Ash and Dust
By Jennifer Mason-Black
12 December 2011
Part 1 of 2
There's a black market in breastmilk here. Antibiotics have gone the way of herds of cows, flocks of goats, part of before, not now, so breastmilk is used to treat everything from conjunctivitis to dysentery. Some simply drink it for pleasure, though, as much an indulgence as a fifty-year-old scotch once was, the taste equal parts sweetness and power. If I could spare, if I withheld from my children a little of what my body burns from itself, I could trade it for extras—extra water, extra food, extra space in the dome when the storms come. There are women who do, and I can't find fault with them. Months spent here have made commodities of our bodies, women trading what they can, sometimes for themselves, but more often for their children.
Or their families. Lovely Sela—quiet, gentle, and just barely fourteen—lives in the tent next to mine with her grandmother and two younger brothers. Her skin glows, the color of cinnamon bark, her eyes quick to light with humor. She comes to me in the night, weeping with pain, and I sit with her through the longest hour, until she passes a body no longer than a finger.
"What is it," she asks. I take my time considering the answer as I wrap the tiny form in a piece torn from a swaddling cloth and wrap my mind around her ignorance. The wind is hot, the air drying Sela's blood on my hands, her thighs. I collect other cloths, pulled from the pile I use as a pillow, and press them between her legs.
"It's a child that didn't take."
She says nothing, just pulls her legs closer to her. The smell of her, of smoke and death and hunger and a thousand other things makes me want to walk out past the boundary of the tent city, past the fences, continue on any direction that will take me from this place, from this life that feels like . . . no, that doesn't feel like anything at all, that just is, this numbing, stupefying existence.
Instead, I think carefully about my language. The woman I once was would have said, "These things he does to you are wrong. Tell him no, stay with me, you'll be safe. You deserve to be loved, not used."
The woman I am now gives her, this small beautiful motherless child, a mouthful of precious water and dampens a final rag with what spit I can conjure in order to wipe the blood from her. "You must tell him to leave you alone for a bit. A few weeks at least. Your body needs to heal. And you must ask him to think of you. You do not want another child to grow. He can," and I fade off, not knowing how to explain the things she experiences in the dark, in the sandy space between my tent and hers as her grandmother waits inside for the extras Sela's body buys.
"Tell him to be careful," I say, and run my hand over the thick curls on her head, lace my fingers through hers, my skin a darker shadow of her own.
Once there were trees here. Not when I was a child. Real trees, tall and leafy and full of grace, vanished during my grandmother's lifetime. Even I can remember rain, though, like a dream of a loved one long gone, and on nights when the sleep will not come I lay awake and listen for its soft rhythm.
The land has grown sullen, angry. The soil holds nothing, just blows in dense clouds that choke travelers when the wind picks up speed over the great emptiness. We were not meant to be here long. A month, maybe two, they said at first, when the fires burned and the colonies opened their doors wide for the final exodus from Earth. Then, three months, six. Then they stopped talking time at all, just directions and rules and reminders not to forget the laws of a civilized society.
Which civilization, though? Which of the ones that brought us here are we to emulate now?
Talis crouches beside me as we watch our daughters draw lines in the dirt together. It is great fun, these lines, this dirt. Magic dances in their eyes as Nyla practices the pictographs known only by toddlers. Bethel stirs in my arms and pats my breast with one hand, strokes my chin, picks at a mole on my neck. Mine, her hands say, and I brush at her hair as my milk begins to flow.
"Your husband. He is . . . he has died." Talis speaks the same halting language we've all come to share. A mishmash of hand gestures and the blandest of words compiled from all our native tongues. I think of Aligha, of conversations that flowed through the night until morning surprised us with her light, until we fell into bed, arms and legs and selves tangled tightly together, drunk on the pleasure of our minds, our words, her hand in mine as I slept.
"No husband," I say.
Talis shrugs. Once I'd forgotten how expressive bodies could be. Now, in everyone, I see the subtleties speech obscures. In the rise of Talis's shoulders there is compassion, kinship, understanding of the roads we've traveled to arrive here.
"She is a Blessing then."
Blessing. Like the fingerling Sela passed, like the child that grows in Talis, like far too many of the little ones here, conceived in violence against soul, if not against body. The woman I once was would have railed against the term.
"Her father was good," I say. For a moment I can almost hear Bren, almost feel his gentle fingers on my wrist. "Kind. And he is dead. But never my husband."
Talis shrugs again and rests her hand against mine as we watch our daughters play.
