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EDGE and Tesseract Books are distributed in Canada and the United States by Fitzhenry and Whiteside (more)
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A Novel by
I survived my first encounter with State Security of the Administrative Government of North America. They didn’t come after me and Mother wasn’t punished. Someone at AGNA must have found the incident amusing. Years later I learned it was reported in my dossier with a brief note: possible discipline problem. Oh, yeah.
I had played with all the voicechips that were hidden in the plants and around the big paintings at my mother’s party. I wasn’t allowed to attend her charity art show because I was only five, and besides, Mother didn’t like me hanging around her when she was working. Or any time, really. I seemed to embarrass her somehow, although I’m legal and was planned. “Working” for Mother was throwing parties like the one that day, where she invited people from our social class and chatted with them and then handed over the vid and voicechips to her boss at StateSec. She didn’t know I knew what she did.
She let me watch the technicians set up, though, and I saw where they hid all the surveillance stuff. They let me follow them around and help them and they joked with me and were funny. Big guys. Alters, which surprised me. They had that blank stare that alters have when they talked to me. It’s mostly women who are altered, so if these men were, it meant that they once did something horridly anti-social — like stealing or rape — and were convicted of inappropriate behavior. Of course, they’re harmless now.
You can always tell the alters. It’s something in the eyes, as if the pupils don’t reflect the light. I learned in art class that in the eyes of all portraits there is a little white dot — a spark of life. In the great portraits, it’s a double dot. Well, alters don’t have that. Their eyes are opaque. No fire inside. Smile at them and they smile back, like petting a dog to see its tail wag.
I had watched a concert earlier on the children’s hour, on the vidscreen in my bedroom, and there was one song that I liked. I sang it into the voicechips, just like Halli4077 did on the vid. I had a pretty mean kind of croon. I had no idea it would get me into trouble, and Mother, too. But it did.
The next day, when I got back from school, Mother was waiting for me with her hands on her hips, standing in front of the big mirror in our entrance hallway. She looked pretty in a soft blue dress with white chrysanthemums splashed on it, but she wasn’t smiling.
“Into the living room, Jemma.”
She wouldn’t tell me what was wrong when I asked, and — even worse — told me not to say a word until Daddy got home. It was big trouble if we had to wait for him.
So I sat for a couple of hours on a chair in our living room, looking out the French doors at the flowers blooming outside, watching the wind snaking through the trees, and our neighbor drinking coffee out of a shiny black mug on her patio. She’s always friendly to me, and when no one’s around she gives me coffee, even though children aren’t supposed to have stimulants. She’s a Wife but doesn’t have any children yet. I think she’s getting too old now.
Our house was a big one because we’re stable class. It’s in L.A. but under the Santa Monica dome, which meant we got blue skies in our dome most of the time, and rain only when we needed it. L.A. has twenty domes, all interlocking to keep out the bad stuff from the Countryside, the toxins that kill people. Well, they kill women anyway. It is a marvel of technology that the climate is controlled under each of them. We studied about it in science class.
Where I lived was a sprawling house called a ranch-style, a replica of one that was popular in the olden days, in the mid-twentieth century, with much more space than we needed for just Mother and Daddy and me, but we’re privileged, and besides, Mother has all those parties.
I loved our house. My bedroom looked over the back lawn with its swimming pool off the patio and what’s called an English-style garden at the far end, with a birdbath and two statues by Cliff What’s-his-number, who was very famous and went to college with Daddy. The whole yard was enclosed in a stockade fence made of real wood, with vines and flowers twining over it. They flowered most of the year, and the smell of night-blooming jasmine sneaked into my bedroom sometimes.
Mother has spy-parties out there, too, and I’d flop on my bed to watch them. I liked to see the patterns that people made and re-made, clustering around the food and the drinks and each other, especially around my mother. Weird how grown-ups got drunk and stupid. I usually picked out two or three people to follow throughout the party. I gave them goofy names that reflected how they looked, like Bowlegged Bignose or Fake-haired Fanny, and I kept a record in my comp unit of how much they ate and drank and what they did in the shrubbery. Mother didn’t know that. She’d board up my windows if she did. (Just kidding.)
