The sky was a soup of colors swirled together, and the sea was restless under it. Waves lapped the shore fretfully, sighing.
A man and woman walked from their car down a steep curving road to the sea, wearing bathing suits, towels slung around their necks. His shorts were too heavy to dry well. Both wore sunglasses for no other reason than because they had worn them all day. As they rounded the road, they saw the shallow beach.
“Well,” the man said, and they both stopped.
There was a naked pregnant woman, wading in the sea; they were both shocked and fascinated. A barefoot man wearing jeans and no shirt prowled the shore, while a big older woman clad in a voluminous dark plum dress and a shawl was seated on a blanket facing the pair. A slight girl with mouse-colored hair seated beside her was almost hidden. The seated woman’s brooding presence suggested some ritual in progress—a spell or an archaic binding. The girl might have been a sprite.
“Well,” the woman murmured at last, shaking herself slightly to dislodge an inexplicable premonition of danger. “Let’s go down.”
Only when they reached the beach did they realize there were others; a plump youth of some eighteen or nineteen years peering into rock pools; a girl sitting on a rock combing her hair, which some trick of the sunlight rendered faintly green. The attention of these young people, like that of the man and the older woman, was focused on the pregnant woman.
As they drew nearer the strange group, the woman with the sunglasses noticed that the man in the jeans was extraordinarily good-looking. When he turned to smile at the newcomers, she felt the charm of the smile and responded.
It was not until they had come to the end of the path that they saw there was yet another girl curled under a bush at the rim of the beach. She was biting her nails. Even from a distance it was clear she had gone too far and was hurting herself. Unlike the others, her eyes were not on the woman in the water but on the handsome older man.
Feeling self-conscious, the couple piled towels, shoes, and sunglasses together. They swam, keeping carefully to one side of the inlet, leaving the other to the pregnant woman. When they were drying themselves, the woman in plum walked past them to an old van parked in the dunes. She returned with a steaming mug of liquid.
“All the comforts of home,” said the man.
“It’s herbal medicine for her,” she said, nodding toward the pregnant woman. “She’s in labor.”
The couple turned to stare openly at the pregnant woman. She had come into the shallows, and the man was now positioned behind her, supporting her back with his chest. The watching couple suddenly understood. What was about to take place was both extraordinary and utterly common place: a woman was about to give birth. At any given moment there must be millions of them in the world.
The woman resumed her sunglasses automatically and, remembering her own labor in a hospital, felt an echo of the pain, the need to push, the excitement of it all that no one had ever told her about. She could see now that the pregnant woman was doing the shallow panting. Her long red hair was lying in damp streamers down her back and across her swollen belly. It made the woman watching feel both afraid and thrilled.
Tonight she would dream of a woman screaming.