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Birthmarked, p.12
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       Birthmarked, p.12

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Sephie's eyebrows lifted in curiosity. "What tea?" she asked, and waited for Gaia to explain.

  As the silence stretched, Gaia finally realized that Sephie had no idea what she was talking about, and then guilt kicked in. She had promised her father never to tell anyone about the freckles, but now it had slipped out. Gaia spun toward the window, her mind reeling with a new possibility: the tattooed

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  freckles were not only a secret way to honor her advanced brothers. Her mother signed those babies. With four carefully arranged pinpricks, she tattooed her own all-but-invisible mark on every baby she delivered. The tea itself was merely a distraction, a comforting, soothing ritual to honor the mother and midwife together. The soporific trace of motherwort in the mother's tea would leave no lasting mark. But that tattoo would last forever.

  "What are you talking about?" Sephie said, crossing to the window.

  "I meant the motherwort." Gaia tried to smile naturally at her, but she knew she was terrible at lying. "We give mother wort in some tea to the mother, and wash a little bit on the baby to prevent freckles. Don't you do that in here?"

  Sephie eyed her closely one last time, and then turned back to her bag. "I don't know what you were told about mother-wort, but it has no effect whatsoever on freckles." She reached for Gaia's arm, and Gaia was surprised by the cool strength in the woman's hand on her skin. "They're superstitious barbarians outside the wall, no offense intended."

  Gaia straightened, but Sephie was already releasing her.

  "We're leaving now," Sephie said to Tom and Dora.

  The couple were profuse in their thanks, but Sephie, looking tired, waved dismissively and reached for her hat. "May you have many more children to serve the Enclave," she said.

  "Let me give you something," Tom insisted, following them downstairs.

  "No. They'd only confiscate it anyway," Sephie said. She put on her hat and signaled Gaia to do the same.

  "Please, Persephone. There must be something I can do. Dora and I, we're so grateful. I'm sure I'm no one to question the Enclave, but-- "

  Gaia turned at the door and saw Sephie put her hand on

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  Tom's arm. "No," she said seriously. "It's my privilege, coming here. I'm honored to be part of your lives at this moment. Enjoy your child and your beautiful wife. You owe us nothing."

  Gaia felt Tom's eyes flick to hers, and by his sudden, sharp gaze, she had the feeling this was the first time he'd looked at her closely, despite all they'd gone through together. When his gaze settled on her scar, she could feel both his curiosity and his pity.

  He cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable, and then his lips curved in a deliberate smile. "At least let me give something to your assistant," Tom said. "I'm sorry. What's your name?"

  His effort at graciousness didn't fool her. When she didn't answer him, Sephie gave her a sharp look.

  "She's Gaia Stone," Sephie said. "The girl from outside."

  He nodded, as if several pieces had just clicked together in his mind. "The one from a couple weeks ago? With the convict's baby?"

  "Yes," Sephie said.

  Tom ducked slightly to put his hand inside a drawer in a small desk beside him. "It's nothing much," he said. "But please, take it." He extended his hand toward Gaia and she looked down to see the gleam of a small gilded mirror, the hinged type that ladies used when adjusting their makeup. She felt herself go pale, staring at it. What could she possibly want with a mirror? Was he mocking her?

  Sephie took the mirror for her and thrust it firmly into Gaia's stiff fingers.

  "Thank you," Sephie said. "You're very generous."

  Gaia could not trust herself to raise her eyes, not without revealing the fury and shame she felt at being treated like a freak. Again. She fumbled for the door handle, muttering a good-bye. She pulled the door open. The four guards who lounged nearby in the shade looked over. She would have

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  dropped the mirror and crushed it underfoot right there except Sephie grasped her arm sharply. "Behave yourself," she whispered savagely. She thrust her black bag into Gala's hands and took the little mirror.