My official name is JE2MDRA77290FF400RT913. That’s the DNA tag, regional files, blood type, class, all that stuff the government takes care of for us. But I’m called Jemma, except by my teachers at school, where they used the more formal Jemma7729.
In school we were divided into quads, with all the social classes represented in each quad. There was one other stable, like me, plus four each of the productive, useful and necessary classes, and two kids who were X-class because they’re gifted. In mathematics, I think. Mixing up the classes was supposed to teach us to get along with each other and I guess it did. I didn’t have problems with anyone except Thom7726.
Daddy was a muckety-muck in the government. He was the Regional Administrator for the Environment for the whole L.A. Basin, and that made him important because, of course, most of our food comes from the Near-Countryside around the L.A. Megadome. Beyond the farms and gardens, the land was ruined and pretty desolate. We’d all seen pictures of it.
Mother was important, too. She had chosen to be a woman who marries when she was young, which meant she got to have a child (me) and could also do other work. So she spied for AGNA and we all pretended she didn’t. She looked for something called “malcontents.” I didn’t know what that was. It seemed silly to me but Daddy said I wasn’t old enough to understand and I should just keep my mouth shut. So I did.
I thought about school while I waited for Daddy to come home. We’d started preparing for our first Choosing Day, when each of us, of our own free will, decided what we would do and be. That happened every January first and you have to be seven to do the first ceremony. For me, that would be in two years, and then we made the final choice at the official Final Choosing Day, after we’re ten. My birthday is August 12, so I made my final choice on January 1, 2193. I thought about that, too, while I waited, and how I wished we stables had more choices.
I had homework, but Mother had said I wasn’t allowed to do anything — no vids, no reading, no getting up and sitting down. She had gone somewhere else in the house so I tried to think what I’d done that was so bad.
I had spilled some yellow paint at school but the teacher wasn’t upset and I had cleaned it up. I couldn’t imagine that it got reported. The art teacher likes me. I’m not gifted, but I’m good.
Then Daddy came home. I heard his GAV whirr in. We had a private ground/air vehicle because he traveled a lot. We also had a hovercar, with a driver, which Mother used because she didn’t like to fly. Daddy left his GAV in our circle driveway instead of putting it in the garage. That meant no rain was scheduled even though it seemed to me the flowers needed it.
Mother met him in the entrance hall. He gave her a kiss on the cheek but she didn’t respond. She said something in a voice too low for me to hear and Daddy frowned and looked into the living room where I sat trying to keep my feet still, then back at her and smiled.
They looked wonderful together so I liked to watch them. He was tall and tanned. His hair and carefully groomed mustache were silver. His white shirt was without flaw and peeped correctly out from the sleeves of his summer light blue jacket. When he touched Mother’s face, I saw the flash of a gold watch.
Mother was slim and pale beside him, her hair glistening purple-black. It swung slightly on the sides when she moved. She was very beautiful. Her eyes were a pale, icy blue. Daddy’s eyes were blue. Not mine.
I have my mother’s dark hair, cropped short with bangs, and my father’s slightly upturned nose, but no mustache. I have nobody’s eyes. Mine are like lumps of coal. I could have been deleted when they saw my eyes were the wrong color, but Daddy said they liked me anyway. Or he did, at least. He teased me and said I was a “keeper.” My best school friend Lila said you couldn’t tell what I was thinking from my eyes. I still don’t know if that’s good or bad.
They came into the living room and Daddy sat in a chair across from me.
“So, Jemma, what’s the trouble?”
I grinned at him. “I don’t know.”
Mother paced between us. “The trouble is that I took the chips from yesterday’s party to StateSec and they called me in today and told me that there was a child singing on all of them! They’re contaminated.”
