Emma in a hot spring


Chapter Two The Midwife

The first time I saw Sybelle, it was October and she was wearing a Christmas sweater. We’d just driven across the country so my husband could start a new job flying helicopter tours in the Smoky Mountain National Forest. I was six months pregnant. We were renting her basement apartment sight unseen. I found the ad in the local newspaper and spoke briefly with her on the phone. In that short conversation, she managed to wedge in information about her personal relationship with Jesus twice and warned me she didn’t celebrate Halloween because it was “the devil’s day.”

“I start Christmas early instead,” she said, which I guess explained the sweater. It was white with three applique cats. The cats were playing with sequined ornaments and each had a tiny bell on a ribbon around its neck. “Tis the Season” was written across the top in cursive script. Sybelle (pronounced Sib-ell-ah) had paired the outfit with a red collar and pleated green slacks. The look was similar to something my grandmother would have worn during the holidays (except Helen was partial to cardinals instead of cats), but above the neckline, the similarity stopped.

I still don’t know Sybelle’s age. Standing in the driveway that first day, she looked to be roughly forty-five. Later, I would place her closer to eighty. She didn’t have a single wrinkle but too-frequent chemical peels had given her face a translucent, ghostly quality, like wax poured over bone. Her amaranthine mask was haloed by wild, frizzy brown hair that occasionally showed a peek of white that Sybelle banished within the day.

She watched us park our Jeep Cherokee, face impassive. Two large dogs, identical mixed breeds, ran out from the house, barking and jumping against the windows. Our own dog, an elderly mutt named Jack, cowered in the backseat, whining. Sybelle called them off with a sharp whistle as we got out.

“You’re late,” she called, regarding us with suspicion as we walked toward her. She had a slight accent and her voice was pitched like that of a young girl, making her age even more difficult to decipher. Wherever she was in life, she was correct: we’d told her to expect us in the afternoon and it was nearing sunset.

“We had a bit of trouble getting the trailer up the road,” said my husband, greatly downplaying the stress-filled hours we’d spent navigating the steep, poorly maintained dirt path that was now our driveway. He gave her a disarming smile and offered her his hand. “This is quite a place you’ve got here.” I stopped eyeing the dogs and took in our new home.

Her ad in the paper had said the house was “a short scenic drive from the city”. This would turn out to be the first of many falsehoods provided by Sybelle about our new “private apartment”. After receiving our deposit, Sybelle had given us country directions: stay on Highway 14 til you see the caves, turn right at the red gate, follow the dirt road past the trailer with the moat, yes the moat, turn right again and follow that road to the end and there’ll be another gate, after that the driveway starts.

When we pulled up to the first gate, there were two signs on the fence, both handmade. One said, “no trespassing”, stenciled white on red. The other read “ABORTION IS MURDER”. I looked at my husband, waiting for a reaction. He was silent for a moment then said, “Get the gate.” I slipped on my shoes and got out of the car, taking the opportunity to stretch my aching back and calves.

I opened the gate and walked it out of the way. My husband drove through and I pulled it closed behind him. Hooking the chain, I paused for a moment and looked back the way we’d come. We were a lot farther from town than I’d expected, specifically from the hospital. I wasn’t terribly worried about the pregnancy. I was a healthy twenty year old and I’d attended enough births, I thought I knew what to expect. Still, there were no other houses in sight. No smoke from chimneys wafted over the trees like I’d seen closer to town. The woods were silent. Perfectly still. Nothing like the noisy, bird-filled Ponderosa pine forests back home. I held my breath and listened for any small sound, the crack of a twig, a squirrel chirping. With the sun nearly down, there was a chill in the air and I shivered, wishing I hadn’t packed my jacket.

My husband rolled down his window and slapped the side of the Jeep, making me jump. I hurried back to the car and got in. We started up the steep dirt road, my husband cursing every so often as he eased the trailer over muddy ruts. By the time we made it to the second gate, it was almost dark. I hopped out and opened that, too, avoiding a large puddle in the middle as best I could.

The condition of the driveway beyond was even worse than the road. Deeply gouged, it clearly hadn’t been maintained for several years. My husband let out another string of curses as we narrowly avoided getting stuck for the third time and put the car in 4 wheel drive. Even still, the going was slow and arduous. The baby in my stomach kicked wildly at the commotion, jostling me from the inside as well as out. We finally passed through a barbed wire fence (another gate, this one open) and crested the top of the hill. There sat the house. Sybelle was waiting for us with her arms crossed across her inappropriately festive sweater.

It was, as my husband had said, “quite a place”. The house was a two story ranch style with a wrap-around deck, perched in a small clearing enclosed by woods on three sides. The fourth side faced a spectacular view of the mountain forests below. I could see town lights far off in the distance to the west. A handful of others dotted the hillside. It appeared we did have neighbors, but not many.

Sybelle shook my husband’s hand, warming ever so slightly to his dogged charm. She glanced at my very pregnant stomach. “You two are married, I hope,” she said. My husband laughed and put his arm around me. “Last time I checked,” he said. He placed his hand on my stomach proudly, like a boy showing off a school project. “This here’s our first.” Her eyes met mine and I had to resist the urge to recoil behind my husband like a small child afraid of a stranger. “Six months,” I said and forced myself to shake her hand.

She considered this information as though it was new, even though we’d discussed it on the phone when I first called about the rental. “Awfully far along to be making a big move,” she said, with not a little disapproval. “You have a doctor picked out?” I nodded and told her the name of the only OBGYN in town. She sniffed. “He’ll C-section you. Doesn’t like to work the holidays.”

My husband frowned at this information. “Emma’s hoping to have a natural birth,” he said.

Sybelle brightened. “Oh really?” she asked. I nodded.. “I used to be a midwife,” she said. “Before I met Leon. He didn’t want me to work after we married.” She folded her hands demurely in front of her and looked up at my husband. “A woman’s place is in the home.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” he replied. Sybelle beamed and turned to open the door.

