A winter at the Stewerts’ Chapter 44, 45, 46

Chapter 44

catherinegrigori

Eduard and Potemkin

The snowbank in the shadow of the house waxed and waned as each snowstorm added a white layer and each brief thawing period compressed the snow into ice. By February, it glowed a glacial blue in the light of the rising winter sun. Sally tossed bread crumbs onto it and then identified for Malila the small birds drawn to the bounty: chickadees, titmice, and sparrows as well as the larger crimson cardinals, handsome jays, and eager finches. Malila watched for hours, fascinated, as the birds quarreled, intimidated, fluffed, tolerated, and stole the food from each other. The snowbank quickly became a squalid collection of discarded feathers, droppings, and overlooked crumbs.

Eduard Billings rode a sleek chestnut stallion to the Stewert farm once the roads were passable. Moses, a gloved hand on the horse’s rein, intercepted him before he could dismount.

Malila had a pedestrian view of equine culture. Her exposure to horses both at home and in America had been fundamentally painful. Peeking out from the drying barn, however, Malila saw a confident young man in calf-length leather boots, riding pants, and a warm shearling coat. The chestnut he rode filled the air with plumes of steam, stamping impatiently at being held. It moved her.

Moses’s interrogation apparently yielding acceptable results, Eduard was allowed to livery his horse. As soon as he was out of sight, Malila bolted into the house. Pressured whisperings, rustlings, and hissed instructions from Sally ensued.

“Whatever you do, honey, don’t talk about your patrons or what you call pleasure-sex or anything that goes before or after! Don’t talk about your bleeding times; men get uncomfortable about it. No talk about brothels and nothing about private parts whatever, understand?”

Malila nodded, especially when she could see the pattern emerging.

“And, of course, nothing about money, religion, or politics.”

Malila was now thoroughly confused, assured that all the good topics were prohibited, but promised to make her best attempt. Small talk had never been required of her. In the DUFS, a shared mission prompted shoptalk at every meeting. A shared institutionalized backstory made reminiscences pointless.

The expected knock at the front door came just as Malila was putting on house slippers. Sally had vetoed the boots.

Flushed and short of breath, Malila opened the door, retreating to the kitchen as Sally, the hostess, graciously invited Master Billings in and offered him a seat.

Leaving Moses’s high-backed rocker for its absent master, Eduard sat and began a polite inquiry after Sally’s health, Moses’s health, and then Ethan’s. Sally, with a streak of cruelty that surprised Malila, asked after Eduard’s parents, sisters, and cousins in excruciating detail before finally relenting.

“Would you like some refreshment, Mister Billings? Malila was just brewing up a pot of tea as you came in.”

“Thank you, ma’am. That would be welcome.”

“Oh, Malila?”

Malila, dressed in one of Sally’s altered gowns, a green ribbon sweeping her longer hair into a ponytail to reveal the smooth curve of her neck, made her entrance. Sally had made her practice. Carrying a tray of hot tea and cookies, Malila negotiated the narrow passageway, deposited said tray on the indicated table, breathed, and looked at her guest.

“Since we all met at association, I guess I don’t need to introduce you two,” said Sally, indicating a seat for Malila near him.

“Thank you, Mrs. Stewert. Miss Chiu was kind enough to share a dance or two with me.”

“I understand you are studying to enter university soon, Mr. Billings?” Sally asked, pouring out for them all.

“Yes, ma’am. I expect to take courses during the summer semester and matriculate next September at University of Kentucky.”

“Very commendable. What is your area of study then, Mr. Billings? I am sure Miss Chiu … Malila would be fascinated to know.”

Turning to Malila, Eduard continued, “Right now I am taking courses that will get me into college: differential calculus, matrix algebra, and network fabricational analysis. To be frank, my high-school career was not designed to impress. My father says I need to show I can do the work before he’s going to waste college on me.”

Eduard laughed. His mirth mystified Malila even after Sally laughed and she followed suit.

“It is a great honor, no doubt, to be chosen to enter the academic guild, Mr. Billings. How do you plan to choose your new professors?” Malila asked.