“Singing?” Daddy frowned again but he didn’t look angry, just puzzled.
Mother stopped and pursed her lips. “Jemma. Singing some stupid song on every single chip!”
Oh. I guess that had not been a smart thing to do. Daddy laughed and my mother wheeled around and gave him a nasty look.
“It isn’t funny, Roger! I’m in trouble! They want to know why a child knew where all the surveillance devices were planted! And if a child knew, didn’t everyone? What could I say?”
Daddy stopped laughing but his eyes were merry. “I’m sorry, Elane, it just struck me funny. You’re right, of course.” He turned to me. “How did you know where they were?”
“I helped plant them.” I looked at Mother. She was shaking her head back and forth and flexing her fingers. “You said I could, Mother. You said I could watch them set up the party. The guys were nice to me and I helped them.”
Mother sat down on the couch with a sigh. “Well, then, they’re in more trouble than I am.”
I didn’t like the sound of that.
“Oh, Elane,” and Daddy went to sit beside her, putting an arm around her shoulders, “it was just a childish prank. No harm done.”
“Yes, harm done!” She snapped at him and he withdrew his arm and waited until she calmed down.
He leaned back on the couch. “Security has no sense of humor. What did you say to them?”
Mother made a worried face. “I told them the truth. I don’t know if that was wise, but I didn’t know what else to do. I said that it was probably my daughter who had done it, that she was a bit mischievous.”
“They don’t want it to happen again!” Mother looked at me with those glacial eyes and it felt as if the room got chilly.
“And so it won’t,” Daddy said, sitting up and leaning towards me. “Will it, Jemma?”
“No. I’m sorry, Mother.” I was. I didn’t want her to be in trouble. “I was just imitating Halli4077.”
Daddy grinned. “I’ll get you a mike of your own if you want to practice singing. It’s not a good idea to use your mother’s.”
Mother stood up. “Roger! That’s rewarding her for bad behavior! She ought to be punished, not coddled. Honestly!” She walked to look outside. “You keep spoiling her and she’ll wind up deleted after all!” She pushed the door open and walked out of the house.
I squirmed. Daddy played with his mustache like he always does when he’s thinking. He looked tired. “What did she mean, Daddy? That I’ll wind up deleted after all?” I thought, after all what?
“Nothing, baby. She’s just upset. But she’s right — I shouldn’t reward you. You leave your mother’s parties alone. Stay out of her way.”
I studied my shoes. “Yes, sir.”
“Jemma, look at me.” I did. His eyes were kind and his mustache wiggled at the corners. “Promise me.”
“I promise.” I thought about my files on her guests and decided I should get rid of them before anyone found out I had them. I don’t know why I never did that. I wonder if anyone ever found them.
“Okay. Now,” and he patted the couch beside him, “tell me what happened at school today.”
I went to sit with him and told him about spilling the paint and what we had learned in science and that I had done well in computer class. Mother returned inside but went into her study and Daddy and I talked until the cooking woman told us supper was ready.
# # #
I was jumping rope with Lila and some other girls on our recreation break. The boys were playing ball on the other side of the courtyard. Someone hit a long one and the ball came over to our side, so I picked it up and threw it back to them.
Thom7726 yelled at me, “Hey, Jemma! Who taught you to throw a ball?” I just waved at him, but his friends chimed in.
“Yeah! Hey, Jemma, you going to do a sex change on Choosing Day?”
The boys came over and interrupted our game. Thom grabbed the rope and started whipping it around. Lila wanted to stop playing but I didn’t. Two of the other girls left us and went to play on the far side.
Thom was the other stable class in our quad and Teacher likes him. Some of the girls do too, but his ears stick out. He’d had an operation on them but it hadn’t worked and someone told me he was going to have them fixed again over our vacation break. He was a year older than me and tall for his age. Aside from his ears, he was a handsome boy but not very nice.
“How can you see out of those eyes, Jemma?” he yelled, and the boys laughed. I hate it when people talk about my black eyes.
