Claire laughed. “I’m sure he does.”
The nurturer started off slowly on the bicycle. Behind him, strapped into the little seat, his mouth speckled with leaf fragments, the infant looked back and grinned at Claire.
“It’s Jonas,” the man called, referring to his son, and pedaled away toward the group of dwellings where he lived.
She arranged her days so that she would see them often, the man and the infant on the back of his bicycle. She became accustomed to the times, morning and evening, when the two of them made the short journey to and from the Nurturing Center, and she took walks then, after breakfast and before the evening meal. Often she encountered them, and usually the man stopped to chat, though sometimes he was rushed and had to hurry on. Little Abe (though she carefully referred to him as Thirty-six) knew her now, and grinned when he saw her. The man had taught him to wave his small hand when she said “Bye-bye” and they rode on. It became something to look forward to, a pleasant interruption to the long hours of lab work, which held little interest for Claire.
He imitated her. She poked her own tongue into her cheek, making a bump. He stared at it, then pushed his own small tongue into his own cheek. She wrinkled her nose. So did he. Then she did the two things together, her tongue into her cheek, her nose scrunched; solemnly he did the same, and they both began to laugh.
He was growing. Though he was technically now simply a One—every newchild born his year had become a One at the Ceremony—she calculated the months from the day of his birth. It had been, now, ten months.
“He’s trying to walk,” the nurturer told her one morning.
“He’s strong,” she said, gazing at the sturdy small legs dangling from the child seat on the back of the bike.
“Yes. We hold his hands and he takes steps. One day soon he’ll be on his own. My spouse will have to put things high up on the counters. He grabs at everything.”
“You have to be careful,” Claire said, almost talking to herself, thinking about how difficult it must be to care for an infant.
“Of course that was part of my training,” the nurturer explained reassuringly. “And I’ve taught my spouse and children.
“Hey!” he said suddenly, laughing. He turned. The newchild was tugging at his uniform. “Don’t mess me all up! This was just delivered from the laundry!”
He turned to Claire. “Could you reach into that carrying case and get his hippo?” He pointed to a zippered case behind the child seat.
“His what?” Claire pulled the zipper open.
“His comfort object. It’s called hippo.”
“Oh.” She reached in and took out the stuffed toy. All small children had comfort objects. They came in various shapes. Hers, she remembered, had been called badger.
The newchild’s eyes lit up when he saw it. “Po,” he said, and reached for the toy. Claire handed it to him; he hugged it with a satisfied sigh and began to chew on one of its small ears.
“I think they might be ready to have you stop by and help again,” the nurturer suggested. “We have a batch of new ones.
“And the little ones take my time,” he added. “You could come play with Thirty-six and keep him out of mischief.”
“I will.” She waved when they rode on, and called “Bye-bye,” but the newchild was preoccupied with his hippo and didn’t even hear her.
She saw Marie for the first time. The cargo boat had come and gone now three times since the day she had met and talked to its crew member. Each month it arrived and remained at dock only a day, long enough for the unloading. She recognized the boy she had walked with once, and waved when she saw him on the deck. He waved back. Claire almost felt that if he repeated his invitation for a tour, she would say yes, though she would ask permission first, she decided. She would check with the Hatchery director.
But they came and went so quickly that the boy (odd, she thought of him as her friend though in truth they had shared only one brief conversation) did not come ashore.
And now they were moored again, but she didn’t see him. Other crew members scrambled about, tending lines, lifting crates, but the dark-haired boy wasn’t there. Claire glanced over at the activity on the boat through the windows of the lab from time to time, and it became clear that he was no longer part of the crew.
She mentioned it to her coworker, Heather, phrasing it carefully. “There used to be a dark-haired boy who worked on the boat, but—”
“Lots of dark-haired boys. Look. There are three right there, piling those crates.”
Heather was correct. Three muscular young men were lifting and straightening some heavy boxes. Each had dark hair.
“Yes, but I meant a different one, one who used to wave to me. He and I talked once.”
Heather shrugged. “They come and go. Different ones almost every time. Some stay awhile, others not so much. It’s not like here, where we get assigned. I think they can decide about their jobs. If it gets boring, they leave. Or maybe something better comes along.”
“Look! Who’s that?” Claire pointed. A heavy woman had come from the interior of the boat and stood on the deck, watching the crew at work. She wore a stained apron stretched across her wide middle and tied in back. Her light hair was pulled back into a knot, but it was unruly, and as the girls watched, the woman smoothed and retied it. Then she lowered herself and sat on a thick pile of rope, leaning back against the cabin wall, and took a few deep breaths.
