“What is a baby;
A pearl from the sea?
A diamond from a mountain top,
Or honey from a tree?
Offer me the world,
Gift me with the sea,
Yet there is nothing near as sweet
As this little seed of me.”
Mom used to sing that song, back when the world was green and we ate meat for dinner. I look blankly at the bleak landscape around me now; nothing but a city of broken, sooty buildings inhabited by broken, sooty people. We are the remnant, changed almost beyond recognition.
The reason for the war was actually quite simple; arable land was becoming a scarcity, and our nation was blessed with an abundance of it. The Enemy’s invasion was swift, swarming our defenses, killing or capturing hundreds of fathers, sons, and brothers. I remember the day the news came of our utter defeat; Mom just stood there, looking out the window as though she thought Dad might suddenly appear before our door.
Not that the door belonged to us for very much longer. We, the remaining civilians, were driven from our homes, making room for the “superior” families of the occupation force. Herded into shanty towns, we lived on top each other, crammed into houses so small it was a luxury to lie down. The conditions were terrible, the food almost non-existent. To dwell there for a prolonged amount of time meant death just as much as a bullet to the skull, but was a much easier on our conquerors’ consciences.
Go over there, they seemed to be saying, Go over there and die where we do not have to watch.
Many of us did.
Life in the camps had backpedaled in time—we had no television, no radio, no means of connecting with the outside world. The only thing we could do was hope that our allies had not forgotten us, praying that we would not be sacrificed on the altar of compromise. We will be free again someday. That was our constant saying, repeated so many times that it became almost a habit. Just wait, we will be free again someday. Be patient, we will be free again someday.
Grayish snowflakes drift from the sky, melting on my skin, coating my hair. Children no longer catch the crystals on their tongues, for they know that when the water melts they will be left with nothing but ash.
Back in the camps we could still eat the snow. I know because my younger brother, Alex, used to do it all the time. He was conscious of things like that—small things that helped one to cling to one’s shreds of humanity. Once, he used a piece of barbed wire from the perimeter fence to make a mock bracelet, inlaying it with the brightest looking stones he could find. He’d planned to use it as a light-hearted means of cheering up Mom. A humorous idea…until one of the guards discovered the pretend jewelry and decided that Alex should be whipped with it as punishment for crafting a “weapon.”
Funny thing about cuts inflicted by rusty metal: they don’t heal well.
Mom and I could not do much more than watch as the infection spread. Alex needed medicine, but we had no means of obtaining it. I was only a girl at the time—a mere seventeen years old—and it seemed that my family would soon be reduced to two.
Sorry your brother’s dying, but we will be free again someday.
Our hope was almost gone when one of the guards offered to get us what we needed, as long as he was adequately reimbursed for his troubles.
Turns out, I’m worth a bottle of penicillin.
Alex recovered, and that should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. Nikolai—that is, the guard—was not yet satisfied. He offered me anything that he thought he could get his hands on as payment, and I accepted. I guess I figured that since I was already ruined, I might as well use the opportunity to save others.
My toddler has scurvy, could you possibly…?
If you…don’t mind…my wife isn’t lactating, and our newborn needs milk…
Can you cast a stone?
Mom and Alex both despised the business, despised Nikolai. Alex even begged me to stop once, but I couldn’t. I knew it meant saying no to the next desperate parent who came knocking on our door, face filled with an odd mix of shame and hope.
Instead I steeled myself, becoming like stone in an attempt to protect the spirit stuck inside the body. The outer shell I gave away to my blond soldier, who looked at me each night with a strange, apologetic light in his tired, brown eyes.
You might think that I hated him, and I suppose I did…at first. But it was hard to maintain the anger at such an unhappy, life-weary subject.
The wind around me picks up its speed, hissing as it pulls against my clothes. Across the street a ragged woman stands outside what’s left of her house, sweeping snow out the front door even though more of it is continually blown back inside. She sees me walking by, momentarily stopping her mindless task to give me a quick nod of the head. I can’t help but wonder what she thinks of me, if she knows the reason why I did what I had to…
A memory of Nikolai rises in my mind as I walk down the muddy street, coming to my consciousness unsummoned yet not entirely unwanted.
“I had a wife once.” He whispers in the dim light. “Her name was Annie.”
The fact that he should volunteer such information to me is startling, and I turn my head towards him, the bed creaking beneath me as I do.
“What happened to her?”
“She died. From sickness.” He pauses, his breathing beginning to sound thick, as though he is choking. “You look just like her, you know—as if you were her twin.” His pulse begins to quicken, pounding against my skin in short, staccato beats. “When we are…together, I pretend I am with her again, back before the world went mad.”
