1 THE CRADLE
A convulsive wail catapulted Ji-ji awake. Oletto had woken to nurse. The wailing reached a crescendo. Each night her little brother woke at ten and two, guzzled from her mam’s teat like a drunkard, then fell back to sleep so rapidly it looked like he was faking it. Only he wasn’t—not according to Ji-ji’s mam, who welcomed the wailing, said it assured her that her lastborn was still with them. “Don’t ever leave a seedling to purple-wail like that, Ji-ji,” Silapu would warn. “Unanswered yearning can split you wide open, force you to spend the rest of your life searching for foolish ways to plug up the wound.”
Ji-ji rolled over to face the tattered curtain hanging over the doorway that separated her bedroom from the main room. For a few seconds, she tried to convince herself her name wasn’t Jellybean Lottermule. She was Ji-ji Jubilation, the j’s in her first name pronounced like the g in gee whiz. She’d chosen it because it sounded cute and sassy, neither of which she was. “Brown as dung” the steaders called her, nothing like her dark and pretty mam, or Charra, her light-skinned, pretty sister. Not that she gave a damn what dumbass steaders thought. The only name worse than Jellybean was Lottermule. Thinking about it made her want to gag.
Oletto’s wails turned to hiccuping whimpers. Sleep had deserted her, so Ji-ji took refuge in her pretend life. She was living Free! Free! Free! in Dream City … or up in the Eastern SuperState maybe, where rumor had it they’d rebuilt some of the iconic skyscrapers, locating them farther back from the coast this time cos SuperStaters didn’t blame floods on the wrath of God like steaders did. She pictured herself living in a penthouse—a term Father-Man Lotter used to describe the main offices of the Territorial Headquarters in the Father-City of Armistice, a.k.a. the City of Cages. (Don’t think about their disgusting capital. It’ll drive you crazy. Go back to where you can live Free.…) She found a place of refuge again. She was a half-Toteppi princess living high on the hog with her mam and little brother in a penthouse hundreds of miles from the Territories. No man could ever touch her or beat her. Ji-ji Jubilation was her very own self on her very own terms.…
Her brother’s whimpers turned to shrieks. The truth gnawed like rats, severing the hope-rope she clung to. They weren’t living in a liberty SuperState or an Independent oasis; they were trapped at the butt end of the Old Commonwealth of Virginia on one of the hundreds of plantings homesteaders established following the Civil War Sequel. She was Jellybean Lottermule, chief kitchen-seed.… It would never be enough.…
Ji-ji grabbed her wristwatch from the small bookshelf Tiro had made for her fourteenth birthday. She’d won the watch in one of the planting races. She stared at the hands on the watch’s face. It was a child’s wind-up watch, which explained why the steaders had given it as a prize to the fastest female runner. A tiny, coal-black cartoon mouse pointed his white-gloved, chubby fingers at the numbers on the watch face. The mouse was grinning so hard it looked painful. He reminded Ji-ji of the black-faced minstrels who played at the barn dance during the Harvesting Festival. Two A.M. Only three more hours to go before her morning run. By six thirty, she’d be preparing Lotter’s breakfast at the father-house. He liked to eat early: poached eggs cooked just right—never hard-set but not undercooked either; coffee smooth not bitter—no milk, no sugar. Father-Man Lotter didn’t go in for diluting anything.
Oletto’s whimpers turned to screams. If she didn’t get an hour or more of sleep she’d be dragging all day. She tried to think of herself as lucky. At fourteen, she was one of the few postpubescent females still living in her mam’s cabin. She recited the words Zaini, Tiro’s mam, had taught her to raise her spirits: “Our mother, which art the Cradle, may we know our hallowed names.” She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly to calm herself, then stepped lightly out of bed. Yawning, she shuffled through the bedroom, careful to avoid the twelve dents in the floor made by the legs of her three lost siblings’ beds. The dents they’d left behind were pretty much all she had to remember them by. Stepping on them would have seemed like blasphemy.
Ji-ji entered the only other room in the cabin. Silapu must have been up for a while because a crackling fireplace warded off the winter chill. Apart from Oletto’s cradle and Lotter’s fancy rocking chair, all their other furniture was junk: a rickety table on a tired rug whose edges curled up like fried bacon; three wobbly wooden chairs, one with part of its back missing; and a sink with a working pump—admittedly a luxury few seed cabins possessed.
