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Authors: Donna Callea

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Chapter 8

Susannah

What Women Know

 

 

Ethan is a sweet baby.  He nurses with great gusto, patting my breast with one fat tiny hand, as if in gratitude, as he gulps and sighs, gulps and sighs.

“Doesn’t it hurt, having him suck on you like that?” asks Rebekah.  She’s sitting with me on the porch steps, her knees drawn up to her chin, her arms wrapped around her legs.  It’s a perfect day, too perfect to stay indoors.  There’s a slight breeze, just puffs of warm fresh air, and we’re partly shaded from the summer sun by the big maple in front of the house.  Someone would think we were living in idyllic times.

“No,” I tell her. “It feels very good as a matter of fact. But you have to be sure to toughen up your nipples a bit before the baby comes, or they can get sore and cracked.  That happened to me with David.  No one told me in advance.  And he was several weeks old before it started to feel good.”

“What do you mean feel good?”

“Well, it’s almost kind of sensual—a warm, needy little mouth latched on to such a sensitive part of your body.  When he suckles, we’re connected, still connected.  I’m giving him what he needs.  He’s grateful in his baby way.  And it’s lovely.”

“Oh.”

“Sometimes husbands like to put their mouths there, too,” I tell her. But she doesn’t say anything.

Rebekah is not an easy person to talk to, not at this age.  She’s unhappy.  She resents me, not because there’s anything really wrong between us, but because I’m the mother of this house, the person married to a man she considers her father, a wife to five other men as well, and everything she doesn’t want to be.

She needs me, though, almost as much as little Ethan does.  She’s almost 16.

I put the baby in her arms when he’s done nursing.  She doesn’t object.  She smiles at him as he makes faces in his sleep. But then she turns serious.

“Do you ever stop to think,” she asks me, “that there’s no point at all in having this baby?  People go on marrying husbands and having babies as if everything will be okay.  But it won’t.  How can it be?  And it’s just not fair.”

“You’re right.  It’s not fair.  But what’s the alternative?”

“I don’t know,” she says.  “But I don’t like having people expect me to do things I don’t want to do because it will somehow be better for society.  When it really won’t.  It’s not my fault that girls are rare and I’m one of those rare girls.  What if I just want to live my own life?”

That is the kind of thing her mother would say.  I’d never tell Rebekah that, though. She’s sullen enough as it is with me.

“You know, David loves me,” Rebekah says suddenly, as if to shock me, and make me mad.

“Yes, I believe he does,” I agree.  “But he’s very young.  And so are you.  And in the world we live in, the only world we’ve got, it really doesn’t matter.”

Left to their own devices, David and Rebekah would eventually begin having sex. It would be a natural thing. But that can’t happen. They can’t have each other.  A marriage between them would never be sanctioned. So we keep them apart as much as possible and under watchful eyes.

The latest ordinance to come out of Toronto is that girls must register at 16, and marry at 18.  It’s no longer voluntary. Husbands must be no younger than 25.  It’s the law. Breaking that law is now a punishable offense.

“How could you do such a thing?” I rail at my mother when she returns home after the latest session of Parliament.

“Well, I didn’t do it myself, Susannah.  But I was for it.  It was necessary.  And aren’t you happy that the Parliament has also decreed premarital counseling and evaluations to be mandatory? Can’t get a marriage license now without going through the whole rigmarole.  Plus no more family-arranged marriages unless there are acceptable evaluations.”

Evaluations are necessary.  I’m pleased about that. But the lawmakers, probably egged on by Mama, have gone way too far, in my opinion. Government will be controlling people’s lives in ways that seriously infringe on some of our most personal rights and freedoms. All the regions in the Great Lakes Coalition are in agreement, so the new ordinances will be enforced everywhere.

“We’re at crisis levels, you know,” Mama primly points out.

Yes, I do know that.  Everyone knows.  In a generation or two, if there’s no improvement in the female birth rate, our civilization, such as it is, will cease to be.  There will be chaos, a pitiful last wave of boys and men, and then nothing. That’s what the prognosticators say.

