Live Birth

Venita Blackburn
Photo by Romy Factory on Unsplash

Nell had three children before she had a say in the matter. Then she had six more. Because she was so good at childbirth and liked to walk between houses deep in the woods even when she had no business at all among the pines, the town made her a midwife. The women there weren’t allowed in the hospitals, so they gave birth over straw, standing up, in their own homes. Most of the births were fine, though not all, but every baby smelled fine once the odor of metal and salt was washed away. Nell didn’t remember the fine babies only the others, like the one born blind and quiet yet full alive, some stillborn or breech. Another came out backwards and hairy as a cat.

One mother made it to the city and saw a film with a woman lying in a bed, giving birth to the devil. Nell too heard stories. There was supposedly a boy born with five hands and no face, his little cries locked up in his throat like bees. But that mother didn’t care about bees or the devil or hands piled onto a wrist like petals, just the bed. She didn’t want to stand up to deliver her child. Nell told her when fruit falls from a tree it falls down not sideways. Which is easier, dropping a sack of flour or throwing it across the room? The woman just blinked and let her mouth hang open, and Nell thought this must be how the baby happened to her too.

When there were no bellies to check on, Nell still took her walks. Her husband didn’t say much but sometimes seized her by the elbow and said, “there ain’t nothing in the trees for you.” She’d pull away and go on.

Her sons left town and came back. Her daughters got degrees and got fat. The hearts of two sons stopped for good a year apart. She walked between houses through winter and spring for as long as she could, then borrowed a horse until she bought her own.

One baby was born almost a boy and almost a girl, so like God she declared one over the other for the parents to believe forever. Often there were more fingers and toes than ten and twenty. She fixed it for five dollars, tied a string around the extra finger and pulled it tight until it separated from the rest of the hand like clay.

When they took her midwife’s license, the mothers in town went to the hospital and paid more money than they had to men that didn’t know their names and sometimes died for all the trouble. Nell divorced her husband, gave her horse to one of their sons, and planted string beans, rutabagas, collards, and mustard greens too. Grandmothers brought their granddaughters to Nell mostly for good luck. They wanted to know things would be  okay. Nell only said “my melons don’t grow in June like they used to, and the seasons never felt like this before.”

There was a birth a long time ago that Nell rarely mentioned but dreamed of often. The mother listened, obeyed Nell’s instructions for months, and did her part well on the critical day of labor. In two hours the child was free. When it arrived Nell couldn’t give the baby to the mother, just wrapped it up quick hoping it made no sound, afraid of what that sound might be. When the mother saw Nell’s face in the fading light among the scent of sweat and blood and fig blossoms, they both knew then how some things expected, longed for, hunted in our minds have been lost to us for a long time.

Works by Venita Blackburn have appeared or are forthcoming in, Harpers, Ploughshares, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, and others. She received the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in fiction for her collected stories, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, in 2017. She is founder of the literary nonprofit Live, Write (, which provides free creative writing workshops for communities of color. Blackburn’s second collection of stories, How to Wrestle a Girl, will be published fall of 2021. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at California State University, Fresno.