“He built this house for me,” she said as she led us inside. “Right before he died.” She paused, looking back at us. We murmured our condolences. She sniffed again, clearly hoping for more of a reaction. “Heart attack. Right upstairs in the kitchen. Nothing I could do. Middle of January, ambulance couldn’t even make it up the road.” Seeing the alarm on my face and realizing she hadn’t gotten a check for October yet, she added, “Big blizzard that year. El Niño. It isn’t usually that bad.”

We passed through the small entryway to the laundry room. A flight of stairs led up to her part of the house. Next to them was the door to our apartment. Here she paused, key in the lock, and turned to us, suddenly fierce. “Like I said on the phone, I don’t allow drugs or devil-worship of any kind.” Emotion entered her voice and tears filled her eyes. “This is a good, God-fearing home.”

I opened my mouth to ask what she meant by devil worship but my husband beat me to answering. “Perfect,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re looking for.” She beamed and opened the door, motioning for us to enter. I caught his arm, raising my eyebrows to convey my concern but he just gave me a shrug that seemed to say “utilities included” and we went inside.

Sybelle’s ad described the apartment as having a “rustic charm”. In actuality, it was just a dirty basement with a miniature refrigerator and a two burner stove. It had low paperboard ceilings and outdoor carpeting thrown over a cement floor. We had our own bathroom built into the space under the stairs but it was dark and smelled like mold. The only perk seemed to be the view: a large picture window in the main room looked out over pristine forest, fog hugging the rolling hills like something out of a painting.

Sybelle gave us a tour of the small space with a mixture of enthusiasm and defensiveness, showing us how to operate the shower and the child-sized oven as though they were peak amenities. When she finished, we looked at each other. The place was a dump but it was two hundred dollars cheaper than everywhere else we had looked, with a month to month lease.

I wrote her a check while my husband backed the trailer up to the door. We had to get it back to Uhaul by morning so we started unpacking immediately, under Sybelle’s watchful eye. She stood next to the door and mostly stayed quiet as we moved in our meager possessions. We only owned four pieces of furniture: a denim couch, my childhood dresser, a queen-size mattress with no bed frame, and a table my husband had made for me as a wedding present.

When he carried it inside, Sybelle hissed like one of the cats on her sweater. “What is that?” she asked.

My husband set it down in front of her, looking proud. “Do you like it? I made it for Emma when we got married.”

“What is that symbol?” she asked, her voice gripped tight with suspicion.

He ran his hand across the inlayed surface. “A moon and stars. It matches her necklace.” Sybelle’s head whipped to me and I pulled the pendant on its silver chain from my coat for her to see. I’d had the necklace since the fifth grade. My stepfather had gotten it for me from the Oregon coast. He wasn’t a demonstrative or affectionate man, and he’d given it to me with a certain amount of bashful embarrassment. I’d worn it so much over the years, the points of the star were rounded down to nubs.

Sybelle took a step back. “Witchcraft,” she said, eyes wide. This would be the first of many such accusations. Sybelle, it would turn out, believed in the devil not as a concept, an idea, but as an active participant in the daily and never-ending war between good and evil. According to her, he could be anywhere, in anything, always on the lookout for ways to insinuate himself into people’s lives. People who chose to live a secular life had chosen to serve the devil; there was no neutrality in the battle for men’s souls.

First it was the table, next it was a pair of my husband’s shorts she found in the dryer with a logo that said “ButtFur”. Sybelle demanded I remove them from the house, saying, “the devil thrives on vulgarity.” Next was a cardigan sweater with stars on the pockets. Not pentagrams, just regular stars. Sybelle accused me of trying to “hide spells in plain sight.” She confronted me in tears after seeing a Harry Potter book on the seat of my car. She wanted me to burn it and when I said I couldn’t because it was a library book, she called the library to demand they take the series off their shelves.

At first, I found these confrontations harmless, even a little humorous. I wasn’t raised around evangelicals, her beliefs seemed archaic and quaint, like believing in fairies or trickle down economics. My parents were hippies, the closest thing we had to the devil was worrying about growth hormones in milk. Moving to the south was a real culture shock for me. The streets were dotted with churches, our small town alone had twelve. Lurid billboards advertising eternal damnation made our commute home feel like a ghost ride at an amusement park. At the grocery store, Baptists left cartoon pamphlets on our windshield, warning of the dangers of “vampire idolization” and “assertive women”. I kind of enjoyed their earnestness, their seemingly personal stake in my salvation.

Sybelle gave us a week to “settle in” and then started bugging us about attending her church. After being woken up at 7am several Sundays in a row and refusing her invites, I gently tried to explain to her that I preferred to go hiking on the weekends, to find God among the glory of his worldly creation, in the trees and rocks and sky. This was clearly the wrong thing to say, as she

gasped and said, “Nature-worship!”

This exchange solidified her suspicions that I was a witch and her behavior quickly went from humorous to invasive. She began to harass me constantly, knocking on my door multiple times a day with politely delivered accusations and demands. She claimed strange smells were coming from the apartment and barged inside to inspect my tiny kitchen. At least once a week, she accused me of making meth, an activity she claimed went hand in hand with devil worship. She demanded I show her my marriage certificate, refusing to believe we weren’t living in sin. (“It’s from California, doesn’t count.”)

I tried to appease her. I moved posters and books out of the house that felt “too pagan” for her liking. I stopped cooking with garlic. We even joined a church. (Unitarian, but still.) Nothing seemed to work, the situation continued to escalate. Sybelle listened in on my calls, opened my mail, went through my things while I was gone. She made little to no attempt to hide her snooping and when confronted, shrugged and said, “This is my house.” She began meeting us in the driveway when we returned home in the evening, shining a flashlight into our eyes to make sure we weren’t on drugs or possessed. I started to feel afraid and continually pestered my husband about finding another place to live, but still, we didn’t leave.

When I brought up moving to my husband, he brushed me off. The place was cheap and we had already moved three times that year. Unless she tried to burn me at the stake, we were staying. “Just ignore her,” he told me but this was easy for him to say because he was gone all day at work, flying helicopter tours. Living his dream while I spent my days Anne Frank-ing, tiptoeing around, not flushing the toilet, waiting to shower until I heard the Sybelle’s car scrape out of the driveway.

