Ember rushed up the hill as fast as her legs would allow. Reaching the top she headed straight for the giant oak. But there sat Ros’ favourite spot, basked with sun, empty. Ember blinked a few moments, confused by her own eyes. Where else could Ros be after hearing such news? About to head back down the hill to search the community, she heard a faint noise and circled around the tree. There Ros was tucked away in the shadows of the oak. She sat curled forward with her head buried in her arms and her back heaving with giant sobs.
Ember slowed her approach. She was in such a hurry to get to Ros, she hadn’t thought what she might say when she arrived. She could be so clumsy with words when things got serious. She knew she needed to be there for her but what if she stuffed it up? Ros was hanging on by a thread that one wrong word could snap. And Ember had a secret. A secret that would be the perfect knife to cut through that thread. Breaking not just Ros, but their friendship.
“Ros…” Ember crept forward slowly.
“I don’t want to talk!”
Knowing that wasn’t true, that Ros would indeed talk, Ember took a seat next to her. “Ok, then, no talking.” Instead, she wrapped her arms around Ros and pulled her in.
Ros did not resist.
Ember rubbed Ros’ upper arm with both hands. She got a flashback to last winter when she had done the same action to little Gemma who was just pulled out of the icy lake. Ember stopped and just held her friend. She was not a natural at this. Ros would notice, because she is the natural.
A natural mother.
Ember looked down at the forest. She blinked away warm tears. She wasn’t much of a crier, but her heart broke for Ros whose dreams were officially squashed.
Breaking the silence with awkward cheery remarks would have been Ember’s normal mode of dealing with this sort of situation. But she was determined to let Ros be the first to talk. She felt as if hours had passed, but the sun’s position said otherwise. When Ros finally spoke, it was into Ember’s shoulder.
“Sorry, dear.” Ember said, “You sound like you’re underwater. Maybe it’s time to come up for air.” She guided her friends face upwards with a crooked finger under her chin.
Ros’ dark hair was still covering her face. “It’s just not fair.”
Ember raked her fingers through Ros’ thick hair, pushing back the unruly mess. This revealed a face almost unrecognizable. Her normally smooth tanned skin was red, blotchy and swollen. “I know it isn’t.”
“What do I do now?” Ros asked.
“Well… perhaps now that the option is gone, you can move on?”
Ros gave Ember a look that fully answered her question.
“Ok, no. Something else then.” Ember said.
“It’s the only thing in the world I ever wanted. A child.”
“Or two. Or eight. I know.”
“So do all the officials. They know it damn well. I was so sure they would pick me this time. For god’s sake, it was my last chance.” Ember knew Ros wasn’t just being dramatic. It was her last chance. She turned 28 this year, the oldest age that women are selected to be mothers.
“Have they given you a reason?”
Ros stared forward towards the distant hills. For years Ember had tried to get this information out of her. Every time she could imagine large steel gates closing and locking her out.
Ember sighed. “What do you want to do?”
“Leave here. Grab a partner, tear the bit of metal out of my uterus, and have a family.”
Ember looked at Ros sternly. “You know that’s ridiculous. You won’t survive like that.”
“I don’t care! At least I would have tried.” Ros picked up a rock and tossed it down the hill. After a long silence she asked, “Did you get asked this year?” The smooth easy manner that she asked the question felt forced.
“No, of course not.”
“Why though? It doesn’t make sense.”
“My job probably. I’m the only one that does it.”
“Your trips away are not that frequent. You’d probably only have to stay put a few months at most. Hell, once you gave birth you could be off almost immediately. Leave the baby with the other nursing mothers.”
Ember shrugged. She felt a tightness in her stomach. Ros didn’t normally confront her so strongly. She could feel Ros’ eyes burning a hole right through her, but she dared not meet them. Ember’s face grew red and she could feel sweat forming on her brow.
“They did ask you!” Ros gave Ember’s shoulder a shove. “How could you not tell me? I bet this wasn’t even the first time was it?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Hurt me? Oh poor pathetic Ros, can’t have a child while they keep begging me to do it instead. Is that what you think?” She was up and pacing now. “I thought you were my friend. We don’t lie to each other. How many times have they asked you?”
Ember hugged her legs. “Every year. Since I was 18.”
“I knew it! You must have thought I was such an idiot all this time. Deep down I knew. I just didn’t want to accept that you would lie to me.”
