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Birthmarked, p.11
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       Birthmarked, p.11

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  "You re a wise little girl, Gaia Stone," he said gently. "I wonder what will become of you when you grow up."

  She relaxed her hands on the bucket. "Do you think Amanda's boy in the Enclave will ever know he has a twin brother outside?"

  Gaia's father leaned back on one hand. "I doubt it. They'll tell him he was adopted from the outside, that's no secret, but they won't know anything about his family out here."

  "Did Mom give him the freckles?"

  "She always does, to every baby she delivers."

  Gaia glanced down at her own left ankle and saw the four faint brown marks.

  "In honor of Arthur and Odin, right?" she asked.

  "That's right. You've kept that secret, haven't you?"

  She murmured her agreement. She hadn't even told Emily when she saw the same freckles on Emily's ankle, and she never would.

  "Did you ever think I might get advanced?" she asked.

  "It was a possibility."

  "Until my accident?"

  "Yes."

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  Gaia looked at the freckles again. "I wonder if those babies will ever grow up and compare freckles and wonder why they all have the same ones."

  "It isn't very likely," her father said.

  "Why does Mom really do the freckles then?" Gaia asked.

  Her father turned his face in profile, up the hill toward Wharfton. "It makes her feel better, I suppose. The same reason we light the candles at dinnertime."

  "Do I have a twin inside the wall?"

  He laughed. "No. Sorry. Just Arthur and Odin."

  Gaia liked making her father laugh. "Do they know about me?"

  "I don 't see how they could. I'm sure they'd like you if they knew you, even though you ask a lot of questions."

  "I still don 't get what the problem -was for Mom last night," she said. "The bigger baby was the first one out, right? So she followed the law by advancing the second baby born this month, just like she was supposed to."

  Her father held out a hand to help her jump down from the boulder. "True. But your mother gave Amanda the choice. That's the difference. For your mother, it was an opening in the law, and your mother normally follows the law to the letter. If she bends it even once, even a little, it makes her question the whole thing. Come on. Let's go."

  Gaia led the way up the path again, thinking deeply. She liked that he thought she was wise, that she was trustworthy with secrets. She was pulling the threads of their conversation together into one, weighty question. When they reached the lip of the unlake, she turned to her father. "Did last night make Mom question whether it was right to advance Arthur and Odin?" she asked. "As if she had a choice?"

  For the first time in her life, her father turned his back to her. He took a step toward the horizon and stayed there, silent.

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  His fingers twisted in the seam of his pants and twitched there, as if he might absently fray a hole into the cloth. Gaia faltered, wishing she could take back her question.

  "I'm sorry, Dad," she said quietly.

  As he turned slowly to face her again, his eyes retained a lost, ashy glow. "You always have a choice, Gaia. You can air ways say no." His voice was strangely hollow. "They might kill you for it, but you can always say no."

  She didn't understand his intensity, and he was frightening her. "What do you mean?" she whispered.

  He took a long, slow breath and seemed to remember where he was. "It's all right, Gaia," he said. "There are some things, once they are done, that we can never question, because if we did, we wouldn't be able to go on. And we have to go on, every single day." He smiled, more like his old self. He lifted his bucket to click it against hers. "Your brothers are better off in the Enclave. We can still miss them sometimes, even though it was the right thing to let them go."

  She watched him warily. Then he flicked the brim of her hat and fell into step beside her. "Come on," he said, his voice warm and coaxing again. "Those big green eyes of yours are making me hungry."

  "Dad," she drawled. His nonsense made her smile. "They're not green. They're brown."

  "Right," he said. "Brown. I get them mixed up. I beg your pardon."

  By the time they arrived home, Gaia's mother was frying peppered mycoprotein patties. Gaia ran up the ladder to her loft to change while her father rinsed the blueberries and made coffee. With biscuits, honey, and blueberries crowding the patties on their plates, they went to eat on the back porch. Gaia looped the strap around her mosquito netting to clear it away, and they hitched three chairs forward toward the railing.

