It was midafternoon when Malila awoke. Sally had insisted that she lie down after coming inside. Wrung out, she had fallen asleep almost at once.
Above the silence of the house, Malila heard a low-frequency buzz of activity at the horizon of her hearing. The noise drew her to the front yard, and she found it crowded with horse carriages, small horseless carts, and heavier electric cars. Once out in the cold air, she heard a melodious beat of song and followed it to the barn Moses had been preparing. Coatless men turning whole venison and hogs on spits over beds of red coals nodded to her as she pushed the barn door open a crack before slipping in. The building was almost full of villagers and farmers.
“Merry Christmas!” a smiling woman wished her as Malila turned to shut the door. Malila gathered that the snatches of conversation between Moses and Sally she had been hearing all week long had been referring to this event … whatever it was.
Near the entrance, a tack room had been transformed. Over the entrance a sign read, “Obamaroom.” The space was filled with projectile rifles on open racks guarded by several unsmiling men. The next thing she noticed was that everyone else was facing the narrow dais on which a meaty man in denim overalls, with the help of a woman with an accordion, was leading a song with vigorous arm motions.
The weary world rejoices,
as yonder comes her new and glorious dawn.
Malila made her way to stand behind Moses and accepted Ethan from Sally’s arms with a smile. Both Moses and Sally returned to singing, Sally in a silvery soprano and Moses in a rumbling bass.
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.
Malila had never heard such songs, either this one or the several to follow. The songs she knew were either love songs or heroic ballads about the cadre. Some of the crowd around her referenced small tablets, but most sang from memory. Malila spotted Jesse in the crowd, nodding to her as he bellowed out in a confident baritone.
At the conclusion of the songs, the meaty man held up his arms to signal silence, and Malila’s attention drifted back to the sleeping bundle in her arms. There was a generalized happy buzzing around her.
“A joyful Remembrance Day of the Coming, brothers and sisters,” the man announced.
“Before we get started, I want us to thank Moses and Sally Stewert for the use of the hall. This’ll be the third time we’ve celebrated here since we started the colony. God has blessed us with his bounty and his peace.”
There was a general stomping and clapping at the statement, but Malila lost track of the speech after that, as Ethan started fussing. For a while, people took turns reading an odd and disturbing story about an ancient pregnant breeder and her patron. The story included spirit beings, hereditary rulers, soothsayers, religious functionaries, animal caretakers, and feeding troughs, no part of which she understood.
The meaty man then asked someone in the audience to “prey,” and Malila looked up startled as every other head in the barn looked down. It took her several seconds to decide nothing predatory was in the offing. Lowering her head, feeling a little silly, she hardly listened to the man’s sonorous phrases. He finished, and at once people moved toward the trestle tables, carrying her along.
She had grown accustomed to the abundant fare of the Stewerts’ workaday table. After the scant rations of the trek, it had seemed unreal. At times, Malila had wondered if their bounty was artificial, an effort to fool her as the prisoner of war.
However, the food laid out for the Coming was a magnitude more lavish, not just in quantity, which was copious, but also in variety. Men and women hovered over some dishes, urging her to “try a little.” Small signs identified a golden mound of mashed rutabagas with butter dripping from it, deeper orange sweet potatoes, red new potatoes wafting steam, hearty dark-green collards, peaks of pale mashed potatoes, green beans, platters of sliced roast turkey, darker grained venison, rich roast goose dripping fat, and pale savory roast pork. Some even had proprietary names like “Susan Brannon’s bean casserole” or “Cathy Wood’s Brunswick stew.”
On another table was a bouquet of fruit pies, tarts, puddings, and colorful tarts, with an older woman there shooing children away unless they shower her an emptied wooden plate. Most amazing to Malila was a pyramid of orange spheres. They were fruits that people were supposed to peel and eat raw.
Having not eaten since dawn, Malila was wiping her mouth on her sleeve by the time Sally retrieved Ethan. Planning on sampling a small serving of each dish, Malila eventually took just the ones that looked least familiar to her, retreating to a corner to enjoy her bounty. The celebration, for the tenor of the crowd was jubilant, was at once joyous and disturbing.
Sampling some of the rutabagas, the bitter-sweet taste a welcome change from the oversweetened sweet potatoes, Malila recognized that the Coming narrative was unique.
Childbirth was considered an ordinary occurrence in the outlands, she knew, but there was some social stigma attached to the story of this birth. Moreover, despite the irregularity of his birth, the baby was supposed to be a king. That was absurd.
