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Authors: Lois Leveen

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Juliet's Nurse

BOOK: Juliet's Nurse
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and BMOP,

who do not like to read novels

(If you happen to read this one, I hope you recognize in it the things I learned from you.)




wo nights before Lammas Eve, I go to bed believing myself fat and happy. You will think me a fool for being so deceived, at my age. But in our hearts, we all wish to be fooled. And so we make fools of ourselves.

For months, Pietro and I have finished dinner with a sampling of his latest confections: candied cherries, quince marmalade, muscatel-stewed figs. Though he still cannot afford sugar, Pietro’s begun gathering honey from hives in the groves and fields beyond Verona’s walls. This frightens me, for I was badly stung as a child. My face swelled so large, villagers crossed themselves when they passed me, as though I was a changeling. But whenever Pietro returns from his hives he hums like he’s a bee himself, insisting this will be his good fortune at last. With the honey, he can make, if not the bright,
hard confetti candy the apothecaries offer, at least such treats as we might sell ourselves.

Though I warn he’ll put us in the alms-house by squandering any of the precious spices for our own pleasure, each night I let him pull me to my feet and feed me an unnamed delight. Standing close behind me, he covers my eyes with one broad hand, and with the other slips some new delicacy upon my tongue like a priest placing a communion wafer. “Why do you look for a sting,” he asks, his words soft in my ear, “where there is only a sweet?”
So I swell not from the sharp sting of a bee but with the many dainties he’s made from their honey. Or so I believe, my body spreading and slowing while the spring’s warmth deepens into the summer’s heat.

The delicate flavorings my husband brings to my mouth seem to sharpen my sense of smell, so that I cannot abide any off odor. I scrub and air everything in our meager rented rooms. And the week before Lammastide, I launder our linens. Every coverlet and pillow-casing, all the sheets stored within our musty marriage-chest—they get such a laundering as I’ve not found time to do in many a year, killing every louse, flea, and bedbug upon them. It’s three days’ work, and I struggle with each basketful of bedding as I walk to the public fountain, and even more when I carry the linens wet and heavy back to the Via Zancani, and haul them up the ladder to our roof. Once they’re hung along the wooden window-rod under the bright July sun, the sheet-corners catch on the wind like the black-tipped wings of the gulls chasing each other over the Adige River.

My Pietro has never been one to waste a clean bedsheet—nor even a new-swept table-carpet or a leaf-strewn patch of ground
within a sycamore grove—without taking me upon it. And so every night of the week, he climbs on me with the same merry lover’s zest with which he connived me of my maiden-head thirty years before. About this, too, I fool myself: that we could laugh and lust as though we are still such youths as when we first lay together. As though we’d never left the countryside to enter city gates, and the plague had never come.

For seven nights, we sleep snug and satisfied on those sheets. Until the earliest hours of the day before Lammas Eve, when I awaken to find the bedding soaked.

Pietro is a man who rouses neither quickly nor easily, so I give him a knee to where I know he’ll most remember it. “You pissed the sheets.”

He wakes, and swears, and says, “It’s not me who wet it.” Pushing off the coverlet, he traces the damp spot with the cinnamon-smudged nail of his stout finger. The stain forms a little sea around the buxom island of me, yet reaches not halfway under him.

Fat and happy. Could I believe myself those things, and nothing more? Could I think myself only old and corpulent, glad just to rut with the same hoary goat I long called beloved husband? In the months of shortened breath within my tight-pulled dress, had I not felt the truth of what was happening?

I had not. I could not. Until Pietro traces it on the sheet, and him still not understanding what it is.

Now it’s my turn to swear. “By my holidame, go get a midwife.”

He’s more stunned by this second, spoken blow than the first, physical one.

“Husband, will you not see? It’s not age that’s stopped up my bleedings these seasons past.” I pull his hand onto me. “It was a quickening, so long done that here’s my water, broke. Blessed Maria and Sainted Anna, I am about to birth a child.”

This brings him full awake. He kisses the last of the words from my mouth, and kisses my full belly, and kisses each of my broad haunches. The glad fool even kisses our puddled sheets, he’s so pleased at the news.

