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       Birthmarked, p.2

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Old Meg slapped her sharply, and Gaia fell back, clasping a hand to her sore cheek.

  "Think," Old Meg whispered harshly. "What would your parents want you to do? If you stay here, you 11 be the new midwife for Western Sector Three. You 11 check on the women your mother was tending and deliver the babies she would have delivered. You 11 advance her monthly quota. In short, you 11 do just what you re told, like your mother did. And just like your mother, it might not be enough to keep you safe. If you leave with me, we'll take our chances in the Dead Forest. I know people there who will help us, if I can find them."

  "I can 't leave," Gaia said. The possibility terrified her. She couldn't leave her home and everything she knew. What if her parents were released and she was gone? Besides, she wasn't going to run away with a paranoid shrew who slapped her and bossed her around like a naughty child. Gaia's distrust and resentment flared. This was supposed to be a night of celebrating her first birthing.

  A cloud cleared across the face of the moon, and Gaia thought she saw a glimmer in the black, fierce eyes of the old woman. Then Old Meg slipped her a small, brown parcel, smooth and light as a dead mouse. Gaia almost dropped it, repulsed.

  "Idiot," Old Meg said, grasping Gaia's hand firmly over the parcel. "It was your mother's. Keep it safe. On your life."

  "But what is it?"

  "Put it along your leg, under your skirt. It has ties."

  There was a clatter in the street and they both jumped. Gaia and Old Meg fell back against the wall, huddled and

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  silent, until the slam of a door came from the distance and all grew quiet again.

  Old Meg moved her head near so that Gaia could feel the old woman's tepid breath against her cheek. "Ask for Danni Orion if you ever make it to the Dead Forest," she said. "She'll help you if she can. Remember it. Like the constellation."

  "My grandmother?" Gaia asked, confused. Her grandmother had died years earlier, when Gaia was a baby.

  Old Meg gave her a quick jab. "Will you remember, or won't you?" she demanded.

  "I wouldn't forget my grandmother's name," Gaia said.

  "Your parents were fools," Old Meg said. "Trusting, cowardly pacifists. And now they'll pay."

  Gaia was horrified. "Don't say that," she said. "They've been loyal to the Enclave forever. They advanced two sons. They've served for years."

  "And don't you think they've regretted their sacrifices?" Old Meg said. "You think they don't feel the costs, every time they look at you?"

  Gaia was confused. "What do you mean?"

  "Your scar," Old Meg insisted.

  Gaia had the impression she was supposed to understand something, but there was no mystery about her scar. It was impolite, even cruel of Old Meg to refer to it now.

  Old Meg gave a humph of disgust. "I'm wasting precious time," she said. "Are you coming with me?"

  "I can't," Gaia repeated. "And you should stay. If they catch you running away, you'll go to prison."

  Old Meg gave a brief laugh and turned away.

  "Wait," Gaia said. "Why didn't she give this thing to me herself?"

  "She didn't want to give it to you at all. She hoped she

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  wouldn't have to. But a few weeks ago she started to worry, and then she gave it to me."

  "Worry, why?"

  "I'd say, in light of what happened tonight, she had her reasons," Old Meg said dryly.

  "But why don 't you keep it?"

  "It's for you," Old Meg said. "She said, if anything happened to her, to give it to you. And now I've kept my promise."

  Gaia saw now that the old woman had a small, droopy pack leaning beside the wall, and when she put it on, it sagged around her torso as if she'd just added another decade to her age. She took up her walking stick, and for the last time she brought her withered face near to Gaia's.

  "Once I'm gone, be careful who you trust. Use your wits, Gaia," the woman said. "Remember we're all vulnerable. Especially if we love someone."

  "You've got that wrong," Gaia said, thinking of her parents. "It's love that makes us strong."

