BIRTH RIGHT

Reads: 124  | Likes: 1  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: July 15, 2019

A A A | A A A

Submitted: July 15, 2019

A A A

A A A


BIRTH RIGHT

by Helen Terrye Chandler

 Little Crater Lake, Far Northern Ontario

Friday, May 22nd

“Tell me the truth.” The old African woman folded her dark hands in her lap and stared at the blonde and blue-eyed girl opposite her. “Why are you really here?”

They were sitting on the front porch of the sagging cabin, the old woman motionless, the girl shifting restlessly under her gaze.

“I told you the truth, Aunt Cammie.” Amanda Foster willed herself to be calm, to stop fidgeting with the pencil, tapping it against the notebook resting on her thigh. The notebook was simply a prop; there was no need to take notes, although she occasionally jotted something down or doodled in the margins. The entire conversation was being recorded.

“I'm writing a family history,” Amanda lied. “There's nothing more to it.”

The old woman laughed. “Girl, there’s always something more. Nothing is ever what it seems, no matter what anybody tells you.” 

“Honest, Aunt Cammie.” Amanda stared at her, fascinated. She had never met anyone this old or this dark. She stared at the frizz of salt-and-pepper coils escaping out from the old woman’s head rag.

The girl began again to tap the pencil. Nothing here fit. Not her so-called Aunt Cammie, who looked nowhere near her supposed hundred and one years. Not this rustic cabin, nor the mirror-smooth lake, nor the double row of greenhouses. What was so threatening here, she wondered. How could this woman and her activities be even remotely of interest to anyone?

“You’re the oldest member of the family, Aunt Cammie. I was hoping you’d remember things even my own grandmother has forgotten.”

The old woman’s eyes narrowed. “Who is your grandmother, anyway? Who the hell are you, for that matter? Have you told me yet?”

The girl, nervous as she was, knew how to be patient. “My grandmother is your great-niece, Erica Collier Smith.” She recited the carefully rehearsed information as if it were fact. “I’m Amanda Smith. I’m attending university in Toronto, and . . .”

“Yes, yes.” The old woman stopped her and leaned back into the cushions. “I remember what you said now.” She rubbed her chin with one brown hand as she looked past Amanda toward the greenhouses, the lake, and the woods beyond. “Little Erica a grandmother! Why, I remember the day she was born.”

The girl brightened. “Would you like to tell me about it?” Anything to get the woman talking.

“Not particularly.”

“Oh.” Amanda lay the pencil down with a sigh. “Why not?”

“Because that’s not what you came for.” The old woman pointed what was, in Amanda’s opinion, a surprisingly straight and steady forefinger at the girl. “You’re really here to spy on me, to find out about my work.” The old woman spoke matter-of-factly. “The government sent you.”

“Aunt Cammie!” Amanda feigned indignation. “Why would you even think that?”

“Because they’re always sending some poor rookie or another up here to check on me. Always in the spring, and always after another one of those births are registered down in the city. Those births that aren’t supposed to be happening.”

The girl shrugged, hoping to convey innocence.

“You think I don’t see right through you. Ha! Last spring they sent your ‘cousin’ Julian.” The old woman narrowed her eyes and gave the girl what might have been a wicked smile full of straight white teeth. “How is Julian these days?”

Amanda’s mind suddenly filled with the unwanted image of Agent Draper in his cell, drooling and in full body restraints. Just three days after returning from his visit to ‘Aunt Cammie,’ they’d found him in his office babbling incoherently. No cause could be found for his condition; little hope was held for his recovery. Through the Ministry grapevine, she’d heard how one of his attending physicians had described his condition: “It’s like someone opened up his head and stirred his brains with a big spoon.” She shuddered involuntarily. The pencil resumed its tapping.

“Please, Aunt Cammie . . .”

The old woman shook her head, and again Amanda questioned the wisdom of having come up here. She had been growing increasingly nervous and uncomfortable with the old woman and now was feeling threatened as well. She began to wonder if the Ministry had been completely forthcoming about this assignment.

“Why are you staring at me? Is something wrong?”

“No, not—wrong. But I don’t get many visitors way up here, as you can imagine. At least, not all that many who claim to be family, even though I don’t believe for a moment you’re even remotely related to me. But if you were . . .” She paused to take in every feature of the girl’s face. “Are you what my people would look like now? Blonde, blue-eyed? All the dark genes—the entire natural phenotype—deselected?”