The storms travel great distances to reach us. We can see them building far away, nothing in the land to obstruct our view. Ink pours into the sky as the winds pick up. Worse, sometimes, is when the winds dry up altogether, as if the world holds its breath, the pressure building until it rips its way out and shrieks across the plains. We can do nothing but flee then, as the steel cables holding the tents are collapsed down with the flick of levers. The camp was designed to protect property, not people. The tents are safe. We are not. The lucky make it into the dome, packed so tightly that there's barely room to breathe. The unlucky wail outside, beat their hands on the walls.
Sometimes they remain after, their bodies sprawled against a fence, tangled in the debris. They feel boneless when we carry them to be buried with the rest of the trash. Other times they vanish altogether, blown like tumbleweeds to somewhere else. When that happens I allow myself the thought that they have been given a new life far from here, in some corner of the world still green, still alive.
And sometimes they live. Once, a young woman survived. We came out to find her sitting untouched among the sea of flattened tents. The others pushed me to the head of the crowd, for her belly was nearly ripe. I carried Nyla in my arms, and with each step closer the urge to flee grew. Please, I chanted to myself, patting Nyla's bottom as I went, please please please, the emptiness that lived within me opening wider as I neared.
The woman sat there, rocking back and forth, and as I reached her she fell forward into my arms, so I held her and Nyla both. She cried in the dry-eyed fashion our waterless bodies required. I held her, and the others came forward and held her, and we comforted her with our clumsy words and eloquent hands, and from that night forward she was never alone again.
Not even when she died. I was with her, as I am with all the women who give birth here, their fertility a crude joke in the barrenness that surrounds us. Without tools, without drugs, without herbs, without even clean hands, I stay with them—as witness, as comfort, as the memory of generations of mothers and grandmothers and sisters and friends now gone. I catch their babies as I caught hers, only her body had not the resilience of theirs. I rubbed her nipples and massaged her belly and held the baby to her chest and watched as the blood drained from her into the sand, unable to do more than whisper into her ear as her heart slowed to a stop, her newborn daughter crying in my arms.
And that is how I became the mother of Bethel.
Aligha believed. She believed in space, in rockets, in possibilities and hope. She believed that the colonies would save us, that they would even save Earth. "All we need is to relieve the pressure," she said, damp with sweat from her morning run. "If we do that, if we transport a large enough population, if we use fewer resources, if we just let the planet breathe without so many of us, it will repair."
"This is my home," I said. "It's hard enough to imagine moving north, but to leave altogether? And that's just me. You're talking about millions."
"Jaz, it needs to happen. And you need to go. Soon. Those who go now will build the new societies. There need to be people like you, people who will make sure everyone is welcome, make sure we're not just replicating our mistakes. Women. Women of color and of strength."
"My home is here. Your base is here. I won't leave without you. I'm a midwife, Ali, not a politician."
"Which is the exact reason you should go. Who better to remind people that we all come from the same place? You can make a difference. You can make sure that no one is left behind."
"I just do things. I don't strategize. Remember? I'm the one who quit her job and moved five hundred miles to be with you after a one week stand."
"Well," she said, with the grin I could never resist, half come hither and half girl next door. "Who wouldn't?"
We came back to that argument, again and again, the same points said in so many ways, sometimes ending in days without speaking, sometimes in bed, sometimes fizzling out before we could even work up heat. I could have gone. As the partner of a pilot I had privileges. As a midwife I had skills of use. I could have left years ago.
I didn't. I didn't when Aligha was alive, and after. . . . After, it was chaos and death and finally this place.
There's a rumor gaining ground recently. Rumors spread like flies here, buzzing from mouth to mouth and growing thick with time. Talis brings this one to me, her arms round her newborn son as we wait in line for our allotment of water.
"They say no room." Her son punches the air with a buoyant fist, his tongue swirling in his mouth, and she opens her wrap to feed him.
"No room where?"
"Above." She glances skyward. There exists no common word for space, for the colonies we've flung like seeds across the habitable planets.
"There is room," I say. I know this from Aligha. I know how many people they planned to take, the provisions made for travel and food and housing. That was before the great sicknesses, before the burning and the storms. Now there are so few of us left.
"They say . . . not us. That we are wrong." Her face clouds with frustration.
"No." I want to say they would not do that, but the words hide from me. "We are not wrong."
There have been no ships leaving for weeks. Mechanical failures, we've heard, and decisions to be made about which colonies we'll go to. We've grown so accustomed to waiting that no one questions it, not even when we look around to see who remains and discover familiar patterns. In my emptiness something stirs.