Malila knew about the inferior forms of government. Kingship was a protection-hierarchy model: goods and service were extorted from the numerous weak citizens with promises of protection and/or threats of violence by the few influential citizens. It was an inherited condition. No baby could be born a king. If his father were still alive, then, by definition, he was not a king. If his father were dead, someone else would have already been chosen king, and again he was not king. The story was nonsense on the face of it.
The Unity had no celebrations such as this one, of course. Her homeland acknowledged current achievements rather than past events. It was sad that these people had so little in the way of triumphs, clinging to their outdated superstitions, their children, and their guns. She finished eating and went to place her plate on a table reserved for the purpose.
“Hello and merry Christmas! My name is Eduard Billings. What’s yours?”
Malila turned to face the man who appeared to be her age, the first she had met in the outlands. It gave her a start. From what Sally had said, men her own age would still be living with their parents. Malila presumed any man living with a father was subservient either because of finances or the fear of physical retribution. What she saw was a well, if simply, dressed man whom she could imagine in the uniform of the DUFS or the gray suit of a government worker. She snapped off, “Chiu, Malila E., acting lieutenant, sir!”
The man froze for several moments.
“So how do I call you? ‘Chewy,’ Malila, or Lieutenant?”
Malila took the cue to laugh and was rewarded with a shy smile.
“Malila will serve … Eduard,” she said at last.
Eduard presented a warm hand and said, “Pleased to meet you, Malila. Where do you come from? I haven’t seen you at any of the association meetings.”
“I don’t come from here. I … I’m an officer of the … I come from the Democratic Unity.”
“Oh …” was all he said. He looked over her shoulder, and Malila followed his gaze to a vigorously gesturing older woman.
“Excuse me, Malila, but I have to see what my mother wants. You know how they can be. Don’t go away!”
She answered his smile with her own as he left, and she was again in the isolation of a crowd, noticing one after another face turning toward her and then looking away. Malila had just decided to leave the barn when the music started, appearing to be a signal for the clearing of tables.
The woman with the accordion, joined by two men with violins, started playing music unlike any Malila had ever heard: infectious, melodic, rapid, and mystifying. It was meant for dancing, and soon the center of the barn was free of everything but dancers. The couples who did not fit on the dance floor lined the space and started clapping. Malila’s senses whirled trying to follow the figures of the dance that spiraled ever faster in the warm glow of the barn.
Nevertheless, she knew, the celebrants had never intended for her to be here with her makeshift and mismatched clothing. Sally was distracted talking to a group of young women and showing off the marvel that was Ethan Graham Stewert. Moses was with a group of men who were shaking their heads at the prospect of an early spring.
Malila edged to the door. As her hand closed around the handle, a large, warm hand closed over hers. She turned to find a man looming over her.
“Surely, you’re not leaving, lass?” Jesse said in the tone of a jovial host. “The evening is yet young. There is music, and there is light. You are young and beautiful, and you should dance!”
Malila smiled, despite her surprise. It was the first time the old man had said something nice to her about her appearance, an outrageous lie though it might be. Nonetheless, it was odd talking to a man in whose arms she had sobbed just hours before.
“Dr. Johnstone, the music sounds like fun, but I don’t know how to dance. It’s much too complicated. I’d just ruin it for the others …”
“Nonsense, I’ve just the place for you to learn!” Jesse pulling her through the crowd by her captured hand, away from the twirling couples, to a group of children who were mirroring their parents’ motions, with checkered results, under the guidance of a young matron.
“Mrs. Eng! Might I ask a favor of you? My friend here and I desire to learn the mysteries of the terpsichorean art. Would you allow us to join your class of students?”
This, of course, set the children to tittering embarrassment, but by the shy smiles and outstretched arms, Malila could tell the old man was no stranger to them. In her childhood, adults had been objects of apprehension at the very least. Malila envied Jesse for the first time she could remember.
The young instructor turned and laughed. “Of course, Doctor, but you need to introduce us to your young lady.”
“A thousand pardons, Mrs. Eng. May I present Miss Malila Chiu, visiting us for a season from across the wall. Malila, lass, I would like you to meet Mrs. Lawrence Eng, an old and dear friend of mine.”
“Please call me Mary.”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
Mary’s face froze for a moment.
Jesse stepped in and in a grandiloquent fashion went on to introduce the six children in the small ring, with a brief hesitation in the narrative to note, “Master Thorkyll here goes by the of ‘Rocky,’” which drew giggles even from the one so unfortunately named.
Very soon, the square was formed, and Malila learned the figures of the dance. More surprising to her was that the old man was skipping and bouncing in the company of the children with grace and enthusiasm. One or another of the children would convulse with giggles when they had to promenade with Jesse, who crouched low to accommodate his partner for the circuit. Malila found she was able to lose herself, the room spinning about her as she listened for the calls, trying to remember the steps, in a whirl of light, sound, music, and geniality.