“Ah, Miss Chiu … Malila. Call me Eduard, please! It doesn’t quite work that way in America. Higher learning is not so unified. Some schools seem to be better at one thing than another. Their own faculties set most of the standards.

“I suppose if we have a unifying concept, however, it is the Scholastic Protocol. Before starting school, students agree to return ten years after they leave, whether they graduate or not. They report back the courses, concepts, or anything that helped or hurt them in the real world.

“But to answer you, my classes are chosen for me by the professors, depending on my deficiencies and aptitudes. I don’t get a say first year. The faculty have got some skin in the game, you see. How successful I am will be used to decide whether they, the professors, gain tenure or not. What are the schools like in the Unity, Malila? Is it very different?”

“I never went to academic guild schools, of course, but friends of mine have. ‘Examinations, of any sort, are an artificial measure.’ Or so I am told. They spend a lot of time doing evaluations. They say it is brutal.”

“Yes, sounds serious. What do they study?”

Feeling a little haunted by her ignorance, Malila forged on. “Let me see: Theoretical Literary Criticism, Effective Altruism, and Universal Toleration. Those I remember. Most of their time is spent in study groups, looking at old student evaluations, so they can avoid the bad professors.”

Eduard laughed … until he saw that Malila was not.

“It may seem funny to you, but it works. Our universities are the best in the world,” Malila countered.

After several seconds of silence, Eduard replied, “Ah, yes, I see. As you say, Malila.”

Despite the flaccid response, Malila realized she had lost the exchange. The neglected conversation wandered off into discussions of the weather and the likelihood of an early spring and stayed there, unmolested by controversy.

Malila heard a noise that might have been Ethan, popped up in relief, and moved toward the door.

Eduard rose as well, a short second later. “I believe I must be going as well, Mrs. Stewert. I need to return the horse and start my studies before it gets dark. Miss Malila, it has been a great pleasure and very informative,” he said as he gathered up his things.

Sally rose, turned, and said, “I’ll get Ethan, Malila. Good day to you, Eduard, and remember me to your family. Malila, honey, would you see our guest out for me?” Then she evaporated.

Malila dangled, like a foot-shackled bird near an open window. This first assay into society had been an obvious failure. Eduard must think her stupid, feral, or desperately ignorant. With Sally gone, Malila thanked Eduard for the kindness of his visit and showed him out, in misery.

As she was opening the door for him, an odd gust of cold wind plucked it out of her fingers. Malila made an awkward grab for the door to prevent it from banging against the house. She was startled as her hand closed on Eduard’s hand instead of the door.

His touch was electric. She turned to look into Eduard’s open dark eyes, mere centimeters away. Malila kissed him full on the lips before she snatched her hand back and disappeared inside, letting her liquid laughter linger in the cold air to inform him he had been dismissed.

 

Eduard did not stay dismissed for long. With the coming weeks and his continued visits, Malila learned about a great deal of the outlands in general and about Eduard Billings in particular. In the Unity, Eduard would be an E13 and, with his learning and charm, an S21 at the very least. He would command troops, direct plays, lecture to students, or be a vital part of government. Instead, he still lived with his breeder parents. He didn’t seem submissive.

Malila had never had a lover her own age, which was not uncommon for DUFS officers, as her immediate age group comprised her most determined competitors. Malila was on untrodden ground with Master Billings.

Sally, for her part, was a dutiful chaperone. After weeks of good behavior and as a sign of favor, Malila had been allowed to accompany Master Billings, alone, to his horse on leaving.

“Eduard, I have noticed something.”

“Have you?” A kiss prevented further discussion for a time.

“Your horse seems to be stabled farther and farther from the door each time you visit.”

“Really? How odd.”

They shared whispered conferences, warm kisses, and increasing intimacies. Malila found Eduard, although enthusiastic, also hesitant; it charmed her further. After months without any pleasure-sex, Malila was delighted with Eduard’s eagerness. Understanding her newly minted fertility, however, Malila was unwilling to let things proceed too far. His naïveté allowed her to maneuver the intimacies as she wished. She was, all in all, having a delightful time with Master Eduard Billings.

 

“So if I get this right, the day you turn forty you retire, but your friends never see you again. You go to a retirement home?” Xavier Delarosa asked on one of his visits.

