Delta Marsh, November 2051
The three months since the baby died had been a purgatory of waiting. First, for the bleeding to cease, then for grief to stop sawing at her bones like a rusty cleaver. When it was done, it settled inside Tess’s flesh as unwanted weight she would never shed. Later, a brief, ephemeral hope hung before her like a white cloud, only to be blown away by more waiting: For two weeks, she had to take those damned herbs, or Pablo would barely touch her.
The tiresome waiting plagued Tess each day: as she pumped water from the well; when she sat in at the Council meeting where they declared a long storm was coming, maybe the biggest in years; when she hammered dead a grayish rat she found burrowing inside a sack of potatoes in the basement; when she lay next to Pablo at night, wishing he would do more than kiss her and stroke her back. Tonight, the two weeks, the waiting, were ending. The moon would be close to full, too, and Tess silently prayed as she knelt in her garden that afternoon, picking purslane: Let my womb be open and wide as the moon.
Then, a light mist began to dampen her face and hands, then shifted into a light drizzle. Tess sat back on her heels, her eyes catching a sliver of rainbow into the sky, and almost began to weep. A jolt of panic streaked through her. Now I have to hurry. Senny, her five-year-old daughter, whose hair was black and glossy as raven wing, stood and gazed at the sky.
“Mommy!” She raised her small palms in a gesture both joyful and prayerful. But as much as Tess wished it, there was no time now to dance in the rain.
“Let’s finish,” Tess said, moving her hands faster. That was life at Delta Marsh: so much waiting and waiting, then a sudden change—rainclouds gathered, or lightning cracked the sky in half, and then everything had to move fast fast fast.
“You know what this means, right?”
Senny stared at Tess. “We got to move down to Circle House?”
“Yes. And what does that mean?”
The girl’s brows tried to touch each other in the smooth space above her nose.
“Means we need food,” she concluded. She’d always been a fast learner. She copied Tess, pulling the small tender leaves and stems off the low bush more quickly.
A muted anxiety tightened Tess’s throat. She might only have a day or two alone with Pablo now, and then they’d have to sleep in the same bed with Senny—not to mention in the same big room with the rest of the village—at the Circle House. No privacy. She mentally revised her list of chores for the day: Start packing the cans. Fetch the sleeping pads, tarps and duffel bags from the basement. Bring Senny over to the Wongs’s. Make dinner. Make tea. Wash my face, my privates. Change clothes.
Once they were finished, they went in and put dry clothes on, then raincoats before they ran to the Wongs’s house across the road. The rain came in fatter drops now.
“Everything all right?” asked Rose Wong, whom the villagers called Mama Rose. It wasn’t unusual for Senny to sleepover, but Tess usually let Mama Rose know first. Senny took off her raincoat and ran inside to play with the other children.
“I just need a night alone with Pablo,” Tess said, and though the old woman just nodded, Tess felt silent questions being thrown at her back as she ran back home. But Tess didn’t owe her any explanation. This was her decision.
When Tess got home, she put a pot of cold beans on the hotplate and changed into her favorite dress, the one with yellow flowers. Outside, the sun was setting, the full moon rising opposite it in the sky. When a village truck pulled up in front of the house, she went out onto the porch and watched Pablo get out of it before it pulled away into the night. He stomped up the steps, the pleasant curve of his full-lipped mouth greeting her. They’d been getting along lately, because Tess was tired of fighting, and because honey was better than vinegar. As the truck drove off, she knelt to help him remove his muddy boots and pants until he stood in front of her in only his shorts and undershirt.
“Did you get much done?” she asked.
“Managed to shore up the levee a few extra feet before the rain started. They say this storm could last at least a week.”
“So, this is it.”
“Most likely. We might even get enough water to get through summer. Probably have to move down to Circle House tomorrow.”
Tess’s heart was making big swoops in her chest, like a bird riding up and down unstable air currents. Everything was happening at once, moving fast. It had to be a sign. She looked up, saw Pablo’s head tipped back, eyes closed. She hoped he wasn’t too tired. “Senny’s at the Wongs’s for the night.”
Pablo gave her a once over but went and changed into clean clothes as usual before coming back to sit at the kitchen table. Tess filled his bowl with warm beans and greens.