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  The wind chime let out a faint, tinkling noise, and Gaia's gaze fell on one of the chickens under the laundry lines. It seemed like ages ago that she'd discovered the theft, and compared to other losses, it hardly mattered at all.

  "Who do you think stole our chickens, Mom?" she asked idly. She smeared a bite of her patty in honey, and savored the peppery sweetness on her tongue.

  "Somebody hungry," her mother said.

  It was practically the same thing her father had said.

  Gaia's mother looked untroubled and rested, and Gaia realized that her father must have taken Gaia away from the house on purpose to give her mother a bit of time to herself. Normally, such an idea would have hurt her feelings, but now it didn't. Wonder brought a new stillness to her, as if the whole round earth had paused for a moment. How wise my parents are, she thought. How kind they are to each other.

  Her mother glanced over and smiled. "Not hungry?"

  "No, I am," she said.

  Her mothers eyes grew more perceptive. "Your father told you about the Mercado twins, didn't he?"

  Surprised, Gaia shot her gaze to his. He nodded.

  "You did the right thing," Gaia said.

  Her mother took a sip of her coffee and held the cup comfortably before her lips with both hands. "You know," her mother said. "You don't have to be a midwife when you grow up. That's all right with me."

  But Gaia looked past her to where the solid weight of the water urn was suspended from the rafter. The last drops of condensed dew had evaporated away, leaving the creamy surface smooth and cool. A quiet certainty settled inside Gaia, beautiful and blue and grateful, like her own invisible lake.

  "No," she said. "That's what I want to be. Like you."

  So her training began.

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  Chapter 11 The Gilded Mirror

  DAYS PASSED IN A NIGHTMARISH haze for Gaia. The bleak reality of Q cell was so complete, so utterly opposite to her memories of life outside the wall, that it seemed to obliterate her previous existence entirely. Her hair was cut. She was given a bed, a plate, a cup, and a spoon, and told to keep her things clean. A tasteless mycoprotein stew was provided for her three times a day, but Gaia had no appetite, and she absently shared her food with the other women, who were glad to eat her portion. Tired, grieving, and with no hope, Gaia hardly noticed the cell life around her, even when Sephie urged her to walk with them in the yard outside as they were permitted to do once each morning and once again after the evening meal. She kept expecting to hear word of her mothers execution, but there was no news.

  The doctors were often called away during the day, and sometimes they came back animated and invigorated by the practical exercise of their skills, but more often they returned quiet and morose. Myrna, especially, was often called out, and she invariably returned in a grim, taciturn mood.

  "Come, Gaia," Sephie said one morning. "I need you to assist."

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  Gaia was sitting on the bench, staring in a glazed way at a bit of sewing that had been left in a pile, but she glanced up at Sephie's kind face. She tried to stir herself, knowing that Sephie had treated her with gentleness since she'd first arrived in prison.

  "Yes," Sephie said, smiling and beckoning. "I've been told to bring an assistant, and it's time to expand your training."

  Gaia stood slowly. "I'm allowed to leave?"

  Sephie laughed lightly. "Apparently.
Under heavy guard. We've been talking it over, and there must be something about you that the Enclave can't figure out. They're cautious that way. Clearly they would have had you killed by now, based on your crimes, but there must be some reason they want you alive. What could it be? Maybe they're saving you to use for leverage with your mother, or they're saving your mother to use for leverage with you. What makes you both so valuable, I wonder. You don't have friends higher up, do you?"

  A flicker passed through Gaia's mind as she wondered if Capt. Grey had somehow negotiated for her life. She shrugged now. Life seemed pretty pointless to her at the moment, with her father dead and her mother on death row. What happened to her didn't much matter to her anymore.

  "None of that," Sephie said firmly. "Up. We're going to deliver a baby. That should please you."

  Gaia looked around automatically for her satchel, but then recalled they had taken it from her. Her watch, too. She stood slowly, feeling like her movements were underwater. Sephie linked her arm through Gaia's and guided her toward the door. "Heads up, now," Sephie said. "I knew you should have been eating more. You're weak as a new cat."

