Magdalena lay on the clean white bed sheet, the cover sheet rumpled at her feet. So hot. Almost too hot to breathe. Ernesto was pretending to be asleep, his strong brown back turned toward her, careful not to touch. She didn’t dare reach for him, to swirl his long hair away from his damp skin, wouldn’t run her hand along his sweaty shoulder. “Water? Ernesto, could I get you some cool water?” His too-steady breathing continued, in out, in out, in out.


She’d explained to him tonight, after supper, said the truth out loud for the first time: “Gabriella was trying to tell me something. She was trying to whisper to me, a secret, an important thing. I know in my mother’s heart.” Ernesto had not spoken, but his stare alerted her: He believed she’d lost her mind. The birth, the surgery, all of the reporters, the doctors, the bills – maybe she’d gone loco.

In the morning will be the surgery. She has not been able to sleep a moment, praying every minute for safety and grace for her girls.

At first, at the doctor’s, when the medical people did all the tests and told them the baby would be born with a tumor on her head, when the baby was only five months inside her, Ernesto reached for her hand. He squeezed it. “Another girl,” he’d whispered; “Angelique and Carlotta will be glad to have a baby sister.” Not a word about the tumor, about the doctor saying it would be dangerous. When Doctor Perez said, “Perhaps you should consider an alternative, Señor Martinez; this could endanger Magdalena as well,” he’d left the room without a word. Ernesto, so closed, so quiet. She knew he would not cry. He would never consider that horrible thing. His faith would not permit it.

But at the birth, when the doctors pulled the child from her quickly, with such ease, she knew in her woman’s place that the tumor was worse than they had expected. They hurried the baby from the room; the nurses would not answer her questions. “Tell me, please: Is my little girl all right?” They cleaned her gently, their faces troubled, and moved her through quiet corridors to a fresh dark room. Ernesto did not come that night. He had come to her when Angelique and Carlotta were born.

As the sun came up Dr. Perez entered her room. “It is far worse than we thought.”
She sat up, folded her hands together. “But my baby, my Maria, she will be all right?”

He sat on the edge of her bed. The other birthing times, the doctor never did such a thing. With one long-fingered hand he rubbed his forehead, as if to erase something inside.

“She will be all right? Even with the tumor?”

“It was not a tumor, Magdalena.”

Her hands flew above her head. “Gracias, Madre Maria; Jesus …”

Dr. Perez put his fingertips on her arm. “No. Ese no es el problemo. It is far worse.”

Such a thing he told her then. She had no place for such a thing inside her mind. Her body felt as if some long needle had drained all of her blood, removed all of her nerve endings, taken away the very water in her cells. Such a thing could not be true.

“But Maria, she is small, but you say she is all right – except for this one thing? You say my Maria is all right?”

Again, she could not gather in thoughts she could follow. The baby, Maria, was a perfect baby. This other, it was living too? It was growing from Maria? How could such a thing be?

“I told Ernesto last night, Magdalena. He will come to you today.”

“Will you bring me my baby? Will you bring Maria to me?”

That first moment when the old nurse, the one with so many wrinkles like a tissue, put the swaddled baby in my arms, I felt my milk come down. Yes, my heart beat again, and my woman place eased, like the birth was finally over. Tiny Maria looked so much like Angelique, the same peso-sized dark eyes, the same stare, the same dark curly hair all across her forehead. I put her to my breast, and she grabbed on, hungry like a new puppy, staring at me. Who are you, you large brown shape with white gashes making light? Who are you? My mother person?

I did not unwrap the swaddling cloth right away. I let Maria eat; I rocked her and sang the simple words I sang to my other two, Los pollitos dicen, pio, pio, pio, bringing her into the family, welcoming her to my body in this new way. She got heavier, as babies do when they settle, full, after a feeding. At peace, I began to unwind the light blanket, taking care not to stir Maria. Another face turned to me, like a dimly formed face from a dream: shadowy, blurred, but still a face. The tiny lips moved. “Gabriella?” I said, without knowing I would speak. “Gabriella? My little angel, are you trying to tell me something?”

Magdalena loved her child, the girl Maria and the angel, Gabriella. That is how she thought of them, but she kept this thinking in her heart.

Dr. Perez explained that the baby would have to stay in the hospital for a number of days, so special important doctors from America could come and examine her. Maybe some from England, as well, and even Germany. He himself had never seen such a child; he knew others would want the opportunity to study her. They brought Magdalena a pump for her milk; she blushed as a nurse showed her how to save the milk for the baby. Such an unnatural thing she would never have done, not unless she had to go home and leave the them. Magdalena did not like this leaving, but she went with Ernesto when he came for her in the truck that afternoon. He did not speak of the child, did not bring the girls to wave to her through the window. The two rode home in silence.

