Weird-Eye is a midwife in rural Finland, taunted and revered (in almost equal measure, depending on the need of the moment) by her community, where as a former foster child she has always been treated as an outsider. When World War II extends to this Arctic Front, she finds herself drawn to one of the enemy, a war photographer working for the SS. Volunteering as a nurse in the nearby prison camp allows Weird-Eye to be near him. There is romance but also drama—and wrenching personal battles to be fought as the war comes to its close. Award-winning author Katja Kettu was born in Finnish Lapland, where The Midwife takes place. The book, published in Finland in 2011, was published in English in late fall by AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s imprint for books in translation. You can purchase the book online here, here or here.
WE COULD HEAR Lisbet’s screams from the yard. I’d spent the journey sitting on the back of a green Tatra truck, my thighs caressed by the wind. Initially I tried to force my way into the cab beside you, Johannes, but Jouni forbade me. I didn’t protest. There’s no arguing with the greatest rumrunner in Lapland.
I didn’t wait for Jouni to haul his stout body down from the passenger seat. I barged through a sea of head scarves into Näkkälä’s rose-patterned bedroom. The air smelled of incense and blood. A candle flickered on the altar, and next to an icon, Greta Garbo gave a divine, papery smile. I gripped the white lintel decorated with lace, because the sight of Lisbet shocked me. She was still beautiful, but distress and pain were pushing forth from beneath the beauty. Her milky-white thighs were caked in blood and mucus, her hair stuck across her eyes, now wide with the fear of death. Without ceremony I slid my hand between Lisbet’s thighs. I recalled my very first delivery, at the Alakunnas household, just as I did every time I midwifed.
To this day I can’t say what spurred me into action the first time I helped bring a life into this world. The unfamiliar flesh. The smooth, open thighs, the pubic hair and the soft, strange wetness between her thighs, fingers slipping between the folds of flesh. The pungent odor of camphor and vagina. Something had compelled me to examine that unknown woman’s insides, and I soon realized that the baby was in the breech position and was about to come out the wrong way. Until then I hadn’t known the powers of the Lord, but that evening the spirit moved within me. That night a song rang within me, a song that lent me the expertise to flip the child around in the womb, and before long he was born as angry and healthy as a Stallo cub. When news of the miracle delivery reached folks’ ears, such a clamor of joy and emotion ran through the village that it sent the waterfowl into early migration, and the whole of Parkkina went without seagull stew that autumn. It didn’t seem to matter that the bairn slipped while I was washing him and fell on his head, leaving him with a persistent stammer. Nobody blamed me, and
besides, damage like that is only diagnosed years later.
“The peace of God be with you,” the womenfolk muttered at me for the first time in their lives.
“It’s Big Lamberg’s Weird-Eye. The Red bastard.”
“God bless you, girl. You’ve a great gift.”
That was the local midwife, Aune Näkkälä. She squeezed me in her arms the way no one had done before.
“You’re Pietari’s lass, all right. I mind your father. From now on I’ll treat you like my own.”
Aune’s voice rasped like soft flesh beneath a slowly twisting, red-hot, cast-iron poker.
“You’ve a great gift and a great sorrow. We’ll see what kind of crooked path the Lord has in store for you.”
Quite. That’s how Aune became a mother to me.
And now she lay moaning in the woodshed behind the barn. She was a tough woman. But it was because of Aune that I knew how to act. Roll up your sleeves. Brush your nails with lard soap. Ask for carboline from the instrument case, and rinse your arms up to the armpit. Feel the vulva and sniff for infections.
I pressed my fingers inside Lisbet. At least the baby’s head was in the right place, but the cervix was only dilated about an inch and a half and the child was stuck. The cervix ran diagonally to the right, and the fontanel was on the left. Lisbet panted, gasping and sweaty.
“I’ve never been with anybody, Mammy . . . I never.”
“Well somebody’s got the lassie up the duff,” muttered Old Keskimölsä’s wife. “And I’ll tell you one thing, it wasn’t the Holy Spirit.”
I told her to fill the samovar and boil some water. She stood there, wagging a loose-jointed finger at the sinner.