Right now, we all live peacefully and productively, to one extent or another.  Though the total population has been steadily shrinking, the glut of men has meant a relatively strong labor force. There’s been no shortage of food or energy.  The farms are fruitful, hydro-electric plants hum away, factories produce the goods we think we need, and solar-powered vehicles are relatively cheap and in plentiful supply. Every 16-year-old boy, it seems, gets a sun-cycle for his birthday.  David can’t wait.

But David and Simon and baby Ethan may never have wives. Their marriage prospects diminish each year that goes by with so few girls being born.  And no one has a clue how to fix things, except by praying harder to The Designer, and creating new laws for conscripting women.

Rebekah will have to register at 16, marry at 18, take on as many husbands as Parliament says she should, and produce as many babies as she can, hoping that one, at least, will be a girl.

“There’s a precedent, you know, for young people being compelled to serve their countries,” speechifies Mama, as if I were one of her constituents who needed convincing.  “In ancient times, before The Great Flood, young men were routinely drafted into the military, even in democratic societies.  They were needed, they served, and they willingly gave their lives.  Thank The Designer we don’t go to war with other countries.  We’ve evolved beyond that. But we’re now in a struggle for our very survival.”

Meanwhile, on the so-called happy news front, Mama informs me that Danny has fathered a girl with his new wife in Rochester. We hadn’t heard.  Danny stays in contact with Rebekah, but evidently hasn’t gotten around to telling her about her new half-sister.

“It’s exciting,” says Mama. “It was all the buzz in Toronto. Maybe this will be a breakthrough.  If red-haired men are good at fathering girls, we could eventually have programs to collect their sperm.”

“That’s barbaric,” I tell her, “and it’s against everything we’ve established to hold families together.” There are good reasons why biological paternity must never be discussed—never be personally acknowledged or revealed.  All men must consider themselves the father of all the children their wives produce.  There can’t be any competition to impregnate. And we certainly can’t have a small cadre of red-headed studs doing their part for posterity.

As it stands now, it’s the responsibility of women to privately decide which of their husbands will supply sperm. And that’s how it must remain. If anything, there has to be more emphasis on educating girls in the arts of reproduction, and instilling more discretion and secrecy when it comes to who fathered whom.

If I wasn’t worried before, I am now.  What if someone gets the notion that if red-haired men are more apt to produce daughters, then maybe red-haired women are more adept at birthing them?  People with red hair are rare.  But I’ve got one living right in my own house. She’s my responsibility.

I only hope the experiment with Danny will turn out to be a fluke, no matter how badly we need baby girls.  Otherwise, we’ll lose control.  And reproduction, all aspects of it, must remain solely in the hands of women.

Girls learn from their mothers what to do. Pre-marital counseling is supposed to reinforce what they’re taught.  But what we know is best passed on from mother to daughter.  The less men know or even think about what women know the better off we all are.  Danny, and his researcher Rochester wife, and all that buzz in Toronto can’t result in anything good.

In any case, I can’t delay having the talk with Rebekah.

We go to my room, and I ask her to please lie back with me on the cushions on the bed, so that we can have a comfortable woman-to-woman discussion about sex. When she balks and dismissively informs me that she already knows everything about sex, I tell her there are secrets she doesn’t know.

That piques her interest.

There’s no sitting area in my room, only the big bed with its many cushions and embroidered pillows and down-filled coverlet.  So Rebekah doesn’t have a choice. We sit at the edge of the bed.  I want her to feel cozy and intimate with me.  I want to draw her close when I tell her, like my mother did with me. There needs to be a bond between us. So I put an arm around her shoulders, ruffle her ridiculously close-cropped hair, and give her a hug.

