When John Duggan pounded on Dr. McGowan’s door, no one was more surprised than Dr. McGowan himself. He’d been sent to the remote village to provide modern medical care to the region, but he’d not been well received; he’d been spurned and even mocked.
“It’s me wife, Mattie,” John panted. “The bairn’s not comin’.”
“I’ll fetch my bag.”
It was no use hitching up the pony and trap, for there was naught but an ancient path to the Duggans’. Dr. McGowan ducked as he entered the tumbledown cottage and was assailed by thick air, odorous and humid, and he stifled the urge to retreat. In the gloom, his eyes could barely discern the bed, which was surrounded by a bevy of women, young and old, murmuring and humming, and all glaring at him with distrust.
A birdlike woman detached herself from the huddled shapes. “There’s no need of ye here.”
“I asked ‘im, Sally,” John said softly, nodding at the tormented mound on the bed. “I’m afeared for ‘er.”
Sally ignored him and waggled a grimy finger under the doctor’s nose.
“I been birthin’ folks ‘ere for nigh on sixty years, and yer meddlin’ ain’t welcome.”
The other women, crouched like crows, nodded agreement.
“No meddling, ma’am, just proper medical care,” asserted Dr. McGowan. “I’d appreciate it if the ladies would wait outside.”
“Yer the one what don’t belong. We ain’t leavin’.”
“Then please open the door and let in some fresh air.”
“Ye want to give Mattie a fever? Or do ye want to invite bad spirits?”
McGowan shook his head. “I need to examine Mrs. Duggan, ma’am.”
Disregarding their mutters, the doctor examined Mattie, affirming his hunch. Breech.
“John, would you be so good as to fetch some water.” Cold water would have to do.
“How long has it been?” he asked Sally.
“Two days or more. I give ‘er the tonic, but it ain’t worked yet.”
“Aye. Fer long birthin’. A lock of virgin’s hair, cut up fine-like, mixed with twelve dried ants, for the apostles, ye know? In a pint of milk from a red cow.”
“Preposterous and ridiculous.”
John returned with a water-filled, none-too-clean basin, and McGowan withdrew a bar of soap from his bag and began lathering his hands.
“What are ye doin’?” Sally had eyed the suds with suspicion until her curiosity got the best of her.
“Washing away germs.”
“Yes, tiny animals that cause disease. They’re on the skin, in the air, everywhere, and especially in here.”
Sally cackled at the absurdity and turned to the women. “Ye hear? ‘E says there’s wee beasties all about. Yer tetched in the head, doctor, fer all yer book-learnin’.” She thrust her chin at him in disbelief.
“If you wish to help, wash your hands and dry on this towel. We need to move Mrs. Duggan to her side.”
Sally harrumphed, but complied.
“Why put ‘er on ‘er side?”
“It’s the modern way. Protects her dignity.”
“Her dignity don’t need no protectin’ if there’s jus’ us womenfolk here, like God intended. ‘Tis all nonsense.”
Mattie groaned as the doctor and Sally shifted her and covered her swollen form with the dingy sheet. McGowan reached beneath with his hand.
“What’re ye doin’?”
“I’m going to pull the baby out.”
“From ‘er womb? ‘Tis unnatural, and indecent for ye to be touchin’ ‘er,” Sally sputtered. “She needs a bit of wild ginger, to set her sneezin’, and the bairn’ll slip right out. Works ever’time.”
“Ma’am, either you’ve been lucky or God’s blessed you with your birthings, but I’m afraid your methods are superstitious and unhygienic. Utterly bizarre.”
“Supersti. . .?”
“Never mind. If I don’t get this baby out, it may die.”
A frail voice piped, “‘Tis God’s will, then.”
Dr. McGowan tried not to let his frustration and appalled incredulity show, but concentrated on his task. After a few long moments, the baby’s weak cry filled the airless room, then grew stronger.
Mattie had not made a sound beyond weary moans. Now she spoke.
“I’ll be thankin’ ye, Sally, never to give me yer tonic again. Like poison, it were.”
“But, Mattie, yer bairn’s ‘ere, thanks to me special drink.” Sally tucked the baby in Mattie’s arms.
“‘Tis thanks to the doctor and ‘is newfangled ways,” Mattie sighed.
“Don’t matter neither way to me.” John edged through the tight circle. “I’ve got a baby boy and me Mattie’s fine. Thanks be to God Himself.”
No one dared argue with that.
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