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       Prized, p.7

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  She had nothing to compare it to, no way of knowing what was healthy and normal, or what might be diseased. I’m way out of my league, she thought for the second time that day.

  “That must be the lower intestine,” Will said, pointing to the most obvious thing.

  “You’ve done some studying?”

  “A little.”

  He passed her a wooden slat, and gently she nudged the white, soft, bulbous hoses aside, slowly following the lower intestine upward to find the smaller intestine and the stomach. She found what she thought might be the liver, and then the gall bladder. It surprised her how much of the anatomy chart came back to her, maybe because the connections all made sense.

  “Do you have another slat?” she asked. “Here. Hold this aside.”

  She nudged some of the larger intestines to the side, looking for a kidney deeper in. It was a darker, smooth color, and she carefully followed a ureter to the man’s bladder. Just below the bladder, she found a dense, slippery lump.

  “Hey,” she said.

  “What is it?”

  She was so surprised, she put a finger in to gently push the bladder aside to see it more clearly: a uterus. The man had a uterus. It even had little fallopian tubes attached, and little round glands that might be ovaries.

  She leaned in so closely to peer at the uterus that a strand of her hair fell in the cadaver. “Woops,” she said.

  “What did you find?” Will asked.

  She straightened, her eyes wide, and blinked in amazement. She brought up her apron to wipe her hair and tucked it back. Then she lifted the man’s undergarments to confirm he was truly a man, externally. He was.

  “I don’t know what to think,” she said. Confused, she went back in, nudging around with her slat and one careful fingertip.

  “Are you ever going to tell me?” Will asked. “Because I have no idea what’s going on.”

  “He has a uterus,” she said. “I think it’s connected to his urinary tract. Look here. It doesn’t make any sense at all.”

  Will was silent a moment. “This may come as a surprise, but I have no idea what a uterus looks like.”

  “It looks like that,” she said impatiently, giving it a nudge.

  When she looked up at him, his mouth was turning in mirth. “And now I know. Thank you very much,” he said.

  She straightened. “I thought you knew something about animals giving birth. Mx. Dinah told me that.”

  “From the outside,” he said, smiling more.

  She laughed, relaxing a little. She liked Will, she realized. “This is a bizarre thing to do together.”

  “No, really?”

  She glanced back at the cadaver. “Do you think the other expools could be like Bennie? With uteruses?”

  “I have no idea.”

  “It sure would be nice to know,” she mused.

  “That’s definitely connected to why he couldn’t have children, isn’t it?” Will asked.

  “Absolutely.”

  “How do you think it happened to him?”

  She didn’t know, but an inchoate idea was coming to her. It must have happened early in his development. He could have even been a girl first. Possibly, just possibly, some hormone was affecting the pregnant mothers of Sylum, changing their girl babies so they developed into boys before they were born. She wished Leon were there. With his knowledge of genetics and the infertility that plagued the Enclave, he would have a plausible theory. She would have to remember what she could on her own and see if the library had anything.

  “Do you know if there are even numbers of male and female animals in the village, like horses and sheep?” she asked.

  “As far as I know. If you don’t mind, I think I’ve had enough.”

  She glanced up and saw Will frowning slightly, troubled.

  “I’m sorry,” she said.

  “It’s just, I was sure I wouldn’t find anything, but in a way this is worse,” he said. “It’s so hopeless, really. There’s no cure for this kind of infertility, is there?”

  “No.”

  She tucked her hair behind her ear again and began pulling the man’s abdomen back together. A churning turned over in her belly, enough for her to notice, and then it passed. “Do you have any thread? I can do this,” she offered. “My dad was a tailor.”

  Will passed her a spool of white thread and a large needle, and she sewed the sides of skin together in a neat seam. He used a wet cloth to carefully clean smudges of dark blood around the incision. After he covered the body again, Will braced his hands on the workbench and bowed his head. In the quiet barn, he lifted his right hand and touched it to his heart for a long moment. When he looked up again at Gaia, his brown eyes were searching, pensive, and transparent with grief.

