Son

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“I remember that. I was there,” Edith said.

“Me too,” Jeannette recalled. “Nobody cheered when they named the new Paul. But I think there was a feeling of satisfaction. People liked my father,” she said. “He was nice. Very quiet. But nice.”

They finished their meal in silence. Then, at the sound of the buzzer, they stacked their plates and began to tidy their table.

It was dusk. The others were tired after the long day of the Ceremony. Anticipating another day of it tomorrow, they had drifted off to their rooms early, after the evening meal. But Claire found herself restless after the day indoors. She decided to take a walk.

The path along the river was shaded and pleasant at this time of day. Ordinarily she would have encountered others walking, and exchanged greetings. But no one was out and about this evening; it had been a long day for them all. Claire wandered beside the water until she approached the huge bridge. It was forbidden to cross it without special permission, and she had no idea what lay beyond, on the other side. There was nothing visible but trees. It was simply Elsewhere. She had heard people say that occasionally, though rarely, small groups were taken to visit other communities. But perhaps it was just a rumor. Claire herself had never known anyone who had seen Elsewhere.

Standing at the base of the massive concrete supports that formed the foundation for the bridge, Claire measured it with her eyes. The barge that was now moored by the Hatchery must have barely fit beneath.

If she crossed the intersecting road here, she would continue along the river path and pass the large barn that housed official vehicles. Citizens made their way around the community only by bicycle, but large deliveries were transported by trucks, and sometimes maintenance required heavy equipment. It was all stored here. Claire remembered a few years back, when she had been a Ten or a Nine, the boys who were her age-mates had all been fascinated by the vehicle barn. They had, almost all of them, yearned to be assigned a career involving transportation so that they could be trained to drive the equipment.

But it had never interested Claire, and it didn’t this evening. She turned onto the main stretch of road and walked to the northwest, away from the river, with the central plaza spread out on her left. She passed the Auditorium, which stood at the end of the plaza; earlier in the day the community had gathered in throngs on its steps, and they would be there again in the morning. But now, at dusk, the plaza was empty and the large building that dominated its southwest border was quiet and seemed unoccupied.

She realized that she was walking toward the Nurturing Center. She could turn left there and continue on past the Infirmary and the Childcare Center, making a large loop that would take her back to the Hatchery.

“Hi there!”

The man’s voice startled her. The entire community had been so still. But looking up, Claire saw the bicycle stopped at the corner of the plaza. She recognized the nurturer who had been so pleasant to her during her visits. She smiled, waved, and walked toward the corner where he waited, one foot on the ground, balancing his bike.

He put one finger to his lips as she approached. “Shhh.” Then he gestured toward the back of his bicycle, where a carrying basket had been attached. As she came near, she could see that there was a sleeping infant in the basket. “Finally he’s asleep,” the man whispered. “I’m taking him home for the night.”

Claire nodded and smiled down at Newchild Thirty-six.

“Were you at the Ceremony?” the man asked.

She shook her head. “I volunteered to stay at the Hatchery. I’ve been to enough Ceremonies.” She kept her voice lowered, as he had.

The nurturer chuckled softly. “I know the feeling,” he said. “But it was fun for me today. Part of my job is giving the newchildren to their parental units. The new mothers and fathers are always so excited.

“I’m glad we get to nurture this one for another year, though,” he added, reaching to touch the edge of the basket. “He seems pretty special.”

Claire nodded in agreement, not trusting herself to speak.

“Gotta go,” the man said. He placed his right foot on the uptilted pedal of the bike. “Tomorrow’s a big day for my family unit. Our son’s a Twelve this year. Lots of nervousness and apprehension.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Claire said.

“Come visit us again at the Center? We’ll have a new batch of newborns arriving soon. And this guy will be there too, of course! His playmates will all be gone, to their new family units, so he’ll enjoy visitors.”

“I will.” She smiled at him, and he set off again on his bike, toward the area of family dwellings. Claire stood there watching the little basket jiggle gently as the bicycle moved along the path. Then she turned away.

Ten

Apparently the Ceremony of Twelve had concluded with a surprise. When the Hatchery workers returned at the end of the second day, they were murmuring about it.

The second day of the Ceremony was always a long day. New Twelves were called to the stage individually and their attributes described. It was the first time that the youngsters were singled out and attention paid to the accomplishments of their childhood. A boy might be praised for his scholarship, and the audience reminded of his special abilities in science. Or the Chief Elder might even call attention to an especially pretty face—it was always embarrassing when that happened, because in the community attractiveness was never considered an asset to be mentioned—and the Twelve thus described would blush, and the audience laugh. The community was always attentive and supportive; each adult had been through this experience and knew how important it was. But going one by one did make for a long time on the second day.

