by Heather McLellan
The city wailed outside the window through the sticky dust of morning. It crept up on Marya like a dust-cloaked assassin, infinitely distant for all of time until the sudden moment when it wasn’t.
“Marya?” A male voice, educated and hoarse. A rope of muscle formed in her throat and took root there. She closed her eyes; the rope wound itself more tightly.
“Well, good morning, I guess,” said the male voice, exhaling deeply.
Bubbling words passed through her head and slid down to form a roiling nausea below. She lay still, her hands beneath the side of her face, gaze fixed on the blurry orange square of window two feet from the end of her nose. The smog was heavy and still new – she imagined briefly that the buildings outside had crept away in the night, so that the noises drifting through the room were the sounds of the city fleeing, sliding away into nothingness like water over dry rock.
This was a panic attack – another panic attack. She filled the space left by her absent breath with images of her two brothers, their memory suddenly alive in the light and dusky space between her body and the walls. The color orange belonged to their family, to their sticky skin that reflected nightlights and daylight in the same tones, at home usually shirtless in the pressing heat or at least close to it, playing with somebody’s phone or fixing the water filters or agonizing out loud about their exams and how hard they were to pass. They would be awake by now, without her, walking to work hungry and tired.
She knew she was leaving them to die in dust. Once this morning was done with, Marya was going to jump to one of an infinite number of fecund old Earths that stood waiting on the other side of a small, overworked gate hidden out in the sand. Nobody returned from it; the technology was too clunky to be taken through the gate and used at the other end. It just picked a new dimension and threw you right to it.
Her brothers were lost to her now. Marya’s mind cowered in terror while her body shook, throwing off her bedmate’s senses and leaving him as hopeless as always. Nature screamed through her every aspect – her companion, Yusu, exhaled, stood up, and went to the kitchen. He brewed week-old coffee grounds and sniffed with satisfaction at the results while Marya howled herself to exhaustion.
A few hours later, silent as the sea beneath the moon, they came together and set about returning their living space to its default setting. They filled the recycling totes to the brim with their sheets and their towels, and made neat and alphabetized piles out of the leftover packet meals. Yusu tested all of the power outlets; he ticked off tasks on a list while Marya chewed on a breath stick and packed clothes into two backpacks.
Through their cooperation, the scene of so many storms and terrors was returned exactly to the state it had been in when they, tired and nervous, had dropped their packs by the door two weeks ago and embarked on a fortnight of companionship that taught them that their politeness, their gentleness, and their clean family histories were all that they had in common. Yusu closed the door behind Marya as they left.
Marya spent the rest of that day standing still while the world flashed in and out of darkness around her. Someone took away her backpack and replaced it with a bigger backpack that contained medical supplies, a gas mask, and a personal shelter kit. “You have the biggest medikit, so you’ll head through the gate last,” explained a voice from behind a hazmat helmet. “This says you’re a doctor! I’m a nurse. So you know this, but if you feel yourself slipping, make sure the bag is strapped to you before you pass out.” Marya nodded; one of the thick threads of regret that had been forming in the pit of her stomach reached up and clogged her throat.
Someone who wasn’t the nurse said something about oxygen shock. Someone else said something about ancient infections with long names. Marya heard herself in her hospital’s archive storing it all away.
In the late afternoon their group was taken underground on a seatless and rattling white train. The tunnel sucked them in without warning, creating a second of darkness that was smacked away by the bright LED light strips stuck to the carriage roof. The light was unforgiving; in one vicious nanosecond it turned the group inside the train from a hardy band of pioneers into a collection of pallid, dirty, terrified-looking cave-people whose malnutrition was draped across every angle of their bodies.
Marya felt her stomach spasm. She looked up to the faces around her and felt sorry for them in the harsh light. The light of their sun was gone now, she thought, and they would never see it again. She would never see her family again.
“This is it,” she croaked, her throat dry.
A short man with a spherical face turned his gaze to her. “Yes, yes it is!” he beamed. “That’s the last time we’ll see the smog!” he enthused. “You know – ever!”