  Gaia felt the old woman's gaze upon her, and she looked back defiantly, suddenly feeling stronger. This old woman was a bitter shell of a person who had pushed people away from her all her life, and now she couldn't even say good-bye with any charity. She promised herself she would never become like Old Meg, withered, unloved, cowardly. Maybe Old Meg, with her unsteady hands, was jealous that the midwife job should come to Gaia, and not her.

  She felt a brief thrill of promise again. Her parents would come back, like all of the others who had been briefly detained. They would resume their life as before, only now there would be two midwives in the family, with twice the compensations coming in. Gaia might be scarred and ugly, but unlike Old Meg, she had promise and people who cared for her.

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  Old Meg shook her head and turned away. Gaia watched as she wound her way down the narrow alley toward the far end and disappeared. Then she glanced down at the little package in her hand. By the faint moonlight, she saw there was a cloth tie connected to it. She hitched up the hem of her skirt, feeling the cool night air against her legs, and quickly tied the parcel around her right thigh, arranging it to lie flat along her leg. Then she dropped her skirt and took a few experimental steps. The parcel was slightly cool against her skin, but she could tell that soon it would be unnoticeable, even when she moved.

  When she stepped back out on Sally Row, the candlelight still gleamed from the downstairs window of her home, and she kept her eye on the growing trapezoid of yellow as she walked quietly forward. Around her, the neighboring houses were quiet, their curtains drawn over their windows. She considered going to the Rupps' home instead, but if a guard truly was waiting for her, he would find her eventually any way. It was best to face him now and find out what she could about her parents.

  The front porch step squeaked as she stepped upon it, and Gaia could practically feel the expectant house responding to her. In three more steps, she reached the door and opened it softly inward.

  "Mom?" she said. "Dad?"

  She looked automatically toward the table, where a candle was burning upright in a shallow clay dish, but the chair beside it was empty.

  The last wisp of hope that her mother would be there to greet her evaporated. Instead, a man straightened from beside the fireplace, and she instantly took in the black of his uniform and the rifle along his back. Candlelight illuminated the undersides of his jaw and the wide, flat brim of his hat, leaving his eyes in shadow.

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  "Gaia Stone?" he asked. "I'm Sergeant Grey and I'd like to ask you a few questions."

  The candlelight flickered in the draft. Gaia swallowed nervously and closed the door, her mind 'working frantically. Was he going to arrest her? "Where are my parents?" she asked.

  "They've been taken to the Enclave for questioning," he said. "It's just a formality." His voice was cultured, low, patient, and Gaia looked at him more closely. He looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn't remember seeing him before at the gate or the wall. Many of the guards were strong, simple people from Wharfton who had been selected for military training and who were proud to earn their living serving the Enclave, but she knew others were from inside the wall, educated men with ambition or a natural bent for strategy who chose to serve. Gaia guessed this man was from the latter category.

  "Why?" she asked.

  "We just have some questions," he said. "Where have you been?"

  She forced herself to stay calm. She knew to answer truth' fully; she hadn't done anything wrong. Her instincts warned her to cooperate with him just enough that she wouldn't bring more trouble on her parents or on herself. At the same time, she feared him. His gun didn't have to be pointed at her head to be a threat. As she set her satchel on the table, she realized her fingers were trembling, and she hid them behind her back.

  "At a birthing. My first," she said. "It was the last house down Barista Alley, a young
woman named Agnes Lewis. She had a baby girl, and I advanced her."

  He nodded. "Congratulations. The Enclave is fortunate to have your service."

  "I'm glad to serve," she replied, using the polite phrase.

  "And why did you go to the birthing instead of your mother?" he asked.

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  "She was already helping another mother. I left a note for her to join me when she was finished, but-- " Her note was still on the table beside the candle. She looked around the little room, feeling the traces of fear that erased the usual homey warmth. The bolts of cloth, the baskets of sewing supplies, the chess set, the cooking pots, her mothers half dozen books, and even her fathers banjo on its shelf were all askew, as if they'd been systematically searched. Sgt. Grey knew perfectly well why her mother had not joined her.

