Some time later, well past midnight; February 22nd, 1744
Having assembled what I could, I propped Claire up more comfortably against the solid, wooden wall. I’d wrapped any spare clothing in her cloak — making one large, lumpy pillow — and Murtagh had found a bundle of raw wool as he’d escorted the crew back to their proper places. This was used as is and the result enabled her to remain reclined, even through successive contractions.
“Ye’re sae verra braw, mo nighean donn,” I murmured hoarsely.
Claire rolled her eyes heavenward in response, her head shaking slowly. The last pain had taken almost more than she’d had to give and left her completely spent.
I shifted to hover over her, taking my time and kissing her on the lips. She’d sought this gesture, time and time again in her pain and I eagerly offered myself to her.
Claire’s hand lifted, slipping her arm around my neck in order to keep me close, even after we came up for air. Her eyes had slid shut and she kept them that way as she whispered, “That was a long one.”
I groaned, nudging her nose with mine.
“And they’re getting much closer,” she added, the palm of her other hand skimming along the curve of her abdomen. “Things… are going in the right direction, I think.”
I moved my hand to match hers, trying to pick out the curve of one bairn from the next as she’d shown me.
“The first bairn ye mean?” I mused out loud. “Or jus’ the way of things?”
Her brow furrowed as her gaze latched onto something that wasn’t there, turning inwards as her hand slipped tentatively between her legs.
“I meant that my contractions are gaining strength instead of backing off… they could still stall, I suppose… they did for Jenny for a bit,” she surmised, harkening back to the one and only birth she’d witnessed.
“I guess… I don’t know about the baby,” her brows nearly became one as her internal concentration deepened, her hand gently cupping the place where our child would soon be making their appearance. “But I think he’s the right way.”
The right way.
I immediately regretted asking the question as I remembered there was, in fact, a wrong way. Jenny’s bairn had been born that way and Claire had assured me that they could be born feet first, but I felt all the blood drain from my face as I realized for the first time that something could indeed go wrong.
“Jamie,” Claire’s voice, soft and sweet, brought me around and I found her looking up at me with complete understanding.
“A Dhia, Sorcha,” I wheezed, taking her face in my hands. I bowed my head, pressing my brow to hers as I begged, “Forgive me?”
I heard her sigh, felt her deft fingers slip into the curls at the back of my neck.
Two Hours Later: Nearly Dawn.
Something had changed within my wife between the last pain and this one.
She had to be close.
Did I dare look?
Claire’s shift wasn’t intentionally keeping her modest — the ships’ men had long gone and my godfather with them, leaving just the two of us in the cabin — but the hem of it had fallen between her spread knees and obscured any accidental viewing of the area in question.
Would she be discouraged if there wasn’t anything to see yet?
Having not lost her touch of accurately reading my mind — even in the midst of her travail — my wife burst in frustration, “Oh for Christ’s sake, Jamie! Just look and get it over with!”
With this, she unceremoniously pulled aside her shift and I was met with a view that I instantly regretted seeking.
I caught myself just in time and swallowed the exclamation that nearly left my lips at the sight of her condition. Offering up a prayer and crossing myself instead, I patted Claire’s leg in reassurance.
“What do you see?”
A dhia, Sorcha, I groaned both inwardly and outwardly, ask me anything but that.
Her hand moved, covering mine on her leg for a brief moment and giving it a squeeze before closing in on the area in question. She caught her breath and winced as her fingers first encountered the bulge between her legs, but then calmed somewhat as she slowly, gingerly took stock of the situation.
“His head,” her whisper was barely audible but the wonder and awe in her voice was palpable.
“Aye,” I swallowed hard. “He’s almost here.”
She nodded, her hand moving away as a cloud crossed once more over her face.
Here we go.
Her heels began to dig into the mattress, her feet slipping as she fought to gain traction against the tide that pulled her this way and that.
“Here, mo chridhe,” I patted against my legs. “Try pushin’ ‘gainst me.”
She nodded, shifting until it was comfortable, and I watched in delight as it seemed to work almost immediately.
Now with a solid anchor in her arsenal, she dove headlong into the wave of her contraction. It was as swift and mighty as all the others, but she now was able to curl forward with this one, using my leverage to her advantage as she followed the call of her body.
Her moaning intonations changed as her face turned from red to white and back again — one thing now obvious.
My son would soon be here.
Claire began to push with all her might, fighting in earnest to bring forth our firstborn child. Again and again the urge came upon her, each contraction asking more and more of her.
