Sims Bancorp Colony File #3245.12
Between her toes the damp earth felt cool, but already sweat crept between the roots of her hair. It would be hotter today than yesterday, and by noon the lovely spice-scented red flowers of the dayvine would have furled their fragile cups, and drooped on the vine. Ofelia pushed the mulch deeper against the stems of the tomatoes with her foot. She liked the heat. If her daughter-in-law Rosara weren't within sight, she would take off her hat and let the sweat evaporate. But Rosara worried about cancer from the sun, and Rosara was sure it wasn't decent for an old woman to be outside with nothing on her head but thinning gray hair.
Not that it was so thin. Ofelia touched her temples, as if to tuck an errant strand in place, but really to confirm the thick strands of the braid she wore. Still thick, and her legs still strong, and her hands, though knotted with age and work, still capable. She eyed her daughter-in-law, at the far end of the garden. Scrawny, hair the color of scorched paper, eyes of mud. Thought she was beautiful, with her narrow waist and her pale hands, but Ofelia knew better. She had always known better, but Barto would not listen to a mother's wisdom, and now he had Rosara of the narrow body—like a snake, Ofelia had said once only—and no children.
She minded that less than the others thought. She could have welcomed a daughter-in-law independent enough to refuse children. No, it was Rosara's determination to enforce on her mother-in-law all the petty rules intended to preserve the virtue of virgins . . . that she could not tolerate.
“We should have planted morebeans,” Rosara called. She had said that at planting, knowing that Ofelia could not use all the beans she normally grew. She wanted Ofelia to grow beans to sell, as well as beans to eat.
“We have enough,” Ofelia said.
“If the crop does not fail,” Rosara said.
“If the crop fails, a bigger crop would be a bigger failure,” Ofelia said. Rosara snorted, but did not contradict. Perhaps she was finally learning that it did no good to argue. Ofelia hoped so. Ofelia went on working on the tomatoes, pushing the mulch here and there, tying up straggling ends of the vines. Rosara claimed the tomato vines made her skin itch; she stayed away from them. Ofelia hunkered down to hide a smile as she thought of this, enjoying the strong green tomato smell.
She dozed off, there among the tomatoes, rousing only when the slanting afternoon light probed between the rows. Light in her eyes had always waked her; she was still sure she had not slept at all in the cryo tanks because the lights stayed on all the time. Humberto had said that was ridiculous, that no one was awake in cryo, that was the point. Ofelia had not argued, but she was sure she remembered the light, always stabbing through her eyelids.
Now, lying drowsy on the crumbly mulch between the rows of tomatoes, she thought how peaceful it looked, that little green jungle. Silent, too, for once; Rosara must have gone back inside without noticing she was asleep. Or perhaps the bitch didn't care. Ofelia rolled the insult on her tongue, silently, savoring it. Bitch. Slut. She didn't know many such words, which gave the few in her vocabulary extra richness, all the anger that some people spread over many words on many occasions.
Bartolomeo's voice in the street cut across her reverie, and she sat up as fast as she could, hissing at the pain in her hip and knees.
“Rosara! Rosara, come out!” He sounded excited or angry or both. He often did. Most of the time it was nothing, but he would never admit it, even afterward. Of all her children, Barto was the one Ofelia had liked least, even in infancy; he had been a greedy nurser, yanking on her nipples as if she could never be enough for him. He had grown from greedy infancy to demanding childhood, the son whom nothing satisfied; he had quarreled incessantly with the other children, demanding fairness which always meant his benefit. In manhood he was the same, the traits she had liked least in Humberto magnified ten times. But he was her only living child, and she understood him.
“What?” Rosara sounded snappish; either she had been napping (something Barto and Ofelia both disapproved of) or working on her computer.
“It's the Company—they've lost the franchise.”
A shriek from Rosara. It might mean that for once Barto was upset about something worth the trouble, or it might mean that she had just found a pimple on her chin. With Rosara, it might be either, or anything in between. Ofelia struggled to her knees, then, with a hand on a tomato stake, to her feet. Her vision grayed slightly and she waited for it to come back. Age. Everyone said it was age, and it would get worse. She didn't think it was that bad, except when people wanted her to hurry, and she couldn't. “Mama!” Barto, bursting out the kitchen door into the garden. Ofelia was glad to be upright and obviously working; it gave her a tiny bit of moral leverage.