The next day the madness began. She’d taken her brush from the shelf, to tend Ernesto’s hair, as she did early each day, before he left to go to his work. “The girls and I, may we ride with you? I need to nurse the baby. They want to see her.”

He’d tossed his head, pulled his own hair into the band she had embroidered for him years before. “Doctor Perez, he will send someone for the milk.” And he grabbed his lunch sack, no soft kiss to her cheek.

Por favor, Ernesto …” but he was out the door. Her breasts were swollen, hungry to feed Maria. She longed to lean her ear down to Gabriella’s tiny mouth, to listen more closely. What was her message? Angelique and Carlotta pestered her to know about the new baby. “When will you bring her home? Why did you have to leave her at the hospital? Why is our father mad at us?” Magdalena did not know how to answer; her nerves were like the zig-zaggy ghost crabs she would chase at the shore. “Angelique, ahora mismo, brush your sister’s hair. And Carlotta, when she is finished, I need you both to check for the eggs. I must make a custard, to keep my blood strong, to keep my milk rich.”

As she was stirring the creamy mixture over the cookstove, the vanilla bean making the room smell like Navidad, a knock at the door startled her. Perhaps it would be Guadalupe from down the road, nosing around to dig up scraps about the birthing. Guadalupe’s Tomas had a truck, though, and had not worked for many weeks. Magdalena could put up with Guadalupe’s questions if she would convince Tomas to drive her to the hospital, would pay him for the gas from her food jar. But through the screen she saw not her neighbor but men, many men, gringos, with cameras. Why were these strangers with cameras at her home in the middle of the day? How had they hauled all these heavy things up the bumpy hills? The boards of her porch, already sagging, would break from so many.

All of these gnats yelled at once, speaking that sharp American tongue. She wiped her hands on her apron, tried to speak, to tell them she could not leave the custard to come to a boil on the fire, they must vamanos, but they would not listen. Each man called out louder than the one beside him: “Is it true? Did you have a two-headed baby?” “Let us get a shot of you, okay?” “We want to see the baby. When can we see her?” She put her hands to her face and slammed the door. Running through the house to the back she called, “Niñas. Mismo. Come inside the house.” She would not have these men saying such things so that her children would hear. Had they no respect for the special ones, the innocents?

We spent two days inside the steaming house, I wiping my face with water, keeping the girls away from the fury outside that swirled around us like mosquitos over a puddle. Ernesto cannot go to work; there is too much disturbance and his boss does not want him. He has chopped enough wood for two winters. Even the reporters dare not go near him, though, his face is such a storm.

When the doctors have come, in the evenings, I have made the girls stay in the kitchen and bathe. The special doctors have come with Dr. Perez; they have told us that an operation is necessary, that they must separate the second head – they call it a head; I prefer to call it Gabriella’s face – or Maria’s brain will be crushed. This I understand. Ernesto has given permission for many pictures to be taken, for medical purposes. Some have appeared in newspapers, though, with cruel words about our child, calling her such awful names, but he will not speak of this. He thanks the doctors, shakes their hands, and leaves the room when they leave. Late, when the rest of us are in bed, he sits on the front steps playing his cana in the dark, the lonely notes like my babies crying for me. He has lain with me but he has not touched my skin a single time these three days.

My daughters do not understand, and have asked many times what is the cause of all this commotion, why do all the people want to see our Maria, but I cannot say. I only tell them that it will go away soon, once our baby comes home to us. They whisper to one another, as sisters will; this must be strange to them, but I have given them the paints and the corn husks and the scraps and they have made new dolls for their baby sister. This has kept them happy.

Today their excitement bubbles over like froth on café con leche; today for the first time they will see Maria, before the surgery. Even Ernesto had to be here; the priest convinced him it was his duty. Father Miguel had the car from the church bring us this morning; he and two nuns led us through the crowd of strangers outside our house. Such yelling – even though we had been warned, it was like the locusts when they come every seven years. Father made an agreement with the photographers and reporters; our family would let them take one picture of us, inside the hospital, with Maria, before the operation. I hoped that this would quiet them, but it did not. Still they called out the questions, like hissing snakes. On my hard chair I close my eyes to pray.

“Magdalena, you may come in first, por favor,” says the old nurse, still not smiling. Can her wrinkled face not smile any longer? I am so glad to hear her words, though. I do not need her kindness; I only need to nurse my baby. This pumping has brought my milk in like a white river, and I want to feed my Maria, for her to drink from her mother and know she is loved before she must face this danger. I want to cradle Gabriella before this thing happens, also, to honor her and thank her for coming to us.

“Mama, can we come too,” begs Angelique.

“Soon, my sweet ones.” I touch Carlotta’s thick braid. “Soon you will come in with me. Mama must feed the baby first and soothe her from all this inspection by doctors and nurses. Surely it has been hard on such a tiny one. I will call you in soon to meet your beautiful new sister.”

