Birth is Much But Breeding is More
Anna was easing herself out of the blue brocaded high-back chair when her water broke. “Sweet Jesus,” she cried in a half-whisper, falling back into the cushions and staring down in disbelief as she watched the pale green of her gown darken.
Her pulse quickened with panic and a flushed heat ran like a river through her veins. Labor would start at any moment. What to do?
Her hands went to her unbraided hair, her fingers frenetically pulling and tugging at the long chestnut brown strands, her mind insensate to the pain. It was a habit that dated to childhood and one that she employed at moments of intense unease or pain, a habit dormant for years, until now.
She fought off fear and willed herself calm. The experience of birth was not new to her—she had already borne three children. But this was the first time she would give birth away from home, away from experienced women, away from a capable midwife.
How could this be? She had thought the half-day carriage ride from the Sochaczew estate to Warsaw to be safe, short, and smooth enough for a woman eight months pregnant. Now she became convinced her judgment was flawed. Had it been the bumps and lurches the carriage and she had weathered? There was no counting the holes and ruts left in the unmended roads as tokens of a government usurped by foreigners. Damn the Russians! Or—was she closer to full term than she had supposed? These were moot questions now and she would spare them no time. For the safety of the baby’s delivery, she took a moment to catch her breath and to pray. Early babies meant complications. Early babies often meant . . .
“Anna! What is it?”
The voice drew her back. Jan stood at the entrance to the reception room of the town home, his handsome face paling as his blue eyes moved from her face to the wet folds of her gown.
Anna swallowed hard. “It’s time, Jan. It’s time.” She managed a smile.
“Oh, my God,” he mumbled.
Anna watched her husband—a Polish lancer who had fought Prussians, Austrians, and Russians, a man who had endured capture by Cossacks, a man who had sustained sword and bullet wounds—stand mute and motionless at the sight of a woman about to birth.
At last he moved slowly toward her. “Oh, Anna,” he breathed, “what are we to do?”
Anna knew her own sense of composure was all important now. She contrived a little laugh. “Do? It’s a safe wager we won’t get back to Sochaczew. The path is set, husband.”
He sat on the edge of the chair at the bedside and took her hand in his. “You said you had time. You said the journey— ”
Anna put a finger to his lips. Her laugh this time was gently mocking. “And you have never been wrong in your life, Jan Stelnicki?”
“Not in such matters,” he said.
“To be certain. Such matters are not men’s matters.” Anna took the measure of her husband’s knitted brow beneath the silvering blond hair. “Now, we must both be calm. We will weather this. . . . Where’s Zofia?”
Jan shrugged. “She went out earlier. By the look of your cousin’s attire and the scent of her French perfume, she’ll not return home any time soon.”
“Mary, Help of Christians!” Anna blurted. She took a breath then, fending off the return of her own panic. “You’ll have to find someone here in the capital, Jan. Someone who can deliver our child. The servants are scarcely more than children themselves. Zofia herself would have been worthless, but she would have known of someone.”
His eyes widened. “Find someone? Who, Anna? Where?”
“That is for you to determine, Major Stelnicki. Surely all the doctors didn’t follow Napoleon. And if they did, one or two must have survived the Moscow retreat. Go, now. Soldiers are good at foraging. Their lives depend upon it. You told me so yourself. Now go forage me a midwife at the least.” Anna’s hand moved to the contour of her belly. “This life depends upon it.”
Jan stood. “We should get you to bed first.”
“No, the girls here can tend to that much.” Anna pulled the rope that would ring the bell in the kitchen. “You must go now. Hurry! Unless you wish to play doctor yourself.”
Jan’s chiseled face bled to white, a stark contrast to the cobalt eyes and dark blue of his short, tailored coat. He bent to kiss her on the cheek and rushed from the room, nearly colliding in the doorway with the young servant girl, Jolanta.
* * *
Anna had been unable to take more than one flight of stairs, and so had been placed in Zofia’s bedchamber on the first level. Oblivious to the luxuriousness of the huge bed, its crimson hangings and down-stuffed mattress and pillows, she lay staring at the ceiling. She was alone when the pains took on an increasing regularity, just an hour after Jan had left the townhome.