“Hold your trap when Aune Näkkälä’s daughter’s lambing,” I snapped. “And will you hurry with that water.”
Keskimölsä’s wife did as she was told.
“Aye, it was God that knocked me up,” Lisbet whispered, her eyeballs gleaming white.
Just as before, certainty came to me straight from the Almighty, flowed into my mind the way water bubbles up to the bottom of a bog hole. I saw immediately that I’d have to use the forceps. As I inserted the tip, sweat ran down my back. The German officer was outside somewhere, the one who’d looked at me without flinching. The one whose voice was like amber, who made the Wehrmacht stop in their tracks. I didn’t want the bairn going up to heaven right there in front of him. I began to hum.
At our time of need, we pray unto the Lord, and he shall aid all those who cry for help . . .”
Aune’s moans carried in through the open window.
“My only daughter turned a trollop for the Fritz. An actress, that’s what she was supposed to be. The new Greta Garbo, they said. Now look what you’ve done! They can both die for all I care, mother and bairn.”
Neither of them died.
The boy was healthy and covered from head to toe in fine fluff. I slapped his backside, and straight away a merry bawling pealed out into the yard and behind the barn. Even Aune lumbered in to inspect the newborn.
“Well. You’re back.” She glowered at me. “Hairy little runt. Doubt it’ll live till morning. Throw it in the swamp.”
“Looks lively enough to me.”
“The boy mustn’t be left with Lisbet. She can’t get too attached—he’ll soon die all the same. And she can’t sleep with a sickly child, she’ll only end up with bags under her eyes and tits suckled to ruin. You’d better find a wet nurse just in case. Our Lisbet’s too sensitive for a bairn like this.”
I tried to stand my ground. He was a fine-looking creature, though he was hairy, and the smell was that of a healthy baby. I reminded her that such fur was normal for newly born children and that it would molt before long.
Aune wanted to see for herself what I’d scribbled on the patient card.
First-born child, mother 23 yrs. Contractions for four days. Forceps birth. Patient received six stitches. No complications. Child healthy and hairy.
Aune scoffed, slipped the card into her pocket, and that’s where it stayed.
But an almost churchlike murmur ran through the congregation gathered there when you stepped inside. I recognized you instantly. The womenfolk made way, as they would for the Messiah. Jouni must have come in too, but I can’t remember for the life of me. At most, a male shadow flickered behind you. No. From the very outset I saw only you, for your shadow engulfed even the greatest rumrunner in Lapland.
“Gute Nacht,” you greeted us as you hunched under the doorjamb. You were almost a head taller than all those present.
“God’s greetings, God’s greetings,” folks muttered along the walls and in the shadows cast by the lantern. It seemed the zealots and Bible-thumpers were happy to give you their God’s greetings.
“Damn you, man, did you have to bring a photographer here to witness our shame?”
“Quiet, woman,” Jouni barked at her. “He speaks Finnish.”
Nobody seemed at all surprised at the presence of a reporter from Lappland-Kurier or by the fact that you took off your boots in the doorway. In an instant I realized that everyone in the room knew who you were. Nobody batted an eyelid as in slow, pleasurable movements you mounted a wide-lens camera to your tripod. Ludo 231, it read on the side. Those gathered held their breath as you set up the shot, focused the camera. Keskimölsä’s wife carried lanterns over to the bed without anyone asking. Apparently people knew that good photographs needed light. You glanced up at Lisbet, your look a mix of distant acceptance and nausea. The hairy child was swaddled and tucked deep into her armpit.
Your eyes flitted across the women in the room, lighting on plaits, scarves, and skirts, caressing every face, and each of them seemed to flinch, even Aune Näkkälä. All of a sudden I understood the imperfection of my own womanhood, that and the fact that I was covered from head to toe in blood and membranes and that the umbilical cord I’d ripped with my teeth was still dangling from the side of my mouth. I spat it to the floor and prayed: Don’t look at me now. Please God, please don’t let that man see me now.
You did, of course.
Excerpted from The Midwife by Katja Kettu, translated by David Hackston. © 2011 by Katja Kettu and WSOY. Published by AmazonCrossing, October 2016. All rights reserved.