“They came and took the last of the eggs down to the Circle House,” she explained.
Pablo nodded and took a bite of his food.
“Mm, it’s warm,” he said, exhaling with satisfaction. “Feels good.”
Pablo ate quickly, hungrily, while Tess ate slowly, her stomach quivering. Maybe he’d just want to go to sleep, or maybe he’d tell her it was still too soon. Maybe he didn’t want her that way anymore. He had other women, as was his right—as it was hers to have lovers if she wanted to—but Pablo said she was the only one he loved, and she believed him.
After dinner, Tess stood and took his hand, leading him the short distance from the kitchen to the bedroom, where a minty scent filled the air.
“Sleep already?” he said. Tess pulled him close and kissed him, sucking lightly on his lower lip as if it was a rare, juicy peach.
“Not sleep,” she said. Tess picked up her cup of tea from the nightstand. Through the bedroom window, the full moon rose bright and white behind the rain.
“I been drinking this stuff for two weeks. Wild carrot seed, pennyroyal.” She didn’t say that she’d added damiana leaves to counter the contraceptive effect of the other herbs. It might not work, but she was desperate.
Pablo’s eyes flicked to the calendar on the wall, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. He wet his lips. Tess put her cup down and kissed him again, felt his tongue push into her mouth. It had been six months—the three months they’d known she was pregnant, then ten weeks to let her heal, and finally two more weeks to let the herbs take effect—the longest they’d gone without being together. Soon they were naked, Tess arching her back against Pablo’s body, grateful for his molten hardness inside her, for the sting of his teeth on her shoulder. His thrusts burned the flesh between her legs, but she didn’t care, just wanted him to fill the emptiness inside her.
Her moans became sharp gasps as his thrusts got faster, and Pablo grunted in her ear, “You all right?”
“Don’t stop,” she said, sensing he was close, moving her hips in that way that she knew would push him over the edge. Then, he suddenly moved away, groaning loudly, pulling himself out of her body, finishing himself. She turned around, saw his milky seed spilled on his belly. The life in him, wasted.
“What’d you do that for?”
“Better to be careful,” Pablo said, finding a rag to clean himself.
“But I want—I need—” she stuttered, the aching emptiness reclaiming her body. He reached out to pleasure her, but Tess refused. She couldn’t tell him that she didn’t care about that, only wanted a baby. She laid her head on his chest.
“You know what could happen if you get pregnant again, Tess. I don’t want to lose you.”
Water staccatoed against their thin metal roof. Anger and grief folded together and prickled Tess’s skin, but since this would likely be their last night alone together before the move to the Circle House, she kept her peace.
“I love you,” Pablo said, words neither of them spoke often. This cut her anger in half, made her feel as if she were falling slowly through space. It had been the same two weeks before, when he’d said I don’t want to lose you while pouring the tea for her. Pablo had refused to even kiss Tess until she drank it.
“I love you too,” she said back, dizzied by the contradictory emotions that battled inside her body. After a while, she started to weep, but quietly, for Pablo was as tired of her sadness as she was. She grabbed his hand, hoping he would smooth her hair away from her face, but by the steady rise and fall of his chest, Tess knew that he was already asleep.
* * *
It had been the height of summer when Mama Rose—who was her closest neighbor and the village midwife—told Tess with a smile, “The barley seeds sprouted.”
At thirty-six, Tess was well past childbearing prime, but she was pregnant. A near miracle. She already had Senny—whose father had died in the big flood three years earlier. Pablo cared for Senny but had no body-born children of his own, so when he found out, he climbed up onto the roof of the Circle House, cupped his hands around his mouth and screamed, I’m going to be a Daddy!
Some Elders heard him and shook their heads, but everyone else congratulated Tess and Pablo both, happy for some excitement to break up the monotony of chores and heat. The two smiled for days, even in their sleep. Senny bragged to the other children that soon she’d have a sibling. Tess ate well, got plenty of rest, went on a daily walk, and visualized her child being born full-term, rosy-cheeked and wailing. Mama Rose checked her often, gave her a mild decoction of raspberry leaf tea to strengthen her womb.
