Chapter 29: Palpitating Parturition
"All the time we wondered and wondered, who is this person coming/growing/turning/floating/swimming deep, deep inside." – Crescent Dragonwagon
"A great joy is coming." –Unknown
The next month until Katsu's return dragged on for he sent no letters after my last response. I guess my blunt truth had angered him, which made me anxious about his return. Akane visited me several times, along with my ever increasing visits to the homes of Ran and Ira. It seemed I was trying to make up for the absences of Teruko and Satoru. No word had been received for them and Teruko's father had been unable to find a trace of them as soon as they left the Fire Nation. Often I thought of them and hoped that they were well, even though part of me was worried since I had not heard from them. The onset of fall had brought forth a decrease in the unnatural humidity and rain. One day I sat in the study, reading a scroll of Fire Nation myths, when I felt it….It was like a small muscle spasm within my stomach, just the lightest of sensations. The baby had moved for the first time within me. I gasped and put my hands to my stomach as the sensation disappeared. It had moved, the first signs of the small life growing within me.
"Are you alright?" Called out a familiar, masculine voice. Startled, I jumped at the sudden intrusion from where I sat on cross-legged on the seating cushions. Instantly I looked towards the doorway to see Katsu standing at its entrance, concern written on his face as he examined me. He rushed towards me with long strides, kneeling beside me. "Is it the baby?"
I gaped at him for I had not known which day he would specifically return, not to mention his ironic timing for the baby had just moved for the first time. "I…ahhh…" I began to stutter out. "It moved," I added in a whisper.
"You felt the baby move?" Katsu asked, the worry fleeing from his face, and was replaced with relief and joy. I nodded, staring down at my stomach in amazement. Katsu reached out hesitantly, before settling his own large hands on top of mine. The baby moved again and my eyes only widened as I looked down at our joined hands. The sensation of it moving with Katsu's callused hands on top of my own was….I could not describe it with exact words. The only thing I knew was that the cavity with my chest did not ache, and instead a warm feeling blossomed there in its place.
I looked back towards Katsu to see a wide grin on his face. Somehow, as always with my skills, I tried to ruin the moment. "Why didn't you write?" I asked quietly. Katsu's gaze moved from our joined hands to my face, which was only a foot away as he kneeled down next to me.
The smile lessened, but did not entirely leave his face. He moved one hand from the top of my hand, and gently touched the side of my face. "I think you sought to hurt me in your last letter, but you only wrote what is true," Katsu explained thoughtfully. His thumb moved across my cheek gently and I had to keep myself from leaning in to his touch. "Though it did make me spiteful enough not to write back to you." I scowled at his words and tugged my hand out of his grip, and moved to push his hand that touched my face away. Katsu grabbed both of my hands into his own and held them as he peered into my eyes, searching for something within them. "I'm sorry that I hurt you."
Immediately I snorted. "I didn't care, I just wondered that's all," I defended myself, wondering why I told him this in the first place. Of course I did not care that he had not written, even though I had been so…alone…Or at least that was what I tried to tell myself. Katsu merely smiled in disbelief and pulled me in for a kiss that I did not reject.
Everything seemed to return back into the normal schedule that Katu and I maintained upon his return. Sometimes we had breakfast together, and we usually always dined at dinner together. He still treated me like some fragile doll because of my pregnancy, and outside of kissing and embracing me, had not tried anything beyond that. Not that I had not tried to get him to do otherwise. Kanna had told me once that during a women's pregnancy it was alright to be ahh….active, until late during the pregnancy that is. Perhaps it was thought of so differently here in the Fire Nation or maybe it was just due to Katsu being a man. During the day he was usually off attending to business around the island or in his study. He spent more time with Teruko's father now that she was gone. I think it was his way of helping to alleviate his guilt for I had been the one to take her to Ember Island. When the issue arose, I had been genuine in my sadness of her and Satoru's departure, and Katsu had been surprisingly sympathetic and placed no blame on my part. Sometimes I still could not believe that I had gotten Iwao to lie to him for me.