  “This was a mistake,” he said finally. “We can’t ever tell anybody what we’ve done here. You know that, don’t you?”

  She was tempted to argue. They’d discovered something huge, something that might be relevant to many of the men in Sylum, and yet what, practically, did the information do for them? It was only a tease, an explanation with no cure. Will was right.

  “I know,” she said softly. “Poor Benny.”

  “I’m not sure you see,” he said. “People trust me here. If they knew I did this, they’d think twice about having me take care of the ones they love. They’d worry I did it to others who are already buried. Any comfort I could give would never be the same. Why didn’t I realize this before?”

  “Is there another morteur in Sylum?” she asked.

  “I’m it,” he said.

  Just as I’m the only midwife, she thought. “We’re like the life and death team,” she said, and wrapped the loose end of the thread back around the spool.

  When she glanced up again, Will was watching her oddly. A cautious, curious smile gradually warmed his features, and she realized that Will could be very handsome if he wanted to be. Or rather, he already was handsome, whether he wanted to be or not. There was a small mole at the base of his throat she hadn’t noticed before. Her gaze drifted to his square shoulders, his modestly buttoned shirt, his strong hands braced on the workbench, and she went still inside.

  Standing across from him over a cadaver had become a private, binding thing, and the longer neither of them moved, the stronger it became. If she looked up to meet his gaze, they would both know it was true.

  It made her miss Leon.

  In the loft above, some invisible mouse skittered in the hay.

  She took a short step backward and held up her hands. “I should clean up.”

  “Let me get you some fresh water.”

  Her stomach rolled unpleasantly, and she stepped back to the bench beside the wall. By the time Will returned, she was leaning over and hoping she wouldn’t throw up.

  “I think I’m getting sick,” she said.

  He set the water down before her and bent to look at her face. “It’s probably the acclimation sickness. It can come on fast.”

  “Is it nausea? Headache?”

  “Yes. It can get intense.”

  “Will Maya get it, too?” Gaia asked, alarmed. “She can’t afford to lose any more weight.”

  Will hesitated. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

  She closed her eyes and leaned forward again. “Is there any treatment?”

  “You’re asking the wrong person.”

  “Who do I ask, then?” Gaia said. Her stomach clenched in a slow roll, and her mouth salivated ominously. Oh, no, she thought, gritting her teeth. She lurched through the door, headed for the grass at the side of the drive, and retched up her breakfast.

  “Great,” she muttered. Sweat broke out across her forehead and the back of her neck. She spat, trying to clear a drooly line of saliva, and then spat again. Waiting to see if any more would come, she braced herself on a wooden fence rail. The sunlight on the drive multiplied itself before her eyes. Her stomach cramped, then eased, then rolled again.

  “Here,” Will said, and pa
ssed her a damp cloth.

  She touched it to her forehead and her lips, waiting. Before long, another wave rose in her and she leaned over, expectant for an awful, hovering moment before she threw up again. The shakes started next.

  “Can I do anything for you?” he asked.

  “If I had any idea what this is, it would help,” she said.

  “Ginger or peppermint tea, maybe, for the nausea. With honey and salt, if you have them. I don’t want to get dehydrated. Will I get a fever?”

  “I think maybe you’ll have hallucinations,” he said.

  She glanced up. He was serious. She gave a piteous laugh. “Take me back to the lodge,” she said. “At least there I can be sick in private.”

  In moments, he had a horse hitched up to a flatbed wagon, and he helped her crawl onto the seat. The wagon seemed to find every rut in the road, and each bump pounded directly into her head, creating a new kind of headache with spiky bursts of color and pain. Lights and sounds tilted around her, and a tiny speck of dirt on her skirt magnified into a giant bull’s eye.

  “We’re here,” he said quietly when they finally reached the lodge. “Wait there and I’ll come around for you.”

  “Please make it stop,” she whispered.

  “Take a message up to the Matrarc,” Will said to someone. “Mlass Gaia has the acclimation sickness. Where’s Norris?”