Phenotype? Amanda hadn’t been expecting that word to pop up in conversation, even this conversation. Not knowing what to do, she shrugged, and in that shrug conveyed a thousand tiny bits of information. “Why?”

“I just can’t find anything—African—in you. Amazing. That is, if you are related, which of course you are not.”

“I’m sorry,” said Amanda, without knowing why.

“No use apologizing for what isn’t your fault. My generation was just about the last to be defined through natural genetic expression. That was before people were forced to give up their own identities in favor of the government’s policy of racial . . .” 

Amanda bridled. “Not forced. Given a choice. The fact that so many people chose to give up individual racial and ethnic characteristics—not to mention a host of genetic disease tendencies—for the social benefits of homogeneity proves . . .”

The old woman closed her eyes; the girl thought she might have fallen asleep.

“Aunt Cammie?”

“I was thinking. About what it was like to be different. Before it became dangerous to be different. Nobody’s different now. Everybody’s just the same—just the right size, just the right color. Just the right—” She paused, giving the next word emphasis, “—attitude. Isn’t that so, child? I may be way up here in the far north woods, but I’m not so isolated as you think. I can still get the government’s free satellite feed, when I bother to turn it on—shameless propaganda for the most part. But I watch a little, and I can figure out what’s going on in the world.”

Amanda did not reply; several moments passed before the old woman spoke again.

“Now tell me the truth. You came because you were sent, weren’t you?”

Amanda sighed again, this time in resignation as much as in frustration. “It’s true. I was sent. By the government.” Her cover story wasn’t working. Maybe this woman was owed some respect. Maybe she could win her confidence with candor.

The old woman twisted her mouth into a tight smile. “Honesty at last!” She rose, leaning slightly on her cane.

“Are you going in?” The girl rose, too quickly. The tiny recording device concealed under her loose jacket dropped almost soundlessly to the porch floor.

“Of course I'm going in. It's getting chilly out here. And you'd better come in too. I'll fix some tea, and we can talk by the fire.”

When the old woman had turned away, the girl stooped to retrieve the recorder. “I want to hear whatever you'd like to tell me, Ms. Johnson.” She closed her hand around the tiny machine and slipped it into her jacket pocket.

“Did you break it?” the old woman asked without turning.

“Break what?” The girl assumed an air of unconcerned innocence and kept her hand in her pocket.

“Your little spy device. They make them smaller every year, don't they? But then, I guess if they can make 'em that small, they ought to be able to make 'em pretty sturdy, too.”

“Oh!” said Amanda and forced a little laugh. To herself she thought, She doesn’t miss a thing. And then, Who is this woman, anyway?

She had asked precisely that question several days ago in the tiny village of Burning Tree, Ontario, about thirty clicks due south of Cammie’s cabin. She had spent an afternoon hanging around the general store, making what she hoped were discreet inquiries. There was hardly a soul in the store that day who knew of Cammie Johnson’s existence halfway up the southern slope of Harp Mountain; those who did had wildly varying answers.

She was a witch, the driver of the propane delivery truck confided to her. “I goes up there, eh? I goes up there ‘cause I hafta, but I gets out fast as I can,” he’d told her. 

“That’s idiotic!” said the storekeeper, with undisguised disdain. She was a retired physician, he’d said, had an office right there in Burning Tree before she moved up the mountain. “It’s just that people make up stories about her because she’s old and she’s—well, different. People always fear what they don’t understand.” This with a sideways look of scorn at the propane delivery driver.

“Oh, yeah?” the driver challenged. And then revealed that he had it on excellent authority that she cast spells, made potions, and chanted incantations under the moon. Why, he’d as much as seen her in the act! The store clerk, ignoring him, shared that he knew she had an extensive knowledge of botany and herbal medicine. “She has all them greenhouses, ya know.”

The driver was pretty sure she could control others with her thoughts and cause them to do her bidding. She was simply strong-willed and stubborn, the store clerk countered.

She had Second Sight, according to the driver. She was merely highly intelligent, a trained observer, and therefore intuitive, the clerk responded.

She was dangerous, a menace; she was harmless, a cipher.

Amanda knew the truth, as always, would lie somewhere in between. One incident, though, had troubled her more than anything either man had said. A young woman had come into the store during the debate between the propane driver and the store clerk. She paused for a moment, listening until she picked up the substance of their conversation, then, without completing any purchases, turned away quietly and slipped out the front door. As she turned, Amanda could clearly see that she was pregnant.