Coming to Warsaw had been a gamble, one she had lost. That much was clear. She had wanted to attend the funeral of Anusia Potocka’s mother. Anusia had been a good and dear friend to her in the old days, and despite Jan’s cautions, Anna was not to be kept away. Of course, as it turned out he had been right to urge prudence. However, Anna was thankful for the small blessing that before embarking on his search for a doctor or midwife, Jan had not chided her for her stubbornness. His fears for her and for their child prevailed.
She had been foolish to attempt the journey and could only blame herself. There was nothing left to do now but pray. For someone to help. For a safe delivery. For a healthy baby.
And for a girl. She would offer up no more boys to war. She had lost one to the war machine. Dear, sweet Tadeusz, lost on the death march from Moscow. Yes, she would have a girl, a sister for Jan Michał and Barbara. It must be a girl!
The pains were sharper now and becoming more frequent. Where was Jan? Why hadn’t he returned?
Jan. Her love for him had not diminished over time despite the fact that the military had taken him away for more years than he had spent with her.
Their marriage had not been what she had imagined, what she had expected. And yet she did not begrudge him his years with Kościuszko or his time with Napoleon. They were years spent for Poland. Always for Poland. On that they had held the same dream, one first given life by Tadeusz Kościuszko, a dream that they would keep an independent Poland. And when it was lost, how they had hoped that with Napoleon they would regain it. While his promise to restore freedom to Poland had been more implicit than explicit, the majority of the country had bought his bill of goods. What was it the little corporal called himself? A dealer in hope, that was it. Well, he had been that. He had given them hope and taken so many thousands of young men to their deaths on the steppes of Russia, moving toward Moscow, and then away—in winter.
A pain tore through her like a gutting knife, and she called out to be attended.
This would be her last child. Somehow she knew that. And it would be a girl. No more sacrificial boys, no matter how worthy the cause. The independent Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania had vanished. Might it ever be pieced back together in her lifetime? Not likely.
Looking back even further was no easy thing. By seventeen she had lost her parents and infant brother, all untimely deaths.
But she had her own family now. She had that, no little thing. What was it Aunt Stella had said about family? The words came back to her now: Before there are nations, there are families.
Anna pulled the bell rope near the bed. Where were those girls? And Jan—what in God’s name was keeping him?
The pains seemed somehow different this time. What was it? Were they coming quicker? Sharper? More intense?
Until now she had been blessed in giving birth. Not so her mother, who had had notions of filling the house with sons after Anna’s birth. Anna had always sensed that her own birth—the birth of a daughter—had been a disappointment to her mother. There was aloofness in her mother’s demeanor toward her, a coldness even, one that contrasted sharply with the sun-kissed love emanating from her father. Countess Teresa Berezowska steadfastly pursued her goal of bearing myriad sons, and there were multiple pregnancies, too, but only one that came to term. Anna closed her eyes, the thought of her infant brother bringing on the blur of tragedies that took him and her parents from her.
Anna pulled herself up against the goose down pillows. She would weather this, she told herself. She would have her family. Poland would go on, with or without its title or borders, with or without her. She would have her Jan and her children, all but one.
The door opened. Wanda and Jolanta crept in like mice. “Madame?” Jolanta asked, crossing half way to the bed. Wanda hung back near the door.
Anna cradled her belly with her hands. “My time is close. Is there no sign of my husband?”
Jolanta shook her head.
“Have you tended a birthing before?”
“No, Madame,” Jolanta said. She addressed Anna in the French fashion in which Zofia had coached her, but these were not the sophisticated French maids Zofia had employed in the years before the nation’s dissolution. These were country girls, no more than thirteen or fourteen, wide-eyed, fidgeting, and fully frightened at the prospect of delivering a child.
“Well, you are about to manage your first. Come here. Wanda, come away from the door. You will both earn your wages today and see life brought into the world.”
Anna gave them their orders now, telling them exactly what would be needed. She spoke in plain terms and without visible panic. She had to keep her head if they were to keep theirs.
They scurried from the room then, still like frightened mice, but mice on a mission.
“Oh, Lutisha,” Anna said aloud, “if only you were here.” The old and trusted servant had already claimed her eternal reward for a simple life lived well. She had seen Anna through her three previous births, starting with that of Jan Michał, a child born out of rape. But she would not be here this time, with her large, capable hands. Dear, superstitious Lutisha! She would not be here to tie around the infant’s wrist a little piece of red yarn to ward away the evil eye.
