Son

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“Not even if he goes home with you at night? He’s fine here in the daytime. He hardly ever cries. Look at him!” Together they gazed at Thirty-six, who was seated on the floor, busily arranging wooden blocks in a stack. Feeling their gaze, he looked over. Impishly, he wrinkled his nose and thrust his tongue into his cheek, making the funny face that Claire had taught him. She made the same skewed face in reply and they both laughed.

“I can’t keep taking him home forever. My spouse is already somewhat annoyed about it. The children enjoy him, though. He’s been sleeping in my son’s room. He seems to do well there. But . . .”

Again he failed to finish his thought. The nurturer shrugged and went to the other section of the room where younger infants needed attention.

“I wonder if I . . .” Claire murmured, then fell silent. Of course she couldn’t. Unmatched people weren’t given newchildren. Even if it were possible, how could she care for him? It was enough to contemplate (and she had) how she could manage a small infant. But now, so well acquainted with this growing, active twelve-month-old boy, she could see clearly that they required more, not less, care as they grew. He had to be watched constantly. Taught language. Fed carefully. Bathed and dressed and . . .

She turned away, feeling tears well in her eyes. What on earth was the matter with her? No one else seemed to feel this kind of passionate attachment to other humans. Not to a newchild, not to a spouse, or a coworker, or friend. She had not felt it toward her own parents or brother. But now, toward this wobbly, drooling toddler—

“Bye-bye,” she whispered to him, and he looked up at her and wiggled his fingers. It never distressed him when she left. He knew she’d be back.

But Claire choked back tears as she pedaled her bike back to the Hatchery. More and more she despised her life: the dull routine of the job, the mindless conversation with her coworkers, the endless repetition of her days. She wanted only to be with the child, to feel the warm softness of his neck as he curled against her, to whisper to him and to sense how he listened happily to her voice. It was not right to have these feelings, which were growing stronger as the weeks passed. Not normal. Not permitted. She knew that. But she did not know how to make them go away.

From time to time she saw the nurturer’s son. Jonas, she remembered. Months before she had seen his father wave to him one afternoon when he rode by with a friend, the two of them on their way apparently to the recreation field. The two boys had seemed carefree, calling to each other, racing their bicycles along the path.

He seemed different now, to Claire. She saw him one evening walking along the river, alone, deep in thought. Although he didn’t know her, and there would have been no real reason beyond politeness for a greeting, it was nonetheless customary for citizens to acknowledge one another with a nod or smile. But Jonas had not looked up as she passed him. It was not an intentional snub, she realized. It was that his mind was somewhere else. He seemed somehow troubled, she thought, and that was rare in a youngster.

She recalled that he had been singled out in some way at last year’s Ceremony. Her coworkers, in describing it, had chanted his name—Jonas, Jonas—as apparently the audience had. But they had not really known what his . . . What had they called it? Selection, that was it—what his selection had meant.

But his father, the nurturer, spoke of him warmly and without hesitation. He’s been sleeping in my son’s room, he had said cheerfully of Thirty-six. So perhaps she had simply happened on the boy at an unusual moment, when he had something on his mind, probably a school assignment. Claire could remember how troubling her own homework had been at times.

She saw him several more times, always on his bicycle, alone, after school hours. He was a Twelve now, and all Twelves would be working hard this year on the preparation related to their Assignments. Usually after school they would separate from their age-mates and go to the studies required for their future jobs. Sophia had been required to take infant-care classes, she recalled; and in fact Sophia had told her that even now, several years after their Ceremony year, the scholarly Marcus was still studying engineering. One girl in her group had taken up the study of law, as Claire’s brother had six years earlier, and still went each day after school to the hall of Law and Justice for training.

One afternoon she found herself watching Jonas as he rode his bicycle away from the school building, which she could see from the front of the Hatchery. He turned left at the end of the educational buildings and seemed to be heading toward the House of the Old. So perhaps, she thought, that was his Assignment: the care of the elderly. But what was so special about that? What would make an entire audience rise to their feet and chant his name?

Later, one day while walking, she continued past the House of the Old, turned down a path, and discovered a very small structure attached at the rear of the building. It had a door, a few windows, and nothing else. Most buildings had an informational plaque explaining the purpose of the structure. HATCHERY LABORATORY. NURTURING CENTER. BICYCLE REPAIR. But this undistinguished rectangle had only an unobtrusive, meaningless label on the door. ANNEX.

Claire had never heard of the Annex. She had no idea what could be housed inside. But she had a feeling that this was where the boy Jonas was spending his training time. She wondered vaguely if what was happening in there was causing him to become so oddly solemn and solitary.

What could Jonas have been selected for?

