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Malila sat up and moaned. Her head, feeling twice its normal size, throbbed in retaliation. She sensed something had died, died a slow, pestilential death, in her mouth. Remembering a dinner of pickles, bear ham, and alcohol, she barely had time to dress before staggering out and vomiting into the tall grass.
Jesse found her as the last heaves subsided, leaning over her to block the too-bright sun with his shadow, and tsked. He pressed a red bandana into her limp hand. The back of the old man’s hand showed a new livid bruise. She almost asked him about it.
“We have to move today, lass. Rest while we pack. When you feel up to it, we will get you something to make you feel better … when it will stay put for a while.”
“You poisoned me! I’m going to die here!”
“I’m sorry, so sorry, lass. I don’t know what I was thinkin’ … bear ham, pickles, and ’shine. I am truly sorry.”
Malila had an appropriately scathing response on her lips, but the thought of the food, again, wrung her out, making her retch bile-green slime into the grass.
In time, Malila recovered enough to stand and wash out her mouth from a bucket left near the door of the dugout.
Moses, grinning, approached her with a large tin of clear liquid.
“Jesse said for you to drink this. Make you feel better if’n you can keep it down.” It tasted vaguely salty but bitter.
Moses showed her to the corral. Jesse had finished saddling three horses and had leads on two others loaded with their gear. The old man, looking gray, finished wrestling a pack into place. Malila smiled at his discomfort, matching her own.
“Okay, miss. This here is Arab. He’s about as gentle an animal as I have,” said Moses. “Do you want a leg up?”
Malila nearly fell over backward looking up to the saddle. Unity horses were never this massive. She took the leg.
Once mounted, acrophobia replaced nausea for a season. Jesse mounted with Moses’s help as well.
They left the rendezvous station deserted, the doors barricaded against animals and the coming snow, for what Moses said would be a three-day ride to the colony.
By early afternoon, Malila was better and worse. Her nausea gone, she could devote her misery to a more fundamental pain. Moses shortened her stirrups, a name she suspected he had just invented to annoy her. As the sun sank, they moved south, a little higher out of the river valley. The high country already wore the brown gray of a winter landscape, although, here and there, near the river Malila still saw the greens, crimsons, and yellows of autumn. Occasional spires of blue smoke rose up until kited away by the wind.
The riding trip, like the foot trek before, rapidly assumed a sameness. Moses nudged her before dawn as he went to collect the horses. Jesse stirred up the fire from the night before. The three broke their fast with a bitter black effusion of what appeared to be charcoal. Malila was given some glutinous gray material in a shallow bowl that she refused to eat until she saw Moses and Jesse lather into their portions dark sugar and handfuls of dried fruit. Jesse cut his fruit into small pieces. Malila found it remarkably filling.
The trail reached ever eastward along the river valley, sometimes cutting off a large loop as the river twisted and turned. They stopped, much as they had afoot, to share out small portions of jerky and water about once an hour. Now both men mumbled their superstitious formula before eating. Malila chose to make no comment.
On the morning of the third day, the two men neglected breakfast and set out while it was still dark. As she rode, frost-rimed branches littered ice back into her face. After weeks in the wilderness, Malila began to see small signs of civilization growing around her. Wagon tracks multiplied, to left and right, joining their tracks to deepen the ruts. Horse tracks wove back and forth across the trail until it intersected a hardened road nearer the river. The few travelers they now met on foot and horseback greeted them, weapons prominent but the greetings friendly enough. Malila was told not to speak. Later in the morning, the greetings included laconic inquiries and replies. Most of these travelers wore clothes that were woven rather than skins. Here and there on the wagons were shiny cook pots, well-used machinery, and the occasional whip antenna of a broadcast radio in a jet-and-silver case. Malila saw children: dirty, fat, and dressed well against the cold. They giggled at her. Jesse talked to them, making them laugh.
