By Janice E. Rodríguez
Urraca heard snippets of rumors, vague at first, like the sound of hoofbeats from beyond the next hill, and then growing unmistakable and threatening. There could be no worse time, because Zamora and the palace were filling with the nobles of the kingdom of León and their servants, all gathering for the prolonged celebration that stretched from the feast of Saint James through the harvest and into Assumption. Urraca did her best to counter the rumors that she wasn’t pregnant by inviting a different set of noble ladies to her chamber every day to dress her.
It took a child to bring it out into the open. On a hot morning in the first week of August of 1171, Carita tugged at Toda’s sleeve and announced that she had a question. She was helping Toda and a new noble’s young wife bathe Urraca, and Toda nodded for Carita to ask her question while they undressed Urraca.
Even the newcomers to the solar held Toda in awe, so it was no surprise that Carita asked her and not the ladies. She was the keeper of the mysteries and the guide to safe passage through childbirth, and her word was law. Windows were opened and closed at her discretion and furniture rearranged. Urraca had given Toda authority to choose the baby’s wet nurse. Toda examined the candidates’ eyes, smelled their breath, and squeezed their breasts; she asked them questions about their husbands and children; she sifted through thin candidates and sleek ones and made swift pronouncements. The one with the domineering husband would not do; she would be weak-willed. The one who had lost her husband and brought forth a stillborn child would cling too much to Urraca’s baby; the one with gas would upset the baby’s digestion. Columba, the one who had raised five healthy children and was ready to wean her toddler, was perfect, Toda decreed. Her breasts were still full, her humors balanced, her disposition sunny and, best of all, she had two teenaged daughters at home to fill their mother’s shoes while she was away suckling the king’s baby.
“How do you know there’s a baby in there and not a cushion?” Carita asked as she handed soap to the noble’s wife who would wash Urraca’s back.
“Why would you ask such a thing?” Toda said.
“The falconer’s wife said it. And some ladies after dinner yesterday.”
“Don’t be silly, Lady Carita,” Toda said. “Look at your queen!”
Urraca was standing hip deep in a tub of blessedly cool water. Her full breasts, with nipples as wide as fried eggs, rested on her taught and high belly; her navel stretched into nothing, a blurry brown line extending from there downward.
“She could just be fat,” Carita said.
Toda laughed. “It’s plain you’ve spent most of your life in a convent.” She took Carita’s hand and, with Urraca’s permission, placed it on her distended belly. Toda slid Carita’s soapy hand from side to side. “Feel that? The baby’s bottom. And that? An elbow.”
As if it had heard Urraca’s fondest wishes, the baby inside of her slid its elbow away from Toda and Carita’s prodding.
“That could be a rumbly tummy,” Carita said.
“Did you ever have a tummy push back when you poked it?” Toda asked. “Believe your eyes, Lady Carita, not the silly things people say. That’s a baby in there, and it’ll come out soon.”
Not soon enough. Urraca was tired of being pregnant. She had only two gowns left that fit, and they bored her. She walked heavily and off balance, and she couldn’t sit high enough to pull her ribs away from her belly and catch a good breath of air. Yet she feared what was to come. She knew of many women who died in childbirth; she had nearly died herself when she lost her first baby.
* * * * *
The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin was the hottest day in the hottest August Urraca remembered. She was grumpy that morning, and she snapped at the ladies who wrestled the leagues of fabric of her yellow gown over her head and enormous breasts and belly.
“I’m as big as a cow,” she said. “Bigger.” She waddled to Mass, reciting a litany: “I’m bigger than a cow.”
Dinner was unappealing. She shifted in her chair, ate a few bites, and shifted again. The great hall was stifling, her back hurt, and the conversation was uninteresting. She excused herself as soon as she could, begging the ladies to stay behind and enjoy the men’s company, and shambled back to the solar, her maid, Justa, on one side and Toda on the other.
She stopped halfway up the stairs, hands pressed against the walls, resting and catching her breath. “Toda, do you know why fortresses have narrow staircases that spiral sunwise?”
“No, my lady.”
“It’s to keep out armies of invading pregnant women.” Urraca’s smile twisted into a wince, and she turned and sat down.
“Armies of women in labor,” Toda said.
“Is it time?” Urraca asked. “Today? Now?”
“Tonight or tomorrow, my lady.” She placed her hands on Urraca’s belly and waited for the tightness to subside. “Can you walk?”