It didn’t help that she acted completely different around him. When he was around, Sybelle played the part of docile coquette, flirting, syrupy sweet and complimentary, batting the eyelashes in her otherwise frozen face. She oozed maternal concern for me and the baby, repeatedly offering her midwifery services if I ever came to my senses about the town doctor. She invited him upstairs, something she’d never done with me and baked him German pastries and breads. He said he was humoring her but I could tell he enjoyed the attention. She stroked his ego and sided with him on his more misogynistic opinions.

There was something in her eyes I started to recognize in the other residents of our little neighborhood. Mad zealotry mixed with isolationism, a look almost phase-shifted, society and sanity just out of reach. The moat I mentioned at the beginning of this story was exactly that. Our closest neighbor dug a trench around his trailer and added razor wire to his fence. I’m from backwoods Idaho, rednecks and hermits don’t bother me, but within a few months I started to understand why people were concerned when we told them where we lived. They always looked alarmed and said, “Out there??” Once a cop pulled me over and when I told him my address, his eyes went wide. “Just...just be extra careful in that area,” he said, handing my license and registration back, shaking his head.

The situation wore on me. Sybelle made frequent remarks about my fitness to be a mother, about how the baby would be better off with a nice Christian family. She once told me she prayed I’d have a stillbirth, rather than bring another demon into this world. If you’ve ever been pregnant (or the partner of a pregnant person) you know emotions are greatly heightened during the third trimester. I was desperate to get settled in, do some proper nesting, get things perfect for our new baby but I felt completely isolated. Stranded on a mountain with no money, no car, an elderly dog my only companion. The only other human contact I had most days was a husband who felt like a mirage and a mad woman who popped by to ask if she could borrow a cup of sugar and also, did I dabble in necromancy?

I couldn’t even take our dog, Jack, for walks. The land on which the house stood was gorgeous; rolling hills dotted with old growth oaks right in the thick of their fall colors. When we first moved in, I couldn’t wait to go for long hikes. Sybelle’s aggressive dogs made that impossible. They attacked and injured Jack several times. After the second time, I started standing outside with a stick whenever I let him out to go to the bathroom. This especially sucked at night, the press of rural dark all around us, Sybelle’s hateful mutts slipping in and out of the glow of the porchlight with bared teeth. When we were inside, they stood on our deck, glaring into our picture window, eyes reflecting menace. Jack was a generally well-behaved older dog, but the weeks of being cooped up and hassled began to wear on him and he whined near constantly, hiding in our room under the bed.

I shared his unease. During the day, I wandered the apartment like an exhausted ghost. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. I felt near-delirious from listening hard at night for footsteps on the stairs. When I did sleep, I had violent nightmares, dreams in which Sybelle stood above me with a knife, holding my baby, laughing while her dogs tore me apart.


I went to see the doctor by myself. My husband was working six days a week and claimed he was too busy to come with me. I didn’t want to admit it to myself at the time but I suspect he was fucking his coworker. I suspect that because at other jobs, he was regularly fucking his coworkers. I’d invited her over once for dinner and games with some of his other friends but hadn’t gotten a chance to do much sleuthing because Sybelle kept interrupting to make sure we weren’t having a seance.

Looking back, I’m glad I was naive enough to be excited about giving birth rather than nervous. From the moment I got pregnant, I was filled with a buzzing joy, giddy to meet my child. I’ve always said I had easy pregnancies but it’s possible that’s because none of the hardships really bothered me. The swollen feet, the weight gain, the fatigue, all of it seemed part of a grand adventure, a pilgrimage, a walking of a sacred circle that was bringing me to a blessed place: motherhood.

It was so important to me at the time that I gave birth “right”. I read every book, did all the exercises, took two different birthing courses, talked strategy at length with my granola relatives who’d had home births. Every resource I had reassured me that if I relaxed, if I did the breathing correctly and approached the process with an open heart, it would be rapturous.

This is part of the lie we tell about birth: that if you do it right, it won’t hurt.

I had a whole intricate birth plan that got thrown into the trash when my husband lost his job and we moved across the country. We no longer had health insurance and I wasn’t sure how we were going to cover the cost of a child. After we found a place to live, I scrambled to find adequate maternity care. My options were extremely limited.

Unfortunately, during my first visit it seemed that Sybelle’s opinion of him might be correct. He barely looked at me before declaring me too petite to have a natural birth, “I’m just going to C-section you,” he said. “Save everyone some time.” After shoving his hand inside me with zero patience for my discomfort, he revealed that he didn’t do spinal block C-sections. He still put his patients all the way under. “I’m old school,” he said, giving his nurse a wink. “I like to knock ‘em out.”

I left his office near tears and went straight to the small hospital across the street, hoping this would make me feel better. Inside, I asked a nurse if I could tour the maternity ward. “Help yourself,’ she said and waved me towards two large, swinging doors.

I still dream sometimes about the area beyond those doors. The “maternity ward” had dingy pea green floors and walls stained yellow like a smoker's fingertips. Fluorescent lights flickered around moldy and falling ceiling tiles. It was nothing like the cheerful, pristine hospital I’d left behind. It looked like something out of a zombie movie. I wasn’t from a rich area of the country but this was poverty on another level. How could they have so many billboards declaring every life sacred then expect people carrying that life to give birth in this?

As I stood there, a deep feeling of dread came over me. I felt suddenly dizzy and had to steady myself against the wall. To no one, I said, “I die here.” I could see myself on the table, cut in half like a magician's assistant. I don’t remember if I finished the tour after that or not. When I told my husband about the experience he was more worried about the price than the bad vibes.

“Sybelle said she only charges $500 for a birth,” he said. “Sounds like a racket to me.”