The group in the carriage hummed appreciatively, nodding at one another.
“We’re on our way!” continued the assumed leader. “We’re on the way!”
“We’re going to make it. We’re strong on the inside. What we need is food, clean air, clean water…”
More murmurs this time, and even one “Water!”
Marya felt the regret-monster launch itself up through her throat with many magnitudes more power than it had commanded earlier. She bent double so forcefully that Yusu stopped staring at the floor and stooped to pat her lower back a few times.
“Hey, hey now,” he said to a space above the back of Marya’s head. “It’s going to be fine, I promise. You’re okay.”
Blood rushed through Marya’s ears in great surging waves of pressure. It wasn’t going to be fine. There was no way it could be fine. Liquid built up at the back of her throat. She could probably have avoided vomiting on the floor if it hadn’t been shaking, but it was relentless in its motion.
Marya focused on Yusu’s hand on her back, a vaguely warm lump against the bottom of her shirt, while she braced her hands against her legs and tried not to fill her nose with the acrid cloud left by her spattered, watery puke. She thought about the first time she and Yusu had met, about how their faces were full of curiosity, of concern, and then how they each were filled deep with a profound sense of disappointment and guilt.
They had held hopes for each another, then.
She let herself wander back to that night. A cool, clean breeze mussed her hair gently while she waited for Yusu, mysterious, unknown Yusu, in a well-appointed garden behind the frontage of the transport company. The air was sweet and confusing; she drank in every second that the back of her throat spent clear of dust. She spied Yusu as soon as he appeared from the building across the small space, daring herself to believe that maybe this pale and nervous man wasn’t her partner, but she knew, somehow and fatally, that he was. His body, tall, thin, and clean, and it shook slightly with worry as he strode across the garden to greet her, his eyes boring into hers far, far too deeply.
“You’re great,” he said, drawing up close to her and pulling her hands into his. “It’s great to meet you.”
“Yes,” she stammered. She pulled her hands back from his clammy touch and turned away to hide her fear in the great darkness of her hair. “Great to meet you, too.”
Silence. They smiled weakly at each other; Marya dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands while she took in Yusu’s narrow chin, his close-cropped hair, his gaping clavicle. He reminded her of the feel of plastic wrap on her hands in the kitchen.
Together they walked through the all-inviting compound, spending the allotted introduction time sampling fresh water and fully rehydrated foods from vending machines dotted around the shiny, white-lit buildings. Yusu was ready to be enchanted, it seemed; his clean rubber slip-ons hit each step on the immaculate floors with exactly the same tone and slap.
“Oh, man, look! Lychee juice! I haven’t seen lychee juice since I was a kid!” he said, searching Marya’s beautifully round face and deep, dark eyes for any trace of emotion or memory. Here was a man who hated himself, she thought, and a man who didn’t know it.
“Wow, yeah, look at that.” Marya stopped and smiled wanly, doing her best to keep her spirits up. She brushed a tuft of hair back behind her ear. “I haven’t seen a lychee since I was in school.”
“I’m going to have one,” Yusu enthused. “Do you want one?”
“I’m okay for now. I still have this coconut water.”
“Oh! Of course. Well, I’m going for it.”
Genetically synchronous and profoundly ill at ease, the pair wandered around the company’s compound for a few more tedious hours until a helper came to take them to their temporary apartment.
The helper was warm and friendly, with fluffy red hair, a wide smile set on pale white skin, and bright, happy eyes. She was there to escort them to their introductory apartment, a modest two-room space where Marya and Yusu would spend the two weeks until their transport forming enough of a bond to survive together in the wilderness.
The helper was attentive and kind; she carried Marya’s backpack for the whole 20-minute walk to the city-bound autotaxi bank, and in mundane conversation she gave Yusu all of the reassuring attention that he had been so desperately seeking during their earlier promenade around the company compound.
They arrived at the apartment door, one of a hundred identical blemishes in a long and well-lit hallway, after a short drive. The helper was still as bubbly and bright as before; she took on a mock-serious tone to ask Yusu to please carry Marya’s bag into the apartment while she had a little girl-talk with his new partner. He complied with a knowing smirk, knowing nothing at all.
