The Culling (Emerging Writer's Contest Winner: FICTION)
In fiction, our winner is Jasmine Sawers, for her story, “The Culling.”
Ploughshares fiction editor Margot Livesey writes: “From its opening paragraph, when the midwife sees a lantern flickering in the distance, ‘The Culling’ transported me. I admire the vivid use of detail, and I particularly admire how much the author omits, creating a sense that this unnamed country with its harsh customs really does exist. The story achieves a striking balance between the mythic and the specific, the midwife is part of and partakes of both, and the result is an urgent and deeply satisfying reading experience.”
Sawers is a native of western New York and attended Binghamton University. After teaching English in the Philippines, she says that she “came home and worked in retail, which is a never-ending source of material for those writers preoccupied with character.” She is currently pursuing an MFA at Indiana University, and writes that she is “interested in the fairy tale and the place of the marginalized in America.” Her work has also been published in Art Voice and Construction.
The night boasts the first edges of an autumnal chill. The midwife makes an acrid tea with her dried leaves; their dregs leave tremulous lines on the ceramic, like the mark of the tide on sand. She is swaying on her porch swing and staring out into the deepening black, the emptied mug clutched between her hands, when the light of a lantern begins to flicker half a mile away. The midwife straightens, and a cool calm overtakes her. This late, no one comes down her way, deep in the wilds, unless there is something wrong or a woman has gone into labor—and none of her expectant mothers are due for at least a month, three if they had done as told. The carpenter’s wife could be septic from the abortion she got in the neighboring province—the midwife planned to chastise her after her recovery for taking her problem elsewhere. Or the seamstress could be having another miscarriage, or the berry picker’s ill-planned first child could be early, or some father could have found his only daughter in a condition he wasn’t expecting and didn’t appreciate.
The screen door clatters against the slats of her cabin as she enters to collect her supplies. It’s not enough to have clean cloths waiting in the linen closet—they must be as close to sterile as possible. Therefore, the midwife has developed a laundering schedule for her mountainous stacks of soft rags such that each is washed every three days, regardless of whether or not it has been put to use. This leaves her with her collection in thirds: one neat stack at the ready at any given moment; one soaking in a mixture of hot water, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide; and the last in the process of drying on the line, outside in shafts of sunlight when weather permits. The midwife does laundry every day. She has rough, gnarled hands with skin like the tucktoo whose call echoes out from the corners of her cabin, the intruder she must chase out with a broom.
The floor of the linen closet is well stocked and orderly with supplies bought in bulk from the midwife’s annual trips to a distant city: sterile gauze and strips of cotton cloth, sealed in plastic packets; packages of unopened razor blades, right beside a single pair of blunt-tipped scissors for emergencies only; soft rubber suction bulbs, frequently boiled; antiseptic soap; a pocket-size scrub brush; bottles of sterile medical-grade alcohol; plastic bags; cotton balls; a small, powerful flashlight and five packages of batteries; hemostats, also frequently boiled; box upon box of atraumatic needles with sutures, individually packaged; latex gloves; a stack of wide but shallow basins. Inert in the corner lies the midwife’s sturdy canvas bag. When she is summoned, she can get everything she will require into that bag in forty-five seconds without even rushing.
She meets her visitor down the dirt path not five minutes after noticing him. It’s the berry picker’s husband, sweaty, watercolor face marked with a gray pallor even under the shadows of the lantern. He is panting, the curl of his breath hot on the midwife’s skin as she stands too close, bag slung about one shoulder.
“It’s too early,” he tells her.
“Yes, obviously,” the midwife says. “Tell me everything.”
She sets a brisk pace even the berry picker’s husband’s long-legged stride cannot hope to match. The pregnancy had, until this point, been uneventful—the baby was prone to acrobatics, and could change position as many times as thrice in a single week, but it seemed to have settled into the proper downward orientation in the last fortnight. The berry picker had been experiencing what she thought was uncomfortable gas, her husband says, but the two of them had thought nothing of it until her waters burst, a warm, ominous flood in their sheets. It was at that point that her husband installed her in a warm bath and set off to fetch the midwife.
