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Ibu Robin Lim has thousands of beautiful, triumphant and tragic birth stories, each one a miracle… but in the context, of honoring the Earth Mother… she recently shared the story of the birth of her own Grandmother – “my “Nanang” – Vicenta.  She is the first chapter of my novel, Butterfly People, and my own granddaughter claims she will name her own first daughter, Vicenta.”

Vicenta by Robin Lim

An extract from Ibu Robin Lim’s book Butterfly People

“In the rainy season, the nipa hut stayed pretty dry. A dry enough place for a small woman laboring to bring her baby into the light. ‘Innocencio, Innocencio,’ she sobbed and called out for the man she loved. Only, he was dead and buried in the ground by the church, a few weeks earlier.

“That suffering woman would be your great-grandmother. Her name was Aurora Munar. They called her Rory, because she was like a tigress. A tigress has soft beautiful fur, but watch out for her teeth! We had so many animals in the Philippines in the old days. I heard there were tigers, yes, now extinct. You know, some say we even had elephants down in Pangasinan in the days of Princess Urduja. But I think the Spanish devils killed them all with their guns.

“This would be Rory’s third baby. She was tiny, yes, and pale, but she had already birthed two strong sons. So the midwife was not concerned.

“The relations are always proud, saying we are Ilokanos, but it’s only partly true. From Lola Rory we got all kinds of blood. She had the blood of a Spanish soldier who raped her grandmother. But never mind, she had the heart of a pure Filipina. They say her father was an Ibaloi, come down from the mountains. That’s where she got that curly hair and the fierce reputation of a tigress.

“The old people used to say that Rory always held her head high on her long neck. It’s true her black hair had a curl to it, like yours, and fell past her knees. She was so beautiful, that some people said she was either truly of God or else the Devil’s own child. Her heart-shaped face had a widow’s peak at its top. That, and the mole on her right cheek, foretold her husband’s early death. As predicted, Innocencio Munar died young. A bolo knife cut gone bad, he would never see this baby.

“On the third day of Rory’s labor the door opened, and life and death had a good look at each other. The midwife sent Denise to get the priest. ‘Tell him to bring what he needs to perform last rites.” Denise ran from the nipa hut. It was raining and slippery, so he tripped and fell on a coconut. The boy ignored the pain and blood on his knees and ran into the tiny church.

“Father Enrique had been working in the garden. He quickly donned his brown padre robe and rosary. Ignoring the mud and sweat pouring from his body, he ran to be with Rory in her need. He clutched to his chest a tiny gold disc, protecting the consecrated host.

“Wandering in his thoughts, Denise walked slowly along the little muddy river that fed the rice fields. As he neared the grove of coconuts and bananas near his house, he heard his mother’s cries. He worried that this difficult birth was due to hunger. There had been precious little to eat since his father’s death. He knew his mother was feeding much of her share of the rice and kamote to her children. Denise promised God he’d work even harder in the garden to bring more food from the soil, if only his mother would live. In his prayer, he told God he would also learn to throw net, so the family would have fish to eat and some to sell.

“Through his own tears, he saw a man approaching. This man was so white. At first the boy was afraid. What if this was a Spaniard? Couldn’t be, those eyes were like a ghost’s, blue and gray. The stranger’s hair was nearly transparent… yellow. Denise wondered if this was the angel of death coming to take his mother. ‘Your mother will live.’ The man seemed to speak the Ilokano dialect. ‘You will soon have a sister; I have seen it in a prayer.’

‘Whose prayer?’ asked Denise.

‘The prayer of a brave boy,’ answered the stranger, ‘Go home now, little man. Tell your mother not to bleed; you children need her to live. Her time in Heaven is not yet come. And when your baby sister cries for the first time, give her this.’ He handed Denise a roughly carved wooden statue of a man praying. As he did this, the man gently kissed Denise on the head. The boy ran home.

“Denise climbed the shaky bamboo ladder, bounding into the cool, dark nipa hut. A tiny head was emerging from Rory’s body, pushing a faint pink light before it. In the corner, the priest stood weeping, sprinkling holy water to the four directions, then to heaven and earth.

‘What’s this?’ hissed the hilot midwife. ‘The child comes in the caul.’ As the baby came into full view, Denise could see that the bag of waters was not broken. In the light of the lantern, tiny arms and legs gracefully danced beneath the translucent skin.

‘Jesus, Maria, Joseph,’ said the priest, crossing himself. He knew well, that only saints and healers were born with the bag of waters intact.

“As the midwife released the membranes and wiped the baby’s face, the tiny one let out her first lusty cry. Denise stumbled forward. ‘This is for you, sister, it comes from the kind man in the grove.’

“Rory was bleeding too much. The hilot midwife was giving her a bitter tea, but the blood kept coming. The placenta would not come. ‘Mother,’ said Denise, looking directly into her huge eyes, ‘you must not bleed, we children need you. I have no milk for this baby sister. It is only you who must feed her.’ Manang Rory seemed to wake up then. She pushed her placenta out and the old hilot pinched off a tiny bit of the placenta and fed it to Rory. Like magic, her bleeding stopped suddenly. ‘Yes, the uterus is hard now. You will surely live, little mother,’ said the hilot. Rory braved a smile for her son. As she put the baby to her breast, the old midwife said, ‘This one is so small, we won’t be cutting the cord, let her be whole. She needs the help of her little placenta sister.’

“Father Enrique stepped in to the circle of light and water and blood. ‘What is this?’ and he touched the statue.

‘There was a white man outside. He said mother would live and a sister would be born. He gave this for the baby,’ Denise explained.

‘And where is the stranger now?’ asked the priest.

‘I do not know.’

‘This is the likeness of Saint Vincent. Very old.’ He scratched at the relic with his fingernail. ‘This wood is not from these islands.’ The priest had wonder in his eyes as he held the statue.

“The baby girl was tiny but she nursed well and grew strong on Rory’s milk and songs. Mother Rory also grew strong on the fish, fruits and food that Tatang Denise provided. This baby came to learn the way of herbs and foods that heal. Her hands glowed warm, and she massaged the sick until they were well. With her hands, she received many, many babies into the world. The people say she never lost one. She could stop a bleed with bitters and a kind word.

“When the war came, she was needed. She gave a Chinaman nine children. She lived 97 years and was never sick. They named her Vicenta, after her wooden saint.”

About Robin Lim

Robin Lim is a mother, grandmother, author, poet, midwife and educator who lives in Bali with her husband and their family. She is a Certified Professional Midwife, with the North American Registry of Midwives and Ikatan Bidan Indonesia.

Robin founded The Bumi Sehat Foundation, a non profit organisation which has two by-donation clinics located in Bali and Aceh that provide health and peaceful midwifery services to those in need.  The clinic in Bali has been running for almost six years to a community that was economically devastated by the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2004. The Aceh clinic was established in early 2005 in direct response to the December 2004 Asian Tsunami to provide for tsunami survivors and their families. A third clinic has more recently been set up in Haiti in response to the devastating earthquake experienced there in January 2010.

Further Reading

Read an article within STEPS online magazine about Robin Lim and the Bumi Sehat Foundation and find out how you can help their valuable work continue.

Visit the Bumi Sehat Foundation website