"There you are," The woman One murmured as she bent down to sow her seed. Her chances were better with seeds than babies; fewer of them died after touching her. She thought maybe murmuring helped. "You'll be fine."
His blade glinting in the sun, her male guard stepped closer. The stick in his hand also held promise, though not an immediate threat. Unlike some, he didn't seem to be the violent type. He'd never hit her for the fun of it, like some. Glancing into his face, she glimpsed his eyes observing her. Light brown, thickly lashed. Memory clawed at the back of her mind, but she pushed it away. And besides, her guard had never hit her before. She was too careful, too tidy, and he now walked further behind her than the other guards.
Sometimes she even saluted him as she worked, out of respect. Once, she wondered if she had seen a hint of a nod in her direction.
A gust of wind swirled past them, picking up loose earth, and suddenly dust covered his face like a shroud. Covered all of them in the field, men and women alike. She looked away from his face and noticed their red and blue flag whipping around high above them like a god.
Patting the soil over the seed with maternal tenderness, the woman One straightened, before moving along her tidy row, counting her seeds as she walked: "One, two, three, four, break, five" until she got to thirty. Each row had thirty.
Plucking another seed out of her apron, holding it between her forefinger and thumb, she murmured: "And you too. You'll be fine too." She walked forward and bent straight down again. The odour of newly laid fertiliser coated her nose. The bones of the dead recycled. "There's always a little bit of death mixed in to help you live," she said softly to her seeds. "Grow strong. You'll be fine."
Thuuuckkk. The thick sound of wood hitting bone. Hard. She'd heard it to the left of her.
"Plleeaassse! Stoppp!" a high pitched shriek sounded in response, followed by a second thwaack. Then silence.
A small figure lay on the ground, her hat a few feet in front and hair a riot around her, like worms escaping into the soil. Face down and unmoving. The guard nudged her with his stick. Nothing. He nudged her again. The other women had paused in their work, silent now, watching. None of them moved. After another nudge, the guard took aim and hit her across the legs, once, twice, three times, hard.
Thwack! Thwack! Her body bounced with each hit. One more. Thwack. He paused. Every woman waited. One second. Two. Three. Then, the woman moved, slowly, achingly. This girl, unlike some, got to her knees. Tears and blood stained her face. The woman One stepped carefully over her seeds to help her up. The guards didn't stop her because she'd been there so long. She helped the woman up, though she never could quite look into her eyes. "You'll be fine, you'll be fine," the woman One murmured to her as well. "There you are. Carry on." The younger woman peered at the woman One, then let go of her arm, swaying, her grey dress smeared with earth and fertiliser. She looked at her rows, then at the woman One, before turning and limping back to her task. The rest of the women went back to their work, and perhaps faster too: bending, planting and straightening, like willows bent to the will of the hot wind.
Carefully, noting this woman's crooked seed row, the woman One stepped back into her row, reflected on how young these women were. Some still children even. Perhaps they'd skipped the birthing cycle altogether, the woman One considered.
Another memory shot into her mind faster than she could shut it. In it, she lay on her birthing bed, panting heavily as another contraction built. She could feel the baby inside her moving down her body. The pain almost overwhelmed, but she'd done this enough to stop the panic that came to first timers. Grit and bear it--bear out this child or die. The pain crested, and she inhaled and exhaled sharply. Suddenly the head was there; she could feel it and knew that, although it felt impossible, in the next instant, it would emerge. One more push. "You'll be fine," she'd murmured to herself. "Keep calm and carry on." She'd stopped screaming after her third baby. Too many screams had killed them, she'd been told. Or she cried too much perhaps. So she murmured. Never loud, never long. Murmuring seemed to help. And this baby, she could feel, was still alive. A good result, after long last, and a reason she'd finally be able to stop.
Jolted back to the present, she felt a nudge behind her, the stick resting on her shoulder, ready to swing if she didn't move faster. Now. She blinked away this memory too.
By midday, she had passed some of the younger women, working fast despite the heat. She almost smiled at this; she used to be able to birth a baby and be up within an hour. Even if it was dead. She pinched another seed, like a little head without a body, between her fingers.
His little brown eyes came to her again, unbidden. Looking up at her from his little baby face, still covered with birthing fluid and blood. Alive! How were his eyes so bright, so light, already? She'd had her allotted hour with her boy, and she'd just watched him, the whole time, in awe.
But it had ended, as she knew it would, and she'd moved on, as she knew she must. Those who didn't or wouldn't were Punished. Immediately.
The memory of yesterday's Punishment flashed into her mind. The woman had been young, only a mere few years in the field. No sun spots on her hands, no wrinkles by her eyes, she must have birthed a live one easily to be out in the fields that young. Anyone looking at her defiant expression knew in an instant why she'd been chosen for Punishment.
The girl's guard pushed her to the front of the sowing field, as was customary before Punishment. The guard held her there, waiting for the other women to gather in silence. On the guard's queue, they all saluted the flag at once, to signal the start.
