Wednesday, February 25, 2004

I wrote this years ago, for a creative writing class, hope it makes sense still.

The Barefoot Doctor

They called her the "barefoot doctor." She often didn't have time to put her shoes on before the middle-of-the-night knock on the door -- another villager's baby to be born, another feverish child to soothe.

Rumors had it she was from the city. When village gossipers ask her whether she had a family and where they were, she always deflected the question back to them.

"I have had more babies than I could remember..." She smoothed back her short jet-black hair, held with a spiral-shaped tortoise shell barrette. The clip meandered on her hair like a serpent, weaving in and out of the silky strands. She has delivered a succession of boys ever since the beginning of her practice and was popular among the villagers.

Eventually Guan Ming, the shop-keeper in the village, found out the secret from a traveling salesman. The barefoot doctor was driven out by her husband's family since she was barren. The gossipers stopped asking her prying questions then. Instead, they asked about whether the babies carried by their daughters were male or female.

"Why do you need to know?" She would smile and say.

"Daughters are like water poured on the ground - you can't get them back once they're out the door." The gossipers would cluck their tongue and shake their heads with frustration. They would give the usual reasons -- a girl takes on her husband's name, and one's own lineage stops there. Plus, a girl can't watch the fields at night by herself. Several attacks have happened when a lone female watermelon crop watcher was attacked by a group of marauders.

At the end of the monsoon season, when the flooding has stopped, but the ground was still moist & wet, Guan's third daughter, Yuan Yuan, went into labor. Her water broke at midnight and didn't stop. The barefoot doctor rushed to the small bamboo-shrouded house and started her preparations.

It was the woman's first birth and it was taking a long time. The barefoot doctor loosened the mosquito net around the bed and tried to bring more fresh air in. Then she saw it, a green snake, perched on the edge of the mosquito net's opening, its sliver of a tongue licking the edges of the gauzy fabric.

Guan saw it too and tried to grasp on to a spot seven inches from the snake's tail, thought to be a snake's Achilles heel. Yuan Yuan was breathing heavily, trying to push the baby out. When Guan tried again to tackle the snake, the barefoot doctor said,

"It's okay, it's only a field snake. They eat grains, not people."

"So long you deliver us a boy, I don't care if the snake stays on as a baby-sitter!" Guan's
face reddened with the outburst.

Just then Yuan Yuan screamed, the baby's head poked out, and everyone forgot about the snake. The whole family crowded around to see the baby -- it was a girl. The snake was still perched atop the netting, oblivious to the commotion. Many comments were made, the main one being:

"You've delivered 48 boys, and now you give us a girl?"

The barefoot doctor tried to explain but there was no time for words, for the snake has slithered onto Yuan Yuan. The doctor dove forward and tried to grasp the snake's tail but it was too late. Yuan Yuan's blood flowed from the wound in her throat and mingled together with the white bedspread and the green snake skin.

The Guan clan threw the doctor out of the house, and flung her medicine bag after her.

"But what about Yuan Yuan?" The doctor wailed. The snake was thrown out too, its torso chopped into pieces by a machete.

After that night the doctor no longer had appointments, her reputation as a boy-deliverer shattered. She still lived in the same rickety house that she rented before. The few that bothered to visit her claimed they saw many snakes there, some hiding in shrubs outside, some hiding in corners of the damp stairwells.

The next year was the year of the serpent in the Chinese zodiac, and the barefoot doctor delivered a healthy baby boy by herself. Speculation was rampant about who the baby's father was, the most popular theory said it was the snakeman.

When the doctor took her baby out to the market, she would dress him in green. People watched her walk away, her black hair pinned up in a chignon now, held with the same serpent-like barrette.


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