As soon as the door had sealed behind him, the helper turned to Marya and grabbed her by the shoulders.
“I’m doing this for your mother,” she said, her voice hushed and urgent, “because I know she’d do it for me.” Marya felt tears welling up in the back of her throat, and winced to try and clear them. Her throat seized up like a cramped muscle.
“I’m so sorry,” the helper continued, “I know, baby, but don’t cry. You can’t cry. You need to stay quiet until the transport leaves, okay? Here,” she said, pressing a packet into Marya’s hands. “The green ones will stop you being sick. The white ones will make you sleep. Don’t take any on the day the transport leaves. Okay?”
Marya stared at her, swaying slightly in the dim hallway.
“Yes,” Marya croaked, breathing herself calm. “Yes. Okay. Thank you.”
The helper cupped Marya’s face in her hands and kissed her on the forehead. “Your mom risked everything for me once, a long time ago. Go be good like your mom, Marya,” she said. “Go take your mom to whole new worlds and places. Be safe, baby girl.”
Marya nodded quickly in short, shallow movements. She hugged the helper and drank in the warm, safe scent of her skin before the woman kissed her once more and then walked away. With her hand on the door pad, Marya watched her slip down the hall and away into the blackness of the elevator at its end.
She had never seen this woman before in her life, but Marya knew that this woman—this quiet, perfectly perfunctory woman—must have been the one who had risked her freedom and her family to sneak a false negative into Marya’s pre-transport pregnancy test and swap her one-shot contraceptive pill for a placebo. She was the catalyst that had made the whole thing possible; she was the kindness that kept Marya from the darkness and the terror that lay on the other side of either an illegal childbirth or a living-room abortion in a world with no water. There was death in a prison, death on a dining table, death in another dimension; she chose the option with the least predictable outcome.
Marya watched the woman disappear into the elevator and braced her shoulders against the crippling weight of complete uncertainty carried in total isolation.
The train shook Marya back into the tunnel that linked the city to the transport gate. Helpful members of the travelling party had gathered around her crouched body and her small pool of vomit; several pawed pack sponges at the floor while others cooed and stroked Marya’s head and shoulders. Of course she was nervous, they said, each of them unspeakably grateful to have a deep, thirsty well for all of their own anxieties. It made perfect sense.
The train took two hours to reach the transport facility in the desert through a tunnel that never permitted the travelers to catch any glimpse of the world outside. Marya spent it sitting on the floor, her knees bent up in front of her, trying to sleep. She heard people wasting time – “You know, in this tunnel, there’s really no way for us to tell how far from the city we’re going,” said one – and others wasting energy, while Yusu meanwhile leaned his head back against the wall behind her smiled here and there at nothing in particular.
Exactly an hour later, the air around them pulsed with pressure for a microsecond, long enough to startle the sleepers and distract everyone else from their thoughts momentarily. The windows filled with light in the next instant, sending a jolt through the train that dispersed all of the group’s inertia like the shockwave from an explosion. The air thumped in and out between great gray and silver beams that locked the train in place below a well-lit hangar, keeping the rhythm of the train’s progress with steady wmph-wmph-wmphs.
Yusu jumped up to the window across from Marya as soon as the train left the tunnel. He craned his neck up toward the beams above them and let all of the wonder inside of him wash right across his face. Marya watched him—free of worry, free of consequence, free of anything that wasn’t adventure—and felt herself falling backward and forward between pity and envy with every passing beam.
The wmph-wmph-wmph ceased and the train slowed to a halt. Around them, the faces of their fellow passengers scanned the walls and windows of the train for signs pointing to the next fraught hours of their lives. The weight of their collective fear crushed them all into silence, even the talkative round-faced one.
“This part will be waiting,” Yusu whispered into Marya’s ear. “I think we should get comfortable. The next stop is the… the, uh.” He raised his hand to his forehead; as Marya looked up at hime, everything around his body warped slightly and gave the outside of its edges to a shadow nobody saw coming. “Shit,” Yusu said, and fainted. Darkness clapped instantly into the space where he had been.