The children wove in and out of her sight, and Malila found herself jolted each time she came around to be handed off to the smiling old man. Despite his years, he was able to keep up with the children better than she was. Malila smiled back each time his hand reached hers. In time, Mrs. Eng dismissed the group, and the three adults adjourned to a large steaming bowl that had been programed, for the moment, to dispense a fruit punch.
The conversation drifted to shared stories of Jesse and Mary, leaving Malila to wonder if they had been patron and protégé at one time. The idea disturbed her.
Malila turned away to watch the children. Her memories of her childhood were so fragmentary that she had long since tried to ignore any that preceded her coming to the crèche. The dim and painful period of her pre-memories was a kaleidoscope of brief encounters with careless or harried adults, children with whom she shared toys and food but who then sickened and disappeared, and the packing and the unpacking of meager belongings from one gray building to the next.
After a few minutes more, the music stopped, and more people broke free to enjoy the punch bowl, now programed for some milky drink. Jesse warned her of the alcohol it contained, and she limited her intake to a small cup. It was different. It was good. After a few minutes, a sturdy man with straight black hair arrived. Mary introduced him as her husband, Larry, pulling him closer by lacing a finger into the thick belt he wore. Larry grinned at the attention. The four talked for a few minutes before the music started again.
“Looks like there’s room for us to dance now. Good to see you again, Doc. Merry Coming!” said Larry before they left to join a square.
“Shouldn’t let your education go to waste now, lass. You have no excuse! Let’s go dance with the grown-ups, shall we?” said the old man as he again captured her hand.
“Do you think I can keep up? The caller is going very fast.”
“Let me have a word with Simon and ask him to keep an eye out for us … to make sure we don’t get overwhelmed.”
With her last objection countered, Malila followed Jesse onto the floor to complete the number for the Engs’ square. The music seemed special and unreal as the room spun around, Jesse’s newly unfamiliar face shining with the soft light and Malila finding her own face becoming fatigued with an unsummoned smile. By the end of the evening, Malila had danced with not only Jesse but also Moses, Larry, and a beaming Eduard. Jesse collected her as the last of the music died.
“Malila, lass, I have been deputized by Moses to see you safe home to the house. Sally and Moses have to register young Ethan, and it may take a while.”
“Register? You mean, like, getting him implanted …?”
Jesse laughed. “No, lass. Nothing like that. This is the first association meeting since Ethan’s birth, and Sally and Moses both want the elders to know when his birthday was, that Moses accepts him as a natural son, and who the godparents are.”
Malila could not conceive how these people’s god had parents, but she left the question unasked and just nodded. Shivering on stepping out into the cold, Malila was glad for Jesse’s warm arm. All of the self-powered carriages and most of the saddle horses had already left. Men were helping each other harness their teams.
Jesse and Malila moved away from the well-lit farmyard to escape the congestion and walked toward the farmhouse along back paths. Arriving at the kitchen door, Malila stepped up and started to open it as Jesse reached up to stop her.
“Malila, I want to thank you for a delightful evening. I didn’t get a chance after … this morning, to ask you whether we might start over. We sort of got off on the wrong foot, you and me.”
“You mean being abducted, stripped naked, and cut open is not usual outlander greeting procedure?”
Jesse winced before he gathered she was teasing him. His laughter, nonetheless, sounded sincere.
“Nay, lass. Tha’ was special just for thee.” His face now sobered. “I’d like us ta start over, as if we hadna met before.”
Malila was puzzled. She now expected Jesse to slip into a denser brogue whenever he was feeling good, bad, happy, or meditative. She wondered what he was feeling now.
“I don’t know, Jesse. I could decide to kill you again.”
He laughed, “I’m persuaded to take my chances, lass.”
“Don’t call me ‘lass,’ old man. I am an adult!”
“That might take some doing, la— eh … Malila. You do know the word has other meanings, don’t you?”
“I don’t care. No ‘lass.’”
It was Malila’s time to laugh, and she extended a hand. “It’s a deal, old man.”
“So call me ‘Jesse,’ then … Malila.” He enunciated her name with care. “And might I come to call on you? I would like to see more of you.”
“What part of me have you not seen, Doctor?”
“Aye, I take your meaning. Different time and circumstances, don’t ye think? I mean, I would like to visit with you, my friend. I promise to forget and to forget the forgetting. Is that acceptable?”
“Acceptable, Dr. Johnstone.”
They again shook hands solemnly. Malila leaned forward and kissed his check before backing through the door. Jesse turned and left whistling.