He meets my gaze with red-rimmed eyes, his mouth trembling as he does.
“I’m sorry, Kate,” he mutters, looking away. “I’m so sorry.”
Shortly before the camps were liberated he was moved to a different post, lost in some unknown location on the globe.
I pause to shake the slush from my shoes, wishing I could shake off my recollections as well. But it’s hard to do that when a reminder is growing inside your stomach.
Pulling my coat tightly around my swollen midsection, I creep tentatively through the entryway of the church, pretending that the large, decorative doors are still in place. Why am I here? I stop, uncertain, examining the dusty ruin of a building. Images of years past seem to flicker in the shadows; my baptism, Christmas Eve sermons with candles, Dad giving Alex and me peppermints to keep us from squirming. Back when I was little, back when I was pure.
A sliver of pain runs across my womb in the form of contraction as the baby pushes about in its eagerness.
“You would not be so excited if you knew the world you’re going to be born into.” I sigh, resting a hand on my belly. The unborn child refuses to listen, squirming to be free.
If only you knew, I think as I blink back tears. If only you knew.
Startled, I whirl to see a gaunt man standing by a splintered pew, a pair of well-worn spectacles balanced on his nose. When I saw him last, he was clean-shaven and much neater, but I still recognize him. His name is Elijah Arthur, and he used to be a deacon here at the church. Humiliated, I try to duck towards the exit, but he is too quick.
“Wait, hold on,” his eyes are kind as he takes my arm, pulling me back. “You don’t have to leave.”
“Yes, but I…have to…I mean…” my blood throbs in my temples, making me stammer, clouding my thoughts. “No, I need to go.”
He blinks calmly, smiling in a rueful manner. “Why?”
In answer, I look down at my stomach. The shards of the shattered stain-glass windows that litter the floor reflect a surreal image of my body, dividing it into bizarre sections. Kate, the broken pane, no longer fit for good use.
Mr. Arthur seems to guess my thoughts, for he bends down to pick up one of the fragments of glass, turning it over in his hands.
“How well do you know the Easter story?” he asks at last.
I shrug, uncomfortable. “Well enough, I guess.”
“Do you remember who it was that Jesus first appeared to after his resurrection?”
“Mr. Arthur…” I sigh, a kind of plea in my voice.
Before I can finish my protest, he holds up the piece of glass. In the shadowy room, I can just make out the inscription of one word: Magdalene.
I look back at him, confused.
“It was Mary Magdalene,” he explains quietly. “A devoted follower who was once a prostitute.”
Caught by surprise, I can do little but stare. Mary Magdalene? A prostitute?
Mr. Arthur sits down on an overturned chair, brushing some dust off his threadbare slacks. “Jesus Christ is a Savior, Kate. Redemption is His business, for anyone who seeks it.”
My heart trembles, frozen with trepidation and hope as I crack open an inner door that has remained shut since the night I saved my brother’s life. Could He still want me…?
I start to speak, but any words I had are suddenly swallowed up in a gasp of pain.
Mr. Arthur starts upright, alarmed. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Sinking to the ground, I lean against a pew, hands clenched as another contraction hits. “I think…the baby…”
“Oh,” he mutters faintly, bending down beside me. “Oh…”
Any stranger who might have passed by would find an unusual scene as an anxious, pale deacon does his best to help deliver the bastard of an enemy soldier. No human observer ever does come upon us, but in the decrepit church I feel the presence of a Being who views the birth with eyes of love as another of His little ones takes their first breath. What a strange thought, that the God who made the universe looks down on this little planet and calls out to all humanity. His voice is barred by nothing, and His offer stands for every fatherless child, every Mary Magdalene, every Kate…every Nikolai.
Mr. Arthur wraps the squalling baby in his own thin coat, handing her to me with trembling hands.
“I’ll be back…I’ve got to get your family.” He explains, a slightly panicked expression on his face. He hurries off in a nervous energy, leaving the church to grow still except for the whimper of the newborn that’s cradled on my chest. Tiny particles of dust and snow fall gently around us, turned into gold by the rays of the winter sun. Looking down at the little girl, at my little girl, I cannot help but smile. I haven’t really thought of any names, considering how hard I was trying to forget the whole business.
“I’ll have to think of something now, won’t I?” I ask the red-faced child.
She stops her little sobs to stare at me with her large, brown irises. They are so like her father’s, except that they are free of that dazed, pained look that always plagued him. Perhaps Nikolai’s eyes once looked like this…and perhaps, someday, they could again.
The door inside me reopens as light floods through the broken windows of my heart. The resurrected Christ has sought me out, has found me weeping in the garden and brought me new life. With a smile, I hug my daughter closer to me…and begin to sing.
“What is a baby…”