Fully clothed, Rushke lay on top of her straw mattress and quilt, her head propped up by a pillow, frowning at her expanding belly. It had ballooned out from her small frame farther this time than with any other child, and forced her into bed for the last several months of her pregnancy.
"Now that I've gotten myself dressed, maybe this ungrateful baby will take the hint and realize I have responsibilities to others besides it. I have a stall in the marketplace to get back to." That was what she thought. What she said was, "Child, this family's food depends on my not lying around; if you expect to eat after you come out, it's high time you were born,"
Rushke looked out the window at the last of the falling leaves. Snow would come soon. She had already missed the orders for all the special Rosh Hashanah dinners, and the last thing her goose-meat business needed was more missed holidays. With six children, almost seven, money was always tight, but a few days ago the situation had grown considerably worse. She had received a letter from Label saying that the barge he worked on had been frozen into a port on the Dnieper, and he would have to remain there until spring. There was no help for it. She and the older children would have to make it through this winter without him. When troubles arrived from Heaven, they arrived in flocks.
"You know, this baby needs to come today," she addressed God with irritation; then, remembering that Yom Kippur, the day her fate would be sealed for the next year, was near, she decided more humility was prudent. "Please let it come today." She looked at the dust on the sills and the dirty clothes piled in the corner, and sighed-a long sigh, a long, exasperated sigh. Damn her mother. With a mother like hers, who needed more trouble?
At this moment she heard the front door slam and her mother's sing-song voice call from the dining room. "I'm here to take care of you." She had heard the same curse every day for three months, and by now the strain her mother's voice caused was worse than that caused by her growing baby.
"I bought vegetables and potatoes at the marketplace so I can fix a good, thick soup for the children...," Rushke waited... "not the thin kind you like to make." Ah, there it was. "Then I'll scrub the floors and make things a little nice for Shabbes. I like to pamper my grandchildren; I know you won't mind if things are nice for the children on Shabbes."
"Do I have a choice?" Rushke murmured under her breath and followed by the loud but flat words: "Thank you, Mother." She felt the baby kick her and several curse words came to mind, followed immediately by overwhelming guilt. What would become of a baby whose mother cursed it before it was born? Determined to undo any damage her irritation had caused, she silently said several konahoras, then sang to her unborn child the tenderest lullaby she knew.
Alte the Martyr's head popped into the room. "You know I love to be needed. When you're well, I never get this much time with you." Her mother's comments came to a full stop when she saw Rushke lying on top of the bed, fully clothed. "Rushke darling, you aren't planning to do anything foolish, are you? You can't be thinking of getting up this close to my grandchild's birth day?
Rushke cut her mother short. "I just wanted to feel what it was like to have clothes on again."
"Well, that's good because I won't have you jeopardizing the health of my new grandchild. If anything happens to you, I'll have to become your children's permanent mother and that won't be easy, what with my other responsibilities and how old I've grown with the wear and tear of just carrying on. Now you take those things off and change back into your nightgown." Her words trailed after her as she bustled off into the kitchen... "I really don't have time to cope with your temper tantrums today. I have all this work... "
Rushke pushed herself off the bed and began undressing. "God, if you ever send me another child, I may have to kill someone. Please remember that." She assumed God knew who she meant. Then as if in response to its mother's distress, Rushke's baby decided it was time to comply with her rather pointed suggestions over the past few days. Her water broke in the middle of the bedroom floor and the first contractions began. "Mother," she yelled, "fetch Kreineh the mid-wife. The baby is coming."
Rushke's mother bundled her daughter into bed, cleaned up the floor, then ran out of the house, returning several minutes later with Anuta, Alte's old midwife, in tow. Rushke screamed.
Up to this point, Kreineh had delivered all of Rushke's babies. The woman was intelligent, brusque, and no-nonsense. She had studied at a medical school in Moscow, which Rushke thought very impressive. Rushke believed David-Horodok was lucky to have Kreineh; her mother disagreed.
" Mother, get me Kreineh!" Rushke was so angry she did not even think about Anuta's feelings. "Get her now!"
"I won't let that woman deliver this baby!" Alte pushed Anuta behind her, as if the shield the old woman from Rushke's wrath. "How could you even think of Kreineh at a time like this? Oy oy!" Alte eye's blinked with tears. Rushke's eyes watered in pain. Rushke's six safe deliveries, not to mention so many others in town, could not convince Alte that Kreineh was to be trusted. Kreineh scoffed at the evil eye; she invited trouble. "The evil eye is what put you in bed for the last three months. What do you want now, to lose the baby? That woman will not enter this house while I'm here to guard the door."
Rushke groaned with the next contraction; her strength was being consumed by her child's desire to be born. Her mother took her hand. "I already put the psalms in the windows to keep Lilith and her imps out. Aren't you happy about that?" Rushke screamed in response.