  "So you went alone?" he asked.

  "A boy came for me and said it was urgent," she said. She moved closer to the fire, picked up a poker, and stirred the coals. Until he made a move to arrest her, she might as well act like they were just having an innocent conversation. A late-night, innocent conversation to top off the arrest of her parents. She was reaching for a log when he put out a hand.

  "Allow me," he said.

  She withdrew slightly while he threw two logs on the fire and a shower of sparks lit the room with the anticipation of more warmth. Gaia slid off her shawl and set it next to her satchel. To Gaia s surprise, the soldier took the rifle strap off his shoulder, ducking his head beneath it, and propped the rifle against the fireplace. It was almost as if he were making himself at home, as if some innate courtesy were overriding his formal training. Or he was deliberately manipulating her to try to put her more at ease.

  "You said you went alone?" he repeated. "You didn't take your mother's assistant?"

  She glanced up at him, noting he had a very straight nose and brown hair cut in the neat military style, short in back and a bit longer over the forehead. Though she could not see his shadowed eyes clearly, she sensed an emptiness there that matched the controlled composure of his other features. It chilled her.

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  "You mean Old Meg?" she said. "No. I didn't take her. Wasn't she with my mother?"

  The guard didn't answer. Gaia frowned, coming closer to him, wishing to see his eyes, to verify the coldness she sensed there, despite his gentle tone and considerate manners. "Why are you here?" she asked.

  He turned without speaking toward the mantel and slid off what looked like a little pamphlet or book. He tossed it onto the table with a bit of spin so it landed facing her. She could barely make out the title in the candlelight.

  Summer Solstice 2403

  Extant Members of

  The Advanced Cohort of 2390

  Are Hereby Invited to Request

  Unadvancement

  "Do you recognize this?" he asked.

  She had no idea what it was. "No." She picked it up and flipped to the first page, seeing a list of names.

  Katie Abel Alyssa Becca

  Mara Ageist Zach Bittman

  Dorian Alec Pedro Blood

  Dawn Alvina Jesse Boughton

  Ziqi Amarata Zephryn Brand

  Bethany Appling Gina Cagliano

  Kirby Arcado Chloe Cantara

  Sali Arnold Brooke Connor

  Francesco Amarus Tomy Czera

  Jack Bartlett Yustyn Dadd

  Bintou Bascanti Isabelle Deggan

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  It went on alphabetically for several pages, and on a quick glance, none of the names were familiar. The pages were pocked with tiny pinholes in no pattern that she could see. She shook her head.

  "You never saw your mother with it? Your father?" he asked.

  "No. I've never seen it. Where'd you get it? It looks like an Enclave thing."

  "It was at the bottom of your father's sewing box."

  She shrugged, tossing it back on the table. "That makes sense. He picks up all kinds of odd papers to stick his pins in."

  "Like what other papers?" Sgt. Grey asked. "Anything else you can think of?"

  She frowned at him. "Didn't you ask him this yourself?"

  He picked up the pamphlet and slid it slowly into the pocket of his jacket.

  "I need to know if your mother gave you anything recently-- a list or a record book or a calendar of some sort."

  Confused, Gaia glanced automatically at the calendar that hung in the kitchen by the back window. They kept track of when her dad's clothing orders were promised, and when they planned to meet friends at the Tvaltar, and when one of the pullets laid its first egg. It listed her family's birthdays, including her brothers'. Only then did she remember what Old Meg had given her. Gaia's heart fluttered as she thought of what was tied against her leg at that very moment. She didn't know what it was, but if he searched her and found it, would he believe her? She tried to guess, watching the visible lines of his smooth, angular cheeks, and his precise, colorless lips.

  "There's the calendar there," she said, pointing to the one on the wall.

  "No. Something else. A list perhaps."

  "All she gave me is in my satchel," she said. "There's no list."

  "May I?" he asked, reaching toward the table.

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  She made a gesture of permission, as if she had a choice.