Urraca walked upstairs and sat on her bed, peering at her belly and waiting for it to do whatever laboring bellies did. She didn’t expect it to crack open like an egg, but there must be some sign she should look for. Toda seemed to find a sign there.
Two men carried the birthing chair into Urraca’s chamber. They placed it where Toda directed, in the middle of a pile of straw. Fernando stood in the door behind them.
“How long?” Fernando asked.
“God he knows,” Toda said.
“Shall I send for Father Mendo?” Fernando asked.
“No.” Urraca spoke in an adamant voice.
Toda allowed Fernando and Urraca a few awkward moments before shooing him away.
“Now what?” Urraca said.
“We have your lord husband send someone for Columba. Then we wait,” Toda said. “Let’s walk next door to the solar. Chess or backgammon?”
Toda opened the door, and Urraca looked down the short, wide corridor to the council room, already crammed with noblemen awaiting the king’s heir, and she overcame her embarrassment long enough to put her fists on her back and stretch her distended belly their way, proof that, after more than five years, she was indeed pregnant.
If she was bored waiting that afternoon, then the men must have been even more so. Her boredom, at least, was broken by a few unsettling, thrilling labor pains. The boredom and thrill both faded as the pains came more frequently. Urraca, leaning on Justa and Toda, plodded back to her room far after dark so the ladies could sleep. From the corner of her eye, she caught movement in the council room. Fernando had leapt to his feet and called her name. Toda waved him off, and he sat down again.
Urraca labored all night, sleeping fitfully between pains, and was exhausted by morning. Toda coaxed her into drinking something sweet to keep her strength up. She was walking in circles in her room, leaning on Justa, when her water broke.
Toda led her behind the birthing chair, leaned her forward, and showed Justa how to apply constant, soothing pressure to Urraca’s lower back.
“Soon, my lady,” Toda crooned. “The ladies are awake now. Shall I call one of them to keep you company?”
“All of them,” Urraca said through gritted teeth. She pushed Justa away and, with difficulty, stood upright. “Move the chair.”
Justa dragged the chair where Urraca demanded, in the middle of the room and facing the door. Leaning heavily on Justa, she walked to it and sat, commanding the attention of all who entered the room. There was sympathy on the faces of the ladies who had already borne children, fear on the others.
“It hurts.” Urraca moaned and closed her eyes. She opened them when a cup touched her lips.
“For the pain,” Toda said.
“Father Mendo says that pain in childbirth is God’s will and that to take it away is a sin,” Teresa said.
Froiloba, for once without embroidery in her hands, said, “Let your kinsman Father Mendo feel this pain for even a moment, Lady Teresa, and he’d change his mind.”
“Men!” one of the ladies said.
“Virgins!” whispered another.
Urraca spent the morning walking and sitting. The more experienced of the ladies took turns rubbing her back and feet. At dinner, Urraca allowed only half of the ladies to leave at a time and commanded that they eat in the council room. It couldn’t have been easy for the servants, because Fernando and some of the lords were still crowded in there, too.
Throughout the afternoon, Urraca’s labor pains kept a slow, stubborn pace that made Toda furrow her brow. She prepared a drink of something acrid and fishy. Only Justa’s cool hand on her brow and soothing voice in her ear coaxed Urraca to finish it all.
Late afternoon saw Urraca eased into the birthing chair to begin pushing. Toda sat on a stool between her legs. She crossed herself, withdrew a polished, flattish piece of red jasper from her pocket, kissed it, and placed it on Urraca’s belly. Urraca, as instructed, rubbed the stone on her skin.
Urraca began to grunt with the pains, and Carita and Teresa squealed with each one.
“Should we send for Father Mendo?” Teresa cried.
“Not necessary,” Toda replied with calm. She lifted Urraca’s shift over her belly. Carita hid her face behind Teresa’s sleeve. Toda gave a small pan to Justa, who deposited into it an ember from the brazier. Toda dropped in a handful of dried herbs and fanned the resulting smoke under and between Urraca’s legs.
“How much longer?” Urraca didn’t know if someone else asked the question or if she had. The room was filled with a soft, rustling sound. Crickets? Urraca thought. No, it’s the ladies praying.
She screamed with the next labor pain.
“Don’t scream!” Teresa cried.
Toda put one hand on Urraca’s cheek and stroked it. “Don’t scream, my lady,” she said. “Bellow! Bellow for me with the next pain.” Her hand moved to Urraca’s throat. “Don’t waste your voice here. Push it down your belly and use it to help your baby out.”
