Scene4-International Magazine of Arts and Culture

Night Birth

Harriet Halliday Renaud

Lieutenant MacNiece drew her cape around her and ran down the hill from the Nurses’ Home to the Station Hospital, bucking her head low against the long steady wind. The post lay dimmed and still, and the single sentry she could see looked as though he moved without legs. The wind caught suddenly at her cape and threw it straight out behind her so that the cold air whipped at her arms. A flame of anger flickered in her throat, and running up the last stairs to the hospital, she pulled the door open fiercely and flung herself into the wide, empty reception hall.

She stood still in the middle of the hall for a moment, angry and listening to the wind rushing against the windows and door and to the sudden wildness beating in her ears and throat. When she felt calmer she turned and walked slowly up the stairs to Ward 8, which had been her ward for six months, even on her night duty. She was ten minutes late now, and steeled herself to lash back at the nurse she was keeping overtime. But it was one of the younger nurses, anxious to be off on her date, and she had time only to point out a few things on the charts and slam the door hard when she went out.

Lieutenant MacNiece waited until she was sure the nurse had gotten far enough down the stairs to be out of sight, then she hung up her cape carefully and went out into the hall, where there was a small table with a mirror hanging over it. She braced her hands hard against the edge of the table and looked deliberately into the mirror. The wind had tipped her cap over to the side, and her hair lay in straight feathery strands along her cheeks and forehead. She unpinned the white towered triangle that she wore on the back of her head, and took out her comb. She parted her brown hair on the right side and drew it carefully into a dip over her left eyebrow before fastening it back with an amber clip. Then she ran her fingers straight down the sides of her hair, measuring how far below the ear it came. It hung down a quarter of an inch below her ear, and she smiled now at how much it had grown since she had decided never to have it cut again, only three months ago.

She had often thought of changing the way she wore her hair, and the girl friends that she had from time to time always got around to suggesting it, sooner or later, but somehow whenever she went to the hairdresser she heard herself saying, exactly as mama had, “Well, I guess I’ll have it just to the ear in front and shingled in back, this time anyhow.” And then she would feel a wonderful relief, as though she’d escaped from some horrible snare, and going home, she would always be happy for a little while.

And that’s how it had been about her hair until a few months after she came into the Army. Then one night at dinner she had watched the Head Nurse at the dinner table, so quiet and sure, her head high and smooth with two broad shining braids coiled around it. Her head had turned over in deathless admiration for the cool woman with her thin aloof lips, and she had decided then that she would never have her hair cut again.

Tonight, passing by the Head in the corridor at the Nurses’ Home, she had had a vision of how she herself would look when her hair was long and braided, and coming down the stairs she had thought, with pleasure, “It will add inches to my height—inches,” and as she came down she walked much slower, feeling the new inches, feeling almost lithe and slim with long legs.

She stood quietly now, remembering how it had been, trying to have the feeling again, but somehow it had gone. She just felt lonely the way she always did on Ward 8, where soldiers’ wives lay feeling separate and complete, endlessly dreaming. Lieutenant MacNiece looked down the shining corridor, winding long and black, and thought how it was on the other wards, where the boys were so gay and clean and young-smelling even in their illness. She tried to think of herself going from bed to bed, tall and assured; but the feeling wouldn’t come. “It was the wind,” she thought. “I’ve always hated a wind.”

There were no new cases tonight, no women in labor or newly delivered, and after she had checked the charts and the sleeping babies, she had nothing to do. She lay down on the office cot, with her cape over her, and stared into the air. She could feel her body tense and throbbing a little, and after awhile she got up and went to the door. She couldn’t see anyone in the hall and she walked over to the stairs and looked down. The halls were dimmed, but the stairs were all blacked out, and she couldn’t see anything. She went back and sat on the cot and listened to the wind tearing at the windows. She hated the sound and yet it filled the room so that she felt drowned in it. It made her feel more alone than she usually felt on night duty, and she could feel the tears stinging at the back of her eyes. After a moment she was sure she heard steps, and she went into the hall again.


A girl, very large with child, was coming up the stairs, walking slowly, and carrying a small traveling bag. Lieutenant MacNiece thought, wildly, “She’s walking in her sleep,” but she couldn’t think what to do. She stood, clutching the railing, watching the even steps and the small bag swinging, until the girl lifted her head and looked at her.

“Hello,” the girl said conversationally, and smiled. Miss MacNiece nodded and watched her come to the top of the stairs and put down her bag. Her lips were very bright, as though she had just rouged them, and her eyes shone below long arched brows, one of them now childishly ruffled, but otherwise there was no color in her face. She was very still now, breathing deeply and carefully after the long climb, still smiling.

“The doctor didn’t say anything about expecting anyone,” Lieutenant MacNiece said brusquely. “We’re too full up to take care of false alarms.” She felt suddenly better after having spoken. The familiar sounds of her voice were like the reassuring hold of a firm whip in her hand. The girl said nothing but stood breathing steadily and smiling, her eyes too bright and looking at a point directly over the nurse’s head. Then she lowered her eyes and looked at Lieutenant MacNiece. “He’s here all right,” she said, speaking very clearly as though what she had to say was somehow abstruse. “He’s early, about ten days I think, but he’s here. Besides,” and here the smile took on humor, “the taxi-driver’s wife had four and he said he could tell very well that this was the real thing with me….”