We are not wrong.
I never imagined being a midwife in a time of death.
Populations rise and fall. This is the nature of life. As droughts stretched over years, as storms raged, as denial was replaced by grim acceptance, births declined. It's true that some, their minds cluttered with nostalgia, chose to conceive so that their children would be of Earth and not colony-born.
"They're crazy," I'd said to Aligha one morning, watching as she buttoned her uniform. "You've been in space plenty. Would you risk being eight months pregnant when your number's called and having to give birth en route to a colony?"
"I don't give it much thought. In fact," she said, lowering her voice to a whisper and glancing around. "There's not much chance you're going to knock me up." I tossed a pillow at her head and she ducked and pulled me close for a kiss.
Most women waited. As a result, I spent more nights sleeping soundly, free from my pager's demanding beep, and more days matching clients to contraception. Home from the office every day by four, I took to leisure awkwardly. Aligha complained that I'd never been domestic, and a month of stews started and forgotten on the stove, and laundry left to mildew in the washer, only proved her right. So instead I filled my time with reading, with walking, with enjoying Ali when she was home and missing her when she was away.
Then the first great sickness came. It swept through the cities so quickly that we were overwhelmed before we understood what was happening. Aligha couldn't stay with me. Pilots were too valuable to risk, so she packed her flight bag and moved to the quarantined base. I could have gone with her, but my skills got me tapped as emergency medical, and I moved into the hospital barracks. The work was familiar—holding hands, cleaning faces, reassuring—only this time the beds I sat beside held the dying.
I worked mostly with children. Little could be done for them, the sickness claiming many more than it spared. Children I had seen born I now watched die, as if human lives had transformed to those of mayflies. I didn't cry; there was no time. I worked thirty-six hour stretches and fell into sleep as soon as my feet left the floor, waking to return twelve hours later.
I'd always maintained a polite working relationship with most of the hospital pediatricians. Now, as the wards filled with the sounds of crying children, or worse, the soft gasps of those too ill to cry, I tried to manipulate my shifts to work with one doctor in particular. A slight man, Bren walked with a limp and spoke with a delicate accent spun of sunshine and ocean, and his presence comforted me as much as it did his patients.
He worked even more than I did, listening to sodden and struggling lungs, touching fevered faces with his cool hands, sometimes singing songs in his own language to ease the passings he could not prevent. After a while we started share our breaks, meeting for coffee in the courtyard, where we discussed the color of the sky, the likelihood of rain, anything to leave death behind us for a few minutes.
As if such a thing were possible.
I was in the staff room when I saw the clip, the initial image so familiar as to be routine. But the bright flare of takeoff was soon overshadowed by a second, more brilliant flash, the ship bursting apart into a brief and unexpected star in the blue sky. I looked away, not even bothering to turn up the volume. Another base, I thought. Other people suffer these things. Other people see their loved ones die in news flashes on TVs in hospital staff rooms. Not me.
I pulled clean booties on my feet and walked from the room and on down the hall. I made it almost all the way to the end when I heard my name. I turned to see a nurse flanked by two men in uniform. She pointed toward me.
I couldn't leave. I couldn't stay but I couldn't leave either. I just sank down the wall as the young soldiers shuffled uncomfortably and called me ma'am. One reached toward me and I made to slap at his hand, and they both stepped back. I watched their polished black shoes, one tied with a navy blue lace, a fact I tried to communicate, though all I could do was point.
Then more shoes, familiar scuffed brown leather topped by neatly pressed pants. I couldn't look up, I couldn't speak . . . the list of things lost to me was endless. Bren knelt, took my hands in his.
"Jaz," he said. I'd heard his voice like that before, in rooms where worlds came apart. It told me that I was in pain. It told me my grief was real. It broke me open and I clutched at his legs and wept into his bony knees until he pulled me up and held me in his arms.
The rumors continue to grow. I hear them from everyone now. The women talk openly, while the few men who live outside the dome collect in corners and hiss their concerns to one another, their dark eyes fixed on the ground.
These men have no power. The ones who do, the officials, emerge from the dome only to give us our rations or conduct their transactions. The men left outside with us are castoffs. They are blind, or missing limbs. Some live in perpetual childhood. Some are simply so damaged by the violence they've survived that they no longer function at all. A few are lucky. They have families here, or have made families, but most live isolated and alone.
I have not been able to speak the full truth to myself yet. If the flights are not happening, if the men remaining are castoffs, what does that make the women who wait as well?