Marya’s head was a thick and heavy pustule filled to bursting with hot, viscous tar. Someone had melted an old roadway and poured it into her left ear; it had leaked out from her right side, leaving it scorching and welded to the ground beneath it. Her breath was more water than air.
There was water in the air.
With a great heaving breath, Marya, the daughter of a desert planet, launched herself upward and away from the heat of the ground. Her head was a bell-weight; her body was a thin, weak spring; backward and forward she rocked while the water sluiced across her face and ran into her eyes. She opened them—everything was blurry—but it didn’t add to the pain, not at all. She let her head fall backward one more time, feeling more and more of the liquid that had replaced her brain drip out and away. It reduced its terrible weight as it went.
She flipped over onto her front – there was something over her mouth, a thick, smooth patch, an air filter, most likely. She tore it off clumsily. The ground beneath her chin was hot and wet and smooth. She brought her hands forward and pushed them out in front of her head. She lay flush with the Earth and stared, transfixed, at the hundreds of blades of shining grass that tickled the length of her forearms and hands.
The tiny leaves were bent and crushed beneath her weight; she tousled those closest to her fingertips. She wanted to apologize for crushing them so thoughtlessly. They must have cost a lot of water.
There was water in the air.
It took Marya a long time—as long as it took Yusu to stand up, track down his pack, and set up a tracking device—to realize that it was raining. Once she understood it, she lay in it, face-up, letting the clear water crash into her eyelids and trickle down the back of her throat. She was in a dream; she was on another planet; she had found the beyond that lay beyond death, and it was filled to bursting with sweet, warm water.
“Marya,” Yusu called through the deluge, “Marya, come on.”
Another second; another minute. “No,” she replied.
The rain let up a few hours later. The wet edges of the world rolled back to reveal a new place: A flat, grassy plain wedged between the mouth of a river and the hilly valley that carried it home. The valley was made of long, interlocking mounds that were covered in short, squat trees and dusty paths that acted as highways for the packs of roving goats who shared the slopes with the trees. The trees’ leaves, sparse and thin as they were, made their shadows perform a different routine of magic tricks at every hour of the day. Contrasted against a stunningly bright blue sky hung with many layers of shining, playful clouds, the valley was a fertile and verdant a work of art.
The group’s instructions were clear: Once they had all been found and accounted for—of the 32 tranquilized in the train carriage, 29 had survived their wake-up in the valley—they were to establish a camp in an uninhabited area and set about the hard work of creating the things they would need to live. The twin pressures of constant drought and endless smog that had driven them to this new world were alleviated with a sudden and all-consuming joy that left them almost defenseless against the onslaught of needs they had never really considered. They needed a dry place to sleep—they had too much water—and a place and a method for cooking the food they gathered from bushes; they had to learn how to kill small animals and wash their meat with as much water as they wanted. Marya, the sole medical practitioner in a camp of malnourished city-dwellers thrown from their dimension into this one without much in the way of physical training, had plenty to do.
Time melted into a pastoral reverie. Marya would wake up next to Yusu, ask him how he had slept, and get up to fetch and boil fresh water from the river. Whether the sky on her walk to the river was born a brand new blue or covered up with thick clouds, it was always there, always visible, always wide and open and clean. Marya would speak to her brothers on her walk out from the camp, and tell her mother what she’d discussed with them when she met her at the soft bank. The air was always sweet and clear, like a cold drink for all of Marya’s senses drawn from a well so deep that it could never know drought.
After a few months had crept by, Marya noticed herself adding the bump under her jumpsuit into the morning conversation with the rest of her family. She found the baby’s father, someone she had worked diligently to remove from her mind, appearing to her more and more, raking her skin with longing with every glance. He was—all of a sudden—happy that she was in the valley. He had found a way to forgive himself for being so afraid of watching Marya die on a dining room table that he had helped her leave him forever. He had found a way, too, to understand that the baby wasn’t to be blamed. He saw a world where Marya was dead, and the baby was dead, too—either in the dining room table, or in custody—and then a different world where they were alive, but without him. Gabriel was at peace, and he asked Marya and the baby to share the peace with him.
