It was about 6:00 A.M. when Rufus and I saw Joyce Metzger on the walking path that runs around the perimeter of Glebe Park at the north end of Siesta Key. Rufus is a scruffy-faced schnauzer who firmly believes that he’s in total charge of whatever street he happens to be walking on, so he let out a little wuf! to announce our presence. Joyce had Henry the VIII on a leash, and they were both studying with intense curiosity something that was lying on the path. Joyce had squatted down low to see better, and Henry the VIII, being a tiny miniature dachshund, was already down low. When Rufus barked again they both looked up, and their faces brightened in recognition.
I’m Dixie Hemingway, no relation to you-know-who. I’m a cat sitter on Siesta Key, a semitropical barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, just off Sarasota, Florida. It’s tiny. The whole place is less than four square miles, and probably at least one of those square miles is taken up by ponds and lagoons. Most of my clients are cats, with just a few dogs. Occasionally there’s a hamster or a bird or something with scales, although I prefer to let other pet sitters take the snakes. Don’t get me wrong, I admire snakes. In the Garden of Eden, the serpent was the only honest one. But anybody who knows me knows I can’t stand dropping live, squirming mice into a snake’s open mouth.
Until about five years ago, I risked my life every day as a deputy sheriff, but after what you might call a bump in the road of life, I went a little nuts. Well, a lot nuts. The sheriff’s department and I came to a mutual agreement: I was too messed up to wear a sheriff’s badge or carry a gun, and it was probably a good idea for me to take a break from law enforcement. That’s when I started my own pet-sitting business. Now that I’m somewhat socially acceptable again, I’m okay around guns, but I prefer working with animals to humans. Animals don’t let you down, and they’re always there when you need them.
Joyce said, “Come look at this, Dixie! I’m almost certain it’s a resplendent quetzal!”
I brought Rufus close to my side and pulled up next to Joyce. There on the ground was a parrotlike bird with bright green wings, a red breast, a banana yellow beak, and a fluffy chartreuse crest that sat atop its head like a fringed helmet. Its green tail feathers were easily three times the length of its body and looked like two long Christmas ribbons, gleaming with a violet iridescence.
I said, “Huh.”
Joyce said, “This may be the first resplendent quetzal ever seen in Florida!”
I said, “Huh?”
Rufus wagged his tail vigorously as if to make up for my ignorance.
Lord knows the Key has practically every bird known to man. They all touch down about the same time tourist season starts, so our little island’s population increases tenfold with both feathered and nonfeathered globe-trotters. Pelicans, parakeets, terns, plovers, spoonbills, egrets, herons—and those are just the ones you see every day. It’s a birder’s paradise. There are probably at least two hundred species of birds that make their way through the Key at some time of the year, so we might as well have a few resplendent whatchamacallits too.
“Resplendent quetzals,” Joyce said. “They’re the national bird of Guatemala, and they’re on the endangered species list. The ancient Aztecs thought they were gods of light and goodness, and it was considered a mortal crime to kill them.”
Rufus made a snorting noise, and he and Henry the VIII exchanged a look.
I said, “Joyce, you do realize that bird is dead?”
“I know, but if there’s one, there could be others. It looks like some kind of parrot, but that long tail and those shiny feathers are a sure giveaway. And see the yellow beak? No, this is a resplendent quetzal alright.”
I scratched my left ankle with the toe of my right Ked. I admire and respect birders, but I’m not sure I understand their excitement when they spot something that for very good reasons probably does not want to be spotted. If I were a bird, I don’t think I’d be very happy with hordes of giddy bird-watchers turning up and pointing their binoculars at me and scribbling in their little notebooks. Not to mention hunters with pellet guns and kids with slingshots. I’d much rather flit around behind a canopy of leaves and branches and hope nobody ever noticed me.
Joyce had pulled off a white bandanna tied around her neck and laid it on the ground beside the bird.
“What the heck are you doing?”
She gestured toward her house. “I’m going to put it in my freezer.”
“Yep. Then I’m going to call the ornithologists at the University of Tampa. They can analyze its stomach contents and tell whether it’s been held captive or if it flew here. Maybe it got blown off course in a hurricane or something.”