  Gaia took a deep breath. "I'm not hungry."

  "Well, then. Stand up straight and look like you can be useful. And try to straighten your hair a little."

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  Gaia felt a ghost of a smile. "You sound like my mother," she said.

  "Is that right?"

  Gaia ran a tired hand through her hair, still unused to the short ends at the nape of her neck. "My mother wanted me to tie my hair back more often. She told me I called attention to my ... to myself by letting my hair fall in my face all the time."

  The wooden door was being opened with a heavy, grating noise.

  "She was right," Sephie said.

  Gaia looked quickly out at the guards, half expecting to see Capt. Grey, but the men were unfamiliar. She hung back.

  "No," Sephie whispered urgently, and gave her arm a sharp pinch. "Hello, gentlemen," Sephie said courteously to the guard. "My bag, please. I do hope you didn't forget the fetoscope this time."

  Sephie passed the bag-- a heavy black item with large handles-- to Gaia, clearly expecting her to carry it for her, and then she started rapidly down the hall, leaving Gaia and the guards to catch up. The gray halls and staircases passed in a blur, and Gaia forced her heavy limbs to hurry after Sephie. At the last door, they were given two straw hats with distinctive gray and black hatbands and ordered to keep them on. When they finally stepped out from under the arch into a bolt of sunshine, Gaia gasped at the brightness of it. An effulgent wash of fresh air invaded her lungs, and she blinked back in surprise. She felt like she had emerged from a tomb, with all the shock and wonder of someone returning from the dead.

  It was market day in the square, and noises and colors were vibrant on every side. It was easily ten times, no twenty times bigger than the simple exchange that happened in the quadrangle by the Tvaltar outside the wall. Tables and awnings filled the area around the obelisk, and the aisles bustled with

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  people of every class, all reaching and laughing and exchanging money. A delivery boy with an overflowing basket of bread on the back of his bike rang his bicycle bell as he tried to weave through the crowd, and someone stopped him to buy a loaf. The hubbub of noise was merry and full of life. Gaia absorbed a quick impression of squawking chickens, bright yellow and green fabrics, and the shine of copper pans before she and Sephie were hurried down the street, surrounded by an escort of four armed guards. She noticed more than one curious glance in their direction, but Sephie walked as if she were oblivious both to the guards and the attention. She seemed to know precisely where to go, and when, after a few minutes of steady walking, they arrived at a blue-painted door, it was Sephie, not one of the guards, who rapped smartly on the door.

  "Persephone Frank?" said a young man, opening the door.

  "Who else?" Sephie said dryly, with a quick jerk of her head toward her guards.

  "Thank goodness," the man said, shaking her hand. "Tom Maulhardt. I was afraid we couldn't get you. My wife Dora's having her first baby, and everyone says you're the best-- " He was cut off by a muted cry from above. He went pale. "This way," he said.

  Gaia followed Sephie in and heard one of the guards close the door behind them. As Sephie was striding rapidly up the stairs, Gaia lingered in the foyer, reveling in the sensation of being out of her prison and away from the scrutiny of the guards. This was what she'd missed: freedom.

  Slowly she slid off her hat. Glancing left, she was curious to see the brightness of a living room. This was more like what she'd expected from the Tvaltar specials. Sunlight streamed through enormous panes of glass, touching on a pair of yellow couches that bracketed a low coffee table. A glass chess set was poised on the table, ready for the next move, and with a pang

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  she thought of her father, who had loved to play. The polished wooden floor was partly covered by a white carpet, and a TV was mounted on a wall between bookshelves. Gaia had never seen so many books in one place, nor such graceful, pretty sculptures. A bronze nude child, waist-high, tipped a watering can over her crouching sister, and a trickle of real water drib' bled out of the can.

  "Hurry, girl," Sephie called impatiently.

