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Fires in the Dark
Summer in Bohemia: high summer. The sun is furious, the sky a vast dome of bright and solid blue broken only by a few wisps of high, motionless cloud. It is 1927, July -- the middle of the day.
The heat has deadened everything. No trace of breeze stirs in the grass, the trees are still. The cows can hardly lift their heads, so accustomed are they to indolence. Flies hang lazily over patches of dung already baked unyielding black. Daisies droop. Only the skylarks are in motion, ascending and plummeting with pointless enthusiasm.
At first glance, this small corner of the world seems uninhabited. The buildings at the edge of the field are disused. There is a tiny stone cottage which looks sound enough but the barn next to it is in ruins, sagging beneath the weight of its own dereliction. It is the sort of old barn which you would pass by and not even register.
Perfect for Gypsies.
Six women are inside -- five of them crouching around the sixth who lies supine on the hard earth floor. A birthing sheet has been laid beneath her and two women sit either side of it waving inefficient fans made from twigs and straw. The woman wears only a loose chemise -- the others have undressed her, folded her three-layered skirts and hastily unplaited her braids to allow the gold coins trapped in her stiff, oiled hair to drop loose. The coins have been gathered and, along with her elaborate jewellery and money belt, placed outside the barn. They must not become marimé -- Unclean. Divested of her finery, how vulnerable the woman seems. Two of the women are supporting her at her shoulders, raising her when she flaps a hand upwards to indicate her position is uncomfortable. For the moment, she is pausing between contractions to close her eyes and pant gently. She has not yet reached the wild time, when she will move into a crouching position and lose all awareness of the processes of breathing.
The remaining woman squats between the labouring woman's legs, observing the blossoming of her vagina. She thinks it will be some time yet.
The boy will be called Emil. His mother is Anna Maximoff, a tall woman famed for her good looks, breeding and pride. She is also considered insightful but as she is currently giving birth to her first child she is temporarily deprived of the ability to see further than the next contraction.
Her cousin Tekla -- the woman examining her -- predicts that Anna is not nearly open enough for the pushing to begin and that a lengthy battle lies ahead.
Little Emil has other ideas.
The men of the kumpánia have been sent to find the nearest village or, if they cannot locate it, otherwise occupy themselves. The group was on its way to Kladno when Anna's time came early. They were hoping to reach the sour-cherry orchards on the westerly outskirts, Ctibor Michálek's orchards.
No man will be allowed near Anna for two weeks after the birth, while she is still marimé. She will not be permitted to wash or cook or perform any duties which might contaminate them. Instead, she will be tended by Tekla while she lies in the barn, feeds the child, sleeps and dreams of his future. When they are alone together, she will whisper his real name into his ear.
Tekla allows herself a small smile at her memory of the look on Josef's face as she ushered him away with the other men. Josef is her cousin and Anna's husband, famous for bursting into tears when his wife was stung by a bee at their wedding feast, while the assembled guests flung their arms up and burst out laughing, declaring that a bee-sting was good luck, the next best thing to bird shit.
For a moment, Tekla remains lost in this memory and has time to note that it -- still -- causes her pain. Then Anna lets out a strange, meandering howl, arching her back, as if the curve of noise is raising her body from the floor. Tekla looks up in surprise. She sits up and commands the other women to lift Anna and turn her, the sharpness in her voice obscuring her alarm.
Tekla has dealt with sixteen births and never yet had to cut a baby loose of its mother. The thought makes the back of her neck prickle. She has a knife ready, as she does each time, cleansed in the fire that morning before they left the forest camp and wrapped tightly in clean cloth to keep it uncontaminated. It is hidden in the pocket of her apron. When she bends over, she can feel it resting across the top of her thighs. The cloth might be difficult to unwind in a hurry.
The women supporting Anna look to Tekla for instruction. Boz'ena and Dunicha have borne five children between them. They know enough to sense that something is amiss. Boz'ena is fond of contradicting Tekla but even she looks at her appealingly now.
Tekla does not trust herself to speak again, fearing the tone of her voice might convey alarm to Anna. She gestures with both hands, palms upwards. Boz'ena and Dunicha lift Anna from her crouching position with one arm each over the nearest shoulder. They brace themselves to take her weight -- she will push down towards the ground so that the powers of the Earth will help to pull the baby out. The women with the fans, Ludmila and Eva, instinctively increase the intensity of their flapping, as if the air they generate might wash away Anna's pain. All four have their gazes concentrated, breathing in time. Anna's face, normally clear and calm, is bathed in sweat. Her eyes stare wildly around, from one woman to the next, as if she is accusing each of them in turn of being her torturer ...Fires in the Dark
A Novel. Copyright © by Louise Doughty. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.