Ember kept her eyes downcast.
“What the hell are you thinking?” Ros asked, “Why would you say no to such a privilege? You only have a couple years left yourself. What if they don’t ask again? I guess you just assume they will. They would ask you a million times before they asked me.”
“Ros, it’s your dream. Not mine. I wish I could trade with you. I begged them to allow you my space!”
“And what did they say?”
“That they need to go by the list. That you weren’t next in line.” Ember held back her knowledge that Ros was never even on the list.
Ros had turned her back to Ember. “You should go now.”
Ember stood shakily, the tears flowing freely down her cheeks. “Let me talk to them. One more time. Maybe…”
“You know that won’t do any good. Even you are not that charming. Now please leave.”
Ember did as she was told, heading back down the hill with her head hanging low. She felt horrible for Ros, but what gave her the right to talk to her like that? Yes, she lied. Time and again. But for Ros’ sake! It was torture keeping the secret. She knew Ros would never understand the fact that the needs that consumed her just didn’t exist at all in Ember.
She also knew it wouldn’t do any good to speak to the council. But she was going to do it anyway, as she was never one to sit by idly. No matter how mad she might be at Ros, she would fight for her.
With a fair knowledge of where anyone in The Lakeshore community would be at any given time, Ember marched down to the hall to find Henry, the head of the council.
She stopped and took a few breaths before entering the hall. No point in ranting or yelling. Not with Henry. She could imagine him staring at her, blinking slowly, giving no hint of a response until she became more civilised. Ember always admired his way of dealing with people, which seemed so out of character from the rest of his personality. He was the kind of man that should never be trusted to hold a baby, or even a glass jar. The kind that would walk into the same door frame on a daily basis and jokingly insist someone had moved it. At least this made it difficult for Ember to feel intimidated by his status. She entered the room and approached him.
“Oh good. You got my message,” he said when he saw her. He was sitting at the head of a long table, on his favourite chair made with extra padding. He almost melted into it. An elder in the community, Henry had no physical tasks anymore. It was a blessing, as they couldn’t have afforded the losses.
She stopped suddenly. “Wait, what?”
“The message I…” He took a deep breath and let his shoulders fall. “You’re here about Ros aren’t you?”
Ember perched herself on the edge of the bench closest to Henry. “Just hear me out.”
“There is nothing to hear. We have our reasons and they are not for me to discuss with you.”
“I know your reasons,” she bluffed, “I just don’t think they are good enough.”
Henry’s wrinkles doubled in size as he focused on her. “So what do you think would be a better way of deciding who reproduces? There can only be so many children.”
“Well, why couldn’t Ros get one child, when Gina has had four?”
“Gina is passing down desirable traits. It’s better for the community as a whole. Every resource we have is crucial. We can’t waste any on someone that can’t contribute enough.”
Ember’s mouth opened and closed several times. Everything she wanted to say, and ask, would give her away. So she simply said, “Well, that’s just cold isn’t it?”
Henry’s chest puffed out. He had won, and he knew it. But then he softened. “I understand how much you love Ros, and how much pain she is in.” He put his hand on hers. “But it’s a group decision and her family history is worrying. It’s not a chance we can take.”
“I- I don’t understand. Her mother was chosen. Ros is healthy and contributes as much, if not more, as anyone. So what could have changed between then and now?”
Henry sighed. “Ros hasn’t told you a thing has she?”
Ember put her hands up. “You got me. But we’ve come this far. I just want to help.”
“Oh no.. I said far too much already.” He wagged his finger at her. “She’s your friend, if she doesn’t want you to know her business, well that’s on her. Now can we get down to business? I have a job for you.”
The tension from Ember's body faded away. Yes, a job was exactly what she needed right now. The Ros situation was helpless, and Ember hated being helpless.
“Where am I going?” she asked.
“Really? So far out? What could I be going there for?”
“It’s time for a swap.”
It couldn’t be, could it? She supposed it could. She thought of the last time, when she was just a teen. For weeks it was nothing but constant gossip at who the new men would be. They were fawned over for a while. Celebrities of the community. Until they were just one of them.
She also remembered saying goodbye to the old ones. The fathers. Her father, technically, not that they thought of them that way.
“The thing is,” Henry continued, “we haven’t been in contact with The Meadow for a long time. When I try to radio I get no answer. Hopefully, it’s just a technical glitch and something hasn’t happened to them. Like when The Starwoods caught that awful bug. I need you to go check it out and make sure they are ready to send us their best.”