“You make it sound so grim! They have their own villages and their own elected council. There they have their own lives. People send a few messages, but then they get interested in their new lives, and those peter out. They are old, after all. They lose touch with the world, and, of course, they can’t vote on things, not really, so they have no reason to follow the news,” explained Malila.

“But could you go to visit them?” asked Delarosa.

“Who would want that, Captain? You have a cruel streak. The Sisi would see how bad they looked compared to … people, and the citizens would have to look at them, smell them … talk to them?”

“Can you imagine Jesse in one of your retirement centers?” Delarosa asked after a second.

“He is different, isn’t he? That is what Sally says.”

“More than you can guess, but that reminds me of a story.”

Like most of Delarosa’s random discussions, this one led to an odd destination.

“A great empress ordered her favorite general to oversee a new country she had conquered. Rumors of corruption and abuse drifted back to her, and she went on a tour of inspection. She found neat villages with well-fed, industrious, and grateful peasants wherever the general took her.”

“So the stories were false.”

“Unfortunately, the stories were true enough. General Potemkin had built model villages to hide the real misery and just showed his sovereign what he wanted her to see.”

“He betrayed her? How horrible!”

“Yes, but I wonder. I wonder if the empress wanted to be fooled. She was a pretty sharp dealer. She should have been able to see around the corners. It was easier and more pleasant for her to declare herself satisfied and let history blame Potemkin. I wonder who the real villain was.”

From there the conversation went on to the history of empires, the rise of democracies and their falls, and Malila’s thoughts on where Sally got her cookie recipes.

 

Weeks of winter passed rapidly, despite the sameness of the cold, gray days. Clear, frigid nights tempted Malila to stand away from the lights and to watch the sky with its curtain of glittering colored gems until she was chilled and shivering. She found she was effortlessly conscious of the waxing and waning moon, silver against the dense sable screen of night. The Unity was warmer, but she seldom had seen the stars there. And the sky there was never like this.

 

 

Chapter 45

Traveler’s Portion

 

Friday, late in the dark of an evening, Malila heard a knock on the door of the Stewerts’ homestead. Snow swirled in as Moses opened it.

“Greetings, neighbor. It is a cold, harsh night, and I claim the traveler’s portion,” came a booming voice from the dark.

Moses’s laughter followed him out the door as he went to livery Jesse’s animal.

By the time the two returned, Sally had a plate out of the oven for the old man. The four of them sat around the kitchen table, talking as the old man neatly consumed his pot roast, sweet potatoes, and sauerkraut with unconcealed enthusiasm.

By the time Jesse had finished off a slice of pumpkin pie, Sally, her arm around Moses, announced they were going to bed.

Their bedroom door closed with a thump and a brief feminine shriek, leaving Malila and Jesse standing by the front door.

“Ethan will be up soon. I ought to get some sleep.”

“I need to get some sleep too. I’m staying in the bunkhouse … It’s in the stable.”

“I know, Jesse. I sleep in the loft. Will you be warm enough? It is bitter out there.”

“Oh, I think so, my friend. Not as cozy without a girl for company, ’course.”

“Jesse! What would Sally think?” she said before lightly placing a hand on his. “I’ll bring you out a quilt.”

“Not to worry. I’ll be fine.”

Malila kissed him good night. It disturbed her to close the door on him.

 

By next morning, she was indeed up early with Ethan’s demands. After sorting him out, the smell of fresh coffee in the darkened house drew her into the kitchen. In shirtsleeves, wool pants, and thick socks, his boots dripping on the rack near the stove, Jesse sat at the large round table, sipping from a chipped mug and reading a small book by the light of a dim lamp.

“Good morning, my friend, want a cup?” he asked, raising the mug in salute.

“Don’t get up; I can get my own. You are up so early.”

“I’m a light sleeper … You know that, I ’spect?”

Malila poured herself a mug and tasted it with a grimace before amending it with cream and sugar. Malila had decided she must learn to drink coffee, a wholly American beverage, but was stalking her goal with caution.

Moving to the table, Malila sat down next to the old man. The house, other than easing arthritic wooden joints with the occasional click, was quiet.