“How can you hear out of those ears, Thom?” I yelled back.
Lila grabbed my arm and tried to pull me away. “C’mon, Jemma, you’ll get into trouble.” She looked scared. I wasn’t scared. I thought the boys should leave us alone.
Thom came right up to me, shoved Lila away, and poked his fist under my chin. He gave me a shove.
I stood my ground so he kept shoving me, pushing me backwards until I was against the wall that encloses the courtyard. The other boys were grinning and following him, egging him on. I couldn’t move away because there was no place to go.
“You’re a genetic mistake!” Thom made a terrible face at me and stuck out his tongue. His breath stank. I told him so and tried to push him away.
The other boys started chanting, “Shark’s eyes! Shark’s eyes!”
“You’re not even your father’s child!”
“Don’t talk about my father!”
Thom hit me on the shoulder. It didn’t hurt and I laughed. “You’re a de-fect, Thom! You’ve got elephant ears!”
He hit me again. I slapped him in the face, but not hard. He staggered sideways and started to snivel and Teacher came from nowhere and grabbed me by the back of my tunic, literally lifting me off the ground. The schoolyard got quiet. Everyone just stared at us with their mouths hanging open.
“Thom7726, go to the quiet room,” Teacher said in a low voice. “Jemma7729, you come with me.” He didn’t let go of the back of my shirt and pushed me ahead of him into the building, me walking on my toes because he was half-carrying me.
It was hushed inside the school. Teacher released me when we walked down the long hall to the master’s office at the end. He knocked on the door, then opened it and pushed me in ahead of him when the master said we could enter.
The master’s office was deeply carpeted and quiet and cool. There were six monitors built into the storage shelves on the walls, an outsize vidscreen, and two overstuffed chairs in a dark green floral pattern. There were flowering plants in the window, perfuming the air. I had only been in his office once or twice before, and never for anything like this.
The master sat behind his desk, reading on a small comp unit. He looked up at us, his eyebrows rising high on his forehead, absolutely symmetrical, like cartoon eyebrows. He was so blond his hair looked white in the sunlight slanting in the window behind him.
“Jemma7729. She struck a boy.”
“He hit me first,” I said, and then wished I hadn’t.
The master’s expression didn’t change but he got fine tense lines around his eyes. “Is this true? You hit a boy?” He had a wonderful voice, like a vid announcer on AGNA’s News Network, syrupy and sweet, but he spoke very fast.
I looked at him straight in the eyes, the way Daddy said I should when I talked to adults. “Yes.”
“Thank you, Lans.” The master didn’t even look at him but Teacher left us, closing the door carefully. It made a clicking sound when it shut.
The master put his comp unit carefully to one side, straightened it so that its edge was parallel with an envelope, and came around to the front of his desk. I hadn’t noticed before that he was as tall as Daddy, except he had a round stomach that sagged over his belt, and big ugly hands. He towered over me and it made me feel little, but I stood still and waited. My guts were jiggling.
He asked me what had happened and I told him. He didn’t interrupt me, he just kept nodding to keep me talking. I told him everything and then said I didn’t think it was fair that Thom went to the quiet room. I said he should be there with me, since he started it.
“Fair? Fairness has nothing to do with it. This is about aggression. Aggression is not tolerated in females. You do know that?” I didn’t say anything, so he repeated the question with his eyebrows moving up again and I nodded.
“I didn’t aggress. I defended.”
He leaned against his desk, his mouth puckered. He had the same squinty look Teacher gets when he asks me a question. “You’re the regional administrator’s daughter, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir. He’s the regional administrator for the environment.”
“Yes... well, that’s neither here nor there. The boy shouldn’t have hit you. Males should be gentle and kind to females, that’s a given, but sometimes boys get rambunctious. However, you were absolutely wrong to hit him. Girls do not hit — ever. That is inappropriate behavior and a punishable offense. You realize that, don’t you? And answer me, don’t just nod.”