“Yes?” She had spotted a fat caterpillar, and when he loomed over her she had it fast in the loop. “See?”
“Yes, mama. That's nice. Listen, it's important—”
“A good crop this year,” Ofelia said.
“Mama!” He leaned over, pushing his face into hers. He looked more like Humberto than anyone else, yet Humberto had had gentle eyes.
“I'm listening,” she said, putting out her hand to the tomato stake again.
“The Company's lost the franchise,” he said, as if that meant something.
“The Company's lost the franchise,” Ofelia repeated, to prove she'd been listening. He often accused her of not listening.
“You know what that means,” he said impatiently, but then went on to tell her. “It means we have to leave. They're yanking the colony.” Rosara had come out of the house behind him; Ofelia could see the patches of red on her cheeks.
“They can't do that! It's our home—!”
“Don't be stupid, Rosara!” Barto spat onto the tomato plants, as if they were her body; Ofelia flinched, and he glared at her. “Or you, mama. Of course they can make us leave; we're their employees.”
Employees who never got paid, Ofelia said to herself. Employees with no retirement, no medical benefits except what they produced for each other. Employees who were supposed to support themselves and produce a surplus. Not that they had produced the regular shipments of tropical woods that they'd been assigned . . . it had been years since they'd had enough adults to continue logging.
“But I worked so hard!” Rosara wailed. For once Ofelia agreed with her; she felt the same way. She looked sideways at the tomato plants, avoiding Barto's glare, focusing on the fringed margin of the leaves, the tiny hairs bristling from the stems. The first flower buds hung like little chandeliers, still folded tight, ready to open in the light, take fire, and—
“Listen to me,” Barto insisted. His hand came between Ofelia and the tomatoes, caught her chin and forced her face around. “You still have a vote in the council, mama. You have to come to the meeting. You have to vote with us. We have a chance to choose where we're sent.”
A meeting. She hated meetings. She noticed he didn't tell Rosara, but then he knew Rosara would come anyway, and vote however he told her.
“A vote is a vote,” he told her now, louder, as if she were deaf. “Even yours.” He released her chin. “Go inside now; get ready.” Ofelia edged past him, her bare toes safely distant from his hard-soled boots. “And wear shoes!” he yelled after her. Behind her, his voice and Rosara's were lower without being softer, harsh mutterings she could not quite hear.
She had bathed, washed her hair, and put on the best clothes she had left. The dress hung loosely now, the waist dipping where she had nothing left above to fill the bodice, the hem lifting behind to accommodate the stoop in her back. On her feet, the shoes she had not worn for months cramped her toes and rubbed her heels. She would have blisters from this meeting, and what good would that do? She had leaned her head on the kitchen door and heard Barto tell Rosara that on another world his mother would surely be forced to dress decently again. He meant wear shoes, and a dark dress like this, all the time.
She sat quietly on the bench beside Rosara, and listened to the sounds of grief and anger that filled the room. Only a few saw this as opportunity—a few men, a few women, about half the younglings. The rest saw only wasted years, loss, misery. They had worked so hard, and for what? How could they start over, face the same hard work again? Here at least they had houses already built, gardens already planted.
Carl and Gervaise interrupted the complaints and presented the alternatives to vote on, though they never said how they'd learned about them. Ofelia did not believe the Company would give them a choice; she was sure the vote would come to nothing. Still, when Barto reached across Rosara to prod her ribs and hiss at her, she stood when he did, voting for Neubreit rather than Olcrano. The others voted for Neubreit, almost two thirds of them, and only the most stubborn, like Walter and Sara, insisted they would not go there.
Only at the end of the meeting, when she stood up and turned around, did she notice the Company rep, standing at the door. He had the sleek, youthful look of a shipman, someone whose skin never saw starlight but through a hatch. No sun had baked him; no winter had frozen him; no rains had washed, or winds dried, him. In his crisp, clean clothes, his polished shoes, he looked like an alien. He said nothing. Before anyone could speak to him, he had turned and walked away, into the darkness. Ofelia wondered if he knew about the slimetrails, but of course he would have shipeyes; he would be able to see where colonists could not.
