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Birthmarked, p.10
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       Birthmarked, p.10

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Gaia leaned forward, hiding her face in her hands. Her right cheek was swelling with a new bruise, and the scarred skin of her left cheek was familiarly rippled against her palm. Her new loss hurt far more, yet it had no outward scar. Her hair slipped forward around her like a curtain, and she gave a moan of despair. Her father. She felt a weight in her heart that made it hard to take a breath. It was possible that the one glimpse she'd had of her mother that morning might be the last she would ever have.

  "There, there," a dark-skinned women crooned, rubbing a soothing hand on Gaia s shoulder.

  The kindness triggered the tears Gaia had tried to hold back, and sobs wracked through her. Sephie tried to pull her against her for comfort, but Gaia curled away from them all and hunched in a ball along the wooden bench, her face to the wall. For a long while, Gaia was lost to blind, wordless misery. No light or tender words could penetrate her sorrow, while over and over she silently cried out for her lost father. Someone tucked a blanket around her and something soft under her head, and then sleep mercifully overtook her.

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  Chapter 10 Blueberries in the Unlake

  As A GIRL, Gaia taught herself to lie so carefully in her sleep that she never became entangled in her mosquito netting, but when morning turned the sky a rosy, dry pink and it no longer mattered to be still, she sometimes rolled, half asleep, until the skin of her cheek touched unexpectedly against the cool, gauzy material. Then the blind expectation of suffocation woke her fully. She would gasp before she remembered, oh, it's just the bed net. Then she would settle back on her pillow and stretch a languid hand upward toward the apex of the gossamer tent.

  The summer she turned eleven, her parents moved her bed from the loft to the back porch where she could catch any breeze. One morning the wind chime was silent, and the great heavy water urn was motionless on its chain. Water had condensed on the outside surface, and the drops slicked together near the bottom for her to watch as they swelled and fell.

  She slipped her bare feet to the worn boards of the porch and pushed the mosquito net aside to see the soft summer light infusing the air of the backyard. She could see the rain barrel

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  at the corner of the porch, and beyond, near the slope, the laundry lines and the chicken coop.

  A pullet had laid her first egg two days before, and Gaia was curious to see if she'd laid another. Lifting her blue nightgown to keep the hem from skimming the grass, she felt the coolness of dew brush her ankles. She had almost reached the coop be fore she saw that the door was unlatched and ajar.

  With a sinking feeling, Gaia looked inside the coop. The pullet and another layer were both missing, though the six others were contentedly on their roosts. Seeing Gaia, the chickens let up a noise and started out past her toes, ready to feed on the bugs in the uncut grass.

  Gaia flew back across the yard and jumped loudly onto the porch. "Mom!" she yelled. "Dad! I think someone stole two of our chickens." She hurried through the kitchen, crossed the living area and peeked behind the curtain to her parents' bed. Two lumps were sprawled among the blankets, and her dad's hand was curved upon her mother's shoulder. "Mom," she said again.

  Bonnie lay closest to the window, hunched away from her father, and it struck Gaia that it was odd for her parents to be in bed later than she was. Uncertain, she clutched the curtain and drew one foot on top of the other.

  "I think someone stole two of our chickens," Gaia said again, more quietly.

  Then her mother did a peculiar thing. She lifted an arm over her eyes so her face was lost behind her elbow and she murmured one soft word: "Jasper."

  In answer, Gaia's father put a kiss on her mother's shoulder and rolled to put his feet on the floor.

  "Hey, sunshine," Jasper said to Gaia. "Let's let your mother get a little sleep, shall we? She came in late last night." He was

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  already reaching for a shirt, and Gaia stepped back, letting the curtain fall.

  She felt odd, as if she'd witnessed some small, silent, previously invisible language between her parents that excluded her, and then he came around the curtain, fully dressed. He smiled at her and rubbed his unshaven jaw.

  "Get your shoes," he said softly, and she shoved her bare feet into her loafers.

