The men made the required motions and then left.
You stayed in the town with the rest of the women, watching the backs of their heads as they departed, watching the brown and red and black above the backs of their necks head into the distance, into the hills.
You watched the one who moved with you move away. Already, you missed his smell, already parts of your body were changing to want more of him, to need.
You turned back to the women of the town. Already, it had begun. Your body was so heavy it hurt. Your mother stood next to you. Each woman stood with their mother. This is called tradition.
“We should go to the circle,” said one woman’s mother. Everyone nodded and moved.
In the circle, the women of the town faced each other. Your mother stood behind you, her brown hair and dark eyes backing you up.
In the circle, each one of you wore the same black dress. You stared at the women, their shoulders and chins and necks and legs all varying in shape and size and skin hue. Some things could not be hidden by the same cloth.
By now, all of your bellies were bursting. You could feel the pulsing expansion of your own stomach, and beneath the fabric of the dresses you knew the same pressure was stretching the skins of bellies all around you, the space between your bodies was tight in the ring.
“Remove the dresses,” said a mother.
And you did it, you did what you were told. Your mother helped you pull the black dress over your head, helped you reveal your new body.
Your mother stopped and stared at your stomach.
“Look at you,” she said. “Look how beautiful you are. Look at what’s coming to us.”
You stared down at your belly and felt the rise of hell in your chest. You had never wanted this, not once. Tears gathered in your eyes and you held them tight, didn’t want to betray the truth or the town.
Your mother understood. Your mother knew.
“Don’t do it here,” she said. “This is your duty. I did it. You will do it.”
A new suffocation began in your chest, a desperation you’d never felt before. You wanted to throw up. You swallowed it down, squeezed your right thumb into your palm, dug the nail into the skin there until you felt wetness that was yours. Inside of you, the thing moved, the child moved, a motion always foreign to you.
“Do what you have to do,” your mother said. “Make us proud.”
And you wanted to, you wanted to, you wanted to.
You kept your hated body in the circle, kept your mother behind you.
You stared out, out into the circle, out at all of the bodies that would soon be split like yours, all of your bellies purple-marbled now.
When the contractions came, they came hard. Pain waves swelled through your womb and out into your arms and hands and legs and feet. Your mother laid you down, sat behind your head, held hands and cloth soaked in cold water to your face.
“Get the gags,” said a mother, and you didn’t know about this, hadn’t heard about this, but the pain was too much and then the gags were gotten, black strips of thick cloth held in the hand of another mother, who began her work on the mouths.
Inside of your body the body kept moving, kept forcing itself down, you were at the mercy of a new pressure pain that made new muscles flare hurt. Your mother held you tighter as you twisted, your groans and the cold sweat on your forehead and the vomit wanting to come up, come out, your entire body given up to this full ache.
By the time the gags got to you, the moans had started to birth past your lips, and then the other mother did it and the black cloth found your mouth and she said “When it gets bad, bite down,” then tied the knot.
With your moans kept inside, you were not sure where your pain should go, where the force of your noise would be contained. But the contractions got closer, and your pain sounds went up to the cloth and back, then inwards, stayed in your body, moved the child further toward the edge.
Mother, mother, mother, was the only word you could think.
All around you, women were grunting through black cloth, getting closer, and the heaves of hot hurt shook your frame, shook the ground around you, all of you shaking and choking on suffocated screams. The mothers stayed calm in the circle around the circle, whispered mother words.
“This is what we do,” your mother said, “even though it hurts. It’s almost time.”
And then your mother moved down to your splayed open legs, your nude big body there on the ground, the other mothers moving the same way, finding another angle to help, a place to put their empty hands.
The black cloth held tight in your mouth and you banged your fists onto the ground, muffled roared.
Then the huge contraction tore through you, the biggest one, a chasm of red slicing open inside of you, a path, the pressure of the child’s head breaking through your smaller skin, making it wider, each part of your body breaking open to release it, to birth it, to be done with it inside of you.
Your mother caught the bloody child in clean hands and all around you were the sounds of newborn cries, all around you were mothers with newly bloodied hands, all around you were new infants covered in birth wet, streaked in red.
You tried to sit up, but your mother brought the child to you, brought the child to your arms, and you did not want to hold the baby, you felt you wanted nothing to do with holding the baby, but you looked down, you looked down at the child, you looked for the only thing you wanted, the only thing that would make you happy. You looked between the child’s legs but there was only smoothness.
You ripped the black cloth from your mouth and then you did it, you wailed, you wailed loud and hard with the force of all the sorrow in the world coming up out of you, your body racking itself with the grief of a future of seasons, of circles, of this.
“It’s a beautiful baby girl,” your mother cooed. All around you were the newly wrecked bodies of women, sweaty, bloody, their arms full and their faces gaunt from pain.
Sarah Rose Etter