By Herick Aeno
Award for Short Stories
Dedicated to the hundreds of village birth attendants throughout Papua New Guinea. You are some of Papua New Guinea’s forgotten heroes.
Night crept into the jungle. The tall trees silhouetted like guarding giants against the clear starry skies. The jungle shrubs rustled with the soft wind mingle with the chirping of the late birds and the rise of the night sounds. The nearby river flowed silently with occasional splashes from the creatures within. The tide had changed and the brown waters were slowly creeping back towards a cluster of huts and houses on the bank of the river.
The firelights from the Sago thatched house in the village flickered wildly as if excited of night. Families settled in their homes waiting for dinner. The last of the playing children laughing and shouting ran home. The remaining canoes came from the river pulled into the village muddy waterfront. It was a typical end of a day for these river people. As nightfall descended onto this village, a peaceful and content evening seemed to be looming. Yet, at the furthest end of the village, the dark figure of a man pushed a long slim canoe silently into the river. Those who didn’t know better would assume him going off on a night fishing trip.
Two dark shadow were sitting quietly inside the canoe. One woman who was covering herself with a laplap and another woman sitting behind her. The man got in the boat and starts paddling. He didn’t say anything, yet there was urgency in his powerful and rhythmic pushes against the dark water with his broad paddle. The slim canoe slid smoothly and quickly through the calm waters.
After a while, the man turned the canoe towards the shore. He got out, waded through the deep mud and pulled the canoe to firmer ground. He came to the laplap covered woman and she held on to him for support, slowly stood up and stepped out of the canoe. The second woman gathered a few things from the canoe, then took the other woman’s hands and they waddled together through the deep mud and dissolved into the jungle with only a battery-operated torch guiding their narrow path. The man in the canoe lit up his tobacco roll and smoked silently in the darkness.
The women slowly walked on through the thick shrubs and the root covered soft ground. A short while on, the one covered with laplap came to a halt and shook her head slowly indicating that she couldn’t continue on. With gentle understanding, the other woman shone the torch around them and cut through the bush, slicing off some large leaves, and hurriedly laid them on the soft moist ground.
She took the laplap off other woman and put it on top of the leaves on the ground. She then helped the other woman who was now in great distress to lay down on the leaves to prepare for childbirth. She continued to cut off the shrub around them and gather the leaves to put on the ground. She got some dry twigs together and made a fire in a small clearing close to them. As the fire grew, she kept on watching the pregnant one.
As the minutes turned to an hour, the clear night skies suddenly became dark. The clear night allowed the stars to glow, but now low rain clouds moved across the night sky, throwing the jungle into a sullen darkness. The wind had stopped and the humidity rose gradually. The buzz of mosquitoes around them became constant despite the fire. A few drops of rain tumbled down followed by a flash of lightning signalled the arrival of a thunderstorm.
The woman in labour pushed herself under the cover of the trees. The other woman quickly moved the crude covering on the ground under a cluster of leafy plants. The rain drops increased into a steady pour quickly filling up the uneven jungle ground with water puddles that started flowing in small pathways of flowing water. The fire had now been extinguished by the rain throwing the small clearing into pitch darkness.
The helping woman quickly switched on the battery operated torch and shone its light on the expectant mother, who was now soaked and shivering. A shout by the man a few meters away caused the woman to scurry quickly to him and she returned with an old canvas and quickly spread it over the broad leafy shrub as a cover.
As if signalled by the sudden change of the weather, the pregnant woman started breathing nosily and told her helper that she was ready. Knowingly, the other woman quickly knelt down in the mud and pushed her gently to lay on her back in the wet bed of leaves. As the rain picked up intensity, flashes of lighting struck across ugly, dark sky and thunder roared as if screaming at the rain to be considerate of the event unfolding. The pregnant woman was now in full labour and her drenched helper struggled to maintain intense concentration as the rain and salty sweat streamed down her face stinging her eyes.
The muddy water flows on the jungle floor had now become small streams carrying smaller vegetation and creatures with them. The watery ground has become ground for small frogs who had come out in numbers and seemed to be everywhere. Yet the birth assistant was oblivious and pushed on through the heavy rain.
Eventually, she rose up, straightened her back with a tiny, still bundle in her hands. She quickly did something and the bundle whimpered and then gave out a tiny cry amidst roaring storm. A sound so soothing that made everything else seem dreamlike. She quickly wrapped the baby in an already soaked piece of cloth then gave the baby back to the mother and finished her remaining duties towards baby’s mother. The forest floor has become a mud pool and there was no way they will remain there. She got the baby from the mother, gathered their belongings and with her other hand, she pulled the mother up.
Supporting her, they struggled slowly back to the canoe. The river had now become a furious force sweeping the jungle foliage with it. The man had pulled the canoe further away from the raging river and on to secure grounds and also had put up a better shelter on the canoe.
Both women with the baby settled in the canoe shelter and got a dry piece of cloth clean the tiny baby girl. The happy father ignored the rain and moved around to make sure her infant daughter was dry and warm. The mother hugged her child closely in contentment and welcomed her to breast feed for the first time. The village birth attendant’s weary and gentle face beamed with satisfaction as she once more helped bring forth a new life in this forgotten place.
As the rain and flood continued, the small group remained patiently in the middle of the huge rainforest and waited for the storm to end and the river to settle so they could head home and present the child to her new family.