This season brings with it a heat that eats into your bones, it pervades every corner of the dome, getting trapped in damp corners where it thrives, swelling, consuming any hint of fresh air.
“Day” is dawning, but I know if I open my eyes, the glow of light pushing its way under my curtains will be artificial, so as always, I stay prone and pretend that sleep has not fled. I pretend that I can get back to my dream, to get back home where sunrises were real, where they happened every twenty-four hours. Little things that we took for granted. Little things that made up a normal, daily life.
Under the diaphanous umber of my closed eyelids, it is the same as it was those last few years on Earth. You, your little face that could stretch so widely within the limits of your skin that happiness might burst out of you. You, calling to me, your sweet little voice floating over the walls I’d erected during my waking hours; a protection that is lost in sleep. I follow your voice into the abyss, you: a piece of my soul, you: a thief who carries my heart in your back pocket. I tear down the walls to follow, even though I am their architect, even though I can feel the memory of what is to come rising on my skin like a photograph submerged in developer’s chemicals, even though I can’t face it again — I follow because I cannot help but follow.
Outside, beyond the dream, I am vaguely aware of the drone of the environmental system – the air scrubber, the filter pump – and beyond that, a faint howling wind throwing sand, fine and sharp like roughly crushed diamonds, against the southern biodome wall. But your voice, your laughter is a siren call I cannot resist. And so I follow.
Under a clump of old growth birch trees, I find you. The sun is just touching the horizon, staining the air around you in shades of ripe summer fruit. You sit, arms crossed, with a face full of indignance. How I love to see you rail against the injustices of your world; your sister getting a bigger slice of cake; Milo from across the street is taller than you even though he’s younger by three whole months; that the tire swing ropes snapped and you fell on your bottom. All of your world’s biggest issues reflected in that adorable frown.
I love it most because you believe in me to fix your world. I gather you into my arms, bury my nose in your soft curls, and squeeze everything better. I feel your body relax, frustration dissipating, and our hearts melt together into one sound. I brush your hair to look into your chocolate eyes, and clumps fall into my hands. The sun’s colours intensify, and the perfume of your innocence turns into the smell of charred flesh. The skin on your arms stretches and peels, but your face is hidden behind unchanging locks of perfect hair. I try desperately to see your face before it becomes unrecognisable, but I am never fast enough. When I finally brush the hair away, your face is already a death mask. Around me are mounds of char – your sister, your father, the dog, everything I loved.
This time when I wake, I am already swinging my legs off the bed. My body knows what my mind won’t accept, that the stress of this dream causes too much strain on my elderly heart. I rotate my head, stretching my neck. I can tell by the “glow” in the window that it’s still early enough to be able to go outside with my coffee. The wind has died down. I need to breathe air that hasn’t been run through fifteen different filters before reaching my nose. It’s meant to emulate Earth’s air, but it feels heavy and greasy, like a cheap knock-off. It’s even worse on four hours sleep. I slip into a clean shift dress and loose linen capris, knowing that I may be needed back in the birthing hall anytime. I’ll get frowns, but the mandated uniforms are so tight and gaudy… How is a birthing woman supposed to find calm when their attendant is wearing bright red synthetic fibers?
I make my coffee – the real way, with ground coffee beans (from my grow pods) and an espresso machine (replicated).
I slip through the dome’s doors into the darkness of day. I’m bleary; can feel little crusts of debris stuck in the corners of my eyes, but I’d rather wash my face in the pond outside than at my stuffy sink. Despite last night’s shower, I can still smell amniotic fluid under my fingernails. Three women gave birth last night, all of the infants severely premature, all of them stillborn.
Following the rope lights, I make my way towards the pond where I splash my face clean of last night. Another three babies lost. Only 58 women remain in regeneration cycle, their fears and stress growing with each new death.
I look across the pond, watching my hands’ ripples spreading away and note how they hit the reflection of the moons, distorting the globular queens of the sky. Cas and Polly – they’ve been named by one of our more romantic crew members. Witches of the tides, fighting over the cycles of our women, pulling at their babies before they’re ready to be born. Gravity seems stronger here, on the women. The pull of opposing forces keeps us mired, and our bodies are struggling to find balance. Only eight babies have been born alive since we landed. No new pregnancies have yet taken. All of this equipment we brought with us from Earth, all of these specialists, but for what, if there cannot be a next generation?
Using my headlamp, I look through the shore stones to find one that is long and flat – just right for skipping – and I throw it the way your father taught me when we started dating. I can feel his arms around me as he guided my arm back, cocking the wrist just so, then the casual follow-through and release. His body was warm and firm, his breath on my neck sweet with the scent of honey-roasted almonds. I toss the stone, and watch it bounce across the surface of the water. In each bounce I can hear your laugh, in each rippling strike I see our world melt. It is a heavy day.
E. Anne Dawson is a writer and mother interested in landscape and feminist birth narratives, and how the two can be explored through the lens of speculative fiction. She is currently a lecturer (Media Production) and a PhD researcher (Creative Writing) working on a practice-led study of representations of childbirth in literature, both at York St John University. She has previously worked as a writer, researcher and producer in film and documentary production in Canada. During the Covid-19 lockdown, she has also picked up knitting – although how successfully remains to be determined.