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Facing an impossible burden

'The Hummingbird House'
by Patricia Henley

November 11, 1999
Web posted at: 5:51 p.m. EST (2251 GMT)

(CNN) -- The story of an American midwife who ventures into war-torn Central America for a three-week visit, which turns into an eight-year journey.



A black chicken skittered under the red tables. Kate swept palm fronds across the patio floor and down the stairs. Somehow the hurricane had left untouched this second-floor open air comedor and the red chairs were every which way as though left there by sweethearts in a hurry to get home. Lupita had been evacuated to the capital, over two hundred kilometers away. Beyond the comedor the brackish streets -- brown rivers, salty rivers -- flowed sluggishly into buildings. Shreds of clothing, skirts or aprons, clung to banisters and broken lumber. A bicycle twisted, half-in, half-out, of a shattered window across the street. On October 22 the mad Atlantic Ocean had spilled into four hundred miles of coastline and now the clean-up crews were cleaning up and would be cleaning up for months. Sea gulls swooped in, scavenging, cawing, from wherever they had taken refuge during the storm. There was no electricity.

The water was not as deep as it had been. Down on the street Kate could see the highwater mudline on every wall. The heat had to be worked through; it was a soup they lived in, a substance that changed your metabolism. Not unlike the heat at home.

She investigated the casa. The first floor was open to the weather and had come very close to being flooded, but not quite; it was built up on pilings of cinder blocks; water lapped at the third step down into the street. Not much was on the first floor. A padlocked freezer. A high greasy table for cleaning fish. Bamboo walls. A floor laid with warped planks. Beyond a gate of wrought iron, a steep stairway led up to the comedor with its thatched roof shelters over the tables, a pine bar and galley, and a tiled patio criss-crossed with clothesline. A fragile balcony gave onto a view of the town and the river.

Lupita's bedroom was a windowless cell. Kate peeked inside; in the shadows a picture frame lay face down on the floor. Purely out of curiosity about Maria -- about her intimate life with Lupita -- Kate went in and picked it up. The glass was cracked. Maria as a girl in her first communion dress smiled across the years; someone had cut a lock of Maria's black hair and pressed the hair under the glass. Kate slipped the photo under Lupita's pillow for safekeeping and nearly skulked out, a little ashamed of prying.

In the comedor a lipstick-red hibiscus had been tipped over. Above the bar hung a framed picture of Cesar Sandino, the revolutionary martyr for whom the Sandinistas were named. Cesar Sandino, wild-eyed, a little man in a big hat and a floppy bow-tie.

She discovered beer in a round-cornered refrigerator. Cerveza Victoria. Warm beer. What a gloating surprise that would be for Maggie and Maria when they returned. They'd gone out looking for more bottled water. It was rumored that an evangelical church was giving away stockpiled water on the other side of town.

Kate's old Wellingtons had let in squishes of water; she imagined her feet were shriveling. She had an ammo box of medicines -- chloroquine for malaria, metronidazole for giardia, some antibiotics -- and a waterproof bag of sterile supplies. They had heard that the town's clinic had been swept away. Her midwifery kit she kept in a fanny pack; it contained a few basic tools of her trade, a fetascope and a syringe, clamps and sterile gloves. She was rarely without the fanny pack. Maria and Maggie had taken turns carrying a rucksack with whatever else they thought they might want for a few days: changes of bikini underwear, shampoo, black market chocolate bars, a sewing kit, a half-kilo of rice. They had ridden out to the coast in a transport truck full of Sandinista soldiers, soldiers with rifles and strong singing voices. They had turned the trip into a cautious lark in spite of whatever danger may have lay in the campo. Contra troops, the soldiers' own brothers and sisters and cousins, might be lying in ambush. A peace pact had been signed at Sopoá but that had not stopped the fighting. The Sandinista soldiers had sung anyway, in the rumble of the difficult road.

Night was coming on. With finality she chucked the broom into a corner and watched the night. The sky was clearing; orange bolts of cloud blew away and away, out to sea, like a bandage being removed from a sensitive scar. Copper-faced men went by in boats, rescuing people from trees and housetops. Most had gone to escape the storm but some had stayed. The men laughed, giddy with surviving.