“A midwife,” I remind him, as the church bells ring for lauds-hour.

He dances his way dressed with even greater glee than that which with he usually undresses me. The way he sways and hoots, it seems as if he’s still drunk on last night’s wine, until he stops before the picture of the Holy Virgin suckling her babe. He crosses himself three times and mutters a prayer to her to keep me well while he is gone. Then my great bear of a husband, forgetting to duck his head, smacks his broad brow hard upon the beam above the doorway. He reels like a buffoon before galloping down the stairs and out into Verona’s still-dark streets.

Alone, I look to the Virgin, not sorry it is too dim to make out her familiar features. Whatever apprentice painted her had no great gift, for she is a cockly-eyed thing, the black pupil within one pale blue orb gazing down upon her infant, and the other looking straight out at whoever passes before her. Pietro gave her to me when we married. At twenty he knew no better than to pick her, and at twelve I knew no better than to find her lovely. In the decades since, I’ve fancied myself worldlier, snickering at her ill form. But there’s no snicker in me now, as I ask the most unlikely of
mothers how this could be, and will she bless me, and why do my pains not come, since my waters are already loosed. It’s a one-sided conversation, like all I ever have with her. Lonely and terrified, I lie flat on my back, kneading the thick flesh of my sides but afraid to touch my belly. Waiting for Pietro, and the midwife, and my own last and least expected infant to arrive.

“No birthing chair?”

By the time Pietro returns, the day’s light is already stealing into the room, and there’s no hiding that the midwife he’s brought is gnarled like a walnut, with a palsy shaking her hands and head. I cannot imagine where my husband unearthed such a decrepit creature, though I suppose we are lucky that at such an hour he found anyone at all. She sends him away as soon as he shows her in, leaving only me and her assistants, twin girls so half-witted the pair of them do not seem the equivalent of a singleton, to listen to her complaints—the first of which is the absence of a birthing chair. Her only solace in hearing I have none is to say it is just as well, as I am too fat for a baby to escape me seated upright.

Next, she demands to know when my last bowel movement was. Too many days past for me to remember, is the best I can answer. I’ve not marked each bodily passing like it’s some holy feast. Not with such wind, such colic, and such loosing and then stopping-up of bowels as I’ve had these years past. Why keep careful count of all the troubles that time, that thief of youth and health, works upon my body? We are not wealthy. Though Pietro would insist on seek
ing out physick and apothecary if ever I spoke of these ailments, I know such things are beyond our means. So I’ve taken what comfort I could in having Pietro’s honeyed sweets in my mouth, and tried to find in my husband’s doting some relief, if not remedy, for everything I suffer.

The midwife seizes on my constipation as though it’s the only care either of us has in all the world. Displaying a gleaming desire to purge my bowels, she sends one twin off for common mallow, borax, and dog’s mercury to be boiled into a soup, while she sets the other to rubbing chamomile and linseed crushed in olive oil into some hidden nether place where front and back join between my legs. It’s not hard to tell which of those girls she favors.

Only when at last I shit to her satisfaction does she turn her attention to delivering my child. She produces a small dowel for the kitchen-twin to coat in chicken fat, then has the other twin open me with it so the midwife might survey my insides. She tells me to scream, loud as I can. I do not find this hard to do, with a fat-coated dowel shoved in me. I shout till I am hoarse, which finally brings on the first birthing pains. A fine trick that, no voice left for howling just when you want to howl most.

From time to time, my banished Pietro calls up from the street, saying he has a gift for me. One twin or the other runs down, returning first with a tiny woven pouch containing a Santa Margherita charm, then with a marten’s tooth, then with a wooden parto tray rubbed so smooth with use, I cannot make out which sainted mother is bearing which holy babe in the scene painted upon it. Though I curse the money-lenders and the marketwomen so eager
to prey upon my worried husband, I wrap my hand around charm and tooth, and tell the twins to set the tray where I can easily see it. Fourteen years it’s been, since he last had cause to lavish me with parto gifts. A dozen years since, in my maddened grief, I burned up all the ones he’d ever given me upon a plaguey pyre. I can feel the heat of that fire now, am bathed in the sweat of it, as I beg Santa Margherita and the figure on the parto
tray and our cockly-eyed Holy Virgin to make this baby come.