What seemed a long while passed.
“Wanda!” Anna called out. “Jolanta! Do hurry!”
Anna pushed the pillows out from under her head, shoving them down to lend support to her legs.
Anna called again. This baby was not to be put off.
Just then she heard a commotion on the stairs. The girls had left open the bedchamber door. A man’s voice now. Jan’s? Yes, she became certain that it was indeed his and her heart lifted. Then came the high-pitched panic of the mice in return. And now a fourth voice, mature and masculine, but strange and gravel-like. A man’s voice, surely.
“Anna!” Jan came rushing into the room. “I’ve brought help.”
“In the kitchen with the girls.”
“Thank God. A doctor. Oh, thank God.”
‘Not a doctor, dearest. None to be found.”
“No? A midwife, then?”
Jan came to the side of the bed. He took Anna’s hand. “Well, yes, she says she has assisted.”
“What do you mean— ” Anna stopped mid-sentence, her eyes widening as the door opened.
A woman clad in a gray and grimy dress came into the room then, hissing in a husky sort of way and prodding ahead of her the maids with their burdens. She was short of stature but large in presence. “You,” she told Jolanta, “put the ewer on that table. And you,” she said nodding to Wanda, “put the pan and towels there, too. Then wait outside the door until I call for you both. Stay at hand, do you hear?”
Anna thought the puzzlement on the maids’ faces as they left could only be mirrors to her own.
“Now, let’s have a look at you,” the woman said, adjusting the red kerchief that covered thin, graying hair. She approached the side of the bed.
Jan, who had been shifting from one foot to the other, had to drop Anna’s hand and step back to allow the woman access. “This is Mira, Anna.” And then to the woman: “This is the Lady Stelnicka.”
The woman said nothing.
Anna looked up at the dark and serious face coming near her, the hooded eyes like ebony stones above a sharp nose peering down at her as if she were a curiosity. Her hand went to Anna’s forehead. “You . . . you have experience?” Anna asked.
“You need not worry, milady,” the woman said, her tone anything but deferential. “How long have the pains been coming?”
It was the first of several questions, and as Anna answered them she tried to decipher the look on Jan’s face. He no doubt felt the awkwardness of a man caught up in women’s business, but she sensed he was closely watching her reactions, too, as if to determine whether the results of his quest met with her approval.
Anna’s dizzying thoughts for a short while superseded the pains. A gypsy! He had brought a gypsy into the house to birth their child. Oh, she had nothing against gypsies—on feast days she had never failed to send food to the little colony that collected at the cemetery—but were there no doctors, no mid-wives in all of Warsaw? How had Jan come upon her—this Mira? Did she truly have experience or had she seen in Jan’s desperation her own fortune? A way to gain entrance to a noble’s home? A noble’s munificence?
But there was no time for further thought. Anna, her face bleeding perspiration, became consumed with the ever-increasing pains, and her body unwillingly writhed now as if below a hot spring were building, as if the greatest hurt of her life were imminent. Had she forgotten her other pregnancies, the price of motherhood? No, she had not. This time was different, she was certain, more difficult than before, more difficult than she could have imagined. And more dangerous.
What was the woman doing now? The activity around her played like a visual and auditory blur. Moment by moment the effort siphoned her strength, leaving a mist of confusion and weakness.
Her mind snapped to attention then as she heard the gypsy dismissing Jan from the room. No! she wanted to call out but found no reservoir of energy to manage a sound. Suddenly she felt his hand holding hers, squeezing it tightly, as if to transfer hope into it.
Before her eyes could focus, before she could even return the pressure, she heard Mira’s sharp and mannish voice again, driving Jan from the room and calling in the servant girls. Now came the sound of his boot heels retreating over the wooden floor. Anna lifted her hand—the hand he had held—to her lips, praying she would see Jan again, bask again in the cobalt blue of his eyes.
She heard Jolanta and Wanda come in, heard their gasps at the sight of her. Jan’s departure crushed her calm. Fear ratcheted upward. Would she survive this? Would the child survive?
The woman drew aside the sheet and lifted Anna’s gown. Anna felt her legs pushed toward her and apart, knees toward the ceiling. The woman’s roughened hands moved over Anna’s belly and below.