“Yes, sir. But—”
He wasn’t listening. He strode to a small wooden table below the flowers hanging in the window, opened the center drawer, and came back to me with a narrow leather strap in his hand.
“A punishable offense! Jemma7729, you’ve learned our history. It was the aggression of women — women challenging authority, fighting, practicing martial arts, behaving in ways inappropriate for the female — that started the wars that nearly destroyed North America in the past. That will not happen again. Turn around.”
I did. He put one hand on my shoulder and held me firmly. “I want you to repeat what I say after me.”
He hit me hard with the strap across my butt and I flinched. It made a cracking noise and it hurt. “I am a female. I do not fight. Repeat it!”
I did, and got nine more whacks, saying the words nine more times as clearly as I could, gritting my teeth. When he was done he let me go and tossed the strap on his desk. I had to blink fast to not show my tears.
“Women are precious vessels. We love them, we protect them, even from themselves. That’s what I am doing right now. Millions of females have died, Jemma7729, for just the sort of behavior you have exhibited here today. You cannot win; you should not try. Is that understood?”
“You know that it was women who caused the Countryside to be toxic, so that you can’t even exist in it anymore. Right?”
“You know that by fighting the Necessary Genocide, in the early days of our republic, it was women who inspired the massacres, caused the famine, fought the reforms that finally saved the planet?”
“Yes, sir. That was a long time ago.”
He pinched his lips together and stared hard at me. Then he sighed and shook his head, his eyes darting towards the desk and the strap. I was afraid he was going to pick it up again.
“I’m aware of your record. You’re a good student. You seem to do best in music and art. Is that right?”
“Yes, sir. And communications. I do okay in that.”
He grunted. I took a deep breath. It felt like the worst was past.
“I’m going to recommend that you have special classes in history. You obviously have not understood it. Tomorrow you will apologize publicly to the boys, and to the whole school. I’m going to send you home now, so you don’t contaminate the others this day. I want you to think seriously on your crime, Jemma7729. Don’t discuss this incident with anyone except your family. I’ll send a report with you and will want to talk to your parents here in my office. Do you have a driver?”
I turned to look at him. My legs were shaking and I felt cold. “No, sir, I take regular transport when my mother is using our hovercar.” Most people thought I had a regular chauffeur because of my social class, but Daddy usually dropped me off on his way to work, or Mother did, or one of our servants walked me to a designated stop so I could pick up a schoolcar. Thom7726 had private transportation just for himself.
“Well, one of our drivers will take you home. Go wait in reception. I’ll want to see you again, after you’ve completed your special history studies.”
I left and waited for half an hour in the reception area while someone wrote up a report and the school’s hovercar was called. It took a while because the driver was off on another errand. No one talked to me, not even the Secretary when she handed me the sealed envelope. She usually smiled at least. I felt like an outcast.
# # #
Our cooking woman’s name was Resa7629 and I called her Reesie. She belonged to the useful class. She was a small woman with large breasts that stuck out and wiggled. Her hair was gray and short, and her eyes were brown with thick, straight eyebrows over them. She had a nice, rosy kind of complexion. She was cheerful and sociable to me and made me extra things — cookies sometimes, or pudding. And she let me sneak coffee now and then when I caught her in the kitchen drinking some herself, alone and not busy. I didn’t tell on her and she didn’t tell on me.
I was seven and the Choosing Day was looming, so I often went to talk to her after school, before Mother or Daddy got home. I was supposed to go right to my room and do my homework, but if nobody was around I went to talk to Reesie and drink coffee. This day I really needed some company.
“So,” she said to me, pouring me a half a cup, loading it with cream and sugar, “have you decided? Are you ready to choose?”
“Jemma! What’s the problem?”
“I don’t know what to choose.”
She sat down at the table with me and pulled her full mug closer to her. “If I had your choices, I wouldn’t hesitate.”
“What would you choose?”
“I’d be a wife. I would love to be able to just stay home and look after a house and do the shopping and all that.”
