3 years later…
The wind rustled through my hair, tugging at my dress, whispering through the trees and long grasses. The earth and grass were cool beneath my toes, a chill still hanging in the air. Spring has a distinct smell to it, rain, fresh flowers, damp earth. The breeze was heavy with it as it pulled at the linens on the clothes line. Birds were waking to greet the sun, squirrels peeking out of their hiding places to chase the shadows as they crept back through the woods. There was a family of deer that lived in the woods, if I closed my eyes and focused, I could almost hear them stepping delicately through the trees. It very well could have been all in my head, I was so caught up in the simplicity of it all. I closed my eyes, absorbing the feeling of the new sun warming me, breathing deep the earthy tones and clean air.
“Girl! Hurry up!” Grandmother’s irritated voice cut through my reverie, followed by the painful groans from the girl laboring within. Normally, we’d go to their house to deliver their babes. But she was a special case, and Grandmother thought it would be better for her to be brought here.
“Coming!” I quickly snatched the linens off the line that I’d come out for, throwing them in the basket and rushing back inside with it perched on my hip.
My feet softly scuffed along the flagstone path that lead through the herb garden. This would be my fourth spring here. At first, I had dreaded the work that spring brought with it; the weeding of the gardens, forming of the rows, planting of herbs and vegetables. The blisters were excruciating before callouses formed in their place. Now I looked forward to having my hands in the earth, the smell of the herbs as they started to sprout; lavender, yarrow, valerian, fennel, rosemary, chamomile, feverfew just to name a few. Grandmother took her garden very seriously, rightfully so.
My eyes struggled to readjust to the darkness of the interior. The smell of dried herbs hit my nose, the fire burning low in the hearth. Grandmother was hunched over the girl laid out on a makeshift bed over by the fire. Sweat beaded on her face, soaking the bedding beneath her. She was too young for breeding, and was having a hard time of it. But it was almost over now, judging by the urgency of her breathing. Grandmother was cooing and shushing over her, reminding her to slow her breathing, to take it deep into her lungs. I brought the basket over to her, laying out linens at the girl’s feet to catch her waters and any mess. I went to start laying out more for the babe while Grandmother knelt between her knees. She was urging her to start pushing now. I turned to watch. No matter how many times I’d watched, it never ceased to fascinate me what our bodies were capable of.
I felt sorry for the girl. She couldn’t have been more than 16, and slight. Her stature making the process even more difficult for her. But Grandmother said she would make it through just fine, to trust her body. She was here all alone, as none of her family wanted anything to do with her until she was done. The Borderlands didn’t adhere to the laws of either country, but more of a conglomerate of both. As such, anyone could breed without having to apply to the state for approval, as long as you were in an approved union. Closer to what marriage was in the old world. She wasn’t of age, nor in a union. Just a foolish young girl that got involved way over her head with a local boy, who was forbidden from being there as well. Small minds with their backwards prejudices. It was still better than how she would have been treated in the Pure States. If either party wasn’t genetically clean, they’d terminate her pregnancy and then sterilize her. If they were clean, the babe would be given to a sterile couple of standing since both biological parents aren’t of age. Once they were of age, they’d be matched, and then they could breed. I never could understand why they couldn’t keep their offspring if they were still expected to breed after the fact. Unless it was a ploy to make sure that patricians still had children to raise, even if they weren’t not allowed to breed. Money really could buy anything.
She was crowning now. I didn’t have to see to know. Her cries of pain were enough to judge by. Crowning was always the hardest part for them all. It always seemed to go in the blink of an eye, one minute she’s pushing, the next she’s panting in relief as Grandmother snips and clips the cord before transferring the babe into my waiting arms, draped with linens. It’s a girl, I smile down at her as I quickly wipe her down, clearing out her airway. She let out a tremendous cry as I jostled her about, cleaning her off. Such a mighty voice for such a small creature. But the cry was exactly what she needed, filling her lungs with air, her skin pinking up as she let the whole world know of her displeasure. I wrapped her tightly, turning towards where Grandmother was cleaning the girl. She had her head turned away, eyes shut so tightly, it creased her face.
“Please, I don’t want to see.” She sobbed. “They say I can’t keep it.”
