Randine: Letters to a Midwife

by Robin H. Lysne

Letters to a Midwife
Chapter One—Treasure

Bergen, Norway

Wednesday, 29 November 1820

Winds howled off the Bergen harbor as snow swept across the ice-laden dock and swirled around the Black Horse Tavern and the row of houses on the waterfront. Down the alley three blocks from the tavern, owned by Peter and Lena Erickson, was their other enterprise, Erickson’s Bed and Board. Inside the boarding house, the Ericksons and young Randine and the other residents lay sleeping in their rooms, while the wind rattled the windows. A deep chill had set in that night as the temperature dropped with the incoming storm. The fires in the hearth had burned down to embers. It was just before dawn as Randine lay dreaming . . .

Thursday, 30 November 1820

Randine’s Diary

That night before my baby came, I had a dream that Father came to my bedside and smiled at me, then Mother joined him. It was lovely to see us all together again, as though I had never been apart from either of them. As though there had never been that horrible fight between us. I felt so happy. They said nothing about James or how I was supposed to be their “perfect daughter.” Nor did they ask me why didn’t I just break their hearts completely by running away to marry him. Instead, they smiled calmly and with love. The bright colored lights of many spirits rose up behind my parents and gathered around my bed. These were the spirits of our ancestors and one, I know, was my dear brother. He was no longer the sickly tiny infant that had perished, but a full-grown man with light streaming around him. And then, my grandparents on both sides of the family came in to greet me. They, too, had light all around them. My grandparents died before I was born, but somehow, I knew them well. They were as familiar to me as my brother. Their presence was comforting. The warm light flowed from them and encircled my bed. Then James, my lover, joined everyone. He looked sad, and yet was happy to see me at the same time. The light streamed from him like rays of sun through stormy clouds. He brought with him the power of the Norse Gods. Hella and Holda, the twins from the underworld, rested their cold hands on his shoulders. Then Mother Frigg and Father Thor came, too. Frigg, Goddess of the Hearth, had her spindle and her yarns. And Thor, with a stern but loving look on his bearded face, lifted his great arm and pounded his hammer on his golden anvil. Out shot a bolt of lightening that struck my belly. I screamed, waking myself up from the dream at once. I knew in that moment that James was dead.

Randine clutched her belly, seized by a spasm of pain unlike anything she had ever felt. She was terrified. She wasn’t sure what to do, what to expect. Would she die? Would her baby survive? She wanted her mother—Mama! She would know what to do. She remembered this dream as though she were still in it, felt the stab of their absence, tried to hold on to an image of her parents loving her. But when she looked again, only Hella and Holda were smiling. Then the dream left her, and she found herself alone in her cold room in Erickson’s boarding house. A spasm of pain broke through Randine’s silent reflection and she screamed.

Mrs. Erickson shouted from the corridor, “Randine! Are you alright?” Dawn was breaking, the light through the window in Randine’s room just enough to see Mrs. Erickson’s shape at the door. She hurried over to Randine and drew back the heavy curtain shielding her bed from the winter chill.

Randine felt a bolt of pain, a kick, then a popping inside her, and a flush of warmth between her legs, as water gushed out of her.

“Get the midwife. Pleaaassse! It’s time! My waters…”

Mrs. Erickson ran out of the room to rouse her husband.

“Peter!” Lena shouted down the hall. “ Go and get the midwife. Randine is having her baby!!!”

Peter gulped down the last of his cup of coffee, grabbed his coat and hurried out the door. Then Lena flew back down the hall as fast as her large heavy legs would carry her, and climbed the stairs to Randine’s room, lantern in hand. Randine could not move or sit up. The lamp played games on the ceiling, swirling light and shadows around the room, and a sudden sickness washed over her. She closed her eyes.

Mrs. Erickson sat by Randine’s side on the low chair and took her hand to her heart and squeezed it tightly with both hands. Here was this young girl she had known since infancy, who needed all the support in the world, but there was no help for her because the church demands that people obey its moral law, then when people make mistakes it throws them out. It was no wonder why many parishioners practiced the old ways in the quiet of their homes. It was certainly why she and Peter would never step foot into any Lutheran church again.