In the weeks that followed, the situation with Sybelle seemed to stabilize. She got a seasonal job for the holidays and a boyfriend, “Rick Who I Am Definitely Not Sleeping With Because I Am A Good Christian Woman”, last name unknown. She seemed to lose interest in my supposed witchery, and November passed with only one incident, when she mistook Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” for a work of nonfiction and became obsessed with the idea that Da Vinci was a Satanist. She pounded on my door and demanded that I take down a postcard of The Simpsons at the Last Supper. I tried to refuse, but she was adamant. She hissed that she knew what I was, tears ruining her mascara, that she had all the answers right there in her hard-backed copy of Brown’s novel. This was just before Thanksgiving and I didn’t want to flame her witch fever during the holidays, so I gave her the card. She took it upstairs and burned it in her stove.

We even had tea together a couple times. Sure I could win her over, I invited Sybelle downstairs on the pretense of wanting some advice on giving birth. It has been my experience that if you want to make friends with someone, usually all it takes is asking them questions about an area of their expertise. Humans love to teach and Sybelle was no different. She thawed almost immediately and I learned a lot about her during those visits.

She was born in Germany and had lived through World War II. She had been, and I’m going to quote her here, “a Nazi youth, but only for a little while and everybody was because you had to be.” After the war, she and her mother were separated from the rest of the family in East Germany. She and her first husband fled to Czechoslovakia, where they endured another war. From there they went to Trinidad and eventually the US. She was a midwife in Germany but didn’t practice again until she settled in America, after becoming aware of our “appalling birth practices”.

After tea, she pulled a little wooden horn out of her pocket and used it to listen to the baby’s heartbeat. I told her the town doctor was annoyed with me because I didn’t want to get an internal exam every time I came in. She asked how often I was seeing him.

“Every two weeks,” I told her and she scoffed.

“That’s how they justify charging you ten grand,” she said. “Your body knows what it’s doing. It doesn’t need help from anyone but God.”

Usually her talk about God made me feel vaguely uncomfortable but after several upsetting visits with the town doctor, I appreciated her hands off approach. Her lack of worry and decades of experience put me at ease.

Leading up to Thanksgiving, I tried very hard not to think about my family. While they would be gathered together for the usual warm, rowdy party, I would be stuck in this terrible, lonely place. I couldn’t seem to admit my misery. On the phone with my mother and sisters, I was extra peppy. I told them I was glad we didn’t have to do a big dinner that year, that we could celebrate together, just the two of us before the baby came.

We ended up spending Thanksgiving with my husband’s boss and his family. They seemed warm and welcoming, and it felt nice to be around people for once. Everyone laughed at my stories and when we left, I felt like I was the life of the party. On the drive home, however, my husband told me his boss said I talked too much. “He told me I ought to knock you around some, teach you some manners.” We spent the rest of the drive in silence as I tried to determine if my new husband agreed with him.

Sybelle was waiting for us when we got home. We’d gotten a lot of snow that week and the steep driveway was near-impassable so we’d started parking at the bottom and walking up. As we were gathering our things and buttoning our coats for the hike up to our apartment, Sybelle stepped out of the woods, a flashlight in her hand. She shined it into our eyes.

“Why are you parking down here?” She asked, her tone shrill and suspicious. My husband explained about getting stuck because our four wheel drive wasn’t working.

“Oh yeah, then why are you always coming and going at odd hours? And why are your eyes so squinty?” My husband looked at me. These interrogations were part of my daily routine but this was the first time he’d had to defend himself.

“Because of my job,” he said, starting to sound angry. “And I’m squinting because you’re shining that light in my eyes.”

Sybelle took a step toward us, not lowering the light. “Aha!” she cried triumphantly and pointed to a bag I’d just pulled out of the car. “You’re running drugs! The devil is here. I knew it!”

My husband grabbed the bag from me and threw it at Sybelle’s feet. “Open it,” he demanded. She looked at him warily but moved to comply. She dug through the contents then, still unsatisfied, she dumped everything out on the snow. An assortment of baby onesies I’d gotten at the thrift store earlier that day scattered before her. She raised the light back to us for a moment then proceeded to check each onesie thoroughly as though we’d sewn heroin into the seams.

“I told you before,” my husband said in a low, dangerous voice. “We’re just a nice couple waiting on a baby. No devil. No drugs.”

Sybelle stood silent for a moment then sniffed. “I had to be sure,” she said. She turned without another word and disappeared into the woods.

When we got up the driveway and inside, I renewed my plea to my husband to move. I told him how miserable I was, how I felt like a prisoner. “Please,” I begged him. “Please, we can live anywhere else. Just not here. Not with her anymore.”

After Christmas, he said. Just give it another month.


Knowing our departure was imminent helped raise my spirits. During the month of December I did my best to tinsel over money problems, exhaustion, and loneliness, hoping that if I could muster enough Christmas cheer, it would set the tone for the next year. Manic, I strung popcorn and cranberries, painted pinecones, and wreathed pine boughs no one but us would see. I hung our stockings above the kitchen table near our pint-sized tree. I was due in about a month and the reality of having to give birth without my support system was starting to weigh on me. Somehow I believed it wasn't enough to make the best of this shitshow, I had to make it better than spending the holidays with the people I loved. I even actually started to feel pretty good, very grown up and ready for a family of my own. I was starting to get a little nervous about being a mom but had faith that if I could do this holiday right, I could do anything.

Determined to be properly in the spirit, I brought up a plate of cookies to Sybelle. She thanked me with her usual suspicion, face shiny and peeling from a recent chemical peel. She accepted the cookies and gave me my present: a comic that extolled the evils of pop music. I even considered inviting her for Christmas Eve dinner but when I asked if she had plans for that night, her eyes grew narrow. “Trying to get me out of the house?” she said. I reconsidered my offer, thanked her for the comic and went downstairs.

When my husband got home, I baked cookies and we settled on the couch to watch “Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas”. Things felt perfect for a moment, snuggled on the couch drinking cocoa, our tiny family as close and happy as we could be. This wasn’t so bad, I remember thinking, just seconds before a knock came at the door. I assumed it was Sybelle, and feeling remorse at my earlier hard-heartedness I told my husband to invite her in. He opened the door and there stood a police officer, brushing snow off his hat and looking embarrassed. He asked if he could come inside.