A minute later she felt a tug beneath her left arm. “You will sit back against the headboard,” the woman said, instructing Jolanta to help in the lifting from the other side.
“No!” Anna fought against the two. She had never heard of such a thing. But she was no match for the strength of the two at either side. Pain ripped through her as they pulled her as if tugging at a sack of grain.
“Is good. Is good for the delivery.” The woman shoved a pillow behind Anna’s back. “I birthed three sons with my back against a tree. Is good.”
The woman’s recollection had no effect on Anna, who tried to stifle her screams as the contractions came, the attempts sometimes failing. The scalding spring below was moving now. The baby was coming. Did this woman know what she was doing? If only Lutisha were here. She would console her, reassure her, give her something to hold on to.
Something to hold on to . . . Anna began to mutter. Mira ignored her at first, but as Anna persisted, the woman asked Wanda what it was she was mumbling. When the maid leaned close to Anna’s mouth, Anna managed to whisper, “My rosary, Wanda, please, my rosary. Upstairs.”
The girl relayed the message to Mira and—God bless her!—hurried from the chamber without waiting for the woman’s approval.
Time and pain seemed to draw Anna into some dark and fearsome labyrinth. The gypsy plied her with a foul-tasting herbal brew. The room swam about her. Anna attempted to lie down but was held firmly in place against the oak headboard.
“Listen to me!” The woman grasped Anna’s upper shoulders, her fingers pinching like pincers. “The baby will come easier this way.”
The pain had reached its zenith when she felt someone take her hand.
“Here it is, Lady Anna,” Wanda whispered. “Your rosary.”
Anna felt the beads in her hand, fingered them. Managing to lift her hand, she peered at them through wet-stained eyes. These were not her usual coral beads. These were amber beads from Lithuania, sent back to her—in the care of Michał—from a dying Tadeusz. A final gift from her son—hers and Jan’s.
Later, she would be tempted to tell Jan that the spirit of their son filled the room at that moment, that the pain drained away, as did uncertainty. Strength seeped back into her body, and she knew everything would be all right. Tadek is here, she would remember thinking. Tadek is here.
And yet what seemed like hours passed—and with it, hope—the contractions and wrenching pain continuing in rises and cadences without end. Her confidence and strength all but gone, Anna became convinced she would not survive and could only pray that her little daughter would.
“The head is coming,” the gypsy said, matter-of-factly, as if to say someone is at the door. “Push!” she barked. “Lean forward! Push now!”
Anna obeyed. The pain heightened. Anna called out as she was urged to push yet again. She closed her eyes against the hurt, but the salvo of white heat invaded her entire being, body and mind. She screamed like a hag on All Hallows.
“It is here,” the woman said.
The pain suddenly ebbed and Anna fell back against the headboard, her head striking it, her heart thumping crazily. She closed her eyes against the spinning of the room, listening for the sound of the baby that had been taken from her.
The room had gone silent. Neither the servant girls nor the gypsy offered a word.
Something was wrong. Her daughter had not survived. Was it stillborn, like several of her mother’s babes?
A coldness, like a hand made of ice, clutched her heart and she was about to call out when the noise came. The baby was being slapped. Hard. Once, then a second time.
Then, loud and lusty, a cry from the little lungs filled the room.
“Listen to its strong cry,” the gypsy announced. “It is the cry of a strong boy.”
With slaps like that, Anna wanted to say, any baby would let go a great wail. Instead, she asked for her baby. The insufferable woman was wrong, she told herself. It could not be a boy. She was certain.
“In good time,” Mira said. “In good time. You both need to be tended to first.” Mira worked at tending Anna while Wanda and Jolanta, bubbling with youthful wonder, bathed the baby in the porcelain wash basin.
Then, when Anna finally held the naked little creature in the crux of her arm, she had to face the truth. It was indeed a boy and the fears of bringing another boy into the world resurfaced. Tears formed at once, blurring and stinging her eyes.
Lutisha would have consoled her, would have wiped away her trepidation with the tears. The bleary gray figure hovering over her did neither.
Jan entered the chamber now, smiling despite his fragile state of nerves. His smile soured quickly when he saw her expression. “What is it, Anna? The baby—is— ?”
“The baby is fine, milord,” Mira said. “Is a fine boy.”
“Then what is it?” Jan pressed. “Anna?”
Anna held back her tears, but she could not reply.
