Warning label for squicky gynecology. If you’re easily grossed out… well, I tried to be gentle, but read at your own risk.
My son was born a month before Abdul’s caravan returned to Behd’ad. When I first saw him, I was more startled than anything. Newborns are odd creatures, especially minutes after their first breath.
“Efreets begone! What is wrong with him?” My voice sounded halfway to a shriek, weak as it was.
Meritt Hakim has always had the gentlest smile. The first time I ever met her unveiled, I saw it and liked it. With such smiles, lions are tamed and rampaging dervishes take pause. “He is perfect, my Amirah. He just needs cleaned. Here, now, give him to Salome.” The wriggling, messy thing was whisked to a salt-bath as Meritt made me sneeze. I had long since been ignoring the disgusting, painful things the lower part of my body had been doing, and I watched the bath rather than see more of the horrifying things Meritt was pulling out of me, or stitching into me. I couldn’t see much. His hands and feet wiggled with palsied jerks as he screamed his tiny lungs into clear health. Meritt kept telling me it was normal. Normal, all of it. I was still half-convinced that he was horribly flawed and they just couldn’t tell me.
I did better the second time I held him. He would have no name until his father arrived to perform the ceremonies, and this made it harder somehow. People have names, and this… this wrinkly, wizened thing did not look like people. “What is wrong with his head? And his eye!”
Meritt’s laugh was also a calming thing. “He had to squeeze himself through small spaces into this world, and how well he was designed to do it! His head is pressed a little so he would hurt you less, and he just has a some bruising on his eye. It won’t look so bloody in a few days, and his head will go right back to being nice and round. Like you, he has had a very rough few days.”
Fatimah nudged my hand toward the odd creature’s fist, and tiny tan fingers closed around mine. His cries settled now as his squashed face turned toward my skinny chest. I tried to behave as I thought I should. As a mother should! I murmured the first blessing I could think of: the Blessing of the Coming Guest. “Be welcome at our hearth, and let our women wash your feet while you rest from the sun?” I sounded like a squeaky girl with a doll.
There was silence, then the room was filled with women’s laughter, mine included. I was thirteen, I had labored through two days and a night, and though I had a son who lived, and I too lived, I wanted to do nothing more than cry for my mother to come take me away.
Meritt Hakim was from a house of minor wealth under my father’s protection. Long ago, before my highland ancestors had moved to occupy the valley, her family had been weaving for the old divine valley king – the Pa’Roh. They were weavers of rugs, but Meritt had married a physician and wished to learn to heal as well. I was there the day she petitioned my mother’s court, though I had to be reminded of it when we met later because I was also very young. We paid for her books to be copied and paid for her offerings at the temple of Imhotep and Tawaret. Meritt in time became Meritt Hakim, or Meritt the Physician. She and her husband had a thriving practice among the merchant classes, he tending to men and she to women and children. They were good people, but we supported many good people and, to my shame, I paid them little heed since they gave me and my family no trouble.
Meritt’s husband Senmut died about the time I married. It happens often that physicians, who go about the sick, become sick themselves. Meritt and her three small children came to petition me on a day when I could barely sit up, a month or two along in my pregnancy and ready to die rather than attempt another meal. But still I insisted on holding women’s court if I did nothing else. I had duties, and I was sure the world would end if I didn’t keep to them.
“My children are hungry and our house needs repairs,” she said in her firm, quiet voice. “You have done so much for us, Great Lady, and your honored mother before you. But we must ask for ….”
She might have said more, but I wavered on my cushion. Petitioners do not approach the Amirah’s dais, but healers can do as they like. She took my pulse and handed her youngest to my handmaiden, then began to give orders. My handmaidens seemed relieved to obey them. My ears rang and the world furred in grey as I heard her say in a much less soft tone, “Bring cool water and mastich powder, vinegar and honey.”
If Fatimah was like a mother to me, Meritt was the savior of my life. My last healers had been fond of purges and amulets, both of them older women who were more than impatient with my complaints. In retrospect, I am sure I was a querulous, whining sort of patient. Meritt was gentler by far, and tried concoction after concoction until food was found that my body would take. She never blamed me, as the others had, for being difficult. She was never too busy to answer a question or attend to an unfamiliar twinge. Doubtless she felt sorry for me, but she never seemed impatient to leave. I would have given her and her family a house twice as big if she had let me, but Meritt wanted only to practice and to study, and to be free not to remarry if she so wished. “I had one good husband,” she said, “And I would rather wait to find another good one than take the first available man.”
Meritt is still the most intelligent woman I know, and I have known many. Added to this, she has the kind of brilliance that can be appreciated by the commonest field laborer or the wisest mage. Meritt would teach you things without even seeming to instruct, and I never felt lessened by her learning or her wisdom. When I felt stronger, I would invite her to take dinner with Fatimah and I, and we would talk late into the night on the garden roof terrace while her children ran their energy off in the courtyard below.
That day, when my arms shook and I was sure I’d drop my son on his head, she had mercy enough to hand him to his wetnurse and order my own aching chest bound flat. This was the done thing in that time and place, and I still think it best when a new mother is as spent as I was. I was tired, weak, and too upset to put a name to any of the thousand emotions pulling at me like a cloud of efreets. I did not have to rise from my childbed and tend to a helpless infant in such a state, and I don’t think I could have. I’m not sure how peasant women manage it. I suppose I shall be finding out soon enough.
I thrived once more as my shocked body became my own again. Food, long my hated enemy, again deigned to nourish me when taken. I wept like a mountain storm and sometimes I would forget I had a baby at all, so efficient was his nurse. But Meritt told me all was expected, and all would be well. My wrinkled raisin of a baby grew to look more like babies should, and his skin darkened in the dry season’s sun. I could hold him again by the time Abdul returned, and it was a strong, healthy young wife who laid the baby at his feet as he sprinted up the stairs, past the guards, and into our rooms.
Some men, I have heard, take their time looking over a new baby for imperfections or another man’s features. It happens rarely that a baby is rejected, but to do so is to divorce your wife, make enemies of her family, and publicly declare yourself cuckolded. Still, many men think it their duty to make a thorough inspection. Abdul barely let the baby touch the ground before he scooped the firm bundle up and declared, “A son! Behold, my son! He will be known as Amir, for he will be a leader of men, though his father is but a leader of caravans.”
I tried not to look at him oddly, for ‘Emir Amir’ sounded redundant to me. But his white smile nearly split his face in two, and I was so relieved to have something to call the baby that I didn’t feel like arguing. A little late, I gave the proper response. “Be welcome to our house, Amir ibn’Abdul, and may the blessings of your kin drive off the envy of efreets.”
I didn’t truly love my little Amir for a few months yet. I felt so odd saying ‘I have a son’ or ‘I am his mother.’ How could I be a mother? Mothers were older women who serenely knew best and managed to efficiently solve every difficulty. I was someone who had need of a mother! I could not also be one. I didn’t feel older, and I certainly didn’t feel serene. But Amir grew to favor his lost uncle Faisal, and his father’s smile was stamped onto his little round face. When I saw him, he was always clean and fed, and when he became fussy, he was whisked away. I wonder now if it would have made me feel better to have tried to soothe him myself, but I might have despaired had I failed. I was too young to take a baby’s temper as anything but rejection. But I grew to look forward to the evenings when I would see him, and Fatimah taught me songs that he liked to hear. When he first called me ‘Omi’, our word for ‘mother’, I began to believe that I was that person: she who had borne him, and she would always love him best.