EverPoppy by Frances Boyle
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 own laugh than with the bells. Then she crawled to finger the turquoise fringe of the rug. She could crawl now, finally, at just past a year. Maura had gotten so used to Poppy happily immobile that she almost forgot babies usually crawled at six months. She was into everything, twining fingers into orange kitten fur, trying to overturn flower jugs.
Sometimes Maura had to count the months. Soon it was three years, but Poppy was still in diapers, with a toddler’s poochy stomach and sway-backed waddle. Tiny, though both parents were tall. She showed no interest in saying the letters of her name, though she shrieked and swung the styrowood “y” Maura had crafted, and cooed at the colours. Poppy babbled non-stop, sounds studded with words. She’d duck under the table when Maura wanted her to sort polished stones, or nest boxes. Then she’d twine herself around chair legs, Maura’s legs, climb laughing over her shoulders and land on her lap.
Maura kept pulling up old resources. None of the labels fit exactly, but Poppy had indications of several. She loved to sing but couldn’t remember the simplest songs, minute to minute her attention was like a butterfly’s. Her walk was staccato, landing hard on each foot, balance precarious.
Daniel wouldn’t hear Maura’s worries, put her off. So she stopped Genevieve in her usual hasty departure.
“I’m wondering … concerned … a little.” She bit her lip. Stumbling and hesitation were not Maura’s usual way. Genevieve stood, outwardly attentive but her dark eyes impatient at Maura’s stammering.
“It’s just that, maybe, Poppy won’t be ready for tondèring in six months. Could there be something … not quite right about her?” Awkward words, inadequate. So unjust to her Poppy. Maura flushed.
Genevieve’s tone was cold. “Tondère? Surely Daniel told you there’ll be none of that for Poppy.”
“No tondère?” Maura was at a loss, unbalanced. “No ceremony, I knew that. But … how …?”
“Poppy is a baby, Mora.” Genevieve spoke slowly. Maura tried not to mind that she still mispronounced her name. “A toddler. She is a perfect baby, and will remain a perfect baby her entire life. Your job, you know, is to make sure she staysbright and sweet, interested and engaged. There’s no question of tondèring. She won’t grow, not really. She’s got everything she needs. We’ll care for her all her life, with your help.”
Maura sagged against a ledge. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, she thought, all the pieces were there. They have the technology, though surely it was illegal to use it like this. Same as the puppies and kittens, Poppy’s genes had been manipulated to mould her body as well as her mind. She would remain tiny. And pretty: no unsightly slack jaw or mongoloid features for Daniel and Genevieve’s EverBaby. A child they could play with – maybe even love – who would never reach the terrible twos, or read a book, or tie her shoes.
Poppy called out “Mamaura!” from across the room. She had scooped up the orange kitten, and was trying to fix a hat on its head. Maura helped, and loosened Poppy’s grip round the little animal.
Maybe it’s good they breed them gentle, she thought. It’s hardly struggling, not even trying to bite. Its claws ended in nubs – another genetic improvement. The cat fell asleep in Poppy’s arms, bonnet tied under its chin, and Maura settled into the armchair. She tucked stray curl ends into loose braids, stroked Poppy’s back, hummed and rocked until she slept, close to Maura’s heart.
What could she give a child with no future, Maura wondered over the following weeks. Poppy had a two-year-old’s mind and body, though she’d lived nearly four years. She’d still be two when the calendar said seven, ten and – if she lived that long – thirteen.
Maura used to explain to parents and hovering tutors that wealdan women nurtured, not a child’s mind, but his spirit, her soul. But she didn’t know if wonderment could be meaningful without understanding. Poppy could make a joyful noise, but would never even remember a tune. Music moved in her, but the toddler body couldn’t execute an arabesque. And her exuberance of play with shapes and patterns and colour would always remain unrefined by technique.
Maura began to use more of the time she spent with Poppy weighing what she saw. Between Poppy’s equipment, and old vidphones and camcorders scrounged from the commtechs, she put together a decent mixing board and vid system. She carefully recorded Poppy’s drumbeats and pot lid clangs, and played them back. She recorded and mixed in hand-claps, and the high tuneless singing the recordings had elicited. Maura and Poppy went through ribbon and fabric scraps, and Maura pulled together the patchwork Poppy had chosen.
