by Sonia Alcala
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Not For Sale
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"Tia! Tia! Wake up!" Maria heard the urgent whisper of her grand-niece, Liliana. "Mama says the pains are coming faster."
Maria opened her eyes. Everything was still dark except for a faint glow from an oil lamp somewhere in the house. She felt like she had only been asleep for a few minutes.
"Go heat some water, Lili,” Maria ordered and she stood up and pulled the curtain aside. Lili tiptoed away and went out the back door to the water pump. Maria could hear whispering from behind the curtain on the other side of the narrow hall.
Francesca’s house was a common migrant worker’s house. The front door entered into the living room. As you continued through the living room, you stepped into the bedroom area. Strait ahead, through the next doorway, was the kitchen and dining room. If you stood at the backdoor, you could see strait through to the front door of the house.
Maria could see the dim glow of the lantern behind the opposite curtain. As she stepped over to the curtain, she heard Francesca whisper, “Another one.” Francesca started her breathing exercises to help with the labor pains. Maria slid the curtain aside and peeked in to see how her niece looked. She saw Francesca focused and calm. Once the pain had passed, Maria slid the curtain all the way open.
“Antonio,” Maria said to her niece’s husband, “take the boys to the neighbor’s house. I’ll take care of Francesca.” Grudgingly, Antonio stood up, stepped past Maria, and lit the lantern hanging in the doorway. The boys, Antonio Jr. and Carlos, were still sleeping in the same bed Maria had come from. As Antonio was waking up Junior, Lili came back in through the back door trying to carry a full bucket of water. As careful as she was trying to be, she managed to spill about half of it on the kitchen floor. Her father smiled at her as he led Junior and carried Carlos out the back door. Francesca leaned over and saw the mess. She giggled under her breath.
“She wanted to help”, Maria explained to Francisca.
While Lili worked on getting water boiling, Maria checked Antonio’s watch on the night stand. It was 3:00AM. Still a few hours before sunrise. Antonio would going out to work soon.
When Lili peeked in, Maria asked Lili to get all the clean sheets and towels from the closets in the living room. Lili snapped to the directions quickly. She didn’t want to be sent to watch her brothers at the neighbors house.
Another pain came. Maria checked the watch. Only about 5 minutes had past from the last one. The new baby would come very soon. Antonio returned and leaned against the doorway. He seemed to be holding his breath as he watched his wife go through the contraction.
“Breath, honey,” Francesca said breathily to her husband. “This part will be easy. The greatest midwife in the world is with me.” Maria closed her eyes and prayed a silent prayer, “Please, Jesus, stay with me. Please guide my hands to help this new baby into the world.”
Maria remembered how her cousin had asked her to be with his daughter for this baby. In the past, Francesca had given birth to and buried 3 daughters, 2 of them within the past 2 years. Maria’s cousin believed that she would somehow be able to help. Maria had asked her niece about her daughters and she told her that the first one had died of pneumonia at the age of 2. The other two little ones had died a few weeks after birth and Francesca wasn't sure why. Maria suspected the reason after hearing how the babies behaved after they were born. She had come prepared with a solution for that problem should the new baby show the same "symptoms". Maria loved her niece and would be staying with the family as long as necessary to make sure this baby would live. In Maria’s experience as a mid-wife she was used to having to teach women like her niece how to properly care for “sensitive” babies. Francisca and her husband were not well educated. They were married very young and worked as migrant workers. They were dirt poor and had very little in they way of possessions. They did, however, have great love for each other. They were both very kind and generous with what little they did have. “Such good people,” Maria thought, as she watched her niece. “The salt of the earth.”
Maria was brought out of her thoughts when she heard Francisca’s quick breathing. She looked at the watch, only 4 minutes apart now.
On his way in for lunch, Antonio heard the cries of his new daughter from outside. Little Celestina was born at 5:00AM and, just like Francesca had said, Tia Maria was very efficient. The birth of his new daughter had gone very well. Antonio washed up at the water pump out back before he went inside. He could smell fresh tortillas, beans, rice and fried eggs. His stomach growled loudly as he walked into the house. He found Lili at the table feeding her brothers. When she turned to him, he could see worry in her chocolate colored eyes. The baby was still crying pitifully. He forgot about his hunger and went strait to the bedroom. He found his wife holding the new baby to her breast. Tia Maria sat on the bed next to his wife, watching. She seemed to be studying the baby with her mother.
Fear began to creep into him. "Is she…sick?" he asked. With his last two daughters, the babies would feed but they would not keep the milk in their tiny stomachs. They would spew it all out as soon as they stopped suckling. After a few weeks, the babies would die.