With a clear voice, the girl spoke the words all women say before the end: “My number is 23333, and I’m here to be punished,” she said. That was all she was supposed to say, the number to send her away. But then the girl continued: “But my name is Anne. My mother named me, as all mothers should." Yes, this girl was from the new wave, where women kept their babies for the first seven years. A new experiment, the woman One knew. What if she could have kept hers awhile? Soft brown eyes blinked through her mind again and she shook her head to clear it. The girl kept speaking. "Women, our lives could be better! We don't have to be slaves!" The old woman One swore she could see hope on the younger’s face.
He'd cut this woman’s arms off first, at the shoulder. Blood gushed, and some of the women screamed. The woman One stayed silent. Then the girl's ears were pulled out and cut off, one by one. Tearful sowers tried to turn away, but their guards stepped closer in warning. Everyone must watch or risk their own early Punishment.
The woman One had always watched. The guard had hacked the woman's legs off at the knees next and finally, when the woman was on the bloodied ground, at the mercy of the men with blades, he prepared for the final blow.
Subservient in the end, as all women must be. The woman One knew this.
But then, to everyone’s surprise, she spoke again. Face up, limbless on the ground. But everyone heard: "I will be,” she croaked, paused, took a laboured breath, and finished: “free!" The last word screamed across the fields, soaking each seed with her promise. The woman One wanted to shush her for fear that she'd kill her seeds.
The guard severed her head, and all was silent. The breeze had also died, and the flag hung above her, lifeless for a moment.
That was last night. Before today’s work. She shook her head and plucked another seed from her apron. She noted the waxy, papery appearance of her hands, the veins visible above the skin, and slightly shrivelled appearance. How time flies, she mused, even as she continued to bend, murmur, plant and straighten. She looked back at her guard, who, she noticed, was observing her with interest, arms at his sides.
The sun grew hotter, and sweat dripped down her face. Her guard continued to watch as she worked. She imagined his eyes again, but didn't look this time. Instead, she plucked, bent, sowed, straightened, moved forward a step and repeated the process. “I was born for this,” she murmured to herself by this time of the day. Over and over. “Keep calm and carry on. Keep calm and...." suddenly, she stopped. She straightened. Her hands fell to her sides, seeds spilling onto the soil at her feet. Her son's soft cheeks sprang to view, along with the hands that pulled him away from her. She almost re-felt her broken body's physical response--the agony of loss mingling with the pain of birth. This time, however, she couldn't stitch herself back together. Or maybe, this time she thought, she didn't want to.
She stood like this for an age, or so it felt to her. She heard the flapping of the flag, felt the wind on her face, inhaled the scent of soil and toil, and watched as a few guards turned towards her, eying her with curiosity. She'd never done this before, just stood still, allowing a mess she'd created to go uncleaned.
Her guard stood in front of her, his eyes once more looking at her. She realised in that moment that she'd been wrong before. They weren't light brown like her son's, but rather dark and deep, like the memories she'd buried. "Move," he said, his voice gravelly and overgrown from disuse. "Move now. Murmur like you do and go." He indicated her row with his stick, almost like he didn't want to hit her. She wondered why not. That was his job.
She didn't move.
She looked around her at the other woman, a feeling of complete calm washing over her, like a warm shower she might be able to stand in as long as she liked.
Freedom? Did that woman say before? What did that even mean? Was anything under the flag actually free?
Her guard raised his stick now. She knew what to expect. But he didn't strike. Not yet.
"Why don't you move?" he asked her, almost a whisper. "You're always calm. You're the only woman who can be trusted here," he said. "I don't want to hit you."
She looked at him, at his wind-blown skin, his dusty hair and burned nose. He looked tired, she thought. "Why do you carry on?" she asked before she could stop herself. He looked surprised.
"What do you mean? We all carry on, just like you say to your seeds. Every day."
"Yes, but why? Why not refuse?" Of course, she'd never refused a thing in her life, but for the first time, she wondered.
"I don't have a choice. I don't make the rules," he said to her, low so only she could hear, a plea in his voice.
"Me neither," she said, looking at him still. He looked nervous, eyes now darting around like he knew people watched. And perhaps they did. She suddenly felt very tired. Soul weary tired. The kind of tired that stops time.
The image of that little face sprang into her mind, unbidden. That little face, with those light brown eyes staring at her, trusting her. She wanted to see that face again. She wanted, for the first time in years, and it stopped her.
What might freedom look like?
She turned to her guard, who had now stepped back to break the connection. She saw his arm raise. “I am ready to be free,” she said simply. She took off her hat, pulled her limp hair to the side of her wrinkled neck and bent over. Her scattered seeds stared up at her like little faces. She was so tired. Life had let her down, she thought. and she suddenly didn't want to carry on anymore. Her last clear thought was of her boy’s beautiful bright brown eyes, and that maybe, she'd see him again.