From the balcony railing she could see La Iglesia de Santa Clara, its bell-tower, its red roof. She shucked off her Wellingtons, peeled away her wet socks and wiggled her toes. Her skinny feet looked leached of blood. It was sunset and they had left Managua at dawn the day before and had slept that first night in the back of the transport truck. Then she had been on her feet all day, treating whatever minor ailments or injuries came her way: headaches, abrasions, and a puncture wound. A boy had stepped on a nail. Sleep muddied Kate's thoughts. She could feel sleep begging.

She patted her pants pocket. Her Swiss Army knife was there and with it she could open the beer bottles. The beer would dry them out, she knew, but still, drinking beer would be festive. They could balance each beer with water, if they found water. Across the street the priest on his balcony was giving communion, the paper-thin wafers homing into the mouths of the people -- mostly women -- who knelt before him. Someone was up in the bell tower, ringing the bell, a cheerful, tinny, and not quite grating tune. Kate closed her eyes drowsily.


"Catarina -- Ayuda! Pronto, pronto!"

She roused herself from dozing.

Breathing hard, Maggie appeared at the top of the stairs, her kerchief askew on her head, her curly hair tucked up under. "We found a woman -- she's been -- in labor -- since last night -- she thought she was going to die -- "

Kate straightened her glasses. "I'm out of it . . . truly . . ."

"I know that, sweetie, I know," Maggie said. "This gal is terrified. She's just a kid."

Kate pulled on her boots. "Why don't you bring her in."

Maggie made a face. "I doubt she can make it." At Kate's feet she placed a gallon of water in a plastic jug. "She's in the boat."

Kate strode to the counter behind the bar, the jug of water in hand. A long cockroach, with a shiny black shell like a button, stared at her from below the water faucet. "Try the propane burner," she said.

Maggie hurried over to the stove, dripping muddy water from her pantslegs. She lit the burner and a blue ring of flame leaped from the jets. She opened a cupboard and pulled out an aluminum soup pan.

"That'll do. Boil about half that water. Boil these," Kate said, depositing chrome clamps and needles and hemostats into the soup pan. In a bowl she scrubbed her hands with Bentadine and drinking water. She liked the disinfectant odor. It made her feel capable. She said, "Where's her family?"

"Drowned, I think." Maggie looked out toward the sea though the sea was not visible to them; it was many miles beyond the town. "She said she lost them."

On the clothesline behind the bar hung several flowered towels. Kate sniffed them without touching them. They were musty, damp, but beneath that was the smell of detergent, something lemony, and Kate guessed that the towels had been just washed before the hurricane hit. She snatched two towels from the clothesline.

The priest leaned on his balcony railing, watching.

The boat rocked where the water met the steps. It had once been blue and white but now the paint was worn away and remained only in the swollen splinters of the gunnels. The woman lay in the bottom, curled up. Her dress indistinguishable from the blue-black night.

Maria stood on the steps holding a flashlight. The humidity had curled her hair until it seemed nearly tangled. Her blouse and slacks were streaked with mud. She shook her head and met Kate's glance. The look on her face told Kate that she had little hope, little despair. She was waiting to see what would happen. "El sacerdote está rezando. The priest is praying," she said to Kate, who could not tell if there was an edge of sarcasm in Maria's voice or not. She had tied the boat to a porch pillar.

Kate waded into the water. The water came up above her knees. She reached into the boat, touched the woman's feverish forehead. The woman's eyes flew open. Her cheeks were planes, Miskito cheeks, but her skin was creamy brown. Mestizo, Kate surmised, Spanish-speaking. A birthmark, a mole, marked her temple.

"Buenas noches, buenas noches," Kate said, doubling the towels. "I'm going to put these under you." The floor of the boat curved like the inside of a ribcage. A scum of dirty water and bits of indeterminate refuse littered the floor.

The salt air blew in a swirl. From afar a rooster crowed. Maria aimed the flashlight toward Kate's work. The woman howled.

"She's all right," Kate said, "if she can holler like that." To the woman she said tenderly, "Cómo se llama?"

"Consuela," the woman said, wincing. "Consuela Maria."