She rolled the bird into her bandanna and put it in her shoulder bag. Rufus pulled on his leash and pointed his nose at the brush beside the trail; he had probably had enough talk about dead birds.
I said, “Well, you know what they say, a bird in the freezer is worth two in the—”
Rufus and Henry the VIII both turned their heads toward the brush beside the trail. There was a short bleating sound, and for a moment I wondered if a baby goat had somehow wandered into the bushes. The sound came again, and Rufus bounded toward it. I was right behind him, but this time I knew: It was not a goat.
I circled the end of a line of bushy bougainvillea and jerked Rufus to a stop. A dark-haired woman lay on the ground looking up at us with terror in her eyes. She clutched a newborn baby to her chest. The baby’s skin was bright pink and glistening, its jet black hair wet with blood clinging to its skull. A long umbilical cord trailed from the baby into a dark red pile of blood-soaked leaves.
I said, “Joyce, come here right now.”
The baby let out another cry, and the woman pulled it close. Her arms were as thin as a child’s.
Joyce ran to look, then silently tilted her head back and closed her eyes.
While I rummaged through my backpack for my cell phone, Joyce took Rufus and Henry the VIII over to a stand of saplings nearby and tied them up. They sat side by side without a whimper, as if they knew something very important had happened in the human world.
As soon as I pulled my phone out of my pack, the young woman on the ground started to cry. Her voice was a high desolate keening, her mouth slewed so she looked like a person on drugs, as if she hadn’t had a decent meal or a restful hour’s sleep in a long, long time. Through the tangle of hair falling in front of her face, I could see that she was much younger than I’d realized at first. A teenager.
I dialed 911 as I knelt beside her and put a gentling hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, honey, you’re gonna be okay.”
The 911 operator answered, “911, what is your emergency?”
“A young woman has just given birth in the woods. We need an ambulance.”
“Is the baby breathing?” the operator asked, as if she had this conversation every day.
“Is the mother hemorrhaging?”
“I don’t think so.”
“How long has it been since she gave birth?”
I looked at the girl. “How long has it been since you had the baby?”
She flailed her head from side to side. “Please no, miss,” she moaned. “Please no, no medicos.”
I cringed. “Do you speak English?”
She hesitated. “A little.”
The operator said, “What is your location, please?”
Joyce knelt down at the girl’s side. “Sweetheart, do you have papers?”
The girl hesitated, then shook her head no. Even non-English-speaking immigrants understand the word “papers.”
I clicked off the phone and looked more closely at the young woman. Her dark eyes stared back at me like a trapped animal’s. Joyce knelt down beside the girl with her sweatshirt ready to swaddle the baby. Our eyes met.
Joyce said, “Don’t tell me.”
“We have to do this ourselves. Either that or let them take her to the ER, where she’ll probably be arrested.” The girl looked from me to Joyce. “Look at her. She’s terrified.”
Recently, in what had become a very famous incident, a local hospital had admitted a young man for emergency treatment, only to find out that he was an illegal alien. The man was treated, but instead of releasing him, the hospital contacted immigration and the man was deported back to his own country. He had a family here, and a job, but none of that mattered. His life was destroyed, and his family was left to fend for themselves.
For a second, Joyce looked as devastated as I felt. Then every fiber of her body seemed to firm up, and I remembered that in her former life Joyce had been a marine.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s do this.”
Her tone was so authoritative that I was happy to let her take charge. She stood up and brushed off her shorts decisively. For a split second, my mind wandered off, probably to avoid what was about to happen. I should really keep a former marine with me at all times, I thought to myself. They’re quite handy.
Joyce said, “We need to get her inside, but…”
At first I didn’t realize she was talking to me. But then my eyes followed her gaze from the tiny newborn down the umbilical cord to the dark mass of blood and matted leaves lying on the ground.
“That’s gotta be cut.”
I raised my hands up and cupped them over my ears like a “hear no evil” monkey. In the police academy, I’d learned how to deliver a baby and how to cut the cord, but I’d never actually done it.
