Just when I thought I had done and seen just about everything imaginable as a secret service operative, yesterday, life threw me another surprise yesterday.
I’d been visiting a farm on the outskirts of a village just on the German side of the front belonging to a family who’d been distributing food to French soldiers at the front. This was strictly forbidden, of course, since much of the food grown on farms in occupied France is seized by the Bosche.
The couple have two children, a twelve-year old boy call Gaston and a daughter, Brigitte, who is sixteen, who, unfortunately had disappeared a month ago. This, I had reasoned, was why they looked so somber and bedraggled.
Having concluded the business of the meeting—instruction on how to mislead the Bosche and get much needed food to the French—I bid the couple farewell, and was given assurances that Gaston would turn the crank on my motorcar so I could make my leave.
And indeed, I was approached by a skinny lad dressed in tattered clothing and a grey cap. Once his parents had disappeared back into the the farm house, Gaston stared at me with serious dark eyes. He lowered his voice and said, “Mademoiselle, I need help.”
My eyes immediately scanned the area for signs of immediate danger. “What is it, Gaston?”
“There is an old barn down the road, just before the hairpin turn. Meet me there. Please?”
“Of course,” I said. Gaston turned the crank of the 1910 Renault as I settled into the driver’s seat. The engine roared to life and I waved.
When I spotted the old barn with its swayback roof, I brought the motorcar to a stop behind a rather large bush, then waited.
Before long, I saw Gaston jogging down the dirt road.
As I stepped out of my vehicle, he gestured urgently for me to follow. “Please, come with me.”
He led me to one of the out buildings behind the old barn, to a small, upper loft filled with hay, old farm equipment, a workbench and a collection of old tools. In the corner laying on some coarse blankets and a straw mattress was a young girl, obviously very pregnant, and in considerable pain. When she saw me, her tear filled eyes went wide with fear.
“This is my sister, Brigitte,” Gaston said, and then to clarify the subterfuge, he added, “My parents are very hard people. If they find out about this baby, they might kill it.”
I failed at keeping the look of shock on my face as Gaston continued with his explanation. “The father is German.”
Inhaling deeply, I knelt beside the girl whose forehead with damp with perspiration, and took her hand. “Hello Brigitte. I am Antionette. We’ll do this together, all right?”
I kept my voice calm, but inside my heart was racing and my stomach churning. I instructed Gaston to bring me clean towels if possible, and a basin of hot water. I prayed that the baby was not turned the wrong way. I had neither the expertise nor the medical equipment to deal with that, and the nearest doctor was probably at least an hour away by motorcar. There was simply no time to fetch him. I had to do this myself.
“Take deep breaths,” I instructed. “Slowly.”
I had to take my own advice, and breathed along with Brigette. I found a trough, and clean hay, and prepared it for the baby, much like Joseph must’ve done for Mary when Jesus was about to be born.
Women had babies everyday, I told myself. The human body just knows what to do.
I pushed aside the terrible truth that women also died in childbirth every day too. Poor Brigitte. Having to go through this very adult experience when she was still so much a child herself.
I removed my cotton slip and tore it into pieces, using one section to mop Brigitte’s brow. “I’m sorry I don’t have any water for you.”
“I loved him.”
It seem thirst came second to the need to confess. “He’s been taken away, but if he knew, he would’ve stayed.”
I nodded, not believing a word of it.
She gripped my arm with sharp nails, her eyes wild like an animal. “Can you find him? Can you send him word? His name is Hubert.”
I’d never go on a search for this man, and I doubted he would appreciate being found. If he loved Brigitte as she believed, he would’ve promised to return.
I sighed with sympathy. “Let’s just get through this day, shall we?”
A friend of mine at Boston University had studied to be a nurse, and I recalled a time when she excitedly recited to me all that she’d learned about childbirth. My mind raced to remember every part of that conversation.
“You have to keep breathing and pant gently during the contractions.”
“Pant?” Brigitte’s voice was near panic. “What do you mean pant?”
“Like a dog.” I demonstrated for her, blowing air quickly in and out through pursed lips. “But only gently. Your body will tell you it’s time to bear down. Panting will keep you focused and help you push the baby out.”
She nodded feverishly as tears streamed down her face.
Gaston returned with the requested items, the water sloshing out of the bucket. “My parents think that I come out here to fix farm tools and to read books by myself,” Gaston said, his words coming out in static, excited bursts. “I have been hiding her here for a month now. Is she going to be ok?”
“I didn’t know how to answer this question truthfully.
“What Brigitte is about to do has been done the same through all of human history; even without doctors or midwives.”
After that, things moved quickly. The baby crowned, and after many hard pushes and a scream I feared could be heard back at the farm house, the baby was born, greeting the world with a strong cry. I quickly swaddled it in the lone towel Gaston had produced, and the remnants of my slip to clean Brigitte.
With deep sobs, she thrust the babe into my arms. “You must take him.”
“My parents won’t accept him, and I can’t take care of him on my own. Please.”
Brigitte was correct on both counts.
“Take him to the village church,” she said, her voice quiet with defeat. “The nuns will know what to do.”
“And what about you?” I asked.
“I will wash up at the well and make up a story about getting lost in the woods and losing my memory. Mother will just be happy to have the help back and won’t ask too many questions.”
I took the child, glancing wistfully at the little manger that would remain unused, and with Gaston’s help in starting the motorcar, drove directly to the church. The nun who opened the door took the baby without question.
By the time I returned to my room in the village, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I stretched out on my bed and didn’t wake again until morning.