The teakettle bubbled on the stove, sending up a stream of white mist into the air of the monastery kitchen. Brother Tobias yawned as he reached over to turn off the gas burner. The chanting voices of his Benedictine brothers wafted in through the open window from the nearby chapel where they were gathered for Morning Prayer. Tobias chanted under his breath while he picked up the kettle and poured the hot water into a series of brown teapots into which he had already poured a generous portion of tea leaves. The brothers, while moderate in all things, were known for their love of a strong cup of tea in preparation for their day of work out in the community gardens and fields where they were harvesting food to help the nearby community. Tobias was just reaching for a wooden spoon to stir the pot of porridge on the stove when he heard a sound most unlikely in a Benedictine monastery: a high-pitched and distinctly female scream.
Arming himself with a butcher knife, Brother Tobias, tall and as thin as a blade of grass, stepped quickly to the door and opened it a crack. A second shriek – definitely female in timbre – caused him to abandon caution and instead fling open the door. Not ten feet away in the open door of the storage shed, lay a young woman on her side, full with child and writhing in pain. Tobias, knowing instinctively that she was near time for birth, put down the knife and rushed to her side. “Madam,” he said quietly, trying to relay a calm that was in direct contradiction to his pounding heart, “how long have you been laboring?”
The woman turned her face to the monk and he saw that she was barely a girl of fourteen or fifteen. “Most of the night,” she whispered, her eyes fear-filled. “I think the baby is almost here.”
Tobias assessed the shed. There was no room for the girl to lie down properly much less give birth. “I will return momentarily,” he said, “I promise.” He waited for her to nod, which she did just as her body convulsed with another labor pain. “I will hurry,” he shouted as he ran in the direction of the chapel.
Tobias’s closest friend, Brother Nathaniel, was slumped in his usual spot on the last row of pews in the chapel, where he often slipped in a few minutes after Morning Prayer had begun. Tobias touched his arm and gestured him to follow. Nathaniel required little encouragement to be free of Morning Prayer, which he viewed as a rude interruption of his precious sleep. Once outside, Tobias didn’t stop to explain, but rather grabbed Nathaniel’s arm and pulled him toward the kitchen. “Hurry!” he whispered.
Brother Nathaniel rubbed the sleep from his eyes as he followed his friend around the back of the monastery to the kitchen door. Thinking some disaster such as an oven of burning bread had produced the agitation in his friend’s eyes, Nathaniel was surprised to see Tobias turn toward the storage shed rather than go directly in his customary work place. Nathaniel stopped short when he saw the convulsing body of a young woman on the floor of the shed. “Dear God in heaven!”
Tobias leaned over and spoke quietly to the laboring woman. “You are doing fine,” he said. “Just relax. We will move you in just a moment to a place more appropriate to welcome your child.”
As the pain momentarily ebbed, Tobias turned to Nathaniel. “You take her feet. We are going to my bed. “
“Your bed? A woman in your cell? That is forbidden!”
“Hurry,” Tobias snapped. “We may have a baby right here on this porch stoop.”
Nathaniel lifted the bare feet of the young woman and noted how soft and warm they were. Women, ah, even one in this peculiar moment prior to birth, were a part of the secular life that still tugged hard at his heart. “I have her,” he said, as Tobias lifted her up under her arms and the two young men scurried through the kitchen to Tobias’s nearby cell.
“AW…” the woman screamed again, just as they lay her down. “The baby! It’s coming. I can feel the head!”
The two men exchanged a glance then Tobias lifted the girl’s skirt up to her waist and slipped off her undergarment. He gently pushed her legs apart and saw – he and Nathaniel – that the baby’s head, black hair shining – was indeed bulging and almost ready to be born.
The girl howled in pain, pushed once again, and the two monks watched as the head emerged slowly, the forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, then chin of a child, bright pink. The baby’s eyes opened as the head was born and out came the sound, “Ah-ooo.”
The men grinned at each other, the pure joy of the moment overtaking them. The woman pushed one more time and the body slipped out, a boy, bright pink and perfect, who immediately burst out with a loud cry, announcing his arrival.
Tobias gently lifted the child up, said a quiet prayer of Thanksgiving, and placed the baby in his mother’s arms. He then found scissors and cut the cord. He and Nathaniel were so happy they hugged each other.
It was just a few minutes later that Tobias saw the blood that was saturating the bed sheets. He looked up in alarm and watched as the young woman’s face, strangely serene, was turning a ghostly shade of white. He realized the girl was hemorrhaging. Finding the doctor in the village would take at least half an hour and it was clear that would be too late. He gently touched her arm. “This is Brother Nathaniel and I am Brother Tobias. What are you called, dear girl?”
“Mary,” she said.
“Where are you from, Mary?” Brother Nathaniel asked. “Do you have family nearby?”
The girl shook her head. “I am fading,” she whispered. “Promise me you will watch over my son.”
The two monks answered in unison, just as they had when they had taken their solemn vows. “We promise.”
Mary sighed, closed her eyes, and slipped away.
The two brothers stood in stunned silence. How could this have happened? What were they supposed to do now? These questions pierced the air between them without one word being spoken.
Finally, Brother Nathaniel made the sign of the cross on the girl’s forehead. “May light perpetual shine upon you, little Mother Mary.”
“May you have life eternal,” Tobias added.
The baby began to fuss, wiggling in his mother’s lifeless arms.
The two men hesitated for an instant, then Nathaniel picked up the tiny bundle. Tobias came near and stroked the child’s soft cheek. The baby, bright-eyed, cooed in response.
“Today, a child is born,” said Brother Tobias.
Brother Nathaniel felt the warmth of the child cradled in his arms and smiled. ”Today, a son is given…”