GOWANUS Spring 2001

Three Wise Women

By Narelle Scotford

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Leith was fed up. It did not matter how careful she was.  Olga always found something wrong. 

As if it mattered whether the bandages were folded correctly.  They so often barely had enough, they had to tear them in half to make them last. Yesterday they had run out of clean syringes and had no choice but to re-use the ones they would normally have discarded. It was scary to think that in curing one disease they were also spreading another, even more deadly. Helen had told her it would be a miracle if a child was born in the camp free of HIV. 

She liked Helen even though she was not exactly an Einstein. She knew Helen had lied about her qualifications in order to get this job. But the HELP Foundation did not care. Most nurses with fancy new degrees would not want to work anyplace like this. No high desks to hide behind. No endless notes to write. Jjust the choking dust, the putrid atmosphere and, worse, the unrelenting despair. Helen  accepted it like it was nothing out of the ordinary to be surrounded by pain, dirt and fear. Olga, on the other hand, refused to face the fact that there was little they could do. Provided they followed her stupid routines, she was happy. How she hated Olga’s scrubbed pink skin and straw-like hair pulled back severely into a roll at the back of her head. She had insisted Leith cover her own curly red hair, the one thing she liked about herself. Her mother used to say it was her crowning  glory, which was just as well, as her skin was freckled, her limbs too long and her breasts hardly more than a pair of nipples. Helen somehow managed to look pretty even here. Her short punk hair framed a perfect oval of a face, and her skin was milky like a baby's. She was tiny too. Not fat like Olga or awkward like herself. You hardly even noticed that one leg was shorter than the other. 

Olga came bustling into the tent. “We have another birth in Sector Four. I’ll get there later if I can. You know the routine. Let’s see if we can save this one.”

She wanted to scream at her, “ All of the babies in Sector Four who  survive have HIV. What is the point of saving them?”

But she was a coward and, as the youngest aide in the camp, no-one ever expected her to have an opinion about anything. She had attended deliveries, and mostly all they did was make sure the baby was not strangled by its cord--or by the mother. All the women here were infected with HIV because they had been forced into prostitution by their parents in exchange for food. They knew that if they were ever allowed to return to their villages, they could not take a sick child with them.... Nothing like the time back home when she had assisted in obstetrics at the district hospital. There all the mothers were from the local town and even the single ones and those who had undergone the most gruesome labour greeted their babies with delight. They were so proud of their achievement, feted and celebrated by family and friends. 

Leith walked slowly towards the tent. No-one would greet this child with joy. Its death would be a relief, its life a painful burden.
She could hear whimpering sounds from inside. Not full-bodied screams like you would expect, just a low simmering sob. She reluctantly bent down to enter under the flap and then was shocked by what she saw. The mother was hardly more than a child herself and was alone except for the baby, which she held cradled in her arms. She had delivered it herself.  Leith checked to see that she was not still bleeding, took the baby from her and went about the post-natal routine she had been taught, carefully washing the scrawny body with  water she had brought with her, disinfecting the wound where the cord had been bitten off and freeing the tiny face from the membranes still stuck to it. The child rocked back and forth, crying quietly. Leith tried to put the baby  back in her mother’s arms, but instead the young woman grabbed hold of her and hid her face in her bosom. 

When Helen and Olga peered inside the tent, they saw three children. Leith was sitting on the ground, nursing both mother and baby, each  making the same whimpering sound. Leith’s tears bathed them equally. Olga was about to speak when Helen shook her head to stop her. They both sat down beside Leith, dried her tears, then uncurled the little fingers that clasped hers so tightly and began to wash the little body.

(Narelle Scotford is a psychologist and writer living in Sydney,  Australia. Her stories and essays have been published in national journals and magazines. She is currently completing her first book Take My Bones and Paint Them Red, an historical novel with an indigenous theme.)