  Her father preceded her, his broad shoulders and easy gait conveying no sense of alarm, and with his calmness she felt her own uneasiness receding. He handled the latch for a quick inspection, then opened wide the door so she could see under his arm to the dim interior and the empty roosts. Dust motes flickered in a beam of sunlight.

  "Definitely gone," he said. "And you re sure you locked the coop last night?"

  She nodded up at him. "They were all there then. I'm positive."

  His eyebrows lifted and he pushed out his lips, then took another look at the latch. "Well, whoever took them did it quietly. You didn't hear anything in the night?"

  She said she didn't. While he collected the eggs, she looked back at the porch, to the bed net falling like a pale gray veil from the hook above. She realized then that some stranger must have been this close to her in the night. She took a step nearer her father.

  "Don 't you worry," he said, his voice warm and reassuring. He cradled five eggs along one arm. His free hand came to her shoulder, and she linked her arm around his waist. "Let's go pick some blueberries for your mom. We'll be back before she even knows we're gone."

  "Like this?" she asked, plucking at her nightgown.

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  He smiled at her attire. "Definitely. Though we should take the hats. And buckets. I'll get them. Meet me around front."

  By the time Gaia walked around the house, he was coming out the front door, minus the eggs, and carrying their hats and a couple of one-liter buckets. He held out his hand to clasp hers warmly, and then he began to whistle a low, complicated tune. Gaia felt a little shy in her nightgown as they passed the waking houses, but as they descended a narrow dirt path into the unlake, she liked the light, airy way the blue fabric floated around her knees. The brim of her hat created a familiar shadow above her eyelashes, and she could smell the sweet scents of the big bluestem, honeysuckle, nannyberry, and wildflowers that grew in sweeping patches between the rocks.

  Once they passed below the bay of boulders, they were soon among the blueberries, and Jasper handed her a bucket. The first berry dropped with a metallic ping into the bottom.

  "Who do you suppose stole our chickens?" Gaia asked. "Cant we do anything about them?"

  "Like what?"

  "I don't know. Go look for them?" It sounded unlikely as soon as she said it.

  Her father adjusted his hat back on his head so she could see his face. His brown eyebrows were drawn in thick, expressive curves, and his jaw line was strong, with a shadow of stubble delineating it from his neck. His complexion, slightly darker than her own, was a rich tan color, and it ran deeper on his forearms where his sleeves were usually rolled back.

  "Think about it, Gaia," he said gently. "Whoever took those chickens must have needed them a lot more than we did."

  She was surprised. "But does that mean anyone could take anything from us and you wouldn't care?" she asked.

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  He returned to picking berries. "No. Of course not."

  There were many things about her parents that she'd begun to wonder about lately. A few weeks earlier, Gaia had gone to her friend Emily's birthday party. Emily and Kyle and Gaia had been the only three at the party, and Gaia had enjoyed herself hugely. Then, only yesterday, Gaia had discovered that Sasha and two other girls had been invited to Emily's party, too, but they had all refused to go if Gaia would be there. Gaia's mother had been completely unconcerned by the news. "Yes, I heard about those catty girls," she'd said when Gaia told her. "Emily s a real friend."

  Now her father, too, was undisturbed by events that troubled Gaia. It should matter that people were mean to Gaia and stealing her family's chickens, so why didn't her parents get upset? Maybe, as her mo
ther had once said, it had something to do with depth.

  When she looked up at her father again, he had moved farther away, and beyond him the unlake sloped steadily down' ward. Clumps of birch and aspen flickered their oval leaves, but mostly the view encompassed brush and grasses and wild' flowers.

  "Dad," she called. "Did you ever know anybody who knew what it was like when the unlake was full of water?"

  He looked up from under the brim of his hat and waved her over. "No. It's been empty for going on three hundred years." He pointed. "They piped most of it south, and then the springs dried up."

  "Who's 'they'? What happened to them?" She came nearer and picked a few more berries.

