It was pitch black in the Bottom that Sunday morning at two o’clock,
until it started to rain. The luminescent monsoon rendered the cabins
visible. The drumming rhythm of the rain on the galvanized tin roofs
varied with the heaviness of the torrent. Within two hours, the dirt
road’s potholes and crevices transformed into small lakes and rivers.
The ground was a muck of quicksand that pulled at feet with a vise-like
grip that made walking an arduous task. The howling winds drove
hail-like raindrops against the windows so fearsomely that some panes
cracked on that September 3, 1905, when my Uncle Otto was born.
The driving rain muffled the screams of the child having a child down in
the Bottom. The Bottom was where the colored lived. White folks lived in
the other part of town, not exactly uptown, just better. David Green,
the soon-to-be father, left the little two-room shack in the pounding
rain to get the midwife. He covered himself with a tarpaulin and an old
hat, but the mud swallowed his shoes, slowing his trek to Miss Helen’s
Miss Helen lived nearby, maybe a five-minute walk in good conditions.
But in this downpour, his shoes snarled with every step. It could take
fifteen. If it wasn’t for the rain, Miss Helen might have heard Mary
Green’s screams, but now she was dead to the world, sleeping soundly,
as only a driving rain could make her do.
Boom, boom, boom.
“Miss Helen!” David pounded on the door of the little cabin. “Miss
Helen, Miss Helen!”
Boom, boom, boom. He struck each blow with even more force.
She was dreaming about a Fourth of July and the fireworks that the white
folks displayed on the riverfront. The banging merged into her dreams
and she simply turned over. “Miss Helen!” David went around to the
window and tapped as loud as he dared so as not to shatter the thin
glass. She finally woke with a start, unsure where she was for a moment.
The familiarity of the room brought her out of her befuddled state; she
came to her senses, and realized that there was someone tapping on the
“Hold your horses, I’m coming.” Her voice was high-pitched and
nasal with sleep, but Miss Helen was used to being awakened at all hours
of the morning and she knew the reason. The lines of her coarse cotton
pillow marks gave way to the wrinkles of old age as she sat on the side
of the bed and collected her thoughts. Still racked with sleep, she got
up, put on her clothes, and picked up her bag so that when she opened
the door she would be ready to go.
“Hi baby, y’all ready for this ’ere birth?” She gave a low
chuckle and tossed her oilcloth over her head. “Hmm … this rain, I
hope it don’t flood the riverbanks. It’s been steady for over six
hours now.” Stepping down off her porch, she was immediately drenched
by the monsoon rain and gripped by the snare of the mud. Visibility was
good due to the sheets of falling water, but the path was clear as day
in her mind’s eye anyway. So with great effort she managed to retrieve
one foot, then the other, making slow but steady progress.
“Hurry, Miss Helen!” David was almost in a panic. “She’s
screaming something awful.”
“Calm down baby, the first one always takes a little more time.” She
craned her neck and looked up at David’s face, all but shouting over
the sonorous pounding of the rain. Holding the tarp over her head with
one hand and her bag in the other, her slightly bent five-foot frame
leaning forward, she trailed in David’s footsteps, fighting to make
headway through the elements. She leaned forward and tapped him on the
shoulder, shouting over the downpour. “Has her water come down yet?”
David puzzled over the question. “I think so.” He wasn’t sure if
the stuff he’d seen coming from his wife was the water Miss Helen
meant. When they were within sight of the cabin, they heard a panicked
shriek, muffled by the rain. “Hurry, Miss Helen!” The scream scared
David, and he tried to speed up his efforts to reach Mary, but the mud
“That’s the pain of childbirth, is all that is. She’ll be all
right.” Miss Helen struggled with great effort to free each foot from
the mud. Finally they were at the cabin, and just as they were about to
open the door, Mary screamed again. With no conscious effort, Miss Helen
calculated Mary’s contractions. “I’d say that was five minutes
from the last one,” she said, more to herself than to David, though he
heard it. “Put some water on to boil, and lots of it.” Miss Helen
quickly started her preparations, precisely laying out her tools with
the skill of a doctor.
“You go on in the other room and if I need you I’ll holler.” She
pushed David out of the bedroom. “When that water boils bring it to
the door and knock, meantime you just rest yourself.” David did as he
was told and tried to relax, but he was too nervous. He put the hot
water by the door and knocked. When the door opened he craned his neck
to see, but the door shut too quickly.
Mary Green was having a hard time with her first child. She was
fourteen, little more than a child herself. Miss Helen had given her a
medicinal herb tea that helped to sedate her and quell the pain. “I
want you to pant like a dog and push when I tell you, that baby is
trying to come into this world and you got to help it.” The midwife
had been coaching Mary, a very frightened little girl, for more than two
hours, and the head of the baby was starting to push its way into the
“Pant, pant, pant, now push, push … it’s almost here. C’mon, you
can do it,” Miss Helen encouraged Mary. Although the pain was almost
unbearable, Mary was used to taking orders from adults. She was
screaming at the top of her lungs, but thanks to the herb tea, it was
little more than a loud wail. The head popped out, and then, assisted by
the midwife’s skilled hands, the body slid out with a gush.
Since the screams had faded away to moans, and Miss Helen’s coaching
was muffled, David had fallen asleep. It had been more than three hours
since he went for the midwife. The rain had stopped and the sun was
rising, all was quiet except for the persistent wails of baby Otto’s
first cries wafting through the door into the other room, bringing David
back from a hard but fitful sleep. This new sound was foreign and he did
not recognize it at first. But gradually the sound took form, and then
he recognized it as the cries of a baby. He leaped to his feet and burst
into the bedroom.
“It’s a boy,” Miss Helen said, “maybe eight, nine pounds.” She
had just finished cleaning up the child and the mess of the birth. The
mother was asleep and the father stood in the doorway looking at his son
for the first time. “Here, you hold him while I take this stuff out to
burn in the hearth.” The afterbirth was normally buried, but with the
rain and all, she decided to burn it.
Excerpted from "Uncle Otto" by Winfred Cook. Copyright © 2015 by Winfred Cook. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.