The fading residue of tear tracks on his face, glinting in the lamplight, does not move her, and she has no comforting nonsense sounds to make in his direction. She lets him ramble about each meaningless detail for the entirety of their trek back to the easterly village.
As they walk she thinks, in no particular order, of how a newborn’s misshapen skull fills the palm of her hand; how to deliver a breech birth; how her aging heart and lungs protest the pace of her feet; how to light the furnace in her yard; how the soldiers raised the body of her daughter on a pike for all to see; how many seasons have passed since the current regime was installed; how many seasons have passed since she has touched someone outside the capacity of her vocation. How many seasons have passed.
“Do you think it will be a boy?” the husband asks after a whole minute has passed without his filling the silence. “You have ways of telling, don’t you?”
“Do not presume upon me the ways of the Creator,” the midwife says, and there is no more talk.
The berry picker and her husband live in a well-tended cabin on the outskirts of town with electricity and indoor plumbing—unlike some in the community, who are either too poor or too committed to the old ways, who still light gas lamps and make use of ramshackle outhouses erected on their properties by great-great grandparents. The husband holds some menial delivery job—milk or turnips or eggs; he’s a bland man of many nerves, and the particulars of him slip like trifles from the midwife’s mind.
The husband leads the midwife to the bathroom, where the berry picker sits hunched in the wide ceramic tub in the corner, naked and shivering over her belly. Long hair the color of dirty straw does not obscure how the knobs of her spine press taut against the skin of her back. She does not acknowledge the midwife when she enters and peers into the water—there is no blood.
The midwife slings off her coat before she addresses the husband: “Sheets, clean towels, blankets—every one you’ve got but for the one you’ll sleep in next, and that rocking chair I saw on the porch. Bring it all to the bedroom. Quickly, man!”
The husband skitters out of the bathroom like a startled rabbit. The midwife sets her bag down, squats before the tub, and tips the berry picker’s face toward her with an ungentle touch. “Have you been timing the contractions?”
“Twenty or so minutes apart still,” she says. “I’ve done exactly as you said.”
The midwife hasn’t the energy to insist otherwise. It would be redundant anyway. She stands and plants her feet shoulder-width apart before extending her hands to the berry picker, palms up. “Up you get,” she says. “This tub is no place for a baby, or my knees.” The berry picker grips her hands and the midwife pulls back, and together they haul the berry picker to her feet. She looks like many of the young women the midwife tends: slight and narrow but for the newly lush ponderousness of her breasts with their plum-flushed nipples and the swollen protuberance of her belly, bisected by the linea nigra. The mothers never eat enough, never gain enough weight, to satisfy the midwife. She lives in a state of perpetual disappointment.
The midwife yanks a towel from beside the sink and gives the berry picker a rough pat-down before leading her from the bathroom to the bedroom, where the husband is fussing with the arrangement of blankets on the mattress.
“You!” the midwife says, and he startles again. “Go get my bag.”
While he complies, the midwife shakes out a blanket and places it on the wicker rocking chair, still cold from the night air. She gives the berry picker no choice, just eases her into the seat. The berry picker deflates with a relieved sigh as the chair rocks back under her weight.
The midwife tips the chair back and presses a foot into a rocker to immobilize it. She passes a hand over the berry picker’s belly to feel the baby’s rounded back—it’s facing inward, as is proper. She presses three fingers of one hand just above the pelvic bone and three fingers of the other just beneath the diaphragm to palpate the womb: the baby is in the proper engaged position, its head nestled against the cervix. She will not have to encourage it to move lower with a firm, uncomfortable massage.
The husband returns and sets the canvas bag at the midwife’s feet. With a quelling look, he is banished to the chair in the far corner of the room.
“Please let it be a boy,” the berry picker whispers. “Please.”
The midwife has learned to ignore the pleas of the mothers she tends, their fierce, often futile, wishes for sons. There is nothing she can do about what the Creator deposits into her arms, and there is nothing she can do about the laws of ignorant men. Once, such things set a fire in her empty belly, kept her up at night puking and shitting in peptic ire, but now, she is too old. She has no energy. Some say she has no heart.
Abruptly the berry picker keens and clutches at the arms of the rocking chair. Her distended belly lurches upward with the contraction, and she holds her breath.
“Keep breathing,” the midwife says, “and don’t push yet. It’s not time.”