  "I don't know, really," he said. He picked steadily as he talked. "There are other people out there, somewhere, because we still get a few wandering in from time to time. Maybe

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  dozen in the last decade, like Josh, that storyteller over in Eastern Sector One. You remember him. One winter a horse came in, all saddled up, but it died shortly after."

  "Really? What happened to its rider?"

  "We don't know. I was a teenager then. We searched a long time out in the wasteland, but we didn't find anyone."

  Gaia was fascinated by the possibility of other people and other times. "What was it like, I wonder. Way back."

  Her father smiled. "In the cool age, people used to have satellites passing electrical signals all over the world, and cars and roads and all those things we see in the films at the Tvaltar, but that's all gone. It all took energy. Like magic."

  "What happened to it all?" Gaia asked.

  He put a hand on his hip and arched backward briefly. "The cool age ended when the fuel was used up, and it was too late for the masses to adjust, I guess. Crops failed. Some illness. A few wars. They couldn't move around what little food they could grow, I guess. It takes a lot to feed people, Gaia. We for' get. We're lucky here. There are smart people running the Enclave, and we don't do so badly ourselves outside the wall."

  "Do we have to worry about running out of food?" she asked.

  He smiled at her. "Not really. We'll hatch a couple more chickens."

  "No. I mean all of us."

  Her father wiped his forehead and resettled his hat. "I don't think so. We had the wheat ruined by hail once, but even then, there was plenty of mycoprotein."

  "Emily told me mycoprotein is a fungus."

  "She's right, really," he said. "They discovered it and re fined it back in the cool age. They wanted to have a food they could grow even in the dark, in case some catastrophic event

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  covered the world in clouds. Now they grow it in the Enclave, in those big fermentation towers you can see."

  She looked up the hill, over the wall, to the right of the obelisk and Bastion towers until she found a row of orange silos. "So, as long as we get along with the Enclave, those of us outside are safe, too," she said.

  Her father leaned over and tugged her braid. "You re quite the worrier today, aren't you? All because we lost a couple chickens."

  As she used to do as a little girl, she squinted to measure the white obelisk against the height of her outstretched thumb.

  "What are you doing?" her father asked.

  She lowered her hand. "I do it for luck," she said. "My thumb's the same size as the obelisk."

  He flicked the brim of her hat. "Let's head back. Your mother should be up."

  The winding path through the boulders and shrubs of the unlake was steep in places, and rarely wide enough for two. Gaia scampered ahead.

  "Is Mom okay?" Gaia asked.

  He nodded, following after her. "Your mother's fine," he said. "She just had a tough night."

  "Did she advance another baby?"

  "She did."

  "Has there always been a baby quota?"

  "No," he said slowly. She loved how he always answered her questions, no matter how involved they might be. "It was a gradual thing, I guess. Back when your mother and I were children, there were some new families who came to Wharfton. They weren't used to our ways, and they were rough. The parents drank, and I'm sorry to say it, but sometimes they neglected and hit their kids. People in Wharfton asked the

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  Enclave to do something about it, so the Enclave took the worst abused children to raise inside the wall."

  He passed a big berry to her. She held it on her open palm while he talked, watching the pale bloom of blue slowly warm to a deeper, shiny purple in contact with her skin. "That sounds okay" she said.

  "It helped. A lot," he agreed. "But then, some people, especially families who were struggling to feed their kids, started wondering why some of their children couldn't go inside the wall. It didn't seem fair to them that the irresponsible parents were, in a way, being rewarded for abusing their kids."

  Gaia understood that. It seemed, from the Tvaltar specials, that the girls inside the wall had everything she wanted, like books and pretty clothes and friends. "So then what

  happened?"

  "Well, the Enclave discovered it was better to take children who were very young. They adapted better. So they offered to take in babies who were just a year old, and they compensated the families, too." He rubbed his fingers together, signaling money. "It was all voluntary at first. But then, just a few years before your oldest brother Arthur -was born, the Enclave started requiring parents to bring their one-year-olds to special selections four times a year. It was a kind of competition, and the Enclave would take the strongest, liveliest babies."

