As soon as my fuddled brain tasted the stale alcohol of the beer, the sirens began. They screamed one long note, which tore the silence of the night apart.
I sat still, head half-cocked, listening. As usual Dad’s pub was full to bursting with locals who had all been dancing and singing to high heavens, but somehow the air siren had broken through and silenced them.
They stood like statues before dashing out as fast as they could. Dad and I watched them go, before turning back to what we were doing, him cleaning the bar; me drinking my pint.
I had wanted to drown my sorrows and forget about death for tonight. But when I was still halfway through my pint, the door was unexpectedly wrenched open.
A woman came bursting in, breathless and red in the face, eyes searching wildly.
She was hunched over and under her robes I could make out a great lump on her back. ‘Please.’ She wheezed. ‘I need a midwife!’
Dad and I looked at each other. ‘Our Jen here is a midwife,’ he said, eventually.
‘Please.’ The old woman pulled at me with her claws, ‘You must come, my niece needs help.’
‘Now hang on Missus.’ Dad said raising his dirty paw. ‘Yeh can’t just take her out there.
‘No Dad, it’s fine.’
He still protested as we made it out of the pub. The old dear took me through the streets without so much as an upward glance at the sky, as if she isn’t aware of the approaching planes and their bombs.
It’s funny, I thought I knew these streets inside out, but as I followed her, we went through alleyways and side streets I didn’t recognise. Eventually, when I decided that I was completely lost when she stopped in front of a slum. Or at least I assumed it was a slum. The house was big enough to have once been owned by one of the swanks of the city. However, it looked so old now it was practically falling down. Boards were propping it up and when she pulled me inside, I could still hear even over the noise, the house creak deeply.
There were about a dozen of them in there. All women, all old and all hunched over with great lumps on their backs. They were all anxiously crowding around a woman lying in the middle of the room. Just one look at her and I knew she was in the advanced stages of labour, given how weakly she cried out and how red and sticky her face was. I paused in the doorway, marvelling how old she looked despite her condition.
One of the women yanked me over, and began to beg I help her. ‘It’s stuck!’ Another said, ‘we think it’s stuck!’
My brain was still muddled from the alcohol and the bazar situation. I started to slowly feel her swollen grey belly and then check her birth canal to see how much progress had been made.
While I was doing this, the mother began to groan and complain. ‘Another one! They’re coming again! I can’t lie here. Help, please unbound me! I need to be off my back!’
What happened next, I will never forget.
Two of the women pulled up the mother and began to unbind something on her back. At first, I heard only the gentlest of rustling, like a mouse nesting in straw. And then with a swoosh they were free. Two enormous pearl grey wings, which arched and swooped in the air before settling around the mother’s back. She groaned again, this time from relief.
I could only stare at the wings, completely dumb with wonder at them. I never knew, never thought, that something like this could ever exist.
One of the older women yelled at me to hurry. Another contraction was coming, and it was clear now the baby was indeed stuck. I began to search frantically for my pliers in my medical bag, however, when I tried to pull the baby out, I couldn’t get a purchase on the body. I had to use my hands. I pushed them inside her, searching blindly for a head. A slippery object met me, half in and half out of its mother. My fingers slipped twice but then, by some miracle, I got a hold of it and pulled it free.
The world was silent as I looked at the grey thing in my hands. An egg? One of the women snatched it from me and gave it to the mother, who laughed and cried as she held it. ‘Thank you, oh thank you.’ She breathed.
A cheer erupted in the room. The women laughed and danced and hugged me while I stood stunned, my eyes never leaving the egg.
We ought to have been listening. We should have heard the plane above us. We didn’t hear the bomb fall down on us, but I felt it when the ceiling fell in, only just realising what had happened as ancient bricks and plaster rained down on us.
I don’t know how I was able to wake up but somehow, I did. I blinked the dust away from my eyes as I sat up. The house was gone, flattened by the bomb. I sat up weakly, scattering bricks and, I realised sickeningly, body parts of the women too, including their beautiful wings.
I stood up and at once became aware of the noise. A gargled kind of shriek. I pulled myself over and found the egg. The shell had cracked from the impact so that I could see in the grey dawn light the baby within.
It wailed at me, like every other baby I had helped bring into the world.
I reached over and held it in my arms. I picked a fragment of shell from its cheek before slowly looking up at the sky.
Not many stories have tenderness, heart—and you wouldn’t expect to see this in a flash about a winged woman giving birth to an egg, But it’s there—in the chaos of war. And the descriptions are dazzling, focusing on transforming the “other” into something beautiful and mythic, in something worth saving.jj Peña
Great imagery and I loved the haunting atmosphere, a sense of unease. Loved how all the events unfolded to the unexpected ending.Susmita Bhattacharya