Birthmarked Page 14

"Why are you all here?" Gaia asked.

Sephie s eyebrows lifted in surprise. "We're physicians."

"But why are you in jail?" Gaia insisted.

"Unbelievable," one of the other women said from the farthest bench. She was a white-haired woman with startlingly black eyebrows and a narrow nose, and she looked back my flinchingly at Gaia. Strangely, her lack of sympathy helped Gaia pull herself together, back from the edge of despair.

"Be quiet, Myrna," Sephie said. She sat next to Gaia on the bench and smoothed her skirt in a tidy way over her knees. "We're all accused of crimes against the state, like falsifying the results of genetic tests, or helping women who want abortions, or not killing faulty babies."

"You've done that?" Gaia asked, astounded.

"I say we're accused" Sephie corrected. "As accused doctors, we can be kept here at the will of the Enclave and brought out only when we're needed. It's absurd, really."

It sounded atrocious to Gaia. "Why do you cooperate?"

Sephie smiled, and several of the women shifted on the benches. "What choice do we have?" Sephie said. "If we refuse, we'll be executed like that couple today. It's not like we're in our childbearing years anymore. If it weren't for our expertise, we'd be expendable already."

"I don't understand," Gaia said. "Your families and friends must object to this. Can't they get you out?"

Sephie shook her head. "You're so naive, Gaia. I'm afraid you'll find not everything is rosy in the Enclave. Our friends are afraid, and rightly so. Besides, every now and then one of us is cleared and released. We live for that possibility."

Gaia gazed upward, toward the middle of the three windows where there was a distant square of gray sky. The more she learned about the Enclave, the more she felt betrayed. It was like they'd deliberately deceived the people outside the wall, making them believe life inside the wall was this ideal existence, this golden life, and all the while it was this beautiful place of cruelty and injustice. This place had killed her father, one of the best, dearest people imaginable. The Square of the Bastion had been filled today with a multitude of seemingly normal but utterly heartless citizens. Would she have be-come like all the others if she had been raised here, too?

"I don't understand this place," Gaia said.

The black-browed woman on the farthest bench gave a mirthless laugh. "Join the club," said Myrna dryly.

Gaia leaned forward, hiding her face in her hands. Her right cheek was swelling with a new bruise, and the scarred skin of her left cheek was familiarly rippled against her palm. Her new loss hurt far more, yet it had no outward scar. Her hair slipped forward around her like a curtain, and she gave a moan of despair. Her father. She felt a weight in her heart that made it hard to take a breath. It was possible that the one glimpse she'd had of her mother that morning might be the last she would ever have.

"There, there," a dark-skinned women crooned, rubbing a soothing hand on Gaia s shoulder.

The kindness triggered the tears Gaia had tried to hold back, and sobs wracked through her. Sephie tried to pull her against her for comfort, but Gaia curled away from them all and hunched in a ball along the wooden bench, her face to the wall. For a long while, Gaia was lost to blind, wordless misery. No light or tender words could penetrate her sorrow, while over and over she silently cried out for her lost father. Someone tucked a blanket around her and something soft under her head, and then sleep mercifully overtook her.

Chapter 10 Blueberries in the Unlake

As A GIRL, Gaia taught herself to lie so carefully in her sleep that she never became entangled in her mosquito netting, but when morning turned the sky a rosy, dry pink and it no longer mattered to be still, she sometimes rolled, half asleep, until the skin of her cheek touched unexpectedly against the cool, gauzy material. Then the blind expectation of suffocation woke her fully. She would gasp before she remembered, oh, it's just the bed net. Then she would settle back on her pillow and stretch a languid hand upward toward the apex of the gossamer tent.

The summer she turned eleven, her parents moved her bed from the loft to the back porch where she could catch any breeze. One morning the wind chime was silent, and the great heavy water urn was motionless on its chain. Water had condensed on the outside surface, and the drops slicked together near the bottom for her to watch as they swelled and fell.

She slipped her bare feet to the worn boards of the porch and pushed the mosquito net aside to see the soft summer light infusing the air of the backyard. She could see the rain barrel at the corner of the porch, and beyond, near the slope, the laundry lines and the chicken coop.

A pullet had laid her first egg two days before, and Gaia was curious to see if she'd laid another. Lifting her blue nightgown to keep the hem from skimming the grass, she felt the coolness of dew brush her ankles. She had almost reached the coop be fore she saw that the door was unlatched and ajar.

With a sinking feeling, Gaia looked inside the coop. The pullet and another layer were both missing, though the six others were contentedly on their roosts. Seeing Gaia, the chickens let up a noise and started out past her toes, ready to feed on the bugs in the uncut grass.

Gaia flew back across the yard and jumped loudly onto the porch. "Mom!" she yelled. "Dad! I think someone stole two of our chickens." She hurried through the kitchen, crossed the living area and peeked behind the curtain to her parents' bed. Two lumps were sprawled among the blankets, and her dad's hand was curved upon her mother's shoulder. "Mom," she said again.

Bonnie lay closest to the window, hunched away from her father, and it struck Gaia that it was odd for her parents to be in bed later than she was. Uncertain, she clutched the curtain and drew one foot on top of the other.

"I think someone stole two of our chickens," Gaia said again, more quietly.

