Esther Devitto is the kind of liar who will not give up even when the facts do not match the story she is telling. She spent the nine months of her daughter’s formation telling anyone who would listen that the baby was her husband’s child. She spoke that lie so many times that she began to believe it herself. Esther wanted to believe it. She knew, just as all expectant mothers in the Nation did, that the life of her unborn child did not rest with her. And so she lied to make her baby more attractive to the people who would make the choice.
That year there was a famine taking its toll on the Nation. People were starving to death. Being a small child in the Nation was more precarious than it had ever been. There were new rules pertaining to population control. Esther could not afford to let her baby appear unfit or undeserving for the task of living. And so she lied through her teeth, claiming that her husband, who had died six months before the conception of the baby she now carried, was somehow the father. Everyone knew that she was not telling the truth, none of her story added up. But she held fast to the story she’d created and to the hope that her last name would be enough.
The sixty-fourth day of Rain Season bloomed colder than normal, the raindrops mixing with tiny snowflakes as they pelted against the windows of the only clinic in Camatheia. Esther wished someone would open the window to let the clean breeze in. The room was small and cramped with medical equipment, two nurses and a doctor. The stench of sickness, disinfectant and rubber gloves burnt her nose. She was overheated to the point of pure exhaustion, so much so that sweat caused the pillowcase propping her up to stick to her back. She secretly feared it might rip the skin off if she moved too much. Every bone, joint and muscle in her body ached from continuous strain.
She truly began to believe that there was no end in sight and that she would just continue this way for the rest of eternity, laboring but never delivering. Then there was one last push, a wobbly cry, the quick snip of the umbilical cord – and it was all over. The baby was placed on Esther’s chest, pink and still bloody, but oh so very hers. The delivery room was deathly silent, even the babe seemed to quiet as if she too knew the weight of what was going to occur. It had taken nine months of lying to the people she loved, eleven hours of intense labor and finally the moment of truth had arrived. The nurses had to pry the newborn out of the white knuckled grip of its mother. They gave feeble promises to return the child unharmed.
Esther did not believe them.
She had been so talkative before, so sure that all of this would work out for the better, now she was silent as the doctor tended to her. She couldn’t take her worried gaze away from the infant as the nurses cleaned, weighed and measured it. This was not Esther’s first baby; she had two sons, ages four and two, who had been born into much simpler times. There had never been a worry that her boys would be unaccepted into the Nation; they were male, they had undeniably been her husbands and there hadn’t been a shortage of food. Her six pound, five ounce baby girl did not have any of those things in her favor.
The nurses were efficient but not gentle, they moved around the small room with a proficiency that lacked any sort of kindness. Although Esther could not escape the hell she dreaded was coming, she still refused to accept it. She let herself picture the life this child might have, the birthdays, the smiles, the proud moments. She did not allow herself to believe her daughter could be killed. Five minutes later the baby was back in her arms safe and wrapped in the rough fabric of a hospital blanket. Esther relaxed for the first time in what felt like months. The nurses spoke to her but she barely even acknowledged them, her full attention on the blue-eyed infant in her arms. Just as she had with her sons, Esther decided that this was the loveliest baby she’d ever seen.
She sensed the shift in the air before she saw it. The nurses left the room quietly, their faces solemn as they shot the new mother sympathetic looks. Esther tensed as the doctor and her father-in-law entered the room. She told herself that he’d understand and that he’d have compassion because they were family, but she knew better. Ethan had recently been appointed with National Administration powers. This made him an Elder and gave him the hefty responsibly of enforcing the Equality Act and of deciding what was beneficial to the overall good of the community and the Nation. This meant he had the power to deny anyone, even someone as innocent as a child, entry into the Nation.
Every inch of Esther urged her to run, but she wasn’t physically able. She was too weak to do much of anything. She felt like vomiting, the anxiety of the situation overwhelming her. What would she do if the baby weren’t accepted? It was the law of the Administration and she wasn’t stupid enough to believe she could go against them. The doctor stood in the corner looking bored. He’d already delivered the baby; this was just the end of a simple routine for him. Either all was well and the child would live or he’d administer a lethal injection. One-way or the other, his job was almost done. Esther watched Ethan, her eyes straining to see any form of softness in his jagged features. He shared the same brown eyes, sharp cheekbones and dimpled chin that her late husband had, the very same characteristics that her young sons mirrored. She remembered how his eyes always softened when he spoke to her youngest boy, Callum. She wished for that softness to appear now.
“It’s a girl,” he said. It wasn’t a question, but Esther was too anxious to stay silent.
“Just like the ultrasound said.” Her thin fingers shook as she maneuvered the baby so that the elder could better see the child. “She has a little bit of hair just like Anthony did when he was born, see?” She moved the blanket away from the baby’s face revealing more of the little girl’s features.
Ethan did not move to hold the baby; he didn’t even glance at it. “Esther, we are in the middle of a famine-”
She cut him off, “Don’t do that. Don’t you dare sentence her to death for something as stupid as that.”
“We don’t need any more burdens right now.”
“She isn’t a burden, she’s my daughter.”
Ethan didn’t say anything in response, instead he nodded to the doctor who turned his back to them and began preparing the syringe. The air caught in her throat along with the words she’d prepared; sure that she could argue her way out of this. She wanted to do something, anything, but she was stranded as her entire world began to collapse. She was physically suffocating, drowning in her own helplessness. Her lungs burnt for air and she let out a barbaric cry of determination.
