Ash and Dust
By Jennifer Mason-Black
19 December 2011
Part 2 of 2
Those who survived the first great sickness were adults, left to bury their parents and children both, often within weeks of one another. I imagine they lived as I did after, unable to face the silent rooms, the complete and irrevocable absences.
I chose to stay on in the hospital barracks rather than return home. I lived in a single cinderblock room, its walls painted glossy lemon. In a few places the paint had chipped away to show an undercoat of white. Beyond that, nothing marred the smooth surface, other than a small mirror someone else had hung by the door. The bed, so short my feet hung off the end, smelled of bleach when I buried my face in the linens. Empty. Sterile. Home.
I worked. If anything, I worked harder than I had in years. In the face of grief, in the face of death, when presented with overwhelming proof that things do fall apart, humans hope. Bellies swelled with life like the green shoots that force their way up into charred landscapes.
In the surprised cries and furious nuzzles of those just born, in the tears of fathers too tired to hide their delight, in the amazement of mothers holding their noses to perfect smooth skin as they counted fingers and toes, I saw joy. I could not feel it though, any more than I could register anger or fear or excitement. Or sorrow. To give up one you must give up all.
One year without Aligha came and went, and I kept to my cell and ate what I could cook in an electric kettle and took walks through the hospital corridors, afraid to go out into the light. I worked other people's shifts, if not happily, then with a successful counterfeit.
Which is what I was doing the night I reached the end of what had been a very long rope. A slow labor, a first baby, a heartbeat that whispered distress at intermittent intervals. As the baby moved down, I asked the nurse to page the pediatrician on call. These things were not unusual and yet I felt the world closing in with every push the mother gave. My hearing went flat, my head filled with wool. The baby came into my hands, though I have no recollection of how. From there he went to his mother's belly, the pink rising in his skin as his limbs tensed.
I froze. Even my hands, my knowledgeable, competent hands, could no longer move. I wanted to lay my head upon the mother's belly as well, lay down warm and secure and sleep. A stethoscope settled on the infant's chest, a dot of pink paint marking the hose, glossy, like finger polish. I knew that stethoscope. I knew the voice as well, and I listened as raptly as if it were my health being assessed.
"He sounds lovely," Bren said, the soft brush of his accent like heat applied to my icy limbs. "The trouble, I think, was merely in the passage."
I followed him into the hall as he left, the nurses calling after me. He stopped, took my wrist in his hand, studied it with a slight frown. "You are too thin. Have you no one to care for you, Jaz?"
My body responded disjointedly—half a shrug, half a smile, synapses firing at random, the world gone black and white and silent. "Wait here," he said, and vanished to work the mundane magic of the hospital. After a few minutes a sleepy OB resident passed me, pausing to glare before entering the room I'd left. Bren returned, stethoscope still around his neck, and walked me to his apartment three blocks away. There he fed me scrambled eggs and tucked me into a bed heavy with blankets before leaving to return to work.
I slept for fourteen hours and the tears began as soon as I woke. I fell into a pattern—wake, cry, eat, sleep—repeated for days. Bren sat beside me when I woke, fed me the food he had cooked while I slept, spent his own nights on his couch. To stay awake for more than an hour was beyond me, or to carry a conversation, or to tend my own body. Every few days he would fill the bathtub, lead me to the bathroom, undress me, his hands quick and lingering nowhere, and leave me to soak while he read a book on the couch.
After a time, things returned to me. An ability to distinguish colors, to see the shades of blue in the bedding, the pink peonies on the couch, the green of his eyes. I could taste the onions and tomatoes in the soup, smell when food in the refrigerator went bad.
One day I went so far as to open the window of the bedroom. The air reeked of city—traces of urine mixed with tar and perfume. I sat on the sill and watched the half-empty streets.
"This time of day they used to be crowded," I said when I heard him come in. "There'd be buses and kids coming home from school and taxis honking their horns."
He sighed. Had I turned I would have seen him unknot his tie and lay it on the dresser. I could imagine each step perfectly, so consistent was his routine. "It is a loss, but at times I think not so much of one."