“What if it’s not a glitch? What if there is no one.”
“We’ll have to rearrange with all the other communities in the district. Would throw the whole schedule out the window. Don’t let that happen ok? It would be an awful headache for me.” Henry tipped his head and gave her a look like a sad puppy dog.
Ember snorted out a laugh.
The next morning Ember loaded saddlebags with six days of supplies and camping gear. She didn’t cross paths with Ros once, which in a community this size couldn’t be on accident. She always appreciated her horseback trips out of the community, but this one in particular was sorely needed. As much as Ember liked being around people, they were the same people, day after day, year after year. She had heard a hundred different stories a hundred different times. She enjoyed this break of solitude, and at the end of her outbound journey she would be rewarded with a different kind of reprieve. A new place, with new people that had their own stale stories, but ones completely fresh to her. The chance to tell her old stories to new ears, with no one to point out if she embellished slightly for dramatic effect.
Far too many hours of her first day out were spent replaying the talk with Ros over in her head, thinking of the things she should have said, but it allowed her to work through the anger. She actually couldn’t wait to get back to The Lakeshore and smooth things over. That is, until she stopped for the night and unwrapped her loaf of bread. It resembled a lump of coal and could be used to hammer in nails. Ros was the only baker. Her bread was always perfect. Ember cursed under her breath and fed it to the horse, before eating the rest of her meal.
She arrived at The Meadow early on her third day out. She knew she must be near as the trees thinned and grass grew thicker with tufts of wildflowers. The community seemed absolutely bustling, but they all stopped what they were doing as she approached.
A boy grabbed the reins from her and led her to a fence to park her horse. Before even getting down, she could see a man walking quickly over to her. He had such a presence about him that she instantly knew he was in charge.
“Hey there, Miss,”
“Well hello, sir.” she extended a hand. “My name is Ember. I come from The Lakeshore.”
He accepted her hand and she was surprised he could have such soft hands. Surely, the community couldn’t waste a man his size not doing physical labour.
“I suppose you are here about the swap.” He gave a hearty laugh. “Sorry for you to waste your time.”
It was night when Ember had returned home. She rushed the journey, only stopping once, and her whole body ached in protest. She had information she couldn’t wait to share with only one person.
Ros’ mother answered the door. Ember noticed how slight the woman looked in her bedclothes.
“Hello dear,” she said, grabbing a nearby blanket and wrapping it around herself. “Ros is in bed already.”
“How is she?” Ember asked.
She was given only a slight shake of the head.
“I’ve got to see her.”
The mother tried to argue, but only so that she could claim she had. She knew Ember well enough to not bother.
Entering Ros’ tiny bedroom, Ember saw a bump under the blankets that looked to be that of a child. But then Ros turned, unravelling from her tight ball.
“Oh. It’s you.”
“It’s me.” Ember sat on the edge of the bed.
“Can’t this wait until tomorrow. I’m very tired.”
“You aren’t tired, you’re depressed. And angry.”
“Either way, I just want to sleep.”
“I have a lot to tell you.”
“I’m not ready to hear anything from you.”
“Fine. I thought you’d really want to hear this, but ok.” Ember pretended to start at getting up, knowing Ros would stop her.
Ros perched herself up on her elbow. “Ok fine. Tell me. It better be good.”
“Maybe it is. I’m really not sure to be honest. The Meadow… it’s an interesting place. They’ve developed their own set of beliefs that aren’t in line with the rest of us.”
“You really thought I was going to be interested in another community’s politics? And now? Do you know me at all?” Ros lay back down and turned her back to Ember.
“Yeah I think I do actually. They aren’t going to be swapping anymore.”
“They pretty much just let their members do what they want.”
Ros turned back to look at her.
Ember continued, “Anyone can have a child.”
Ros made a face like trying to solve a difficult puzzle. “How?”
“There’s just no rules about it.”
“How do they pair them?”
“They don’t. It’s all up to the members to figure that out themselves.”
Ros’ face softened slightly like the puzzle was starting to come together. “What about age?”
Ros now sat up completely. “But… can they do that?”
Ember shrugged. “They shouldn’t.”
“Anyone can be a mother?”
“Yes. I mean, if they are able, of course. But you know there are all kinds of issues with that, right?”
“Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe they know what they are doing.”
“I’m sure they think they do. And they probably will be fine for a while. But that kind of living doesn’t last.”
“But we can’t know for sure. Just the right place, the right people...”
“Ros... before we go any further, I have to know. Once and for all. Why do they keep rejecting you?”
Ros was quiet for some time and Ember thought the gates had closed again. But then, Ros said “my mom is starting to show some signs of decline. Her grandmother was the same. They think it’s an every other generation kind of thing.”
“So you’ll be ok, but your child…”
“They don’t know that!”
"Ok, ok. So what’s happening with your mum.”
“Well, she’s not so good with her hands, and her mind slips, just sometimes,” Ember started putting together her own puzzle pieces. Moments that Ros’ mother said something out of character, forgot details, or struggled finishing her sewing work. “But she will keep on living. You know how they think. She’s a mouth to feed without contributing anything back. Like she’s some kind of parasite!”
“Even if my child was like that, it doesn’t mean she shouldn’t live. Mom’s given plenty.”
“I know she has.” Ember thought of how tirelessly the woman worked, providing clothes, sacks and bedding to the community. How she still helped with dinner every single night. How she did it all while being a true mother to Ros. Ros was different in that she was not a child of the community, she was a child of her mother. She obviously got her maternal instincts from somewhere.
“Why are you telling me this Ember? Please don’t toy with me.” Ros looked at Ember with intensity.
Ember dropped her voice. “Yes, Ros. I asked. They would welcome you.”
Just like that, Ember’s lie was completely forgotten, as was the harsh words that were shared, and the burnt bread. Ros and Ember stayed up the rest of the night. It was like their sleepovers as children. Ros was just like she was then. Ember never realised how little life there was in Ros’ eyes until she saw it flood back. They spent the night laughing, crying, embracing, and of course, planning. Ros pleaded that Ember should join her. To start a new life. They could get partners together and have families. Ember felt disappointed that Ros still did not understand her after all the effort Ember put into understanding Ros. But she did not show it. Instead, she told Ros that it was only because she loved her so much that she would encourage her to go. But that she did not think what The Meadow was doing was right by any means. That she worried about Ros’ future there but knew she needed this.
The next morning Ember woke laying facing Ros in the small bed. They must have fallen asleep still chatting. Having hardly slept in days, Ember was exhausted but that internal clock of getting up with the sun was hard to silence. Ros seemed to manage it.
Ember did not go home. She was absolutely starving and realised in her haste to get back she had not eaten since the morning before. Heading to the dining hall, she ran into Henry who immediately steered her into the grand hall, demanding to know when she got back and why she hadn’t seen him immediately.
“It was late when I got back and I didn’t want to wake you.” Ember took a seat.
“Oh, you know I don’t sleep!”
As a matter of fact, Ember did not know that. His snores that could be heard six houses away were proof enough.
Ember’s stomach rumbled. She launched right into it. “They are not swapping with us, or anyone else, for the foreseeable future.”
“Not swapping? Do they want a community of inbreds in a few generations?”
“They think they can manage to avoid that on their own.”
“That’s not all. They have come up with a whole new set of beliefs. About personal freedoms.”
Henry snorted. “As opposed to all the slaves we keep here?”
“They seem to think that’s not far off.”
“Ridiculous!” Henry slammed his hand down on the table as if furious, but his face showed he was more amused. “Tell me everything.”
So Ember did. She told him about how well-fed everyone looked. She told him that people had children with whoever they liked, whenever they liked. Some paired up, others had one man with several women, while others just formed groups that lived and loved together. She told him how she saw a lot of luxuries that they didn’t have. Excessive furnishings, unnecessary tools that just made life a little easier, and children using valuable paper to scribble on.
“They’re going to use up their resources,” Henry stated.
“Yes, likely. But not for some time.”
“Short-sightedness. They want it all now. It’s what doomed our ancestors.”
Ember nodded. “They… don’t believe the tales.”
“You mean history?”
“Yeah. They think it’s all made up. To manipulate us.”
Henry barked out a laugh. “Oh god. Do they think the sun revolves around the earth?”
“Didn’t ask,” Ember said blankly.
Henry leaned in. “Ember. They didn’t get in your head did they?”
“No. No, of course not. But I kind of get where they are coming from. It does seem far fetched. Billions of people? Many living so extravagantly. How could they get to that point? How could they allow the collapse to happen?”
