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       Birthmarked, p.3

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Gaia knotted her fingers together. It was almost like the Enclave knew what indecision had gripped her before she advanced the baby. Though she had done the right thing and was being rewarded for it, she was frightened, too. Did they know also that she had stopped to talk to Old Meg? Did they know that even now she had her mothers parcel tied to her leg? What the Enclave knew or did not know had never mattered before, when she had no secrets.

  Now it did. She wished Old Meg had never given her the parcel.

  She had a startling realization, and suddenly looked up at Sgt. Grey. She could turn it in right now. Her heart leaped into

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  overdrive. She could ask him to wait, and turn to lift her skirt, and take off the parcel right now and hand it over. That would be the safest thing. She could say she'd never even looked at it carefully and had no idea what it was. The guards could catch Old Meg before she got very far.

  She bit inward on her lips.

  "Yes?" Sgt. Grey asked. "You've thought of something?"

  She turned her left cheek toward him, the scarred side, which she showed instinctively when she wished to hide her thoughts. For an instant, she remembered the keening wail of Agnes Lewis as she begged Gaia for her baby Priscilla. Agnes Lewis! Gaia had hardly thought of the mother as a real person until now. Such mother greed was unnatural and disloyal to the Enclave, and yet there had been something so powerful, so desperate in it. Gaia could not fully close herself to Agnes's pain, and it was inextricably tangled up with the parcel Old Meg had given her, as if her mother had sent her the mysterious gift as an antidote.

  "Gaia?"

  She shook her head, startled that he was using her first name. It was a complete breach of etiquette. She looked at him curiously. The rigid line of his jaw had relaxed, or maybe it was that his shoulders weren't as stiff.

  "Excuse me, Masister," he said. "I thought you recalled something."

  A log in the fire adjusted in the heat with a crackling, falling noise, and a flare of light emanated from the fireplace, touching along his stern profile. She needed to confabulate something that would reassure him she had nothing to hide.

  She gave a smile that she hoped looked like embarrassed vanity. "I was just thinking I might be able to get some of those boots like they show on the Tvaltar. The cowboy-style ones for girls."

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  The soldier gave a dry, brief laugh. "You'll certainly be able to afford them. It's your privilege."

  She stepped nearer to the table again with a more determined air and began carefully rearranging things into her satchel, setting aside what need to be cleaned. She breathed deeply, forcing her hands to be steady.

  The soldier moved toward the door, and Gaia thought he would open it to say good-bye. When he paused there, she looked up again.

  "What happened to your face?" he asked.

  She felt a familiar kick in her gut, and then a stab of disappointment. Twice in one night. She had assumed he would be too polite to ask, or that he, with any background knowledge of her family, would already know the story.

  "When I was little, my grandmother was making candles and she had a big vat of hot beeswax in the backyard," she said. "I walked into the vat." Usually that ended the conversation. "I don't remember it," she added.

  "How old were you?" he asked.

  She tilted her face slightly, watching him. "Ten months."

  "You were walking at ten months?" he asked.

  "Not very well, apparently," she said dryly.

  He was silent a moment, and she waited again for him to put his hand on the doorknob. She knew what he was thinking. Because she was scarred, she had had no chance of being advanced to the Enclave. In some ways, her case was the supreme example of why it was better to give the babies over within hours. Years ago, they used to leave babies with their mothers for the first year of life, but the mothers were growing increasingly careless, and the children were getting injured or sick before their twelve-month ceremonies. With the current baby quota system, the Enclave received healthy, whole babies the day they were born, and the mothers could get

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  on with becoming pregnant again, if that's what they wanted to do.