“The Chief Elder skipped one Twelve,” Rolf explained to Claire at the evening meal. “She went from Eighteen to Twenty.”

“We all cringed. We thought she’d made a mistake.” Edith straightened and tensed, demonstrating with her posture how nervous she and the others had been.

“Everybody thought so. Did you hear the murmur go through the Auditorium?” someone asked.

“And the boy she skipped? Number Nineteen? I could see him from where I was sitting. He was completely nonplussed!” A young man at the end of the table grinned.

“So what happened?” Claire asked.

“Well,” Rolf explained, “after she finished with the last one—”

“Number Fifty?”

“Yes. But of course she had only called up forty-nine to the stage. Then she apologized to the audience.”

“The Chief Elder apologized?” It was hard to believe.

Rolf nodded. “She laughed a little. She could see we were all sort of nervous. So she reassured us, and apologized for making us uncomfortable. Then she called the boy, number Nineteen, to the stage.”

“He looked as if he was going to throw up,” Eric said, laughing.

“I don’t blame him,” Claire said. She found herself feeling sorry for the boy. It must have been an awful moment for him. “What did she say to him?”

“That he hadn’t been assigned—which we all knew, of course. But then—this was the surprise. She said he’d been ‘selected.’”

“Selected for what?” Claire had never heard of such a thing before.

Rolf raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Didn’t she say?”

“Yes, but I didn’t understand what she was talking about. Did any of you?” He looked around at his coworkers at the table.

“Not really,” Edith said. “It was important, though. It had to do with the Giver and the Receiver.”

“Whoever they are,” someone murmured.

“Yes, it sounded really important,” Eric agreed.

“Do you think the boy understood?”

They all shook their heads. “He looked completely confused,” Edith said. “I felt sorry for him.”

The cleanup buzzer sounded. They began to gather their plates and forks. “Who was he?” Claire asked. She was still fascinated by the idea of the selected boy.

“Never heard of him before. But we all know his name now, don’t we?” Eric said with a laugh.

“What do you mean?”

“The whole community called out his name. It was a kind of ceremonial . . . What would you call it? A recognition. We all shouted the name over and over. Jonas!”

Rolf, Edith, and some other workers joined in. “Jonas! Joooonas!”

People at all the other tables looked up. Some seemed amused, others a little worried. Then they too called the name. “JOOOONAS! JOOOONAS!”

The final buzzer sounded and they fell quiet. People looked around at each other in the sudden silence. Then they stood to leave the room. Dinner had ended.

Eleven

Claire walked again along the river before retiring. Once more she was alone. Usually the workers took walks in pairs or groups, but again tonight the others were tired after the unusual day. One by one they had gone to their rooms, some of them carrying the readers that they were supposed to study in order to advance in their jobs. From time to time Claire turned her reader on and skimmed the material, but she had little interest in it. She had not been selected for this job by a committee that had perceived her fascination with fish. They had simply sent her here because they needed a place to put her after her failure as a Birthmother.

She had read the manual pages listlessly several times, guiltily aware of her own disinterest. She had memorized a phrase: cleavage, epiboly, and organogenesis. She could still say it but realized that she had completely forgotten what it referred to.

“Activation of cortical alveoli,” Claire murmured, walking. That was another phrase, a heading she had memorized in the manual.

“What?” a nearby voice asked, startling her. She looked up.

It was one of the boat crew, a young man in shorts and a sweater. He wore dark laced shoes made from a kind of canvas, with thick, textured soles that Claire assumed prevented him from slipping on the wet deck of the vessel. She wasn’t frightened. He was smiling and looked quite friendly, not at all anyone to be nervous about. But she had never spoken to any of the boatmen before, or they to her.

“Is that a different language?” he asked, grinning. He had the distinctive accent she had overheard.

“No,” Claire answered politely. “We speak the same language.”

“Then what is ‘amplification of corsical alveoli’?”

Claire couldn’t help laughing. He had gotten quite close to her words, but still he was amusingly wrong.

“I was just trying to memorize something for work,” she explained. “A phase of embryonal development. It’s a little boring, I’m afraid, unless you are fascinated by fish. I work at the Hatchery.”

“Yes, I’ve seen you there.”

“You’ve had to wait to unload because of our annual Ceremony.”

He shrugged. “Not a problem. Nice to rest from the work. We’ll unload tomorrow and be on our way.”

He had begun to walk beside her and now they were approaching the bridge. They stopped there for a moment and watched the turbulent churning of the water.

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