Birthmarked Page 18

"What's so funny?" Sephie asked.

"I could about kill for an orange," Gaia said.

The doctors laughed, and the sound was an unaccustomed counterpoint to the noise of their spoons gracing their plates. As Gaia ate her beef-flavored stew, she fingered the little mirror that Sephie had returned to her, flipping it over, thinking of how much her life had changed in such a short time. Less than three weeks before, she'd seen such luxuries as those in Tom and Dora 's home only at the Tvaltar, with a sheen of glamour and impossibility. She'd never guessed that oranges could be available for a price in an open market five kilometers from her home. She'd never known a breech baby could be completely turned in the womb. She had still believed both her parents were alive. This was a different world inside the wall, cruel and enticing both.

"It's a pretty bauble," one of the women said. Her name was Cotty, and her soft black hair curled thickly around her lined face. She picked up the mirror now, eyeing herself in the glass, and she made a little primping motion with her bangs that made Gaia smile.

"Keep it," Gaia said.

"Oh, no. I couldn't."

"I have no use for it," Gaia said.

Cotty handed it back, patting Gaia's hand in the process. Cotty's fingers were a rich, even brown, several shades darker than Gaia's tan hand. "Don't say that," Cotty said. "Everything has value in here. You 11 see. You can trade it for something you want."

"Maybe with a guard," Sephie said. "For food. Or knitting yarn."

"Or a novel," Myrna added.

Gaia held it doubtfully. "How was your day?" she asked Myrna politely.

Myrna's striking black eyebrows lifted while she slowly took another bite of her bread. "I performed a surgery on a burst appendix, thank you very much for asking."

Gaia thought at first she must be joking, but Sephie asked her a question or two about the procedure, and Myrna answered curtly.

"Gaia was a steady assistant today," Sephie said. "You should take her with you next time. Teach her a thing or two."

Myrna's level black eyes studied Gaia for a moment. "They should have left her outside the wall where at least she could do no harm to anyone that matters," Myrna said.

Gaia s resentment flared, but she did not respond.

"Really, Myrna," Sephie said mildly. "Give her some credit."

"Who's been tending the mothers in my sector since I was arrested?" Gaia asked.

Cotty, Myrna, and Sephie exchanged glances but didn't speak.

"Haven't any of you been going out?" Gaia asked more urgently.

Sephie set a hand on Gaia's knee. "Be calm, Gaia. None of us has ever gone outside the wall. That's nothing new."

"But then, who's taking care of my deliveries?" Gaia asked. "Did the Enclave send out some other midwife?"

"There must be half a dozen midwives out there," Myrna said carelessly.

But Gaia shook her head. She and her mother had been the only midwives in Western Sector Three, and they were often shorthanded.

"Perhaps-- " she began, thinking aloud. Could the mothers be going to Western Sector Two to find a midwife? Did they go into labor alone, with no help? She shook her head, frustrated, and with her last bite of bread she stood to pace the room. Stuck here in prison, she was no good to anyone.

Above there was a fluttering at the window, and Gaia looked up, startled to see a pigeon sitting on the ledge of the center window. The other women made no comment, as if it would take more than a pigeon to rouse them from the protective apathy that cocooned their hearts. Gaia secretly hoped the bird would fly in and stir up the gloomy cell with its flapping wings and chaos, but it merely hopped on the sill, made a squawking noise, and flew away again.

Gaia turned slowly to see the women: Cotty, Sephie, and Myrna sat on two benches, the last crumbs of their dinners before them. Four other women rested on the other two benches, none of them speaking.

"When's the last time any of you looked out those windows?" Gaia asked.

They looked at her, and then their faces turned upward.

Myrna muttered something that no one answered. Gaia walked to the nearest bench, and bent to look beneath it. Sephie cleared her feet out of the way.

"What are you thinking?" Sephie said.

Gaia gave the bench a little pull, and then a little shove. It had been nailed to the floor, but the nails were rusted and old. If she could get out that window, she could search for her mother again. "Get up," she said, and Sephie and Myrna stood.

"I don't believe this," Myrna said.

Gaia gave the bench a good kick, and it rattled free from its nails. "Help me," Gaia said, and Sephie took an end of the bench so they could carry it over beneath the third window.

By now the other women were up, examining the other three benches. Two were securely bolted down, but the last was soon wrenched from its old nails. The excitement in the cell was palpable as they carried the second loose bench under the window, too.

Gaia looked up at the windows, judging their distance above the floor of the cell to be five meters or higher. Each bench was a couple of meters long, but stacked on each other, they would only come as high as Gaia's chest.

Myrna was the first to go back and sit down. "Tell me when any of you grows another two meters," she said.

But Gaia wasn't ready to give up. She hauled one bench to the corner and tipped it up. Then she angled the lower edge out slightly to create a makeshift ladder. Bracing herself against the wall, she climbed the tipped underbelly of the bench, standing unsteadily on the top edge.

"Don't fall," Sephie said.

"Go ahead and fall," Myrna said. "Cotty here will sew you up. Just don't break the bench or we'll have nothing to sit on."

Gaia climbed back down and looked closely at both benches, seeing if the answer lay in breaking one or both of them, and constructing a ladder from the pieces. But she had no nails, and no tools, and the benches were sturdily made. She looked up again longingly at the windows.