Settling down to sleep one night in his sleeping bag, Yusu said into the dark of their tent: “Marya, are you pregnant?”
Marya’s blood ran cold, a painful cold ringed with adrenaline that reminded her of the long nights she had spent panicking in the apartment next to this same, somehow different man. “Yusu, listen,” she began.
“It’s okay, Marya,” he said, sitting up and flicking on the tent’s overhead lamp. In its sharp white light, Marya looked, really looked him for the first time since they had landed: He was stronger, his skin tan, the muscles beneath his arms and shoulders resting with a sense of confidence and ease she had never seen in him in their old world. He sat cross-legged, his back straight, his face filled with concern but free from fear. “It’s okay,” he continued. He looked like he had been thinking of what to say all day. “You were very brave, coming here,” he said.
His image swam before her while she tried to update and reconfigure her understanding of this new man. “Thank you, Yusu,” she said. Her voice sounded heavy.
“They’re going to be pissed,” Yusu replied, nodding his head toward the tent’s door-flap.
“I know,” Marya replied. “I’m probably…”
“We’re going to have to leave,” said Yusu.
A sonic boom crashed into Marya’s chest and knocked all of the air from her lungs. She started crying. “I mean, unless you don’t want to, that’s totally okay,” Yusu added, holding his hands up, every motion sincere. “Forget I said anything. Anything at all.”
“Yusu…” she started, shaking her head. “Yusu, you don’t have to do that,” she said.
Yusu shuffled toward her and put his hands on her shoulders. “You’re my best friend in the whole world,” he said. “You were the first person I ever met who let me be alone with my fears. You never let me lean on you when I could trust myself instead. I met myself here, and it was thanks to you.”
“You mean I ignored you.”
Yusu laughed. “I mean, kind of, yeah. But whatever it was, I owe you. And I like you. I like you a lot. You’re brave and friendly and you don’t take shit from anyone. I want to help you,” he said. “People stupid enough to get mad at the doctor for having an unsanctioned kid aren’t the kind of people I want to be around anyway. What did they expect you to do? Die in prison?”
Marya nodded. She was glad he wasn’t trying to make the argument that the rest of the camp might tolerate this aberration; an infant, a creature most of them had never even seen in person, in a new and shaky dimension where their survival hinged on their quiet toil, would not be welcomed into the camp. These people were used to watching infants dying.
As that long, cool night crept on, Marya and Yusuf planned their escape. Yusu gave Marya an honest assessment of her shape under her jumpsuit – she probably only had a few more weeks until tut-tutting over weight gain turned to whoa-whoaing over her obvious pregnancy. They would store food, water, tools, and fabrics, and on a night in the coming fortnight when the moon was big and the sky was clear, they would set out from the camp a few hours after the last lamps went out.
The plan went so well that Marya, her relationship with Yusu now resting on a strong foundation of trust and easy, sudden, friendly affection, wondered if any of it was real. They crept away from the camp and up the valley barely a week after their first conversation. Together they walked for three days, stopping to rest in the middle part of the day, until they reached the opposite end of the valley. The climate was different there—it was more dry, with less grass and stubbier, more stunted trees—but they were able to find a sheltered spot at the edge of a copse of taller trees with bendy, hanging branches that brushed against the ground in the breeze. It suited them perfectly.
A few mornings into their new home—a tent beneath the shade of the weeping trees—Marya and Yusu were woken up by the sound of a stick scraping against the outside of their tent. The stick explored until it worked its way to the tent’s flap, its blunt end pressing into the border between the side panel and the entrance.
Yusu sat up silently and put his finger to his lips. Marya sat up, too, and reached across the small space to unhook the as-yet-unused stun pistol, standard issue, from its holster on her backpack. Yusu crept forward and Marya watched, suddenly comforted, as his stony look turned to a soft expression of surprise and welcome.
