By Daniel Adams
The baby squirmed discontented even as it suckled her nipple. It grunted, it stretched, and it writhed.
Sharo shifted her weight and crossed her legs under her as she sat in the dust on the dirt floor.
“Shh, shh, shh. It’s okay. Shh, shh.” She soothed her baby.
Barely six weeks old, he was very aware of his surroundings and typically smiled at his mother. A quiet child, normally he slept much of the night.
Not this night. His face puckered and turned red.
She wondered if he was sleeping too much.
That’s not normal, she thought. It can’t be healthy, can it?
There was no one for her to ask, about anything. Every day she spent anxious moments wondering if she took good care of her child. She wept all day when his umbilical cord fell off, wondering what to do.
Giliana was fine, but Sharo remained terrified.
What if I do something wrong?
Currently, he grunted and made knots out of his tiny hands.
He rarely fusses, she thought.
But, he did now.
He spit the nipple out of his mouth and cried, milk spilling out and dribbling into the wrinkles of his neck.
“Oh, it’s okay. What’s the matter, Giliana”
He latched onto the nipple again and suckled vigorously this time.
“There, there you go,” said Sharo, soothingly. “There.”
She wiped his cheek lovingly with a clean cotton cloth. Not much was clean in her room. Dust from the busy road outside the city wall covered everything. She had learned to deal with it prior to the birth of her child; but, he changed everything.
She swept daily now, dusted twice as often. What had once been a simple shelter from the rain had become home. A curtain spanned the room, dividing it in half. On one side, she kept a basin of water with a towel, a wooden box she used as a table and a clay lamp, which she burned as little as possible. On the other side lay her bedding, neatly arranged, a basket which also served as a cradle, and a small stack of swaddling clothes, which she laundered daily. It didn't feel much like home; but, it was all she had.
Four months prior she had slept in the same room in the corner, with nothing more than a blanket. Without hope she had been abandoned, shooed away in shame to this hole in the city wall, twenty-five weeks along in her pregnancy.
“It is time for you to know the truth,” said the priest while she sat on the floor in his quarters crying.
She would never forget that day. She dreamed of it in terrible fitful dreams, and heard the voice, that awful voice.
That she had survived childbirth in such unsanitary conditions, malnourished, without proper care and alone, was a miracle unto itself. She saw the birth that way. She had cleaned him the best she could with her blanket as her heart welled with love. Though she had no food or drink she found herself suddenly full of hope as she began to nurse him. Crying with joy and thanking her gods into the night, she fell asleep with her new boy.
When she awoke to his whimpers early in the morning she found a basin and pitcher, both full of clean water, and a small loaf of bread next to her doorway. She cried again and called him Giliana saying, “He has saved me.”
Now, he lurched in her arms, breaking himself free from the nipple and suddenly started crying.
“Shh, shh.” Sharon tried to comfort him as she placed him on her shoulder to burp him. She patted him on the butt and rocked back and forth.
He struggled to raise his head and then vomited profusely. Curdled breast milk splashed against her shoulder and ran between her engorged breasts, onto her lap. A trickle flowed down the center of her back. A second, smaller wave spewed from his mouth covering the front of his swaddle, coating his chin and curling around the bottom of his earlobe.
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” she exclaimed holding Giliana out at arms length. “Oh, my God! I don’t even know what to do.” She laid the baby on her bed mat and wiped his face. “Oh God, it’s everywhere!”
It was. She was covered front and back. Her robe clung to her breasts, back and thighs. Her hair was matted to her shoulder. The baby was soaked through from his chin to his knees; swaddle blanket, cotton diaper and all. Atop the clinging fabric on both of them were randomly placed chunks of curdled milk.
“Are you okay?”
He stretched out and kicked, flailing one arm feverishly in the air.
“Are you okay, Baby?” she asked as she untied her robe. “Well, I guess I know what I’m doing this morning.”
She would be washing her robe, and the baby’s clothes. It would not take all morning as she had only two garments of her own, her robe, which now lay on the floor covered in curdled milk, and a light sarong which she had purchased only days ago, and a half dozen large cotton diapers, as well. She tucked in the sarong and stripped her baby bare.
“Oh, Giliana. You are soaked!” She dipped a cloth into the basin of water and cleaned his neck and torso. “We’re going to make you clean.”
He smiled in response.
“You’re so beautiful,” she said as she fastened a diaper around his waist. “You have such a pretty smile.”
He cooed then sucked his bottom lip into his mouth.