  No deformed babies were ever advanced, for any reason. For Gaia, one accident had guaranteed a life of poverty outside the wall, with no education, no chance for good food or leisure or easy friendships, while the girls her age who'd been advanced were now in the Enclave, with boundless electricity, food, and education. They were wearing beautiful clothes, dreaming of wealthy husbands, laughing, and dancing. Gaia had seen them once, when she was a child. The Protectorat's sister had had her wedding and for one day, the people of Wharfton had been permitted into a barricaded street of the Enclave to witness the wedding parade. It seemed like a dream to Gaia now, the colors and music, the beauty and wealth. The specials at the Tvaltar paled by comparison. That one glimpse, she later realized, was proof of a life that might have been hers had she not been so clumsy, or if they had instituted the safer policy before she'd been born.

  She would make sure that the babies in her care had the opportunities she'd never had, those lucky three every month. If the rest, the other half dozen or more babies were unadvanced, then that was their destiny. They would take their chances with life in Wharfton as she had.

  She had no idea if her visage betrayed the shades of her thoughts, but Sgt. Grey was regarding her still with an attentive, expectant expression.

  'I'm glad to serve the Enclave," she said finally.

  "As am I," he replied.

  He turned then, and she watched his fingers close on the knob. A moment later the door closed softly, and she was left alone in her home, with a drafty flare from the fireplace high' lighting the silent strings of her father's banjo and the fact that both her parents were gone.

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  Chapter 3 Rapunzel

  WHEN GAIA HAD FINISHED cleaning out her teapot and cups and replenished the herbs she had used for Agnes's labor, she carefully repacked her satchel, keeping it ready as her mother had taught her. Next she straightened up everything that had been disturbed in the guards' search, trying to make the little house feel like home again. Even the two yellow can' dies on the mantel that they lit every evening in honor of her brothers had been shifted a few millimeters from their familiar spots. Despite the return of order, her sense of unease remained, and when she slumped down in her father's chair before the dying embers on the hearth, she could not relax enough to sleep, even when weariness seeped into her muscles with the gentle heat.

  A soft tapping came on the back door. She rose. "Who's there?"

  "It's me. Theo. Amy sent me over to see if you're all right."

  She pulled open the door and Theo Rupp entered, opening his arms wide. "Scared you, didn't they?" he said.

  Gaia gratefully flew into his hug, closing her eyes as the man's strong arms enfolded her. The potter smelled of clay and

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  dust as he always did, and he patted her back with a heavy hand. She sneered. "There, now," he said, releasing her. "Why don't you come on over and spend the night with me and Amy? You don' t want to be alone over here."

  Gaia stepped back to the fireplace and threw another log on. "No," she said, taking a seat and motioning him toward her father's more comfortable chair. "I want to stay here. They might be back anytime."

  "I didn't actually see you come home or I would have been over sooner," Theo said apologetically. "Amy saw a guard leave ten minutes back and said you had to be here. Was there just the one, then?"

  She nodded. "One was enough."

  Theo sat slowly, and she searched his face to see if he knew anything more. Theo and his wife Amy lived across the road, and like the other neighbors, they must have seen her parents being taken away.

  "Tell me what you know," she said. "Do you have any idea why my parents were arrested?"

  "None. Total mystery," he said. "You know, it just happens sometimes. The Enclave takes somebody in, asks
a few questions, then lets them go none the wiser. Your parents might have been standing next to someone and might have seen some' thing and now the Enclave wants a little information."

  "But if it's that simple, why did they arrest them? Why didn't they just ask the questions here? My parents would have cooperated."

  "Don't know," Theo said. "That's their way."

  Gaia looked down at her hands and splayed her fingers in the light from the fire. She trusted Theo. She'd known him her whole life, and his daughter Emily was Gaia's dearest friend.

  "Do you know anything about my mother keeping a list of some sort?" she asked. "A calendar?"

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  He pursed his lips together. "Your mother kept lots of lists. There's nothing to that."

  "That's what Sergeant Grey wanted to know."

  Theo crossed his arms over his chest, his expression pulled. "Well, for that, they could pretty much arrest every person in town."

  Gaia glanced behind him to her fathers sewing corner, with the boxes and baskets of material and needles and patterns. Her fathers yellow pincushion had rolled under one of the treads of the sewing machine.