“It’s a kid,” he said quietly. “A little kid.”
The stick halted its exploration of the tent. Yusu smiled at Marya and pulled back the flap to reveal a small boy, no more than five years old, standing in front of the tent. He was wearing a thick white shirt and brown sandals; his skin was covered in dust but otherwise flawless. He looked strong and healthy.
He said something in a language Marya and Yusu had never heard before. He seemed happy—he was smiling and poking the tent with the stick—but none of the sounds jumping out of his mouth made any sense. After a few minutes of gestures, the boy’s volume increasing at steady intervals, he gave up and ran off.
Marya and Yusu dressed quickly. They discussed leaving; they weren’t supposed to comingle with resident populations. There was no guarantee that the version of Earth they had jumped to would be home to human beings, and even if it was, there was no way to tell what kind of society they would have evolved into from the molten goop that all points called home. They were at risk.
The boy returned on that first day with a group of men who examined Marya and Yusu’s tent and developed, during a few hours of gesturing, a real fondness for the nutrient crackers their hosts had stolen from their original camp. Yusu held back the crackers; the men, understanding almost immediately, offered him water in exchange. They learned that they each could barter.
The men, who lived in a small village a short walk from the copse, came to admire Yusu’s ability to build chairs, tables, and frames with designs they had never seen before. More valuable still was Marya’s ability to bandage wounds and injuries in ways that allowed the bearer to move but still prevented infection; her pastes and creams, crafted from plants and from powders, brought the community a refined level of pain relief that wouldn’t be available to the rest of the world for centuries, if ever at all in this timeline.
Through it all, Marya tracked her pregnancy carefully. She didn’t have a lot of the equipment she wanted to help her with her labor—she had stocks of antibiotics and synthetic coagulants and desiccants she had stolen from the camp, but not much more, and definitely no suitable painkillers—and fear of the event loomed heavy in her mind through those last, sleepy days in the little hut Yusu built by the copse. She wanted the labor over with; she wanted to freeze time and have it never happen. But her body was unremitting in its drive, and no matter where her thoughts went, it continued to warp and expand around her at a steady pace.
She went into labor on her walk to fetch water one morning at least three weeks—by her count—before she should have. Three weeks wasn’t premature, she reasoned, but the part of her that was trained to identify problems and then lie about them to the patient to prevent stress started screaming so loudly that Marya felt like she was being dragged by her abdomen back to the endless panic attacks in the holding apartment seven months and one world ago.
“It’s early, Yusu,” she said. “I don’t like it.”
“It’s going to be okay,” he replied. “We can head to the village if you like. At least there are people there who’ve done this before.”
He was right; Marya knew he was right. He packed the backpack with food, Marya’s medical equipment, and a portable shelter. Marya was in a great deal of pain, but the walk to the village in the cool light of morning—with a break in the middle to rinse off in the cold, fresh river—took them less than two hours.
At the village, Marya was instantly beset by people, mostly older women. They shuffled her into a small home with uneven stone walls and pushed her gently onto her back. Marya resisted vehemently. “Your hands are covered in bacteria,” she said angrily, pushing herself away from them. “I can live without you knowing how dilated I am without getting septaecemia in the process.” She leaned her forehead into a wall and felt her throat begin to close up. “This is so fucked up,” she breathed.
A foul smell filled the space around her; she felt a warm, slick sensation between her legs. She reached her fingers down quickly and stepped outside. Examining her hand in the light, she saw it was covered with a thin, brown-colored liquid, a small serving of a foul soup. She recognized it as amniotic fluid laced with baby shit.
Yusu came to her with a bowl of water. “We need to go back to the river,” she said, eating her panic. “And then we have to find a doctor.”
“Okay, Marya,” replied Yusu.
Their walk to the river was interminable for both of them. Marya’s body was beginning to protest; her pain was becoming its own solid state. For his part, Yusu read Marya’s fear—more fear than he’d ever seen from her, this person who had launched herself through time and space to save her own life—and it made him more afraid than he had felt since they had left their time and he, alone at last, had finally met himself in his long days of building.