John treats her almost like a son now, and calls her “Beks.”  He has, ever since the Easter-Esther festival when she asserted her independence by cutting off her beautiful long red hair. The hair she got from Danny.  John encourages her to look and act boyish, even though that’s not really her nature. And not just because it means she attracts less attention to herself, and is probably safer that way. What I think is that there’s something primal in some men that makes them long for sons, even now, when daughters are so precious.  But that’s another story.

Rebekah rolls her eyes at my efforts to mother her, but eventually she loosens up and gives in. We kick off our shoes and put pillows behind our heads as we lie back on the bed.

“I have things to tell you that are secrets,” I begin. “They’re secrets only women share.  So you have to promise to keep what I tell you to yourself.”

She nods.

We start with the basics.

“You know the sea sponges that you use when you have your period?  Well, there’s another very important role for those practical little gifts of nature.”

I explain to her how the sponges—which have been menstruation staples for centuries, provide a good living for those who harvest them, and are readily available—can also be used for contraception.

   “We women soak them in a special herbal concoction and then insert them deep enough inside so they can’t be detected during intercourse. They provide a very good barrier.”

“I thought the whole point of sex now was to have babies, not stop them from being conceived,” says Rebekah.

“Well, it’s definitely not the whole point. For one thing, it’s very unhealthy for a woman to be pregnant all the time. And in our species, at least, sex is for pleasure as much as it is for procreation.  Men need to be satisfied—that’s why women have to marry so many husbands these days.  And women also need and deserve to receive pleasure from the act.  Each sex act cannot and should not result in pregnancy. Do you understand, Rebekah?”

She nods.  But, of course, she really doesn’t understand, and won’t until she’s married. Pleasure, though, is something she has the right to expect, and she should know in advance that it’s her due.

“So you use the sea sponges to prevent pregnancy.  I get it,” she says.

“That’s not all you need to know.  What I’m going to tell you now is not for the ears of men.   A few men may know, because they’re smart and have figured it out.  Others may guess.  But this is something we must never discuss with them.  Understand?  Girls usually aren’t told until closer to the time they’re married.  Some girls aren’t ever told, and that’s a terrible thing.  But I’m all you have in the way of a mother now, so I want you to know.”

She looks at me wide-eyed.  I have her full attention.

“It’s up to women to decide who will father our children, no matter how many husbands we may have, or how often we have sex with each man. We have to do our best to make sure each husband feels that each child is his own.  There are ways to do this.  Sometimes there’s an obvious connection between a father and child, like the red hair you share with your Papa Danny.  But direct paternity should never be evident, if you can help it, or acknowledged in any way.”

“What you’re saying is, it’s up to the woman to put in the sponge with everyone but the man she likes best, and to never tell anyone that’s what she’s done.”

“No. That’s not what I’m saying. Men come in all varieties, Rebekah.  In ancient times the men who fathered the most children tended to be the most powerful, aggressive, territorial, competitive, selfish and possessive. Not always, but that was the trend.  As a result, some very unfortunate traits were passed on, generation after generation.  The cycle couldn’t be broken. That’s why there were wars all the time.  It’s why the Earth was plundered and sacrificed to the ambitions of men.  It’s why there was rape.  Why there still is rape.”

Now Rebekah rolls her eyes.

“If men are so bad we probably shouldn’t marry any.”

She’s being facetious.

“You know we don’t have any choice but to be polyandrous.  Some people believe The Designer caused The Great Flood and skewed the birth rate to teach us a lesson.  If so, we haven’t learned it yet. And time is running out. We don’t have enough women, enough girls, to survive many more generations. We can’t figure out how to change that. But we have figured out how to make better men. It’s not much, but it’s something.”

“Better men?”

“For a very long time now, women who care about the future have been trying to make sure that only the gentlest males—the ones who are most agreeable and least aggressive—impregnate us.  Of course, we also want them to be intelligent, healthy and good-looking. That’s a bonus. And because there are so many more males than females, we have the luxury of being choosy.  That’s why pre-marital evaluations are so important.  We can also be very selective once we’ve married our husbands and know each of them more intimately.”

BOOK: Sundry Days
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ads

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