A BABY ON A BUS
The longing for a baby sometimes envelopes and overwhelms a woman.
Back in the dark ages of the 1970s when obstetricians were mainly men and I was trying to get pregnant, options were few. Mainly, you had sex and waited for “that time of the month.” Then a rabbit either died or didn’t die, and if it didn’t, downhearted, you jumped back into bed and tried again.
I succeed in getting pregnant only once but miscarried early. The response was similar to what they say when you lose a pet. “That’s tough. Try again.”
Loss? Grief? Emptiness? I was on my own.
And it was in that fragile emotional state that I boarded a 3 a.m. Flota Imbaburra bus in Quito, Ecuador, for the Saturday morning Otavalo Market.
That cold, dark night in cobblestoned San Francisco Plaza, the stars were close and bright. Shadowy shapes of trucks and buses outlined the edges of the square, their engines running, while the drivers tried to keep warm by huddling around stacks of burning tires. The air was thick with black smoke. Indian women wrapped in layers of old sweaters pumped kerosene stoves and sold cinnamon tea and rolls to the passengers, their long black braids hanging over stained and ruffled aprons.
Sleepily, I found my bus. Most of the men were wearing ponchos and felt fedoras. The women, no matter what their age, wore voluminous skirts, tiny bedroom slippers and flashing gold earrings.
The driver and his young assistant were loading baggage on top of the bus. Male passengers were handing up enormous cloth-wrapped and rope-bound bales of market goods which they had carried to the plaza on their backs. Women were handinh up large cloth-covered baskets.
It was always a sold-out bus, and I had bought my ticket earlier in the week to reserve a window seat. People crowded into the aisles, sitting on their bundles as we bounced along the bumpy mountain roads.
Again I hadn’t though to bring a blanket, so I was cold and awake, gazing out the window at the stars. I saw Cassiopeia for the first time. Of the mountains, all I could see was their outlines against the sky, an occasional tree, and the shadow of the valley below.
Most of the passengers were sleeping when the girl sitting in front of me began to whimper and move restlessly. She made a few long farts and started to moan.
My first thought was, “She’s going to have a baby.” My second thought was, “That’s impossible. We’re on a bus.”
Then the man who was sitting next to her jumped up and pushed his way into the aisle. The girl started crying, low but strong, “Dios mio! Oh, oh, oh! Dios mio…”
Some of the passengers behind me starting talking, and one man yelled “Luz!” Light. More people yelled, “Luz, luz, luz…” The message reached the driver, who turned on the inside lights. But he didn’t stop the bus. More people were coming awake. A young Indian woman pushed her way toward us from the back. She looked over the moaning girl, reached down for her legs, lifted them and quickly swung them across the empty seat.
I resting my chin on the top of the headrest and watching. I saw the girl push her trousers below her knees. I saw blood.
The volunteer midwife spread the girl’s knees, reached between them and pulled out a wine-colored bundle. Blood poured out after it.
The midwife quickly wrapped the bundle in a sweater and put it on the girl’s chest. She pulled the girl’s trousers all the way off and stuffed newspapers under her bottom. Then, bracing herself with one hand against the ceiling of the swaying bus, she picked up the bundle and held it up to the light. I saw the baby.
It was a dark purplish brown, its head covered with something white and waxy. Its face was beautiful, tiny, perfectly formed, its features clearly delineated. Its little hands were curled. Its arms and chest were perfect. Below its waist, though, it was hideously deformed. It was missing one leg, and its guts were encased in a thin membrane on the outside of its body. It was bulbous, gelatinous, front and back. It had no sex.
“Deforma, deforma,” the cry ran through the bus. What to do? Several people offered plastic bags. The midwife held the baby in one hand and reached for a plastic bag with the other. Then she hesitated. I knew she was thinking, “This is a baby. How can I put it in a plastic bag?” Instead, she put the baby down on its mother’s prone body, where it immediately stretched out its tiny purple arms, rubbed open its little shiny, black eyes and smiled. Then it began to cry.
“Viva! Se viva!” “It’s alive!” The cry ran through the bus. Now what? This was a new-born baby stretching out to see what the world was like. It obviously couldn’t live, but it didn’t know that. It didn’t know it was deformed. It didn’t even know that the world it was reaching out to explore was a late-night bus still whipping around mountain roads and making very good time.