But, three months later, it still happened. First, the belly-twisting cramps, then the blood, then the hours of contractions and pushing, just like when Senny was born. But it was far too soon. On a cool September morning, Tess gave birth to her baby boy, his caul covering him like a shroud. There was no shrill wail or flailing limbs. Only Tess’s heavy breathing and Pablo staring dumbly at his firstborn child lying dead on her belly. Tess picked up the baby and caressed his rosy, dark skin, his unmoving cheek. She didn’t scream, knowing it wouldn’t breathe life into his tiny body. Only an hour later—when Mama Rose noticed crimson blood soaking the sheets and said Let Pablo hold him for a while—did Tess shout and shriek, refusing to let the baby go.
“I’ll hold him,” Pablo said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Tess released the baby and let Mama Rose stitch her, but she bled so much that the old woman feared she’d die, too.
“In the old days, I’d have pharma meds to stop the bleeding,” Mama Rose said. Breastfeeding another baby could help shrink Tess’s empty womb and lessen the bleeding, but there hadn’t been a live birth in the village in over a year—and that child had lived only three days. So Mama Rose asked half a dozen households in the village to brew raspberry leaf, yarrow and nettle tea, made Tess drink so much of it that she began to hate its woodsy smell. Pablo took a crew to the marsh to hunt ducks, whose fatty flesh would build Tess’s blood. Senny stared at her Mommy, fear making her little chest heave in short bursts until Mama Rose calmed her. They all prayed to whatever god or goddess they worshipped for Tess’s full and complete recovery.
A few days later, Tess’s bleeding slowed, and the milky pallor of her flesh warmed back to its normal golden brown. Another week, and she was able to walk to the outhouse by herself, though she did so only reluctantly. Mostly, she lay in bed, staring off into space and mourning the baby boy whose burning ceremony she’d attended while laying on a stretcher.
Tess and Pablo named him Amado. Beloved.
* * *
Overnight, the storm had filled all the cisterns outside every house in the village and hadn’t stopped coming down. The alarm bell sounded from the Circle House, two loud gongs that meant: Time to move.
The villagers’ relief that they would have another season’s worth of food began to get crowded out by fear of what a too-long storm could do: spoil their crops, damage their homes, drown any living thing that was too stupid or slow to get out of its way.
Tess went to fetch Senny at Mama Rose’s so that they could all finish packing. They worked until sweat dampened their flesh despite the chill in the air, the steady streaming the water falling on the roof their marching orders. When he was done, Pablo put on his raincoat.
“Heading down. Have to check the water-catch one last time.”
Tess kissed him on the lips, squeezed his arm. “Be careful.”
“You going to finish my toy soon, Papa?” Senny said. He was whittling her a new toy to help occupy her during the Rains.
“Yes, soon,” he said, kissing the top of her head before he left.
Later, a village truck picked up Tess and Senny and the Wongs, along with their clothes, sleeping things and food-stores. They piled into the truck bed with a dozen others, everyone holding a large tarp above their heads. To calm the children, some of whom were crying, someone started up: Rain rain, sweet and clean, make our crops grow big and green! The whole group joined in. The musk of the bodies pressed against her made Tess feel trapped, so she lifted the edge of the tarp for fresh air. This was the first time she’d been around so many people since the baby. From here on out, she would have no privacy until they came back home.
The truck drove them the three miles to the Circle House, set on a small hill far from the delta waters. It was big enough for the entire village to live in, stocked with water, blankets, food, everything they’d need until the Council determined it was safe to return home. Lines of people, covered by narrow awnings, stretched between five trucks parked around the Circle House like spokes of a giant wheel, all the grown folks helping to unload. Tess sent Senny inside with one of the older children then slipped into a line.
“Good to see you, Sister Tess,” the man next to her said, and others said the same, nodding and smiling.
Tess joined the others in handing sacks down, her anxiety dissolving with the familiarity of collective effort. Handing sacks of nuts and grains assembly-line fashion comforted her. She felt useful. She belonged. And despite the rain, it felt almost like a fiesta, with people joking and laughed, trying to keep their spirits up. But in the backs of their minds were memories of those who had perished in previous years, among them: Tess’s husband Alex, who’d gone to shore up the levees one last time and slipped into the rising marsh waters; Baba Drake who’d gone back home to fetch his guitar and never came back; and the worst of all, two-year-old Shyanne and her mother, whose bodies were found in a pond created by the floodwaters less than twenty feet from their home. No one talked of these lost ones, for fear and sadness was not useful now.