Randine was still troubled by her dream, but Mrs. Erickson’s face was warm and kind and she felt safe in her embrace. “I am scared, Mrs. Erickson.”

“Dear, it is time you called me ‘Lena.’ ‘Aunt Lena’ if you prefer. Today you will become a woman for sure, and you should not call me as a child calls a neighbor lady. We are too close now for that.”

“Lena, I’m scared.”

“I imagine every mother is the first time. I lost all my babies. None lived. So Mr. Erickson— Peter and I—we just stopped trying. Then you came to me in your condition, and I felt as if you . . .”

Randine moaned as another contraction bolted through her body.

“Breathe, Randine, just breathe. You will be all right. Ursula has brought half of Bergen into the world. She will bring you and your child face to face.”

Randine began to wonder if Ursula would ever come. She had known Ursula all her life. Everyone this side of Bergen knew Ursula. Then she wondered how she could pay for her service. She had no money at all. She worked for her keep, sweeping and scrubbing floors in exchange for her room and the meals at the boarding house table served by Mrs. Erickson every morning and evening. But she had not a penny of her own.

Lena patted Randine with her plump hand as she listed the names of all the mothers Ursula had attended in the past year. Just the sound of her voice eased the pain. Then she started talking about the twins her niece Olena had birthed, and how it had taken a month for her to recover. Randine could have done without that story.

Randine felt the baby kicking again, trying to get out.

“Calm down little one, you will soon be with us,” she told her child. Mrs. Erickson brought her hand to her mouth to stifle the tears.

“Ursula will be here any time now, dear. Don’t you worry.”

Just then, they heard voices on the street below and the crunch of boots in snow and ice. The bells hanging on a leather strap over the door rang merrily, and the front door creaked loudly. Happy conversation entered the house and up the steps to Randine’s room. She could hear Peter greeting Ursula. Pain overcame her again like huge waves rolling in from the sea. Randine could not restrain herself from screaming. Urusla’s footsteps quickened. Randine kept seeing the faces of Holda and Hella. She couldn’t stop crying to tell Lena.

Ursula brought the cold of the outside into the room on her coat. She had branches of spruce in her arms, and a basket of herbs and folded sheets and blankets. She looked at Randine and smiled. Randine’s pain seemed to vanish at once.

“Oh, Ursula, thank you for coming so quickly,” Mrs. Erickson said.

“For Randine it must have seemed an eternity,” Ursula joked, laying the branches down and stripping away the fronds. She handed some to Lena.

“Tea or a bit of coffee? It may be a while before the baby comes,” Ursula said, watching Randine’s face intently.

“I’ll put the kettle on and make some barley meal for breakfast.” Lena stood up at once wiping the branch leavings off her nightshirt. As she left the room she called after her husband.

“Peter, please bring up some wood for the fire. Let’s get this room nice and cozy for Randine. We will have a new child born in our boarding house today!” Lena sounded happy as she flew down the hallway and then the stairs, fluttering about like a nervous hen.

Ursula was now in her late thirties. Her brownish-blonde hair was tucked under a wool cap, tied gently under her chin to keep back the braid down the back. She wore a white pinafore over her grey-blue woolen dress and she had a watch pinned to her chest with a gold ribbon clasp. She was a stately woman, almost six feet tall, much bigger than Randine, with a straight back and broad shoulders. Randine noticed wisps of gray hair poking out under her cap, and the small lines around her sparkling blue eyes. She was a handsome, hard-working woman.

“How are you feeling, my dear? When did you have your last contraction?”

Ursula took charge at once. She wanted to see Randine’s coloring. As Ursula drew the curtain wide open with one hand that separated Randine’s bed from the room, Ursula bent over to touch Randine’s forehead and pat her cheek with the other. Although the room was small, it was cozy. The fireplace was in one corner and her bed at the far end of the rectangular room. The only furniture was a small wooden table with two ladder-back chairs, besides a large wardrobe with a drawer below for extra blankets that rested near the end of the bed. A small window above the table and chairs at the end by the door brought in the only natural light. Mr. Erickson brought in more wood for the day and set it down by the fire. Mrs. Erickson followed and brought in extra linens and an extra chair for their breakfasting.