  "You don 't think I need to be worried?" she said, fetching the pincushion.

  "I wouldn't put it that way, darling. I'd say worrying won't do you any good."

  Gaia glanced up to see him smiling at her, his eyes tender.

  "Come over with me now," he coaxed. "Amy will never let me hear the end of it if I leave you here, and Emily will about scratch my head off."

  She took a deep breath and shook her head. "I want to be here."

  "You'll come to dinner, though, won't you? Later tomorrow? We might hear something by then."

  Gaia rolled the pincushion slowly in her fingers, nodding. She was deeply weary now, and with his common sense to re assure her, she expected she would be able to sleep. "Thanks for coming," she said. "I feel much better now. It will work out all right, won't it?"

  Theo stood and gave her another pat on the arm. "They'll be back before you know it," he said. "Just get busy doing what you'd normally do. Keep feeding the chickens."

  She laughed. "I delivered my first baby tonight."

  "Did you! Well! That's what we'll celebrate when you come to dinner. Imagine our little Gaia a full-fledged midwife! Amy

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  will be beside herself. I'll go around and get Emily and Kyle to come, too."

  Gaia could see he was happy to have any excuse to get his family together. She smiled, holding the door for him. When he'd gone, she was finally able to slip into her parents 1 bed, pull up the blankets, breathe in the scent of them, and sleep.

  Under a bright noon sun, she carried the third May baby toward the gate of the Enclave, and this time Gaia felt no pride, no residual thrill from the birthing she had just

  Mid-wived. She felt only exhaustion, and the perpetual dread that gnawed at the back of her mind. Her shoes scuffed over the dry brown dust of the road, each step taking her steadily upward toward the wall. She unrolled the long sleeves of her brown dress, grateful the light-weight material wasn't too hot. She twitched her hat forward to keep the sun from her face and noticed that pinpricks of light fell through the weave of the brim onto the baby in her arms.

  In the three weeks since her parents had been gone, Gaia had had no news about any of them-- Agnes, Old Meg, or her parents-- and she was beginning to fear she never would. Her initial terror had grown so enormous and her loneliness so acute that shed been afraid she would go mad with the simple, desperate need to have her parents back. She'd tried to remember what Theo Rupp continued to tell her, that everything would work out. Only her work had kept her going, and by day she'd learned to school her helpless panic into a needling, exhausting numbness. Her nights were riddled with nightmares.

  In the quadrangle, before the Tvaltar, several families had set up market stalls, and the people of Wharfton were engaged in lively trade. A few desultory shoppers from the Enclave had wandered down to inspect the wares, and for them, Gaia knew, the prices would go up. Gaia waved to Amy

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  Rupp, who had a blanket spread with bowls Gaia had watched her throw on her potters wheel earlier that month. Old man Perry sat under a makeshift umbrella of shade with a barrel of water on wheels and a string of cups. A whiff of the vinegar he used to rinse the cups between customers was enough to make her wish for a drink, but she had to keep moving. Another man sold woven mats and hats. Still others sold eggs, ground cinnamon, herbs, and loaves of flat, dark bread.

  Gaia heard the chink of coins and saw the smithy exchange a bright blade for several Tvaltar passes. Above, a brace of pigeons flew by on their heavy, loud wings and vanished in a messy nest at the apex of the Tvaltar roof Several dirty, bare-foot children ran through the quadrangle, laughing as they kicked a soccer ball. One ancient mesquite tree cast a pool of shade where several old people had gathered to rest on the rickety stools that always waited there.

  "Coming to the Tvaltar later, Gaia?" Perry called, waving himself with a paddle fan.

  "Not tonight."

  "Suit yourself, then."

  Gaia glanced back at the facade of the Tvaltar, and the doors that were closed to keep the interior cool. In the weeks since her parents had been arrested, Gaia had avoided the Tvaltar and its palliative escapism, but now as she saw a pair of young girls head inside, she remembered how the Tvaltar had been a magical place to her when she was little.