The next morning, Ofelia rose at dawn and went out into the garden, barefooted as always and wearing her oldest workshirt. Until the sun rose, she refused to wear her hat, and so she saw the movement along the lane beyond the garden, the Company reps in their crisp shipclothes. Many of them. All wearing the same blue-gray uniforms the color of morning fog, with the Sims Bancorp logo.
One of them stopped to stare back at her. “Ma'am,” he said, unsmiling but polite.
The thing she loved most about dawn was the silence, the emptiness of it. He stood there, as if he had a right to ruin her morning solitude. He was going to ask questions, and in courtesy she must answer them. She sighed, and looked away, hoping he would think her too old and fuddled to be worth his time.
“Ma'am, did you vote last night?”
He wasn't going away. She looked at him, seeing the youth, the differentness . . . the skin untouched by weather, the eyes that stared right at her as if he had the right. . . .
“Yes,” she said shortly. Then, because courtesy would not allow her to be so abrupt, she found herself saying, “I don't know what to call you . . . I don't mean to be rude.”
He smiled, genuinely amused. Was courtesy so rare among the shipfolk still? “I wasn't offended,” he said. He came nearer. “Are those real tomatoes?”
He had not answered her question. She would have to be more direct. “I cannot talk to someone when I have no way to address them,” she said. “My name is Sera Ofelia.”
“Oh—I'm Jorge. Sorry. You reminded me of my grandmother; she calls me Ajo. But—do they really grow like this, in the open . . . contaminated?”
Ofelia stroked the leaves with her hand, releasing the heavy scent. “Yes, these are tomatoes, and yes, they grow in the open air. They have no tomatoes now, of course; they are just blooming.” She turned up several leaves to show him the clusters of flower-buds.
“It's too bad,” he said, in the tone of one who is politely regretting some inconvenience he will not himself endure. “You have such a garden, and it's wasted—”
“Nothing is wasted,” Ofelia said.
“But you're leaving in thirty days,” the young man said. She reminded herself that his name was Jorge and he had a grandmother who loved him. That seemed impossible; he could have popped from a gliss-wrapped package like the holiday gifts of her childhood, brightly colored and smooth all over. Surely he had not been born in blood and mess like real children. “You don't have to work in the garden anymore. You should be packing.”
“I like working in the garden,” Ofelia said. She wanted him to go away. She wanted to find out what had just changed in her, somewhere inside, when he said “But you're leaving.” She looked down. On the ground, on top of the mulch, a slimerod oozed along looking for something to puncture with its one hard part, its little hollow cylinder of shell. Ofelia picked it up by its soft hinder end and watched it lengthen until it was at least ten centimeters long and thin as yarn. Then she flicked it around with a practiced snap of the wrist, and cracked its shell on her other thumb. It made her thumb sting a moment, but it was worth the sting for the look of shocked horror on the young man's face.
“What was that?” he asked. From his expression, he expected to hear something terrible. Ofelia obliged. “We call it a slimerod,” she said. “And the piercing part is like a medical needle, hollow, so it can suck—” She didn't have to say more; the young man was backing away already.
“Can it go through . . . shoes?” He was staring now at her bare feet. Ofelia grinned to herself, and made a show of scratching the back of one leg with her other foot.
“It depends on the shoes,” she said. She supposed it might go through a pair of thin cloth shoes with holes in them already. And it didn't go through human skin (she didn't know why) but she didn't say that. Mostly it went through the stems of her plants, not finding what it wanted and leaving wounds the plants spent precious calories mending. But if it made the young man sick enough to go away, she would imply horrors.
“I guess you'll be glad to leave,” the young man said.
“Excuse me,” Ofelia said. “I have to use the . . .” she gestured at the shed at the end of the garden. That did it; he flushed an uncomely color and turned away abruptly. She almost giggled. He should have known they had inside conveniences; the first thing the colonists had done was install their waste recycler. But she was glad to see him go. In case he turned back, she walked the rest of the way to the toolshed and went in.
Ofelia had moved before. She knew that it took longer than thirty days to move, if you tried to take things with you. The Company reps had told people they need take nothing; it would all be provided. But forty years is forty years, a life- time for some, more than that for others. Few of the originals were left; Ofelia was the oldest of these. She had the clearest memory of other places, and she sometimes woke with vivid flashes of that memory. The smell of corn porridge spiced with mezul . . . a spice that could not be grown here. She remembered the day she had used the last of it, after Humberto died. The way the street looked outside their apartment in Visiazh, with the vendors' bright awnings over piles of ripe fruits and vegetables, mounds of colorful clothes, racks of pots and pans. She had thought once she could not live without that much color, that much noise and that many people; she had moped a whole year here, miserable until she found the one kind of bright flower that would grow along the edge of the garden.