“Young Master Ethan has gotten you up early, my friend. How are you enjoying his company?”

“He is so fascinating. I’ve never seen a baby before, of course, but he watches me now. I think his eyes are going to be dark like Moses’s, but his hair is fair like Sally’s.”

“Beware, my friend. I can see signs of seduction.”

“Seduction?”

Cave infans! Beware the babe!” Jesse said in mock alarm.

“Now you are making fun of me.”

“Not at all! Name me another race of humans who can convince an otherwise rational adult to feed, house, clothe, cajole, sit up nights, do trigonometry with, and otherwise tolerate them for twenty-odd years for such paltry returns in goods and services. Babies are a transcendent mystery and a perpetual snare for the unwary!”

“Ethan? He is a sweetheart.”

“Too late …”

“One would think you don’t like children, Jesse.”

“I dinna say I wasn’t a fellow victim! I have eight children, some adopted, and they all are grown and useful people … except for Alex, my youngest. He is a bit on the wild side. Comes of his mother dying when he was five … No, I misspoke: it comes of his father being a grieving widower.

“He is just in college now, but I keep him on a tight rein, moneywise, and he knows I show up on the odd occasion. We shall see what becomes of him.

“I love all my children and, thank God, haven’t had to bury any. They are all sweethearts, and they all had messy diapers.”

“Another mystery of the outlands, I suppose,” Malila said in mock seriousness.

Jesse laughed. “Is it? Do you think we have children for our own reasons? I don’t think that is likely, my friend. Babes, now, have you noticed, are their own selves from almost the beginning. It’s like babies command us to birth them, not the other way round, doncha see?” Jesse smiled.

“Dr. Johnstone, you are a terrible man,” she said, hiding her smile behind her coffee mug.

She stood and moved to Moses’s tiny office, just off the kitchen, leaving the door open, and keyed up a camera showing the interior of the milking barns. Malila watched as the ordered chaos of cows lined up for the attentions of the milking machine.

Moses stumbled in and piloted himself to the table, sitting down before opening his eyes and starting when he saw Jesse was already there.

“G’mornin’, Mose! ‘A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of your hands …’” Jesse intoned with glee.

“Careful, old man! Ethan might wind up bunking with you!”

Malila had by now come back into the kitchen and poured Moses a mug of black coffee; he took it with both hands.

“The cows aren’t getting up quite so early today,” Malila said.

“Could be the cold,” responded Jesse.

“They should like the cold, shouldn’t they?” she asked.

Moses stopped to look at her.

“Well, I mean, I had some time, and you showed me how to use your interface, Moses. Back-bred Piedmontese, aren’t they?

Moses’s eyes lit up.

“They are. Come from the mountains of Northern Italy … got here in the early twentieth century,” said Jesse.

“I know,” said Malila, smiling before turning back to talk to Moses.

“It was all right to do that, wasn’t it? I was just looking at your breeding books. I wanted to see the original dame and sire.”

“Moses tells me the whole herd is Piedmontese,” inserted Jesse.

“I know, Jesse,” she said. She then continued, “But why use that breed for dairy at all, when it’s double-muscled?”

“For a fact, the whole herd is a myostatin-null line. The original sire was , and the dame was India, so the same allele with both. Best to be able to breed true with my own stock.” Usually so laconic, this sudden enthusiasm of Moses’s almost made her laugh.

“So you don’t have to buy bull-semen straws to artificially inseminate,” she said.

“To keep the cows in milk,” said Jesse.

“She knows,” said Moses. “Sally and I are trying to be self-sufficient. Originally the breed was kept for milk, you know.”

“So the calves you cull go to meat, and the ’statin-null gene gets you top dollar,” Malila finished for him. “Have you thought of breeding around the year, less likely to depress the meat market prices?”

Jesse laughed. “Mose, my friend, a month ago Malila had no idea where veal came from, and now she’s giving you advice,” observed Jesse, fetching him a sharp blow to his non-coffee-bearing arm from Malila.

“Heck, Jesse. I guess we just found us a girl with some country in her after all.”