“I worry about this all the time. That once enough time passed people will question the past and stop living cautiously. A thousand years can erase a lot. The old ruins are mostly gone now. All we have is the so-called tales.”
“I know. But the stories are just one piece. It’s really just plain common sense to not take faster than can be replenished.”
“You would think.” Henry sighed.
Henry did not seem too worried about the impact The Meadow’s new system would have on the rest of the district. Communities blinked on and off like a field of fireflies. That was natural. Keeping separate was part of their survival. When a drought or disease wipes one out, others can leave to fill that gap, and grow back to the size that area has been shown to be able to support.
The Meadow was breaking all the rules. At the exponential rate their population would grow, there was some concern about the future. Would they get desperate for supplies and overpower other communities? Would they try and grow their space, closing the needed distance to keep safe? Ask other communities to take in their people?
It would be many generations before that could be a concern. It was hard for Henry and the other council members to be worried about something that wouldn’t impact them personally. Not when it was such a different problem to fix.. Henry did warn the other communities in the district. Ember suspected he hoped one of them would deal with it. And that if not, and things went bad, well then it wouldn’t be all on him.
Ros snuck away in the dead of night. Ember explained to her exactly how to get to The Meadow and she left on foot with no more than some water and an extra loaf of bread she made that day. When asked, Ember denied any knowledge of Ros’ whereabouts. No one but her and Ros’ mother knew the whole truth, but everyone knew why she left. The quality of the community’s bread took a real drop.
Ember did not see Ros again. The Meadow was just too far, and any detours she could have taken from legitimate trips would have been too obvious. Ember got on fine, she was a friend to everyone around her and had her work, but there was a definite Ros sized void in her life. That void shrunk over time, as she came to realise that their friendship was a bit one-sided.
It was about five years after the departure that she did get word. The Meadow had sent out their own liaison to make a trade. They wanted some of The Lakeshore’s fish simply because they had never tried any. The trade was made, for some delicious venison, but they all shook their heads at the wastefulness of the trip. Just for a matter of taste.
The boy from The Meadow stayed at The Lakeshore for the day, which was normal given the long journey. He did the rounds, talking to everyone, and when Ember had introduced herself, he slipped her a letter. Instantly she understood and took it up to the oak on the hill and sat in the sun, in Ros’ spot.
I miss you terribly! There is no one here like you. I doubt there is anyone like you anywhere else but where you are!
Guess what? I’m a mom! I have two children already, and working on the next. I’d love to say I had a partner of my own as well, but I didn’t have the patience to wait for that to happen… it’s harder than it looks.
Ember skimmed through the next few pages. It was all about every detail of her children. She would go back and read it properly later. She just wanted to find out more about The Meadow and how they were doing things.
Ros finished with:
Life here is wonderful. I never did quite know what a full belly felt like (it’s marvellous!). I appreciate all your concerns about the future of this place, but I have to say, even if the destination is terrible, it’s going to be a wonderful ride getting there! I know, it’s so horrible to say. I don’t believe it really. I just know we’re going to find a way to make it all work. I have complete faith in these people.
Love with all my heart,
Ember clenched the letter to her chest and looked down on her community. She was thrilled that her friend finally found such happiness. However, she was in two minds about it. The Lakeshore had stayed steady on the course for a long time. It wasn’t a luxurious path, filled with scenic views and lush vegetations. But they knew it went on for as far as they could see. The Meadow had taken a tiny adjustment to the left. At first, the paths are still close together, but slowly they would spread. The Meadow’s path is more exciting for sure, with vines to swing on and waterfalls along the way. There would also be boulders to scale and it may even end in a cliff they would fall right off. The thought both thrilled and terrified Ember.
Ember had always been told to stay on the safe path, and she and the rest of the community found happiness on it. They appreciated every tree they passed, each meal they shared, and each other. Most of the time, at least. Ember desired more adventure. Ros desired a family of her own. Henry desired an easy life. The Meadow obviously had enough people desiring more to drive them off the path. Ember hoped their journey didn’t end abruptly. That they would adjust their path again, instead of continuing further away from the safe course. Just a small shift back again to the right, before it got too out of hand. To a point where they still had a stable balance with their environment. But does having more just lead to wanting more? She hoped not. She hoped they could learn from past lessons. She hoped they could be better than the ones before.