That gained Ethan’s attention. She lowered her voice until it was deadly quiet, “You will not kill my daughter.”
“She is not beneficial to the quality of life we have here in the Nation. She is not necessary.”
“She is necessary to me,” Esther cried, “What am I supposed to tell Callum and Anthony? They are so excited to be big brothers. Don’t make me give her up.”
Ethan’s eyes darkened at the mention of his grandsons. He cleared his throat but his voice was still hoarse as he said, “You can tell them that their mother was unfaithful to her husband and to her family. That is what you can tell your sons.”
“I was not unfaithful. Marcus is dead, what do you expect me to do, Ethan? Am I supposed to mourn him forever? He’d want me to move on, it’s what he told me to do.” Their raised voices and Esther’s agitated body language sent the newborn into a fit of wails that echoed around the small room. She tried to sooth the baby but she was so upset she couldn’t even think how to comfort her own child.
The doctor cleared his throat and lifted the syringe so they could both see it. “My shift ends in ten minutes, can we get this over with so I can go home?”
A bitter laugh escaped Esther and she cradled the baby protectively against her chest. Everyone spoke about this like it was nothing to be worrying about. As if the living, breathing, crying infant in her arms could just be snuffed out with the prick of a needle and she was supposed to act like it didn’t shatter her very being. How many mothers had to experience the agony of losing a child while others, only a few doors down, were allowed to keep their baby’s.
Although Esther was furious, she had a split second of extreme clarity. She was going to have to beg, even if it hurt her pride to do so. It was worth it. “Please, Ethan, don’t punish her for my mistake. I made a bad decision. I tried to escape from my own unhappiness, please don’t make her pay the price for my wrong actions,” she whispered. “She doesn’t deserve to die.”
It was the final plea for mercy and even as she spoke Esther didn’t really believe that it would work. She’d done this to herself, to her daughter, and now they were going to both pay the price. When Ethan didn’t respond the doctor approached the bed. He didn’t say anything to either of them as he reached forward and pulled the blanket back, revealing the fragile newborn wrapped inside. He leaned over the bed so he could prepare for the injection. His fingers made quick work of priming the syringe, his eyes never leaving his work even as he muttered, “It’ll only be a little prick, she’ll barely even feel it.”
Esther wanted to find peace in the idea that her baby wasn’t going to feel pain, but the consoling words didn’t even make a dint in the heartbreak she was feeling. She fought the desire to fall apart; she didn’t want to admit defeat, not when it meant losing the life of her only daughter. A whisper inside of her told her to fight, to scream and kick and do everything in her power to stop them from hurting the innocent babe in her arms, but she couldn’t. Fighting against the Administration meant death and she couldn’t possibly leave her sons alone. She forced herself to stay calm as she straightened and looked down at the little girl in her arms. The baby was almost asleep, it’s wailing gone now. Perhaps that was a small mercy, Esther thought.
“Count to three,” The doctor instructed, “And it will all be over with.”
Esther took a shallow breath, the stopping in her lungs as she prepared herself for what was to come. The moment had arrived, Ethan wasn’t going to hold the baby and welcome her into the community and so she would die. She gripped the infant’s small hand in hers, its little palm resting between the curve of her forefinger and the pad of her thumb. She turned her face away and closed her eyes, silently resigning herself to the loss. She felt the doctor lean in and Esther counted heartbeats.
She did not look, she couldn’t. The tears she’d been holding in had escaped their confines and she knew that as soon as she opened her eyes they would spill out and she may never stop crying. This was a different heartache than what she’d experienced when she’d lost her husband. She’d known he was going to die; she’d seen him live and lived along side him. This was different. Her daughter had never known anything but the florescent lights, cold hands and pastel yellow walls of the delivery room. Marcus hadn’t died without having first tasted the freshness of the outside world.
She felt the doctor withdraw and heard the soft clink of the syringe as it was set down on the steel cart next to the bed. She didn’t dare open her eyes as she whispered, “Is it done?” There was a long silence only punctuated by Esther’s raspy breathing as she fought to keep from sobbing.
Ethan’s voice was neither compassionate nor gentle as he said, “You may keep the girl, but she will never have a place in my family.”
Esther exhaled in a sob, the tremendous pain and fear she’d been experiencing bursting from her in a guttural noise. Her entire body quaked as she felt the immense tension lift. The baby let out a bird like chirp in agitation at having been disturbed in its sleep. This child would never truly understand the fear they had faced that day. Esther was barely even able to see through her tears as she lowered her head and pressed her lips against the fuzzy head of the baby she held, her daughter who would live.
When she looked up Ethan had disappeared form the room, leaving her alone with the doctor. He seemed unaffected by the miracle that Esther had just experienced. She lifted her daughter and placed her against her chest, the little tuffs of chestnut hair tickling her cheeks as she relished the moment of unforeseen victory. It seemed too unrealistic, too miraculous, to be true. They had come so close to the edge of losing that Esther couldn’t stop herself from trembling. Oh, how different this moment might all have been had Ethan not shown mercy. This was a battle won, but the war was far from over. It would not be an easy road. Ethan may have allowed the child to live but he had not accepted her into the family.
Esther jumped slightly as the doctor touched her arm in an effort to draw her attention to him. “I have to log her in the system and get her medical tags,” he explained. “Do you have a name or would you rather have the Administration give her one?”
Esther lowered the baby into her lap and took a long look at her. “Freya,” she answered after a moment, “I’ll call her Freya.”