“You have children, Reesie. It’s like being a wife.”
“Not quite, Jemma. A wife doesn’t have to work at anything else. It would be heaven.” She peered at me over the rim of the cup. “That doesn’t interest you?” I shook my head. “Well, you must have some idea.”
“I’d like to drive a hovercar or a GAV.”
“You can’t do that.”
“I know. Or I’d like to be a park worker, but I can’t do that, either. Reesie, I don’t like the choices I have. They’re boring.”
She chuckled. “You should be like your mother — be a woman who marries.”
“I suppose. But I don’t like boys.”
She laughed out loud then, a big whooping kind of laugh that made her eyes water and made me smile, too, although I didn’t think what I’d said was funny, especially not this day when boys had made me so miserable.
“You will, darlin’, you will.” She glanced at the chrono over the sink. “You’re home early. Why?”
I sighed and leaned my chin on my hand, “I’m in trouble.” She stiffened her body and moved her feet under the table and her face screwed up and she pinched her nose.
“What kind of trouble?” I didn’t think she really wanted to know because she had pulled her body back in the chair, like the snake in the bio lab recoiling when I stick my hand in its cage.
I shook my head. “I can’t tell anyone but Mother and Daddy. Maybe tomorrow I can tell you, but they made me promise not to discuss it.” She got up abruptly and started to take my cup. “I’m not finished!”
“Well, finish it and give me the cup. Go do your homework.”
She turned away from me as if she were angry, though why she would be I didn’t know. I guess it’s because people don’t want to get involved with other people’s troubles. I asked her if that was the case and she agreed. I finished my coffee.
She took my cup to the sink to rinse it. “Jemma, you’re a good kid and I like you, but there’s something... different about you, and I don’t mean your eyes, so don’t get mad. I worry.”
I grinned at her and stood up to give her a hug. I liked to hug her hard because those big breasts squished and she made an oofing kind of noise.
“Thanks for the coffee, Reesie. I’ll be okay. I hope.”
I ran upstairs and not only did my homework but cleaned my room and brushed my hair and my teeth, then watched the vid and waited for my parents to get home. I would have to give them the note the master had sent home with me.
I was going to do it when they first got home, but supper was ready so I put it off until after we had eaten.
Mother and Daddy were going to have coffee on the patio. I followed them out and waited until Reesie had brought the tray and left. They were surprised that I was hanging around. I didn’t usually stay with them once we were finished with food.
Mother poured coffee out of the silvery pot into two elegant china cups. She did it so gracefully I always liked to watch. She had promised to show me how to do that some day, but she never got around to it. She glanced at me.
“Don’t you have homework?”
“I did it already.” I took a big breath. It made a noise, so Daddy looked over at me as he took his cup from Mother.
“Something on your mind, Jemma?”
“Yes.” It was hard to do. I had stuck the letter in the pocket of my skirt and now I brought it out and handed it to him. It had crumpled around the edges. “I had a problem at school today.”
Both of them set their cups down. Mother closed her eyes. So she couldn’t see me, I guess. Daddy opened the envelope and read it. His face was neutral but he clenched his jaw.
“Oh, Jemma!” His voice was full of disappointment. I winced. “What happened?” He handed the note to my mother. She read it and threw it down on the table in disgust.
“It was Thom7726. He teases me all the time. He drives me crazy.”
“Boys tease, Jemma. You know that.” Mother fluffed out her hair in the back and stared at the swimming pool.
“But — he started pushing me. We were outside in the play yard, and he kept teasing me and pushing me into the wall and he hit me.”
Daddy picked up the letter again and read it out loud. “Jemma7729 shows definite signs of aggression, which must be dealt with now before an irrevocable pattern is established.” He looked up at me. “Do you know what that means? What ‘irrevocable’ means?”
“Yes. It means something that can’t be changed.”
Daddy put the letter in the inside pocket of his jacket. “What did you do when he pushed you?”