  The men came forward as Sephie said good-bye to Tom. Gaia's mind was spinning with all she had seen and discovered this morning: Sephie could turn a breech baby; the ankle freckles were a signature; Gaia was famous for saving the convict's baby; her service was of no more value than a glass trinket. She pulled the hat low on her forehead, feeling the faint scratchiness of the straw and wishing she still had long hair to hide her face.

  Sephie fell into step beside her, and her pace was unhurried. The guards retreated slightly behind them, and Sephie linked her arm lightly around Gaia's waist.

  "You re not bad as an assistant," Sephie said.

  Gaia shrugged.

  "But you've got something to learn about manners," Sephie said. "You embarrassed me back there."

  "I embarrassed you!" Gaia said. She glanced back at the guards and brought her voice down. "He insulted me. What could I possibly want with a mirror? A chance to see my hideous face up close?"

  Sephie looked at her strangely. "It was a token. He couldn't give you anything more significant. You're a prisoner. It probably belonged to his wife, Gaia. It was a gesture of respect and gratitude."

  Gaia could not immediately accept what she was saying. She took her arm out of Sephie's so she could walk without the pretense of being her friend.

  Sephie sighed. "Fine. But you might give people a chance. Not everyone is treating you like some hideous monster."

  They reached the wide street that led up to the Square of the

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  Bastion, and Gaia could hear the noise of the market as they approached. Now that they were getting closer to the prison, she didn't want to go inside, and she didn't want to waste the chance to look around her by being in a bad mood. She looked around at the passing people, the shop windows, and the pigeons that pecked in the gutters. Despite herself, she watched for the familiar form of Capt. Grey, and then she was annoyed with her disappointment at not finding him. She smelled bating bread, and turned to look for the source. Stupid, she chastised herself. She should have been looking for Derek's friend's bakery all this time.

  She scanned the street actively, looking for brown loaves of bread, or a hanging sign with the familiar etching of sheaves of wheat, but there were none, and the scent vanished. They reached the Square of the Bastion again and the bustling activity of the market.

  Barrels stood filled with cabbages and potatoes, and a stall was hung with dainty blue and white dresses for toddlers. Gaia could see delicate smocking on the front of one. My

  father would love this, she thought with a pang. He'd relish the whole market, and especially the sartorial handiwork. She owed it as a tribute to him to live as fully as she could, even as a prisoner.

  She saw apples, and even, on one carefully displayed plate, six oranges. A seventh had been sliced in wedges. She had never eaten one, but she'd seen them in a picture book. Now the bright color called to her like a magnet, drawing her in.

  They passed so close that Gaia could smell the sliced wedges, and her hunger became so keen that saliva flowed around her teeth.

  "Are they really oranges?" Gaia murmured to Sephie.

  Sephie turned briefly in the direction Gaia was looking.

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  "They're outrageously expensive," Sephie said. "Usually the owners of the orange trees eat them all themselves, or give them as gifts to the Protectorate family. But once in a while there are a few for sale. You getting your appetite back?"

  "Yes."

  "Good. I was beginning to worry."

  The guards, now that they were so close to the prison, sup rounded Gaia and Sephie again, but not before Gaia saw a red-clad girl step up to the orange seller.

  The girl took out a purse of coins, and as the guards nudged Gaia along, Gaia kept gating back over her shoulder, watching the exchange. When the girl reached for one of t
he oranges, her hood fell back slightly and sunlight gleamed off her blond hair: Rita. She was the girl who had tried to advise Gaia during the execution, the one who had warned her to keep quiet.

  Gaia stumbled against a cobblestone, and Rita looked up. For one instant, her dark eyes met Gaia's gaze, and her mouth rounded in a silent O.

  "Careful there," Sephie said.

  One of the guards steadied Gaia from behind and hustled her toward the arch. Gaia lost sight of Rita, but as she replayed the moment in her head, she thought she recognized a glimmer of pity in the other girl's eyes. Or had it been sympathy? Perhaps Sephie was right. Perhaps Gaia, in her quickness to assume people were mocking her, failed to interpret how people really looked at her.

