~ 1 ~
I was almost born Happy.
Literally, Feliz was the Spanish name my mother wanted for me. Not a family name, not a local name, just a hope, stated in the farthest-reaching language she knew—a language that once reached around the world, to the Netherlands, Africa, the Americas, the Philippines. Only music has reached farther and penetrated more deeply.
I say “almost born Feliz,” because the name that attached itself to me instead, thanks to a sloppy bureaucrat’s bias toward Catalan saints’ names, was Feliu. Just one letter changed on my death—yes, death—certificate.
My father was overseas that year, working as a customs officer in colonial Cuba. The afternoon my mother’s labor pains started, my father’s elder sister changed into a better dress, for church. Mamá bent over a chair near the kitchen doorway, legs splayed, ankles turned inward, as the weight of my dropping body pulled her pelvis to the floor. While she begged Tía not to go, Mamá’s knuckles whitened against the chair’s straw-plaited back.
“I will light candles for you,” Tía said.
“I don’t need prayers. I need—” My mother moaned, angling her hips from side to side, trying to find a position where the pain eased. Cool water? A chamber pot? “. . . help,” was all she could say.
“I’ll send Enrique to get the midwife.” Tía pushed the ebony combs into her thick masses of gray-streaked hair. “No, I’ll go myself, on the way. Where’s Percival?”
My oldest brother had slipped outside minutes earlier, bound for the bridge and the dry wash beneath it, along which the local shepherds drove their flocks. He and his friends hid there frequently, playing cards amid orange peels and broken barrel staves that reeked of vinegar.
Percival was old enough to remember the previous disasters in sharp detail, and he didn’t want to witness another. Mamá’s last baby had died within minutes of birth. The one before had survived only a few days, while my mother herself hovered near death, racked with infection-induced fever. In Campo Seco, she was not the only unlucky one.
My mother blamed the midwife who had moved to the village four years earlier, accompanied by her husband, a butcher.
“They don’t wash their hands,” Mamá panted. “Last time, I saw the forceps she used. Broken at the hinge. Flakes”—she squirmed and jammed the heel of her palm into her back—“flakes of rust.”
“Ridiculous!” Tía drew the lace mantilla over her head. “You are worrying for nothing. You should pray, instead.”
My two other siblings, Enrique and Luisa, remained stoic in the face of my mother’s barnyard moans, the slick of straw-colored amniotic fluid on the floor, which five-year-old Luisa wiped away; the bloody smears on the wet towels, which seven-year-old Enrique wrung and dipped in a wide porcelain bowl. By the third dip, the blue flowers on the bowl’s painted bottom disappeared, obscured beneath a smoky layer of pink water.
Thirty minutes after Tía departed, the midwife arrived. Mamá panted and strained from her marriage bed, pushing with all her strength while she struggled to keep her eyes open. She scrutinized the dirt crescents beneath the midwife’s fingernails. She twisted her neck to follow every step the midwife took, to catch fleeting glimpses of the tools displayed on a square of calico covering the bedside table, and the coil of gray cotton string that brought to mind the butcher’s leaky, net-covered roasts. When the midwife’s hands came near, Mamá tried to close her knees, to shield me from ill fortune. But the urge to push could not be stopped. I was coming.
And then—just as suddenly—I stopped coming. What had once moved too quickly stopped moving at all. Mamá’s belly rippled and bulged a final time, then hardened into one long, unceasing contraction. Her jaw went slack. A blue vein bulged at her temple. Enrique, lingering in the open doorway, tried not to look between her legs, where the combination of taut, pearly flesh and wet hair made him think of washed-up jellyfish, collapsed against the weedy shore. The midwife caught him looking and snapped the sheet back into place, over Mamá’s legs and high, round abdomen. That gesture hid one disturbing view, but it only drew more attention to what remained visible: my mother’s red face, beaded with sweat and contorted with pain.
“Here,” Mamá would say later, in recounting the story of my birth, “is where you decided to rebel. Whenever someone pushes you too hard, you do the opposite.”
Actually, I was stuck: feet twisted up toward my neck, rear facing the only exit. A living churro tied into a bow.
The midwife grunted as her hands pushed, prodded, and massaged beneath the loosely tented sheet, a question darkening her face. Forgetting Enrique, she tore away the sheet and whimpered at the sight of a small purple scrotum appearing at the spot where a crowning head should have been. She watched that spot for ten minutes, twisting the cloth of her apron with red fingers. Then she panicked. Ignoring Enrique’s incredulous, upturned face and Luisa’s round eyes, she pushed past them both and down the stairs, missing the bottom step entirely.
The midwife had left to fetch her husband, who was two blocks away, wiping his own stained hands. She could have sent my brother or called from the balcony to one of our neighbor’s fleet-footed children. But she wasn’t a bright woman. And she knew that a third infant death in one family would invite costly gossip. Already, she could envision the sea of dark shawls that would greet her from this day forward—the back of every neighbor woman’s averted head and rounded shoulders, snubbing her if I died, and my mother with me.
Left unassisted, my mother summoned her resolve and tried to breathe more deeply. She felt safer with the midwife gone, ready to accept whatever happened. She asked Luisa to retrieve a bottle from the cellar and to hold it to her lips, though nausea allowed her to drink only a little. She called Enrique to come and take the forceps, to dip and scrub them in a bowl of the hottest water, to be ready.
“They don’t open very well,” he said, struggling with the oval-shaped handles. They were fashioned from twisted iron and padded with small piece...