By late morning, the three of them arrived at collections of buildings, clustering closer together as they moved on. There were more people. Long, penetrating stares greeted Malila. Jesse generated the most hootings and hailings along the way. Riding down a lane between fenced enclosures, they entered an unpaved plaza, one side dominated by a building with a louvered tower and pleasing symmetrical proportions. It displayed no sign except “Parsonage in Back.” The other buildings appeared to be shops. One fresh-painted green clapboard building boasted a sign that read, “James Uhuru Robertson, RSA Congressional District #19.” She thought it all impossibly squalid.
Once they had stopped, people converged. For the most part, the townsfolk ignored Malila, greeting the men with hugs, friendly insults, backslappings, and kisses.
Malila watched from the periphery as the crowd parted for a young blonde woman holding a bundle. The woman approached, staring fixedly at the new arrivals. Moses, turning when the crowd grew silent, whooped and burst through the remaining ring of people to scoop the woman into his arms. He hesitated when he saw the bundle, stopping with an uncertain look on his long face. The woman broke into a glorious smile that spoke to Malila of pride, tenderness, and longing.
Moses folded back the corner of a blanket. A small face grimaced from the light. Moses bent close, as if smelling before looking up to the woman. She spoke softly, then gently smiled, which in its quiet wisdom reminded Malila of Moses himself. He gathered up the bundle and started to turn, his cheeks streaked with moisture, when the woman stopped him. Wordlessly, she wiped his face.
Turning again, Moses proclaimed, “Hallo, old man! Come meet Ethan Graham Stewert!”
The crowd erupted; Ethan responded. The woman smiled broadly before gathering the baby into her arms once more. She clucked at Moses before trying to soothe her infant’s objections.
Malila was stunned. She had never met a breeder. Most of the Unity’s surrogates survived only a few pregnancies. The burden of childbearing was so great that no sentient Unity woman would endanger herself. But this woman’s health and pride in her new son shone for all to see. Something plucked a chord in Malila she had never played.
As the baby’s wail escalated, his mother scooped a breast from her gown and presented it to her son. The baby yawned open his mouth and homed in on the engorged nipple with seeming expertise, shaking his small head before clamping down in earnest. Malila felt ill at the grotesque display until she heard the sounds of lusty infantile satisfaction. Men and women of all ages looked on smiling as the newest and least productive member of their community was cosseted and cuddled.
Within minutes, the plaza was almost deserted. Jesse had gone to talk with a man in a peaked hat and an odd military uniform. Malila could see Jesse surrendering his precious buckskin roll to the man, prompting a good deal of discussion. Moses and the baby’s mother had moved off and were already in deep conversation.
Malila was alone and looking at the best path to escape when the dogs found her. She almost panicked. She had always hated the vicious animals. With floppy ears still dusty from their late-morning naps, the outland dogs sauntered over and started to snuffle Malila myopically. In terror, outnumbered, fearful that she would be rapidly brought down by the jaws of these outland monsters, Malila stood and endured.
Jesse and the military man continued to talk; the old man was more animated than he had been since the devil’s bridge. Within a few minutes, Moses and the baby’s mother were called back for a hurried conference.
Malila’s doggy examiners, having finished their examination, sneezed and went to sleep on her feet. Malila closed her eyes to the ordeal.
Some minutes later, she was rescued by the old man.
“Get on, you two; find someplace else to nap!” he said and wiggled a foot under each as he encouraged them to leave.
Without a preamble, Jesse pressed something into her hand. “This is for ye, lass. Ah wouldna want ye a beggar. See it wages for yer time.”
“You are leaving me, old man?”
“It seems I am. You’ll be staying wi’ Moses and Sally. I hope that is a better fit for you.”
“When will I see you again, Jesse?”
“See me again?” Jesse said, his eyebrows lifting in what she thought was surprise.
“Never mind, old man. Go!”
Malila looked down at the object, finding that he had given her one of his red bandanas, washed and smelling of wood smoke and Jesse. Tied inside was a hard fluted black disk with impressions on both sides. By the time she looked up, Jesse had turned, gathered up his green backpack, and was walking out of the square. He seemed to shrink as he walked, his head bowing and his gait growing wider. When he reached a lane leading from the square, he staggered and put a hand out to the clapboard wall to steady himself. Malila looked away as if she were violating a privacy. When she looked up, Jesse was gone.
