Justine Whitfield

The Standing Stones

As far back as we know, the babies die in August.

This I will tell my girls and any grand-girls that I come to see.

And I will tell them that we are not witches.

Stina Karlsson, Strandtorpshage, Öland, 1952

 

It is nine in the evening and Magdalena is sitting on the edge of her bed telling Mama down a phone line that Eva’s baby is dead, has died being born full term, eight days into August. Magdalena is not religious. She does not believe in plans. She would like to pigeonhole this death as statistical coincidence, but she cannot erase her premonition.

She smooths her hand across the dark grey duvet. No Mama, not like when Karin died. The cord was clear of the neck. No, not a girl this time.  Mama, no, there was no heart monitor. It would have made no difference. No. She drove herself to the hospital. She already knew the baby was dead. It was the sharpness of the pain she said. The ripping that she felt inside. And the blood. The sudden darkness of it flooding like a dinner plate on the sheet.

Magdalena’s own baby is five days old and lying in a Moses basket at her feet, asleep with the blueness of veins visible through her mouse skin lids. This child looks barely different from her sister Eva’s baby who is lying, wrapped and still, in an acrylic bassinet beside Eva’s bed in an isolated room at the far end of the birthing ward. 

Magdalena went to Eva as soon as she called, sometime around five that morning. She had taken the phone from the bedroom into the narrow hallway, not wanting to wake Mathias. Eva’s voice was faint, as if she needed to sleep. 

‘When I got here there was no heartbeat.’ 

Magdalena felt the world begin to tilt. ‘But he’s okay?’ she asked.

‘No,’ said Eva.

A rapid buckling keeled through Magdalena’s knees and she sat abruptly on the white painted floor. For perhaps a minute neither sister spoke. Magdalena leaned against the linen cupboard door and stared at her hand. Her left palm looked so foreign, like an empty wooden bowl abandoned on her thigh.

 ‘Wrap him up. Keep him warm.’

She heard her own quiet voice and the briefest pause in Eva’s breath.

‘I’m sorry. I only meant…make sure he knows that he is safe.’

She woke Mathias and moved Elin to his side of the bed. Then she gathered her camera equipment and the knitted shawl from the armchair in Elin’s nursery and left, stepping neatly backward as Mathias tried to hug her on the landing. She did not want the claustrophobia of his face near hers and neither had she wanted to touch or even look at Elin.

 

There was dried blood caught in the opening oyster folds of the dead child’s ears. Magdalena tried to dab, then forcibly rub, the blackness away before accepting that the birth had left a mark, that the stain lay below his skin. Eva and she laughed a little. Mama would not stand for dirty ears. And my goodness, such ears. He will never get a date with these.

The photographer from pathology came then, scuffing across the buffed camel lino wearing zip-up vinyl shoes. He was big like Baloo, the Jungle Book bear, quiet and grey-haired with a voice that felt inedible, like the soft interior layer of a banana skin. He moved with precision around the gaping room, looking the sisters in the eye, explaining without apology the need to use the terrible flash that would fill the room with a shock of sterile light, and asking Eva’s permission to unpeel her baby’s gown. 

Magdalena found him beautiful in a way she could not immediately place. Sensations and unsolicited pieces of knowledge can materialise in Magdalena’s head and for the most part she ignores them. But when he touched her on the elbow, needing her to stand back from the bed, she read in him a sadness that preceded his hospital camera, a stillness like the quiet cores of standing stones. She wanted for a moment to step in close and rest against the green checked shirt that was spread like a quilt across his chest. She could not decide if the impulse was to give or to receive.

After the photographer left, Magdalena bundled Eva’s baby into the shawl that Mama had knitted. She flounced it soft around his face, leaving unwrapped the small hand that curled like an acorn across his chest. She wanted her photos to show a normal living child, a newborn son like any other. Eva stood at the window, watching the city beginning to move many floors below them on the other side of the glass.

All Mama’s grandbabies used this shawl. There was a ritual washing by hand in gentle detergent ahead of births but it was never given to the mother until the child was safely there. Eva and Magdalena hated the drama of this, the witchy superstition and toxicity that Mama carried still. Karin had died in 1975, a different time. She had been the shadow sister of their childhood, constantly mentioned but real to no one except Mama.

Mama never even saw Karin. She refused to look as blue-gowned men and women puffed and slapped at her baby on the metal resuscitation table. Then four hours later, when she was ready to look, she was told it was too late. Karin was gone and could not be returned. Later Mama would become a woman who fought against everything, could spot all risk and unkind intent, but just then she had no nerve for argument.

Magdalena was five years old when Karin died and Per-Erik almost three. Eva was not yet born. Papa was still living with them and he took Magdalena and Per-Erik to the hill behind the empty winter barn. They walked behind him as he moved Pontus and Tuki, the black-legged sheep, to a fresh circle of pasture and pushed their metal stake hard into the earth. Then Papa sat in the dazzle of the bleached summer grass and looked out toward the Baltic, past the tall stones that marked the Viking grave.

‘The baby didn’t make it,’ he said. ‘She won’t be coming home.’

The boat-shaped stones of the Viking grave and the blue stretch of the Baltic melded in Magdalena’s mind and she came to believe that the baby was out there on the water, drifting in a small wooden boat like the one she had seen in a storybook. Years later Mama told her that when preschool returned, Magdalena gave a morning talk.

‘Our bubba is lost. I can feel inside my chest that Papa will go away. He wants to find her but he doesn’t know where to look.’

Magdalena hangs up the phone from Mama, grateful not to have heard again the story of Great Aunt Stina’s baby who is buried beneath a cairn on the farm where Mormor lives. Or the story of Stina and Mormor’s mother’s baby and the whole horrible chain. Magdalena feels a small rhythmic pulse beginning to rise like a cough from her diaphragm. A soundless keening forms in her throat. She presses her palms against her ribs and the pulsing subsides. The evening is still light but darkness is compressing at the edge of her vision. She feels a moment of fear, fear that in the night, in a half-woken state, she may squeeze a thumb and finger to her breathing child’s nose, reconcile the opposing cliffs of grief and guilt on which she and Eva, and even Mama, now stand. Mathias appears with chamomile tea but she cannot raise her head. She lifts Elin from the basket and holds the child’s face to her own.

‘Please…can you please take Elin…I need you to guard her on your side of the bed.’

‘What do you mean?’ Mathias asks. ‘Guard her?’

‘Please, I don’t want to be alone with her in the night.’

She looks away as he takes their daughter from her, picks up the Moses basket with his free arm and carries it to the spare room. He does not bother to return for his reading glasses and book.

Magdalena stares at the small lamp on her bedside table. Outside the window there is no breeze and the leaves of the oak tree are completely still. She thinks now she should have spoken of the shadow she saw tailing Eva across the yard stones five months ago. Or the shudder she felt as Eva disclosed her pregnancy.

‘There is no father,’ Eva had said.

Magdalena had hoped that her discomfort stemmed from this, although she knew that fathers were futile. But the movement of the shadow on the stones behind her sister had frightened Magdalena and she had strained to hear the words that were being spoken somewhere very, very deep within her brain. For almost a day nothing came but then she felt a whisper, alien and almost incomprehensible. This baby is a non-person.

Non-person. What did that mean? Magdalena baulked and chose to dismiss the senseless words.





Justine Whitfield

Justine Whitfield is originally from Porirua City but now lives in Nelson. Her writing has appeared in The Pantograph Punch, Kiss Me Hardy and the Nelson Arts Festival and was commended in the 2018 Landfall essay competition.