EVEN as a singer, learning under Clara, I never got my answer. Or, I got myths as the answers to some of them. The fathers were dead or dying, they said. The babies come from the river, they said. The river was divine and would never stop, they said.
Once, I asked one of my maudras how something made by the fathers could be divine. When one becomes sixty, you become a maudra, and all the maudras of the year move in together to take care of the babies that arrive. The starlets had four maudras, but my favorite maudra, Maudra Lena, passed on three years ago. It was Maudra Lena who told me that no one in the villa would give me my answers. I could only find them myself.
NERIA started the villa with her sister. As a sculptor, she took long reedy branches and wove them into twisted little homes. Her sister began sewing, stitching together quilts that they could sleep on, weaving flooring, stitching stories into the spaces they, and now we, live in. In front of the first home, they carved out the heart core and lit its flame.
And as the village grew and new women arrived they brought new trades which wove together the community. They brewed new healing potions, they forged new tools, they uncovered new edible growth in the forests and nurtured its gifts. They contributed their passion, and divided the work the father had deemed labors of love. Cleaning, assisting with cooking, child rearing, they split these jobs among the community.
THERE’S a small window of time between the end of the day and the beginning of the next when no one will notice you leave. The hunters leave at three to begin their day and the twenty-threes can finish cleaning as late as one. Pack a bag. If you are eighteen, it is easy to slip some ingredients in your pockets to save up for the road. Wait carefully. As one group turns in and the other wakes up, you can slip between the trees and run to the river. Wait. Wait. Wait.
I set off to the river and at its bank I turn the opposite way from the botanist’s trek. I have never been to the city, only heard of it through histories. But I know the way. Follow the river north and at its end you can see the city’s spires. They say these days the spires still gleam even if there is no one there.
It will take me three days to walk, but I will make it in time. I will be there when the babies come. And I will have a history no one has known before.
THE babies appeared twenty years after the last woman left. Bobbing along the metal current, a botanist spotted a group of four naked infants during her morning collection route. She pulled them out of the river and brought them to the villa. No one knew where they came from. At first, people proposed that they were abandoned children. But the next year on the same day, two more babies appeared. And every year after that. The most has been seven. The least, one. But a baby does come.
THE trek is not difficult. When I’m tired, I sleep. When I’m hungry, I eat. When I am lonely, I tell myself a history. Sometimes, when I’m bored, I braid my hair as I walk. The braids hold better shape than the coils.
But after three days, I make it to the end. The river mouth is a large circular body, the currents bobbing, bobbing, bobbing. The light is bright at the end. Over the canopy of trees, I see the stars that bloom when light strikes metal, but the spires themselves are hard to see. Perhaps they did fall apart when the fathers did. Perhaps they are nothing more than poles now, so thin there are only stars.
But I’m not here for the city. I’m here for the babies. I approach the river mouth and watch the current rise and fall. I set a hand against it and push down. It does not yield to my pressure. Good. I straighten. Take a deep breath. And become a god.
I step onto the river. It shakes and pulls, but I hold steady. I take it one step at a time. When my confidence rises, I go faster. I dance across the waves and I can feel the river song humming through my body, from my feet to my fingertips to my brain. I feel at peace. I feel at home. This is life. This is freedom. This is—
The rhythm is gone and I lose my footing. I slip. I fall. I am swallowed.
NOT everyone thought the babies were miracles. “There is something wrong with the girls,” Fern whispered. “They are not right.”
“The girls are the girls,” the rest of the women would say. “They are our own now.”
“One of them is blue!”
“And my skin is black, what of it?”
“It is not the same. They are as unnatural as the river they came from.”
ONCE, I interrupted Clara as she told me the story. As she coiled my hair, I pulled away so fast the entire lock flattened like a spear. “Is there something wrong with me?”
Clara glanced down at the wooden rod in her hand then at the half-done silver curls around my face. “There is nothing wrong.”
“Then why would they say we were not right?”
There was a pause. “Do you know of wires, Seneca?”
THE fall was dazzling. There was silver bright and dancing. Then there was darkness. And then there was pain. I land on my back, and at first I think the stars in my eyes are from the pain, but when it subsides, I see that the sky is full of them. Not the sky. The river. The underbelly of the river is made of stars, they light up dimly in this antechamber.
I sit up and groan as I try to stretch out my back. It wasn’t too far of a fall. The fathers didn’t dig so deep, and I think I can walk it off. But the worst of it was slipping through the metal, it scratched my arms on the way down, and I feel the sting now. On my right arm, a long gash. If you cut open Serenity, she bleeds silver. Me, I bleed red.
The blood wells and runs and falls onto the clay. I did not pack a bandage, so I find one of the shirts I did bring and wrap it around my arm tightly. The gash will need something better, but I’m not a healer. I put my pack back on and look at where the blood spilled out of habit. Back home we’d have to cover the spot and bury it, send the blood back into the earth undisturbed. I contemplate doing the same until the blood sinks into the earth quickly and it is like nothing ever spilled. Strange. I reach down to see if maybe I imagined it, but then the earth begins to bubble. It rises and begins to take shape, its movements becoming more and more sporadic as if trying to shake something off. It succeeded because the clay begins to slip away and leave nothing but smooth skin. When the earth stills, it is no longer earth. It is a baby with dark hair and dark eyes, and skin that is a patchwork of dark skin and something like a gold fabric.
SHALL I continue? Good.
Fern would not let up. “They do not cry, they do not drink water, they do not process water for all I can tell. They are more machine than human! What is to say the fathers didn’t make them?”
“Machines cannot grow, Fern.”
“The children bleed. They show emotions. They can create. They have more heart than the fathers could ever dream of.”
“This could be the death of the villa,” Fern argued.
“It will be the death of the villa anyway. We have no men. We cannot make any more children ourselves. Count our blessings, Fern. The babies are our future. We will raise them in our new world, and they will raise the next generation in it. They can be good.”
I pick up the baby. I have held babies before, the new ones who arrive on this day three days south. But this one is different. I am the first one to hold this baby. And this baby… came from my blood? The baby doesn’t squirm in my arms, and I cradle it carefully. Her gold patches of skin are cold, almost like metal but it gives slightly at my touch. Something else.
I have so many questions, but I quiet them for a moment.
“Hello, I’m Seneca.” The maudras say you must talk to the babies, teach them your voice so they too may find their own. The maudras also say that the first to pick up the baby is the one to pass a name, so you must always be prepared with a name. I am not prepared. “We are both of the river. And I suppose you are of me, too.”
I think of the histories about the fathers. I think about falling through the cracks. I wonder how I will find a way out. But if the babies find a way out, I too must be able to. Right?
“You’ll show me the way out, no?” I say. She looks at me with wide eyes, unsure of anything I’m saying surely. “Little Rivett,” I decide. “We’ll find a way out.” I start walking. “Let me tell you a history in the meantime.”