Son

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In the end she decided that it was enough that she had found him. She would let him be. But she realized then the magnitude of the cruel exchange Trademaster had offered her.

Through the years she had watched Gabe grow from a mischievous boy into this quiet young man who now seemed to have a mission she didn’t understand. Why a boat? The river was a dangerous thing. The village children could swim and play in the one protected section where the water was shallow and slow. But farther out, and farther along, the water rushed furiously over sharp rocks. She had heard that there was a steep waterfall someplace, and fallen trees here and there that could easily smash the thin boards he was so carefully tying together with strips of bamboo.

Claire was very frightened of swift-moving water. She had reason to be. She had once lived beside a river, once beside a sea. Both had brought her heartbreak and loss.

She did not want her son to be lost to water.

The crisp-skinned pork, sliced from the roasted pig on the spit, smelled delicious, but she knew it was not for her, not with her remaining teeth loose and her gums sore. Claire filled her plate from a large bowl of soft beans that had been baking all day in a sauce of tomatoes and herbs, and added a piece of soft bread. She would leave room, though, she thought, for a slice of blackberry pie.

She set her plate on a table and eased herself onto a bench next to several others. A pregnant woman smiled at her and moved slightly, making room; Claire recognized her as Jean, the wife of one of the fiddlers who were tuning their instruments and preparing to play for the dancing. Kira was there too, keeping an eye on her toddlers as they played near the table. From time to time she spooned food into their mouths, as if they were baby birds.

Eating slowly, watching the young women at her table, Claire realized that she might have been one of them. She looked down at her own gnarled hand holding a fork. An old woman’s hand. Herbalist had told her she was nearing her last days, and she sensed that it was true. But inside herself? She was a young woman still. If she had not made the trade that had brought her here (Youth! In her memory Claire could hear still how Trademaster had breathed the word into her ear, had spat against her cheek with it, how she had nodded in assent and whispered to him: Trade) she would perhaps be back with Einar now, helping him tend his lambs, cooking a stew they would share in their hillside hut, talking together by the fire in the evenings.

But she would not have found her son. She would never have seen Gabe again, would not have watched him grow into the lively young man he had become. She knew it was a trade she would make again, given the chance.

She rose to return her emptied plate, to get herself a piece of pie, and looked over to the table where the boisterous young boys were sitting together. He was there. She saw him glance sideways at her as she passed; then his attention returned to his plate, heaped as it was with food, and to a lengthy joke one of his friends was telling. In adolescence Gabe was gangly and tall, and as she watched, his elbow knocked over the mug holding his drink; the other boys chortled as he sheepishly mopped up the mess with his napkin.

His hair was curly, as hers—now a sparse bun at the back of her head—had once been. His blue eyes were surprisingly pale. Jonas had the same eyes. So did his wife, Kira. Claire remembered now that she had noticed the unusual eyes when Gabe was an infant. Those early days had come back to her very slowly, and with pain attached to each memory.

The feel of the mask clamped over her face during his birth. She had shuddered when that memory returned.

How, later, she had held him for the first time, and had noticed the startling pale eyes. When she recalled it, she was suffused with a feeling of loss.

Then she remembered a dream she had had, of a hidden light-eyed baby. How, in the dream, she had kept him concealed in a drawer. Thinking of it after all this time, she almost wept at the sadness of all it implied.

She did weep when the next memory came back: of how he had grinned and wiggled his chubby fingers at her. He had learned by then to say her name. Claire, he had said in his high voice. And: Bye-bye.

She did not regret the trade she had made in order to find him. But she was desperately sad to realize that her time was short now. Instead of the strong and vibrant young woman she should be, the mother Gabe deserved, she was now an ancient hag waiting for death. It was a hideous joke that Trademaster had played on them both seven years before.

The sky darkened as night fell and the music began in earnest. Soon it would be the time for the young people, the time for dancing and flirtation. Claire saw Gabe rise from his seat and make his way over to the pretty freckle-faced girl named Deirdre. He stood self-consciously talking to her as she helped to clean the tables. She could see that Deirdre was self-conscious too, but that she purposely walked in a way that made her striped skirt twirl and flutter.

Women gathered their dishes and babies in order to take them home. Claire watched Kira with the children. Annabelle was half asleep in her arms, but Matthew was dashing about wildly. Finally Jonas scooped him up and laughed as the overtired two-year-old kicked and cried. Together they gathered their things and called good night, then started down the path from the Pavilion toward their home. Jonas had set Matthew on his shoulders and the couple became silhouettes against the sky as the moon rose and Claire watched.