Moses lifted his cup in salute to Malila, who responded with the most graceful curtsy consistent with her bulky gown and her own half-filled cup.

When the two men began cooking breakfast in earnest, Malila went, now well warmed, to her loft to dress.

 

Throughout that winter, Jesse would make the long ride from Bath and arrive late on Friday night to claim his traveler’s portion. He would stay until midafternoon on Sunday. Sally always evidenced surprise and annoyance at his appearance … and always had an extra plate in the oven for him.

Jesse, Malila noticed, made a habit of donating to Sally the “stray” ham, “fugitive” five-pound sack of sugar, or “excess” bolt of gingham that he regularly and inexplicably stowed away for his weekly trip to New Carrolton.

After dinner on Saturdays, Jesse, Sally, and Moses usually sat before the fire in the big front room. After tuning up what Malila was told was a banjo, Jesse accompanied Moses as he played his guitar. Sally sometimes sang and sometimes accompanied on a violin, drab from dustings of rosin and worn from generations of fingers. The songs started out silly, with catchy lyrics and infectious tunes, but gradually changed to haunting ballads, long refrains of lost loves and last times set to tunes than made her weep.

Jonathan Ashton, Jonathan Ashton, Jonathan Ashton was lost in the fire.

It was in the year of the great conflagration; Jonathan Ashton was lost in the fire.

He went for a soldier; he went for a soldier, to keep his land and his house and his wife.

The fire it took him; the fire it took him. He left his land and gave up his life.

Jonathan Ashton, he had a wee baby; his wife bore the son through the flame and the strife.

His son is a grown man and fights for his own land. Jon Ashton’s son has Jon Ashton’s life.

 

Malila watched Jesse’s hands as they flashed along the frets of the odd instrument. Stanza followed stanza, sad, sweet words making her nostalgic for what she did not know.

Later as they talked quietly, Malila moved to examine the old man’s hands. When she touched him, Jesse looked up until their eyes met, and then he submitted. Malila wondered what he saw when he looked at her. She turned his large, compliant hand over and back, studying the blue veins that writhed just under the skin, the odd fine lines of old scars, and the long and regular fingers. They were muscular hands but lacking Moses’s calluses. The old man laughed uneasily as her examination continued.

“People used to say you could read a man’s past and his future by looking at his hands. I’ll bet you haven’t seen anyone’s with more of both than this one, my friend.”

Malila smiled but did not relinquish Jesse’s hand.

The old man knew more about her than anyone in her life, even Hecate. He had seen her, her body, her failings, her despondency, her fears, and her meanness … and he had chosen to be her friend. It felt good.

The snowbank, in the lee of the house, kept winter long after the rest of the landscape had surrendered to the green of spring. In addition to the blue jays, cardinals, house finches, sparrows, and chickadees, now the bread crumbs summoned several kinds of yellow birds that would “see-see-see” each other away from the charity. The next week, they were gone, moving north with the sun.

Malila smiled at herself. Where before she had expended so much effort on seconds and minutes, now time inhabited the slow broadening of the days, the dance of a young infant’s development, the gradual evolution of a snowbank in the lee of the house, and her growing attachment to these savages of the outlands.

 

Chapter 46

Stamping Ground

Eastern Kentucky, RSA

Midafternoon, April 8, 2129

Malila sat next to Sally and rocked Ethan as Moses walked alongside the wagon. The land undulated toward them at the slow pace of the mules, with its moist, fetid, fecund smell blowing from across the fields and up from every waterway. The black and white of winter had retreated with the flashing colors of strange birds and the spread of greens across the expanses, even into the ruts of the road. The sun warmed her eyelids as she dozed.

For the first time since her arrival, Malila was away from the farm, on the way to some sort of festival. The mood among the outlanders, however, was grim. It was a two days’ trip to the meeting place. They would be there just three days before returning the two days home.

The light buckboard, with scant provisions and bivouac gear, was an easy load even on the unpaved and winter-rutted roads. Once they got to Worthville, however, the road was macadamized and widened. At every turn, they met another family going in the same direction and with the same somber air about them. Irrepressible children, nonetheless, orbited among the growing number of slowly moving wagons, checking in and extorting a “toll” in the form of almond “shekel” cookies baked for the purpose.