We let him in and his eyes swept around the room, taking in the decorations, the cookies on the table, the holiday program on TV. He sighed and explained that our landlady had called 911, claiming her tenants were cooking up a holiday batch of methamphetamines. She could smell it, she said, the whole house reeked.

“Gingerbread?” he asked, pointing at the cookies. I nodded.

We invited him to look around the apartment but he declined. He explained that she had been calling the police department about us, “specifically you, M’am”, for a couple of months.

“Wait,” I said, confused. “She called you before tonight?”

“Yeah, and uh,” he scratched his head. “No offense but she thinks you’re a witch. Like an actual real witch.” I stared at him. “I mean, we told her, even if you were, we can’t do nothing about that. No law against being a witch. I mostly came out tonight as a courtesy to you folks. She has a history of harassing tenants. We just assumed that, like most people do, you’d move out within the first month or so and the problem would take care of itself.”

I looked at my husband. He avoided my gaze. The officer stayed a few more minutes before leaving with a handful of cookies to go speak with Sybelle. Before heading up the stairs, he turned. “Look” he said, lowering his voice. “I’m not saying she’s dangerous or nothing but--” He paused and cleared his throat. “Just find yourselves another place as soon as you can.”

We sat back on the couch, listening to the sounds of a heated conversation upstairs. After we heard the patrol car pull out of the driveway, my husband stood and said, “ I’ll be right back.”

Up until this point in our relationship, I had only seen him angry a handful of times but that was enough. With broad shoulders and tree trunk legs, he was the kind of man who can claim to be a pacifist because of his sheer size. His anger was the anger of a man who could snap your neck with one hand but didn’t. With his anger, you knew the only thing keeping you safe was his restraint, and boy, he let you know it. He let you sit in the possibility of his terrible contained rage, while rarely having to exercise it.

Hearing his measured tread, I found myself almost feeling sorry for Sybelle. He knocked on her door and she opened it, immediately starting in with accusations. He cut her off. “This,” he said in a low rumble, “is unacceptable.” The door shut behind him, silencing the rest. I listened as hard as I could but all I could make out was murmur. He was gone fifteen minutes and when he returned, he sat on the couch, finishing his cookies as though nothing had happened. I waited as long as I could, staring at him until I could stand it no longer, exploding out with a “Well?!” He took a sip of eggnog and shrugged. “I gave our notice,” he said.


Three days later, my water broke in the Walmart. I was in the condiment aisle and had a pickle jar in my hands. Which was funny because at my birthing class, they said, “if your water breaks at the grocery store, just drop a jar of pickles.” This seemed a pointlessly dishonest extra layer of mess to lay on someone who might want to know that they’re cleaning up uterus brine so I didn’t lie when I told a nearby employee he needed to grab a mop.

I thought I was ready. Though I wasn’t due for nearly another month, my birthing bag was packed and by the door. I was doing all the pre-labor things you’re supposed to do: softening my cervix, massaging my perineum, relaxing my pelvic floor. I was thousands of miles away from any sort of support system but I forced myself to remain stubbornly optimistic. A month before, my sister had given birth to my nephew, surrounded by family and friends. After my mother called from the hospital, a wave of fear and despair threatened to engulf me but I shoved it down. I funneled the feelings of isolation and heartbreak into determination. I was going to have a perfect birth experience, I told myself, and I was happy to be doing it without a crowd.

Outside, it had begun to snow. I hurried over to a payphone and called the doctor’s office. An on-call receptionist put me through to his nurse. She was at a party, I could hear music and people laughing in the background. “You’re early,” she said, disapproval clear in her voice.

“Sorry,” I said.

“You’re sure you didn’t pee yourself?” I was sure. She sighed. “Well, you don’t sound like you’re in labor,” she said. “It could just be Braxton-Hicks.”

I wasn’t in any pain but the contractions I was having felt more serious than the false ones I’d been experiencing the last few weeks. “Should I go to the hospital?”

She laughed. “This is your first baby. You’ve got plenty of time. Stay home until your contractions are at least a half hour apart. Even then you probably don’t need to hurry.” As she hung up I heard her say to someone at the party “Another Christmas baby. Every goddamn year.”

I’d dropped my husband off at work that morning so I could have the car. I hung up and called him but he was on a flight. I considered finishing my shopping but I was too excited so instead I drove straight to the airport. He was landing right as I got there. I met him inside and told him it was time. He went and told his boss he needed the rest of the day off. His boss made him do his paperwork before he could leave for the day. I waited in the small waiting area while he finished. At one point, a pilot came in and we chatted for a little while. He asked me how I was and I said, “Pretty good. I’m in labor.” He laughed, then said, “Wait. Right now? Seriously?” I nodded. “Gross,” he said and left the room.

My husband finished and we drove back to the house. My contractions started getting closer together but still, they weren’t at all painful. I felt as though a large muscle was tightening and releasing across my lower abdomen and back but the sharp cramping I’d been told to expect was absent. I assumed that meant I wasn’t very far along and we had plenty of time.

By the time we got to the house, it had begun to snow in earnest. We barely made it up the driveway, I remember holding onto my swollen stomach as we bounced over icy ruts like it was a beachball that might get away from me. Sybelle was outside shoveling when we pulled up, between my husband’s excitement and the poor visibility, we almost ran her over as we parked. She glared at us as I maneuvered my heavy body out of the car but warmed as my husband ran past her yelling, “it’s time!” Her face lit up. “Already?” she said. Seeing me, it clouded over with suspicion again. “So early…”

Not in the mood for more lectures on my supposed drug use, I walked wordlessly past her into the apartment. Inside, my husband was frantically trying to find the birthing bag that, according to our class, was his one responsibility to pack before I went into labor. I sat gingerly on the couch and picked up the cordless phone. “By the door,” I told him. He grabbed the bag and started back outside. After a few moments he came back in, looking perplexed.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Calling my mom,” I said. “We have time. They said not to come in too soon.” My mom answered and I let her know the situation. She was excited and made me promise to have my husband call with frequent updates. Before we hung up she said, “I can’t believe in a few hours, I’ll have a new grandkid!”