"I've fed her 3 times," Francesca said. "She's not keeping it in. Now she won't even suckle. She just cries from the hunger." Antonio could see the despair in his wife's eyes. This is how it was with their last two daughters. Tia Maria got up and went into the living room.
Focusing on Francesca, Antonio spoke softly, “It’s going to be alright, honey. Just keep trying.” Whispering encouragements to his wife was the only thing he could do, but he knew the words he spoke were useless to help their new baby girl. Words had not saved the other two precious ones he had buried.
Antonio was a simple man. He thought if he had more learning he might have been able to think of something, someway to help, but he was only a migrant worker. He had quit school after 3rd grade to work the fields with his family.
As Antonio looked at Francesca’s face, he could see she was losing the fight against the tears. They poured from her eyes as she held their hungry baby against her breast.
“Don‘t give up,” he whispered to his wife. He gently touched the weepy babies tiny head. He meant that encouragement for Little Celestina as well.
Tia Maria came back into the bedroom with a black bag in her hands. “Go eat your lunch,” she told Antonio.
Without any argument, he left and sat at the dining room table. While he had been in the bedroom, Liliana had finished feeding the boys and was playing with them outside. She had prepared a plate for him and left it sitting on the table but he didn’t eat.
Instead, he prayed, “God, how can You let this happen, again? Jesus, haven’t we lost enough children?” He put his head in his hands.
“Jesus, please, I can’t bury another baby! Please, Jesus, I don‘t know what to do. I‘ll do anything. I‘ll do whatever it takes, just show me what to do. Celestina has to live. Jesus, Jesus, please.” Over and over he prayed these words.
Antonio was not sure how long he sat there praying, listening to his daughter’s weakening cries, when there was a knock at the door. He turned his head and saw the boss family at the door. He thought that Mr. Mooney, the ranch owner, must have missed him in the fields. Antonio rose and stepped outside to talk to Mr. Mooney. As he went out, Mrs. Moony went in to check on Francesca and the new baby.
Mrs. Mooney knocked on the door frame of the bedroom. “May I come in?” She asked. Celeste Mooney was a sweet lady and very generous to the workers that
came to her families ranch each year. She would bring gifts and food to welcome them and she would do the same for each of them before the left the ranch. She paid visits to all of the migrant worker families, but she came to the Antonio and Francesca’s house more then the others. Francesca Garcia was a good friend to Nell and she looked forward to seeing her every year. The two women had the same sense of humor and outlook on life, first is God, second is family and third is work. Nell was absolutely delighted when Francesca had arrived that year expecting a baby.
“Come in.” She heard Francesca say from behind the curtain. When Mrs. Mooney stepped into the bedroom, she saw a strange sight. The baby was lying on the bed beside her mother and Francesca was covered up to her neck with the blanket. The midwife was leaning over to help with something she was doing under the blanket.
“Hello, sweetheart,” Mrs. Moony greeted Francesca cheerfully. “ How are you feeling?” When she looked clearly into Francesca’s face, she could see that she was upset. “What are you doing?” Mrs. Moony asked.
Francesca seemed to embarrassed to speak. The midwife cleared her throat.
“Oh, Mrs. Moony, this is Tia Maria Peńa. She‘s my aunt and my midwife.” Francesca said, introducing the midwife to Mrs. Moony.
Tia Maria answered Nell‘s question. “We’re using a breast pump to get milk from Francesca so she can bottle feed the baby,“ she said in a hushed tone.
Celeste Moony was shocked. “Is something wrong?“, she asked, gently picking the baby up to examine her. The baby was not crying, just whimpering and making suckling noises.
Francesca could not answer. Tia Maria explained to Celeste the situation and how she had seen this sort of thing before. Sometimes newborn infants can’t nurse well from their mothers and would die from starvation. Tia Maria said that it had something to do with a scent on their mother’s body. She went on to tell Mrs. Mooney about how she had taught many mothers with these problems how to use the breast pump and nurse their babies from bottles. Most of the time the mothers were able to feed them from the bottle and the babies would live. Sometimes another family member, a daughter, aunt, grandmother, or sister would have to feed the babies.
Celeste sat on the bedside and rocked the new baby. “What is her name?“ Mrs. Mooney asked.
“Celestina Garcia,“ Francesca responded. Celeste was pleased as punch when she heard this news. Francesca had named the baby after her. Mrs. Mooney felt so honored. She prayed that the bottle feeding would work.
Tia Maria checked under the blanket and whispered to Francesca that she could stop. She reached under the blanket and pulled out a breast pump and carefully unscrewed the pump from the nursing bottle, so as not to spill one drop of the mother’s milk. She reached into the black bag at the foot of the bed and pulled out a hand sized bundle. Inside the bundle was the bottle top that she gently screwed to the bottle.