Ernesto jerks his head up at that word beautiful; he glares at me. Neither of us has yet to tell the children about their sister, about her strangeness. Will it frighten them to see a baby such as that? Would it not be better to tell them first? We have not spoken of these things.

“Okay, all of you, stand closer. Ernesto, would you pull Magdalena closer, maybe put your hand on her shoulder?”

The fat man with sweat beneath his arms gives all the orders. He does not have a camera. Two of the others have prepared their cameras. They are not to take pictures until the big one says it is time. Then they must stop when he says stop. This is the agreement, the promise. Ernesto pulls the girls to him, lifting Carlotta into his arms, touching Angelique’s shoulders. He did not say no, he would not touch me; he has merely ignored the man’s directions.

I cradle Maria in my arms. When I do this, Gabriella’s head is facing my body, so they cannot see her eyes and nose and mouth. Again, today, her mouth moved as I fed Maria and spoke the soothing words. It was difficult, but I twisted myself close to her to hear the special sounds, the message she has brought to me. Tiny puffs of air, like a baby’s breathing when it sleeps, came from her sweet mouth. “What? Tell me, What, Gabriella? This may be our last moment together.” I felt it, felt her message, even though there were no words. Father Miguel told us this morning that the doctors wish to keep Gabriella for study, that only eight other babies like Gabriella and Maria have been born in all of recorded medicine, and none of them lived outside their mother. Imagine. Of course he did not say their names. Not even Father Miguel. He said, “Your child’s extra head,” in that formal way, like he was preaching a homily. He could not meet my eyes. I answered, “But Father, will she not be buried in holy ground? Will we not have a place to visit, as we visit our honored grandparents?” He only shook his head at this. This was the closest I have come to crying in all these three days. Can they not see that Gabriella is a chosen one, a child of God, too?

Angelique gives Maria’s toes a tiny pinch, not to hurt her. She says, “Smile for the camera, little one,” as she tickles her chin. “When you come home we will put gold in your ears, like your big sisters.” Carlotta tries to pat her head, but Ernesto twists her towards the camera. The girls have kissed the baby and cooed over her and promised to give her her new dolls when she comes home. These doctors will not allow anything near Maria that might bring infection. Even this picture caused them much worry, but the man in charge, the fat one, has promised to be fast.

“Smile,” he says now, and then, “Okay, shoot,” and the men make clicking sounds, moving from place to place in front of us.

In seconds the leader says, “That’s enough, that’s all,” and it is over. The three hurry off. Why such a rush, I think. The surgery will take hours.

Ernesto speaks: “What? You did not cover the head? Mother of God, what were you thinking?” He pulls the girls close to him as I hand my baby to the nurse.

Sweet Maria has gone to God. The doctors say she had a heart attack, because the blood in her brain would not stop running, but I do not think that this is so. I think she could not live without Gabriella. I am happy for her. Peace mixed with my tears when Doctor Perez told me. I had already said goodbye, vaya con Dios, to them. Maria should not be separated from her other, her spirit self, her shadow sister.

I put away the dishes in our quiet kitchen, moving slowly, my breasts still hard and hot as my milk dries.
Such a week. They have all gone away, finally, the doctors and strangers. The girls are out playing and laughing again, though they include Maria in their bedtime prayers.

Poor Ernesto. He still has not touched me. Ernesto must turn to his God now, to find his way. He has been like a stone, even at the wake, at the mass, even at the burial. He never cried, not once. No more does he play his cana at night. He has offered no comfort to me, to his daughters, though they have cried a well of tears and reached out their hands to him. A woman should not pester a man in matters of such importance, such pain. I know, in my wife’s heart, that he will take his own time, but he cannot turn from me forever. I pray for this, pray to my daughters who have gone to God. Didn’t Gabriella come to me, an angel, to tell me I was chosen for this special birth? Even if I could not make out her words, I am certain that was her message. And I will pray to the Holy Mother, too, for such a gift requires a mother’s way of knowing, of understanding, only a mother’s way of loving.

Author's Comment

Some years ago I read about such a birth in the news, and it stuck in my mind: How would a woman react to this event? Would she survive? How? Women, their inner lives, their inner strength – this is often the impetus for my work. This became the basis for this story.


Charlotte Morgan has published short fiction, novels, poetry, and art criticism. Recently, two poems are included in the Spring, 2017 issue of Artemis. A short story was in Crack the Spine winter of 2016. Her first novel, One August Day, was nominated for the annual fiction award by the Library of Virginia. The short story “What I Eat” is in the Pushcart Prize Collection. Morgan holds an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University where she studied with Lee Smith and Paule Marshall. As writer-in-residence for Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program, she works with novice and established writers.

2 thoughts on “What? Tell Me, What?

  1. In the article you initially read, the one that inspired this story, did the husband behave the way Ernesto behaves?

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