“You seen Pablo?” Tess asked. Someone lifted their chin eastward, another person giggled, a third shushed them. Tess swallowed hard. Looking east through the slanting raindrops, she spotted Pablo’s tall frame standing on a ladder, inspecting the large water-catch on the side of the building. When he jumped down, a woman wearing a blue raincoat was waiting for him with a water bottle, her reddish-brown hair peeking out from beneath her hood.
Gloria. Jealousy buzzed behind Tess’s eyes. She squinted to get a better look. Had Gloria changed how she wore her hair? No, that was the same ponytail. Still, she looked different. Maybe it was that she was smiling so broadly—she wasn’t prone to doing so—as she handed the water bottle to Pablo and lifted her face for a kiss. Pablo took a long draw from the bottle but turned away and went quickly back up the ladder. Tess grinned at this small proof that he belonged to her, kept handing the heavy sacks of beans and teff down the line, from left to right, her movements steady, efficient.
* * *
Not long after the baby’s birth, pairs of mothers would come at Tess’s house each day and take care of her. Most of them had lost at least one child—to miscarriage or stillbirth, to drowning or dry-year hunger. They knew what she needed, even if she didn’t. They coaxed her to eat, massaged her, sang songs of mourning and motherlove, entertained her with village chisme: how Juni Garcia chased away a coyote attempting to eat her chickens; how the youngest Kassa boy fell asleep in the middle of the teff fields until someone tripped over him. They avoided gossip about romance or sex. Tess began to laugh occasionally, which made the mothers glance at each other knowingly.
Once she was sitting up again, Tess asked Mama Rose when she could try for another baby. Another child would not erase her grief, but they might blunt the sharpness that made her feel cut open each time she inhaled. As if she’d been waiting for the question, the old woman took a green sack tied with white string.
“We’re lucky this baby made it as far as he did, love. Lucky you’re still alive.” The old woman set the sack in Tess’s hands, folded her own over them and exhaled. “I don’t tell you this lightly. No more babies, love. Senny needs you.”
Tess’s crying spells worsened. At first, Pablo stayed by her side, caressing her forehead, letting her sleep in the crook of his arm at night. But after a week of nearly endless weeping, he’d tell her, I need to fix the dredging tractor or the catchment at the Circle House is leaking, or, they need me at the Garcia’s and would stay away for hours, then a whole day, then a full night, hardly able to carry the weight of his own grief, let alone tend to hers.
One morning, when Pablo was gone and Tess was in the outhouse, she heard the day’s mothers walking up the road towards the house, gossiping.
They said Brandon doesn’t want to share Kim with Pablo, but the Elders say he can’t stop her if that’s what she wants.
Of course he can’t. Especially now that Tess lost her baby and no one else even been pregnant this year.
Brandon said he’d get his shotgun if he found Kim and Pablo together.
Council should take his gun away then. Pablo just doing his duty. Course, it don’t hurt that he’s easy on the eyes.
Gloria’s trying to catch Pablo, too. She said Pablo’s the only man she wants to make a baby with. And you know how Gloria gets when she wants something.
Poor Pablo. Good-looking and strong as he is, and not one body-born child living. If Tess wasn’t so sensitive, he’d a-had at least one by now.
Tess winced at this last line, standing hidden inside the outhouse. She figured Pablo hadn’t been spending his time away just working, but her grief had taken up so much energy she hadn’t even thought about how many women he might be sleeping with. Holding her breath, she braced herself before opening the door of the outhouse. Just then, the mothers reached her fence, and started at the sight of her.
“Sister Tess! You scared us!” one laughed, her hand fluttering to her mouth.
“Did you eat breakfast yet, hermana? We brought you some nice goat stew,” the other said, a wide grin lighting up her face. They all went inside, and Tess let them fawn and fuss over her. After she ate the stew, she went back to bed, leaving the women in the other room. She lay back, the idea of Gloria or Kim getting pregnant by Pablo bringing a dull throbbing to her eyes. She pulled the covers over herself, but before she fell asleep, Senny came into the room.
“Mommy, can I show you something?”
