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EverPoppy by Frances Boyle - Twist in Time Literary Magazine
Maura hauled in the barge, the singing cable slick with water threatening to freeze on her hands. There should have been robotics or at least hydraulics, but this village didn’t have working winches, not even anyone, new parent or former child, willing to stand watch on a frosty morning for a wealdan woman’s arrival. Maura had a thought like a sharp pain: I’m too old for this. She shook her large hands to get the blood moving, warmed their chapped red heels in her shawl. Too old to go from town to town, child to child, in the failing infrastructure. These are bad times if your work involves community gratefulness. People forget, she thought, move on. But I don’t forget. Every tondère child, every first word they’ve spoken, every bottom I’ve wiped. Every one still a yearning. She was stomping frozen mud off her boots as she came to the place’s wealdan hall, and greeted Alyssa. “I’ve been here six months,” Alyssa said. “It looks a tired place but the children are bright and beautiful.” The children always were. But none were of weaning age, so Maura would have to move on. Maura cooked lentils and rice from the small store in the kitchen, seasoned them, and put them on a plate. “Will you eat?” “I’ve dined with my bairn, but that smells so good. A spoonful, please” The women ate at the long plank table meant for twenty. Alyssa confirmed fewer babes were being tondèred, now learning implants were more available. Wealdan women were starting to feel like beggars holding out bowls. “But have you seen the posting from Henshaw enclave?” Maura had not. Her fading cassis could barely pick up any connection, so she had to rely on public screens. Alyssa tapped the face of her own stiff grey cassis, pushed it across to Maura. “They’re seeking a wealdan woman.” “In an enclave?” Times were strange indeed. “Yes, for a ‘special and unique child,’” Alyssa quoted. As if any child wasn’t. Maura noted details, and bid Alyssa goodnight. She drew her shawl round her for warmth on the narrow bed. Warmth that should have come from a hall full of women. In the morning, Alyssa’s bed was neatly made. She needed to be with her little one before he woke. Maura got brief nods from those she passed on her way to the icaf. There were few customers on this brisk day, and no wait for the public screens. But no courtesy offer of coffee. Maura wasn’t sure how much scrip remained in her account, so ordered nothing though she breathed deeply of the scent. She tapped the address, read the posting and, with the barest sigh, typed in data that spelled out her own life. Two days later, she was in the garden office of Daniel MacEwen, Henshaw enclave’s dean. Her trunk had been sent for, as she herself had been sent for. The travel, and the place she now found herself, were soft-cushioned, warm and fragrant. Dimly, she remembered a softer life, where the rewards of work were gadgets and diversions rather than a bone-deep sleep. She’d grown up in Gutenberg enclave, the oldest commtech centre. She vaguely knew Henshaw enclave as one of several small genetic research facilities. MacEwen, with his lean frame and pulled-back grey-flecked hair, was genially casual, seemingly accustomed to respectful deference. His eyes flicked from Maura to his palm screen. “You think you could stay with one child? For longer than tondèring? Years, likely?” “Past tondèring?” Maura imagined balancing her priorities with those of tutors, envisioned adolescence. She wanted to know every stage of a child’s life. “It would be an honour.” “Well. I’m glad.” He stood up, and Maura followed. “Let’s go meet Poppy.” Poppy was as similar and as unique a baby as the nine Maura had raised. Rounder than many, thanks to the enclave’s wealth, with strong lungs and a vigorous kick. Brown hair in short whorls against skin as freshly golden as fruit – the kind you saw in old vids, not the small utilitarian ones fruit geneticists had created. Maura smoothed the blanket over squirming feet, then reached to pick her up. “Ah, Poppy.” She crooned as she rocked her. She turned to MacEwen. “And what can I feed this little weanling? The tall geneticist looked at the two of them with a dry nod, and led Maura to the next room. The routines of the enclave became familiar to Maura. In years on the road and in villages, she had forgotten enclave smells. How could these people believe everything should smell like flowers? It was fine to have the actual things on their long stalks in jugs. But every room smelled sweet. Even creams she rubbed into rough hands were scented with fanciful things she half-remembered as rose or lily of the valley. The smells on the air gave her coffee – and it was good coffee – an aftertaste of chemical brightness. The work of this enclave was not high-cachet development of plants or animals for food, nor human research. That, Maura knew, happened in several linked enclaves under heavy security. Henshaw’s bred pets for enclave folks – little dogs, cats, and cuddly rodents. The point, she supposed, was to make them cuddlier. Maura was accustomed to lean cats that deigned to accept laps and saucers of milk in the villages, and how matter-of-factly most were neutered. This profusion of fluff-balls was startling. If they were improving stock, Maura didn’t see much success around the enclave. Puppies too lazy to chase a ball or play tug of war. Ferrets that might be sloths. One kitten walked stiffly while it pounced and play-fought. Maura wondered what was wrong with its legs, then quickly dismissed the thought. In an enclave, of geneticists no less, the imperfect would not be tolerated. Poppy lived with her parents, MacEwen and Genevieve Henshaw, the enclave’s Seeyeo. Daniel was professionally approachable, Genevieve imposing in her tall dark-skinned beauty; brusque, always