The boy who had poked their tent with his exploring-stick so many weeks ago appeared at the river with a saddled mule while Yusu was helping Marya dry off after her rinse in the water. The kid looked terrified of Marya, terrified of his own incomprehension, worried about the friendly tent doctor. She grimaced at him and gripped his little shoulder too hard on her way to the saddle. “Sorry,” she said, pulling herself up to ride side-saddle. She’d never ridden on one of these before, but they were a common sight in the village, and this one had been draped with great nets of reigns and ropes that made it easy for Marya to find purchase.
“We’ll head north,” said Yusu. “We can follow the river. And that Pole star, too.”
Marya nodded. “The Pole star.”
Marya’s pain spun itself up and down and up and down while Yusu led the mule along the footpath by the river. The end of the valley fell away to flat plains on either side, a desolation of nature and space. She focused on herself, on memories of Gabriel and her mother, on reminding herself that her decision was the right one and that if she had been condemned to die in the moment when her infant had been conceived then, well, let the story go that she went out fighting. She kept herself hydrated and snacked on crackers. She was more grateful than ever for Yusu’s silent, safe company.
They didn’t reach the next village until the very late afternoon. Again, Marya was beset by helpers as soon as people noticed the state she was in. They tried to remove her from the saddle, but just from looking around at the state of the town—no more than six houses, probably all owned by farmers and maybe one baker or blacksmith—she understood that there was almost no chance of finding an experienced doctor or midwife here.
Yusu returned from the biggest house and confirmed her suspicion. He had explained what he needed with as much detail as he could muster—he knew the word “doctor” from the way the locals referred to Marya, he knew the words for “help” and “village” and “water”—and in response his hosts had grown excited and starting pointing north, north, north, up the river. “I think there’s a proper town up there,” he said. “A big town. But I think the guy was trying to tell me we probably wouldn’t get there before it gets dark.”
It didn’t matter to Marya. “I don’t know enough about this to do it on my own,” she said, already tired of talking. “There weren’t even lessons on delivering by hand in the hospital archives back home. It’s a lost art. A lost art that killed a lot of people on its way out.”
“It’s going to be okay,” said Yusu. “I’ll push the mule. You chill out. I have the water tablets and the bandages and all that stuff right here. You just chill out.”
The sun sank down across the rolling hills and the moon lit up exceptionally bright; Marya watched how it the grasses on the wide plain rippled in its wake. The long hours on the road passed in silence, save for the shuffle of the mule and the occasional grunts of pain that Marya, despite considerable effort, failed to suppress. There was an urgency about her body now; it wanted speed and relief. “I’ve been watching a light in the distance for a while,” said Yusu, trying to assuage her obvious terror. “I’m sure it’s growing now. It has to be the town.”
And it was a town – a town in the middle of a harvest festival that had turned the entire population out into the streets and left the buildings staffed only by streamers and empty plates and cups in place of people. Marya’s grunts were lost in the cacophony of distant music, shouts, and jubilant screams that echoed down every street and alleyway of the large, stone-built town. The mule was hesitant on the paved streets and Marya, for the first time, felt her body tell her that sitting upright on a moving animal was untenable.
“Yusu,” she said. Yusu was peering into homes and inns, looking for any sign of life. It sounded like everyone was gathered in the center of the town, streets away from them. “Yusu, we need to stop. We need to stop now.”
Wordlessly, Yusu stopped and helped her down from the mule which, inspired by its new freedom, took off down the street at a decent clip. It stopped just as suddenly to drink deep from a horse-trough that stuck out from a building about 50 meters down the street. Yusu walked toward the building as Marya leaned into him.
The building was a stable; there were piles of soft and dry hay in every stall, and big tanks of water out the back. Two horses, another mule, and a cow looked on, nonplussed. The original mule was satisfied with its station by the door.
Everything suddenly took on great speed. Marya let herself fall into a world of pain, having formed the medical opinion some hours earlier that she was doomed and that all she could wish for now was as swift an end to this pain as possible. Yusu lowered Marya onto a pile of hay and fetched water, purifying tablets, and fabrics from the mule.