Tess nodded, patting the bed next to her. Senny jumped up, holding a piece of paper with all capital letters drawn on it, wobbly but legible: I LOVE M O M M Y
“Who taught you this?” Tess said, drawing her daughter close. Her hair smelled of rosemary and lavender.
“Papa Pablo,” she said, and Tess began to cry. It was too much for her to hold in. She grabbed Senny against her body and held her so tight that the little girl said, “Mommy, that hurts.”
“I’m sorry, baby,” Tess said, releasing her and wiping the wetness from her face. “Come on, lay next to Mommy.”
Senny lay down in bed next to her for the rest of the morning. She read a book to her did her best not to cry anymore.
Mama Rose was wrong, Tess thought. It’s not Senny that needs me, it’s me that needs her.
* * *
Sharing was a fact of life at Delta Marsh. It served multiple purposes: Helped make sure the village’s population wouldn’t dwindle and die; it kept people content when there was not much else to do but work, sleep, eat and work again. Tess, however, was one of the last holdouts of true monogamy. Sensitive, people called her. She’d always been this way.
Still, Sharing had rules, since the Council knew without them the village might descend into chaos: politeness, communication and respect for all partners was paramount. Pablo had to be honest if Tess asked him where he’d been those nights he was away, though he wasn’t required to volunteer the information automatically. Since Tess didn’t ask, Pablo didn’t say. The mothers’ chisme had been more than enough information for Tess. She wasn’t ready yet for more.
So, once Tess was well enough and the mothers stopped coming by, she and Pablo and Senny did their best to retreat into the comfortable groove of normalcy—chores, meals, working in the fields or at the levees, teaching Senny her letters, reading to her, sleeping, waking up, doing it all over again.
Though more than once, Senny looked back and forth between them at the mostly silent dinner table and asked, Why aren’t you talking?
We’re tired, one or both of them would say, their mouths tight and unsmiling, and Tess knew by the way Senny tilted her head that even she knew it was a lie.
* * *
One night, near the end of fall harvest, Pablo came home from working in the fields. Tess welcomed him with an obligatory kiss, her hand grazing the sleeve of his gray T-shirt. It had been torn when he’d left that morning, but now the seam was stitched perfectly.
“You sew this?” Tess asked. “Thought you wanted me to do it.”
Pablo took the shirt off quickly and threw it into the laundry basket.
“Gloria did it, during siesta. When I woke up, she was finished.”
Senny was outside, and Tess didn’t was tired of the silence that filled the space between them.
“Is that who you were with, when you weren’t coming home?” she asked.
Pablo sat down on the bed, and barely opened his mouth when he spoke.
“One of them, yes.”
“You’re trying to replace Amado already, is that it?”
Pablo’s face looked so hard she thought it might crack if she slapped him hard enough.
“What do you want from me, Tess? To sit here and cry with you? I can’t do it.”
“So fucking other people is your way of grieving?”
“That’s not it. I just—I don’t know—” His stood, fists tightened, and went to the kitchen.
“So those nights you didn’t come home, were you with Gloria? Or Kim?”
“You really want to know?”
Just then, Senny came into the house, the door left open behind her. “Why’re you yelling?”
Tess took a deep breath. “We’re not, baby. Why don’t you over to Mama Rose’s?”
“No,” the girl said, standing between them and planting her hands on her hips. “You shouldn’t fight.”
Pablo and Tess looked at each other, and it was only because Tess didn’t want Senny to see them like this that she let it go. For now. Let their old, familiar silence envelope them. That night in bed, Pablo touched the back of Tess’s neck, but she ignored him. They fell asleep without either of them saying good night.
* * *
After the trucks were unloaded, all the villagers went inside the Circle House, where each family or group finding their own family’s place, a small spot for their things and where they would sleep. Lunch was served and eaten, and then a welcome siesta afterwards. An hour later, Tess woke and sat up, looking around the big, round room full of people. Some sat or laid on sleeping pads or cots, others stood and talked to each other, still others unpacked and set up their living area. Tess searched for Gloria, who was standing in the middle of the room on the small platform that acted as a stage of sorts during meetings and gatherings. It was easy to spot her because she was the only person in the village with that reddish-brown hair, so different than Tess’s blue-black tresses. Was that what Pablo liked about her?