I breathed in again, more deeply, remembering the streets I had come to twelve years ago, stepping off the train in search of Aligha. "Your number? Have you been called yet?" I turned to face him.
"No," he said, his head ducked. "How many pediatricians could they possibly use?" We sat in silence, listening to the empty street.
"Bren," I said. The breeze blew in, dry and hot. "You understand . . . between us."
He glanced away. "It was a question of decency, Jaz. Nothing more. You may stay as long as you wish. It's a big space for one person."
This is what I know. Decency makes people do what is right. Sorrow and fatigue and loneliness, these lead to other things. Like opening doors in the night, like touching fingertips to faces and lips to lips, like exploring bodies as unfamiliar as the terrain of another planet. Like forgetting that even in a field burned to the ground by grief a seed can catch hold and sprout.
The alchemy of human lives is a mysterious thing. It shines out at me from Nyla's green eyes every day.
Either Sela didn't speak or wasn't heard, for her belly is unmistakable now. I tried to talk with her grandmother, but the woman flounders in a world of memory and avoidance, refusing all responsibility. So I speak with Sela instead, providing what education she will absorb. She comes to my tent daily, and I work her hair into a thousand sturdy braids, tying each one off with a story and a dirty piece of string. I long for pretty things, a handful of beads to work in, as my mother did to my hair when I was a girl.
The father of her child left on a supply ship. I'd hoped he would be more than I imagined, the sort of man who would come and pack the contents of her grandmother's tent and help them onto the ship and into a new life. Instead, he was the kind of man who wore a gold wedding band around one thick finger, and who left without asking any extra provisions be given to the child carrying his child.
So I went to the dome and knocked on the door, tempted to ask for a cup of sugar when they opened. The man I spoke with blushed easily and often, the red rising up to meet hair almost the same shade.
"Her pregnancy is the direct fault of one of the officers here," I said. "I expect you to provide her with extra rations."
"The other women, they get nothing extra," he said. To hear and speak freely in my own language steadied me, reminded me of who I had been.
"The other women need more as well, but that's a separate issue. Her body is still growing. She needs more than the others."
"We're limited in what we have." His words sounded memorized, held on to like lifelines in this place of drowning. "We divide everything up best we can. We can't solve everything here."
I drew a breath, thinking. "What's your name?" I asked.
He blushed again, a boy. "Salva."
"Salva." I heard Aligha's voice, tempering me, cooling me. "I understand that, but you have the chance to make a difference by doing very little. By giving just a bit more you can save two lives."
"I can't," he squeaked. I believe I could have pushed him into tears, easily, but it wasn't him I was arguing with, it was the facts and figures dictated to him by those who fled years ago.
I'd thought the ability to feel surprise had left me long ago, but the next morning, when I found Salva outside my door with a gallon of water and a sack, I learned it lived in me still. "For the girl," he said, thrusting the bag forward. "I thought I should leave it with you. I think I can bring more once a week."
For a moment I was angry, unwilling to be grateful for what should have been hers to begin with, for what should not have even been necessary. The bridges built by kindness must be tended carefully though, so easily can they be broken.
"Thank you, Salva. This is wonderful." That blush, it colored even his ears. I decided to press forward. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Can you tell me what's happening? Whether we'll be leaving here."
The red vanished as quickly as it had come. A pain, sharp as a slash of jagged glass, cut deep behind my breastbone. "It's like that, then."
He glanced around, back at the Dome. "There's talk that the colonies are full. That they've taken in as many as they have room for."
"They were designed to take in far more than they have." Aligha whispering to me again, listing the numbers that had once spurred our debates.
"There's talk that they're full," he continued. "That if we send ships up they may be turned away, sent from place to place, sent back here." His voice dropped lower. "I even heard they left one to drift until it ran out of fuel, until the life support went."
This, I thought, is what a dead end looks like: a tent city filled with women and children, their skins all the colors of rich fertile ground. We are the island of the forgotten in the desert, the grounds at the bottom of the coffee cup, left behind once again.
