IN LABOUR

By Sofia Tantono

Content Warnings: Death, blood, pregnancy and self-inflicted pain of a ritualistic nature.

After his balls were tied, Taiyari climbed the house’s supports, deft as a gecko, and perched himself on the rafters.

No, this wasn’t some weird alternative to a vasectomy, which Taiyari’s people didn’t even do. Let the Europeans have that, along with all their strange and incomprehensible ways. Although, I do wonder what he would’ve thought of the procedure if someone had explained it to him.

Once he got as comfortable as was possible while squatting on a wooden beam, Taiyari blinked rapidly and steadied himself. Sweat formed like dew on his palms and back with every strained thump of his heart, making Taiyari’s grip hot and his back more slippery than the edge of a cliff after a bout of rain. It wasn’t the height that made him dizzy – he was used to going up much greater ones. For the first time in his life, Taiyari was afraid of falling.

He didn’t know why what was coming made him so nervous. Not only was it a ritual that hung over the days of every Huichol bachelor and boy, but he had also seen it for himself. And while it was true he’d clutched his nuts in sympathetic, solidarity-induced pain for the whole of his father’s participation in the birth of his little sister, Taiyari had thought knowledge plus maturity would be a hunter’s bow and arrow for when his time came. At least, he had a few days ago.

From his vantage point, he could see Nakawé squatting over the bare floor with the midwife by her side. They looked so small from here, like odd little rodents. Any distinguishing features that told him who these women were had been warped by the distance, while the opposite was true for every individual piece of straw making up their house’s roof. Once a blurry collective, each strand now sang out its uniqueness to Taiyari, proclaiming itself as straight or bent, shorter or longer, sturdy or worn away by time. This study of perspective lured him away from identifying the flora coalescing in the sharp, rough-earthy smell of herbal smoke that covered his face and the space like a heavy veil. But maybe Taiyari wouldn’t have been able to pick them out, reverie or no reverie – anxiety does muddle your brain.

That first contraction only strained Nakawé’s body, at least directly. But the scream came from both of them. Those two soundwaves, each as loud and strained as the wail of the whole world, mixed and mingled in the air like lovers. Taiyari’s throat was raw from his howl, rawer than if he’d drunk a cup of hot melted steel.

Nakawé had taken her first tug at one of the ropes tied to Taiyari’s scrotum, and the force of it almost convinced him that his testicles were going to be ripped off right that second. The pain was like nothing he had ever been through physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually. Worse, it wasn’t some sharp yet momentary sting but a pain that shot through every nerve and racked his whole body, from the top of his head to the tips of his desperate, eagle-talon toes. It was like being hurled into the sun or cast into the hell those Spaniards were always trying to get his people to be afraid of, flames gnawing off your melting skin. Actually, never mind; it was a thousand times worse than either of those, a sensation that can’t be described in Wixárika, Spanish or English.

Yet there was enough kindness in the gods for them to allow Taiyari a few moments of respite. When Nakawé wasn’t having contractions, she didn’t pull on his ropes. Sometimes, these periods of recuperation lasted a few hours, which put it in Taiyari’s head that maybe the gods had been struck by sudden remembrances of his faithfulness.

The missionaries told his people that pain in childbirth was one of the curses God heaped on Eve because she ate the forbidden fruit, but they didn’t say much about Adam, except for his having to toil for food. As far as Taiyari was concerned, He had distributed the birthing curse more equally than that.

An especially hard pull, however, left Taiyari no time for theological musings. Instead, he wondered whether his testicles were still firmly attached or if they were dangling by some final, thin strips of skin, ready to drop like fruit once the next yank came.

All crescendos are followed by a hanging stillness. Likewise, Taiyari felt, after that sudden jerk, a slight loosening of the ropes, as if they weren’t being gripped anymore. The difference between this and a swelling musical number, though, is that swelling musical numbers usually start up again.

Taiyari opened his eyes, which had been tightly shut all this time for pain, and gawked at the scene below like a blind man newly restored of sight. Nakawé lay pale on the ground, her wet black hair a messy pool under her head and an evil swamp of blood forming between her spread legs. The baby was nowhere to be seen. The midwife chanted at the sky a dirge whose words crashed and tumbled into and onto each other as they invaded Taiyari’s ears, coloniser-like. If anyone had told him yesterday that there existed a greater pain than your testicles being tugged at, he wouldn’t have believed it.

Sofia Tantono

Sofia Tantono is a writer and curator based in Indonesia whose works have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of literary magazines, such as Samjoko, Neuro Magazine and Counter-Narratives. She also writes for Glides, the magazine of her university's English department. Sofia can be found on Instagram @sofias.writing and her blog sofiatantono.wordpress.com.