Gloria was talking to Mama Rose, who handed her a purple thermos. They smiled and laughed out loud—spontaneous, joyful laughter. Mama Rose opened her arms wide and hugged Gloria. Tess narrowed her eyes at them as they embraced, but Senny’s voice interrupted her.
“Mommy, I’m hungry.” She sat up next to Tess and rubbed her eyes with her fists. Tess gave Senny a dried fig from her bag. Soon Pablo was awake, too, and he took out his knife to work on the toy he was whittling for Senny, who sat and watched him expectantly, as if the toy would be done faster if she willed it so. Tess began unpacking, folding and stacking their clothes at the head of their makeshift bed—a low wooden platform with their sleeping pads on top. This calmed her despite the buzz of human noise around her, the yawning, burping, chatter and laughter, and despite the unappealing mix of smells—the bean-and-onion aroma left over from lunch, a whiff of other people’s funk—in the stuffy room.
Before long, Gloria approached them, clearing her throat.
“Pablo, I need you,” she said, avoiding Tess’s eyes, the purple thermos tucked under her arm. Tess glared at Pablo, who frowned at Gloria.
“Good afternoon, Gloria,” Tess said, stepping forward and purposely leaving out the customary Sister. “Senny, say hello.”
“Hello, Auntie Gloria,” the girl said dutifully.
Pablo put down the toy and his carving knife. “Que pasa?”
“I need to talk to you,” Gloria said, still ignoring Tess and Senny. Tess was stunned. So disrespectful. I should tell Council.
Pablo got up with a sigh.
“Be right back,” he said, kissing Tess on the cheek. He and Gloria left and went outside. Tess was glad that Gloria hadn’t kissed Pablo or tried to hold his hand in front of her, or she would’ve lost it. Instead, she sent Senny off to the children’s corner so that she could focus on unpacking. When she finished arranging their clothes at the head of the bed, she put a small board on top of them as a small table for their meals. The rain had slowed by the time she was finished, so Tess headed towards the covered porch to get some fresh air. She hadn’t gotten far before Pablo appeared, grabbing her arm.
“I have to tell you something.”
Just then, a commotion rose in the middle of the room, happy shouts and clapping. Tess turned and saw Gloria standing on the little stage, starting the unity clap. Others joined in on the building, steady rhythm, calling everyone to come close.
“Gather around,” Gloria called, grinning. “Come closer! We’ve got some good news to share—me and Pablo.”
A crowd of people came in from outside, and those that were already inside moved towards Gloria. Pablo pulled Tess towards the door, but she could barely move. Her whole body felt simultaneously raw and numb, as if her nerves had been siphoned out of her flesh.
“Tess, let’s go outside.”
Her feet seemed stuck to the floor, and the room wavered around her, as if they were all underwater. But the drizzling sound meant that that wouldn’t be possible if the flood had already come and drowned them all. Pablo kept pulling her towards the door and a cold draft brought Tess back to herself.
“We wanted to tell folks now that we’re all together,” Gloria shouted, waving Pablo over. Several people turned to look at him and Tess, but he made a little waving gesture and kept moving towards the door. Tess let him take her, everything falling into place in her mind, like puzzle pieces sliding together: Mama Rose hugging Gloria, the thermos, Gloria’s rudeness, how she seemed different, prettier. Glowing.
The villagers stirred and shifted towards the center of the room, curious and excited, but nausea swelled in Tess’s belly. She covered her mouth and ran to the door, not waiting for Gloria’s announcement. She already knew what it was. Outside, the air was cold and damp. Tess bent over the porch railing and opened her mouth, dry heaving, trying to expel the nausea from her body, but nothing came out. Her relief that everyone was inside and only Pablo would see her like this was tempered by the knowledge of why they were all inside to begin with.
Pablo appeared beside her, tried to lift her up.
“Fuck you,” she said, swatting his hands away.
“You selfish shit.”
Anger announced itself in her words, her body, bringing heat and purpose to her limbs, her flesh. Pablo grabbed her arms and turned her to face him, his face wet, it seemed, from the rain, but the porch was covered and dry. Tess had only seen Pablo cry one other time: at Amado’s burning ceremony.