Then Cotty made a little coughing noise from the doorway to the bedrooms.

"Would these help?" she asked. She held two blankets, and Gaia knew there was one for each of the prisoners, a total of eight in all.

"Wait, Gaia. Do you know what's on the other side of that wall?" Cotty asked.

"Is it any different than what's in here?" Myrna asked.

Gaia ignored Myrna's pessimism and answered Cotty. "Does it matter? If we can look out, we can climb out. We'll find a way."

What seemed impossible gradually began to change. They had to stop when it was time for the evening walk, but afterward they continued. Working together, Sephie, Cotty, and Gaia experimented with tying the two benches together, overlapping the wood and wrapping the blankets tightly around them. The squares of sunlight that shone through the windows lifted along the wall toward the ceiling and then vanished as the sun went down. Evening gloom filled the room before at last they leaned a solid structure into the corner of the cell. It reached more than three meters high, but fell short nearly two meters from the window. The distance was daunting.

"It's all right," Gaia said. "Myrna, go listen at the door. Sephie and Cotty, help me up."

She climbed gingerly up the benches, gripping hard at the wood and digging her knees into the blankets' folds. She could smell the cool, gritty stone of the wall against her face and once, when her balance shifted, she could feel the whole structure begin to fall away.

"Push it in!" she said urgently. "Hold it against the wall."

The other women came to help, too, steadying the structure from below. Gaia caught her breath, and turned, keeping her back to the wall. Sweat broke out on her face and neck as she slowly straightened, standing on her heels on the uppermost ledge of the tied benches. Her eyes were still a good ten centimeters below the edge of the window, but now she lifted her left hand, holding the mirror shed received that morning, and extending her arm upward, she was able to look into the bit of glass, and out to the violet sky and the roofs of the twilit city.

Gaia gasped with pleasure and amazement, instantly forget' ting her precarious footing.

"Can you see anything?" Sephie asked from below.

"Yes. The city," Gaia said. "And the sky."

Below, the women murmured their approval and excitement.

"Can you reach the window?" Cotty asked.

Gaia nodded. "If I turned, I could, I'm sure, but I can 't turn while I'm up here."

"Is there anything to attach a rope to?" Cotty asked.

Gaia squinted into the mirror, inspecting the edges of the opening. "I don' t know."

"Come down. Quickly," Myrna said. "The guard's coming."

Gaia scrambled down in a panic.

"Hurry!" Sephie said.

All eight women tore at the blankets, pulling them apart, and they dragged the benches breathlessly back to their old places. "Quick, you there," Sephie said, pointing. "To your beds!"

Half the women fled so that when the guards came around the corner, there were only a few women left sitting in the dim common room.

Gaia's heart was racing. She kept her arms crossed, her eyes down, and in the dim light she saw a dark spot on her wrist. It was a narrow line of blood, and she hid her scratched wrist quickly beneath the sleeve of her other arm, applying pressure. "Persephone Frank?" the guard said.

Gaia felt Sephie stiffen beside her on the bench. Her round face had never looked so much like the moon, solemn and distant.

"Yes?" Sephie asked.

"Yer to come with me," he said.

Gaia looked up in dread, not knowing what this could mean. Myrna stood.

"What are you taking her for?" Myrna said in her dry, hard voice.

The guard said nothing.

"It's late," Myrna pressed him. "Will she be back tonight?"

Sephie turned and gave Gaia a quick hug. "Be careful," Sephie whispered. "Stay strong."

"Sephie!" Gaia whispered, suddenly afraid for her.

Sephie turned to hug Myrna, too, and her pale fingers clutched the fabric on Myrna's shoulder into gray puckers. Then the guard was taking Sephie's arm.

"Release me," Sephie said, wresting her arm free. "I'm coming."

Gotty began to sob, and the other women came from the bedrooms, disturbed by the commotion. "Sephie!" they cried.

But Sephie was preceding the guard out the door, her chin level, her calm expression steeled to endure whatever might come. The heavy door closed with a tight, suffocating bang.

"What will they do to her?" Gaia asked in a hushed voice, turning to Myrna.

Myrna shrugged, turning toward the corner, running a hand slowly along the wall.

"Myrna!" Gaia demanded. "What will they do?"

Myrna sent her a scathing glance. "Why ask me, idiot? I don't know anything."

"But, don't you care?" Gaia asked.

Myrna turned away without answering, closed her eyes, and leaned her forehead against the wall. She lifted one heavy fist and rested it near her face, as if the only thing she could bear was to merge herself into the stone. In that one stoic, lonely gesture, Myrna revealed an intensity of suffering that stunned Gaia.

"Oh, no," Gaia whispered, refusing to believe that harm could come to Sephie. Sephie was so good, so generous.

Gaia sagged down upon one of the benches. Slowly the other women, even Myrna, went to their beds, but Gaia kept her gaze on the third window and the deepening purple square of sky. She didn't know what she was listening for, but she listened late into the night, not daring to think of her mother, hoping only that the guards would bring Sephie back.

Chapter 13 Birthmarked

THE FIRST NIGHT AFTER SEPHIE was taken away, Gaia tried to rally the others to help with the benches again, but Myrna, sitting stubbornly, spoke in a low, sharp voice. "You're putting all of us at risk with your foolish games."

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