Malila asked, “Is that your son?” as Moses and the blonde woman approached her. Malila had never in her life expected to ask so rude a question.
Moses smiled. “Yes, or so my Sally tells me.” The woman was within hearing distance … and striking distance, fetching Moses a sharp jab in the ribs, to which he gave an exaggerated reaction.
The breeder extended her hand to Malila while juggling the nursing infant.
“I am Sally Stewert. I’d be an old woman before Moses’d think to introduce us. This is Ethan Graham. He’s our first.”
“Acting Second Lieutenant Chiu, Malila E.”
Sally looked a little blank.
The conversation stopped until Moses said, “The captain tells me that he has to question you for the next few weeks. I am to give you room and board. I ’spect you should help around the homestead if I feed and house you. Is that all right, Miss Malila?”
Malila nodded. Moses, noticing her looking at the baby, said, “Here, let me introduce you to Ethan.” Before Sally could object, he whisked the baby away from her, leaving Sally to replace her breast into her gown.
Having satisfied most of his appetite, the baby writhed slightly in his father’s hands, pursing his lips before smacking them experimentally. Malila leaned close enough to shade his eyes from the late-morning sun and was rewarded with a dark-gray quizzical gaze. She inhaled his soft foreign-familiar scent and offered a finger to the small clenching fist. Ethan’s idle, fleeting smile seduced another victim with the charm of the newly born.
Sally sat cuddling Ethan as the wind whipped about them, pointedly not listening to Moses. The girl was relegated to the back of the small wagon, mercifully out of the way, at least for the time being. Jesse had left Sally with a little souvenir of his summer adventure. The man was impossible. And just like every other time, Moses carried on as if his trip with Jesse had been some lark. It was too much to abide.
The girl was now, she supposed, their prisoner … her prisoner. Moses would be in the fields, and the enemy soldier would be added to Sally’s burden. Ethan was a week old. It was all too much to bear.
Moses’s forced jolliness sputtered to a slow death, and they finished the trip, winding through the winter-gray scrublands of their parcel in silence. It was getting on to late afternoon before they approached their homestead, nestled in its pleasant copse of trees.
The strange girl would probably notice the house needed painting, Sally thought. She probably would not notice that it had a second floor and chimneys at both ends of the gabled roof, one of only six in the county. The Swerdigans had built it, but Sally had made it a home.
Moses halted in front of the house, and Sally, after handing Ethan down to him, alighted before he could move to help her. Plucking the baby from him, she stalked into the house. The baby needed changing. She had work to do.
Sally had sorted out Ethan and started to set the fire to rights when the strange Uni girl finally entered the house, looking as if she were afraid to touch anything. It was time to set some rules!
“Mose tells me that we have to billet you while you are being questioned by Captain Delarosa. It isn’t fair, and we are on winter rations already. They tell me we’ll get some provisions from the army for you, but they can’t say when. While you are here, you work. We don’t run no boarding house. You sleep in the loft, and the washout and privy are out back. Do you understand?”
There was no use in sugarcoating it.
“Yes, sir, I understand, Sally, sir!”
Sally grimaced at the reaction, inspecting the unkempt girl for signs of criticism. The seconds stretched on. The Uni girl was actually at attention, staring not at her but apparently at a patch of blank plastered wall.
After a spell, Sally relented. “Don’t call me that. Call me Mrs. Stewert when people are around; otherwise, call me Sally. Tell me your name again.”
“Acting Lieutenant Chiu, Malila E. … Sally! Request permission to speak freely, Sally!” the girl barked out.
“Of course you can talk, Malila. Free country, after all, isn’t it?”
The girl was beginning to get on her nerves. It was as if someone had thrown a switch and turned her into some sort of a robot. Sally was feeling put upon. For the sake of her country, she could accommodate an attractive and unattached woman in her home, but it annoyed her to have one around while she herself was preoccupied with a new baby. It was barely tolerable, but apparently unavoidable, to have one around her long-absent and handsome husband during the forced inactivity of winter.