Fifteen

Claire looked around suddenly at her coworkers during the morning meal. Ever since her arrival at the Hatchery over a year earlier, she had felt different from them. They didn’t seem to notice. They were friendly enough, and included her in their outings. Everyone was fond of the director, Dimitri, who never allowed his position of authority to make him arrogant. They were able to tease him about his long wait for a spouse.

But those who were young, as Claire was, shared small jokes, sometimes slightly derisive of the older workers, how methodical and orderly they were, how dutifully they went home each evening to their spouses and family units.

Of course they were all diligent workers as well; but youth was a time when a certain amount of lightheartedness was tolerated. Standing on the edge of the holding ponds, they gave the young fish silly names, and invented personalities for them. “Look at Greedy Gus! He’s grabbing all the food again!” “Watch out! Here comes Big-Lips Buster!”

Claire always smiled at the foolishness. The Vessels, during her time at the Birthing Unit, had done the same thing: found things to joke about, ways to pass the time. She had joined in. She had been part of it, and of them, until the end.

But here she had always felt separate. Different. It was hard to identify why.

But today, at breakfast, she suddenly noticed something that she had taken for granted until now. As they cleared their plates, tossed their crumpled napkins into the waste container, and smoothed their uniforms in preparation for another day of work, each worker did one other routine, quick thing.

They each took a pill.

Claire knew about the pills. The pill-taking in the community began at about Twelve—or for some children, earlier. Parents observed their children and decided when the time had come. She herself had not been deemed ready for the pills before her Ceremony of Twelve. It hadn’t mattered to her. Those of her friends who took them found it a nuisance. But when she was selected Birthmother at the Ceremony, part of her list of instructions had specified: No pills.

If you are already taking the pills, stop immediately.

If you have not yet begun, do not begin.

She remembered now that the pill prohibition had seemed unimportant at the time. Her parents, though, were a little flustered by it. They took the pills. So did her brother, Peter. “I had them here ready for you when the time came,” Claire’s mother had said with a nervous laugh. “I suppose I’ll just throw them away.”

“Better turn them in,” her father had suggested.

She had asked the other Vessels when she had taken up residence at the Birthing Unit. “Were you already taking the pills?” Claire inquired at mealtime one evening.

Some had shrugged and said no. But several nodded. “I stopped right away when I got my instructions,” one girl said.

“I sort of tapered off,” another girl explained.

“I think it’s because we got switched over to vitamins,” Nadia had said. She was referring to the carefully measured dosages of vitamins that all the Vessels dutifully took each morning. “The pills were probably just a different vitamin that we don’t need anymore.”

“No. The pill was something else entirely,” Suzanne insisted. She was the one who said she had tapered off.

“She’s right,” Miriam said. “The vitamins don’t make us feel any different. But the pill—” She hesitated. “Well, taking it didn’t seem to have any effect. But when I stopped taking it, I began to feel . . .” But she couldn’t seem to describe what she meant.

“I felt restless,” Suzanne explained. “And—well, this is a little embarrassing. I don’t even know how to describe it. But I began to be aware of my own feelings. Not just in my head, but—well, physical feelings too.” She blushed, and chuckled nervously. The other girls, including Claire, felt embarrassed too, but intrigued. Feelings of any sort were not ordinarily discussed.

“Yes, that’s it,” Miriam agreed, “and you know what? I think they want us to undergo that change. Without the pills, our body gets ready. That’s what we’re experiencing.”

“I kind of like it. I never really wanted anything before. But now I want the Product. When I feel it growing, it makes me happy.” She rubbed her belly and smiled.

The other girls agreed, touching their own distended middles. “It’s a nice feeling.”

“After you give birth, you take the pills again, until you’re ready for the next time,” Nancy had said. She had produced three Products by then and was waiting for her post-Birthmother Assignment.

“How long? This is my first time,” Claire had asked. “I never had the pills at all.”

“You will, though. After you produce, you’ll take the pills. Maybe six months. Then you stop, and you get ready for your next Product. See Karen over there?” She pointed to a young woman at a nearby table. “She just produced. She’s on the pills now. But in a few months she’ll need to start getting ready for her second production.”

“It’s really boring,” Suzanne said in a whisper. “When you’re between births, and taking the pills. Nothing is much fun. You don’t really notice it, though.”

Now, looking around in the Hatchery cafeteria, Claire was aware that all the other workers took a pill every morning. And that was why, she realized, their conversation was always lighthearted, superficial, essentially meaningless. They were like the Vessels in the pill-taking time between births—without feeling. She was the only one, she could see now, who did not take a pill each day—and she guessed that it was simply a mistake. Her disastrous birth experience, and her decertification, had been so sudden and startling that no one at the Birthing Unit had thought to supply her with pills or instruct her to take them. Perhaps each attendant had thought that someone else had done so.

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