The day after the Coming, returning to her pallet through the quiet kitchen early in the morning, Malila saw motion outside. The dim light of the room caught the silent, furtive movement of snowflakes just beyond the glass. For a moment, Malila was back among rusting girders, with numbing cold, fear, death, and abandonment. Wind whistled around the corner of the house sending up a cyclone of snow that gyrated like a specter in the uncertain light. It made her shiver.
By first light, Moses had strung ropes between the back porch, the washout, and the milking barn. The snow outside the kitchen window was already banked, hip deep, into a gentle, sinuous curve. Malila was standing on tiptoes watching the swirling snow as Moses came in and recited:
When you can’t see the barn,
Winds spin like a top,
A blizzard will snow,
Three days ere it stop.
He laughed. “Something my granny used to say. Looks like we are in for it, though.”
“Are we going to be buried in snow?”
“We’ll be fine, Miss … Malila. Going to need to keep the path clear enough so’s you can follow the rope, is all. The barns are pretty safe, the animals have the autofeeders, and the automatic milkers will take care of most of the work unless the girls get into a tiff.”
Moses bundled up and went out to shovel.
Regardless of the snow, Malila knew she had to do it today. She was worried she might lose her nerve if she waited.
After breakfast, she and Sally braved the snow to start the cleanup from the Coming. Sally showed her how to use the church’s dishwasher and place the cleaned and dried wooden trenchers into cases for transport. Once a load was started, Malila went to find Sally, who was cleaning tables.
She knelt in the sawdust behind her and extended her hands, palms down, unsure of her own voice.
Sally, her skin pink with exertion, with a strand of hair that had escaped her bandana lying damp across her forehead, almost fell over Malila as she turned to find her.
“Oh … honey, you don’t need to do this.”
“I think I do.”
“Sweetie, we all make mistakes. It doesn’t mean I need this from you.”
“I know, but I need to try to make things right,” said Malila, her blue eyes on Sally’s.
Flushing, Sally faced her and placed her hands under Malila’s.
Malila enumerated the lies, half-truths, and assumptions that she had fed to Sally as truth, admitting her desire to corrupt Jesse’s reputation and apologizing for embarrassing Sally.
“I ask you to forgive me because you have been forgiven, because Jesse forgave me, and because I am so sorry for the pain I’ve caused you. You took me in when I was a stranger, and what I did was ungrateful. Please forgive me.”
“Of course, of course, Malila, honey. All you had to do was ask. Now stand up, and let’s dry your eyes.”
And again, Malila noticed the paradox. Reminding the injured party of their hurts made them … not disappear … no, certainly not disappear, but made the memory of pain a treasured secret the two of them now shared. It was a mystery.
When Ethan woke Malila next morning, it was still snowing. He was bundled up against the coolness of the house and complained the more for all the unwrapping required to get to the scene of his discomfort. He was sopping. It amazed Malila that such a small body could generate such volumes of urine. Ethan complained until breakfast was served.
Malila watched him nurse. With the sweet-smelling round head buried into the pale flesh of his mother, succulent sounds filled the small room. In the uncertain light of early morning, Malila noted the small feminine line of blue around the edge of Sally’s right areola as Ethan, voicing momentary outrage, was moved off one breast and applied to the other. Malila was surprised she had never noticed it before.
“What is that? You have a tattoo?”
Sally smiled. “Yes, of course. I’ve had that one since my mama’s third baby. I was too young to earn it before.”
“You earned it? Like Jesse? What does it mean?”
Sally laughed. “Probably not like Jesse, but it means that I’ve some practical experience about caring for babies.”
“What did you have to do to earn it?”
In the Unity, tattooing had long been out of favor; citizens did not advertise their differences.
“Well, I got it for doing about what you are doing now.”
Sally lifted her right breast, still dripping some milk, and with a finger outlined the curling lines of blue on her pale breast.
“This part is for helping at a delivery. This means I’ve cared for a baby up to a month after birth, and this means I’ve seen her through her first four months,” she said, drawing her finger over an inner curlicue and a shape that, once Malila saw it, suggested four interlocking crescent moons but could also represent a vine ending in a lily flower.
“Just for being a helper?” Malila asked.
Sally replaced her breast into her gown and smiled. “I thought it a real reward at the time, you know. Getting up in the night to fetch my sister for feeding, changing her pants, bathing her, cuddling her. My mother was trying to teach me, not just be helped. It was a big job for a nine-year-old girl.”
“You were so young! When I was nine, I was still in crèche school.”
A cloud appeared to pass over Sally’s face as she leaned over to watch her son feed. After a minute she looked up into Malila’s eyes.