  Until recently, she'd liked the colorful costumes, the music, and the dancing that splashed across the gigantic screen. She'd liked the short specials about life inside the Enclave, with its fashion and parties and glamour. There were specials about the Protectorate family, with his advanced son and his own son and his two twin daughters, just a little younger than she. She'd enjoyed the archive reels from the cool age, with all its

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  strange technology, and the nature ones about horses and elephants and other extinct species.

  But most of all, when she was very young, shed loved the fairytale stories that took her into a different life. These would stay with her for weeks afterward. She had only to close her eyes on her own back porch, and she would be carried away again to a world under the sea where mermaids sang, or to a land where dwarves lived in a wooded glade, or to a castle tower where a princess under a magic spell slept for years while the dust gathered around her and generations beyond the enchanted forest grew up and had children of their own.

  She remembered in particular how on the night of her friend Emily Rupp's fifth birthday, Emily s parents promised to take Emily, Gaia, and their friend Sasha to the Tvaltar to see Rapunzel. To add to the excitement, Sasha had never been to the Tvaltar before because her family couldn't afford passes, so Gaia and Emily had the pleasure of anticipating their friend's delight.

  "It's huge," Emily explained. "As tall as the Enclave wall, with moving pictures."

  They were holding hands, with Emily in the middle, skip' ping ahead of Emilys parents toward the quadrangle.

  "It gets dark before the show," Gaia said. "There are twinkling lights in the ceiling like stars, and on the side walls, other lights go down on a horizon, like sunset. That's how you know it's about to start."

  "And people go every night?" Sasha asked.

  "No. Well, maybe some grown-ups do. But only if they have Tvaltar passes," Emily said. When Emily leaned close to them, Gaia could smell the cake still on her breath. "My mom got them special. For my birthday."

  Gaia just hoped Rapunzel was as good as the other shows she'd seen. Her mother had told her that the story had a tower

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  in it, like the tower of the Bastion, and a princess with a very long braid. She, Emily, and Sasha had braided their hair on purpose for the show, and Gaia's brown braids were the longest. Sasha's blond braids were the shortest. Emilys red hair was so thin, they put it into one braid.

  Soon they passed through the tall doors. Gaia looked back at Sasha, who was gazing up at the stars
in the ceiling with suitable awe.

  "What did we tell you!" Gaia said.

  Sasha simply closed her lips, speechless.

  Emily poked her. "I knew you'd like it. The show hasn't even started yet."

  "Come on," Gaia said, pulling at Emily again, trying to lead her down the long aisle that sloped toward the huge screen. People were filling up the benches all around them, talking and laughing in merry voices. Many of the women waved paddle fans idly before their faces, and some of the younger men who'd let their arms become uncovered while working in the fields had bright red burns.

  Gaia glanced back for Emilys parents, wishing they would hurry, and then, to her amazement, she saw them start to turn into a row of benches only halfway toward the front.

  "Girls!" Emilys mother called.

  Emily and Sasha turned obediently, but Gaia tugged at Emily's hand.

  "No," Gaia said. "Let's go down to the front. That's where the good benches are. Look! There's plenty."

  Emily shook her head. A couple of adults budged past them, jostling them.

  "We can't go down there," Emily said.

  "Why not?"

  "That's where the freaks sit," Emily said.

  Gaia didn't understand. She didn't know what a freak was.

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  She and her parents always sat at the front of the Tvaltar. That's where their friends were. That's where it was easy to see. She slipped her hand out of Emily's and turned to take a few more steps down the sloping aisle, toward the front.

  "Gaia!" Emily's father called firmly.

  But Gaia kept going, like she couldn't help it, like the slope was pulling her down. There were the benches where she and her family had sat the other times that they'd come. There was the boy with the cleft lip, and the boy with crutches. Their parents were mixed among them, still standing, talking to each other. She could see the quiet, moody boy who lived with the artist, and a very small girl whose arm didn't grow right. The girl lifted her hand and waved to Gaia.

 
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