A few hours passed. Then another few. My contractions stayed about the same, never ramping up past slightly uncomfortable. I took a bath, ate some popsicles. If this was labor, I thought, why did anyone bother with drugs? I’d had period cramps that felt more serious. Sybelle came down twice to check on me, carrying her bible with her each time. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” I heard her tell my husband. “Most women at this stage are crying and screaming, she’s just reading a book.”

Around 8pm, I called the doctor’s office again. This time the receptionist put me straight through to him. I explained the situation and he was quiet for a moment. “You still have your mucus plug?” I did. “Any bleeding?” None. “Well,” he said, hoping to preserve his Christmas morning. “You can come in now and we’ll get you on the table, be done by breakfast.”

I reminded him of my desire to have a natural birth and he sighed. “Fine,” he snapped. “Stay home then. Just try to have it before midnight.”

I said I’d do my best, not sure how I’d accomplish that and he softened. “Get some rest,” he said. “This could be your last good night’s sleep for quite a while.” As I was hanging up, I heard the click of Sybelle placing the receiver upstairs in the cradle. She’d been listening in on me again.

We went to bed and as excited as I was, I slept through the night. Slept late, even. At 10am, I woke up feeling bright with anticipation. “This is the day I get to meet my baby,” I thought to myself, sure that this was true. I got up and made coffee for my husband but didn’t have any myself. All the birthing books said you wanted to go into labor with an empty stomach. I took Jack outside and for once, Sybelle’s dogs didn’t harass us. They stood like gray sentinels in the falling snow, which somehow was managing to come down even heavier than the night before.

I felt a twinge of worry about the roads and went inside to wake my husband. He yawned. “We have a midwife in the house,” he said, rolling over. “Don’t stress.” He asked if my contractions were any closer together and I said I thought maybe they were, a little. This in and of itself seemed peculiar to me. Everything I’d read described labor as a runaway freight train. Once it got started, it always accelerated but I seemed to be just hanging out at the station.

I called the doctor again and he grumbled at me that I didn’t need to keep updating him about nothing. “Don’t call unless something changes,” he said and hung up. I called my mom and told her we were still waiting. She wished me a Merry Christmas and offered encouragement and love, reminding me that she’d been in labor with me for two days. “First babies take FOREVER,” she said, laughing. I hung up feeling buoyed.

I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon much as I had the night before: waiting. I finally got hungry enough that I had to eat some lunch. We decided to wait to open our few presents because I felt like I was too nervous to enjoy doing an actual Christmas morning. I walked circles around the small apartment and did squats, hoping to speed things up. Nothing seemed to help. My contractions stayed low grade and uneventful. Around 4pm, against his wishes I called my doctor again. This time, he sounded more concerned than annoyed. “If things aren’t moving by six,” he said. “We’re doing a C-section.”

I hung up and told my husband what he’d said, fighting off tears. My perfect birth plan was gone, it was looking more and more like I was going to end up cut in half on that table. For the first time, I started to feel afraid. A chill entered my body. I began shivering uncontrollably and my husband ran to start a bath for me.

There was a soft knock on the door. I opened it and there stood Sybelle with her little midwifery bag. “Thought I’d check in on the baby,” she said in a sweet voice. I was scared enough to be grateful to see her. I let her in and laid on the couch so she could check me. She pulled out the little wooden horn from her bag and pressed it into my stomach, her ear locked to the other end. For several long, silent moments she moved it around, listening. I held my breath.

Finally she sat back up. “Heartbeat is strong,” she said and I breathed a sigh of relief. She smiled at me and clasped my hand. “Baby is doing fine.” I felt suddenly grateful she was there, that I had another woman, a midwife no less, with me during all of this. My husband came back into the room and sat next to me.

Sybelle opened her bag again and pulled out a little vial of liquid. She showed it to us. “I have something,” she said. “If you want to get things moving.” I gave her a skeptical look. “Completely natural,” she reassured me. “Black cohosh. An herb we used in Germany when labor got stuck.” I looked to my husband. He shrugged. The decision was mine.

As I’m telling this, I realize how insane it sounds that I was entertaining the idea of taking some unknown substance from a woman who had shown nothing but animosity for me. In my defense, I was in labor, with the possibility of a C-section looming over me. I had a strange feeling like I was letting everyone down, that I was responsible for my body not cooperating with everyone else’s timetable. I took the vial from Sybelle’s hand.

“It’s perfectly safe,” she said. I removed the lid and took a sip. It was bitter and woody, black as ink with a tinge of forest green.

“The whole thing,” Sybelle prompted me. After a moment’s hesitation, I downed the rest.

“Good, good,” Sybelle crooned. She patted my cheek. “Now we pray,” she said, opening her Bible. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” she read aloud. “And before you were born I consecrated you.” She paused, looking deeply into my eyes. “Do not be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you.” She squeezed my hand and went back upstairs.

I have to be honest here: I don’t remember things super clearly past this point. What I do remember is like a series of clips from a movie, a disjointed slideshow with big gaps in between. What was roughly eleven hours feels like it was both a lifetime and the blink of an eye. I have never before told the story of this event. I have never written about it. I don’t know if I’ve ever even thought about what happened that night, beyond a quick shuddering flash of memory here and there. When I asked my now ex husband if I could interview him for this story, he told me absolutely not. “I can’t,” he said. “I’m sorry but I can’t. It’s still too much.”

Here’s what I do remember:

Whatever Sybelle gave me, it started to work almost immediately. Within a half hour, my contractions were closer together and starting to feel more like they meant business. In the meantime, the storm ramped up to a full squall. Worried about the snow, we decided to head down to the hospital whether or not I was fully ready, everyone’s Christmas dinners be damned. We got halfway down the driveway before the Jeep got stuck. My husband tried to dig us out but to no avail. We hiked back up to the house to regroup..