Bren never saw his daughter. The second great sickness struck even more quickly than the first, only this time it took the men, not the elderly and the children. It ran through the cities like blood from a vein, men dying within days, some within hours of illness. He worked wherever he was needed, with children or adults, sleeping at the hospital, afraid of bringing contagion home. Six months along with Nyla, I feared for everyone, but stayed in the apartment and waited for the time of death to pass.
He called on a Tuesday night. He called most nights, never late though, so when the phone rang at midnight I jumped. "I was thinking," he said, in the voice that could coax me through fire and beyond. "Remembering, really. I had a brother, as you know." Always formal, his words chosen with precision. "He was ill so long, months and months. And one day he woke from sleep, from drugs more than sleep, and he said, 'But what about my pillow with four legs?' And he never did explain it, for he fell back asleep and died later that day." He paused. "I always think that is the great mystery of my life: what Jave meant about his four-legged pillow."
I laughed, and he did as well, stopping to clear his throat in the midst.
"You are well, Jaz?"
"I am well, Bren."
After he hung up the phone he went to a bed in the adult quarantine ward and lay down, and by morning he was gone, one more victim of the second great sickness.
The Earth began to burn soon after, turned to tinder by drought, and lit by the storms that tore at the sky. Word went out that everyone able must find a way to the final resettlement camp. I had no choice. Responsibility to Nyla simplified all my decisions.
I went through Bren's desk drawers my last night there. Notes written in his careful script; random trinkets and drawings of the sort children give those who show them kindness; a shriveled carnation gone brown, the stem wrapped in green and still bearing the long pearl-topped corsage pin; a worn copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude; a picture of two dark-eyed boys laughing, their arms over one another's shoulders—the small pieces of life, their meaning forever lost with their collector. I considered tossing the official envelope without opening it. I knew what I would find. Inside, a letter requesting his presence as a passenger bound for Colony Nine, dated one month into the onslaught of the first great sickness.
It's home, Aligha, I said as I sat at the window one last time. Nyla stretched within me, her foot bumping against my ribs, and I breathed in the scent of distant fires and wept.
The question is how to survive if we truly are the lost, to be left on this planet of fire and wind. Can the colonies be convinced to continue to ship supplies and technical support, if only to assuage their guilt, or will they cut off all contact, pretend we no longer exist? Talis and I whisper to one another as our children sleep, search among the women for those who know anything of seeds and gardens, listen for stories of land less scarred than this. My thoughts are full of solar ovens, drills for wells, homemade biospheres. I ask Salva for maps now, not food.
It feels good, this fullness. At night I sit beside Sela and rub the last of my oil on her belly and share stories of the births I have seen; of mothers and children; of how my mother told of playing tag on lawns until her bare feet turned green and smelled of grass; of rain, not the fierce bursts the storms occasionally spit at us, but the slow steady patter of a soaking summer shower. I lie between my daughters and listen to the murmurs that bubble up from their dreams and smell the sweat in their hair and think of Aligha, of her insistence that Earth, relieved of her burden, will return to life.
And some nights, for the first time in years, I think of the taste of her skin on my tongue, and realize I am regenerating, a starfish wakening on dry land.
Sela remembers the pains from before and comes to me early. I pray, as I have every day since I realized she ripened again, that she will live, that I will not sit by her without the tools I need to stem too much bleeding, that she is grown enough to allow a baby passage, that my hands do not lie and she carries a child well positioned for birth. I do not know to whom I pray, simply that I do so because some burdens cannot be carried alone.
She knows none of this. We weave among the tents together and as we walk she chatters between pains, stopping during them and putting herself in my arms, her birdlike body eclipsed by the work within.
Talis stays with our children, brings water from time to time, spells me when I must leave, carries Bethel to me when I ache for her. The day rises and falls, the night comes, the air cools as sweat beads on Sela's face.
"Little bird, you are fine," I say, rubbing her feet, her legs. "Don't be scared." I am saying these things to her, but I also say them to myself. Bethel's mother waits in this tent as well, gray as clay, her breath the ice in my heart.
The air sharpens with the scent of the fluid that suddenly gushes forth. I offer silent thanks that it is clear. Sela groans. "I cannot," she says, and I no longer recognize her words, spilling forth in the language of her mother, but I know what they mean for I have been here so many times before, with so many women.