“It hurts,” the berry picker wails, as if the midwife doesn’t know. As if the midwife hasn’t been doing this for her entire life, hasn’t given birth to her own child alone in her cabin, hasn’t buried that child and learned what real pain is.
“Yes,” is all she says.
Then the husband is hovering near the midwife’s shoulder, his worry a thick, palpable thing that makes the air too heavy to breathe. The midwife wants to snap at him, to tell him to go back to his corner—men have never proven terribly useful during this portion of the proceedings. Instead, she tells him to go off to the side of the chair, to hold his wife’s hand if he has to be here at all.
The contraction subsides, and the berry picker drops back into the chair, panting. The midwife removes her foot and lets the chair rock soothingly. The husband gazes down at the berry picker’s slack face, brushing the fringe from her forehead and rubbing his thumb along the high ridge of her cheekbone. He bends to press his lips to her eyes, her temple. The midwife turns away to rummage in her bag.
She clears the bedside table and covers it with one of her fresh cloths. She arranges the remaining items in a neat line across the top. She doesn’t turn back to the berry picker and her husband when she says, “You should walk around the room, get moving. Urinate and move your bowels, whether you think you have to or not. We should move to the bed when the contractions come quicker.”
“Could it still be false labor?” The husband’s voice, hopeful. “I mean—there’s another month yet. Month and a half, even.”
The midwife stares at her tools. Moves them minutely to be sure they’re parallel. The metal ones shine under the bright electric lights. The berry picker knows what her body is bracing for—she has been the most attentive patient the midwife has attended in recent memory—and the midwife is weary of the business of soothing fretful men.
“Her waters have broken,” she says. “Baby’s coming now.”
“And…and if it’s a girl?”
“If it’s a girl, I’ll do what needs to be done.”
The midwife sweeps from the room without a glance back at them, a basin and a bar of soap in hand. She fills the couple’s tea kettle with water and waits for it to heat on their range.
Just before the water begins to boil, the midwife removes the kettle from the flame and pours it into a basin. She lathers the bar of soap and leaves it on the bottom; the skin of her hands does not protest the temperature, impervious. She cradles the basin in both hands carefully before bringing it back into the bedroom and placing it on the bedside table. The berry picker paces the length of the room with ginger steps, breath deep and measured, hands flexing at her sides. Her husband trails after her, broad hand pressed to the small of her back. He does not, at least, attempt to force conversation.
The midwife remembers when the berry picker was born: it was a bracing Thursday in late January some twenty-five years ago. The cord had been wrapped around her neck, but the midwife had been able to slip her fingers beneath its loop before her shoulders presented. The midwife used her hemostats to clamp the cord’s blood flow, and she’d snapped at the father to be useful for once in his life and place his fingers where her own were keeping the child from choking to death. While he held the cord at bay, the midwife used one hand to support the head and the other to grope at her tools, which were so neatly organized that she got the blunt-tipped scissors in a single attempt. When the cord wilted between the hemostats, the midwife snipped the constriction away. The berry picker nonetheless remained stuck in place, her shoulders too cumbersome an obstacle to overcome without assistance. The midwife eased her head down until one shoulder popped out, then up for the other. With a strangled grunt from the mother, the berry picker slid out abruptly into the midwife’s arms. Immediately the father crowded her to prize his child’s legs apart, then turned stricken eyes upon the midwife.
“How many?” he asked. Just the previous week, the shepherd’s wife had given birth to a girl, had gotten to keep her because the year’s quota had not yet been met. She was the envy of her village—and the dark dread of every remaining pregnant woman.
“She’s the third.” The father exhaled, and the midwife turned away. “Tend to your wife,” she said, and swaddled the baby in a clean cloth. The midwife bent to suck the mucous from the girl’s nose, held her at a downward-facing angle, and finally the girl gave a gusty cry. The midwife handed her to the father, but could not bring herself to look at the grinning, sobbing mother, whose hands were outstretched for her prize. When the placenta was finally delivered—in infuriating pieces, delaying the midwife’s departure—the midwife packed up her things and left without either new parent noticing.