Rushke was not, however, as alone as she seemed at this point. As they say in David-Horodok, your neighbors know what's cooking in your dinner pot. Rushke's neighbor, Hode the Rebbizin had heard her screams and realized the baby was on the way. As she gathered some blankets to bring over, she saw Alte the Martyr run out of the house. She was in the dining room when Anuta arrived, and heard the fight between Rushke and her mother. Being of a decisive nature, she slipped out and found Rushke's oldest daughter, Chava, who was apprenticed to a seamstress, a few streets over. Chava brought Kreineh home immediately, as her mother wished. And that is how Kreineh, Chava, Anuta and Alte all came to be in Rushke's bedroom arguing over Rushke's groaning body. Chava stood behind Kreineh. Anuta stood behind Alte.
Anuta-a short, dark, ancient woman-was as different from Kreineh-tall, red-headed and quick-tempered-as Rushke was from her mother. Alte was passionate in both her dislike of Kreineh and her consequent defense of Anuta. "Anuta was born in David-Horodok, learned her trade in David-Horodok. She understands our ways. She may not always succeed, but at least she tries to keep evil spirits away."
Mustering as much courage as she could, Chava spoke out from behind Krieneh's skirts, "Mama says you like Anuta just because she picked your name." There was much truth in Chava's statement. Anuta had suggested using the name Alte when the woman was a very ill infant, because if you called a new baby "old woman," it fooled the evil eye into leaving the child alone.
"And look how well I've been since!" Alte was far angrier at learning of Rushke's flippancy than at Chava's challenge.
"This is my house and my baby," Rushke whispered from her bed. "Kreineh has been here every week since the beginning. I want a midwife trained in modern ways, especially if I have trouble!" Her comments were cut short by yet another contraction.
Anuta hobbled into the living room and sat down. "Nu, Alte, you must understand I am old. Only for you would I try to deliver a baby at all, only for you Alte-one of my best customers." Anuta was referring to Alte's twelve children. "But if your daughter doesn't want me, I'll go."
Alte was incensed. Where was loyalty? Where was commonsense? "Kreineh, get out of this house. You bring nothing but trouble. I am the adult here," she glared at Chava. "I will decide what is best for my daughter. And what I want is for you to get out!"
Kreineh, being a woman of few words and much pride, went home and waited for news that the baby had been born-and waited and waited. She went to bed late, woke up early and watched out her door far into the morning. But there was no news. By midday, Kreineh saw several of Rushke's sisters heading to the cemetery to beg their dead relatives to intercede with God. "The baby is breech," one shouted to Kreineh as she hurried by. "It won't come." An hour later Kreineh saw the opsprekerin rushing toward Rushke's house. Alte was intent on exorcising every trace of the evil eye. By late afternoon Rushke's father had organized a minyan to petition God to alleviate Rushke's suffering. Soon the ark would be opened for the whole congregation to call on God. Everything people could think of was being done-everything except calling on Kreineh. In spite of Rushke's pleas, her mother refused.
In her rooms, Kreineh looked at the clock, judged that things must be very serious by now, took her bag and left for Rushke's house. As soon as she entered, Alte began screaming at her. "Get out, witch! This is all your fault! Your mocking the evil spirits, look what it's done. How dare you show yourself!"
Alte's vehemence was so intense that even Kreineh faltered. After all, she was not a relative; she was being paid. The family had the right to employ someone else, even if Rushke died. But Chava, Chava the daughter, who had sat crying in her chair in the corner of the dining room all night, could no longer stand her grandmother's stubbornness. She stood, walked over to Anuta, the old mid-wife, and took her hands pleadingly.
Anuta looked up at the young girl for a long while, then said quietly, "Sha, sha Alte; be quiet. I am old and have done all I can. Let this youngster try. Perhaps she has learned things I have not."
Kreineh immediately examined the patient and realized Rushke was almost spent. She gambled on a procedure she had only heard about before. She turned Rushke over, raising her to her knees, and massaged the tired woman's stomach from underneath. Thanks to God and skill, the baby turned and a little boy appeared in the room.
At the bris, the family showered Kreineh with thanks, all except Alte of course. She was sure Kreineh had called on the devil to stop his minions from interfering once she had arrived. Kreineh also knew she had not done it alone. She owed a considerable debt to Anuta's humility. So before the guests went home, she made this little speech. "I was not the only midwife at this birthing-Anuta was with me. If my knowledge helped Rushke, then I am sure it was because Anuta kept the evil spirits far enough away that they could not damage Rushke and the child while I worked." Such public respect from Kreineh was unheard of.
Anuta could hardly believe it; Kreineh had always made such a point of denying that ghosts, ghouls, and other spiritual miscreants existed. But she smiled in understanding when Kreineh whispered in her ear, "There may have been other evil spirits in the room, but the one I am referring to is Alte."
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