And then, it was over: Marya’s baby was born in a sudden and wrenching flood of horror and noise that catapulted them into a new dimension, this time of their own making. But as soon as she stopped screaming, and the world with the village and the mule and the festival had snapped back into place, the baby appeared and took up his mother’s mantle with a fierce dedication that threatened to launch them all to somewhere even more new. Yusu, somehow, found himself crying as he looked at the infant and gave Marya a space blanket to wrap him up in. People appeared suddenly in the stable door, adults shadowed by children, and as if guided by a hive-mind they fell into a perfectly synchronized web of water-bowls, tears, and excitement.
Lost in the center of it was Marya. The baby was pissed off about something, or about a lot of things, she couldn’t tell which. They had that in common, she thought, feeling for the first time like she and the infant were in something together.
People streamed in and out of the stable. After she fed him for a while, Marya put the baby, under Yusu’s guidance and care, into a feeding basket that someone had stuffed with hay and fabrics. A team of women rinsed her naked, wracked body, but she didn’t feel embarrassed. She didn’t really care about anything; she even managed to laugh at the sight of Yusu trying to explain to a doe-eyed group of baby admirers that no, he wasn’t the father, the father was Gabriel, Gabriel, and he was far from here. Marya rested on a fresh pile of hay, watchful, missing the baby with an odd intensity every time it left her grasp.
The stream of well-wishers remained a crowd of strangers until three members of Marya and Yusu’s original transport camp arrived dressed in insane robes made of patched-up space blankets and tent ropes. Their faces were covered; they looked like what a child would draw if you described the villagers in the valley to them without ever showing them their faces, clothes, or bags. “Your biometrics started going crazy a day or so ago,” said the round-faced man Marya remembered from the train, his eyes furtive beneath his folds of emergency fabric, as he walked up to inspect the baby in the hay-box. “I guess now we know why,” he added, his tone drained of all concern.
“We left,” replied Marya. “We didn’t hurt anyone.”
The man nodded and sighed. “You’re right. Here – we brought some of your medikit. Your skills are missed, you know. I’d appreciate it if you could visit the camp when you’re mobile.”
“Sure,” said Marya.
The attitude of the visitor from the camp was palpably colder than the attitude of the townspeople. One of them had plucked the baby from the box when the round-faced man had finished inspecting him, defensive somehow. Now the villagers were passing the infant around, cooing, lowering him toward the ground so that small children could peek into his blanket and see what they had looked like when they were born. The atmosphere outside of their bubble, however, was strained.
There seemed to be nothing more to say. Marya and Yusu’s old campmates left without any more words; they cast a few brief glances at the squirming brown infant and its excitable coterie as they passed, but they seemed to be suspicious of it above all else. The baby was returned to its mother as soon as the space-blanket creatures were outside of the tent.
Their chill left with them. Marya felt the first touch of closure in the air; she was alive, filled with water and air, and truly unafraid for the first time since she had set foot in the transport company compound all those months ago. The baby lay in the crook of her elbow, snoozing. She looked for Yusu and was comforted instantly by this tiny, momentary reminder of his presence. She realized, belatedly, that he was her best friend.
“Yusu,” she said. He walked over to her hay-pile and sat down. “I want you to name the baby.”
Yusu stared straight into her eyes. He smiled a big, broad smile that grew exponentially until he noticed it and reigned it in for long enough to look serious again. “Sure,” he said.
“Do you have any ideas?”
He was quick off the mark. “Jeshua,” he said, confident. The word rolled off of his tongue. “My grandfather was called Jeshua. He was a doctor, like you. He made the world a better place.”
Marya looked at the baby – he looked like a Jeshua, almost too like a Jeshua. She nodded and smiled.
“Jeshua, who will make the world a better place for everyone he meets,” she said. “Jeshua.”
Heather is a professional writer and editor based in California’s beautiful Bay Area, where she shares a room by the ocean with her husband and her dog. She finds every sunset bewildering.