“This isn’t how I wanted it to happen.” Pablo’s eyes probed hers, searching for permission, perhaps, or forgiveness. Tess realized that he was holding onto her as much to keep himself, not just her, from falling onto the ground. His weeping made her anger break into jagged pieces and liquefy. They still had the memory of those three months of ignorant, joyful hope, and of their later shared grief, even if neither of them could control this memory or diminish its power over them. Tess let Pablo to press his face against her neck so that his tears slicked her skin. She slipped her arms around his body, surrendering. The rain peppered the metal awning above them, but it didn’t drown out the cheer that rose inside the Circle House at Gloria’s good news.
* * *
There was nowhere else to go but back inside. Tess resisted the urge to take Senny and go back to their house, thinking, We’re on higher ground out there, more than a mile from the shore, but then she remembered little drowned Shyanne, and Alex, her dead husband , and all the others. So instead, she clenched her jaw into something like a smile. Once they were back in the main room—which was warm and stuffy and full of people laughing and crying and talking as if they were the ones pregnant and not just Gloria—she relinquished Pablo to Gloria. The other woman beamed and laughed, as happy as Tess had been when she’d found out she was pregnant—and to the villagers, who congratulated Pablo, slapping him on the back, saying Good job. Pablo smiled and put on a good show. Otherwise, people would say he was ungrateful for his blessings and inviting bad luck again.
Only Mama Rose acknowledged Tess, finding her and holding out her hands. All the others left her alone, though Tess felt their eyes bearing down on her.
“You all right, love?” The old woman’s eyes shone with empathy.
Tess nodded stiffly. “I just wish this wasn’t happening right now, when I can’t be in my own home.”
Mama Rose pulled her in for an embrace, and Tess smelled mint and ginger on her clothes.
“Do you want some anxiety herbs? They won’t interfere with the other medicine I gave you.” The old woman looked pointedly at Tess’s belly.
“I’m not going to drink that stuff anymore,” Tess said defiantly.
Mama Rose’s smile uncurved. “The pennyroyal? Did you tell Pablo?”
“Doesn’t my body belong to me?” Tess’s breath got caught in the back of her throat, a trapped hummingbird.
“Yes, your body is your own,” the old woman said. “But what about Senny? What if you get pregnant and get sick, or worse? You’d leave your only child without a body-borne parent?”
Tess blinked back the water in her eyes, glad the nausea from earlier didn’t return. She looked away from Mama Rose.
“It’s going to be all right, love,” the old woman said.
Just then, Senny ran over, red-cheeked and jumping up and down as if there were springs in her feet.
“Mommy, am I going to have a baby sibling?”
Tess turned and walked back to their sleeping place, and heard Mama Rose behind her telling Senny, “You have to pray for the baby, okay? Pray that they are born healthy, safe and strong.”
* * *
Later, Tess, Pablo and Senny sat together and ate dinner at the tiny table Tess had set up near their bed. Not more than thirty feet away, on the stage-like dais from which she’d made her announcement, Gloria sat with a circle of people around her. They touched her belly, talked to her, no doubt offering pregnancy advice. This would be Gloria’s first child, too. If all went well.
Tess had finished her food when someone yelled Get a bucket! And she looked towards the sound, saw Gloria grimacing, her hands covering her mouth. Tess’s heart beat faster. Mama Rose appeared with a basin and a towel, and Gloria leaned over it, retching.
“Disgusting,” Tess said out loud, hoping the smell wouldn’t reach where they sat. She turned to Pablo. “Shouldn’t you go over there?”
He shrugged. “What can I do? Mama Rose is with her. And I told Gloria I wanted to eat dinner with my family. She didn’t like that, but it’s my right.”
The firmness in his voice surprised her, and Tess leaned over and kissed his cheek. He smelled like mint, too, like Mama Rose had. Probably from being around Gloria earlier. No doubt the old woman—who was leading Gloria away to clean up—had given her peppermint and maybe some ginger if she’d found some, for the nausea.