  Gaia wrinkled her nose. She scrambled up on a nearby boulder and swung her legs to dangle over the edge. "Didn't some of the parents mind?"

  "Some did, of course. But others saw it as a great opportunity. You know, Gaia, in a way, each baby belongs to the community that supports its mother, whether that's a poor mother -with a bad temper, or a loving mother with patience to spare, or an ambitious mother who wants the best opportunities for her child."

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  "I don't know," she said. "It kind of sounds like people in Wharfton were selling their babies to the Enclave."

  He shook his bucket, looking inside. "It never really felt like that," he said slowly. "When Arthur and Odin were chosen to be advanced, it was a duty and an honor to advance a baby. We knew our boys would never lack for anything. And most important, they told us the advanced babies could come home to us when they turned thirteen if they wanted to."

  "I didn't know that," Gaia said.

  "That's because nobody ever has. They all choose to stay in the Enclave. The advanced children are genuinely happier with their adoptive families there."

  Gaia gazed out at the horizon. "Arthur and Odin stayed, too, didn't they?"

  Her father nodded slowly. "Later, maybe a couple years after you were born, the Enclave made advancement random, with a quota of the first babies born each month. It was more fair, and it's been like that for the last decade. I have to admit: in many ways, it works better than taking the babies when they were a year old. People are used to it now. And they still get compensated for each baby, too. It helps out the rest of the family."

  "So you got paid for advancing Arthur and Odin?"

  "We did."

  Gaia glanced up at her father. "Do you miss them?"

  He gave a lopsided smile. "Every day. But I have you."

  "So why didn't Mom have more babies?"

  "She's tried to, actually. But it looks like you're it for us."

  Gaia pulled up a stalk of grass and broke off the bits of seed at the end. "Is that why she had a tough time last night? Does she not like delivering babies when she can't have any more herself?"

  He took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair before

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  putting it on again. "I don't know how to answer that, Gaia. Your mothers a very strong woman. I know that much. Last night, your mother and Old Meg went to help Amanda Mercado. She had twins."

  "Twins!" Gaia said.

 
"Yes. Twins. Two boys."

  Gaia's smile fell. "But, did she advance both of them?"

  Her father inhaled deeply, and then sighed. "That's the thing. Amanda needed to keep one and advance the other. The quota this month is two, and your mom had already advanced one baby."

  "So what happened?"

  Her fathers lips compressed in a thoughtful line. "This must be confidential," he said. "Do you understand that?"

  "I'll never tell," she promised.

  "I don 't want you even to talk to your mother about it, not unless she brings it up first. Don't nag her with questions."

  "I wont. I promise." With a mix of pride and curiosity, she clutched her bucket tightly in both hands.

  "Your mother let Amanda choose which baby to keep," he said. "Both babies were small, but the first one born weighed a little more and looked a little stronger. The second was a tiny little frail fellow. Guess which one Amanda decided to advance."

  Gaia closed her eyes against the sunlight and pictured two small newborn baby boys wrapped in identical gray blankets. Their eyes were closed, and they were waiting peacefully for a decision. The only difference was that one -was slightly bigger and rounder. She opened her eyes.

  "Amanda kept the littler one," Gaia said.

  Her fathers lips curved in a sad smile. "You re right. Why?"

  "She thought-- " Gaia struggled for the right words. "She figured the bigger boy would do all right in the Enclave, but

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  the little one, even if he doesn't make it, she can care for her' self, with all her love."

  Gaia's father lowered his face and drew his hand over his forehead so that she couldn't see him well. For a moment he stayed there, unmoving, until Gaia worried that she'd said something wrong.

  "Dad?" she said.

  He lowered his hand and his smile was even more lonely than before. With his thumb, he gently brushed the tender, scarred skin of her left cheek. He had a way of making her feel like she was even more precious to him because she was ugly, and it always twisted her up inside.

 
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