What she would not abide was the girl-bot barking at her.
“Sally, sir, what is a missus?” Malila asked.
“Oh my, girl, it means I’m Moses’s wife. Don’t you Union people use Mrs.? Relax and sit down! I’ll make us some coffee before the baby starts crying again,” she said as she turned away from the robot-girl.
“Sally, sir, what is a wife, sir?” The girl remained standing, and if possible, she seemed to straighten herself one notch more, reminding Sally of the faceless horrors of the Union.
Once again, she studied the girl’s face for the faintest taint of sarcasm. She had married Moses just two years before. They had both come up as hardscrabble kids with almost no family and no inheritance other than their hands, heads, and backs. When the old man had staked Moses to prove out this parcel, despite her dislike of him, she had urged Moses to take the chance.
After paying off his first note, Moses had walked the fifteen miles to Georgeville and proposed to her. The same day, they had walked back as husband and wife. She had only just imagined she was pregnant when Moses had left to follow that Jesse “Let’s Go Get Us Some Rifles” Johnstone to the wilderness of Wisconsin.
She was all for fighting the Union. The godless black horrors had killed her father and a younger sister only seven years ago. She and her brothers had buried their scorched remains by the road without even a marker, for fear of a return raid. But now, the horrible old man had brought a little piece of the Union back to haunt her.
“Humph … I might have known!” she said and turned again to make the coffee.
The girl, still standing and staring at the wall as if her mainspring had stuck from overwinding, looked paler. Money can’t buy people respectability, Sally thought. Folks’ husbands aren’t safe with people like this around. Sally turned back.
“Just a word, girl: come on to Moses, harm me or my son, and you are out of here that very day! Captain Delarosa or no. Understand?”
Hearing the words, Malila felt her face flush hot, her heart pounding.
“Sally, I … yes, Missus Sally. No coming on to Moses, no harm. Yes, sir!” she blurted out.
The hope of an end to her hardship was slipping away from Malila. She just wanted to stop moving. She wanted to wear clothes that were not stiff with dirt and blood. She’d hoped this was an end to her trek, but instead, the missus threatened to turn her out into the wind and wet. Malila did not know what “coming on to Moses” even meant. Ever since that terrible day when Suarez’s face had welled up into her vision, nothing had gone right. Even Jesse had finally abandoned her completely. Every fixed point in her universe had come loose in her hand. She sensed herself falling. Trying again to come more perfectly to attention in order to placate this angry woman, Malila’s hot tears streaked across her wind-chapped cheeks and prismed her vision.
It might have been the heat of the room after the weeks in the open. It might have been that she had not eaten since the night before. It might have been the catharsis of having at last arrived, or it might have been the company of another woman, no matter how hostile.
Malila found herself flittering back to consciousness. The pain of her split lip and the fleeting memory of blissed-out daydreams mingled briefly. Sally was at her side where she had fallen forward into the wall, a bright smear of blood marring its whiteness.
“Malila, Malila, honey, come back, come on now …”
Malila felt patting strokes on her hands as she resurfaced to the worried face of Sally hovering over her.
“I’m so sorry, girl! I didn’t mean to snap at you. It doesn’t matter. You can’t help how you’re raised. It will be okay …” Sally cycled through her platitudes. Groaning, Malila sat up and saw Sally for the first time: only a few years older than herself, and drawn with the concern for her baby, her husband, and, now, a sharp anxiety for Malila herself.
Malila, to her own surprise, sat up, embraced Sally, and started to sob. Malila had learned not to cry in the crèche; it had drawn the unwanted and cruel attention of the older children. It had offered no remedy. Malila sobbed now, clutching Sally’s warm form. She sobbed for the cold, for her ignorance, for not knowing what a wife meant, for the pain of her split lip, for the horror of the fight with Bear, for the despair of her near suicide, for Jesse’s abandonment. She sobbed for all the sobbing she had not done as a child. She sobbed for her lost homeland and the kindness of this stranger. She sobbed.