After dinner, Tess taught Senny and a few of the other children a basic grass-weaving pattern, grateful that the act made them focus so intently that they barely talked about Gloria’s baby or anything else. Outside, the rain drummed down furiously, and Tess hoped it would ease soon, or Senny might have a hard time falling asleep. While her hands worked, Tess felt the ever-present sadness within her, the aching longing for her own baby, her Amado, to be in her arms right now, and the familiar bile-like jealousy. But she felt another, different current of energy now, warm and welcome: Rage. It simmered in her belly, melting the icy edges of her grief, making it more bearable. Or was it just the heat from the big fireplace on the other side of the big room?
Her plan formed almost effortlessly in her mind, and the welcome rage in her gut comforted her, eclipsing her sadness.
* * *
As Senny and Pablo settled into bed, Tess took out the green pouch of herbs Mama Rose had given her. She had enough to last another week. Auspiciously, pennyroyal and peppermint tasted similar, though their effects were very different. For such a sweet-tasting herb, pennyroyal was aggressive, stimulating blood flow to the womb. In large doses, it could cause bleeding, miscarriage. Tess had only been brewing a small amount each night, not enough to cause any bleeding, just enough to keep her from conceiving. She had more than enough to do what needed to be done.
She never slept well the first few nights at Circle House, so it was easy to wait for the bedtime stories for the children to end, for the drinking games to die down. She lay in bed, feigning sleep, until all she heard were loud snores and the steady rush of the storm outside. Sensing she was the only one awake in the big room, she lifted Pablo’s arm off her body. He was a heavy sleeper, but Senny was not, and during the Rains she often woke up at night. But she was worn out from the full day of activity and excitement, and her chest rose and fell in a regular rhythm. She had fallen asleep with her half-finished wooden toy—a small bird with a back curved like a smile—in her hands. Tess resisted the urge to take it away from her.
Tess got up. It had to be past midnight, but the full moon sent enough light through the windows for Tess to find her way to Gloria’s sleeping place—a narrow mattress, a luxury, on the little stage. Wide bands of bright, cool moonlight striped across sleeping bodies as Tess picked her away around them, transferring her weight slowly, careful to avoid making the floorboards creak. If anyone woke up, she would head straight to the bathroom.
Tess reached the dais and stepped onto it, holding her breath. The platform creaked loudly. She froze, glancing down at where Gloria slept a few feet away, her reddish hair shining in a triangle of moonlight, the purple thermos near her head. Tess took two more steps forward, then bent over for the thermos, watching Gloria’s face. In slumber, the woman’s earlier glow had faded. Now, her eyes were puffy, as if she’d been crying, and she slept with one hand on the tiny swell of her belly, as if already trying to protect her baby.
Seeing Gloria asleep and vulnerable jarred images loose in Tess’s mind: How Pablo had shouted on the very roof above them, how her body had pushed the baby out no matter how much she wanted to keep him inside. How he emerged from her body in a warm rush of amniotic fluid and blood. How still he was, so still. How Pablo’s face fell when he saw—he was dumbfounded, mouth slack, eyes wide and unbelieving. And afterwards, how she cried herself to sleep so that when she woke, her eyes were so swollen and raw that sunlight coming through her bedroom window seemed to burn them. When Tess had looked at herself in a mirror then, the flesh around her eyes was red, raw—like Gloria’s, now.
The rain continued to rush down outside. Relentless. There was nothing they could do but endure it. Tess became utterly immobile, like a wild animal listening for a predator. She was here, she was so close. If she didn’t do it right now, she might not get another chance.
A rustling sound made her look up. It wasn’t Gloria, who still slept. It came from her bed, where she’d left her family. Even in the darkness, Tess recognized the dark outline of her, sitting up, turning around, looking for her. Senny.
At the sound of her daughter’s voice, the paralysis drained away from Tess’s body. She stood, raised her head and shook it. Senny said Mommy again, more loudly. Tess walked away from the center of the room and back to her daughter, knowing that Senny needed her nearby if she was going to be able to go back to sleep.
Rona Fernandez is a writer, dancer, activist-fundraiser, wife and #stillmother, and a child of the Bay living in Oakland, California. Her work has appeared in the Rumpus, the Colored Lens, Apparition Lit and the groundbreaking anthology, What God is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color. An alumna of the Macondo, Tin House and VONA/Voices fiction workshops, Rona is currently working on a near-future climate fiction novel set in Northern California. Find more from her on Twitter @ronagirl.