A week or so after his return, I went for a visit to Ira's that had become part of my weekly routine. The day had been rather overcast, but free of rain as I walked with Iwao at my side. Ira had been happy as always to receive me, and had kicked her four youngsters outside to play upon my entrance into her house. They were even wilder then any children from my own home. She usually kept them out of the way on my visits and I had yet to meet her often talked about husband. We always went to the kitchen and sat together with a cup of tea at hand. After the usual exchanges, I blurted out the issue that had been bugging me since I had talked to Katsu at breakfast. I had begun to share some of my more private thoughts with Ira the last several weeks, and often asked her for advise when it came to certain Fire Nation customs I still did not understand. Ira would merely raise an eyebrow without question and answer it. "He wants to name the child Kazuo, after his father, it it's a boy!" I exclaimed with thinly veiled irritation.
"You do know that sons are traditionally named by their fathers?" Ira asked with that raised eyebrow. She never questioned it, but I suspected she knew I was not Fire Nation. The look in her eyes at these times or her unsaid meaning in her words implied it. Most people figured me to be from the Fire Nation colonies and Katsu nor I had ever contradicted it, even with the rumor flying around that I might be a child of mixed Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation blood. The rumor helped to substantiate why I did not know all Fire Nation customs or even for my skin color.
I shrugged in dismissal at her point, and focused on the cup of steaming tea before me. "Yes," I admitted begrudgingly. "But it's stupid if you ask me." The cup of tea was cradled in my hands on the table, perfuming the room with its spiced flavor. Ira had begun to turn me into a fan of spicier teas of late.
"What would you name the child then?" Ira asked after taking a sip from her cup of tea. Her question gave me pause. I had not thought of a name for the growing child within me, not even a girl's name for I could name the child if it was a girl. Until now I had kept referring to he or she as "the child" nor by gender or as "my child." Had I purposefully been avoiding thinking of my child as my own? The name came to me almost as quickly as lightning struck as I thought of my child. If he was a boy, his name should be Kokai, to sail across the sea, for someday he would meet his people, know his mother's homeland….or at least I hoped. If my child was a girl, her name should be Honami, which meant sail, south, and beauty. He or she was to be a son or daughter of the Southern Water Tribe, and someday I hoped for them to know my homeland, so I would reflect this within my child's name.
"Kokai for a boy," I said after my momentary silence. "And Honami for a girl."
Ira's expression did not change, but that knowing glimmer entered her eyes. "What do they mean?" She asked innocently, contrary to that gleam in her eyes.
Here I was, caught like a lone iceberg under a fiery sun. Would this confirm for her what she already seemed to know? Moreover, would it get me into trouble with Katus? She appeared loyal to him and had thus far remained silent. "Kokai means to sail across the sea and Honami means sail, south, and beauty," I informed her hesitantly.
Ira did not even flinch. "Is this because you wish for this child to know where you are from?"
A breath, then the plunge. "Yes," I confessed in a whisper. How much did she truly know?
"Good names for such a wish," Ira returned sagely with a morose smile. "I wish I could tell you if such a thing will come to be, but it is too soon yet to tell." Somehow the fact that it was not a denial gave me hope, though naturally I had no faith in her fortune telling. Ira changed the subject with an easy smile, transitioning away as she always did from whether she knew the truth of my origins.
The healer who had first come to me at the beginning of my pregnancy and since, while kind, was a stranger. Ira was also a healer and had been advising me on my pregnancy since I had started to befriend her. I wanted someone I know to deliver my baby. Katsu was not exactly thrilled with my request at first….
It was early in the morning as we sat together in the dining room. Katsu did not usually dine with me in the morning, but it had become a trend to so every other day during the last several months. The onset of winter had begun, much to my relief, with the cooler weather and lack of monsoon rains. When I had first come to the Fire Nation, all the greenery and the changing of the seasons had shocked me to say the least. Not all the plants died with the coming of winter because of the temperate weather, but many lost their bloom and went to sleep for the winter. For someone from a land of winter and ice, observing the changing of the seasons gave me a thrill. The days were becoming shorter and the sunlight seemed weaker as it filtered through the windows. As with the changing of the season, I had also observed and experienced the changes of my body from the pregnancy. Sometimes I became dizzy, but thank the Moon and Ocean spirits the nausea had ceased. Much to my utter joy, I had newer symptoms of shortness of breath and my breasts growing larger. Better yet, my waistline had widened significantly, bringing the accompanying back and feet pain. Due to my shorter stature, Katsu had dared to compare my walking to the waddle of a turtle-duck. He had ended up with ink all over his face, since I had been writing in his office at the time and he had been stupid enough to tease a pregnant woman. The look on his face still made me smirk at the memory of it.