Sally, after a moment’s hesitation, hugged her in return. The two women embraced on the floor of a primative homestead in the outlands of the Unity and the Stewert farm of the New Carrolton Colony of the Reorganized States of America until both women were crying and laughing in turn. Minutes later, a shrill declaration of neglect by Ethan made both women rise to his summons.
Over the next two weeks, Sally listened to most of the girl’s tales. Malila needed the chance to say all the words left unsaid from her trip, her capture, and, maybe, her entire life, Sally thought. Malila retold her solitary memories of early childhood: a soft-bodied woman; a tall, thin man with spectacles; and the windblown clapboard house on a hill against an empty gray sky as it disappeared in the rear window of a government skimmer. She talked about her hopes, her patrons, and her return to the Unity.
Sally asked questions about the things she could not know and kept from her face the reaction to what the answers revealed. Some things she would never fathom. The patrons, whom Malila discussed so openly, filled her with outrage, showing her Malila as a naive victim of a repellant system.
But that first day, Sally interrupted her as Malila’s clothes, warmed by the bright fire, began to liberate the odors they had captured over the weeks of hard use.
“Let’s see if I can find anything of mine I can alter for you, honey. We can’t have you walking around in that old man’s cast-offs, can we, now? Looks like the only thing worth keeping are those boots.”
“Yes, Missus Sally.”
“Call me Sally, honey. Let’s get you out of those things before they crawl away on their own. We’ll need to get you some undies too, I see.”
Sally had seen violence visited upon flesh before. However, she was not prepared for the bruises and healing wounds she found on the slim body of the girl. Malila had a black eye just fading from green, bruises from leg to shoulder, and abrasions on her face and hands. The girl was muscular, but she was painfully thin, her ribs and hip bones protruding. Besides the small healing wounds that went along with life on the trail, the girl had deeper scars under a breast and above her privates. Her eyes spoke of long days and insufficient rest.
“You’ve had a hard trip, honey. How long did it take you to get here? Just put your arms up, and I’ll drop this old gown over you.” A swoosh of gingham interrupted Malila’s reply.
She repeated it as her face cleared the neckline. “About six weeks until we crossed this last big river; then we met Moses and rode here.”
“You mean the Ohio? Big, I suppose, but you should see it in springtime! Those scars look new. What did you get caught in, leaving you so marked?”
“Jesse did the one under my right breast, and the other one was when he abandoned me for another man to take. That was Bear. I don’t know what the mark was really supposed to look like. He said cutting me was to show people what I was and who I belonged to. You know what a brothel is, Sally?”
“Yes, I do, but we don’t generally talk about it among civilized folk, honey.”
“Oh, really? We don’t have brothels in the Unity.”
“No, I see where you might not. Hmm … looks like I’ll have to take it in a bit up top and round the hips. I’m not going to make it fit too tight. I’m thinking you might gain a little back now that you are off the trail.”
“Jesse said my boobs were too small too.”
“That old goat, he said that? They look just fine, honey. You have a sweet shape. Men always think they want more than they can get their hands on.”
“He didn’t seem to want them when he had them, missus.” Malila sighed.
“It’s Sally, honey. Did he? I mean did Jesse touch you?”
“Of course he did. We were sleeping together … oh, not for pleasure-sex! Father me, no! He watched me, especially when I had to wash. He got, you know, interested. Did I tell you he made me wash before bed every night, even as cold as it was? And he watched me. But I guess he didn’t like what he saw.”
“Must be tough to fight off a big man like Jesse. Brutish is all I have to say.”
“I guess he doesn’t have much interest anymore. I’m told Sisis, old people, are like that,” said Malila with a smirk.
“Jesse? I wouldn’t take that bet, honey,” Sally chuckled. “That old man … I’d not trust with the virtue of a spinster. He’s already run through three wives that he admits to.”
“I guess it is just me he doesn’t like, then. That must be why he abandoned me, again,” said Malila. This time her smile was wan. She looked away.