“Mind your feet, Marie!” a crew member called as he passed her on the deck, guiding a thick package that swayed in a net as the winch moved it up and outward.
“Mind your own feet,” she called back with a hearty laugh. But she moved her legs aside so that he could get by.
“The boy told me there was a woman aboard,” Claire said. “I’d forgotten her name. But now I remember it’s Marie. She’s the cook.”
“Cook?” Heather looked puzzled.
Claire shrugged. “Well, they can’t have their meals delivered the way we do. Not when they’re on the river.” Or the sea, she added in her mind. “So I guess Marie prepares the food.”
“Her apron has its share of it,” Heather said, referring to the darkened, spattered patches on the cloth, and she and Claire both laughed. Their own uniforms were spotless. Their clothing was collected every morning, laundered meticulously, and delivered each evening.
“Would you go aboard, if they invited you?” Claire asked Heather. “Just for a tour?”
“You mean like when people come to visit the Hatchery and we show them around?”
Claire nodded. Often small school groups came to visit and were given a little lesson on the life cycle of fish.
“I might, if it’s allowed,” Heather said with a shrug. “But I’m not really that interested in boats.”
They watched as Marie rose heavily from where she had been relaxing, reentered the cabin, and disappeared into the dark interior. Claire found herself wondering what it looked like in there. Where did Marie sleep? And how did it feel to be on the river, to stop at other communities? Did people everywhere look the same? The boy she had met wore strange-looking shoes and unfamiliar clothing. He had a different speech inflection, she recalled. And the different hairstyles on the boys was startling; some had almost clean-shaven heads; others, long hair tied back like a girl’s. Here in the community, each age had a prescribed hairstyle. But no boy ever had long hair.
Marie, with her oddly light hair, was startling in other ways. She was large, especially broad across her hips, and with a double chin. No one in the community looked like that. They were all of the same proportions. Their food delivery was calibrated to their size. Claire remembered a time some years ago when the weekly report showed that her mother’s weight had risen slightly. Her mother had been a little embarrassed, and perhaps annoyed, when the next meal deliveries included special weight-loss meals designated for her. She had eaten them, of course—it was required, and there were no alternatives—until the report showed that her size was under control once again.
“We’d better get back to work,” Heather murmured. She turned from the window.
“I’m just going out for a minute. I want to check the temperature in the lower holding pond.” Claire could see Heather frown suspiciously.
“Well,” Heather said after a moment, “mind your feet. It’s muddy by the pond.”
“Mind your own feet,” Claire replied with a laugh as she left the room.
She had no intention of going aboard, even if they asked her. But the lower pond was quite close to the river. The boat almost grazed the bank there, and she felt a yearning to go close to it. Odd, she thought, but she felt almost lured by the boat, in the same way that she found herself drawn to the Nurturing Center and the newchild who had been wrested from her body almost a year before. There was no relationship between the two, but Claire was feeling increasingly connected to both.
Standing beside the pond’s edge, she looked up at the vessel’s smooth side toward the low railing that edged the deck. The huge crates were all stacked now, and tightly roped in. There were places, near the cargo, where there was no railing. How easy it would be to slip on the wet deck and fall into the river below! Mind your feet. She remembered the young man’s shoes with their ridged soles. Boat shoes, she had guessed, made specially for the wet deck.
Claire was still standing there when the boat’s engine made a sudden low sound. In a moment it was a steady hum and she could see a spurt of dark smoke from a small stack. Some voices called, and she saw a crew member pull loops of rope loose from the moorings. He tossed them to another young man on the deck, and then jumped across and steadied himself as the boat slid away toward the center of the river.
From the building nearby she heard the buzzer that announced the midday meal. She turned and walked back toward the Hatchery as behind her the cargo boat moved with increasing speed toward the bridge and beyond. Behind it, at its broad stern, foam burst; then the river closed around the interruption and resumed its own form again, as if the boat had never been there.
Claire sighed. Returning to her ordinary life seemed so unappealing. She would go tomorrow, she decided, to visit little Abe.
On the twelve-month anniversary of the day he had been born to her, Claire taught him to say her name. He had been officially a One since the previous ceremony, but now, Claire thought secretly, he is truly one year old.
The nurturer chuckled when he watched the newchild toddle over to her, calling, “Claire!” with a grin. “He’s a bright boy,” he said. “I just wish we could get his sleeping-pattern behavior squared away. If he’s not ready to be placed with a family unit by the time of the next Ceremony, well . . .”
“What?” Claire asked when his voice drifted away without completing the thought.
“To be honest, I don’t know. They can’t give him to parents if he doesn’t sleep. It would interrupt their work habits to be kept awake at night. But we can’t keep him here indefinitely.”
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com