I took a bite of my soup thoughtfully, before working up my courage to ask Katsu. We had been eating in relative silence, except for Katsu's summary of where he would be that day and a question about my own plans. "Katsu?" I asked.
He stopped mid-bite and lowered his food back down to his plate. Even though we were sitting, he still towered over me as he sat to me left on the other side of the table. His expression was curious, but did not instantly look guarded as it would have months ago. "What is it?"
"It's about the healer," I began sincerely. "I don't want her to deliver the baby. I want Ira to do it."
Katsu frowned. "She travels all the way from the Capital just to see you. Rafela is known to be one of the best healers and midwife in the Fire Nation," Katsu rationalized to me as if I were a child. "Ira is nothing but a country healer."
"She had delivered plenty of children," I protested with my voice beginning to rise. "And she is not a stranger, I am comfortable with her!"
Katsu looked at me as if he wanted to strangle me, before letting out a defeated sign. "Alright," He agreed with a miffed expression. "You can have her as your midwife if you want." My jaw almost dropped at how easy it had been to get him to agree. Usually when we disagreed about something it led to a huge fight, which I usually lost anyways. Katsu stiffened in surprise and then returned my embrace as I threw my arms around him.
Two more months passed until the day my child was to enter this world. Luckily Akane would be there around the time I expected, and a part of me wished that Kanna was there with me. I thought of Satoru and Teruko often enough, but I still had yet to receive word from them or even about them from her family either. Part of me hoped this child would not be a bender, or at the very least a waterbender like me for my child was due two months after the winter solstice. We had spent the winter solstice celebration with Kuro at the Capital, though Masato, Akane, and Ichirou had not joined us there. It was in early in the night, when the full moon had just begun to show over the dark horizon, that it began…
Katsu and I had just retired to bed a short while ago, and that middle place between being awake and sleep was where I had entered. This abruptly ended when I felt a strange liquid pool around my legs and what felt like a ache in my lower stomach, a very similar ache that sometimes comes at that time of the month. Immediately I shot up in my sleep with a loud gasp. I looked over at Katsu, who had turned his head to look at me when I had gasped. His eyes were still full of asleep. "What's wrong?" He mumbled.
"It's time!" I explained in half-shock and fear. Though I had not admitted it, I was rather scared to give birth, though I told myself that Ira's prediction was about later children, not this child who was ready to enter the world. Women gave birth all the time and I was going to be just fine, or at least that's what I tried to tell my panicking mind and racing heart.
"Time…?" Katsu muttered back, before he also jumped awake. "Sweet Agni, it's time!"
You think…? I was tempted to throw a pillow at him. He rushed out of the room to have a servant send word for Ira, and soon enough I had Akane, Ran, and Ira in the room with me. In the Fire Nation, husbands could be with their wives with they gave birth, but that is not how it is done traditionally amongst my people. A woman should be with the midwife and her female relatives surrounding her, for only they can understand the pain she is to endure. Katsu and I had already discussed this beforehand and he had begrudgingly agreed to wait outside of the room with I am sure, a thankful Iwao, who had no desire to be in here. Ira had me walk around the room until the pain squeezing around my middle became too much to endure. Ira had brought all the necessary utensils and items required for birthing, and had me crouch down on a pair of blocks for the birthing when the time came. It was with a few screams and cursing Katsu for doing this to me, that my child entered the early morning with a loud wail. Katsu later told me our child was born when the sun had just started to enter a pink sky with the setting full moon on a twilight canvass to the west. I had been in labor all night and brought forth a child born between night and day, proper considering our child was of two nations.
Ira proclaimed the child to be a boy as she cleaned and swaddled him up, while Ira and Akane settled me onto the bed. I then received the wailing bundle of cloth into my open arms. All I had seen thus far was patchy red skin and a small head with dark hair. I let out a thankful sigh as I held my son in my arms for the first time. Tears had already been coming out of me for some time already, but a new group sprang forth as I met the child's eyes for the first time. I was thankful he was here at last, I was glad to meet him, but a part of me was horrified when I looked down at that familiar shade of golden eyes.
….How can I ever return now?...For my son, born into the winter, was still one of them...