needing to be somewhere else. There was no wealdan hall, but Maura was relieved her room had a separate entrance. Though she spent a great deal of time in the main house, she needn’t live there. She was busy with Poppy. Daniel MacEwen had said there’d be no tondère ceremony, and Maura accepted it, though she wondered why they had bothered with a wealdan woman rather than a nursemaid. But accepting that there would be no ceremony didn’t prevent her from talking to the baby about tondère and all it involved. “You see, child, you’re learning all the time, and it’s me guiding you. I’m not teaching, just helping find what’s already there. They call it wonderment, oh they call it lots of things. Tondère Moon, when we snip your hair,” she twisted a strand of the soft brown stuff, “is just the start.” Cheerful wet mouthnoises and waving fists were her only response. Maura wasn’t sure how tondèring would work inside an enclave, or what she’d do next. Usually, all was preparation for the ceremony, and she left immediately afterwards, never entirely willing to go. MacEwen’s promise that she could stay past tondèring was as strong an incentive as soft beds and good food. A wealdan woman for a child of eight or fifteen, it was scarcely imaginable what wells of wonderment she could help the girl tap into. For now, caring for the bairn was her focus: the feeding, singing, changing. Maura was with Poppy throughout the child’s waking moments, though Daniel or Genevieve would take her for a brief while each day. Having people clean her clothing and cook her food unnerved Maura but left her with actual leisure time. She used it to bring her cassis back to its burnished bronze working order. Residual Gutenberg pride wouldn’t let her trust it to the enclave’s commtechs, but she borrowed tools. With years of grime smoothed away, and programming detangled, she felt the warm response of its flexible skin on her palm. It needed little input: the cassis read the salts and enzymes on her skin and could almost respond to her thoughts. Poppy grew, and Maura was relieved her sleep was not invaded with sub-verbal whispers and patches on her skin, as Maura’s had been before she could even hold a hand device. Maura imagined an old picture she’d seen, a head opened up like a soft-boiled egg, and someone dolloping in scoops of knowledge. She’d rather think she soaked her children in a warm bath, helped them be receptive to what the world would bring. For whatever reason, Poppy’s parents were willing for her to learn the wealdan way. As months went by, the coil that had stuck into Maura’s heart when she first held Poppy twisted, so she was sprung tight to the child’s rhythms: waking, sleeping, feeding, changing, singing. Firsts wove into the routine: the first time Poppy’s hand brought spoon to mouth, her first word, first tooth. The clucking sound, her special laugh for Maura. Their time together wouldn’t be cut short at the new moon following her fourth birthday. But, Maura wondered, was her mind playing tricks because of that? Uneasy, she tracked milestones against her memories of other children. Old writings on child development pulled up on the cassis verified her instinct. Poppy was going through the usual stages but lingering in each. Blocks piled, and toppled, no matter how Maura encouraged her to build a base. Xylophone struck to discord, though Poppy would clap to music. Colour sticks never held but squashed into waxy lumps. All a little delayed, but the sweetest child. Maura tried to put worry aside, remembered children who lagged then burst into their own glory. Daniel or Genevieve still came to play with Poppy, but their brief stays became shorter. Once or twice, neither came. The enclave’s work was intensifying. Maura heard the buzz in the kitchen when, weary of the child’s bright safe toys, she brought Poppy to bang on pots. “They’re going to production! My cousin in marketing says it’ll do for this enclave what the ever-blooming rose did for Aurora’s,” a foodtech said. “They’d better send them out house-broke for sure,” added a cleaner. “the messes from those proto-whatsits was crazy.” “Some of the beta versions, too,” said another young foodtech. “It’s not the ones that weren’t house-broken that killed me, it was those old worn out dogs with the bodies and minds of pups. They’ve fixed that in the omegas.” Poppy managed to clang two lids together, so Maura couldn’t hear much more. But when the child was napping, she pulled strands on her cassis, and drew in threads about the release, in two months, of the newest products from Henshaw enclave, EverPuppy and EverKitty. The thread was about projected market share, but Maura gleaned enough. The problem with kittens, some wag said, is that they grow into cats. But EverKitties didn’t. Henshaw’s had developed dogs and cats that would remain puppies and kittens. The site warned that the lifetimes were shortened but that the consumer would still enjoy several years of adorable puppyhood. Maura was tired just thinking about it. Years worth of puppies chewing shoes and carpets. How long could cuteness and mischief outweigh a modicum of sense? But it did explain the kittens with arthritic hindquarters and the pups with barely enough enthusiasm to fetch a stick. Beta versions, she learned, that some tech had been able to keep, since Henshaw’s cull policy wasn’t strict. From the workers’ talk, she learned that many alpha versions were cull-worthy. Pets that put their faces to the wall and backs to the world. Others that developed a vicious streak. But the omegas were going into production, and everyone felt sure the bugs were out of the system. Daniel brought Poppy a kitten, to Maura’s relief. Dogs had little enough pride, but puppies were foolishness incarnate. Maura switched on a recording of ancient temple bells, and put a ringer in Poppy’s hand. Poppy shook it more in time with her...