Alcmene gives birth to Hercules:

By the third term I was so immensely swollen
I could not see my feet, my womb stretched
and hanging to my knees. So when in the time of Capricorn
the pains came on I welcomed them with relief;
but then the child jammed against the too-tight neck
of my cervix, and for seven nights and seven days
my body was a rag between two wringing hands.
I vomited till I was emptied to the bile
and strained until I voided all my bowels,
a yellow slurry my women hurried to clean,
and there was nothing left to come except the child
but still he stayed for seven nights and seven days
obstructed and I couldn’t bear the pain –
I wanted to die – and I was dying then,
when Galinthis my little back-and-forth maid,
quick-quick, alert and gifted with the sight,
running on her short legs to fetch water –
ever more water – from the well – spied
the goddess of childbirth squatting like a toad
at the household shrine, right knee crossed over left,
then her arms crossed round them in a bind.
Eileithyia – Lucina – shining one – heaven’s midwife
was making a thwart on the birth, sworn over to Hera
to choke us both, mother and son, knotted up
and muttering spells of impediment so I was blocked
and stoppered. My crafty little servant girl Galinthis
understood everything. She waited for a lull
then ran out again and yelled: All hail, whoever
you may be, and rejoice – for my mistress,
who was in such pain, is delivered by the action of Zeus
and has a fine and healthy son!

Eileithyia springing to her feet, limbs flying apart,
came towards the girl in disbelief to shake her,
to find if it could be real, that her retention spell
could be overthrown, and in that moment
with a scream that slashed heaven I pushed
and the child burst out of my body with blood and milk
and sudden burning floods of water, my maids
all crying with relief and myself fainting dead away
my uterus ruptured and all my passages torn
and my child the size of three mortal infants
barely looking new-born, a cap of black hair
and his hands in red fists bawling his first almighty wail.
My maid Galinthis laughed as realisation
flashed across the goddess’s shining face – laughed
with all her sharp little teeth and did a quick dance
on her short busy legs. The gods do not like
to be diminished. The goddess grabbed her
by her bright red hair and threw her
so she sprawled face first on the ground –
a servant not unused to violence, the sudden taste
of blood, but then the goddess placed a foot on her neck
as she scrabbled to get up, pinning her down,
so she humped and arched her back and then
began to shrink, her frame constricting
as she screamed, her bones becoming
mouse-small until she could fit through any
mouse-hole, her organs pinching so she could thread
her slender body through a ring,
scrabbling to get up on her knees but her legs
ever shortening and her face pointing, her ears
flattening against her skull, till only the red
of her and her sharp bright eyes were the same.
The goddess changed my sharp-tongued servant girl
into a weasel. The same quick industry.
Now if you see her in the dark with her green eye shine
call her beautiful, call her good little woman
and midwife and bride. She is sacred to Hekate
the witch. Set her a dish of breast milk and offal.
Beckon her in. She is good with infants, can turn
in the narrowest space, slide through any bottleneck.
Know that when she dances now it is not for joy
but because a parasite lives behind her eyes
and contorts her brain; that she is cursed
though she serves us still. We keep her about the house –
her placenta and the must beneath her tail
are ground down and swallowed to quicken the birth,
she keeps down vermin, and when labour is painful and slow
we appease the gods by sacrificing her in the well.

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