Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Chapter 18: Knucklebones

From: Alma Boyd [mailto:almaboyd@fr.intra]
Sent: Tuesday, 25 July, 0054 A.S. 4:04 p.m.
To: neithcole@minscix.intra
Subject: Congratulations

Ms Cole,

Minister Prescott, the cabinet and I are all pleased with your first report.  It sounds as though you are proving we can coexist already.

Keep those emails home short, sweet, and safe. For everyone.

Dr Boyd
Neith, Ruthie and Elle were playing a game called knucklebones on the floor by the fire.  Ruthie was winning, barely.  Elle was putting up a serious fight, in spite of performing with Amos in her lap, hugging her around the neck, or playing peek-a-boo from behind the bookshelf. Neith consoled herself that in addition to being the noob, she was meant to somehow ignore the cherub sitting there.  That was difficult.  First of all, he was all alive. Beyond that, he was cartoon cute about it; and doing all this in front of a book collection.  Neith would master the complicated stunts the game called for with these small aluminium pieces when the magic of sharing a room with little people and their treasures wore off.  

After Ruthie had completed the entire series of game challenges a second time with her left, unfavoured hand, Elle slumped back onto the base of the beloved reading chair and let out an exasperated sigh of defeat.  Ruthie patted her mother’s arm with a look of exaggerated sympathy and tidied away the game.  She took a lunging step up onto the bucket seat behind her mother and resumed (re-)reading a book about a Rapunzel-character confined to a space station.  This hadn’t made Neith’s Republic lists and she was eager to sample it when Ruthie was through.

Neith crossed her legs and leaned back onto her hands, relishing the unique heat she’d come to know from the log-burner.  She eyed Ninja the cat – who seemed to only pay her any mind when she vied for prime position next to a heat source.  The warmth seemed to come in a surging curtain she could almost see and was like no heating she had known in the City.

“The fire alone is reason enough to live in isolation,” Neith said, nodding towards the glow beyond the burner’s door. 

Elle did her pained face, which Neith had learned wasn’t always irritation.  It was the same face she did when her children were unbearably cute, when they exposed themselves for hurt she wasn’t sure she could prevent, or when Neith spoke of the City. Perhaps it could more aptly be described as her empathy face, but you wouldn’t know that until you spent more time with her.  “Isolated from the world, isolated from the rest of the country, or isolated from your own village?” Elle asked with candour, maintaining the empathy expression.

Neith looked down and picked at a rug on the floor to think.  “All of the above.”

Ruthie looked past her book and smiled for a moment, then turned a page.

Neith had wanted for some time to ask if the family’s positioning in the camp was because of her arrival or Elle’s choice.  She dared to venture, “What about you?  Is it worth it?  Being removed, within the camp…”

“Heavens, yes.  Although I wouldn’t have to give up the fire to be closer to the rest of Nydia – I could go tomorrow if I chose, and still have a fireplace – there’s no trade for me.” 

Neith paused, then pressed on, “Why don’t you?”

Elle gave her eye-crinkling smile, looked into the fire, and then tucked a loose blonde curl behind her ear before answering; “Because I prefer it this way.  When my husband died, people assumed I would want to be absorbed into the mass somehow.  They could help carry me along.  There was a lot of talk of yoking yourself with your neighbour to make your burdens lighter, and ‘it is not good for you to be alone.’  Then for a year or so, no one wanted to talk to me at all.  They weren’t sure what to say after all that.  So much for yokes and burdens.”

Neith nodded to show she was listening.  Elle had confirmed it – her husband wasn’t on some extended leave, or divorced and living with someone else in Nydia.  He was dead.

“But I wasn’t alone.  I had my sources of strength.  Including these guys,” she reached behind her and rubbed one of Ruthie’s drawn-up legs.  Ruthie raised her shoulders with a smile as if to say, I can’t help being this wonderful.  “And quite honestly, having people around after,” she swallowed, “was exhausting.  As time went on, I didn’t want all that social contact.  I liked the quiet over here.  Don’t get me wrong, I love to fawn over the new babies, and sit in a new mother’s home and help her acclimatise to the many ‘firsts’ babies bring.  And I love Longest Day.  I love a good conversation.   But living here means I can go and get those things when I want them, instead of swimming in it all.  Once people actually started talking to me again, I usually found a swarm of mothers in a circle meant talking comparisons and complaints, in turn.  I was screaming inside during those meets!”  Elle laughed and shook her head, confessing this.  Neith smiled.  She didn’t like groups and meetings either. “I wanted to say out loud, ‘You think this is hard?!  Try doing all of that without your husband!  While you grieve!’ or ‘At least you have a choice!’ because if any of them asked me – which they didn’t, I’d tell them to quit complaining so much about their pregnancy sickness or the night wakings, because they still had choices.  If I had the choice, I’d be doing all of it.  Every bit of it, I’d do it again.”  Her eyes glistened.

