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BIRTHMARKED (Chapter 1)
The Baby Quota
IN THE DIM HOVEL, the mother clenched her body into one final, straining push, and the baby slithered out into Gaia's ready hands.
"Good job," Gaia said. "Wonderful. It's a girl."
The baby cried indignantly, and Gaia breathed a sigh of relief as she checked for toes and fingers and a perfect back. It was a good baby, healthy and well formed, if small. Gaia wrapped the child in a blanket, then held the bundle toward the flickering firelight for the exhausted mother to see.
Gaia wished her own mother were there to help, especially with managing the afterbirth and the baby. She knew, normally, she wasn't supposed to give the baby to the mother to hold, not even for an instant, but now the mother was reaching and Gaia didn't have enough hands.
"Please," the young woman whispered. Her fingers beckoned tenderly.
The baby's cries subsided, and Gaia passed her over. She tried not to listen to the mother's gentle, cooing noises as she cleaned up between her legs, moving gently and efficiently as her mother had taught her. She was excited and a little proud. This was her first delivery, and it was an unassisted delivery, too. She had helped her mother many times, and she'd known for years that she would be a midwife, but now it was finally real.
Almost finished. Turning to her satchel, she drew out the small teakettle and two cups that her mother had given her for her sixteenth birthday, only a month ago. By the light of the coals, she poured water from a bottle into the kettle. She stoked up the fire, seeing the burst of yellow light gleam over the mother with her small, quiet bundle.
"You did well," Gaia said. "How many is this for you again? Did you say four?"
"She's my first," the woman said, her voice warm with awed pleasure.
The woman's eyes gleamed briefly as she looked toward Gaia, and she smiled. In a shy, self-conscious gesture, she smoothed a sweat-damped curl back around her ear. "I didn't tell you before. I was afraid you wouldn't stay."
Gaia sat down slowly beside the fire, set the kettle on the metal rod, and swiveled it over the fire to warm.
First labors were hardest, the most risky, and although this one had progressed smoothly, Gaia knew they'd been lucky. Only an experienced midwife should have tended this woman, not only for the sake of the mother and child's health, but for what would come next.
"I would have stayed," Gaia said softly, "but only because there's nobody else to come. My mother was already gone to another birth."
The mother hardly seemed to hear. "Isn't she beautiful?" she murmured. "And she's mine. I get to keep her."
Oh, no, Gaia thought. Her pleasure and pride evaporated, and she wished now, more than ever, that her mother were there. Or even Old Meg. Or anybody, for that matter.
Gaia opened her satchel and took out a new needle and a little bottle of brown ink. She shook the tin of tea over the kettle to drop in some flakes. The faint aroma slowly infused the room with a redolent fragrance, and the mother smiled again in a weary, relaxed way.
"I know we've never talked," the mother said. "But I've seen you and your mother coming and going at the quadrangle, and up to the wall. Everyone says you'll be as great a midwife as your mother, and now I can say it's true."
"Do you have a husband? A mother?" Gaia asked.
"No. Not living."
"Who was the boy you sent for me? A brother?"
"No. A kid who was passing in the street."
"So you have no one?"
"Not anymore. Now I have my baby, my Priscilla."
It's a bad name, Gaia thought. And what was worse, it wouldn't matter because it wouldn't last. Gaia dropped a pinch of motherwort into the mother's teacup, and then silently poured tea into the two cups, trying to think how best to do this. She let her hair fall forward, shielding the left side of her face, while she moved the empty teakettle, still warm, into her satchel.
"Here," she said, handing the cup laced with motherwort toward the young woman on the bed and smoothly removing the baby from beside her.
"What are you doing?" the mother asked.
"Just drink. It will help with the pain." Gaia took a sip from her own cup as an example.
"I don't feel much anymore. Just a little sleepy."
"That's good," Gaia said, setting her cup back by the hearth.