  Sgt. Grey opened her bag and carefully examined each item as he took it out: the squat, metal, dark-blue teakettle and its two matching cups; the herb kit, a pouched towel with vials and bottles of pills, herbs, and serums that her father had sewn for her and her mother had filled from her own stores of medicines; forceps; a metal bowl; scissors; a kit of scalpels; a knife; needles and thread; a syringe; a suction bulb; the bottle of dye that she had not had time to return to the herb kit; and a ball of red twine.

  He then turned the satchel inside out and examined the cloth, every seam and ripple of the brown, gray, and white fabric. Gaia's father had lovingly sewn each stitch, making a thing of beauty as well as a strong, practical bag that fit comfortably over Gaia's shoulder. She felt like the satchel was part of her, and watching Sgt. Grey's examination of the cloth and its contents felt like a keen violation of her privacy, all the more because his fingers were meticulous and careful in their movements.

  His hands stilled on the cloth, and he looked over at her finally, his expression neutral. She couldn't tell if he was relieved or disappointed.

  "You're young," he said.

  His comment surprised her, and she saw no reason to answer. Besides, she could say the same thing to him. He straightened, then exhaled with a sigh and started putting her things back in the satchel.

  "It's okay," she said, stepping forward to the table. "I'll do it. I need to clean my things anyway."

  She extended her hand as he picked up the bottle of dye, and when he didn't instantly give it to her, she looked up into his face. A gleam of candlelight finally illuminated his eyes. The bleakness she'd sensed in him was as real as a flat, gray

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  stone, but it was also tinged by a hint of curiosity. For a moment his measuring gaze held hers, and then he released the heavy little bottle into her palm and stepped back, away from the candle flame.

  "I want to know about my parents," she said, forcing herself to remain calm. "When will they be home?"

  "I don't know," he said.

  "Not soon? Can I see them?" she asked. Why had he relinquished the charade that everything was all right?

  "No."

  Each of his answers increased her panic, but also her anger, as if a dose of sand was rising up her windpipe. "Why not?"

  He adjusted his hat brim over his eyes. "You d best remember your place," he said softly.

  It took her a moment to realise he was reprimanding her for her impertinence. He might have been polite and considerate as long as that was efficacious, but he was a soldier of the Enclave and as such he had power over her that she could only barely imagine.

  She lowered her face, her cheeks burning, and summoned up the deferenti
al words. "Forgive me, Mabrother," she said.

  He reached for his gun, and she heard the shuffling noise of his black coat as he readjusted the strap over his head to the opposite shoulder so it ran diagonally across his torso.

  "Should you find a list, record, or calendar anywhere among your mothers things, you will bring it directly and with no delay to the gate, and request an audience with Mabrother Iris, none other. Is that clear?"

  "Yes, Mabrother," she said.

  "You will take up your mothers duties as a midwife and serve the Enclave in the birthing of babies in Western Sector Three of Wharfton. You will advance the first three babies of

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  each month to the Enclave, each being delivered to the south gate within ninety minutes of the child's birth."

  Gaia took a step back. The prospect of going on with her mothers work without her mother to guide her was horrible.

  "You agree?" he insisted, his voice sharper.

  Startled, she glanced up at him. "Yes, Mabrother," she said.

  "You will be compensated. You will receive a double quota of weekly mycoprotein, water, cloth, candles, and fuel. You will be granted weekly fourteen hours at the Tvaltar, which you may accumulate or give to others as you wish."

  She bowed her head, knowing this last compensation would allow her to trade for anything else she might need. It was an incredible pay, essentially double what her mother had been earning, and far more than Gaia had ever expected.

  "I am grateful to the Enclave," she said quietly.

  "The Enclave knows that you advanced your first baby, unassisted," he said, his voice dropping slightly. "This is a baby that might have been easily concealed, or sold, or given to the mother. The Enclave knows you have demonstrated the highest loyalty, and loyalty does not go unrewarded."

 
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