Wireweed

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It’s been exactly eight days and 13 hours since Bram went out on patrol. I can’t help keeping the morbid tally, not to mention startling every time the intercom crackles. The whole community gets on edge when a patrol doesn’t come back. Even though we’ve all lost so many loved ones—no one’s ever safe—it still feels like we can’t bear another loss.

 

I don’t think it was fair of them to send him, not when I’m this close. As of yesterday morning, I’m officially 38 weeks—the 38 longest weeks of my life—and it could happen any time now. Mig read that first babies are usually late, which comforts me. I’m scared to death, if you want to know the truth; I don’t want it to happen, and I don’t want to go on being pregnant. I just wish, most of the time, that I could get out of my skin and be someone else.

 

Some more numbers, to put things in perspective. The community is 235 people, including about 40 children and teenagers, which includes me. It’s in what used to be upstate New York, used to be rolling pastures full of dairy cows, the kind of scene they printed on cartons of organic milk. No one would put our landscape on a carton now. The wind stirs up massive dust storms from the ravines and hillsides and clatters in the bare branches of the trees. There is an ethereal beauty to this kind of scenery, some people claim. The land is stripped clean, right down to its bones. At 15, I’m old enough to remember what Earth was like when it was green, when there were such things as birds, when rain didn’t pit and corrode the dome shields over the colony. Some of the youngest kids don’t know any different.

 

It’s the third shift and I’m falling asleep in my chair. I heave myself up, feeling the weight settle down hard like a bowling ball against the bones of my pelvis, my knees aching in protest, and start pacing back and forth. Across the room, Laner is scribbling in his notebook. It’s still about two hours before dawn.

 

“Go on home if you want, Jace,” he says without looking at me. “You don’t need to be here.”

 

“I’m OK,” I say. “It’s only another couple hours anyway.” The irony is that I can almost doze off in that chair, but as soon as I lie down on a bed I’ll be wide awake and fighting off a panic attack, my mind churning with what might have happened to Bram. With what could soon happen to me.

 

“Suit yourself,” he says, rubbing one hand over his bald head. I pick up my night-vision glasses and do another slow scan of the horizon through the windows of the watch tower. We’re on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary—the shimmery streaks falling through the sky that indicate wireweed spores, or moving lights that might be raiders from another settlement. They come looking for drugs, batteries and food. This community is the largest in the area—its dome shields are in good shape and it has the underground tunnel complex for emergency shelter—so it’s the target for attacks. We have cameras posted along the perimeter that present a bank of grainy night-vision images.

 

I feel a couple of kicks, two quick pumps in my upper abdomen, and absently put my hand on my belly. I haven’t let myself visualize an actual baby in my arms, since that seems too much like tempting fate. I just think of it as this abstract sensation affecting me from within.

 

Mig, who’s 17 and training to be a nurse, is supposed to be my birth coach. She’s excited about it—when I asked her, she grasped my hands and hopped up and down. She’s been more on top of how I’m feeling, what I can expect next, and so on, than Bram has. He doesn’t talk about it any more than he can help.

 

It’s because of the pregnancy, really, that Bram and I were allowed to stay here. We came six months ago, wireweed refugees like so many. The settlement usually offers membership only to Outlanders who bring a trade or skill. All we had to offer was some inside info about the training academy we had been attending, which was of little value. We didn’t have contacts in the government or connections that could funnel in supplies. Bram had strength and some fighting experience, of course, and I had a belly that was starting to make it difficult to button the top of my jeans.

 

We met in the academy. We were part of a corps whose mission was to locate and destroy wireweed spores in remote areas. We’d only been there a few months when I started sneaking into his dorm to spend the night in his bunk. It was so good to feel his warm arms cradling me, his smell of dried sweat and dusty hair. And it was good just to be close to another human being. We’d both had so many losses—our families, friends, everything normal up to that point—and the bunk was a cocoon of safety in the darkness.

 

Of course we knew what might happen. Fraternizing with the opposite sex was strictly against the rules, and the training program had no use for a pregnant cadet. We were going into areas where the fumes could kill an adult without a respirator in a few minutes, never mind a fetus.

 

So Bram and I were both flunked unceremoniously out and found our way—after a week-long journey that I’d rather not recall across the desert, where we both almost died of dehydration—to the settlement.

 

It was because of my condition that I was allowed to become a member. And having allowed me to join, they could hardly turn Bram away. He volunteered for the riskiest missions, from the start, which also eased his entrance into the community, and now they depend on him.

