by Vicki Wootton
Serafina placed her hands over her swollen belly and sighed contentedly, a faint smile crossing her lips. Soon I will be holding you in my arms, my own sweet baby. I love you so much, I can’t wait to see you, to touch you.
She had not always felt this way about her expected child. She had cried for days after the prison doctor confirmed that she was pregnant. She wanted no part of this product of brutal rape by the soldiers guarding the camp. There had been so many, she didn’t even know who the father was, not that it mattered. In her despair, she had even, God forgive her, thought of ending her life.
But you cannot have a living being growing inside you without developing maternal feelings. This child was part of her, no matter how it was conceived. The baby wasn’t to blame. It was a precious soul given into her care to nurture and protect.
Serafina Ramirez was seventeen. She had been abducted by soldiers ten months earlier while walking along a path through the jungle near her tiny village in the mountains of Guatemala. They never told her why she had been seized and taken to the secret prison camp far to the east, apart from some perfunctory words about rebels and leftist guerrillas. At the camp were many other girls around her age, from marginalized Mayan settlements, who had been captured under similar circumstances.
Of the thirty or so prisoners, at least half were visibly pregnant; not surprising, since they were routinely brutalized and raped by the guards. When a girl reached the final weeks of pregnancy, she disappeared from the camp.
Six weeks before her baby was due, Serafina was transferred from the prison to her present location. The conditions here were more sanitary, and the food was better. The treatment of the expectant mothers was much improved as well: no more of the taunts or casual physical abuse that still continued at the prison, even though the rapes ended once pregnancy was established.
“We want to make sure your baby is healthy,” a medical technician told Serafina.
Both the doctor and the medical technician were men, and neither was a very warm person, but Serafina was reassured by the change in her treatment. They cared that she had a healthy baby, that’s what mattered.
After one examination, she asked the doctor, “Will I be able to go home when my baby is born?”
“I am sure you will,” he answered gruffly.
She spent many hours dreaming about returning to her village, thinking about her family and Jésus. But would he still want to marry her if she returned with a baby? She’d have to wait and see; getting home was the important thing. The whole situation, being abducted, imprisoned, then impregnated, was beyond her comprehension. Any questions she’d asked in the prison had been answered by clouts to the head and orders to keep quiet, so she’d soon given up.
These poor girls from the most remote areas of the country were naturally timid and unassertive, easy to manipulate and control. They didn’t make trouble for their captors, mostly reacting to the horror and oppression by retreating into silence and weeping. The shame that overwhelmed the girls kept them from forming more than casual friendships with one another.
Five women occupied Serafina’s hut at the new camp. They slept on pallets on the floor, each covered by a thin blanket, getting up to make frequent forays to the water closet throughout the night. This facility was an unheard of luxury to most of the girls. It was a small closed off section at the end of the room with a raised seat over a hole in the floor. They assumed it was there to prevent them from injuring themselves wandering around outside in the dark, looking for the latrine.
The inevitable day came at last. Serafina was the third person on her hut to go into labor since she had arrived. The first girl, Magdalena, had woken up screaming in the middle of the night, Maria-Luz had been washing her spare shift when she doubled over, clutching her abdomen, then straightened up with a woof of breath. “I think it’s time,” she’d announced.
Serafina had never seen any of the other girls once they left for the clinic, so she had no idea of the outcomes. For Serafina, the first sign was her water breaking, then after a few hours, what had been barely noticeable muscle twinges turned into stronger, more regular contractions.
Serafina knew what she was supposed to do. She washed herself, grabbed her few possessions — her rosary, a comb, a piece of soap, and a towel — and went over to the little clinic. The technician examined her and told her to change into a paper hospital gown and get into bed, then he left her. She was excited as well as apprehensive. But she knew it would be over soon and she would be holding her baby and looking into its eyes.
During the next few hours, apart from an occasional check by the technician and a more thorough examination by the doctor, Serafina was left alone. The contractions became stronger, more painful, until she cried out, but no comfort was offered. When her screams became more frequent, the tech came in and checked her every half hour.
Between contractions, Serafina thought of her mother, who had given birth to eleven children. She had never heard her make a sound during the birth of any of the three babies who were born after Serafina was old enough to be aware of what was happening. She felt ashamed of her loss of control, and yearned for the comforting touch of another woman.