  Gaia lowered her head as the shadow of the arch fell upon her. She handed back her hat and was escorted deeper into the prison. Soon she and Sephie were back in Q cell, but even when the heavy wooden door was shoved loudly closed behind them, Gaia knew she was no longer lost to the despair that had gripped her at the news of her father's murder.

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  She had rediscovered what it was like to be alive and hungry.

  She had realized that the freckles were more than just a tribute to her brothers.

  She was going to survive this internment and find a way out.

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  Chapter 12 A Pigeon Visits

  THAT NIGHT, GAIA ate her first full meal in weeks. The image of the oranges haunted her, and the memory of the sweet scent was like a mist of pure color before her nose. She craved one of those oranges so badly it was like an illness. And this made her laugh.

  "What's so funny?" Sephie asked.

  "I could about kill for an orange," Gaia said.

  The doctors laughed, and the sound was an unaccustomed counterpoint to the noise of their spoons gracing their plates. As Gaia ate her beef-flavored stew, she fingered the little mirror that Sephie had returned to her, flipping it over, thinking of how much her life had changed in such a short time. Less than three weeks before, she'd seen such luxuries as those in Tom and Dora 's home only at the Tvaltar, with a sheen of glamour and impossibility. She'd never guessed that oranges could be available for a price in an open market five kilometers from her home. She'd never known a breech baby could be completely turned in the womb. She had still believed both her parents were alive. This was a different world inside the wall, cruel and enticing both.

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  "It's a pretty bauble," one of the women said. Her name was Cotty, and her soft black hair curled thickly around her lined face. She picked up the mirror now, eyeing herself in the glass, and she made a little primping motion with her bangs that made Gaia smile.

  "Keep it," Gaia said.

  "Oh, no. I couldn't."

  "I have no use for it," Gaia said.

  Cotty handed it back, patting Gaia's hand in the process. Cotty's fingers were a rich, even brown, several shades darker than Gaia's tan hand. "Don't say that," Cotty said. "Everything has value in here. You 11 see. You can trade it for something you want."

  "Maybe with a guard," Sephie said. "For food. Or knitting yarn."

  "Or a novel," Myrna added.

  Gaia held it doubtfully. "How was your day?" she asked Myrna politely.

  Myrna's striking black eyebrows lifted while she slowly took another bite of her bread. "I performed a surgery on a burst appendix, thank you very much for asking."

  Gaia thought at first she must be joking, but Sephie asked her a question or two about the procedure, and Myrna answered curtly.

  "Gaia was a steady assistant today," Sephie said. "You should take her with you next time. Teach her a thing or two."

  Myrna's level black eyes studied Gaia for a moment. "They should have left her outside the wall where at least she could do no harm to anyone that matters," Myrna said.

  Gaia s resentment flared, but she did not respond.

  "Really, Myrna," Sephie said mildly. "Give her some credit."

  "Who's been tending the mothers in my sector since I was arrested?" Gaia asked.

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  Cotty, Myrna, and Sephie exchanged glances but didn't speak.

  "Haven't any of you been going out?" Gaia asked more urgently.

  Sephie set a hand on Gaia's knee. "Be calm, Gaia. None of us has ever gone outside the wall. That's nothing new."

  "But then, who's taking care of my deliveries?" Gaia asked. "Did the Enclave send out some other midwife?"

  "There must be half a dozen midwives out there," Myrna said carelessly.

  But Gaia shook her head. She and her mother had been the only midwives in Western Sector Three, and they were often shorthanded.

  "Perhaps-- " she began, thinking aloud. Could the mothers be going to Western Sector Two to find a midwife? Did they go into labor alone, with no help? She shook her head, frustrated, and with her last bite of bread she stood to pace the room. Stuck here in prison, she was no good to anyone.

  Above there was a fluttering at the window, and Gaia looked up, startled to see a pigeon sitting on the ledge of the center window. The other women made no comment, as if it would take more than a pigeon to rouse them from the protective apathy that cocooned their hearts. Gaia secretly hoped the bird would fly in and stir up the gloomy cell with its flapping wings and chaos, but it merely hopped on the sill, made a squawking noise, and flew away again.