She had little to pack. She had not drawn many clothes from the community store in the past decade. Her old keepsakes had vanished over the years, one after another—most left behind when they became colonists, the rest broken by children, gnawed by insects, dissolved in one or the other of the two big floods or rotted afterwards by fungus. She still had a chipic of Humberto and herself at their wedding, and one of the first two children, and a ribbon she had won in primary school for spelling, now faded a pale pearly gray. That and the fruit dish her mother-in-law had given her, an ugly thing which had survived her intentional carelessness when more beauti- ful things perished. She could easily be ready in less than thirty days. Except—she leaned her head against the handle of the hoe hanging on the toolshed wall. Somewhere inside, at the moment the young man had said she was leaving, things changed. She felt for that change, as she would have fumbled in the shadowy house for her crochet hook in its bag of yarn.
She wasn't going. Ofelia blinked, suddenly wider awake than she remembered being for a long time. A memory welled up, clear as morning dew that reflected tiny curved pictures of the world around it. Before she married Humberto, before she got involved with that fool Caitano, back when she had just finished primary, she had flourished that spelling ribbon in her father's face and insisted she was not—absolutely was not—going to quit school and go to work in the local branch of Sims Bancorp cleaning the floors at night.
Her mind recoiled from the memory of what had followed that defiance; the facts were enough without the emotion. In the misery of being only a janitor—she, who had won a scholarship to secondary, a scholarship Lucia had taken instead—she had fooled herself into a relationship with Caitano.
But—she retreated from all that to the cool dawn shadow of the toolshed. But she was here, and she was not going. She felt light, suddenly, as if she were falling, as if the ground had disappeared from under her feet and she would fall until she found the middle of the planet. Was this joy, or fear? She could not tell. She knew only that with every heartbeat her blood carried the same message to bone and muscle: she was not going.
“Mama!” Barto, at the kitchen door. Ofelia grabbed the first tool her hand fell on, and she backed out of the toolshed. Pruning shears. Why pruning shears? Nothing needed pruning. She turned around, and found the words to say.
“I can't find the little nippers, the ones for the tomatoes.”
“Mama, forget the tomatoes. We won't be here to harvest them. Listen—we're having another meeting. The Company says it doesn't care about the vote.”
Of course the Company didn't care. That's what it meant to be on contract. She understood that, if she understood nothing else, what it meant to be signed, sealed, delivered to the masters. They would not listen to the colonists any more than Humberto had listened to her. She did not say this to Barto. It would only provoke another argument, and she disliked arguments, especially in her special time, the early morning.
“Barto, I am too old for these meetings,” she said.
“I know that.” He sounded impatient, as always. “Rosara and I are going; we want you to begin the inventory.”
“Yes, Barto.” Easier that way. He and Rosara would go, and she could come back out and smell the garden in the morning, its best time. “And we need breakfast,” he said. Ofelia sighed, and hung the pruning shears back on their hook. Already the sun was burning away the morning mist, and she could feel heat on her head. Already she could hear voices from other houses, other gardens. Rosara could cook breakfast; she usually did. She didn't like the way Ofelia cooked.
Inside, Ofelia mixed flour and oil and water to make the dough, patted it out, and flipped the thin rounds on the griddle. While they browned, she chopped onions and herbs, leftover sausage, cold boiled potatoes. When the flatcakes were done, she rolled them deftly around the cold filling, adding a dash of vinegar and oil. Barto liked these; Rosara wanted a hot filling. Ofelia didn't care. This morning she could have eaten metal shavings, or nothing. She paid no attention to Rosara's ritual complaint, or Barto's ritual compliment. As they finished dressing, she scraped the cutting board into the garden pail.
After they left, Ofelia carried the garden pail out and dumped it into the trench, kicking dirt over the curls of potato peels, the limp ends of carrots and turnip greens, the bits of onion and herbs. The sun lay a warm hand on the back of her neck, and she realized she'd come out without her hat again.
That would be one benefit of staying behind. No one would nag her to wear a hat.
Copyright© 2003 by Elizabeth Moon