And so she was the one who felt things. The only one! It was why she yearned for the child, and felt her heart melt each time his little hand waved and he said “Bye-bye” to her, calling out her name in his silvery voice, smiling that amazing smile.
She would not let them take that from her, that feeling. If someone in authority noticed the error, if they delivered a supply of pills to her, she thought defiantly, she would pretend. She would cheat. But she would never, under any circumstances, stifle the feelings she had discovered. She would die, Claire realized, before she would give up the love she felt for her son.
The supply boat was once again moored by the Hatchery. Its ropes had been looped over the posts and its slanted gangplank slid ashore. Recalling the delay they had suffered a year ago, this time they had arrived early and would be leaving before the coming two-day event prevented their departure.
The time of the Ceremony was fast approaching. Had it really been that long? Had she been here at the Hatchery for well over a year? It was hard to believe. But when she thought of the child, of little Abe, she was aware of how he had developed from an infant wailing for a bottle when she first encountered him into a giggly toddler who could say her name, wave bye-bye, and imitate the funny face they now made to each other as a greeting that made them both laugh.
Hearing her coworkers mention the upcoming Ceremony reminded her that Abe would be assigned this time. He would move to a dwelling, have a set of parents and perhaps an older sibling. She would have to find a new way of continuing their relationship. Of course his new female parent—Claire could not make herself think mother—would have a job in the community as all women did. So the child would go to the Childcare Center each day.
Claire had done volunteer work there when she was young and fulfilling her required hours. She had enjoyed that time and knew that Abe would be well cared for there. He would be given educational toys, fed a balanced diet fortified with vitamins, taken for walks in the big multichild stroller, and introduced to basic discipline: the meaning of no and don’t; how he must not suck his thumb, though he would be permitted to stroke his comfort object if he needed soothing. He would be tucked into a crib at naptime, when the big room’s lights were dimmed.
Thinking of the naptime ritual, Claire felt a little concerned. Abe still was not a good sleeper. Most toddlers in the Childcare Center responded to firm discipline and learned quickly to be silent when the lights were dimmed. She remembered the rows of cribs with most of the little occupants sound asleep, and those who were wakeful staring quietly at the ceiling. The small children had names by then, and she recalled walking along the row and reading LIAM, SVETLANA, BARBARA, HENRIK, on the identifying cards. Soon, after the upcoming Ceremony, he would be officially Abe. She desperately hoped that the crib with his name on it would not contain a wailing, sleepless little boy who would toss his hippo to the floor and thump his feet rhythmically against the mattress. Shrieking and kicking, sometimes holding his breath until his face turned frighteningly dark, was what he was still doing at the Nurturing Center at naptime. Whatever would they do with such a child when he entered the childcare system? Failure to thrive, they wrote on his chart when he was very young. Now? Failure to adjust? She shuddered. There were very severe consequences in the community for a citizen who couldn’t adjust. Surely they would be more lenient with a very small boy, Claire thought. But she wasn’t certain. It made her nervous to think about it.
She rode over to visit one afternoon two days before the Ceremony and could see the cleanup crews working hard outside the Auditorium, obviously preparing for the one time each year when the entire community gathered. Claire would attend this year. Already they had assigned a different worker to remain at the Hatchery. It was important to her to see Abe assigned, to know where he would be next. Maybe, since the assignments were so close, she could sneak a look at the paperwork; sometimes there was a clipboard on the nurturer’s desk. Perhaps the information was there.
But when Claire arrived at the Nurturing Center, she could feel immediately that something was wrong. Of course, she thought, they are all very busy because of the Ceremony plans. They have to prepare these children, all fifty, for new families. A letter would have to accompany each newchild, a letter with instructions for the parental unit: feeding information, schedules, discipline reminders, health data, and observations about personality. Of course the staff was preoccupied and distracted. It accounted, Claire thought, for the heightened tension she felt. The nurturer who had always been so pleasant to her, the one with a son named Jonas who took Abe to his dwelling at night, was oddly abrupt when she greeted him. He seemed angry. She could hear a muttered argument taking place in a corner. No one smiled at her.
Even more distressingly, when she went to pick up Abe, who was playing with a wooden toy on the floor, someone snatched him away.
“Not a good idea to play with this one,” a uniformed female worker said. “There’s one over there: that girl? She needs to be changed. You could do that if you want to be helpful.”
The woman stalked off, holding Abe. She plopped him into an empty crib and he began to howl immediately. Everyone ignored him.
“I could maybe quiet him down,” Claire suggested, “and you’d be able to get your work done more easily.”
“Leave him,” the woman commanded her.
Claire looked questioningly at the nurturer whom she had begun to think of as a friend. She realized, suddenly, that in all these months she had never asked his name. But clearly now was not the time. His face was set in hard lines, and he looked away.
“I said: leave him,” the woman repeated impatiently.
Claire wanted to argue, perceived that she must not, and fell silent. Dutifully she picked up the baby girl they had indicated and took her to the changing table. In the background, Abe screamed and kicked at the bars of the crib. No one moved toward him.
Claire cleaned and diapered the cheerful female and set her back down with her toys on the floor. Other babies crawled and played nonchalantly, as if they were accustomed to the shrieking boy in the crib. At the desk, the nurturer whose name she had never thought to learn, the one who (Claire knew) cared about Abe, suddenly slammed shut the reader/writer device he’d been working on. He stood. He looked at the clock on the wall.
“I’m leaving early,” he said.
“Excuse me?” The uniformed woman looked up. She seemed to have some authority.