“The mother is fine,” Mira blurted. “Sometimes it is this way with the mother. After the birth.” She was washing her hands in preparation to leave. “It will pass.”
Had she washed her hands before tending her? Anna wondered. She could not recall.
Where were the emotional and physical relief and the joy that had come with the three previous births? Would this darkness pass? Turning her head to the wall, she listened to the final exchange between her husband and the midwife, the tinkling sounds of coins being passed along with whispered words, and then the door’s closing behind the woman.
“Now, what’s wrong, Anna?” Jan came and sat at her bedside. “Mira says the baby is healthy.”
Anna turned toward him, simultaneously cradling the baby tightly against her side. “I won’t have it,” she spat out. “I won’t!”
“What, Anna? What?”
Jolanta and Wanda were gathering things together. Anna waited for them to leave the bedchamber, then said, “I won’t lose another son to the military. I won’t!”
“Ah! Is that it?” he soothed. “Such a worry. He is but a baby, Anna.”
“Yes, and so was Tadeusz! Dear sweet Tadek, left frozen now on the tundra in Napoleon’s wake. You must promise me, Jan. You must. Poland or no Poland—I will not lose another!”
“Very well. I will offer no encouragement.”
“No, Jan, if necessary you will prevent him. You know as well as I that children are what you make them. It’s more than just a saying.”
Jan smiled down at her, a bit solicitously she thought. For a moment she was tempted to tell him about Tadek’s rosary and the little miracle it had worked, but he was kneeling at the bedside now, taken up with the pink little bundle that was their son. And he might, she thought, think it merely a woman’s silly notion.
“Mira didn’t do so badly by you, I see,” he said.
Anna nodded, wordlessly conceding agreement. “But she doesn’t have Lutisha’s loving manner, I can tell you that.”
“Still, she managed everything just as efficiently?”
Anna seized on one difference: “Everything but the little red yarn Lutisha would have tied about his wrist to ward off the evil eye.”
“What’s this, then?” Jan asked, lifting the baby’s little leg to reveal a red string tied at the ankle.
Anna gave a half-smile, but the amazement faded quickly. She took and held her husband’s gaze with her own. “Jan, what did that woman say to you just now?”
Jan’s smile seemed to go false. “Why, she—she merely named her price.”
“There was more said than that.”
“A bit of bargaining, that’s all.”
Anna knew this was untrue. She was certain her husband would never bargain for the birth of his son. “You are a poor liar, Jan. We have kept secrets from one another in the past, but we’ve not lied to one another—or am I mistaken?”
“No, Anna, you are not mistaken.”
“Then I ask you again: What did the gypsy say to you?”
Jan swallowed hard and took good time to divest himself of the words. “She said, ‘The boy will one day bait the Russian bear’.”
Anna sank back into her pillows. Even as her eyes grew large, they lost focus. Jan and the details of her surroundings blurred, receded. Her heart began to race. She immediately thought of how, upon the very day of the late King Stanisław’s birth, an astrologer announced to a disbelieving Poniatowski family with no claim to the throne: “Hail to you, Your Majesty, King of Poland!” Some thirty-two years later, aided by his lover Empress Catherine and her Russian troops, the astrologer’s prediction was vindicated when Stanisław Poniatowski was elected King of Poland.
Many believed it was no story, no legend. Anna herself believed there was truth in such augury. After all, a friend of Anusia Potecka’s family was in the room for the event. Was her son, she wondered, heart quickening, not yet an hour old, fated to go against the imperialist enemy to the East? She had already lost so much to the Russians. Was he, like his father and brothers, to be bred for the military? It was her greatest fear. No! Not while her body was home to breath.
“I’m thinking,” Jan said, “we should call him Józef. After Prince Józef Poniatowski, the nephew of the last King of Poland.”
Anna bristled. “After a soldier? A man who died in battle?”
Jan nodded. “After a prince, a general, and a hero, Anna.”
Anna did not respond.
Jan whispered close to her ear now: “You’re thinking of Mira’s words. They are merely words, Ania.” No one since her father’s death had spoken her diminutive with such tenderness. “They are words from an old woman who imagines herself to have special powers.” He continued in soothing tones, attempting to assuage her fears, but the only words she heard now were the gypsy’s: “The boy will one day bait the Russian bear.”