  Gaia turned slowly to see the women: Cotty, Sephie, and Myrna sat on two benches, the last crumbs of their dinners before them. Four other women rested on the other two benches, none of them speaking.

  "When's the last time any of you looked out those windows?" Gaia asked.

  They looked at her, and then their faces turned upward.

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  Myrna muttered something that no one answered. Gaia walked to the nearest bench, and bent to look beneath it. Sephie cleared her feet out of the way.

  "What are you thinking?" Sephie said.

  Gaia gave the bench a little pull, and then a little shove. It had been nailed to the floor, but the nails were rusted and old. If she could get out that window, she could search for her mother again. "Get up," she said, and Sephie and Myrna stood.

  "I don't believe this," Myrna said.

  Gaia gave the bench a good kick, and it rattled free from its nails. "Help me," Gaia said, and Sephie took an end of the bench so they could carry it over beneath the third window.

  By now the other women were up, examining the other three benches. Two were securely bolted down, but the last was soon wrenched from its old nails. The excitement in the cell was palpable as they carried the second loose bench under the window, too.

  Gaia looked up at the windows, judging their distance above the floor of the cell to be five meters or higher. Each bench was a couple of meters long, but stacked on each other, they would only come as high as Gaia's chest.

  Myrna was the first to go back and sit down. "Tell me when any of you grows another two meters," she said.

  But Gaia wasn't ready to give up. She hauled one bench to the corner and tipped it up. Then she angled the lower edge out slightly to create a makeshift ladder. Bracing herself against the wall, she climbed the tipped underbelly of the bench, standing unsteadily on the top edge.

  "Don't fall," Sephie said.

  "Go ahead and fall," Myrna said. "Cotty here will sew you up. Just don't break the bench or we'll have nothing to sit on."

  Gaia climbed back down and looked closely at both benches, seeing if the answer lay in breaking one or both of them, and

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  constructing a ladder from the pieces. But she had no nails, and no tools, and the benches were sturdily made. She looked up again longingly at the windows.

  Then Cotty made a little coughing noise from the doorway to the bedrooms.

  "Would these help?" she asked. She held two blankets, and Gaia knew there was one for each of the prisoners, a total of eight in all.

  "Wait, Gaia. Do you know what's on the other side of that wall?"
Cotty asked.

  "Is it any different than what's in here?" Myrna asked.

  Gaia ignored Myrna's pessimism and answered Cotty. "Does it matter? If we can look out, we can climb out. We'll find a way."

  What seemed impossible gradually began to change. They had to stop when it was time for the evening walk, but afterward they continued. Working together, Sephie, Cotty, and Gaia experimented with tying the two benches together, overlapping the wood and wrapping the blankets tightly around them. The squares of sunlight that shone through the windows lifted along the wall toward the ceiling and then vanished as the sun went down. Evening gloom filled the room before at last they leaned a solid structure into the corner of the cell. It reached more than three meters high, but fell short nearly two meters from the window. The distance was daunting.

  "It's all right," Gaia said. "Myrna, go listen at the door. Sephie and Cotty, help me up."

  She climbed gingerly up the benches, gripping hard at the wood and digging her knees into the blankets' folds. She could smell the cool, gritty stone of the wall against her face and once, when her balance shifted, she could feel the whole structure begin to fall away.

  "Push it in!" she said urgently. "Hold it against the wall."

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  The other women came to help, too, steadying the structure from below. Gaia caught her breath, and turned, keeping her back to the wall. Sweat broke out on her face and neck as she slowly straightened, standing on her heels on the uppermost ledge of the tied benches. Her eyes were still a good ten centimeters below the edge of the window, but now she lifted her left hand, holding the mirror shed received that morning, and extending her arm upward, she was able to look into the bit of glass, and out to the violet sky and the roofs of the twilit city.

 
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