The one-room cottage was hushed, an air of secrecy and expectancy joining with woodsmoke and the tang of sweat. Wavering light from the fire, over which a pot simmered and sighed, flirted with shadows beneath the eaves.
Three women murmured, their whispering a faint hum, until one cried out in an urgent moan.
“Good, yes?” Gusta asked. Silver hair escaped from her headscarf, framing her face with a halo, her skin fine as parchment, laced with the etchings of time, wind, and sunshine.
“Nei, nei, “ denied Lovisa, kneading the hem of her cotton shift with trembling fingers. Her eyes were glassy, and she’d gnawed a raw spot on her lower lip. “I must breathe. The air is hot and stale.”
Gusta nodded knowingly. “It is time to kneel.”
Berit eased Lovisa from the bed, and Lovisa almost leaped from her embrace as she crouched, bracing herself against the fiery shards of pain that radiated through her body. She sighed in relief. “Much better, yes.”
The elderly woman muttered tuneless melodies under her breath as she massaged the rounded belly with sheep fat until it glistened in the flickering firelight, like a pale opaline moon. Her wrinkled hands soothed the taut skin, while Lovisa heaved herself forward again and again, pressing against Gusta’s palms.
Gusta sprinkled høyfrø, hayseed, in boiled water and Berit held Lovisa as she huddled over the steaming bucket, allowing the fragrant heat to ease her discomfort.
But, there was no relief and no tiny head, no wailing except from Lovisa’s chewed lips.
“Perhaps he likes his little hytte, a warm hut with a cozy fire,” Gusta chuckled as she pulled back Lovisa’s damp hair and braided it, tying it with yarn.
“Nei, something is wrong.”
“The doctor is a day’s journey away. Lars should go now.” Berit suggested.
Lovisa whispered, “It is too late.”
On cue, a geyser of liquid flowed from Lovisa, a murky stream, a dreadful deluge that surged in an ominous torrent. Gusta stifled a gasp as the shadowed fluid stained Lovisa’s thighs and trickled between the rough floorboards.
“Berit, get Lars. Lovisa must sit on his lap. Quickly!”
Berit had hesitated, pinching lips together as she pushed through the plank door. Gusta hunkered down before the straining woman, steadying her as each contraction pierced her, a hunter’s blade, buried to the hilt and withdrawn.
Lovisa cried out, and Gusta hid her dismay as a tiny foot appeared and vanished.
The door pushed open, and Lars ran in. Berit followed quietly and leaned against the rough wood, displeasure engraved on her face. Her eyes glittered, hard like blue ice, as she watched Lars take Lovisa tenderly onto his lap. Lars breathed encouragements into her ear and Gusta sang her discordant refrain as she smeared more sheep fat on Lovisa’s distended belly.
But, signs of a pending birth had faded and Lovisa slumped, exhausted. With a lingering note, Gusta leaned back on the stool and frowned.
“We must loosen every knot in the house. Then, whatever is binding the baby will release him.”
Removing her own headscarf, she then untied the yarn on Lovisa’s braid and riffled her gnarled fingers through the tangled hair. “Berit?”
Slowly, Berit pulled at her scarf and apron, half-heartedly straightening the ties. Gusta smoothed bedcovers and uncoiled several skeins of wool, leaving them in loose hanks.
Lovisa remained limp, sweat glistening on her gray face.
Gusta’s understanding was simple, a peasant’s knowledge mingled with folklore and tradition, but an idea borne of observation and old wisdom flitted into her mind.
“It is something else,” she said softly. “Berit, I think your heart is strangled by a tight knot of bitterness.”
Berit looked away.
Gusta continued. “You are resentful because Lovisa married Lars, and hope of having him for yourself vanished. If you don’t release the hardness, Lovisa and the baby will die.”
Berit shook with sobs as truth unshackled her stony grief. “I’ve hated her. My own sister.”
Gusta nodded kindly and returned to Lovisa. With Lars’ help, she lowered Lovisa to her hands and knees. Suddenly, sharply, the pains commenced. Swiftly, it seemed, the baby emerged, howling and red-faced.
“Ah, little Viking,” Gusta crooned. “Your family has been waiting. See how they smile?”
Whose smile was most radiant, it was difficult to decide, the exultant parents’ or Berit’s. Her face shone with freedom and unfettered joy.
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