"You can," I say, "You can, Sela. You are very strong. You can."
When the baby comes she is small and slow to breathe. I rub the soles of her tiny feet and sing songs I do not remember learning, songs of thanks and praise, and I ask this child to stay with us, for the world to bless her. At last she makes her cry, open-mouthed and loud, and Sela stares at her, this crying girl with thick dark curls. She touches the clenched fists, the splayed toes, and I am full, the stars above within me, the oceans washing over my heart. Allow this life to stay, I say, and I've spoken the words aloud without meaning to, one hand on mother, one hand on child, my heart grown big as the world.
The storms have lessened. Sela's baby has begun to smile by the time the next comes. We all can fit in the bunker by now. The population of our tiny nation has homogenized over the years. I am surrounded by women. They hold children, hold hands, these women whose faces show the despair they have known, whose eyes are sometimes distant, for days or weeks or months, but who rise every morning and care for toddlers unsteady on robust legs, for babies with their grasping hands and unexpected smiles, for older children grown wary and yet children still, as hungry for touch as they are for food, sometimes even for the men who hobble among us, leaning on shoulders for support, taking an offered hand to lead them through the darkness they never leave.
I sit against the wall, the concrete cool against my skin, and watch my children play. Mother of five, grandmother of one, my tent fills at night with Nyla and Bethel, with Sela and her brothers and her daughter, the younger ones falling into sleep like puppies on the floor, a tangle of comfort. Once the work of the night completes, once I am alone in the dark, only the rustle of limbs shifting and sighs like bird's wings hushing the air, only then do I think of Aligha and Bren. On nights when the wind blows hot and steady through the screens, I can almost remember the smoky-sweet smell of Aligha, the way she'd half-raise her hand when she posed a question, her certainty that what is broken can rise again, be it a woman or a world.
Yesterday, Salva met me as I carried our water from the dome. He said nothing at first, just stood before me, rubbing at his hairless chin. I could feel what was coming the same way I sense the changes in a labor, and my heart jittered.
"There's a final ship on its way. As much as they can carry in the way of supplies. Seeds, maps, collectors for rainwater."
I couldn't help but look into the clear blue of the dry sky. He raised his hands to stay my argument. "When it leaves, all officials go with it. We've room for a few more . . . those with useful skills."
I could feel Bren's hand on my wrist as surely as if he stood beside me, the echo of a song filling my ears, sung to a child with enormous dark eyes and cracked lips, one foot in life and one in death. Bethel stirred on my back, one foot pushing lazily against my hip.
"You know they will not turn the ship away?"
"Permanent settlement. Colony Seven."
I could hear Nyla's laughter behind me. It spread like birdsong in the eternal summer, and I thought, Earthling child. The bodies of those who died in the first and second great sicknesses were incinerated to prevent spread of disease. Aligha burned as well, her body falling as ash, as dust to seed the clouds, the soil below.
"All the members of your tent, of course they would be included," he said quickly. "We would never ask you to leave the children."
Not mine. Just Talis's, all the Blessings, all the wanted and unwanted, tended and untended. Just the remaining ripening women. Just this barren land.
I lie awake for hours. Thunder rumbles off and on, long low growls that keep me alert for the rise of winds. The winds never come though, and the thunder dies away, and eventually I sleep, deep and true, until a sound wakes me.
It is the sound of another time, like Aligha's voice, like my mother's stories, like green leaves unfurling in spring. Tender as fingertips, it patters my mind into wakefulness. I slip from the sleeping bodies around me and go, first to the door of the tent, then out, where prayers fall as rain, steady and soaking, washing the dust from my dry skin, filling me with gratitude, wonder, grace, nourishing the seed that is my heart.
Talis's hand comes into mine, wet palms together, her eyes wide in the dark. Other tents open, bodies appear around us, and the silence holds as we turn our faces into the blessing and take what we are given, mouths open, joy in the gentle touch.
I cannot see down any of the paths before me. The curves are sharp, the darkness sometimes absolute. But I believe that the broken can heal. I believe in the hands and minds and hearts around me.