“Well done, mo chridhe!” I praised her after a particularly rough bout, close on the heels of the one before. “Verra well done!”
She shook her head against the pillows, tired and dejected, “I just want him here… I want to be done… I just want to hold my baby, Jamie!!”
“Aye,” I crooned — not making the mistake of adding I ken to that statement.
I’d done it once early on and I wouldn’t do so again.
“Give me your hand,” I coaxed and offered up my own. She gave it freely, trembling with fatigue, and I slowly brought it back between her legs.
The small spot of brilliant auburn had grown with every contraction, the form of a now very obvious head on display for any and all to see.
“He’s almost here… he’ll be in your arms soon, aye?”
Claire’s eyes slid shut as her hand once more cupped the curve of our baby’s head. It had given her great peace to feel him earlier and I mentally praised myself for thinking of it.
Anything to help her along.
“Ye’re sae verra braw, mo nighean donn… an’ he’s helpin’ ye, aye?” I suggested. “He’s listenin’ to ye… to yer heart as ye guide him here… why do ye no’ talk to him too, hmm? Let him hear yer voice.”
Her lips began to move at once — silently at first, almost as if in prayer — but then her words grew louder and more urgent as she coaxed our child into the world.
“Come along, then, baby,” she crooned.
Her words hitched as another contraction besieged her, twisting from coddling to direct orders.
“Jesus H Roosevelt Fucking Christ,” she spat, “get out!”
I watched helplessly as she battled with all her might, unable to do anything but pick up the petitions to our child and run with them.
“Alright, ye wee fiend,” I chided under my breath, “time to be makin’ yer grand entrance, aye?”
My head snapped up as Claire’s intonations changed, my gut clenching as she began to hiss violently through her teeth.
“Easy, mo chridhe… slow an’ steady.”
It was only a few moments more and with a mighty shout that our child’s head was born.
“Well done, Sorcha!!” The praise rolling off my tongue in Gaelic. The relief of seeing her tired smile as she sagged against the homemade pillows spurred me on and I echoed, this time in English, “Verra well done, mo chridhe!!”
Her hand was back, softly inquisitive and her voice echoing the rapturous touch, “What does he look like?”
A dhia, the questions ye ask, Sassenach.
I coughed, trying to make light of a rather grizzly sight, “Well, I wouldna say he’s well pleased with his view of the world just now.”
Her laugh was cut short as the final pain came upon her, taking everything she had left to give. The baby’s shoulders moved ever so slightly and with a whoosh my child slipped into the world.
Lifting him gently — for he was, unmistakably, a him — I eased my son onto the cloth that lay ready and waiting for this purpose.
“Oh God, Claire,” I swallowed hard, tears rushing to the back of my eyes and lodging a lump in my throat as I patted my firstborn son dry, “he’s so wee.”
My heart skipped a beat, leaping right out of my chest and soaring high above my head before it fell back into place and clattered on again, the room spinning slightly as I breathlessly asked, “He’s a boy, then?”
A lusty, clear cry pierced the air in answer and I heard Jamie chuckle softly as he scuttled sideways, maneuvering a thrashing bundle just within my reach but as far as the cord would allow.
If only just a little closer...
“Aye, mo nighean donn,” his voice cracked as he announced, “we have a bonnie son.”
“Oh, baby!” I gushed as my hand traveled over him: ensuring his nose and mouth were clear — eliciting an even mightier wail of dissatisfaction from my son — before registering all ten fingers, skimming over his chest and down legs to count all ten toes.
He was here and he was whole.
This accomplished, my hand moved back to cup his flushed face, which was screwed up tight in a red-blooded fury, letting us know in no uncertain terms just what he thought about the present state of his affairs.
“Jamie,” my brow furrowed, my thumb stroking my son’s cheek, “His cord… please? I need to hold him.”
A determined look crossed over my husband’s face and he turned away at once to find the small drawstring bag we’d set aside for this purpose. I didn’t know whether to laugh or weep at the comedy that unfolded before me as he rummaged around for it in the gathering light, finding it less than an arm’s length from his original position.
He opened it and withdrew the looped thread, but then sat staring at me blankly.
“Here,” I motioned him forward.
He’d gotten us through the labyrinth blindfolded and on his own — I could guide us to the finish line, so to speak.
“Tie this one here… and that one there… Tighter… good.”
