A Dark Nativity

By George Pitcher

A novel that traces a young woman’s descent into madness and violence in the worlds of international aid and diplomacy


The tide of refugees had risen gradually during the afternoon. I heard Kurdish as well as regular Syrian Arabic. The border guards were a mixture of Lebanese police and military and were meant to defer to our UNHCR bibs, but they kept directing families of all ages into the holding pens, high flat-wired fenced areas about the size of English suburban gardens, complete with a shed at the bottom end, where shamefully there was a single chemical latrine, some emergency medical gear such as stretchers, as well as a metal chest of flares and, we always suspected, mustard gas.

Sarah had started to warn the men as the air grew more still towards evening that the first pens were growing too crowded. Sarah was always firmer than me. I may have burnished the image in the intervening years, but I picture her now standing, brace-legged in high-waisted khaki trousers, her field phone sticking above her blue bib like a badge of authority, leaning slightly into a captain on her walking stick and telling him what to do with a question.

“Are you going to seal the muster stations and order open process?”

I tried to remember what I'd read two decades before about crowd-control errors at football stadiums. There were some children pressed up against the fencing with older siblings behind them. But they were only curious, not yet crushed. I smiled at them and they stared neutrally back, running the wire between dry lips.

Sarah heard the cry first. She swung round with her eyes to the distance, as if she was looking at the mountains. Then I heard its second instalment, somewhere between exhalation of fear and an imprecation.

“Shit,” murmured Sarah and ran with her loping gait to the UNHCR jeep.

She unlocked the med box with the key bundle at her waist and pulled at the handles of a bag, about the size of a rolled sleeping bag.

“Follow me,” she called, heading for the gate of the first pen.

She was dodging bodies and catching shoulders. We made it to the back of the pen, where a woman lay in blue silk weave, her knees splayed like an open oyster. A boy knelt beside her, too young to be her husband. A brother perhaps.

How had Sarah known? Maybe she'd seen her arrive earlier. But she always seemed to know things before me.

The ground was wet. It was never wet unless the boys pissed in the holding pens. “Roll up her robe.”

She was a large woman, hair matted, crying and juddering. She was past caring for her modesty, but the boy looked desperate, frozen. Sarah leant across and slapped him across the face and barked something huskily in Hebrew. He lifted her robe back like a tablecloth and I more gently pushed him to one side to provide some screen with my back, for some dignity. Up nearer her head, he grasped her hand and held it to his chest.

Sarah moved round and lay her walking stick across her lap and the woman's legs over it to either side of her. She cupped her hands, as if in homage. Or prayer. The woman threw her head back, arched her spine and cried again, a primal howl that filled the valley and made the men stare away.

“O Christ, she's delivering,” said Sarah, to herself.

She rolled aside and tore open the hook-and-loop strip of the med bag.

“Nat, get where I was and hold the head – don't pull, just support.”

I knelt in the ruts her knees had left in the earth.

I felt a warm, firm hardness fill my palms as she shrieked and the boy whimpered. Sarah leant across her with a syringe and surgical scissors between the fingers of one hand. She tore the antiseptic seal off the blades with her teeth and spat them aside. She said something to the boy again, I think in Kurdish, but then repeated in Hebrew:“Hold her ankle towards you.”

He didn't move. She slapped him again. “Hold it!”

Then, softly, like the sudden mood-swing of a mad woman in an asylum, she ran the ball of her thumb across the forehead of the woman to shift the hair from her eyes.

“It's alright my love. You're going to have a baby.”

The new face appeared sideways in my palm, still in its caul, features squashed and pulled down like a tiny bank robber with a nylon stocking over its head. The blue-grey mass barely filled both hands.

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