Voices were hushed and words perfunctory. Sally had Ethan to feed and the rolling household to maintain. Moses appeared distracted, almost morose. Malila was left to her own devices. Oddly, they had brought along a yearling lamb, a gorgeous and beguiling creature, pure white with a black muzzle and a tail in a constant clockwise spin. He rode inside the buckboard for the trip. At the evening’s stop, Moses lifted him down, placing him in a halter before letting him graze. Wherever they stopped for the night, the wayside campsite filled up by late afternoon with other families, each with their lambs. There was little of the busy socializing that Malila had grown to expect among the outlanders.

By the second day, Malila had settled into the rhythm of a long trip. Swaying to the lurch and pull of the horses at their stolid pace, she watched as each new hill was approached, climbed, and discarded, like a passing wave. After cresting a modest rise that afternoon, she caught her first glimpse of Stamping Ground, laid out before them.

Entering the large meadow from every direction, wagons were stopped by marshals wearing red armbands. When it was their turn, they were directed west to a site near the tree line, into a spot with “Stewert, S&M, and etc.” neatly printed on a lath stake.

The next several hours were spent making the site a comfortable, if simple, encampment. Moses erected tents for himself and Sally, for Ethan and Malila, and another for cooking. Tent sites were designated for Captain Delarosa and Jesse, whenever they would arrive. Throughout that afternoon, the subdued gathering of outlanders swelled until the huge area was filled except for broad avenues left for travel, fresh privies, and water stations for each section of tents. A large wooden cross stood in the east with a purple sash draped around it.

 

The initial novelty having rubbed off on the hard seat, Malila was glad to stop traveling. As instructed, she led the lamb on a tether to a lath enclosure, up a somewhat-muddy footpath to the graveled main road. The attendant, a woman near her own age and solemn like all the outlanders she had met the last few days, took the lamb and placed it in a stall. With the now-unneeded tether, Malila was handed the receipt, a short section of lath dyed crimson with a number burned into it, without any additional words.

As she retraced her steps, Malila noted how good she felt. She had enjoyed being on the road again. It reminded her of the trek with Jesse. As difficult as that had been, the pleasure of discovering each new valley and river was like one of Jesse’s poems: dramatic, cadenced, and memorable.

Spring had erupted even in the short time they’d been traveling. The moist breezes were heavy with the fecund smell of opened earth. The woods, so monochromatic during the snows of winter, appeared indistinct, almost frothy, in the green waves that swept over them. Brassy green, yellow green, the purple red of small trees, and the wispy white smoke of others alternated with each new vista. Up higher on the hills she could see dark greens and impossibly vivid masses of scarlet flowers. The outlands seethed with new life.

She was looking forward to this gathering, whatever it was. Sally called it the Return. Like much of what she had seen in the outlands over the last four months, the name was at once prosaic and subtle. Several days of meeting new faces and enjoying new experiences would be a treat after being on an isolated farm for the entire winter.

And then she recognized one more reason she felt so good. The background hum from her O-A had actually vanished. It had been there since that terrible night while she’d awaited her fate in the dark prison cell at the Battry. Ever since then, the dull visceral hum had been a part of each waking moment. At times, it had been an aching reminder of her loss. She had eventually been able to ignore it. People could get used to anything, Jesse had told her once. And now it was gone. She felt buoyant, uplifted, and a little homesick. The hum, when she thought of it, was the last vestige of her belonging to the Unity. She was now, well and truly, abandoned to the lands beyond the Rampart.

 

Instead of the usual pleasant dinner conversation, they ate their evening meal in silence. Malila, Xavier, Moses, and Sally all sat down to a rather parsimonious meal of flatbread, cheese, and dried fruit. Today Moses extended the usual prayer aloud and made some reference to “passion,” confusing Malila even more. Sally had made a point that sexual encounters among outlanders were discouraged unless the partners were registered with the association.

Moses and Xavier lost the toss for kitchen duty, and Malila, tired from the journey, was asleep before Ethan.

