“Do you ever worry that a bridge might be too low? Do you encounter other bridges? Might your boat be too tall for a low one?”
He chuckled. “Not my job to worry,” he said. “The captain has the charts and knows the routes. We’re six point three meters. Never bumped a bridge yet, or knocked a crew member into the drink.”
“We’re required to learn to swim but we’re not allowed in the river,” she found herself telling him.
“Required? Who requires it?”
Claire felt slightly flustered. “It’s just one of the rules of the community. We learn in a pool. When we’re five.”
The young man laughed. “No rules like that where I come from. I learned when my dad threw me into a pond. I was eight, I think. Swallowed half the pond before I made my way to the dock, and my dad laughing the whole time. I bawled when I got out and so he threw me back in.”
“Oh. Goodness.” Claire didn’t know quite what to say. She couldn’t imagine the scene. Her own swimming class had been orderly and precise, with special instructors. No heartless laughing men called Dad.
“After that I could swim. Wouldn’t want to try in this river, though.” He looked down at the fast-moving dark water, how it pounded against some rocks near the bank, then slid splashing over them, so that they disappeared briefly, then reemerged with foam sliding down their slick, mossy sides.
Some years before, a child named Caleb had fallen into the river near here and the entire community had performed the Ceremony of Loss. Claire remembered it: the shock, the hushed voices, and how parents had kept their children nearby afterward, and warned them, sternly, again and again. She thought she remembered hearing that the parents of the lost child, Caleb, had been chastised. It was the job of parental units to protect their children from harm. Caleb’s parents had not performed well.
Yet this boy’s father had thrown him into deep water, and laughed; and now he himself laughed at the memory. It seemed so strange.
They chatted. He asked about her job and they discussed fish aimlessly for a while. In a place far away—he gestured—he had seen some almost as large as the boat. She thought he might be joking, but he seemed serious. Could it be true? She wanted to ask him where his boat would go next. Where it came from; where he came from. It was Elsewhere, really, that she wondered about. But she felt uneasy. She was afraid that asking such questions might somehow be against the rules. Anyway, it was beginning to get dark, and she knew she must return. “I have to get back,” she said.
He turned with her and they walked toward the Hatchery buildings. “Would you like to see aboard?” he asked suddenly.
“I don’t think it’s allowed,” she told him apologetically.
“The captain wouldn’t mind. He often has visitors come aboard. We’re a sea-river vessel. Very unusual. People like to come aboard and look around.”
“Yes. We don’t stay just to the river. We can go to sea as well. Most riverboats can’t.”
“Sea,” Claire said. She hadn’t the slightest idea what that meant.
He misunderstood her. “Yes, they want to see the galley, and the wheelhouse, all of it. Very curious. The captain is proud to show them around. Or a crew member can. We have a crew of ten.”
“I meant that I’m not allowed. I have to stay at my work, I’m afraid.”
They had reached the fork in the path that meant they would separate, he heading back along the river to his boat. She would turn here toward the Hatchery entrance.
“Too bad,” he said. “I would enjoy showing it to you. And you could meet Marie!”
“She’s the cook on the boat.” He laughed. “That surprises some people, that we have a woman aboard.”
Claire was puzzled. “Why would people be surprised by that?”
“Boating is men’s work, mostly.”
“Oh.” Claire frowned. Men’s work? Women’s work? Here in the community, there was no such difference.
“Yes, I would have enjoyed meeting Marie, and seeing the inside of the boat,” Claire told him. “Maybe when you return. Perhaps our rules will change. Or I might apply for special permission.”
“Good night, then,” he said, and turned toward the boat path.
Claire waved and stood watching as he disappeared beyond the overhanging bushes. Then she turned away. “Sea,” she repeated to herself, wondering what it might mean. Sea.
The weeks passed. Except for the secret she carried always with her, the secret of the baby, each day was much like the one before, and the one after. It had always been so, Claire realized. There had been no surprises in her life, or in anyone’s within the community. Just the Assignment Ceremony, at Twelve: the disappointing surprise, then, of being named Birthmother. And later, of course, the shock of her failure.
But now it was again the dull routine of daily life in the community. The rasping voice through the speaker, making announcements, giving reminders. The rituals and rules. The mealtimes, and the work. Always the work. Claire had been given increasingly more demanding tasks in the lab, but they were still tedious and repetitious. She performed the work well but often found herself restless and bored.
What was it she had been told about this year’s Ceremony? A boy had been singled out. It wasn’t clear why, and no mention had been made of it again. Perhaps that boy—she remembered that his name was Jonas—was doing something different, and interesting. But she couldn’t imagine what it might be.