Five days after Poppy’s fourth birthday, Maura woke the drowsy baby and took her to the midnight garden where a new moon cast thin light, and sat her on a stool. Maura undid the braids and brushed the brown curls, so they stood out from the child’s sleep-damp scalp.
Maura remembered Jessie, that first child she’d tondèred, her face frozen between horror and self-importance as the scissors snipped around her, red licks standing up on her head. She cut Poppy’s brown curls, though this child was a foot shorter, and unaware. Poppy laughed as hair drifted, and wriggled against the itchiness down her pyjamas.
There was no one to perform the rest of the ceremony. Instead, Maura pulled Poppy to her feet in the moonlight, and slipped a garment over her head. Maura pushed play, and music she’d mixed filled the garden. Poppy tossed her head and bits of hair danced. The child moved her body to her own music; patterns of ribbon and fabric flowed. It was not graceful but full of grace, not beautiful but a thing of beauty. Infused with joy, Poppy danced, and Maura recorded, until the small body was exhausted, and Maura carried her back to bed.
By first light, Maura had folded her blanket and shawl, packed her trunk with the few things she owned. Four blouses, two skirts and the loose blue dress she wore for the ceremony. One pair of pants, besides those she was wearing. A hairbrush. Her one adornment, a string of slippery beads, she left among Poppy’s toys, knowing no-one would remember who it belonged to.
Maura reread her note to Daniel and Genevieve, and pushed send. A much longer one went to Riva, along with the three vids she’d made that night. She had followed Riva’s life and career for fifteen years – dancer, teacher, advocate and adopter of genetic outcasts – and knew that Riva could and would give Poppy what Maura could not.
She posted the vids on Nyoutube5000, then looked at Poppy sleeping. Maura knew her, loved her better than anyone. Genevieve and Daniel might be right in believing there was more she could give, though it was far different than what she thought when she agreed to stay beyond Tondère Moon. Why should she leave? How could she leave?
She could no more articulate the reasons than Poppy could explain the whys and hows of her dance. But she thought she knew why leave-taking was always just before dawn, in this grey dimness.
I can’t see your face, my sweet Poppy. I won’t rouse you. I couldn’t bear to unwind your small arms from my neck, sore-throated sobs echoing in my chest. You are too little to burden with farewells. I’ll look at you in shadow, touch your new short hair, your cheek, a touch I know will not make you stir or open your eyes.
Where you lie, the green comforter knotted in your fist, your breath sleep-warm, you could be Susan or Shanti, Antoinette or Eldridge, Riva or Luke. Jason, Aaron or Jessie. Children of mine no longer, once Tondère Moon is past. My children nonetheless. Too much my own to belong to anyone else.
They all went on in the world without me, as you will, though your way will be different.
I have no souvenirs of my children. For years I carried a lock of Jessie’s red hair. When I finally let those strands take the wind they were faded, nothing of Jessie left in them. Aaron was my child then, my last one before you, and he helped me break open my locket of shell, scatter dry scraps of Jessie’s hair. I put on a brave face, made a game of it. Aaron laughed as we threw our hands in the air.
Sometimes I see my children, all grown up, or words they’ve written, on the public screens. I can’t help but wonder if they remember, or yearn for the arms that rocked them, the voice that sang to them, scolded them.
You are yawning, Poppy, starting to stretch and turn. I leave you now, child. I take nothing to remember you by.
*Previously published in Room Issue 32.2 (Vancouver, 2009)
Frances Boyle is the author of Tower, a Rapunzel-inspired novella (2018, Fish Gotta Swim Editions) and has three other books (two poetry and one short stories) published or upcoming. Her writing has appeared in anthologies and in print and online journals throughout Canada and in the U.S. She has recent work in Augur Magazine, Rogue Agent, Barren, The New Quarterly, antilang, Harbor Review, untethered and The Literary Review of Canada. Visit www.francesboyle.com for more.