We considered asking Sybelle to use her truck but the driveway was so narrow and steep, there was no way to get her car past ours, wedged as it was. It seemed we were out of options. “You’re going to have to have it here,” my husband said, his face grim. “With her.” I hated this idea but I didn’t have an alternative suggestion. As he climbed the stairs to her apartment to ask for help, I fell back on my usual pollyanna nonsense.

“Maybe it’s a sign,” I told myself, thinking of the premonition I’d gotten in the maternity ward. There seemed to be zero chance of having a natural birth if I went to the hospital, maybe this would turn out to be better in the end. I pictured myself in the bathtub, holding my new baby and smiling like the new mothers I saw in my “rapturous birth” books.

My husband came back. “Okay,” he said in a cheerful voice. “We’re all good. She just has to get a few things ready. We’re supposed to go up in twenty minutes.”

“Upstairs?” I asked. I had assumed I would have the baby in our apartment. For some reason, this added layer of confusion made me feel distraught. “I’d rather do it here.” I held back tears, some part of me very aware that if I started crying now, the scaffolding holding up my calm would fall apart. Everyone else seemed to be acting very business as usual about the situation and for some reason, it felt very important to me to match that energy. To be strong, fearless and unbothered about giving birth in a snowstorm with a crazy woman as my doula.

As anxious as I was, I was still curious about what it was like upstairs. In the months that we’d lived with her, Sybelle had only ever invited my husband to her part of the house. I wasn’t UNinvited exactly, he just usually went up there because she was asking a favor of him: fix my cupboard, open this vent, carry this heavy thing from my car, and then he sat and chatted for a while to “be polite” (see also: eat pie).

When it was time to go up, I brought my birth bag with me. I don’t why, we lived all of sixteen feet away. I guess it felt like a talisman of sorts, a way of making things official. That bag was full of my hopes and dreams, each item packed with care not by a doting spouse, as our class had instructed, but by the one person I had always been able to count on in a jam: me. As I followed my husband up the stairs, I felt like a little girl on my way to a sleepover. The idea that this night would end with me giving birth seemed as absurd as saying I would turn into a unicorn.

For all my curiosity, I can only remember two rooms in Sybelle’s house. The bathroom and the kitchen. The kitchen had a white floor and a pink vintage stove and matching fridge. The bathroom had a Jacuzzi tub with emerald green towels that matched the tile. Both rooms were somehow stylish and shabby at the same time. Leon had apparently had good taste.

The Midwife

Things start to get truly hazy here but I’ll do my best to recreate what happened next. Sybelle gave me more of the “black cohosh”. She administered this tonic at least three more times throughout the night. I don’t know if what she gave me actually was black cohosh, midwives I’ve spoken to since have given me different answers. The herb is used homeopathically to induce and augment labor but in most cases, its effects are fairly mild. It can cause hyponatremia in large amounts which may have contributed to my subsequent confusion and memory loss.

My labor had started to accelerate but still not at the expected pace, hence Sybelle’s repeated administrations of the cohosh. I started to have a very small amount of pain in my lower back that looking back on, I think was probably wishful thinking. Both Sybelle and my husband seemed frustrated with me that things were not progressing more quickly. At one point, I remember Sybelle telling me if I didn’t hurry up, I wasn’t going to get my “Christmas miracle”.

Around 9pm I took a bath, more for something to do than for any discomfort. After I got out, I put on a robe and wandered out to the kitchen. I sheepishly asked Sybelle if it would be alright if I ate something. I was famished. She gave me a sharp look and said, “You need to focus on giving birth to that baby. Now is not the time for snacking.” I apologized and she asked if I felt like I could start pushing. “I guess?” I said, which if you’ve ever given birth, you know means I absolutely was not ready.

I had my husband call my mom to tell her it was finally really time and that we’d have a baby shortly. After he got off the phone, I laid on my back on the foam mattress Sybelle had put in the kitchen and got to work pushing.

I had a vague idea about what I was supposed to be doing from birthing videos and from my pelvic floor exercises. The feeling was not unlike when one is constipated and straining on the toilet. I pushed. And pushed and pushed and pushed. Nothing. Sybelle gave me more cohosh and I pushed some more. My husband sat on his knees next to me offering encouragement, wiping my head with a damp washcloth even though I was hardly breaking a sweat.

Three hours passed like this. Every time one of my contractions started, I gave it my all. Pushing with all the might I could muster while Sybelle waited expectantly between my legs. Midnight passed and with it, Sybelle’s patience. “Women don’t make such a fuss as this in Germany!” I remember her saying at one point. “You should have had this baby hours ago.”

I doubled my efforts. My contractions had started to finally hurt now and with a vengeance. Pain seared through my back and stomach like I was being scythed from the inside and I was so exhausted, I fainted in between contractions. Each time my muscles clenched, I’d wake up as though from death, gasping and grasping for my husband’s hand. He held onto me like I was falling from a cliff, I could see the fear in his eyes go from worry to terror.

At some point, I heard him shouting at Sybelle. “We need an ambulance!” he said. “We have to get her to a hospital.”

“You need to trust God,” Sybelle said in a low voice. They went back and forth until she finally convinced him to give it a while longer.

I remember floating above my body as Sybelle and my husband prayed over me. My husband was crying and Sybelle kept touching her Bible to my forehead. I looked very peaceful. My face grimaced and suddenly I was back, pain wracking my every nerve. I rolled over and grabbed my husband’s shirt. “Another one,” I gasped and started to push again. When the contraction ended, I fainted. This repeated more times than I can count.

I remember waking up with my husband’s hands on the upper part of my stomach. “I’m going to help you,” he said, tears streaming down his face. The contractions started again and this time, as I pushed from the inside, my husband used his brute force to move our child out of my body from the outside. Sybelle stood, holding her bible above her head. “In the name of Christ, child, I compel you to come out,” she cried and this time I fainted not from exhaustion but from pain.

My child’s head crowned for hours, I don’t know how many. I pushed and I pushed and I pushed, until I was nothing but the pushing, until I was only pain and blood and inevitable death. Somewhere very deep and quiet inside of me I knew there was no way my child survived this night, even if I miraculously somehow did.