“Nothing at first, except to tease him back. And then, when he wouldn’t stop and he hit me twice, I slapped him.”
“Oh, God!” Mother shook her head and rubbed her eyes.
“What did you hit him with?”
“Just my hand.”
Mother got up and stared at me. “You deal with this Roger. I can’t.” She quickly went into the house and I was surprised to see tears in her eyes. What did that mean?
I turned to Daddy in a panic. “What’s wrong with Mother? Why is she crying?”
“Sit down, Jem.” I did. He thought a minute but didn’t pull his mustache, just stared across the lawn. “So, you hit this boy. Then what happened?”
“Teacher came and pulled us apart. Thom cried, but I didn’t hit him that hard. He hit me harder and he’s bigger than me.”
“Slow down... then what happened?”
“Teacher sent him to the quiet room and I had to go to the master. He was mad at me.”
“Did the master punish you?”
I chewed on my lip. I had never been so uncomfortable in my life. I nodded. “With a strap.”
“Did it hurt?”
“Yes. He hit me harder than Thom did. Ten times.”
Daddy made a kind of grunty noise. “Did you cry?”
“No!” Of course I didn’t cry. I couldn’t let the master see me crying.
Daddy leaned back in his chair with a sigh that puffed out his cheeks. “Oh, baby...” He motioned for me to come nearer.
I stood in front of him and he put his arms around me. His eyes were so sad they made me hurt. “I want you to promise me something, okay?” I nodded my head. He thought a minute, but didn’t let go of me. “I want you to promise, on your solemn oath, that should something like this happen again — and it damn well better not! — if the master, or anyone in authority, punishes you, I want you to cry. Do you understand? You must cry.”
I didn’t understand. “But...”
“Don’t argue. Punishments are supposed to hurt. If you stand up to them, that’s an act of defiance. You’re not allowed to defy authority. You know that! You know the Woman’s Creed.” I nodded but he shook his head. “Say it!”
I sighed. It was boring. “’I am a female. I will not question nor defy authority. I will not be aggressive in thought or action. I will obey the request of any male unless what he asks is immoral or unlawful.’” I took a deep breath and spit the rest out. “’I will accomplish all that is required of me cheerfully and without complaint I will not discuss nor think about topics forbidden to my sex I will graciously submit to my husband,’ Daddy, I didn’t mean to defy him. I just didn’t want him to think I’m a baby.”
“But you are, Jemma! You are a baby. You’re seven years old! You’re female. No defiance is allowed you. Period. Promise me!”
His hands were tight on my arms. The look in his eyes was so intense it scared me. “I promise that I’ll cry.” He let me go and picked up his coffee cup. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”
“So am, I, Baby.” He sipped his coffee and didn’t look at me.
Oh Daddy, darling, you have no idea how that solemn oath came back to haunt me. Actually, I’m glad you never knew. But it was you who taught me how to lie, and that came in handy.
# # #
That night I couldn’t sleep. I worried about school and what would happen to me. I felt guilty for upsetting my parents. Choosing Day was coming up and I hated the things that were possible for my sex and class. I didn’t have to choose absolutely until after I was ten, but it was the law that a person chose at seven and then concentrated on being prepared for the final choice.
Mostly, though, I thought about hitting Thom and what the master had said and done. I didn’t like it. And I didn’t know what had made me break the rules. I felt sorry for myself. It didn’t seem fair that boys could hit girls but not vice versa.
There were diffuse lights on the skydome, a springtime gift from AGNA for the citizens of L.A., a monthly light show that would continue for several nights. It took the place of moonlight, which of course we never saw because our city had its miraculous roof, or at least that’s what I was told. The domes on all the cities in North America kept the toxins of the Countryside out. They protected the females. I had studied about the light projections in science class. Night-time light exactly echoed the phases of the moon in the Countryside, where women cannot go, to make our environment more natural. Scientists said there was a connection between something called women’s cycles and the real moon, so they lit up the sky for us. Except, of course, they never showed its image. It was just a satellite, anyway.