  She felt a tender hand on her arm and tried to focus. Will was looking up at her, his brown eyes warm with concern. His face swam, and for an instant he was Leon. She felt joy rising through her, but before she could speak, he shifted back into Will again. Despair overtook her. And then the wagon shifted, and the ground.

  Black things were coming to chew at her feet.

  “Get them away!” Gaia said, curling up into a ball.

  She kicked at the black things, but they only grabbed on with their spiky, shrieking teeth. She tried to fling herself away. Strong arms held her tight, and she crawled up onto the raft, pulling in her toes. Hold your breath, she thought. That will make it stop. Hurry. She sucked in a huge breath while the inky dry wave, coming closer and reaching taller to blot out all the stars, crashed over her.

  CHAPTER 6

  concoction

  THE SOUND OF A BELL tolling came from somewhere nearby: three rich, resonant bongs. Without moving, Gaia tested her eyes to see if any dizziness or pain came when she dared to look around the bedroom, but the morning sunlight stayed where it belonged, touching along the wall and the golden wood of the floor, with the slats adding a grid pattern of shadow. She lifted a hand to inspect her fingers in the light, and slowly flexed them in and out of a fist. The brown from her days in the wasteland was fading to more of her natural tan color.

  “Are you back with us?” a woman asked.

  Gaia tried to speak, but her voice had dried away to nothing. The woman stood from a rocker and poured a glass of water from a pitcher. Gaia pushed up slowly enough to take it, and sipped.

  “How’s Maya?” Gaia asked.

  “She’s okay. Hers didn’t start until the next day. She had the shakes for a few hours and cried some, but she nursed almost continuously and she’s gaining strength. It didn’t last as long for her. She’s moved from Mlady Eva’s to her permanent home now. How do you feel?”

  Gaia thought about it. “Alive.”

  The woman smiled, revealing a gap in her teeth that gave her a quirky charm. She was a tall woman in her late thirties, with glasses and a dark, thick braid that fell over her shoulder. “You don’t remember me,” she said. “I’m Mlady Roxanne, the teacher.”

  Gaia searched her face more closely. “You’re the one who took Maya, with Mlady Eva.”

  “You don’t remember anything else?” Mlady Roxanne laughed. She sat again and reached for her sewing basket. “I should have known. You’ve been delusional on and off for four days. We weren’t sure you’d make it.”

  Gaia was barely convinced she had. It felt as if some drug had completely derailed her mind and her nervous system, everything that made her work right. She never wanted to feel that way again.

  “Do you know what causes this sickness?” she asked.

  “I think it’s an adjustment to the environment here, something in the food or the water,” Mlady Roxanne said. “Maybe even the air. Beyond that I don’t know, but you’re through it now. It won’t come back.”

  “Unless I try to leave, right?”

  “Right. And then the reverse of it will kill you.”

  It didn’t make any sense to Gaia. She pushed a hand through her hair. I need a bath.

  “Mlass Gaia,” Mlady Roxanne said gently, hitching the rocker a bit nearer. “You talked a lot when you were hallucinating. You’ve been through some horrible things, haven’t you?”

  “What did I say?”

  “Something about your father being shot and your mother bleeding to death. That wasn’t real, was it?”

  Gaia fixed her gaze on the pegs that held her clothes on the wall. “I don’t want to think about the past. None of that will help me here.” She rolled and felt something restricting her arm. “What’s this?” she asked. Gray, wrinkled cotton was wrapped around her wrist, and as she pulled it loose, she saw it was a shirt.

  “It’s Chardo Will’s,” Mlady Roxanne said. “You wouldn’t let it go.”

  He had to leave it behind? she thought.

  Mlady Roxanne laughed. “He was very concerned about you. He’s come by every day to see if you were better. Sometimes twice a day.”

  Gaia felt a flash of alarm. She hoped she hadn’t said anything about the autopsy. Or about Peony. The miscarriage. She still had to help Peony with her miscarriage, and she didn’t even have the right herbs yet. “I need to get up,” she said.