Quietly, she packed her gear and watched as the mother's eyelids grew heavier. She unwrapped the baby's legs to gently pull one foot out, and then she set the baby on a blanket on the floor, near the fireplace. The baby's eyes opened and flickered toward the flames: dark, murky eyes. It was impossible to tell what color they might eventually be. Gaia sopped a bit of clean rag into her cup of tea, absorbing the last hot liquid, and then wiped it over the ankle, cleaning it. She dipped the needle in the brown ink, held it briefly to the light, and then, swiftly, as she had done before under her mother's guidance, she pressed the pin into the baby's ankle in four rapid pricks. The child screamed.
"What are you doing?" the mother demanded, now fully awake.
Gaia wrapped the birthmarked baby again and cradled her firmly in one arm. She slid the teacup, needle, and ink into her satchel. Then she stepped forward and took the second teacup from beside the mother. She lifted her satchel.
"No!" the mother cried. "You can't! It's April twenty-first! Nobody ever advances a baby this late in the month."
"It's not how late the date is," Gaia said quietly. "It's the first three babies each month."
"But you must have delivered half a dozen by now," the woman shrieked, rising. She struggled to shift her legs to the side of the bed.
Gaia took a step backward, steeling herself to be strong. "My mother delivered those. This is my first," she said. "It's the first three babies for each midwife."
The mother stared at her, shock and horror shifting across her face. "You can't," she whispered. "You can't take my baby. She's mine."
"I have to," Gaia said, backing away. "I'm sorry."
"But you can't," the woman gasped.
"You'll have others. You'll get to keep some. I promise."
"Please," the mother begged. "Not this one. Not my only. What have I done?"
"I'm sorry," Gaia repeated. She'd reached the door now. She saw she'd left her tin of tea next to the fireplace, but it was too late to go back for it now. "Your baby will be well cared for," she said, using the phrases she'd learned. "You've provided a great service to the Enclave, and you will be compensated."
"No! Tell them to keep their filthy compensation! I want my baby."
The mother lunged across the room, but Gaia had expected this, and in an instant she was out of the house and moving swiftly down the dark alleyway. At the second corner, she had to stop because she was shaking so hard she was afraid she'd drop everything. The newborn made a lonely, anxious noise, and Gaia hitched her satchel more securely over her right shoulder so that she could pat the little bundle with her trembling fingers.
"Hush," she murmured.
From far behind her she heard a door open, and then a distant, wild keening noise. "Please! Gaia!" the voice called, and Gaia's heart lurched.
She sniffed back hard and turned to face the hill. This was far worse than she'd imagined it could be. Though her ears remained primed, listening for another cry in the night, she started forward again and trod rapidly up the hill toward the Enclave. The moon cast a blue light on the dark, wood and stone buildings around her, and once her foot caught against a rock. In contrast to the urgency that drove her forward, a hollow, sleepy silence filled the air. She'd made this trip many times before on her mother's behalf, but until tonight, it had never seemed like such a long journey. She knew the baby would be fine, even better than fine. She knew the mother would have others. More than anything, she knew it was the law that she turn this baby over and that if she didn't, her own life and that of the mother were forfeit.
She knew all of this, but for a moment, she wished it weren't so. In violation of everything she'd been taught, she wished she could take this baby back to her mother and tell her, "Here, take little Priscilla. Head into the wasteland and never come back."
She turned the last corner, and there was the light over the arching doors of the south gate, a single, gleaming bulb in a lantern of mirrored glass that reflected the illumination onto the doors and hard-packed ground. Two guards in black uniforms stood before the two massive wooden doors. She let her hair slide forward, covering her left cheek, and instinctively turned to keep that side of her face in shadow.
"If it isn't a little delivery," the taller guard said. He took off his wide-brimmed hat with a flourish and wedged it under an elbow. "Bringing us one of your mom's babies?"