 

Although there isn’t any more privacy here than at the academy—we’re still housed in same-sex dormitories, and everyone knows everyone else’s business—there is a sense of being part of a system that’s working. Everyone has a job. I did a stint as a planter in the garden tower and one as a laundry slave before they assigned me to the position I’ve held for the past few months, solar cooker mechanic. I service and repair cookers for the whole community, under the mentorship of an older mechanic, Bill Guthrie. Bill doesn’t crack a smile very often, but when I do earn a few words of praise from him, I know they’re genuine.

 

When Bram left eight days and 14 hours ago, he and the rest of his patrol went out through the north gate and into the foothills. The watch had reported a suspected wireweed sporefall there. You have to get the stuff quickly, before it blooms. When the spores hit the earth, they immediately dig themselves in, and as they grow they secrete fumes that are toxic to most forms of life. The roots produce poisons that kill off anything in the soil. That’s why the ground is dead now, except for the wireweed. It grows and grows—sprawling through the earth like miles of thick, ropy orange telephone cords.

 

The wireweed was just the beginning, though; we’re responsible for our own demise. The first spores fell seven years ago, in North America, then Europe and across Africa, until no part of the globe had been left untouched. There was mass mortality from the fumes before the international scientific community collaborated to develop its defense: an anti-wireweed pesticide. It was called Agent O after the old tropical defoliant that was used back in the Vietnam War, because of the wireweed being orange. It was worse than Agent Orange, though: when an area had been treated, it was denuded of vegetation. After the wind blew the dead leaves away, there was nothing left. That’s why we had to start the garden tower system.

 

Then, Agent O got into the groundwater and lakes and washed into the sea. It takes a long time to break down, and within a few years after it was introduced, there were catastrophic fish kills, mass poisonings from people drinking the water, whole flocks of birds falling dead out of the sky. Agent O is what killed my mother last year. My father had already died by then, of wireweed fumes, along with my older brothers. I thought I couldn’t recover from their deaths, or that I didn’t want to, but I had to take care of my mother. Then I lost her too, and the government agents were knocking on my door within a week.

 

Anyone without a legal guardian gets sent to one of the academies—to learn a trade, usually. Some are trained as chemists so they can develop new weapons against the wireweed. We all live in fear of it developing resistance to Agent O. Some are trained as soldiers or spies. There’s plenty of work to do keeping order and keeping things running, now that so many of the old systems—water, electricity, public transportation, manufacturing—have broken down.

 

That’s the story in a nutshell. I’ve stopped trying to process the losses, because they’re too great. Now I just live day to day and talk, eat, breathe past this knot of tears in my throat that never goes away. In the back of my mind, I know that Bram is more than likely going to become part of my roster of personal losses. Even if he hasn’t succumbed to fumes or had an accident or encountered raiders, the patrol didn’t take enough food to survive an extended trip. And there’s nothing to eat out there. It’s like the surface of the moon.

 

I pace and keep watch, until the dawn streaks the sky with rose and gold. Laner and I stay for a few more minutes after our relief arrives—a burly older man named Bez and his wife, Alanda—just to enjoy the view. Alanda gives me a warm smile and asks how I’m feeling. Pregnancy isn’t common now.

 

Then we head back to our respective dormitories. We’re each supposed to catch a few hours’ sleep before going to our jobs. I drink some raspberry tea—good for toning the uterine muscles, according to Mig—and lie down dutifully on my cot. In my mind, I reach out to Bram, wherever he is, whatever he’s experiencing, and imagine my thoughts, like long lavender fingers, pulling him home.

 

* * *

Here’s the thing, says Mig: It’s never been a good time to have a baby, at any point in human history. Perhaps for individual women, at particular times, it was better than others. But even in the 21st century, the peak of prosperity and security, mothers in Sierra Leone were still giving birth in huts to malnourished babies, skin stretched tight over the frames of their bones. Women in hill communities in China were still dying from breech births. Teenage girls in Russia were still leaving their newborns in trash heaps. And throughout history, there have been famines and wars and poverty, when carrying and bearing a child must have seemed like madness. But women still did.

 

I’m just afraid of the pain. I can’t have an epidural, the way my mom did, or a C-section if things aren’t going well. If I can’t manage to push this baby out myself, all by myself, I’m probably going to die. This is the kind of realization that made me evaluate Bram’s profile many times in the days after I realized I was pregnant, trying to convince myself he had a small head.