I nodded in praise, but noticed he’d balked again at the sight of the small, sharpened blade I’d packed.
“He won’t feel it,” I promised, taking hold of Jamie’s hand and squeezing it tight. “It won’t hurt him.”
He swallowed hard, but set his jaw and severed the cord as well as any midwife could under the circumstances.
“Please,” I croaked, finding my own throat tight as the tether between me and my baby was broken, “Please, Jamie... I need him.”
This was accomplished without ceremony and Jamie thrust our squalling infant without delay into my arms.
He calmed nearly the instant he hit my skin, seeming to know just who I was as I clutched him tightly against my chest.
“Oh, my sweet boy,” I sighed, my hand gently cupping the curve of his tiny head. “I’m so glad to finally meet you.”
Jamie moved closer, wiping his hands, his eyes deep pools of emotion. This gave way to shock and then melted into a reverent awe as he softly exclaimed, “Ach, look, Sorcha… he’s got his wee eyes open!”
I shifted the baby in my arms, cradling his head in the crook of my elbow and gave a soft laugh to find my son scowling furiously up at me… with brilliant blue eyes.
“Yes, I suppose I’d have to agree,” I commented dryly on the whole affair. “Wasn’t much fun, mmm?”
His little fists beat the air — somewhere in the fuzzy back recesses of my brain I remembered that was a good sign — and I took hold of one, wrapping his long fingers around one of mine. He gripped me tightly and I felt tears spring into my eyes.
I felt Jamie’s arms slip around me, supporting me — holding the both of us close.
“He has your eyes,” I murmured hoarsely. Hot tears rolled freely down my cheeks as my thumb stroked the tiny hand holding mine, “And your fingers.”
He wiped them gently away, turning my face towards him for just a moment and giving me the most tender of kisses.
“Mebbe so,” he commented with a slow smile, “but he’s got your lungs, Sassenach.”
“Is he hungry, do you think?”
Claire was exhausted, her body sagging heavily against my chest, but her voice held an excited energy that, while I understood, astoundedme.
She tried to position the bairn at her breast, but trembled so, and I quickly positioned my hand under hers. He rooted fiercely around for her nipple, his mouth as wide as a wee sparrow begging for his supper. With my arms there to help support him in place, her free hand slipped out and helped guide him, nudging herself against his upper lip.
He turned his face and, after a few gummed misfires, seemed to find the way of things.
Claire winced, firmly setting her jaw, but I saw the surge of joy and wonder wash over her face just the same. She relaxed slightly as he settled in with alacrity, sighing as her thumb stroked his cheek.
“Brian,” she murmured softly, as if testing the name out for the first time, then repeated it with more sureness, “His name is Brian.”
Overcome, I ducked my head, burying my face in her neck.
Can you see him, Da? Do you see my son?
“He’s got your red hair too,” I heard her continue, barely audible.
Brian… mo ghille beag… mo mhac ruadh.
I placed a kiss just behind her ear before lifting my head and she sighed again, turning her face towards me. Her eyes were wet, but joyous, her lips parting as she lifted her chin to kiss me in earnest.
Thank you, my soul reached out to hers. Thank you, my love, for our son.
She stiffened suddenly, her jaw dropping and brow furrowing as she pulled her face away. This jostled the bairn, who complained loudly that his dinner had been interrupted, and, had I not a firm grip of them both, would have upended him completely.
“Claire?” I asked hesitantly as I tried to set things back to rights in my arms.
She shook her head, but had regained enough composure to attempt to return the bairn to her breast. I tried to help, clumsily, but we finally succeeded, and I inquired again, a little more urgently, “Sorcha?”
Her free hand slipped to her side, her fingers splaying wide just above her hip and my heart dropped.
It was starting again.
“Aye,” I swallowed hard, nearly choking. “Ye dinna need to say it… I ken.”
She nodded, her hips shifting as she fought to keep still enough for the bairn.
“Do ye want me to take him?” I offered, keeping my voice low.
Shaking her head wildly, she got out, “Needs… to finish… eating.”
I nodded and simply held them close, holding my breath and petitioning Heaven until the contraction eased.
Mary, Michael, and Bride, help us.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the rigidity left her and she sagged once more in my arms, her fingers absently stroking the bairn’s hand.
His wee lips had stopped moving, his eyes now drooping heavily after having his fill.
“Help me move him,” Claire’s voice wobbled as her hand slipped under his head.
