Awakening with a start, Sapphire heard Adebangbe yelling. He pounded on her door and she called out to him. She slipped into her coat and opened the door enough to look out. “Madam Rebecca?”
“Béèni! Béèni!” He spoke Yoruba so fast, Sapphire couldn’t understand him. She waved him away and told him she would come down in a moment.
Throwing on her clothes, she headed downstairs while still buttoning her shirtwaist. Men had rushed out into the hallway. She waved them back inside as she hurried down the second-floor hall to the couple’s large bedroom.
Adebangbe had pulled a chair over to the side of the bed and held Rebbeca’s hand. He still wore his nightclothes. Sapphire stood at the end of the bed, not sure what to do.
“Ah, Sapphire,” Rebecca said, but her relief was short-lived as pain made her gasp. Adebangbe stood and started rattling off Yoruba again, pacing back and forth, raking his hands through his dark hair.
Marta gathered Adebangbe’s clothes from the floor and dumped them in his lap. “Get dressed and go for the . . .”
Sapphire searched for the Yoruba word for midwife.
Madam Rebecca had taught her. What was it? “Agbèbí! Quickly sir, we have to be quick. Hurry! Hurry! Don’t forget your shoes.”
Men talked in the corridor. Hoping they hadn’t delayed Adebangbe, Sapphire stepped out. “Is anyone a doctor?” They looked at one another and shook their heads. “Then unless you want to help deliver a baby, go back to your rooms.” They disappeared like a thundering herd of mountain goats, doors closing quickly behind them.
“Oh, God, what do I do now?” Pretending calm she didn’t feel, Sapphire came back into the bedroom. Other than one afternoon lecture at the midwife back home where she assisted on childbirth, Sapphire knew nothing at all of such matters. But she supposed she could do better than a panic-stricken husband.
“Everything will be fine, Madam.”
“The midwife will be here soon.”
An hour later, the door slammed and feet pounded up the stairs. Adebangbe spoke so rapidly, Sapphire couldn’t understand a word he said. She did understand the look on Rebecca’s face.
“The midwife isn’t coming.”
“Adebangbe says she is delivering someone else’s baby.
What are we going to do?” She groaned, another contraction coming within a few short minutes of the last one.
Adebangbe looked wild-eyed. He moaned with his wife, looking from her to Sapphire.
When he started talking again, Sapphire cut him off and told him to boil a big pot of water and bring clean towels and a knife. When he just stood there, gaping, Sapphire repeated her words with quiet authority.
“Go! Everything will be all right.”
Rebecca began to sob and speak Yoruba as rapidly as her husband had. Marta took her hand. “English, Madam, or Urhobo more slowly.”
“Keep Sir Adebangbe out of here. He makes me nervous. He gets upset if I so much as cut myself, and this is—” Another contraction came and stopped Sapphire from saying more.
“Do you know what to do?”
Sapphire didn’t want to lie and claim knowledge she didn’t have.
“God made women to have babies, Madam, and He knows what he’s doing.”
She put her hand on Rebecca’s damp brow. “You’re going to manage this as well as you do everything else, Ma.”
Adebangbe came up with a pile of towels. He disappeared again and returned with a bowl and steaming kettle. When he came to the bed, Rebecca raised her head. “Get out! Go away!” Stricken, Adebangbe went, closing the door quietly behind him.
Rebecca relaxed against the pillows Sapphire had put behind her, for a few minutes at least, until the next contraction took her breath away. Sapphire worked through the night, dabbing her forehead, holding her hand, speaking words of encouragement.
Madam Rebecca screamed when the baby pushed his way into the world, just as the sun peeked over the horizon. Sapphire tied two strings around the cord and cut it with shaking hands. Wrapping the wailing baby boy in a soft blanket, she placed him in Rebecca’s arms.
“He’s so beautiful.” Rebecca gazed raptly into her son’s face. She looked pale and drained, damp tendrils of dark hair framing her face.
“Where is my husband?”
“Downstairs, I think, waiting to find out if you and the baby are well.”
She laughed. “Tell him he can come back now. I won’t bite him.”
The door opened and a heavyset, gray-haired woman with a round glasses came hurrying in. Her face looked weary with exhaustion.
“Iya ágbèbi!” Rebecca smiled.