"Consuela," Kate said, "I want you to turn over and let me see what is happening to your baby. I am a nurse. I won't hurt you."

"Me duele!" Consuela cried.

How young she was, fourteen or fifteen. "You look very brave to me," Kate said. From her fanny pack she pulled a sterile white washcloth wrapped in brown paper. She waited.

Consuela shifted her weight, reared up on her elbows, and opened her legs. Kate flung her dress above her knees. She said, "Levante el trasero. Raise your bottom." She slipped the towels under Consuela and the towels soaked up water and a little blood.

Her thighs were slick.

The baby was coming.

Kate washed the woman as best she could. She barely had time to pluck waxy thin surgical gloves over her hands. The malleable head of the baby, gray and reddish with a thatch of wet black hair, swelled -- regressed -- then popped out. The face was squinched. The shoulders did not want to come.

"You've got a big baby here," Kate said. "You're going to have to get up on your knees. Can you do that?"

"No puedo, señorita, no puedo!"

"Oh, sí, puedes hacerlo sí lo intentas, oh, yes, you can do it if you try," Kate said, "You can do it. Hold the gunnels. We'll keep you steady. Grab on, now. Just get up on your knees. I'm holding on, you've got a baby who wants to be born, hold on to the gunnels -- "

Maria set the flashlight down on the top step. Its beam shone into the muddy water. She braced one foot against the bottom step and kept the boat steady. Kate supported the baby's head. Consuela rose up on her knees, moaning and grunting. Maggie came and set a bowl of steaming water on the top step. She lit a lantern and its wick was long; the flame blackened the globe.

"You're doing fine," Kate said. "Easy does it."

Maggie fiddled with the lantern; a smudged shimmer lit them up. The priest on the balcony turned away.

The baby came, a quick and slippery squirm.

Consuela collapsed, groaning. The boat pitched.

"Ya -- hoo," Maggie whooped. Then, "Incredible, it's always incredible."

"That's fine, that's fine," Kate said. "Baby girl," she said. "Big baby girl, big shoulders, football player."

She held the baby. "Thanks for the light. Now suction, that's it, let's get a breath -- " And Maggie did as she was told. The baby coughed a puny wet cough, then cried.

The cord was a luminous green and lavender. They watched the cord pulsing. They waited. Maggie hummed a muted song. Maria said, "You are fine now, you are fine now. To know that a baby was born here would make my mother happy. That would make her very happy. It's a happy night."

"Tengo sed," Consuela breathed.

Maria gave her sips of water from a cup.

Slowly, slowly, the cord changed color. It drained of blood, turned white and thin. "Now a clamp -- right here," Kate said. Maggie plucked a clamp from the bowl of water and clamped the baby's curling cord. "Way to go. One more, por favor." Then, "Time for the razor."

Maggie unwrapped a sterile razor blade, cut the cord and laid the razor beside the lantern. She took the baby from Kate and wrapped her in a sweatshirt she'd found on the clothesline.

Kate sweated. Her glasses slipped down her nose and she pushed them back up. Maria leaned into the boat, holding Consuela's head in her arms. "Can you move?" she said.

"No, no," Consuela whimpered, "Madre -- de Dios -- no."

"Está bien, está bien," Maria hushed. Her voice was not always the voice of an officer. She was a merciful woman. Before she started the clinic in Managua, Maria had been a Sandinista officer for five years, in starched khakis, a pistol at her waist. She had lost her only brother in the war.

"Not yet," Kate said. "Let's wait for the afterbirth."

Consuela turned over, sighing a river-long sigh. She unbuttoned her bodice and they put the baby at her breast.

Her dress was not so dirty, Kate decided. She stood in the water beside the boat, holding her hands up to keep them clean. Clean was a relative term. "Maria, you can help here -- massage her uterus -- let's get this out of there."

Maria took off her blouse and padded Consuela's head with it. In her honey -- colored camisole she waded to the side of the boat and made soothing noises and kneaded Consuela's belly.

"Most of them look like Winston Churchill," Maggie said, smiling at the baby, "but this one's a beauty. In the pink."

Copyright © 1999 by Patricia Henley

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