“My mother would say the same thing,” Neith said quietly. 

Elle leaned forward and squeezed Neith at her ankle, since that was what was in reach.

“So that’s the long answer,” she chuckled.  “Yes, isolation is worth sacrificing things for.  Here, in my own home, I can enjoy my children instead of focus on their flaws.”

Neith had seen it.  The woman would inhale them on the air sometimes, as though she could intake a breath of children.  Her smile was her default setting, it would only leave her face when she was redirecting a child or speaking firmly when things got too rough or unkind.  The smile always returned. 

She was the only mother Neith had ever watched with little ones.  Memories of Neith’s own childhood hadn’t resurfaced often as she’d aged – there were no younger versions of herself to see in anyone else, to make her think, I remember doing that.

“It’s a good answer.” Neith said.

They sat there quietly for a while.  Elle used a poker to shift logs inside the burner to make room for more wood.  Ruthie turned pages. Amos began to settle in Elle’s lap with eyes at half mast.  Neith looked for Davey, and found him giving voices to sewn toys in the corner, feeding one with a wooden spoon.

“You’ve been a godsend, Neith.  To have company and conversation without being constantly met with pity or complaint…” Elle looked heavenward when she said this, as though she found the reality impossible to comprehend.  She left the sentence unfinished.  “You never complain, and you have more cause than any of them.”

“What she’s trying to say is: we love having you here.”  Ruthie had stopped reading to speak.

This was it.  This was exactly the kind or progress MinSci was hoping for.  Was she meant to report those words?  It felt like doing so would spoil Ruthie having uttered them.  Neith needed to think.  The reports she was sending felt dishonest.  Nydia had consented to her being here, observing, and presenting her findings – but she knew Elle presumed a final presentation was the whole of her report.  There wasn't supposed to be any other reporting going on, and Neith hadn't given them any indication otherwise.

Not wanting her silence to signal ungratefulness, Neith pushed up from the ground and said, “Elle, you’re a saint, and a genius.”  Then whispered towards Ruthie, “I love being here too.  And not just for the fire.”  Elle smiled up at her, overhearing. Neith squeezed her shoulder and went to get her drawing tools.

She tried to draw, but her thoughts continued to spin.  She wanted to retire somewhere to think, but there was no place to do so. 

Elle made a move for bedtime.  Neith joined the family in the circle for prayer. Davey looked up at her once before it began, with an approving smile.  They all folded their arms, bowed their heads, and began to pray.  Neith remembered to close her eyes consistently, now – and didn’t steal peeks…much.  She looked forward to some of the thank-yous that found their way into Davey’s prayers, in particular.  He always counted food as the foremost blessing (not just at meal-times).  He followed this with items ranging from the amusing absurd to the touching heartfelt.  Tonight, he was invited to offer the family prayer and he said “Thank you that Nee could feel our fire.”  Neith wanted to be more honest with Elle.  She cared too much for these people to keep so many secrets habits and thoughts.  Besides, keeping secrets did nothing for a mission about gaining trust.  Perhaps she could better fulfil her assignment and demonstrate trust by removing some of the secrecy now that some time has passed.

After the kids were asleep, Elle was up again, making tea. 

Neith spoke.  “I have to tell you something.”  Neith wasn’t sure where she was going with this.  “I can’t bear keeping secrets from you.”  How could she tell this warm, generous human being she loved being in Nydia, that she could be trusted, but she wasn’t sure about the people who sent her.  She knew where she needed to start.  “I’ve been keeping something from you and it doesn’t feel right.”

“What is it, Nee?”  The nickname.  The love and concern in her voice.

“It’s my phone.”  Neith blurted out.  “I brought a phone with me to Nydia.  I know you don’t want those sort of things here, but I brought it anyway.”

“I know.”

“You do?”

“Jamin told me, the day you arrived.  He scanned it – scanned you – found no mics, like they promised.  The microphone, camera, and all parts that would allow transmission had been removed.  He said it was basically a skeleton of the original thing.  He also said you didn’t complain once, on the way in.  It seems I’m not the only one that appreciates that about you.”