I looked to Grandmother, who looked up briefly to shake her head at me, her hazel eyes sad. I nodded once and took the babe to the other room to finish cleaning her up. This wasn’t the first time that this has happened. The families generally ask for us to keep the pregnancy secret, find a home for the child, and once the girl starts to labor, they bring them to us rather than us going to them. Can’t cover up a squalling babe as easily as hiding away their daughter with the growing belly. That was the case with this one as well. They were from the next town over, so it was easier than some of the others to keep hidden. I had gone into town the day before, offering medicines to any that would need them, claiming Grandmother would be indisposed for the next couple of days. No one ever questioned it. I think they knew, at least on some level.
With my free hand, I laid out more linens on the counter next to the sink for the child to lay on, then ran the water slightly warmer than lukewarm. I took a rag, getting it wet, and began wiping down the babe. She had stopped crying, but was now whimpering and grunting at being disturbed further. I cleaned her in sections, to keep her from being fully exposed and cold, first one arm, then the other. Then a leg, and then the other. Around her neck, face, and hair, what little there was, last. Once I finished and turned the water off, I removed the soiled linens, and laid her on top of the clean ones. I wrapped her in a diaper, pining it carefully, then wrapped her again. She calmed her fussing once she was swaddled and warm again.
I cradled her closely, humming to her. I can remember when I feared this very thing, having such a small life dependent on me. I can remember when I rebelled against all things my society stood for. I craved nothing but freedom to make my own choices. I had found it alright. And found that being free to make your own choices does not mean you are free from the consequences of those choices. Like the babe in my arms. Her parents had decided to act against the tradition of their families, and this sweet girl is the one who would ultimately pay the price. They would live in shame for a short time, but their lives would go on. She would be given to someone unknown, for good or ill. Her life was now uncertain because of her parents’ choices. I knew that Grandmother had already found a family to take her, and they would be good people. It didn’t change the facts of choice and consequence though. My choices had gotten someone I loved deeply killed.
I could hear Grandmother murmuring on the phone about being done. Soon, that girl’s family would come pick her up, pay Grandmother for her services, and they’d leave. They’d pretend this had never happened. Another phone call, and the family that would be coming for the girl in my arms were informed of her delivery. In the meantime, I’d sit with her. So, she wouldn’t feel forgotten. We were both products of the worlds we came from. My world tried to force me to be something I am not. Hers didn’t want her. So, we both have to find where we belong on our own.
“You always look so at peace holding the wee ones.” Grandmother had come into the kitchen where I was sitting with the baby. I looked up at her standing in the doorway. Her long white hair was pulled back into a braid. She wore a simple cornflower blue dress, with a brown apron work apron tied over it. Many people assumed that because of her age she was weak, feeble, but I don’t think I have ever met a more formidable person. There was steel in her soul, granite for bones. “When are you going to find a man, leave my house and make babies?”
“Please, you’d give me and any man I found hell before you let me leave.” She nodded thoughtfully. I turned back to the baby, smiling at her.
“That’s probably true.” The floorboards creaked beneath her as she came around the table to sit across from me, sighing deeply. “That girl is never going to be the same.”
“You say that every time. How could they?” I stroked her soft head.
“You are quite taken with every babe that moves through here in this way. Just the ones given away. Why is that?” I looked over at her, with her head cocked to the side. She’d never asked before. She never really asked about my past much at all.
“Neither of our worlds wanted us the way we are.” I looked back to the bundle in my arms. “I just want them to feel wanted, even if it’s just for a moment.”
I could feel her thoughtful gaze on me. This was a frequent occurrence, I’d say something she wasn’t expecting, and she’d sit and watch me like she had to remind herself of who I really was.
“You’re so like my Tama,” she said, now and every time this happens.