Next morning, the somber atmosphere of the encampment continued. Malila sought some relief from it by playing with Ethan as he endeavored to roll over. Numerous attempts involving a chubby leg waving tentatively in the air ended in failure. Finally, with a little more arching of his back and a sudden revolution, he triumphed. Ethan’s worried look of surprise changed to a grin and a shriek of laughter when Malila applauded.

“Is that my grandbaby? What a darling! He looks just like you when you were his age.”

A woman, taller but very much built along the same lines as Sally, bustled in, trailing a beaming Sally. Malila suppressed an impulse to salute.

She was dressed in a dark, rather plain dress with a high collar but wore pointy-toed tooled leather boots that came to her midcalf. The older woman’s chestnut hair, streaked with silver, was caught up into a loose bun, held in place by a leather band and secured by a wooden pin.

“You must be Malila. Pleased to meet you, honey. I’m Sally’s ma. I live way over in Campton in Wolfe County with my new mister. Sally’s dad was killed almost eight years ago now. ‘Till death do us part’ and all. I knew Sally’d make a wonderful mother. She has been singing you to high heaven all morning. I just had to meet you. I’m Tabitha, but call me Tabbie; everyone does.”

Her monologue continued, leaving Malila feeling winded. By the time Tabbie had finished, she was in possession of the best seat, a mug of hot tea with “a splash of milk and one-and-a-half sugars” in it, and Ethan.

Sally beamed as she watched her son’s initial uncertainty dissolve into happy acceptance of his grandmother. By the time Ethan had circled around to Malila again, he was ready for a nap. She put him down into his travel crib, all carefully supervised by Tabbie.

“Has Malila earned her woman’s mark yet, Sally?” Tabbie asked.

Sally smiled. “Just the other day. Ethan turned four months’ old the beginning of the month, and he was seven days old when Malila came to stay.”

“Have you chosen a pattern yet? This will be your first one, won’t it? You must give some thought to the pattern, honey.”

Sally pulled out a page of brown paper with dark marks on it. “Of course I have. I thought I would use a daisy at the end.”

“Yes, a finial. A daisy is a good choice, especially for a woman’s mark. I like that. Now you can do a wreath as Ethan was born so close to the Coming. Nancy Burton in McAfee, she does a snake with its tail in its mouth. There are all kinds of basic shapes, you know, hun.”

“I wanted to keep the vine, so’s people can realize the connection between us.”

The older woman paused to look at her daughter and smiled. “That is sweet, Sally. Your father would have liked that.”

Shaking her head slightly, Tabbie continued, “Now we have to add the ousqua[1], the moon cycles, and the vines.”

The two women huddled over the paper adding and subtracting for hours, while Malila watched from a distance with growing uncertainty.

Finally, Sally gave her approval, and Malila was allowed to see the final design: graceful lines and crescent moons disguised as the leaves of a sinuous vine terminated in a seven-petaled daisy. It was primitive and elegant in its own way with lines dividing and rejoining in a complicated dance that made the drawing seem to writhe on the paper.

“What do you do, now that you have a design?” Malila asked.

“Stay right here. I’ve my needles in my bag, and we can sterilize them right here,” said Tabbie as she started to rise.

“I don’t know about this,” Malila said, her uncertainty finally bearing fruit.

“Oh, Malila, child, everyone thinks the pain is too much … but if you don’t want to, we don’t have to. There will be other times and other association meetings. Not to worry.”

Tabbie turned and talked animatedly to Sally about her new farm and the husband she had to run it for her.

Malila watched Ethan as he slept. It was not the pain … she didn’t think. It was the idea of leaving forever the anonymity of the Unity. She would be a marked woman … literally. She shivered.

Ethan embodied, in his small form, everything she longed for in the Unity. Ethan, given protection, love, and care, would grow and thrive. His laugh, like the first quizzical grimace he had shared with her on her arrival, was now a part of her. His changing form, his imperfections, his gestures, his smell … all of it was already indelible. She would be grafted to his life and he to hers whether marked or not.

In the end, she asked Tabbie to ink her and watched an awakened Ethan playing with Sally during the ordeal. It helped. He made sense of it for her.

 

 

[1] A traditional tattoo design borrowed from the Cherokee after the Meltdown.

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