“Oh yes, you do. Yes, you do. Oh. Where’d your bottom lip go? Don’t worry. I’ll help you find it,” she said as she touched his chin with her finger. “I’ll help you find it.”
He grunted, squirmed, and shat.
“Oh, Giliana. Did you do a poop? Yes, you did.
"And I just changed you. Yes, I did,” she said, smiling at him.
She could deal with soiled diapers; but, Giliana had never vomited like that before. As she changed his second diaper she wondered if he was sick, or was there something wrong with his stomach.
Or, was it her milk? Was something wrong with it?
Her biggest fear was that she wouldn’t be able to take care of him. She had discovered that she could deal with almost any humiliation as long as she knew her child would be okay.
“There. All clean,” she declared as the finished swaddling him and picked him up, allowing his legs to bunch up under her breasts.
“All clean,” she said.
That's when she felt a warming sensation against her belly. Giliana was smiling, and peeing.
She wanted to cry.
She had never dreamed nursing a baby could be this difficult; and, she never dreamed she would be alone through it. Sharo wanted a nap.
Though she was thankful Giliana was such a happy baby, rarely fussing, sleeping from the tenth to the fourth hour, but, there was so much to do. She was exhausted.
"It's just one thing after another," she said as she began changing him again.
Last night, for instance, Giliana had gone to sleep during his afternoon feeding. She swept, ate some fruit and bread, cleaned her few meager dishes and tucked Gil snuggly into the bed. Then she held her breath and hurried the couple hundred cubits to the local well to retrieve some fresh water. She wished she could bring him but had no other way to carry the basin.
Every moment dragged on it seemed for eternity, while she waited at the well for the tender.
He apparently had no rush in him. Casually he drew his bucket, making light conversation, related of course to her profession.
“Hot enough today to make a man want to tear off his robe, wouldn’t you say, Mum?”
“I was content to keep mine on,” said Sharo, nervously keeping an eye on the open door of her room.
“A perfect maiden by day, eh Mum. But what happens when the sun goes down?” he asked, pausing in his labor. “I suppose you been busy tonight already. Needing a fresh drink and a breath of air?”
“I have been busy." She took the rope from him and continued, "Caring for my child. And if you must know, I stay just busy enough to get by."
She finished pulling the bucket to the surface.
"And I wouldn’t get by if I couldn’t finish a task.”
With a humph she poured the water into the basin, placed a coin on the side of the well and stomped off toward her home.
“I’ve got another task you could finish, Luv,” yelled the old man. She turned to retort only to find he had raised his robe above his waist and had exposed his flaccid manhood toward her. She turned back toward her house and hurried, her heart pounding.
She had no recourse. Anyone could say anything at all to her without a worry. She taught herself to carry the basin on her hip that evening; but, it didn't change much. In her society she was the lowest of the low.
The law would not allow physical harm to anyone, and prohibited thieves from raiding her, but that was all. And, with no family, she realized if she were killed, there would be none to care for her baby, or pursue her killer. Her life was tenuous, at best.
The bell sounded the fifth hour.
She wanted to sleep. Instead, she lay next to her baby crying. She could not express the horror of it all. She had such high hopes only weeks before; now she had to leave her child alone while she sold what she thought would be sacred, what was still sacred to her.
She tried so hard, doing all she could to keep her baby safe and fed. She fielded insults from fellow prostitutes for not being perfumed and polished, and worse from her clients. None offered help.
She had bourn her child without aid, pushed out the placenta, tied off the cord, nursed her newborn, and cleaned him from head to toe.
For her trouble, she was treated with contempt, as though she had committed some crime against humanity. Because she had been conned and cast out, dirtied in the eyes of “upstanding citizens.” She was ignored, mocked, and used.
Most of all, she was unloved. Sharo had nothing.
Any other girl her age with child would have had a mother at her side, or a midwife, not to mention, a husband.
Like it or not, in the eyes of the whole city of Nineveh, she was its cheapest whore. In a few hours, another day of gut-wrenching sacrifice would begin. For Gil, it was worth enduring.
As she lay there crying, the bell rang the fifth hour, Giliana wiggled himself awake; and, she knew she had a reason to press on. And though hers may have been the most degrading, lowly, despicable position, she knew in the eyes of Giliana she was mother. And he loved her, unquestionably.
She comforted herself with the thought of being a good mother, and daydreamed about what that might mean. With those thoughts she fell back asleep.
She awoke only a few minutes later with her hungry baby. She spent half of that hour feeding him before falling back to sleep. At the sixth hour she woke again to his fussing. By the time he finished nursing, the noise of the city gate had escalated to its normal din. There would be no more sleep this morning.