With just a touch of desperation I said, “Maybe we could leave it? People do that, don’t they? It eventually just falls off, right?”
Joyce shook her head. “Sometimes, but in this case it will be impossible to move them safely. We have to.”
She was right, and I knew it. We sat there for a moment as if frozen in time. Three women brought together by some perverse twist of fate, huddled over a tiny wriggling bloody baby, with no one to witness but the squirrels, the birds, and a couple of dogs tied to a maple sapling. Rufus and Henry the VIII lay side by side, watching our every move with rapt attention, like spectators at a tennis match.
Joyce said, “My shoes have Velcro. Give me your shoelaces.”
I snapped to and pulled the laces from my Keds and handed them to her. She was studying the still-pulsating umbilical cord closely.
“Don’t want to do this too soon,” she said. “Do you have a knife? Or scissors? Or I can run to the house.”
“Pet sitters always have scissors,” I said and dove into my backpack. “I use them for clipping kitten toenails or cutting any number of things stuck in matted dog fur. And here’s a box of baby wipes. I use them for cleaning my hands when I’m traveling, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol and some cotton swabs.”
I realized I was rambling on nervously, but I couldn’t stop myself. I laid everything out in a row on Joyce’s sweatshirt.
Joyce looked at the scissors and sighed. “They’re not very big, are they?”
“They’re razor sharp, though. And we can anesthetize them with the rubbing alcohol.”
Joyce raised one eyebrow. “You mean sanitize?”
The young woman was watching us with mounting fear. When she saw the scissors, she whimpered and began scooting backward, trying to get away from us.
Joyce laid a hand on the girl’s ankle. “It’s okay. Trust me, honey, it’s okay.”
But the girl didn’t trust either of us, all she knew was that we were bringing out sharp instruments we might be intending to use on her.
I tried my rudimentary high school Spanish. “Es necessario que … um, to cut”—I made scissoring motions to illustrate—“la umbilical.” For the first time, I glanced at the baby’s sex. “La niña will not have dolor. No pain, te prometo.”
The girl looked at the umbilical cord and then at me. She didn’t look as if she believed my promise, but something in her eyes told me she understood.
The cord had stopped pulsating. I moved closer to the baby and tied one of my shoelaces around the cord a couple of inches from the baby’s body. The girl watched me intently.
Joyce said, “Por favor.”
With greater trust, the girl laid the baby down so I could more easily tie the other lace closer to the baby’s body. I dabbed alcohol on the cord between the shoelaces, then dipped the scissors’ blades into the bottle of alcohol and swirled it around.
Joyce looked sternly at the young mother. “Hold her steady.”
She seemed to understand. Her hands pushed against the baby’s sides gently to keep the baby from wriggling too much. I slid the blades over the cord.
As if she were giving a demonstration to a medical school class, Joyce said, “The cord is very tough. It’s hard to cut.”
I was glad she said that because it felt to me as if I was putting enough force on the scissors’ handles to cut through a Goodyear tire.
I said, “Get ready to blot up the blood. There won’t be much.”
It took a moment for Joyce to realize I was talking to her. She let out a nervous giggle and jumped to hold tissues under the scissors just as the blades broke through the cord. Some blood spilled out, but most of the blood in the cord had traveled back into the bodies it had linked. Joyce blotted at the nib attached to the baby before she let the end connected to the placenta fall.
I looked at Joyce, and we both let out a sigh of relief. Then we smiled at the young woman.
I said, “It’s okay. Your baby is fine.”
But the words were a lovely lie, because the baby wasn’t fine at all. She had been born on the ground, in the dirt, to a mother who was alone and far from home and nearly a baby herself. There was no promise of security or safety, only a dismal future, riddled with uncertainty. Joyce wrapped the baby in her sweatshirt, and the girl lifted it to her chest and crooned while the baby nuzzled at her thin shoulder blades. The baby looked as worn-out as her mother, and Joyce didn’t look much better.
I couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t even 7:00 A.M. yet, and the day felt like it had already lasted several years.
Copyright © 2013 by Blaize and John Clement