laugh. I would love to laugh right now, but it hurts.” She looked at him. Now she was all love and affection. “But I can hear that humor in your voice. I love you.”

“I love you, too. We’re doing this together, okay? I’m right here, sharing the pain with you.”

“That’s a nice thought. Imagine if you could share pain, if you could feel a portion of someone’s pain so they would feel less of it, like maybe half.”

“Or maybe fifty-five percent. You would need a pain meter.”

“Ooh, ooh.” She cradled her stomach. “I told you not to make me laugh. You just gave me a contraction.”

“Good, I’m helping.”

“Let’s go back. I’m ready for another cup of tea.”

At midnight, David paced the living room floor. He couldn’t read or sleep. Ten minutes ago, a painful shriek from the bedroom made him cringe. He imagined important body parts moving, shifting, widening, making way. It rattled his nerves to think of something as large as a baby inside of an adult body.

He heard his name called from the bedroom. He rushed in; craving a duty to perform, anything

Victoria handed him a bowl with a damp washcloth in it. “Could you freshen that up with cool water? And I need another with warm water.”

“Two washcloths, one cool, one hot,” David replied, with a voice he had used as a short-order cook during his college years. Angela had been a regular customer at the diner. She liked the way he echoed orders called out by the waitress. 

“And could I get a glass of water with that?” asked Victoria, picking up the routine with ease.

“Yes, ma’am,” said David. She was quick. He looked at Angela, who smiled weakly from her perch against the pillows. “Can I get you anything?” he asked.

“A baby,” she said.

David rushed out of the room. The old washcloth smelled of perspiration: Angela’s. She was having an all-night workout. It made his occasional morning jog around the neighborhood seem like napping by comparison. He returned with the clean washcloths and handed them to Victoria. 

“You can help,” said Victoria, handing him a cloth. “The cool one is for her cheeks and forehead.”

David knelt on the bed and gently pressed the cool cloth against Angela’s forehead. He saw immediate relief in her face. Meanwhile, Victoria applied the warm cloth to Angela’s legs and stomach and abdomen for the purpose, she explained, of relaxing the muscles and tissue around the cervix. “We have to let them stretch, you see.” No, he didn’t see how it was mechanically possible, but there was no turning back from this voyage. 

Angela lurched and cried out. “Wow,” she said. “This baby is awesome.”

“Awesome?” said David. “That’s not the word I expected you to use.”

She gripped his hand. “Just relax, David. Everything’ll be fine.”

It took a moment for her words to sink in: she’s the one having her insides rearranged to a new shape, and she’s telling me to relax.