 

But assuming I get through it, what then? What kind of life could this child have? In the years after the first spores fell, it seemed as though every child on Earth was going to die.

 

Children who seemed healthy one week would be lethargic the next, showing the telltale wireweed poisoning symptoms—a greenish tinge around the neck, pallor, and puffy eyelids—just before they died. Even living under the domes, many babies don’t make it to a year. I already know that I was exposed to toxins during our trip across the desert—it’s surprising I didn’t miscarry.

 

Well, Mig says, when Native Americans were being driven onto reservations—uprooted from their whole way of life—they still went on having children. Women bore their babies during the long marches and carried them in their arms, nursing them as they walked. During the Hutu and Tutsi conflict in Africa, when death by machete was the most common way to die, women had babies. During every horrific period in human history, they have carried on.

 

So says Mig, who is not pregnant. Although no one knows for sure, I have my own theory for why there are so few babies now. It’s not just the infertility and the effects of wireweed and Agent O on fetal development. I think that some parents are taking matters into their own hands. It’s better that way, some might say, before they have the chance to suffer. Bram and I talked about that, and I know his wishes. I’d live with the guilt, I said, rather than see my own baby have Agent O seizures, and Bram nodded.

 

“This isn’t the life I’d want for my child,” he said, his mouth twisting, his arm gesturing to take in the cinderblock walls of the academy dorm, the steel pipes overhead, the klaxons outside blaring the hours. And beyond that, the desert, the shifting dust storms, and the reeking, acidic rains.

 

* * *

 

When the first pains start on a Tuesday morning, I don’t recognize them for what they are. They feel like period cramps. I’m restless and keep rubbing my belly, trying to get it to stop hurting. Bram has been gone for 15 days now, and in the late afternoon there’s a memorial service for him and the four others on his patrol. I can’t bear to attend. I volunteer for an extra work shift instead and mop the dormitory and kitchen floors. At first I think that’s why my stomach hurts—all that vigorous mopping strained some muscles. But it doesn’t get better when I rest, and the pain moves down into the lower part of my abdomen, clenching and tearing inside. I stand, put one knee on the edge of my bunk, and rock forward and back. The pains are coming regularly now, and they’re sharper.

 

By the time Mig gets back from the memorial service, I’m starting to whine slightly through each pain, like a puppy, and I’m pathetically glad to see her. “That’s wonderful, Jacy,” she enthuses when I tell her how much it hurts. “You must be pretty far along already.” She gets me to change into a loose nightgown and makes me drink some tea. There are others circulating through the dorm now, rummaging in their lockers or chatting. A few of them notice me clutching my belly, and Mig shoos them away.

 

“We need someplace more private,” she says. “Come on.” She leads me to the break room. The door doesn’t lock, but she hangs a sign on the outside requesting privacy. She has the bag we packed together, with sheets, absorbent pads, scissors, needle and thread. I know the needle and thread mean that she might have to sew me up, that the thread will go through my flesh, and I can’t bear thinking about that.

 

Mig bustles off to find one of the medics who has promised to assist me through the delivery. The dinner hour comes and goes. I pace the room in endless circles. Every time I try to sit down on the bench and rest, the pain drives me to my feet again. When Mig comes back, she’s looking preoccupied, chewing on her lip. There’s no one else coming; one of the doctors was a member of Bram’s patrol that didn’t come back, the one we counted on is in bed with flu, and the only other person who has some medical expertise, a nurse, is out and no one knows where she is.

 

“But never mind, you’re doing so well,” Mig says. I’m exhausted, and I’m screwing my face up and gnawing on the back of the bench every three minutes. I don’t feel like this is going well at all.

 

Mig sits down and flips through an old textbook on gynecology, the only relevant book in the settlement’s library, for advice on labor positions. She gets me to try different things—squatting and moaning, swaying and moaning, bracing myself against the bench and moaning. I can’t seem to stay quiet. It’s got to be over soon, the way this hurts.

 

Two hours later, I’m still pacing. My legs are trembling like mad. Mig slouches on the bench, the book open on her lap, her head nodding with tiredness. The baby’s head now feels like a bowling ball studded with spikes that is slamming repeatedly into the floor of my pelvis.

 

By midnight, I’m kneeling in front of the bench, my head resting on my arms. I doze in between contractions, then jerk awake with a scream as each one hits. I can tell Mig is worried. She tries to get me to drink some tea, and she wipes my forehead. “Do you want me to try again to find someone?” she asks.

 

No,” I whisper. I don’t want to be alone.