My hand covered her own and together we got him reclined on his side against her chest. She sighed heavily, her head tipping backwards against my shoulder as her hand started a rhythmic rubbing and patting along his back.
“What are ye doin’?” I asked in gentle curiosity.
She gave me a tired smile, cracking one eye open.
“You’ve never watched someone burp a baby before?”
“No,” I drew out the word, finding the concept utterly fascinating. “I canna say that I have.”
“Mmm,” remarked and closed her eyes again, but the smile grew.
“Why would such a wee bairnie have a need to belch?”
I felt her shoulders begin to shake and her hand stilled, her eyes opening fully to spear me with a look that made my heart turn over and warmed me through, “Jamie stop — I can’t… I can’t laugh, it hurts!”
Rather bemused, I simply nodded and decided to let the matter drop — it certainly was not worth causing her more physical pain than she was already in — but she did finally answer after composing herself.
“When they nurse, they sometimes get air trapped in their bellies… which is painful for them and sometimes makes them spit up what they’ve eaten,” she patiently explained, though the grin was still firmly in place. “If you pat their backs, the air has to leave and they burp…”
Understanding dawned and I lamely commented, “Ah, I see.”
A sort of sighing hiccup left Brian a few moments later, eliciting an enthusiastic praise from his mother, “Good job, darling!”
I blinked down at the two of them, realizing this was the intended result of the massage.
“Tha’ was it?” I commented blandly. “Yer da’s goin’ t’have to teach ye a thing or two about this burpin’ business, fear beag.”
Not five minutes later.
“Wait,” I froze, trying to focus on the movement of the ship around us, “Christ, I think we’ve made harbor!”
Easing myself out from behind Claire, who looked up at me in startled amazement, I strode over to the cabin’s bank of windows. The sun was beginning to break its way in patches through the dissipating storm, illuminating the fact that we had, in fact, slowed and were being towed to anchor in an unfamiliar port.
A joyous shout left my lips and I nearly flew back to my wife’s side.
“We’re here!” I kissed her soundly.
Her arm looped around my neck, holding me close as she began to tremble from head to toe. I took Brian from her, nestling him securely in the crook of one arm as I gathered her to me with the other. She clung to me with both hands, burying her face in my chest as great, wrenching sobs wracked her body.
“Ach, mo chridhe,” I crooned, my lips brushing against the top of her head. “Murtagh’ll have help for ye here in no time, ye’ll see.”
My arms tightened around her as her tears flowed all the more, “Just a wee bit longer, mo nighean donn… just hold on.”
I didn’t wait for the gangplank, but leapt over the rail and landed on the pier amid shouts and calls for caution.
The lot of ye be damned, I grumbled to myself, shoving past moldy French sailors, and the hell if ye’ll keep me from my duty.
But where would I find a midwife in such a place as this?
I knew enough of the language to see me by, though it near sickened me to use it, but the tongue on its own wouldn’t be the trick of it… How would I locate someone trained for my task in a harbor teaming with male sailors, merchants, and fisherfolk?
The thought lit a fire beneath my boots and had me crashing through the crowded pier towards the raucous calls of the fisher-women selling their wares.
One of them was bound to be a mother.
Nearly reaching the swarm of baskets and rows of booths, I began my supplication in French at the top of my lungs, “Help!! I need a midwife — a mother!! Someone please help me!!”
Over and over I repeated the request, grabbing hold of women’s arms, only to be shaken off and refused time and time again.
I was ready to simply take hold of the next woman I saw, throw her over my shoulder, and drag her back to the boat, when a short, frail looking woman stopped what she was doing and actually considered my request.
“Your wife?” She squinted at me, measuring me up.
“Please, madam — she’s my daughter,” I begged in French, stumbling over the words in an effort to get them out as fast as I could.
“We’ve just arrived and there’s no one to help her… Please! You must help me!”
“I’ll come,” she nodded to her companion and charged towards the quay, shouting over her shoulder, “Show me the way, we mustn’t waste any time.”
She was surprisingly spry for someone her age and we recovered ground at a remarkable speed. A glance over my shoulder found the woman’s companion — presumably her kin — who smiled reassuringly at me. I nodded politely in return, then helped the two of them down to the pier.
A few turns later had us at the base of the gangplank and I hastily followed them up, but discovered they’d made it across the deck and were opening the door to the cabin in the time it took me to board the ship.
“Christ, they’re speedy wee fiends,” I cursed under my breath and took off at a dead run.