*.*.*.*

Amanda breathed deeply of the balsam-scented air as though it could act as a tonic against her rising fear and followed the old woman inside. The lighting, though dim, was sufficient for her to make out two stuffed chairs before the hearth, a table between them set for tea. The table was set for two. Amanda wondered if the old woman could possibly have been expecting her. 

“Oh, I’m always expecting someone,” Cammie said, lifting the kettle from the stove, “especially in the spring. That’s usually when they send you people.” Amanda tried to recall if she had spoken her thoughts aloud. She didn’t think she had, but she had begun to feel disoriented as soon as she had crossed the cabin’s threshold and couldn’t be sure.

“And you aren’t really family, are you?” The old woman asked what by now was a rhetorical question as she carefully poured hot liquid into the delicate cups. Even in the face of Amanda’s revelations, she had held out the hope, no matter how remote, that there really was someone left, someone with whom she shared a true blood bond. Her parents, of course, were long dead, as was her husband; they had had no children. Her sense of family, in her younger years, came from the children of her brother and sister—nieces and nephews that she cherished and doted on as if they were her own. 

“No, of course not.”

“And Julian? Him neither?”

“No, there’s no one left. You’ve outlived them all.”

Cammie sighed. “Pity.” Then Amanda thought she heard her mutter, “Fools, all of them.”

“I guess they just didn’t share your gift of longevity.” Amanda saw Cammie’s face change then, saw some of the light go out of it, replaced with a dark anger. Amanda wished she’d been less blasé, more sensitive to the situation, but she was also surprised to see how much pain this news had caused the old woman.

“Hah!” said Cammie. “Longevity is not a gift! It’s a genetic program! Human beings were made to last a hundred and twenty years! Anyone who dies before that has made a choice, one way or another. Diet, lifestyle, reckless foolishness—the myriad little ways we push ourselves closer to death every day. A hundred and twenty years is your birthright, child! A hundred and twenty years, and all in good health. It’s in the coding. The problem is that everyone—well, nearly everyone—forgot that long ago.”

Amanda could think of no proper response, so she repeated her news, more gently this time. “As far as we know, Ms. Johnson, you have no family.” 

Cammie stirred her tea as she collected her thoughts. Could they all be gone?

“‘We’?”

“The world government, of course. United Nations Ministry of Eugenics, Ottawa Branch Office. They sent Julian, and now they’ve sent me. To find out what you’re doing—and exactly how you’re doing it. And after we’ve learned your secret, we’re supposed to put you out of business. ‘Dissuade you from your purpose’ is how the Director put it. But now I’m afraid the Ministry won’t be so gentle. What happened to Julian has particularly upset them. He was a valuable asset. They think you did something to him.”

“Really. What could I have done to Julian that he hadn’t already done to himself?” The old woman sipped her tea in silence and stared into the fire. “You want to know what I’m doing up here, child? That’s easy. I’m doing penance.” And she let go a bitter laugh.

“Mrs. Johnson,” Amanda said, dropping all pretense, leaning close as if to deliver an urgent and intimate message: “I’m afraid your life is in danger.”

The old woman laughed so hard that she began to choke. “Amanda, I’m a hundred and one years old! When you’re a hundred and one, your life is always in danger, if you’re not careful!” She wiped her eyes with a linen napkin before continuing. “It’s dangerous to go into the greenhouses, it’s dangerous to go down to the lake. Good Lord, child! Some days, it’s dangerous just to get out of bed in the morning!”

“But this is serious!”

“Yes, I suppose at your age death is very serious. Frankly, I don’t care one way or another. A hundred and twenty would be nice, I suppose, but who would I share my birthday cake with? More tea?” She refilled Amanda’s cup and set the pot back on the warmer. “It’s herbal, my own blend.”

“It’s delicious. What’s in it?” Amanda asked, even as her head was beginning to feel like it was inside a helium balloon.

“Oh, lots of things. Down there in those greenhouses, there’re lot of interesting things. You’re so keyed up, child. The tea will relax you, just let it do its work. Now—what’s happening out in the world that’s upset everyone so?”

“Babies are being born.”

“And so it’s always been.”

“These babies are—different. There’ve been Native American babies. Asian babies.” Amanda swallowed hard, her tongue felt thick and fuzzy. “African babies.”