 

By dawn, the contractions are easing a little, I think, with longer gaps in between. It’s just fine with me. All I want is for this to stop. But Mig is biting her hangnails.

 

“It shouldn’t be slowing down. It should be progressing to the next stage. Do you feel like you want to push?” I shake my head. “I think you need to get up and get moving again.”

 

I make an effort, but my legs are like rubber. “I can’t,” I say. The baby is stuck in me and it’s never going to come out. I am stuck. Mig gets my arm over her shoulder and boosts me to my feet, and together we wince our way back and forth across the room. It seems like the capacity for every feeling except suffering has been sucked out of me—if Bram walked in the door this minute, if my mother did, if my father was here, it couldn’t stir anything in me.

 

A few hours after dawn, the pain migrates into a new form. I can feel myself holding my breath and pressing down with each contraction. It feels instinctive. Mig gets excited when she realizes what I’m doing. “You’re almost there, Jacy,” she says, which is what she said—oh, God, 12 hours ago.

 

I don’t have the energy to walk any more, but I lean on the bench and bear down with every contraction, grunting. It goes on forever. I can feel the sweat on my forehead, and my flanks plastered with it, and my legs trembling. I sink down to a crouch when I can’t stand any more, and that’s when, with a sharp pain like all my intestines are being ground aside, the baby’s head moves down. I’m splitting open. My voice is shot and I can’t even scream any more, I just wheeze with the horror of what is happening to me.

 

“Jacy, you’re doing it! I can see the head! Keep going, keep going, keep going!” Mig encourages me. There’s a final tearing pressure and I can feel that the head is out, hot and round between my thighs. I put my hand down to touch it. It’s warm and pulsing, covered with wrinkles. I feel another contraction coming on and give it all I’ve got, and a long, thick body with long legs tumbles out of me. It’s so slippery that the whole baby just falls on the floor. Hastily Mig scoops it up and hands it to me. It’s steaming and its limbs are flailing with surprising strength. Mig is laughing, saying, “It’s unbelievable,” and “Wow, I can’t believe you did that.” I think I’m smiling.

 

Some minutes outside of time go by. I awkwardly hold the baby against me. Its skin is purplish and its arms and legs are comically wrinkled, sticklike. It’s covered in white smears and blood, and its hair is plastered to its head.

 

Mig gets me to lie down on the floor so she can examine me. I don’t have anything to wrap the baby in, but I tuck it inside my nightgown, and its head turns toward my breast. I peek down inside my nightgown, just as it opens its small mouth, showing its pink tongue, and to my amazement latches onto my nipple.

 

“Honestly, Jacy, I have no idea,” Mig reports. “It’s all so messed up down there.” The baby is still attached to the cord, which is attached to me. She tries tentatively pressing down on my belly, which hurts like hell again. “Ow!” I manage to say. Then she pulls on the cord, gently, and I can feel something large sliding down out of me. It’s awkward and awful for a minute, then it’s out and the baby is officially separated from me.

That was the moment, I realize afterward, when I should have done it. Before I looked at the baby’s face or got lost in the dark blue-gray wells of its eyes. I should have pinched the tiny nostrils closed with one hand while Mig was busy with the placenta. There was time. There is time, again, when Mig goes to spread the news and get us some food. Instead, I keep lying on the floor, letting the baby nurse, feeling its body warm and trusting against mine. At some point, I see that it’s a girl.

* * *

I’m on watch duty again tonight. The nights are getting cold enough to sketch crystals along the rims of the windows. We have a small stove that we feed sticks into, one by one, as sparingly as possible, since wood is plentiful but harvest missions are risky. My partner tonight is a middle-aged woman named Lury.

Inside the sling, the 6-week-old baby sleeps, pressed against me. We’ve gone way past the time for me to act. My heart is lost to her. I carry her day and night, feed her, sleep curled around her. Her gray eyes are Bram’s, her ears—one slightly higher than the other—are his. Her long toes and the pursed shape of her mouth are mine.

Keeping her was the harder thing to do; it spreads out the wrench of losing her from a single moment to myriad tiny moments, every moment of her life. The chances that she will survive to her first birthday are not good, let alone to her fifth.

Far out on the horizon, a thin silver trail slips down the edge of the sky. Lury sees it too and tenses, grabbing the walkie-talkie to call it in. Then she pauses. Usually the spores come in streams, dozens, hundreds, but this was a single one. I’m the first to realize.

“Make a wish,” I tell her. And we wish, the two of us, we wish with all our hearts.

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