The projections also made my bedroom bright, so I got up and looked out at the back yard bathed in the soft light.
Mother sat by the pool, all by herself, drinking a glass of wine. She was wearing a white robe and she glowed bluish in the light, like a ghost. I glanced at my chrono. It was 03:27. Guess she couldn’t sleep, either.
I crept downstairs and sneaked out onto the patio as quietly as I could. I didn’t want to bother her, but she heard or saw me.
I walked slowly towards the pool. “I didn’t mean to disturb you, Mother.”
She shook her head. “You didn’t. What’s the matter? Can’t sleep?”
“Come over here, please.” She straightened in her chair. She was barefoot. I couldn’t remember ever seeing her feet. They were long and delicate, like the rest of her.
I went to sit beside her. We didn’t talk for a while, then she said, “The light is beautiful. And it’s so quiet in the middle of the night. I guess it doesn’t matter that there isn’t a real moon.”
“I’m sorry about today, Mother.” I whispered because I didn’t want to disrupt the peace.
“So am I.” She sipped her wine. She wasn’t looking at me. She didn’t look at me much at any time, as if I were repugnant to her, even though people said there was a strong resemblance between us.
“I don’t mean to make trouble.” She didn’t respond, or wasn’t listening. I was so depressed by everything that I actually said, “I’m sorry that you don’t like me.”
She turned to me with her lips parted in surprise and carefully set her glass on the table. “Is that what you think? That I don’t like you?”
I was afraid to answer.
“Oh, Jemma,” she whispered in a husky tone and held out both arms to me. For a split second I didn’t know what to do and then I was in her arms in a flash and she pulled me close. She smelled faintly of lilacs. I could hear her heart beating in my ear.
“I love you.” She held me tightly. “I love you, my girl. But you frighten me to death.” I squirmed but she didn’t loosen her hold. “I’m so afraid you won’t — that you won’t be able to do what you need to do.”
“I try to do everything right.”
She smiled. “I know you do, but — it isn’t what you do, Jemma, it’s who you are. You have a stubborn streak, an independent turn of mind. Sit down.” She let me go back to my chair. She picked up the glass while I basked in the glow from her embrace. “Do you know what? I’m going to tell you a secret.”
“What?” My heart pumped right in my throat.
“I was a bit like you at your age.”
“Were you?” I would never have guessed that.
“Not as troublesome, but I had some ideas of my own, too.”
She took a sip of the wine and handed me the glass, as a kind of token, I guess. She chuckled when I tasted it and made a face. She was softer than I had ever seen her, there in the quiet of the night.
“Jemma, I have to keep a distance from you, because I couldn’t bear it if you fail. You’re dangerous, to yourself and to your father and to me.”
That confused me. She brushed my hair back gently from my forehead and looked at me with a little smile. Her eyes were sad. “Get some sleep. You have a big day tomorrow.”
I felt on safer ground discussing real things. “It’ll be awful. I have to apologize to the whole school, and the boys. Probably have to apologize to Thom personally.”
She leaned forward and touched my knee. “Yes, and you will do that graciously, simply, with humility. Keep your dignity. Be smart.” She lowered her voice and I had to lean even closer to hear her. “You’re a woman, Jemma, and we endure. We survive. I want you to survive. Remember that.”
She sat back then and sipped her wine again and looked away from me. “Go to bed.”
I got up and kissed her cheek, but she didn’t respond. I went upstairs full of conflicting emotions. I’m dangerous? How? Why? We survive, we women? Is that what she’d said? Survive? Endure?
I looked down on her from my window, hovering back in the shadow. She stood up. She looked toward my window but didn’t see me. She glanced around the yard, then she loosened her robe and let it drop from her body. She was naked. I was shocked. Women were not allowed to be naked outside of their houses. I glanced away for an instant, but she was so beautiful that I had to keep watching as she slipped soundlessly into the water.
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