The old woman smiled broadly. “Ethnic babies? Children of color? Something different from all you bland, blonde, blue-eyed, bio-engineered models of genetic perfection? Praise God! I for one am sick of lookin’ at your pale faces.”

“They aren’t so pleased in Ottawa. They want to know why.”

“Why, Amanda, it’s just nature taking its own course.”

“‘Nature’!” Amanda snapped, although with some difficulty. The word felt elongated, impossibly drawn out, and she thought she could see it—see the letters floating in the air. “Nature hasn’t had anything to do with procreation for over half a century! The bio-engineers have seen to that.”

“And the government, let’s not forget the government,” Cammie said. “But anything that can be engineered can be de-engineered,” she added softly, almost as if she were speaking to herself. 

Cammie swirled the tea in her cup, her brow creased in distress. “Is it true what I hear, Amanda? That no one—no one in the world—can reproduce without a license? That in order to get a license, prospective parents must submit to genetic testing? That if the results reveal potential defects, they have to agree to correction, otherwise—” 

“They're sterilized.” Amanda finished the sentence for her, speaking the word that Cammie seemed unable to bring herself to utter.

“Right. Sterilized,” Cammie repeated, and poked at the fire with the end of her cane. “What a nice, neat world you live in, Amanda. So much for the social benefits of genetic engineering.”

“Genetic engineering is a good thing,” Amanda said with a little too much force. “An excellent thing. There’s no disease. There are no imperfect children, no defective babies being born to incompetent parents . . .”

“That sounds wonderful, child. And it was wonderful, it truly was, right up to the point where ‘defective’ and ‘imperfect’ began to include skin tone and racial characteristics. Then it wasn’t so wonderful anymore, was it?”

Amanda was not ready to back down. She was well indoctrinated in the government’s official line. “Finally someone used a potentially dangerous technology for the good of the people.”

“You don’t have to tell me about technology, Amanda. No one is more aware of it than I. No one. The good of the people. Yes, I believed that once too. But nobody figured in the additional doctrine of social engineering. No one expected that a homogeneous society would become official government policy.” She watched the fire a long time before continuing.

“Amanda, wouldn’t you like to have children someday? Wouldn’t you like to see what your own natural genes can produce, instead of picking your baby’s face out of a catalog?”

Amanda responded with increasing difficulty, by rote. “Reproduction is too important to be left to the whims of the individual ego and random genetic selection. Generations of people have proven that they can’t be entrusted with that kind of responsibility. When the people fail the task, the State must do it for them.”

The old woman smiled, but there was a sadness in her eyes. “Oh, Amanda, I hope you don’t really believe that.”

*.*.*.*

That night Amanda slept on the cabin floor in front of the fire, on a thick bedroll of cotton batting and balsam needles. She slept deeply, peacefully, waking only once to see the old woman slipping soundlessly out of the cabin door. She tried to follow her, but when her body would not respond to her attempts to rise, it occurred to her that she wasn’t awake at all, but only dreaming with her eyes open. She closed her eyes again and drifted back to sleep, soothed by the heavy fragrance of balsam and the sounds of the spring night. In the morning she thought she remembered a dream of floating, and of watching from the cabin window as the old woman descended the steep and rocky path to the greenhouses and the lake below.

There were other dreams that night, too, dreams of babies this time, babies with dark eyes and milk-chocolate skin, round faces framed in woolly ringlets. There were three of them, they were beautiful, and she knew their names: Joshua, Terrence, and little Katie. And she knew without knowing how she knew that they were her children, her natural children, waiting to be born.

*.*.*.*

United Nations Ministry of Eugenics, Ottawa

Monday, May 25th

The girl sat in the Assistant Director’s office and sobbed quietly while her superior grew increasingly annoyed. 

“Agent Foster, I wish you would at least make some attempt to bring your emotions under control. You've been sniveling over this unfortunate affair for the last half hour.”

“I can't help it, sir. She was a harmless old woman. You read my report. There's no proof of any connection between her and those throwback births. She was a hundred and one, for God's sake! She would have died naturally soon enough.” An evidence photo of Cammie Johnson’s twisted and broken body lay on the table in front of her. She could hear Cammie say, Some days, it’s dangerous just to get out of bed in the morning!

“Why do you insist that we were responsible for her death?”

“Weren't you?”

“When the report first came in, we assumed it was you who had terminated her. You had the green light to . . . ”

Amanda flinched at the use of the “T” word. “No. She was alive. She made me tea and biscuits for breakfast. I can assure you, she was quite alive when I left that morning.”