  She pushed herself fully upright and swung her legs over the side of the bed, but all of her strength was gone. The knobs of her ankles stuck out, making her feet look narrow, and even the dots of her birthmark tattoo seemed more delicate than usual.

  “You’re going to need time to recover,” Mlady Roxanne said. “Why do I get the feeling you won’t be patient with yourself?”

  “Because I won’t. I feel better when I’m doing things,” Gaia said. “I need to be out in the garden, harvesting what I need for medicines. I need to go find the other plants I need. That’ll help me gain strength better than anything else.” It frustrated her to think of all the work she’d missed already, lying in bed for four days. The world could have changed in that time.

  Mlady Roxanne set her sewing into her basket and rose to her feet. “In that case,” she said, “I’ll start heating the bathwater and tell Norris to get something for you to eat.”

  As Mlady Roxanne predicted, it took Gaia days to regain her strength, but as soon as she could, she began harvesting catnip, myrtle, primrose, nutmeg, ginger, and the other herbs she could from the garden. She saw Peony around the lodge, but only once to talk to alone, and then their conversation was brief. Peony had not changed her mind. If anything, she had grown more desperate during the time Gaia had been sick, fearing Gaia would change her mind.

  “Soon,” Gaia reassured her. “I just need the right herbs.”

  Norris let her take over one side of the pantry where there was a wide counter and racks for storage, and he found her a collection of pans she could devote exclusively to boiling and distilling tinctures and salves. Gaia sent a boy up to the Chardos for some tansy, ginseng, and blue cohosh, and Will came that afternoon to transplant some into the garden at the lodge for her.

  “Thanks for the shirt,” she said, giving it back to him, clean and folded. “I didn’t mean to steal it from you.”

  “That’s all right.” He ran a hand across the fabric, and smiled before he set it aside and reached for his shovel again.

  The bell tolled, three resonant bongs, and Will paused where he was to touch his hand to his heart. Gaia looked across the garden to see young Sawyer and Lowe doing the same thing. A bee floated through the air, catching light in
its wings, and as it got lost in the shadows under the water tower, the boys stirred again.

  She lifted her gaze to Will’s, waiting for an explanation.

  “It’s the matina,” he said. “It reminds us to be grateful.”

  She remembered hearing the bell when she woke up from her illness, and at other times. “How often does it come?”

  “Usually every day, but not always. It comes at different times. You never know when, and part of you is always waiting for it.”

  “That’s all?”

  He laughed. “That’s all.”

  So simple, she thought. Yet she felt a subtle change around her, as if a peaceful spell had passed over the village. It was so different from what she’d once imagined it would be.

  “Have you ever heard of people calling this place the Dead Forest?” Gaia asked.

  “Some of the nomads do,” Will said. “We prefer ‘Sylum,’ even if it is deadly.”

  “You think it is?”

  He gave her an odd look. “You saw, in the barn. What do you think will happen when we run out of girls completely?”

  She looked across the garden again, at the beauty and profusion of vegetables even now, as summer was waning. “I don’t understand this place,” she admitted.

  Will dug his shovel and turned over a bladeful of dirt. “You will.”

  Later that night, after Norris left the lodge, Gaia made a concoction for Peony, stirring it slowly over the stove. Una meowed once from under the table and Gaia glanced over.

  “I know,” Gaia said. “I’m not happy about it, either.”

  She poured a tall dose of the concoction in a cup and put the pan in the pantry to cool. Then she dipped a bread roll in honey and set that in another dish. She had a supply of bulky, absorbent cotton fabric and a basin for washing. She ran water into a pitcher. Then she washed her hands once more, banked the fire on the hearth, picked up her tray of supplies, blew out the lamp, and moved quietly through the lodge. The atrium was still, with wan moonlight drifting down from the clerestory as Gaia passed the dark fireplace and started up the stairs. She paused when one creaked, listening, and then proceeded softly to the second floor.

 
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