Toda took away the little pan of smoking herbs. She withdrew a second piece of polished red jasper from her pocket and used it to rub chamomile-scented oil between Urraca’s legs.
“What’s she doing that for?” Carita whispered.
“To soften the skin and muscles and open the way for the baby,” Toda answered.
“How much longer?” Urraca bellowed at the beginning of the next labor pain, the words almost lost in a growl.
“No more than five or six pushes, God willing,” Toda said.
“Open the door,” Urraca said.
Froiloba said, “That’s right, my lady! Imagine yourself as a door opening.”
“By our Lady, no!” Urraca yelled. “Open the door!”
The murmuring prayers stopped. The ladies stood still, their mouths open. Justa pushed past them and swung the door wide. At the end of the corridor, Fernando rose from his seat in the council room. He had taken three long strides toward Urraca’s chamber when she bellowed again. Toda shifted her stool to one side, giving Fernando and his nobles a clear view of his half-naked, laboring wife; he took a single step backward.
“Your baby has hair,” Toda said.
The next pain swept over Urraca before she could ask what color.
Urraca cried. “Don’t let me die!” Through half-closed, teary eyes, she caught a glimpse of Fernando, and she read terror on his face.
“Don’t scream, my lady, bellow,” Toda said. “Breathe deep now, and bellow so hard they hear you in Portugal.”
Urraca was sure her body would tear itself to pieces. There was an aching deep in her bones and a taught burning in her skin.
“Once again,” Toda said.
“Just once more.” Toda’s voice was stern.
Urraca took a deep breath and bellowed her way through the rising pain.
“The head is out,” Toda said. “Lots of brown hair. With the next one, take a breath and push again.”
“You said only once more,” Urraca said.
“Once more,” Toda said.
Urraca squeezed the medicinal stone in her hand and pushed again. Fernando was standing at her door as his son slipped into the world in sight of a room full of astonished witnesses. Urraca was laughing and crying all at once, straining to see. Red-faced, fists balled, her son gave a shaky, bleating, angry cry. Toda dabbed the blood from his head and right shoulder, wrapped him, and gave him to Urraca.
“It’s a baby!” she said stupidly.
Fernando turned to the gape-mouthed men who stood behind him in the corridor and repeated just as stupidly, “It’s a baby!”
The baby opened his mouth and sought Urraca’s breast.
Toda said, “Put your pinky in his mouth, my lady, and let him suck on that.”
There was more pain, and Urraca’s eyes went wide with panic.
Toda made a shushing noise. “It’s just the afterbirth, my lady.”
Urraca held her baby, oblivious to everyone else. The ladies peeked at him before Toda sent them back to the solar. She washed Urraca from the waist down and applied a salve that stung before it soothed. She passed the baby to Fernando and, with Justa’s help, transferred Urraca to her bed. Justa gathered the sodden, blood-stained straw from under the birthing chair and took it away.
Fernando handed the baby back to Urraca once she was in bed.
“Alfonso,” he said.
Urraca could have predicted it, but she didn’t like it. Alfonso was her father’s name and her half-brother’s. It was the name of Fernando’s late father and of his nephew, the King of Castilla; the King of Aragón, Ramón Berenguer, had taken that name, too, when he was crowned.
“There are too many rulers named Alfonso in Hispania,” Urraca said to the baby, her voice high and sweet. “Yes, there are. Too many!”
Fernando bent over the baby. “But you’re going to be Alfonso, too. Alfonso is the name of emperors! Never forget, little man, that ancient law decrees the king of León to be emperor of all Hispania.”
Urraca said, “Well, I’m going to call him Alfonsín.”
Alfonsín wriggled and turned his head to her breast and this time wasn’t satisfied with her pinky. Toda scooped him up and put him into Columba’s able arms. Columba dropped open her gown and guided Alfonsín’s wide-open, baby-bird mouth onto her breast, where he settled to lusty suckling.
By evening, Alfonsín had been bathed, dressed in the white christening robe that Froiloba embroidered, and taken by his father to be baptized. Urraca, at long last mother of the heir to the throne, fell asleep to the sound of bells pealing from all of Zamora’s churches.
Janice E. Rodríguez inhabits two realities—the rolling hills and broad valleys of her native eastern Pennsylvania, and the high, arid plains of her adopted land of Castilla-León in Spain. She currently teaches Spanish at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. When she’s not teaching, writing, or gardening, she’s in the kitchen working her way through a stack of cookbooks. She can be found online at janiceerodriguez.com.