The smile faded suddenly into a low noise in her throat and Lieutenant MacNiece took hold of her firmly and led her across the hall into a room. By the time the spasm was over she had unpacked the girl’s bag and turned down the bed. The girl turned hard to her side in the large easy chair, but her face was pure and still, her eyelids smoothly shut. When it was over she moved her lips into a smile again. Then she came over and sat on the edge of the bed, and pushed off her shoes with her feet. Lieutenant MacNiece pulled off her stockings and helped her unbutton the low buttons of the dress. “Thank you very much,” the girl said. She sounded like a sleepy, well-mannered child, making curtsies to her elders, an Lieutenant MacNiece said sharply, “I only do what I have to do,” and opened and closed the drawers noisily, putting away the girl’s bright new things still with the store creases in them. It was then she began hearing the wind again in long slashes against the window pane, and she felt as though it were beating behind her eyes, trying to force her tears.

On the bed, the girl lay with her face into the pillow, her body drawn up and horribly contorted with a long pain. Afterwards, she stretched her legs slowly and smiled as she opened her eyes. The cords in her forehead stood high and blue and perspiration lay on her lip “Well, anyhow,” she said absently, dreamily, “I haven’t made any noise yet.”

“You will,” Lieutenant MacNiece said, and then she noticed the pillow where the girl had left a faint half moon of lip rouge. She pulled it from under her head and turned it over before sliding it back. “We don’t have enough as it is,” she said fiercely and quietly, looking hard into the girl’s face, so close to her that she could see the small white scar at the corner of her mouth that gave it its peculiar sweetness, like an unexpected dimple. “Not nearly enough,” said Lieutenant MacNiece, “not even for the soldiers.” The girl looked back steadily, her eyes distant, and she said softly, like a sigh, “I’m very sorry.”

“Sorry,” said Lieutenant MacNiece. “We came into the Army to take care of the soldiers, hear? And it’s not enough your being sorry that we have to give up our time caring for civilians. It isn’t fair, I tell you. Why don’t you all go home and have your babies there? This is an army hospital; it’s for the soldiers and the nurses, not for you.”

Lieutenant MacNiece could hear her own breathing in the small room, and her words still heavy in the air. The girl turned her smiling lips to her, her young face polite and remote, and Lieutenant MacNiece felt something swell and break in her throat. “Listen,” she said, her voice blurred and thick, impatient with the words, “Listen you, listen to this. You may not believe this, but after the war I’m getting married too. There are three gentlemen waiting for me, and all I have to do is choose. And then I’m going to have a baby too, and when I do, I’m going to have it at home, with a doctor there every minute and nurses twenty-four hours a day. Not like this, you hear. Not one bit like this. Why, your husband isn’t even here. Everything’s makeshift about it, everything. Mine won’t be like this.”

There was a movement under the sheet, and the girl braced herself, her nails deep into the palm of her hand. “He’s walking guard,” she said, and bit the corner of her lip so that a pencil line of red moved down the corner of her mouth. “He doesn’t know yet.” And then she gave herself up to a wave of agony and Lieutenant MacNiece left the room.


Out in the corridor it seemed incredible to Lieutenant MacNiece that this was the same hospital the girl lay in, the same that held the words she had said. The halls were still long and shining and black, and all the patients were asleep, with no summoning lights over their doors. She walked down to the Nurse’s Office and everything was just as she had left it. She sat down at the desk and noticed for the first time how her head hummed and a muscle in the side of her face kept jumping.

There was nothing to do, she told herself, and she sat and waited. The wind fought the windows and her teeth held hard against each other so that her jaws ached. She could hear the clock tick and the orderly’s even snoring in the next room. She waited until the anger had stopped beating against her breast, and then she opened the drug cabinet and unlocked the small box that held the special drugs. She took out a pill, marked the kind on the chart, and dropped the small white capsule into a medicine glass. Finally she walked down the hall again, to the girl’s room.

The girl lay with her head hard against the white pillow, her eyes glazed, her lips dry and parted. She turned and looked at Lieutenant MacNiece and said, every word even and dead, “I heard there were pills that helped. Could I have one?”

“Oh, my God,” Lieutenant MacNiece thought. “She doesn’t hate me. She doesn’t even know I’m alive.”

“No,” she said, “not without doctor’s orders,” and she dropped the little glass with the pill into the pocket of her starched white uniform. There was a long silence and Lieutenant MacNiece watched the girl sink her neat unpainted fingernails into her arm. Then she walked slowly over to the bed and looked under the sheet. She saw the bulge she knew to look for and she knew the birth was near. She looked long and carefully into the girl’s closed face and knew she’d lost her, that she’d gotten beyond her, and that she could never touch her. She heard the wind, and felt the throbbing in her head, and the tears salt and waiting.

She walked out of the room and as she started down the long black corridor she thought helplessly, “I’ll have my hair cut tomorrow,” and then she started running, to telephone the doctor and have the anesthetist paged in the movies in town.


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Harriet Halliday Renaud was a journalist, feature and fiction writer, book reviewer, movie and theatre critic, and editor from 1935 to 2016, for national magazines from Newsweek to Harper's Bazaar.
For more of her writings, 
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©2018 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine





April 2018

Volume 18 Issue 11

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