When she was summoned again upon discovery of the mother’s second pregnancy, the berry picker was three years old and followed her around the cabin like a duckling, asking incessant questions about the contents of her bag. Seven months later, in sweltering summer heat, the midwife snapped her newborn sister’s neck, wrapped the little body in a plastic bag, and when she returned to her own cabin she incinerated it in the furnace the province installed in her backyard.
Now, hours pass as she watches the berry picker pacing, squatting, moving around to encourage labor, keeping hydrated. The time between contractions narrows. Finally, the berry picker kneels on the bed and rocks herself back and forth. She presses her face into the pillows, locks her body up, and moans as another contraction racks her, barely a minute after her last. Her husband rubs a hand over her back, and the midwife takes her place beside her.
“Stack the pillows,” she tells the husband, “and we’ll prop her up so I can check her progress.”
They get the berry picker into position, and the husband stands as a sentinel beside her, her hand clutched in his. The midwife drags the bedside table to within arm’s reach, snaps on a pair of gloves, and moves to kneel between the berry picker’s spread legs. She slips two fingers inside the birth canal and presses gently against the cervix: the berry picker is just past nine centimeters.
“All right, girl,” she says. “Pull your knees up and keep your breath steady, but don’t push yet.”
“Will it be soon?” the husband asks.
“It’ll be when it’ll be,” the midwife says.
She turns to her array of tools and spills some rubbing alcohol on one of her smaller rags. She swabs over the berry picker’s thighs, her vulva, her anus, before placing the rag into a plastic bag beside the bed.
“I just—I just need to know. If it’s a girl.”
When the midwife cranes her neck to meet his eyes, her teeth are bared in a snarl, and the husband quails against the wall.
“And if you’d followed my express instructions on when to conceive like everybody else, you wouldn’t be in this position, wringing your fool hands. Stop speaking.” It has been seven seasons since she’s taken a life, and before that it had been twelve. With careful planning and common sense, the villagers can spare her that. They can spare themselves.
The berry picker’s cries are hearty, guttural bellows, the rawest expressions of the world’s most ancient pain. No high, girlish trills grate across the midwife’s eardrums. There is strength here, and fear. Despite the tendril of unease that unfurls in her own gut, the midwife thinks of nothing but the measures of the berry picker’s breath.
The berry picker’s shouts go up an octave and a decibel, and the husband is whimpering under the crush of her hand around his, and the midwife is ready, ready. The raw pink slit of the berry picker’s vagina spreads as the child’s head pushes forward. The midwife can see dark locks of hair matted with blood and detritus.
“It’s crowning!” she says. “Don’t push, go slow. No one wants an episiotomy tonight.”
The berry picker screams, the husband screams, her vagina stretches to obscene proportions, and then the head is out in the time it takes to draw a single breath. The berry picker slumps back into the pillows with a quavering wail, and her bowels void in a loose mess on the towel beneath her.
“Oh!” The husband looks queasy, though the berry picker seems unaware of what has transpired. The midwife sneers at him.
“It’s nothing, happens all the time. This is why we have towels and blankets. Lift her and I’ll get rid of it.” Gingerly he moves to comply, but the midwife snaps at him. “Faster, you imbecile! We’re ready to push!”
One-handed, the midwife rolls up the soiled towel and shoves it into the plastic bag. She turns back around, still supporting the head, and wipes at the berry picker’s loins with another clean cloth, careful not to swipe upward. Afterward, she swirls her hand in the basin of soap and water. She leans in between the berry picker’s upraised knees and meets wide, fearful eyes in a face flushed purple.
“You ready to push now?”
The berry picker nods and leans forward, hands tight around her knees. Her screams reverberate between the walls of the cabin as she bears down.
“All your strength, girl!” the midwife says. “All of it, now, now!”
The baby is small and it happens in a rush. With a final shout, the child is in the midwife’s arms and the berry picker is trying to get a glimpse and the husband is coming too close. The midwife shrugs him off.
“You have to let me clean it first,” she says.
“Just, please. Tell us.”
The midwife sighs. She holds the child downward in the crook of her arm. “It’s a girl,” she says. “It’s a girl.”