Although Jonas had no awareness of who she had once been, that once she and he had been contemporaries in the same community, Claire remembered Jonas as a boy. He was too young for fatherhood then; nonetheless, it had been he who had saved a baby sentenced to die because the little one was eager, and curious, and lively. Because he didn’t sleep. He was—what was the word?—disruptive. Didn’t fit in. Jonas had risked his own life, sacrificed his future, to bring him here. She wondered if he worried about Gabe now, about the frailty of the little boat he was striving to build and the dangers he would face if somehow he launched it into the river.

When she rose from her seat in order to start down the path to her own cottage, her hip had stiffened and she stood for a moment massaging it with her hand before she was able to walk. Finally she started down the gentle hill, carefully feeling her way in the moonlight. How soon she would be gone, Claire thought, and sighed. How little Gabe would ever know about his own past.

Then she stopped, suddenly, and stood still. Of course, she thought. She knew what she would do.

She decided she would tell her story, her own history that she had kept so secret until now, to Jonas. Someday, after she was gone, if the time was ever right, when the boy was old enough and ready, he could pass it on to her son.

Six

Trademaster?”

Jonas looked astonished.

He had listened now for a long time. He was sitting with Claire on a bench in a secluded area behind the library. She had thought about how much to tell him, how to tell him, and finally, ten days after the feast, she had approached Jonas and asked if she could talk to him alone. He had brought her here late on a damp morning, carefully wiping the moisture from the bench and helping her to sit comfortably.

She hadn’t known exactly how to begin. Finally she said, “I knew you when you were a boy.”

Jonas smiled. “I didn’t realize you were here then. I thought you came to the village more recently. I would have guessed, oh, five or six years ago. But we lose track of time, don’t we?”

“No,” Claire said. “You’re right. I arrived here close to seven years ago. But I had known you long before then. Back in the community where you had grown up.”

He looked more closely at her. “I’m sorry not to recognize you,” he said. “I was a child there, of course. I left there after I turned twelve. But I did many of my volunteer hours in the House of the Old. Were you there then? I remember a woman named . . . What was it? Larissa? That was it. Did you know her?”

Claire shook her head. “No,” she murmured. This was so hard. How could she describe to him something that would be almost impossible to believe?

She sighed, and kneaded her hands, which ached. It was midmorning. Often her joints ached in the morning. She cleared her throat. Her voice, she knew, was an old person’s voice now, too soft sometimes, too tentative. But she took a deep breath and tried to speak firmly, to make him listen, to make him understand the incomprehensible.

“My ceremony was three years before yours.”

“Your ceremony?”

“The Ceremony of Twelve.”

“But—”

She held up her hand. “Shhh. Just listen.”

Jonas, looking confused, fell silent.

“I received my Assignment when I turned twelve. I was assigned Birthmother.” She paused. “That was a disappointment, of course. But I had not been a good student.”

She could see that he was still puzzling over her words. There was nothing to do but go on. “After a while, when I was deemed ready, I moved into the birthing unit.”

Around them, the pace of the village continued. Some women were gossiping as they weeded in the community garden. Nearby, small children played with some puppies. From Boys’ Lodge, the usual group emerged and ran down the path, calling laughing insults to one another. Gabe was not among them. He had gone to his place by the river much earlier and was alone there, fitting the last parts of his odd little boat into place.

All of this fell away from their awareness as Jonas and Claire sat together. She talked. He listened attentively. Now and then he interrupted her softly to ask a question. The pills. When did she stop taking the pills?

“I did too. I just threw them away,” he told her. “Did you feel the change?”

“I felt different from the others. But I was already different in so many ways.”

He nodded. She could tell that he was slowly accepting the story she was telling him. But she saw him look carefully at her, at her thin gray hair, her stooped shoulders and gnarled hands, and knew that he could not comprehend yet how she had become what she now was.

She told him of her work at the fish hatchery, after her discharge from the Birthing Center. Of her search for Gabe, and her visits to him.

She described how the infant had begun to say her name. How he laughed at the funny face she made, and tried to imitate it. Claire thrust her tongue into her cheek and made the face for Jonas.

He looked startled. “I remember it!” he told her. “When he and I were together—you know he stayed in my dwelling at night?”

“I know.”

“Sometimes he made that funny face for me. But of course I didn’t know—” He paused, still trying to comprehend.

She continued her story.

The midday bell rang. Villagers began to gather for lunch. Jonas and Claire ignored it.

“Will Kira be wondering where you are?”

He shook his head. “No. She was taking the children on a picnic with some friends. Please—go on. Unless you’re hungry. Would you like to stop for lunch?”

Claire said no. “I don’t have much of an appetite anymore.”

“You’re too thin.”

“I eat very little. Herbalist says it’s not unusual for someone my age. It’s part of the natural process.”

“Your age?” Jonas asked. “But you were three years older than I was! What happened?”

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