As the Ericksons entered the room with their arms full, Ursula drew the curtain closed around her and Randine. She then rolled Randine to one side while she removed the wet sheets. She laid down spruce branches over a straw-filled mattress, then a clean sheet over the spruce. Ursula rolled the rest of the sheet in a long roll and tucked an extra cloth under Randine’s bottom. As she was rolling Randine from one side to the other over the rolled-up bed sheet, to dress the other half of the bed in the same manner, Randine tried to sit up, but Ursula pushed her back with a gentle hand.

“Just relax, dear. You have a lot of work ahead of you.”

After Mr. and Mrs. Erickson left the room, Ursula took a clean nightgown out of her bag and placed it over Randine’s head. It was worn soft from years of use.

“This is my good-luck birthing gown that I always use to bring healthy babies into the world in Bergen. You are no exception. Come on now, everything will be fine. Sit up a little so I can remove the soiled one.”

Swift and gentle as ever, Ursula stripped the old gown off of Randine and slipped the fresh one over her head. She was dressed and ready for labor.

“There now, you are just fine. Pretty as ever you are!” Randine’s auburn hair was long and thick. Ursula brushed back a strand from her face. Since Ursula had known Randine all her life, and had brought her into the world, she was more of an auntie than a professional midwife to Randine. Ursula began brushing her long hair and braided it and gave her a washrag to clean her face and hands.

As Randine laid back, another jolt of pain ripped through her, and she cried out before she knew it.

“Breathe, Randine. Breathe. That’s it, my darling. You are doing just fine.”

Outside the cold north winds blew around the boarding house as the sun rose above the sharp angled black roofs and white clapboards of Bergen. Icicles hung long along the gutters. No one was up yet at this hour but the drunks and the night watchmen on board the Blue Pearl and Odin’s Pride. Dark wool coats were brought up around the watchmans’ throats and buttoned up tightly as the grey sky lightened slightly, and the harsh winds formed ice quickly on the roofs around the harbor. Snow swirls around the pathways and ice chunks formed on the harbor boats and the posts where the ships were tied up and rocking with the incoming waves.

The waves kept coming for Randine about every twenty to thirty minutes or so, and she felt embarrassed by her loud groans with Mr. Erickson just below in their apartment. Who else was in the house she did not know. There was Mrs. Jensatter Knudson next door, a widow lady, who was barren and had no children, though still only in her thirties or forties. There was Mr. Larsen, an old man living out his days here at the Erickson’s, and Mr. and Mrs. Swinholtz, who came down to Bergen from the north a few years ago after their son took over their farm. There was Miss Lily Olassatter, a retired schoolteacher. She was particularly skinny and very tall, like Ursula, but not at all a pretty women. She read most of the time and kept to herself. Randine did not like her, as she looked over her glasses with a disagreeable look and often shook her head in disapproval at Randine, as she grew larger. That was usual supper table group at Erickson’s Bed and Board. Though Randine had taken most of her meals in her room, she did not like the nosey questions and judgments from Miss Lily nor from the Swinholtzs. She vowed never be like them, lonely, stuck in their lives, and living out their days here until they die. She did like Mrs. Jensatter Knudson, as she was very kind and always greeted Randine with the concern of an aging aunt.

Finally the waves of contractions subsided.

Note from the author: Randine is a novel based on the real life adventures of my Great, Great, Great-Grandmother Randine Hokonsatter Stokanes Luster Lysne, midwife and mother in the 1820’s. She writes to her mentor, Ursula, throughout the novel, who guides her to become a competent midwife before seeing her off to live in the backwater of Laerdal. While there are no actual letters as indicated in the novel, the fiction of them creates the foundation of this fascinating heroine’s journey.
About the Author

Robin H. Lysne

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Robin Lysne is the author of seven books, including two poetry books, and has been published in magazines and literary presses, including North American Review, Samizdat, Sand Canyon Review, Porter Gulch Review, and Rattle. She has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Mills College and during her time there, was selected to present a paper on The Waves at the International Virginia Woolf Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. She also has a doctorate in Energy Medicine with a private practice in Energy Medicine and healing work. Randine is her first novel.