The first time I met her, she mistook me for her daughter, Tama, who had gone missing some 20 years prior. Every time she says it, that night I met her flashes through my mind, if only for a moment. Jasper and I had thought that we had gotten away from the city clean. We were mingled in with what traffic there was leaving the gateway, they would have to track down and search every vehicle that had gone through during a certain space of time. Which would have given us ample time to get away. Close to dawn, we were coming up to a small town on the edge of a forest, surrounded by farms. We were driving through one of the farms when we realized that CGP officers had caught up to us. The rising sun illuminated them coming up behind us with swift determination. The night had covered their advance. I couldn’t begin to tell you what had happened, it went so fast. One minute we were trying to outrun them, the next the truck was rolling off the road into a ditch. Jasper had been thrown through the windshield and died on impact. I was trapped upside down in the cab, drifting in and out of consciousness. I remember hands dragging me out, someone telling me to calm down. But there was blood in my eyes, I couldn’t see who had me at first. I knew the CGP had been close, and no idea how long I had been unconscious. There was shouting, and gun shots in the distance.
A rag was roughly drug across my face, helping to clear the blood from my eyes. I looked up into the face of an unknown boy who couldn’t have been much older than I was, and no uniform. It had turned out that the CGP weren’t there for me at all. They didn’t know I was there. They were raiding the farm that we had been driving through, and simply got caught in their crossfire. The official reason for their raid was insurgents that had ambushed a transport were believed to have been hiding on the farm and in the town. They had taken at least a dozen people away in prisoner transport trucks, similar to what I had seen going into the city as I left. I ended up collapsing walking back towards the town, injured more seriously than I had thought. I woke up in Grandmother’s cottage to the sound of the boy who had saved me trying to explain where I had come from. She wanted nothing to do with the puritans. But once she looked over his shoulder to where I was trying to sit up on the couch, she rushed to me, grasping my shoulders. My teeth clacked as she shook me, asking where I had been. I looked into her hazel eyes, the devastation that hit them when she realized I wasn’t her daughter, I don’t think I will ever forget that look.
When the CGP officers came searching for those who escaped, she hid us, hid me. Even though she must have known what I was since my shirt was torn so badly my glyphs were very clearly visible. She never brought it up though. That day she helped clean me up, tended to my injuries, and gave me a place to heal. I kept thinking she would kick me out over time. But one day she just gave me a hoe and sent me to clear her garden of weeds. I have been here ever since.
After I had healed, she told me how her daughter had gone to the next town over to help with a birthing, and never came back. That I had resembled her so much that for a brief moment she thought I was her, returned home. But then she realized the differences in my face, and the fact that I was half the age her daughter would have been at that point. We never spoke about it again, at least not any more than her often saying how like her daughter I was.
Now as she said it again, I could feel her thinking about that day we met too. I never asked, and even now I was too afraid to ask if that was why she let me stay. Was it simply because I reminded her of someone she had lost? I can’t say that I mind so much. I had found a sense of peace, of belonging here, learning healing at her hands, than I had ever known before.
“The girl’s family will be here soon,” she gestured to the other room with a nod of her head. “But the family for the wee one is ready now. I don’t want the two crossing paths here, safer for the babe. So, I’d like for you to take her to them in town. They’ll meet you outside the general store.”
“Alright, let me just get my things,” I transferred the sleeping bundle into Grandmother’s arms.
I made quick work of re-braiding my hair and lacing up my shoes. There was a long, wide bag that I slung across my body. It was just the right size to put the baby in so I could carry her, but my hands would be free. Grandmother came over, helping to place her into pocket that would cradle her. I threw the other bag I carried for errands over my shoulder next, turning to the door. I paused, looking over at the girl by the fireplace. She had turned her back to us, trying to hide the sobs that shook her body. I looked back to Grandmother for a moment, silently asking if I should try again.
“Let it be,” she shook her head, the sadness I felt reflected in her eyes.
I nodded once, accepting the advice she so often gave, and walked out into the spring morning. The sun and fully risen at this point, shining down brightly. Dew drops sparked like jewels on all the plants starting to waken from winter’s slumber. I breathed deep the crisp air, soaking in the sun’s warmth, and turned down the road that lead to the small town we lived just outside of. I peeked in at the sleeping babe, smiling at how she puckered her pink lips in her sleep, almost like tiny rose buds. She started to frown at the infiltrating light, so I covered her back up. She would be waking up angry and hungry soon, and we didn’t keep those type supplies at the house. Grandmother always said it was better for the new parents to do the first feeding, so I picked up my pace into a brisk walk. No reason to make the little one wait any longer than necessary.