The day is already past its hottest when Pietro sends up three eggs. One tawny, one spring-sky blue, and the last a purest white. The midwife spins the eggs one by one atop my belly, snorting with approval when each comes to rest pointing to my woman-parts. Pricking a hole on the top and bottom of each egg, she bids me blow out the yolks. The twins fill the first shell with amaranth, the second with fennel seed, and the third with sow thistle, each of which the midwife says I am to rub upon my breasts every night to keep my milk thick and plentiful. Setting the shells in a variegated row beneath the Virgin’s picture, she beats the eggs till the golden yolks stain all through the glossy whites. In the next pause between my pains, one twin feeds me raw egg swirled in red wine. As I struggle to keep the loose, thick mixture down, the other twin greases my nether end with the rest of the eggs combined with oil of dill, while the midwife lights a votive and mutters an abracadabra of prayer.

After the candle burns low, she orders me to kneel wide-kneed on the floor. The twins heap pillows behind me, and the midwife instructs me to arch back over the pile until my head touches the
worn wooden floorboards. I tell her I saw an acrobat once that might have contorted backward like that, but he was a strapping young lad, which I most certainly am not. The twins each grab one of my shoulders, stretching and pushing according to the midwife’s commands, until I’m as close to that improbable position as a woman my size and age can get.

Once I’m stretched neck to knees like racked linen, the tight globe of my belly pointing up, the midwife lays one icy hand atop the great mound of me, and works the other inside. Palsy shakes her so furiously, I feel the tremors deep within me. I lie folded back like that until my shins are numb, my back cricked, and the upside-down world no longer unfamiliar, before her bony hands jiggle the baby loose. I swear it stands straight up within me, my belly-button a brimless cap upon its hidden head. It balances like that a short minute, then pitches down again facing the opposite direction. But still, it will not push its way out of me.

All my other babies, conceived as they were from Pietro’s randy youth and my ready young womb, were eager to press their way into the world. Nunzio came just two months after quickening, and Nesto only three. Donato barely brought me any birthing pains, and Enzo kicked and pushed himself out while Donato was still at my breast. I’d not begun to bleed again before I was carrying Berto, so I cannot say how many months he grew inside me, though it seemed a scanty few. And Angelo, my littlest angel, began to drop from me as I bent to blow out a candle, and was halfway into the world before we had the wick relit. But this baby feels the slowness of our ages. Though I try to fill the time with hopeful prayers,
I cannot help but think of certain horrors. The widow in the village where I grew up, who swelled four years before she was delivered. A young bride startled by a fox on the way to her wedding bed, who bore a pointy-faced child whose body was thick with reddish fur. The cousin of Pietro’s who birthed twins, one as perfect as an orchid bloom, the other a ghastly bluish-purple beast.

The midwife quizzes her assistants on what they think she ought to try, to pry the baby from me. “Girdle the laboring mother with vervain leaves gathered before dawn on the feast day of San Giovanni,” recites one. She sounds quite convincing until, picking with a grimy fingernail at a freckle on her chin, she adds, “Or is it plantain leaves, gathered at evening on the feast day of San Giorgio?”

The second twin shakes her head. “Have her wear her husband’s shoes upon her hands and his pants upon her head
she insists. “Perch his hat upon her abdomen, while she recites the name of his mother, and his mother’s mother, and her mother before her, backward, and begs forgiveness from all their saints.”

They go back and forth like that, until at last the midwife claps them each on the ear with a satisfying smack. She informs them that it is time to fumigate my womb, as the smoke from a fire of salt-fish and horse hooves should surely get the child moving. This, I think, is clever true. What being would not vacate where it lay, once the stench of herring and hoof reaches it?

BOOK: Juliet's Nurse
5.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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