then hefted up the girl’s slight frame, now laid bare for the birthing.
“Take a deep breath, and push, Mia,” I said. “You must be brave a little longer.”
“I know. The signora knows. But there is no other way.”
The girl’s gaze fastened on mine, and for a moment I thought she could not summon any additional strength. But somehow she tapped into my will and drew in a breath. Closing her eyes, she pushed hard, and I pressed on her belly as the signora urged her with kind words.
The child would be born. Death could not have this soul. The seconds stretched, and her body strained to rid itself of the child.
The baby’s head emerged, and I reached in the birth canal and grabbed hold. I pulled. Mia screamed louder, but this time the little infant, who had been fighting entrance to this troubled world, slid out.
Mia collapsed against the pillows, and Signora Fontana pressed a damp towel to her head. The moment of victory and elation vanished when I saw the perfectly formed face tinged in an ominous shade of blue. After picking up the baby by her ankles, I rubbed my knuckles hard between the shoulder blades, but there was no sound or twitch of a muscle. There was no struggle for breath, no will to live.
I laid the child on her side on the bed and cleaned out her mouth before I pressed my lips to hers and blew in a breath.
“The baby,” Mia said. “She’s too quiet.”
I did not dare meet her gaze as I continued to breathe life into the tiny lungs. But the stubborn creature would not cry or draw a breath. I don’t remember how long I worked on the child, but finally the signora touched my arm, her eyes reflecting disappointment.
“It’s done,” Signora Fontana said.
“It cannot be. We’ve worked so hard,” I said.
“She’s gone,” she whispered.
I stared at the perfect little face framed by dark curly hair and was overcome by overwhelming disillusionment. The weight of thousands already lost in Rome dropped onto my shoulders.
Raising my gaze to Mia’s, I found her staring at me with an anxious intensity.
“She’s so quiet. Is she all right?” she asked softly.
Tears welled in Mia’s eyes as another bomb crashed into the city. Finally, she closed her lids and fell against the pillows. “It’s for the best. This is no world for a fatherless child.”
Signora Fontana came around the bed, looked at the infant, and slowly crossed herself. “What will we do?”
“I’ll take her to Padre Pietro,” I said.
“He won’t bury her. The child’s father did not acknowledge her,” the signora said gravely.
“The priest and God will,” I said. “I’ll beg if I must.”
Despite my bold words, I was not sure what the priest could do. My shoulders deflated slightly as I cut the cord. Then I removed the afterbirth and wrapped the child in a blanket. After disposing of the afterbirth, I carried the infant toward the washstand, poured water into the basin, swirled my hands in the cool water, and wished it were warmer.
Carefully, I unwrapped the blanket and stared into the perfect face that even death could not rob of its beauty. I lifted the small body, amazed that the infant’s head fit in the palm of my hand. Cradling it over the water as I had my own child two and a half years ago, I hummed a lullaby my mother had sung to me when I was a child. Gently, I scooped the water in my hand and let it trickle over the dark curls.
When she was clean and her skin dried, I clipped a piece of her hair and wrapped it in unblemished muslin before I dressed her in a small white gown I had sewn for her christening, and then I swaddled her in a crocheted blanket. “Mia, would you like to see the baby?”
“No.” Mia rolled on her side and wept. “No, I can’t bear it.”
“You’ll always wonder if you don’t,” I said.
“Please take her away.” As Mia cried, the signora gently stroked her hair.
With the babe in my arms, I went to my room and laid her on my bed. After moving to the washstand, I cleaned my hands, scrubbing away all traces of blood, and then checked my face in the mirror. Satisfied there were no tears, I removed my apron and rolled down my sleeves. After combing my hair and repinning it, I draped my head with black lace and then cradled the child close