The midwife’s face revealed her agony. It had been hard enough before to put the baby into a plastic bag. Now that the little thing was wriggling, wrapping it in plastic was an act of murder. Yet she, and me with my chin glued to the headrest, could see the shiny wet bulging organs shifting with every move the baby made.
A commanding female voice from the back of the bus called out, “Placenta,” which reminded us of the mother, so young, so alone and in so much pain. A strong-faced mountain of an old woman with gray streaking her long braids pushed her way through the crowded aisle. The midwife hesitantly began pressing on the mother’s stomach, but when the old woman arrived, she pushed the younger one away, bent over, and vigorously jiggled the mother’s sides. Soon, in a last rush of blood that got on my sneakers, the placenta was delivered. With relief, they had something they could put in the plastic bag.
Up to that moment, I hadn’t even blinked. Time and my heart had stopped. I had never seen a birth. I never knew it could go so wrong. Now I took out my ever-present roll of toilet paper and passed it forward. The two women began cleaning the blood off their hands.
Sitting next to me was a elderly man who had also been watching. Now he stood up, removed his fedora, and made an emotional announcement to the other passengers. Then he passed his hat around and people dropped coins into it — money they probably couldn’t spare. The hat had almost 100 Sucres, or four dollars, when it returned to our seat. I put another 100 Sucres on top. The man wrapped the money in a piece of newspaper, leaned over the seat and gently pushed the bundle into the mother’s hands. With no expression on her face, she asked how much it was. Then she tucked the newspaper under her sweater. The baby on her chest gave a contented whimper.
Meanwhile, the bus was still rattling around mountain curves at what felt like breakneck speed. We were deep and alone in the special darkness of the countryside. The baby stretched again and gave a few more healthy cries. Content, it rubbed its eyes. I watched as it moved, wondering if there was any chance it could live. If we were in the States, fine doctors in fancy hospitals could probably create new casings for those twisted, free-flowing intestines. But we must have been hours away from any kind of hospital at all.
Noise came from the front of the bus. Shouted instructions. Other people were also thinking about getting help. The Indians were harassing the driver to find a hospital. The driver was yelling back. At first I thought he was intent on keeping to his schedule, but he suddenly veered off the highway and we went bumping down a dirt road. In the blackest night, we finally stopped in front of a tiny wooden building with a red cross painted on it.
The driver shouted something out the window, and a few minutes later, a nursing sister dressed in white got on. She observed the scene calmly and picked up the baby. She wrapped it in newspaper and passed it over the heads of the passengers and out a window. She leaned out the window after it and shouted orders. The people in the aisle filed off the bus, and two men carrying a wooden stretcher got on. They helped the mother on and started carrying her out. The nurse stopped them, leaned over and asked the mother a question. The mother pointed to the overhead rack, and her bundle of belongings was passed out after her.
And then there was nothing left but blood. The man who’d been sitting next to the mother returned. Calmly, he picked some newspaper off the floor and wiped blood off the seat. He sat down just as the lights went off. A woman who’d been standing in the aisle took the mother’s seat. The bus started and we bumped down the dirt road, back to the paved highway and the Otavalo Saturday morning market.
It was very fast. A few cries, then the delivery. A few whimpers, then the placenta. No panting, no nurses, no coaching husband. No husband at all. A woman alone on a bus, 8 1/2 months pregnant, a deformed baby, a few hundred Sucres, and the bus turned back onto the road.
The 3 a.m. bus to Otavalo pulled into the market a few hours later, and I was still shaking.
I moved through the market, pretending I was shopping. I bought a few pounds of red glass beads. I couldn’t bring myself to spend $25 on a poncho. I passed some people I had met in Quito, but I didn’t say hello. Inside, I felt vacant, deserted by feeling. Even my mind, usually so full of words, was speechless.
I found a place to sit down. inside a shed, where a few Indians were boiling cane alcohol and lemon juice in large copper vats. I took a little glass from an outstretched hand, sat down on a tiny three-legged stool, and drank shot after shot until I was drunk. The Indians ignored me as I cried.