Then her mother did a peculiar thing. She lifted an arm over her eyes so her face was lost behind her elbow and she murmured one soft word: "Jasper."

In answer, Gaia's father put a kiss on her mother's shoulder and rolled to put his feet on the floor.

"Hey, sunshine," Jasper said to Gaia. "Let's let your mother get a little sleep, shall we? She came in late last night." He was already reaching for a shirt, and Gaia stepped back, letting the curtain fall.

She felt odd, as if she'd witnessed some small, silent, previously invisible language between her parents that excluded her, and then he came around the curtain, fully dressed. He smiled at her and rubbed his unshaven jaw.

"Get your shoes," he said softly, and she shoved her bare feet into her loafers.

Her father preceded her, his broad shoulders and easy gait conveying no sense of alarm, and with his calmness she felt her own uneasiness receding. He handled the latch for a quick inspection, then opened wide the door so she could see under his arm to the dim interior and the empty roosts. Dust motes flickered in a beam of sunlight.

"Definitely gone," he said. "And you re sure you locked the coop last night?"

She nodded up at him. "They were all there then. I'm positive."

His eyebrows lifted and he pushed out his lips, then took another look at the latch. "Well, whoever took them did it quietly. You didn't hear anything in the night?"

She said she didn't. While he collected the eggs, she looked back at the porch, to the bed net falling like a pale gray veil from the hook above. She realized then that some stranger must have been this close to her in the night. She took a step nearer her father.

"Don 't you worry," he said, his voice warm and reassuring. He cradled five eggs along one arm. His free hand came to her shoulder, and she linked her arm around his waist. "Let's go pick some blueberries for your mom. We'll be back before she even knows we're gone."

"Like this?" she asked, plucking at her nightgown.

He smiled at her attire. "Definitely. Though we should take the hats. And buckets. I'll get them. Meet me around front."

By the time Gaia walked around the house, he was coming out the front door, minus the eggs, and carrying their hats and a couple of one-liter buckets. He held out his hand to clasp hers warmly, and then he began to whistle a low, complicated tune. Gaia felt a little shy in her nightgown as they passed the waking houses, but as they descended a narrow dirt path into the unlake, she liked the light, airy way the blue fabric floated around her knees. The brim of her hat created a familiar shadow above her eyelashes, and she could smell the sweet scents of the big bluestem, honeysuckle, nannyberry, and wildflowers that grew in sweeping patches between the rocks.

Once they passed below the bay of boulders, they were soon among the blueberries, and Jasper handed her a bucket. The first berry dropped with a metallic ping into the bottom.

"Who do you suppose stole our chickens?" Gaia asked. "Cant we do anything about them?"

"Like what?"

"I don't know. Go look for them?" It sounded unlikely as soon as she said it.

Her father adjusted his hat back on his head so she could see his face. His brown eyebrows were drawn in thick, expressive curves, and his jaw line was strong, with a shadow of stubble delineating it from his neck. His complexion, slightly darker than her own, was a rich tan color, and it ran deeper on his forearms where his sleeves were usually rolled back.

"Think about it, Gaia," he said gently. "Whoever took those chickens must have needed them a lot more than we did."

She was surprised. "But does that mean anyone could take anything from us and you wouldn't care?" she asked.

He returned to picking berries. "No. Of course not."

There were many things about her parents that she'd begun to wonder about lately. A few weeks earlier, Gaia had gone to her friend Emily's birthday party. Emily and Kyle and Gaia had been the only three at the party, and Gaia had enjoyed herself hugely. Then, only yesterday, Gaia had discovered that Sasha and two other girls had been invited to Emily's party, too, but they had all refused to go if Gaia would be there. Gaia's mother had been completely unconcerned by the news. "Yes, I heard about those catty girls," she'd said when Gaia told her. "Emily s a real friend."

Now her father, too, was undisturbed by events that troubled Gaia. It should matter that people were mean to Gaia and stealing her family's chickens, so why didn't her parents get upset? Maybe, as her mother had once said, it had something to do with depth.

When she looked up at her father again, he had moved farther away, and beyond him the unlake sloped steadily down' ward. Clumps of birch and aspen flickered their oval leaves, but mostly the view encompassed brush and grasses and wild' flowers.

"Dad," she called. "Did you ever know anybody who knew what it was like when the unlake was full of water?"

He looked up from under the brim of his hat and waved her over. "No. It's been empty for going on three hundred years." He pointed. "They piped most of it south, and then the springs dried up."

"Who's 'they'? What happened to them?" She came nearer and picked a few more berries.

"I don't know, really," he said. He picked steadily as he talked. "There are other people out there, somewhere, because we still get a few wandering in from time to time. Maybe dozen in the last decade, like Josh, that storyteller over in Eastern Sector One. You remember him. One winter a horse came in, all saddled up, but it died shortly after."

"Really? What happened to its rider?"

"We don't know. I was a teenager then. We searched a long time out in the wasteland, but we didn't find anyone."

Gaia was fascinated by the possibility of other people and other times. "What was it like, I wonder. Way back."

Her father smiled. "In the cool age, people used to have satellites passing electrical signals all over the world, and cars and roads and all those things we see in the films at the Tvaltar, but that's all gone. It all took energy. Like magic."

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