She had visited the Nurturing Center again but been turned away. After all the newchildren had been assigned parental units at the Ceremony, the Center was almost empty. Newborns were beginning to arrive to start the year’s population. But when Claire stopped by, though she was greeted pleasantly by the receptionist, she was told that they had no need for extra help until the numbers increased.
“It’s actually vacation time for nurturers,” the young woman explained. “Most of them are volunteering at other places while we wait for more infants.” She peered at her computer screen. “We have two arriving next week.”
She smiled at Claire. “Right now?” she said. “No need for help. But thanks for stopping by. Maybe in a couple of months.”
Claire wanted to ask, But what about Thirty-six? He’s still here, isn’t he? He wasn’t assigned, remember? You’re keeping him another year. He needs someone to play with him, doesn’t he? Couldn’t I be the one?
But of course she said nothing. It was clear that the receptionist, however polite, was disinterested and wished Claire would leave. Reluctantly she turned away and left the building.
From time to time, though, she saw the man who worked there, the one who had had a special fondness for Thirty-six. She waved one afternoon when, out for a walk after lunch, she saw him across the Central Plaza, on his bicycle. He was apparently out on an errand; there was a package in his front basket. He smiled and waved back in reply. She noticed that his bicycle now had a child seat on the rear, replacing the carrying basket that had once held Thirty-six. The little seat was empty, but the fact that it was there gave Claire hope. It seemed that perhaps the nurturer was still taking him home at night. And he would be sitting up now. Claire pictured his sturdy little body and how he would grin in delight to feel the fresh air and see the trees.
She began to time her walks, carefully finishing in the lab and cleaning up there so that she could leave work and stroll during shift-change time. She walked to the part of the community that seemed most likely: the northeast corner of the Central Plaza, where the Nurturing Center stood and then the dwellings began, across the main boulevard. She had hopes of seeing the nurturer heading back to his dwelling for the evening meal, with little Abe riding behind him.
Finally her timing was right. There they were.
“Hello there!” Claire called.
The man looked up, recognized her, and eased his bicycle to a standstill, balancing it with his right foot on the path. “How are you?” he asked cheerfully. “It’s Claire, isn’t it?”
She was pleased that he remembered her name. She wasn’t wearing her nametag—it was still pinned to the lab coat she had hung up when she left work. And it had been three months now since they had seen each other.
“Yes, that’s right. Claire.”
“Nice to see you. It’s been a while.”
“I stopped by but they said they didn’t need me to help out because the newchildren had all been assigned.”
He nodded. “All but this one!”
Claire hadn’t wanted to look directly at Abe. Not at first. But now, since he had mentioned the infant in the child seat, she turned her attention there and smiled at the child, who was busily examining a leaf in his hands. He must have pulled it from a bush as they rode past. She watched as he held the leaf to his own mouth and tasted it with a puzzled, uncertain look. She could see that he had two teeth.
“You’re still taking him to your dwelling at night?”
The nurturer nodded. “He still doesn’t sleep well. It annoys the night workers at the Center, especially now that they have some newborns to tend.
“But my family unit enjoys him. My daughter—her name is Lily—tried to convince me that we should apply for what they call a variance.”
“A variance? What’s that?”
“An exception to a rule. Lily thought we should try to convince them that three children would be appropriate for our family.”
“And did you apply?” Claire asked.
He laughed. “Nope. My spouse would have applied for an annulment of our pairing if I had! This guy will be assigned to his own family next time around. He’ll be fine. But in the meantime, it’s fun having him at our dwelling nights.” He turned to look behind him at the baby. “Oh, great,” he groaned. “Eating a leaf. Well, I’ve been trained to sponge away spit-up. Part of the job!”
Claire could see that he was beginning to shift his balance and move his right foot toward the bike pedal. “Are you allowed to use his name in public now?” she asked quickly, trying to keep them there for another minute or so. “I remember that you were using it secretly.”
The man hesitated. “Actually,” he said a little guiltily, “we do use it at home. But we’re not supposed to. He’s still just Thirty-six until he’s assigned.
“So I’m afraid I can’t tell you what it is. But it’s a good one.”
“I’m sure it is. They always choose carefully, don’t they? I like your daughter’s name. Lily. It’s pretty.”
He smiled. “I have to be off. He’s happy now, with that leaf to chew. But wait till he wants real food. He’ll start yowling. And it’s almost mealtime.”
“It was nice to see you,” she told him.
“You too. I’ll tell my daughter that you think her name is pretty. She’ll love hearing that.” He rolled his eyes, as if it were too silly for words. “And of course, just to be fair and equal, I have to tell you that my son has a nice name as well.”
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