Sally looked at her without answering, and Malila, turning back, explained. “Jesse abandoned me over and over as we were walking. First, a Death Walker nearly got me. Next, he took off during a snowstorm. A band of bandits saw my fire. Before they could rape me, I ran off into the snow. Jesse found me, but then he just stuffed me into a snowdrift. He left me there and didn’t come back until after dark the next day. Even when he was there, he wasn’t there. Do you know what I mean?”
“I know something of that. Moses went off with Jesse at the beginning of summer this year. I was just beginning to figure I was expecting Ethan. Jesse said it’d be a few weeks, and it turned into months. The Sentinels kept me up to date, so’s I didn’t worry, but I couldn’t get a message to Moses. We, Mose and me, need to talk about that. I’m not happy about how he abandoned me to go keep house at Morganfield.”
“What was Moses supposed to be doing during the birth?”
Sally laughed. “Far as I know, he’s supposed to look worried and keep out of the way. Men are pretty useless when it comes to birthing their own babies. They need to be there so’s they don’t get the idea this is just a woman thing and to know what women go through so that they, the men, can have a child.”
Malila looked confused, and Sally waved a hand at her before continuing. “Men want children as much as women do, whether it shows or not. It’s a whole lot more complicated for a man to get a baby than for a woman. Boys don’t understand that, of course. They’re just rutting. It’s only when they grow up that men realize they want to bring up a child in this world of sorrows—see they turn out to be good people. The gladdest people I know are the men who are proud how their kids turned out. The most sorrowful ones are the ones who failed for not trying.”
“But Moses abandoned you when you needed him.”
“I can thank your friend Jesse for that. They were supposed to be back by middle August.”
“He’s not my friend. He abandoned me too. He abandoned me in a lot of ways.”
“Well, if it hadn’t been for Jesse, Moses would’ve been here. I expected Mrs. Parker to help with the birthing, and she brought along her girl, Simone. What an annoying child. Moses could’ve saved me from her, if he’d have been here.”
The conversation subsided as Sally, with a mouthful of pins, concentrated on the alterations.
How much to believe of the girl’s wild stories was anyone’s guess. Jesse was not above a little fabrication at the expense of the gullible. What was certain was that the old man had been too rough with a young, weak, and vulnerable girl. Considering how casual she was with sex, it would not surprise her if Jesse had taken advantage of her on the long trip south, whatever Malila said. Sex was an issue between them; that much was obvious. Sally was not so naive as to think rape was rare in a wild and lawless country, but she would be damned if she allowed the vile man into her house again.
Sally saw how much good it did the girl to talk, wrenching as it was to hear how the old man had treated her. No matter that Jesse Johnstone was a legend of the frontier and the first of the “old ones.” Since his childhood, he was supposed to have aged slower than anyone in recorded history. It was all part of some science experiment9 around the time of the Meltdown. The good news, at least for Sally and those she cared about, was that aging was now a disease like the red measles or lockjaw. You got a few shots, and it did not happen. The old man had helped make it possible. It did not mean she had to like him.
Malila’s evident pride in her country and its institutions were even harder for Sally to understand. Sally knew herself to be uneducated. Schooling for her had ceased with the murder of her father when she was thirteen. She could read and cipher. She could run the agro-support differential equations, run the diagnostics for the power panels, manage her household programs, and program the farm machines. She knew enough machine language to create her own market-prediction programs. Beyond that, she read for her own pleasure and that, for the most part, in English. There had been little room in her life for earning “merit” or admiring “the rule of the people” either.
She worked for possessions, things to ensure the safety and welfare of herself and those she loved. She would much rather have money than “merit.” As for other folks messing with her business, she was quite willing to tell them what she thought about such busybodies if they tried.
The most mystifying aspect of the girl was her baffling fascination with Ethan. The strange, alien girl, if left unsupervised, stood and watched him for hours. Malila scrutinized each of Ethan’s fleeting grimaces as they cycled across his face, watched the slow dance of the small hands as they writhed even in sleep. She talked incessantly about how sweet he smelled, newly laundered and freshly attired. Sally had quickly instructed her about replacing his diaper when he was not so sweet-smelling. She seemed to enjoy the privilege. Strange girl.