Eventually, the baby emerged with a painful burning sensation that she thought would rip her apart, and she felt it, warm and rubbery against her thigh. She strained to raise her head and look at it, but the technician pressed down on her shoulders. She’d manage to catch a glimpse of the doctor holding a bright pink little creature by its ankles. It was facing away from her so she couldn’t tell the gender. It gave a little cry that melted her heart. The tech left her side and a moment later she saw him leave the room with a little bundle wrapped in a white cotton towel, with just a tuft of black hair poking out at the top.
“When can I see my baby,” she asked the doctor who was still working on her.
“Soon,” he replied. “Now be quiet while I get the afterbirth.”
She felt something warm and soft slide from her body, then the doctor sighed and straightened up. “That’s it. Finished.”
“Is it a girl or a boy?” Serafina persisted.
Instead of answering, the doctor approached her with a syringe and pressed an injection into her thigh.
Serafina woke up disoriented. It took her a moment to remember. “Where’s my baby?” she asked the shadowy figure nearby. Then she realized that she was in a moving vehicle, jolting over a rough surface, and she was strapped down. An icy wave of terror swept through her. The figure silhouetted against the rear porthole of the vehicle rose and came towards her. She felt a sting as the needle punctured her skin and the medication was forced into the muscle, then she started to fade again.
* * *
Daria Busoni sat with her gloved hand in the incubator, holding the limp fingers of her tiny daughter. The infant was pale, her breathing barely noticeable. The heart monitor registered the rapid, fluttering beats of her tiny heart. Daria and her husband, Don, were devastated that their new and much anticipated baby girl had been born with a heart defect. Daria was exhausted. She had been sitting here for seven hours with only a couple of bathroom breaks and a fifteen-minute visit to the hospital snack bar, where all she’d been able to consume was a glass of orange juice.
“You should be eating more,” the nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit had told her. “You need to produce enough milk to feed her without depleting your own resources.”
Daria agreed, although she had no stomach for food. Besides, she was producing more than enough milk. Her breasts were hard and sore with engorgement. Little Angela didn’t have enough strength to nurse for more than a minute or two at a time, so she had to express the surplus milk to store for bottle feeding when she wasn’t there. Not that she was away very often. She went home for a few hours every day to change her clothes and prepare something for Don to eat when he got home from work, and try to get a little sleep, but sleep was hard to come by and she was usually back at the neo-natal intensive care unit within five hours.
She jolted awake when a hand touched her shoulder. It was Dr. Stevenson, the pediatric cardiologist.
“How are you holding up?” he asked in his soft voice.
Daria shrugged. “It’s hard,” she replied.
He nodded sympathetically. “I just want to do a quick checkup,” he explained and turned towards the incubator.
She waited until he’d taken the stethoscope from his ears and asked, “How’s she doing? Is she getting any stronger?”
Stevenson sighed. “I have to be honest with you, Ms Busoni, it’s not looking too hopeful. Her heart is getting weaker, if anything. Believe me, I wish I didn’t have to tell you this.”
“You mean without a transplant...?” Daria’s eyes filled with tears.
“I’m afraid we have to be prepared.” He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
I trio of faint pings came from the pocket of his white coat. He pulled out a pager and looked at the digital display.
“Excuse me, this may be important, he said, holding up the instrument, and then walked out of the of the unit.
Daria watched him through the window as he talked on the telephone at the nurses’ station. She saw his expression lighten. He looked across at her and smiled. He replaced the telephone receiver and walked back into the room.
“Well, I think I may have good news,” he said. “The National Transplant Center called. They may have a heart for Angela.”
Daria suddenly felt lighter. She hadn’t realized what a heavy burden of grief and anxiety she had been carrying until it was lifted. She stood up and hugged the doctor, smiling through her tears. “Thank you, Dr. Stevenson. I’m so happy. Thank you so much.” Then she stepped back and her smile disappeared. “But that means that some other mother’s baby has died somewhere, doesn’t it? God, I feel so sorry for her.”
“I know,” he said sadly. “It’s lucky for us, but someone else has to suffer. Life isn’t always fair.”
* * *
Serafina never saw her village again. After her baby was born, she was taken across the frontier into Honduras and placed in a military brothel. Two years later, she hanged herself from a beam in her cell.
Copyright © 2007 by Vicki Wootton