Neith was reeling.  She had stripped her phone bare.  She didn’t know Jamin knew that – that he’d searched through her stuff.  She was bewildered.  Elle knew?

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“It looks like I didn’t have to.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.  Whoever modified the phone seemed to know what needed to be done.  And we knew – the council knew, that when someone came here, it would be hard for that person to leave everything behind.  I’m actually surprised I’ve never seen it.”

“The loo.  I use it in the loo!”

Elle chuckled softly.  “What do you even need it for?”

Neith considered how far she was going to go.  She wasn’t sure if she should tell Elle she could turn the “bare” phone into a transmitting device to email.  Or if she should go all the way and confess her fears about what lengths she feared Prescott still might go to.  Boyd said he had been forced to adopt a gentle approach, but from what she’d seen, force was his preference.  At what point would his natural tendencies override his diplomacy?  His voice on the Cabinet – and others on the opposing side to Boyd in debate – frightened Neith.  But there were the Cabinet members who would fight for protecting Nydia.  Maybe Neith being here really could open the door to the only option left.

Was Elle ready?  Was Neith ready to stop emailing her parents and Grace if Elle asked her to?  She didn’t think so.  She also didn’t think her reports failing to arrive would go down well.  If Elle knew this much about the phone and it hadn’t upset her, Neith wanted to leave things there.  She’d shared.  And what she shared probably wasn’t going to upset MinSci when she reported it later.  They seemed concerned about keeping Nydia happy, and about trust.  It seemed like Neith had gained more of that tonight, if anything.  Her half-baked theories about what came after her stay in Nydia were just theories, anyway, and the emails – she sent them away from the house.

“I use it to read.  And type sometimes, like a journal.”  Half truths?  Emails were like journal entries, weren’t they?  She was almost coming clean about her device.  “I never actually learned to write with a pencil.”

Elle was agape.  “What?  The phone makes sense now – that you were using it to record notes.  I never saw you write anything down…Wait, you draw so well…”

“I know, but tablets have been used in education and for emailing for generations now!  I know the letters.  I can read them, I just…haven’t practised forming them.  Drawing was something I worked on.”  She left off, “in private.”

Elle looked thoughtful.  Neith waited.  She would understand if Elle was angry.  The angelic woman was not.

“If it doesn’t transmit anything, I don’t see why you can’t bring it inside.”

“Pardon me?”

“You can keep a journal, and your notes, Neith.  You know I do.  If you’d like to learn to write, I can teach you that. But until you can write things down with a pencil, you should use your phone.”

“But the agreement…”

“We don’t want transmitting devices here, Neith.  It’s the radiofrequency energy and radiation from all of the technology humming up in the cities that we don’t want here.  We’re not sure why…why you suffer as you do,” she meant being barren; the barrenness.  “But we don’t want to take any chances here.  From what Nydia pioneers have recorded in our histories, people sleep with, eat with, and carry these radioactive things with them everywhere.  And now…things aren’t working for you. I’m sorry that it’s happening, but you must understand, we don’t want any part of that.”  Before Neith came here, she would have found this kind of talk sensationalist and eccentric.  Elle added in a whisper, “We have a lot to lose.”

It didn’t seem so lurid and strange to consider the risks – sitting here, in Nydia.  Sitting on a couch with a mother of living children who had already lost enough.  Nothing transmitting seemed perfectly reasonable.  Neith considered her internal chip, embedded in her subcutaneous flesh, at her waist.  It was always transmitting.  Could it be doing harm?  Wait, what was she doing – this was Elle’s hippy ancestry talking. 

But what if plagues or IVF weren’t to blame?  What if there was something to this “pure” notion?  Neith needed more time to think.

“Thank you for telling me.  I’ll explain it to the kids.  You can use your phone.  I’ll tell them it’s like the computer at the school.”

“The computer at school?”  Neith was wide-mouthed.

“Yeah.  There’s a computer at the school and a projector in the hall.  We watch The Sound of Music as a mid-winter tradition.  You arrived just after that, actually.  We have technology here, Neith, we just keep it disconnected; no transmissions, no wireless this, no Bluetooth that.”  Neith bit her lip at hearing the archaic terms.  Well well, Nydia, you have your surprises too.  But she heard the message loud and clear: all transmissions were unwelcome.  “Good night, Neith.”

“Good night.”