Ji-ji glanced over at the one object in the room—apart from her brother’s magnificent cradle, of course—that didn’t make her want to scream. Tiro’s mam Zaini had made the quilt as a grieving gift for Silapu after Luvlydoll died. It depicted blackbirds—three perched in a tree while a few dozen took off from the branches in a burst of something akin to fireworks on the Fourth of July. The quilt almost convinced you the seedmate cabin was home, almost made you forget that behind it was Lotter’s seeding bed. Not that her mam used it much. When Lotter wasn’t paying her a seeding call, Silapu didn’t sleep in the mating bed, opting instead for a makeshift bed on the floor. However hard she scrubbed, she claimed, it was impossible to wash Lotter’s mating stench from the sheets.
Having dragged a chair over from the table, Ji-ji sat down beside the cradle. Woven from twigs fashioned into impossible patterns, it had solid black walnut rockers decorated with intricate carvings of beasts and birds. Six months before, a few hours after her mam had given birth, Uncle Dreg had shown up out of the blue to present Silapu with the magnificent cradle. When Ji-ji had asked him how he’d known her mam had seedbirthed, he’d pointed to his Seeing Eye necklace and smiled the way you do when you want to keep someone guessing. “This cradle will keep your offspring safe,” the wizard had promised.
“Your brother is teething,” Silapu declared with unmistakable pride. “His front tooth is sprouting, see? It is a sharp one. He will start biting down hard when he nurses. You were a biter.…”
Ji-ji poked her index finger into Oletto’s mouth—not easy because he was snuffling around for the large dark nipple he craved—and found his wayward tooth. It had put down roots in the middle of his top gum.
“That center tooth is a sign,” Silapu stated. Her Toteppi accent made her sound wise. “My own father’s front tooth was in the center like this one. It is my father come to me again. ‘Same mouth, same words’—that is what we Toteppi say. When this one is a warrior grown, he will sound like my father. His voice will boom out across the bush.”
“We’re not in the bush,” Ji-j reminded her. “We’re in the Homestead Territories.”
“Only when our eyes are open,” Silapu insisted.
Ji-ji smiled. It was good to hear her mam speak of her homeland, good to see her happy again. Tribalseed “imports” from the Cradle, shipped over to the Territories to address the severe labor shortage, sometimes wasted away or killed themselves soon after they arrived on transport planes or cargo ships. Silapu had been Ji-ji’s age when she’d been snatched from the Cradle by pickers. Her mam knew the old words and the old stories, though unlike Uncle Dreg, she never spoke them aloud. “You know what memories are, Jellybean?” she’d said once to Ji-ji, after Clay had been auctionmarted. “Memories are knives—slice, slice!” She’d slashed her arms through the air and banged her head against the wall until Ji-ji and Charra coaxed her quiet. But tonight, as Silapu looked at her lastborn, there was a deep contentment and a Toteppi pride in her eyes.
“Do you hear that, Bonbon?” Ji-ji asked, suddenly happy. “Mam says all you need to do is keep your eyes shut an’ you won’t even know you’re on a planting.”
Ji-ji loved to use the nickname she’d given her little brother. She’d had a bonbon once—a dark chocolate one. It had slipped down her throat as easy as spit. She wished her lost brother and sisters could have seen him; they would have loved him too. But after metaflu took Luvlydoll, and they shipped Clay off to the auctionmart, and Charra—god knows what happened to Charra—Ji-ji was the only one left. Charra, the last of the three to be lost, had disappeared some months ago. Silapu, who’d been barely holding things together before then, was inconsolable. She blamed herself for what happened, though she wouldn’t tell Ji-ji why. Crazy with grief, she’d drowned her sorrows in cheap whiskey from the planting store and pills she got from Lotter. She hadn’t known she was pregnant until roughly the fifth month. When Doc Riff diagnosed her condition, she swore she’d never touch a drop of booze or swallow another of Lotter’s pills—as long as her offspring was healthy and she was allowed to keep him. She sensed early that her lastborn was a boy, the seedling who would make her life bearable, she said. Silapu and Ji-ji had delivered Bonbon without a midwife or doctor in attendance. Ji-ji suspected her mam had somehow guessed her lastborn’s secret.
Copyright © 2021 by Lucinda Roy