She does not look up to see their expressions. The horror of it is dull for her, and those faces hold nothing new. The berry picker sags back with a defeated, mournful exhalation, and the husband begins to murmur unintelligible nonsense in her ear. The midwife wipes the child down and suctions out the fluid from its face, its lungs. It gives a resonant cry—it has healthy lungs, despite being born a month or more short of full term. She lays it down on the bed between herself and the berry picker. She takes off her soiled gloves and puts on new ones before plucking two strips of cotton from her spread of supplies. She waits for the umbilicus to stop pulsing fat and blue. When it withers and grows thin, she ties it off two and a half centimeters from the baby’s navel. She unwraps a razor blade and slices through the cord between the two ties. She swaddles the baby and lifts it back into her arms.
“A little under two kilos, but healthy,” she says. Around her heart, a fortress. “Do you want to see it?”
The husband’s mouth quivers as he peers over the space between them to look at his daughter as if shy of her, but the berry picker squares her shoulders and holds out her arms. The midwife places the child where it belongs and is forced to endure the sight of the berry picker falling in love. Bile rises in her throat.
“Can’t we hide her?” the berry picker asks, voice soft. The child latches to the proffered nipple with zealous expertise. “When the soldiers come?”
The parents of over-quota girl-children always ask this, as if the thought has never occurred to the midwife before. As if she hadn’t tried that very thing decades ago, when the current regime and its population measures were new, as if she hadn’t been punished beyond all imagining for it. We are so remote in this province, she’d thought. How would anyone know? Then, the militia came unannounced and flushed them out like vermin. All the children born that year and the year before in each of her villages were slaughtered by laughing men in navy uniforms, their bodies strewn on the streets for all to see and despair. The toddlers, the babies, and the midwife’s own girl, old enough to sass and wield hemostats and know exactly what those soldiers were doing to her.
After the massacre, the midwife implemented her own program: in each of the five villages over which she presided, couples were to commune with one another on family planning, and only five couples per year were to conceive—always in April or May—in case every single child born was a female. This did not, of course, always go to plan. On buying trips to the city, however, the midwife had learned that her villages had a lower cull rate than many, and she was proud. Nonetheless, she had had occasion to determine the most humane means of committing infanticide, to perfect the flick of a wrist that would snap a newborn’s neck in a fraction of a second.
“Won’t do any good,” the midwife says. “I’ll palpate your stomach now.”
The midwife realized long ago that it is better to take the child away as soon as possible after the birth. Lingering is a bittersweet torture the midwife cares not to indulge. She prefers the cleanliness of a quick departure—and the reprieve from hateful gazes is no small relief. She encourages delivery of the afterbirth by massaging the berry picker’s belly, and when it comes, she catches it in an empty basin and stands with a creak of her bones. She moves to a lamp at the head of the bed and inspects it under the light: half a kilo, red, meaty, and full, it is thankfully complete, and the midwife’s work is almost done here.
She drops the placenta into another plastic bag and checks the berry picker’s passage for tears. The baby was so small, the midwife doesn’t have to stitch anything up. She peels off her gloves and washes her hands in the soap and water before gathering her supplies to put back into her bag. She pulls out three sterile cloths and knots them securely into a sling that will hold the child tight against her body. When she approaches the family, she says nothing, merely holds out her arms. The husband begins to weep, shaking his head and begging, but the berry picker stills the progress of her tears and hardens her mouth. She dislodges the suckling child from her nipple, brushes a kiss across the downy forehead, and hands it to the midwife. The husband retreats into the bathroom with a slam of the door.
“It doesn’t hurt?” the berry picker asks.
“It’s over before it can,” the midwife says. She is reasonably certain this is true—at least for one narrow version of the truth.
“We ask too much of you,” the berry picker says. Her face is dry of tears, her mouth is free of tremors, her chin is high and proud.
The weight of the child in her arms suddenly makes the midwife feel very old and very tired. She passes the callused pad of her thumb over the hollow of the baby’s throat to feel the hummingbird heartbeat. She pulls it close against her own bosom and breathes in its offal, iron smell—it hasn’t yet been cleaned properly. The midwife bundles it more warmly and tucks it into the sling. The baby makes no fuss.
When the midwife leaves the cabin, her canvas bag is still inside. She will not go back for it. She will not be seen anywhere in these villages again.
The berry picker will know what to do.