“Give the baby to her mother,” Tia Maria commanded Mrs. Moony. Celeste obeyed and Tia Maria gave the bottle to Francesca. The baby’s sucked hungrily from the small bottle. The baby had only been sucking for a moment when she spewed out the milk. Francesca wiped the babies little mouth and the bottle. She tried to feed her again and the results were the same. Little Celestina could not keep in her milk.
Celeste thought that this was the most painful sight she had ever seen. Her heart broke for her dear friend, Francesca. She looked so exhausted. The hungry baby began to cry and so did her friend.
Mrs. Moony wanted so much to help. “Should I feed her?”
“No!” Tia Maria snapped.
Celeste was taken aback. Immediately, Tia Maria apologized.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that she is not your baby,” Tia Maria explained. “You have your own family to take care of and you won’t be able to follow them to the next place they move, will you?"
Celeste shook her head. She understood what Tia Maria was saying.
Maria rubbed her forehead in frustration. “The baby needs to get used to her own family. You could not be here for the midnight feeding or the 2 AM feeding. Celestina needs someone who can be…..” Tia Maria stopped mid-sentence.
Tia Maria shouted so suddenly that both Celeste and Francesca jumped. Francesca dropped the bottle, but Tia Maria managed to catch it before it hit the floor.
“She has lost her mind with the frustration,” Celeste thought.
Antonio was in the bedroom in a flash with Mr. Moony, Liliana, Junior and Carlos right behind him. Maria commanded him to sit. Celeste got up and stood by her husband while Antonio took her place on the bed. Maria took the crying baby from her niece and held the baby out to him. Antonio took his little angel and cradled her perfectly in his arms. Tia Maria held the bottle out to Antonio.
“What?” he asked looking at the bottle.
“You feed her,” she said. “Take the bottle.”
Everyone in the crowded little room was shocked. Mr. and Mrs. Moony, Francesca, Antonio, even Lili and the boys could not believe their ears. They all were looking at Tia Maria like she had gone crazy. In Hispanic families, the woman fed and took care of the babies, not the men. The men had to work to bring home the money to support the family.
Antonio looked at Francesca and then at little Celestina. “Oh, she is beautiful,” he thought. “She is a perfect miniature of her mother.” Antonio remembered the prayer he had prayed a few minutes ago. He had told the Lord “whatever it takes”. So what if it is not ‘macho’ to nurse a newborn baby. Celestina was his baby too!
“Please let this work.” Antonio whispered this prayer as he took the bottle from Tia Maria. He placed the nipple of the bottle against her tiny lips and managed to jiggle it into her mouth. Celestina began sucking immediately. She was so hungry. There, in her father’s arms, she drained what was left in the bottle. Everyone stood still. No one spoke or moved. Antonio set the bottle down and he carefully shifted little Celestina to his shoulder and burped her. Her little baby burp came out almost instantly and he could feel her falling asleep on his shoulder, full and satisfied. Everyone in the room seemed to sigh in relief. Antonio moved her little body back into a cradle position and looked at her tiny face.
Antonio looked up at Francesca. He saw relief and uncertainty in her eyes. The responsibility of caring for a newborn baby was demanding for a mother. It would be 10 times more difficult for a father. A father had to work to provide for the family. Antonio knew he would have to be the one to get up for the midnight and 2 AM feedings. He knew he would have to run home from the fields every 2 to 3 hrs to make sure the baby was fed. Antonio reached for his wife with his free hand and tenderly touched her face.
“This one’s going to live,” he said to her. “I promise you. Celestina is going to live. I’ll do what ever it takes.”
In the months that followed, Antonio kept the promise he made to God and his wife. He would wake for the late night and early morning feedings. Mr. Mooney would allow him to return home from the fields every two to three hours to wash up and feed Celestina. Once she was fed, Antonio would the go back to work in the fields. Caring for a new baby and working all day truly was a heavy burden. However, Antonio bore the burden happily as he watched his Celestina grow.
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This is a beautiful story, Sonia! The characters are well developed, I could imagine the cabin perfectly, so the setting was well-done and the story was interesting throughout. I did find a few minor errors, though. Paragraph 5 Francesca is spelled Francisca. Paragraph 43 shook is misspelled as shock. Paragraph 44 mentions an "Ema Nelian" - not sure who that is. Paragraph 52 "new born" should be "newborn". And in the last paragraph it says "In the years that followed...Antonio got up to feed the baby." Most babies sleep through the night at 3-6 months old, so he wouldn't have to get up. And once they can be spoon fed, I imagine Francesca could feed the baby. Great story - I really enjoyed reading it...keep writing!