  Gaia lifted the doctors bag and hurried after Sephie. She followed the noise of the laboring woman, turning a corner and entering a bedroom that was as light and airy as the rest of the house. On an enormous, four-posted bed, a young woman lay panting, her mousy hair askew, her eyes wide with fright. Gaia was surprised to see no one else there: no supporting mother or aunt, no sisters making extra food in the kitchen or standing ready to help. This woman was more isolated than most of the mothers she knew outside the wall.

  Sephie was already talking soothingly to the woman and taking a pair of gloves out of her bag. "Here, now, Masister Dora. You re fine," Sephie said. "Tie my dress back, Gaia," she said, handing her an apron. Sephie worked competently, helping to ease the woman into a more comfortable position and preparing to examine her.

  "Are you staying?" Sephie said to Tom.

  He took an anguished look at his wife, and nodded.

  "Good, then be of use. Support her back. Move those pillows," said Sephie. When the young man still looked uncertain, Sephie spoke to Gaia sharply. "Gaia."

  But Gaia was already moving, seeing precisely what needed to be done. It was like being with her mother, with all the familiarity of a progressing labor and the woman's fear and pain, and yet it was different, too. In her last weeks outside the wall, Gaia had been in charge, responsible for every decision,

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  and it was a relief to slide back into an apprentice role. As Tom held Dora's hand, she grew calmer, and Gaia could see that the labor had not progressed as far as the cries she had heard as they entered the house had seemed to indicate.

  "It's a breech," Sephie said abruptly. "Is she full term? Not early?"

  Tom looked confused. "She was due next week."

  Sephie nodded, frowning, and steadied the woman's knees as she had another contraction. Gaia knew that a breech birth, with the baby arriving bottom first instead of head first, could be more complicated and take longer. At least, with the baby full term, its hips were as wide around as its head, and it was less likely to get stuck. She'd helped her mother deliver half a dozen breeches, but she hadn't done it herself yet, and she was glad again that Sephie was there to know just when and how to turn the baby as it came through.

  "It's a frank breech," Sephie said. "She's not too far along with the timing of these contractions. I think-- " she paused, still concentrating. Gaia watched her feel the woman's stomach, gently smoothing her hands around, with a confident little prod here and there. "Yes," Sephie said. "Let's turn it."

  Gaia's eyes widened in surprise. "Can we?"

  Sephie was already climbing onto the bed beside Dora. "Do you have any vodka?" she asked Tom. "And a hot water bottle? We need to slow th
is down."

  Gaia was more shocked then ever. If Sephie was wrong, if she delayed this birth in some way, it could only be more dangerous for the baby. Yet, already Sephie was talking calmly to the patient, explaining that she intended to try to manipulate the baby upward in her uterus, turn it sideways, and then, gradually, turn it again so its head was downward. Gaia put her hands where Sephie told her to, gently and firmly identifying the little elbows and knees within the woman's distended

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  belly. She had never done this before, never dreamed of doing it. She imagined the protest of the baby within, and feared the umbilical cord might wrap around the infant's chin or knees. But Sephie worked steadily, keeping Dora calm, letting her rest between contractions, and when, later, the baby girl was born smoothly, head first, Gaia was awed at Sephie's skill.

  "She's beautiful!" Tom said, clutching Dora's hands. "She's a miracle!"

  Sephie wrapped the child in a soft white blanket, passing her to Dora to hold, and Gaia had a flashing memory of the first baby she'd delivered alone. She, too, had passed a baby to its mother, but she had known she would take it away again within minutes. This child was home to stay, with loving parents and the promise of wealth and privilege. Why did it make Gaia ache with sadness, when she should feel triumphant?

  Sephie was quietly cleaning up her belongings. Gaia looked through the black bag for a teapot, for an inkbottle and needle, without success.

  "Don't you do any freckles?" Gaia asked.

  Sephie looked up. "What do you mean?" She turned her head toward the baby. "I didn't see any. They may show up later."

  It felt so strange not to honor Arthur and Odin like she ah ways had with her mother, but of course, Sephie wouldn't be familiar with her mother's pattern. "What about the tea?" Gaia asked.

 
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