Sometimes they both die. The babies are the worst, as they slide, greased with blood, through her waiting hands straight into the grave. The midwife, who is barren, mourns them all.
Snow settles like a curse. The child is condemned even before that first icy finger of breath scrapes its soft new lungs. The midwife swaddles the child; soon hunger will make it drizzle cries into the chilling air. Even now, the mother’s hours and days are slipping from the hovel.
The child is a girl. The midwife watches the father climb the path, holding the bundle. He will leave it where they are all left, on the ridge. The icy air claims them as its own; they freeze hard as stone on beds of silver frosted leaves.
How long will he climb? The midwife is close to giving up when he stops by a hollow at the base of an old tree. By the time she reaches home she hardly dares unwrap it. The eyes are closed, under thin, blue-veined lids. She fetches the wet nurse, a village girl, fifteen and unmarried, delivered three days before of a twoheaded creature, already dead. The midwife takes the girl’s breast, squeezes it, ignoring her aggrieved cry, and wipes the plug of the nipple across the baby’s mouth. Is there a tremor in the thin, liver-coloured lips? She squeezes out another drop. The infant takes a tentative suck, shapes its mouth round the cone of teat, opens its dreamy eyes.
The baby fattens like butter. She has blue eyes, a tuft of dark hair, a heart-shaped face. The wet nurse feeds her, yet it is the midwife she follows with her eyes, it is the midwife she opens and clutches her hands to.
She tells her husband there had been a knocking at the door. At first, she thought it was a branch, or an animal, or even the wind. But something made her go and push the door open against the new layer of snow, and there it lay on the doorstep, swaddled in blankets. One day she will even believe it herself. The child loves the story, wants to hear it again and again.
‘Maybe I cried?’
‘No, you were too cold to cry.’
The child is sweet natured, but turns stubborn in winter, for this child does not feel the cold. Over the soft white ground she goes, skipping and jumping, flinging off the midwife’s tender wrappings, the bobble hats and fur-collared coats, the gloves, muffs and hand-knitted scarves, each and every one of them abandoned to the snow.