“And already dead when Agent Jensen arrived that afternoon.”

Amanda closed her eyes and buried her face in her hands. Cammie might have fallen on the steep and rocky path to the greenhouses without Agent Jensen’s help, it was certainly possible. And Amanda would have asked what Jensen was doing there in the first place, but the Assistant Director would only reply that it was because she hadn’t called in the day before, and there was no other way to reach her. “Standard procedure,” he would say.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Agent Foster, it really doesn't matter what you believe, does it? She's gone, and her mischievous meddling in government policy is gone with her. We still don't know how she was doing it, but we're positive she was doing something. We’re sending an evidence team up there on Thursday to comb the place and collect whatever there is to be found. We’ll have our proof then.”

“No, sir. You won’t find anything. She was just an old black woman living out her life in the back woods! She loved nature, and she loved growing things in her greenhouses. She made her own herbal teas, and she . . . ”

“If that’s what you believe, then you’d better take a look at this.” The Assistant Director handed her a slim packet. “The only commonality in all those births was that the mothers had visited Cammie Johnson just prior to conception.”

“Circumstantial.” She turned the packet over in her hands without opening it. “The parents all had their licenses, they were all legal births. She was an herbalist, you know. Maybe they went there for a folk remedy for morning sickness, or one of her special teas. Why does a visit to Cammie Johnson have to have any meaning at all? It’s totally circumstantial.”

“But compelling, wouldn’t you say?” The Assistant Director crossed the room and opened the door to the outer office. “And now, Agent Foster, if you’ve collected yourself sufficiently . . .”

Amanda rose, straightened her back and strode to the door. The Assistant Director watched her until she crossed the outer office and disappeared down the long, gray corridor.

*.*.*.*

Toronto

Tuesday, May 26th

Amanda sat in front of the computer in her cramped flat and watched Cammie Johnson’s life flash across the screen: Camilla Grasty Johnson, MD, PhD, a doctorate in biochemistry, another in genetics. Twenty years with the Ministry of Health. Appointed first director of the Department of Bio-Engineering, forerunner to the separate and autonomous Ministry of Eugenics. 

Amanda could hardly believe her eyes. As she scanned down the list of accomplishments, she thought she had an inkling of how Alice might have felt when she fell into the rabbit hole. Cammie Johnson did all this? she thought. And then another voice responded, Why not? Somebody obviously did it, why not Cammie? She had all the qualifications, she was in the right places at the right times. Someone laid the groundwork for the manipulation of the human phenotype. And someone else perfected it—and that someone was Dr. Camilla Grasty Johnson.

“Penance,” she’d told Amanda. And, “There’s always something more. Nothing is ever what it seems . . .” 

*.*.*.*

Little Crater Lake Road, Far Northern Ontario

Wednesday, May 27th

Amanda checked the odometer just as the right front wheel of her rented compact car dipped into another washout, causing her to bite her lip. She longed for the weight and security of one of the Ministry’s SUV’s, but checking out a Government vehicle was out of the question, equipped as they were with tracking chips that sent back a continuous stream of data as soon as they pulled out of the garage.

“Twenty clicks of bad road to go,” she thought, and refused to let herself consider the consequences of a bent axle or a blown tire. Barring such a calamity, she was still confident she could make it to the cabin before sunrise. Even so, there was much to do, and little time to do it. The greenhouses, the fields, the woods, the cabin itself—she needed to search everything before the evidence team arrived on Thursday. Somewhere there had to be journals, somewhere there had to be research notes, formulae, a makeshift lab, something. The clues were there, and if she could only put them together, the answers were there too.

A shooting star flashed across the horizon, interrupting her thoughts, and once again those three dark faces popped unbidden into her head: Joshua, Terrence, and little Katie. God, how she wanted them. She thought of them just then as tiny prisoners, locked away in her written-over genetic code, masked by a superimposed phenotype, but there nonetheless, while she was the desperate mother, searching frantically for the key to unlock their prison and set them free.

Hang on, my little ones, Mommy’s coming.

Joshua, Terrence, Katie—impossible children, wanting only the chance to be born. Amanda knew without realizing it, knew even before she had turned off the blacktop and onto Little Crater Lake Road one last time, that she was willing to do anything—everything—to give them that chance.  

END

[4,345]


© Copyright 2019 Helen Terrye Chandler. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

More Science Fiction Short Stories