“Do you have any idea how much help you’ve been to me since you came, honey? Moses is a good man. He is gentle and reliable as the sun, but take any man and deprive him of sleep with anything that does not bite at, shoot back, or make love to him, and you have one unhappy male. Just letting Moses stay in bed while you get Ethan for me is worth gold. You don’t think it’s much, because you love Ethan. I can’t pay you what you are worth. I can’t thank you as much as you deserve, but when the time’s right, I can let everyone else know how good you are.”
Malila felt her cheeks warm with a blush.
Malila met Captain Delarosa at the door, almost a week after the Coming. He left his skis outside. Sally had asked her to take over answering the door, to their mutual satisfaction.
“I’m impressed you went through the forgiveness celebration with Jesse,” was the first thing Delarosa said after Sally had installed them in the front room with a pot of fresh coffee.
“Are you telling me that no one else would have done that? That I shouldn’t have?”
Delarosa met her eyes before speaking. “No! If anything, I think I am saying that you’ve showed me an admirable side of the Unity I wasn’t prepared to admit.”
Malila smiled and rose from her chair in the front room, taking up a stick to reform the brightly burning fire on the hearth.
“It wasn’t a Unity thing, the forgiveness, you know?” she said with her back turned, knowing he understood.
“Yes, ma’am. Let me ask you something. I am tasked with interrogating you. I don’t think you will tell me more than you already have.”
“I haven’t told you anything, Captain!”
Ignoring her statement, he continued, “If it’s all right by you, I’d like to spend some time telling you about … well, not just about America but what I know of the world, of history. You, the Unity that is, have cut yourselves off from a lot of what we, in America, take for granted. Wars tend to do that … Walls tend to do that. You have the rare opportunity to see outside your walls.”
“So that when I go home I will be denounced … Thank you, Captain Delarosa!” she said, her eyes laughing at him.
Xavier laughed himself and returned a courtly bow.
“Oh, I don’t think what I will be talking about is all that scandalous. I think you will enjoy what I have to share.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Not sure, really. I suppose because you deserve a better shake than I think you have had so far.”
“And this isn’t some sneaky way to get me to tell you stuff?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“On my honor as a soldier, one soldier to another.”
“Did Jesse put you up to this?”
“Hardly. I think, perhaps, this is a dose of Jesse antitoxin. He can be overwhelming at times. .”
“Annoying, isn’t he?”
Delarosa laughed again. “Depends. If I were stuck on a desert island, Jesse would be on my list for fellow castaways, but let’s not dwell on Dr. Johnstone.”
She looked at him from over the rim of her cup. “Okay, Captain, tell me your stories.”
Xavier smiled, and all at once his attitude changed. His face transformed, and his voiced somehow deepened.
“Once upon a time, there was a huge empire that, with one thing and another, collected a large number of countries to rule. It lasted for about a thousand years before the Meltdown. Over that time, the countries, one by one, gained independence. America—or rather, I should say the parts of North America that are now the Unity—was one such country.”
He ignored her rolling of eyes and continued, “But that is another story. The country my story is about was in East Africa. The people tried to rebel there as well. One rebel band, some called them the Mau Mau, had some initial success, but they failed to gain a general uprising.
“Then, they ordered their men to attack innocent villagers, commit senseless murders, take horrible oaths, eat human flesh, deny their gods, and drink vile potions. All to compel loyalty.
“They thought that if they could turn a man away from what was moral, sane, and honorable, compel him to take an oath so horrendous … it would change him, cut him off from his past, his family, his friends, his gods, and his image of himself. They hoped they had an army of ruthless, loyal men who had nothing to lose, as they had lost it already.”
“Why would they do that? Soldiers follow orders anyway … at least they do in the Unity. You can’t run an army if everyone gets to pick and choose the orders they follow.”
“Don’t forget, I am a soldier too. Yes, we all take orders, but I’m sure you know the unwritten oath: soldiers trust their lives to the officers, and the officers agree never to abuse that trust. You ask a man to die only if you think his death can make a difference. These are hard things to do: to ask and to follow. It only works if trust is there already.”
“Jesse said that killing changes you.”
“This was more than that, don’t you think?”
“I think it is a revolting story. I don’t like it.”
After a few minutes’ silence she added, “Nothing like that could happen in the Unity, you know.”
“Why is that?”
“Because it is a democracy. Objections are dealt with before they can cause conflict.”
“What if your neighbors voted that they did not want to live near you; would you have to move?”
“Of course, but who would wish to live near neighbors who hate you?”
Delarosa laughed and, turning, set his empty cup down.
“Why indeed? We should talk about that later.”
They never did.