I remember Sybelle looking up at me with a perplexed look on her face, saying, “There’s something here.” She poked it and I felt a gush on my thighs that pooled beneath my back. I thought it must be blood. It turned out to be an extra bag of water. We later realized this unformed twin most likely saved my child’s life, without it, he would have been caught in the birth canal for hours.

I remember trying repeatedly to get off my back and roll over to my hands and knees. I felt like a wild animal in a trap, frantic to get away from the pain, prepared to gnaw off my own leg if that’s what it took. I now know that this was instinct, that my baby was facing the wrong way and my body was trying to get into a position to turn him around. Sybelle insisted I stay on my back. She said it wasn’t “ladylike to give birth on all fours.” She had my husband restrain me, pin my shoulders beneath his knees while I fought and pushed and screamed.

I remember Sybelle holding up a scalpel. “You won’t stretch,” she said. “I’m going to have to cut you open.” The next time I started to push, without warning or anesthesia, she gave me an episiotomy. For the uninitiated, that’s a slice that goes from your cunt to your asshole. Doctors insist it doesn’t hurt. Mine hurt. I felt every millimeter of it and I screamed so loud, I think we all finally understood what the phrase “blood-curdling” meant.

I remember sitting up and looking down between my legs to see my son as he was being born. His eyes were wide open and we looked right at one another. Have you ever made eye contact with a person as they leave your body? That shit changes you. He was fully alert and regarded me with quiet curiosity. He didn’t cry when Sybelle pulled him from my body. He was fully blue and she turned him upside down, holding him by the feet, and gave his back a few slaps before laying him on my chest. We stared at one another, two aliens making first contact.

I remember that he was covered head to toe in fine blonde hair that I later would learn was called “lanugo”. He was also covered in vernix, a white filmy substance common with premature births.

“… how strange,” Sybelle said.

She reached for him. “I’ll wash him off, get him settled”.

“Don’t touch him,” I said in a hoarse voice that didn’t sound like my own. She recoiled and left the room. I passed the placenta and tied off my baby’s cord without her help.

I remember my husband breaking down in sobs beside us, hiding his face even though he’d just watched me bleed and scream and shit myself for hours. I held my baby with one hand and patted his arm with the other, already recovering, already cheerful.


The next morning, Rick helped us get the car unstuck and my husband drove me and our new baby to the doctor. I was sore and exhausted, but otherwise fine. I’d lost a fair amount of blood but not as much as I would with our second child. I needed stitches for my episiotomy and I wanted to get the baby checked over by a professional. When I was up in the stirrups, I started to relay the details of our ordeal to the doctor, thinking he would be impressed with my resilience and Sybelle’s midwifery skills.

“You had your baby with Sybelle Green?” he practically spat her name. I tried to explain that she was our landlord, that we hadn’t had much choice because of the storm but he cut me off.

“That woman,” he said, rage boiling in his voice. “Is a menace. She should be locked up.” He started angrily doing my stitches even though the local anesthesia hadn’t had time to kick in. I yelped and bit my lip, trying not to squirm. “Mothers have died because of her,” he continued. “Babies, too. She’s not even a real midwife.” He finished my stitches. “You could have died,” he said, shaking his head. “Sounds like you almost did.”

When I got home, I called my mother. She was beside herself. After not hearing from us for hours, she’d assumed the worst. That the baby and I were both dead and my husband was too distraught to call. I didn’t tell her how close she came to being right.


We moved three weeks later. My husband accepted a contract in Gulf Shores, Alabama and after helping me move our larger items into storage, flew down almost immediately to start his new job. I stayed behind to pack up what remained and clean the apartment. I didn’t see much of Sybelle during that time. After finding out that she wasn’t a licensed midwife, my husband “had words” with her. She left in tears that night and I assumed was staying with Rick.

My final interaction with Sybelle was as strange as all the rest in this story. After a trip to the storage unit, I returned to the apartment for one last load of our things. The Jeep had been so full, I had to leave Jack behind. When I got back, the picture window was broken and there was blood and broken glass everywhere. I found Jack hiding in the bathroom with a large wound on his head. He couldn’t stop shaking. While I was trying to decipher what had happened, Sybelle burst into the room without knocking.

“What’s going on?” she cried, seeing the mess.

“I think maybe the dogs got into a fight and broke the window,” I said, offering the only logical solution I could think of. This was fairly plausible. Sybelle’s dogs often harassed jack at the window and I’d even seen them throw themselves against it several times, trying to get in at him. The glass was on the inside and the blood seemed to be all Jack’s. It was also possible he’d finally snapped and broken it himself.

“No,” she said. “It’s the Satanists.” She ran upstairs and called the police. When she came back down she told me not to touch anything. “They’ll want to get evidence.” I didn’t know what to do so I sat on the floor nursing my son while we waited for them to arrive.

They came about a half hour later. One of them was the same officer from a few weeks ago and when he walked inside, he looked relieved to see we were in the process of moving. Sybelle showed them the broken glass and blood then turned to me. “Tell them,” she said breathlessly. “Tell them who did this.”

Not sure what she meant, I explained my theory about the dogs. “No!” Sybelle cried, her voice full of emotion, interrupting me. “No, it wasn’t the dogs. It was THEM.”

She looked at me, almost pleading. “They’ve been harassing me for years. They won’t leave me alone. The Satanists, they’re always trying to hurt me, breaking into my house, destroying my things.” She pointed to the window. “This isn’t the first time! And THEY--” here she indicated the two policemen. “Won’t take me seriously. But you can tell them, you know.”

I had several realizations as I stood there, watching the vein in Sybelle’s milky smooth forehead pulsate. First, because we were moving, I was no longer the enemy. There was no point in directing her paranoia at me, I was old news, yesterday’s witch. She needed a fresh boogieman and this situation had provided it. Not only that, but she’d used it to absolve me of my past sins. I was now an ally, someone who could corroborate her persecution.

Second, I really didn’t want to pay for that window.

I turned to the cops and shrugged. “Musta been the Satanists,” I said.