Gaia walked forward slowly, her heart thudding against her ribs. She had to pause to catch her breath. She could almost hear the plaintive wail of the mother behind her, and Gaia feared that she was following behind on her pale, shaky legs. A bird flew overhead with a quick burst of wings. Gaia took another step forward, into the reassuring light of the lantern.
"It's my own," Gaia said. "My first."
"Is that right?" the second guard said, sounding impressed.
"Unassisted," she said, unable to resist a glimmer of pride.
She put a finger on the blanket under the infant's chin, taking a satisfied look at the even features, the little, perfect, convex dip in the skin above her upper lip. The great gate was opening, and she glanced up to see a white-clad woman approaching. She was short, with the healthy girth of someone who ate well. Her face was mature, capable, and if Gaia was correct, eager. Gaia didn't recognize her, but she'd seen others from the Nursery like her before.
"Is the baby perfect?" the woman asked, coming forward.
Gaia nodded. "I didn't have time to clean her," she apologized. "I had no assistant."
"This was your first delivery, then? There wasn't any problem with the mother, was there?"
Gaia hesitated. "No," she said. "She was glad to serve the Enclave."
"And when was the birth?"
Gaia pulled at the chain around her neck and pulled her locket watch out from the neckline of her dress. "Forty-three minutes ago."
"Excellent," the woman said. "You must remember to verify the mother's name and address in the quadrangle tomorrow morning to be sure she gets her compensation."
"I will," Gaia said, slipping the watch back into her dress.
The woman started to reach for the baby, but then her gaze flicked up to Gaia and she paused. "Let me see your face, child," the woman said gently.
Gaia lifted her chin slightly and reluctantly smoothed her hair behind her left ear. She turned fully into the light of the lamp that shone over the great gate. As if their sightlines were made of fine, invisible arrows, the gaze of six eyes zeroed in on her scar and lingered there in speechless curiosity. She forced herself to stay still and bear their scrutiny.
The taller guard cleared his throat and brought his fist to his lips in a little cough.
"You've done well, Gaia Stone," the woman said finally, giving her a wise smile. "Your mother will be proud."
"Thank you, Masister," Gaia said.
"I'm Masister Khol. Say hello to her for me."
"I will, Masister."
Gaia let the hair fall free from behind her left ear again. It didn't surprise her that the Enclave woman knew her name. Too often before, Gaia had met someone for the first time only to discover they'd already heard of her, Bonnie and Jasper Stone's daughter, the one with the burned face. The recognition no longer surprised her, but she didn't much like it. Masister Khol was holding out her hands in an expectant manner, and Gaia gently leaned the infant away from the warmth of her left side to pass her carefully over. For a moment, her palms felt light, empty, and cold.
"She's called Priscilla," Gaia said.
Masister Khol looked at her curiously. "Thank you. That's good to know," she said.
"You're going to have a busy time ahead," the tall soldier said. "And what, you're only seventeen, isn't that right?"
"Sixteen," Gaia said.
She felt suddenly, inexplicably ill, like she might throw up. She gave a quick smile, switched her satchel to her other shoulder, and turned.
"Good-bye," Masister Khol said. "I'll send your compensation to your mother's place in Western Sector Three, shall I?"
"Yes," Gaia called. She was already walking down the hill again, her legs not quite steady. She closed her eyes briefly, then opened them and touched her fingers against the dim building beside her for balance.
The moon's light seemed less powerful now than it had before she stepped into the glow of the lantern, and blink as she might, she could not instantly make her eyes adjust to the darkness. She had to stand, waiting, just around the corner from the gate with its gleaming lantern. In the stillness, she could hear crying from somewhere near, a soft, lonely crying. Her heart stopped. For a moment she was certain that Priscilla's mother was close by in the shadows, ready to plead with her again, or accuse her. But no one appeared, and in another moment, when the crying subsided, Gaia was able to continue down the hill, away from the wall, toward home.
BIRTHMARKED. Copyright © 2010 by Caragh M. O'Brien