“He’s already come.”
“So I see.” The midwife removed her shawl and tossed it aside as she approached the bed.
“Two babies in one night.”
She drew down the blanket to look at the baby. “Your husband is bringing warm water and salt. We must wash you both to prevent infection.”
She drew blankets aside and encouraged Madam Rebecca to nurse the baby. “It will bring the afterbirth.” She straightened and turned to Sapphire.
“We must strip the soiled sheets and replace them.”
Sapphire followed the woman’s quick instructions. Adebangbe came in with another pot of hot water and a bag of salt.
“You have a son, Adebangbe.”
Tears of joy ran down Rebecca’s cheeks. The midwife told him to wash his hands before he touched either baby or mother. Adebangbe sloshed water into a basin and scrubbed past his wrists, grabbing one of the towels. When he sat on the edge of the bed, Rebecca gasped. Adebangbe dropped to his knees beside the bed, murmuring endearments as he kissed Rebecca and beheld his son. Feeling useless, Sapphire gathered up the soiled sheets.
“I should soak these right away.”
No one noticed when she left. When she came downstairs, she found several men dressed for work sitting in the empty dining room. She had had no time to set out the usual breakfast buffet.
“No food this morning, gentlemen. And no lunch today. You’ll need to find a nice restaurant. We’ve had a busy night. Madam Rebecca had a healthy son. Everything will be back to normal tomorrow morning.”
The midwife came down to the kitchen.
“Rebecca and the baby are sleeping. Adebangbe fell asleep on the couch. You did well, Sapphire. Madam Rebecca speaks very highly of you.”
“She did all the work, Ma. All I did was dab her forehead, hold her hand . . . and pray.”
Ìyá ágbèbí laughed with her.
“You’ll need something to eat before you leave.” Sapphire prepared bean pudding, and hot pap.
Ìyá ágbèbí left as soon as she finished breakfast, and Sapphire went upstairs to her room to rest for a few hours before starting preparations for dinner.
Unexpected emotion welled up inside Sapphire. She had never seen anything more beautiful than the way Rebecca and her husband looked at one another and at the perfect infant they had made together.
Would a man ever look at her with such love? Would she ever have a child of her own? Perhaps her father was right: she had no beauty to offer and she lacked Mama’s gentle spirit. How many times had Papa said no man would look at her, and in truth, not one of the bachelors in the house had given her a second look, other than to ask for some needed service.
“Sapphire, would you mind ironing my suit?” “How much to do my laundry?” “More soup, Antí.”
Sapphire put her arm over her eyes and fought tears of longing and disappointment. She must concentrate on what she could have with hard work and perseverance, and she must not long for things beyond reach. Madam Rebecca had her husband. Precious would have her own man. Sapphire would have her freedom. She could thank God she would never again live under her father’s roof. She would never again bear the bruises of a beating. She would never again sit in silence as a man told her she was ugly, ill-tempered, and selfish.
“Fly,” Mama said. “Be like an eagle.” In those words, Mama had acknowledged that Sapphire would not have the comfort of a loving husband or children of her own.
“An eagle flies alone.”
As she fell asleep, Marta thought she heard a voice. “Mama?” She dreamed Mama flew above her, face radiant, arms spread like angel’s wings. Jane stood below, hands raised, wind swirling around her until she disappeared.
Over the next few weeks, Sapphire worked such long, hard hours she had no time to think about anything but what needed to be done. Adebangbe hired another servant, Mary, who took over the household chores. Sapphire prepared all the meals for Rebecca, Adebangbe and twelve boarders and looked after Rebecca during her first weeks of recuperation. Baby Jamal proved demanding of his mother’s time. After the first few days, Adebangbe slept in the parlor.
Adebangbe came into the kitchen one afternoon. “Two letters, Sapphire!” He tossed them onto the worktable.
“Ah, I’m so hungry.” He lifted the lid from the bubbling beef stew and inhaled while Sapphire sieved the rice from the cooker and set it on the counter to cool. She picked up the two letters, one from Jane, another from Mama’s sister, Sharon. Heart thumping with dread, Sapphire took a paring knife and sliced both open. She felt something inside Jane’s envelope and carefully opened the note. Folded inside were Mama’s gold earrings.