Cast of Wonders 299: All Them Pretty Babies
All Them Pretty Babies
by Alexandra Renwick
Esmè step careful in the pretty grass. Grass on the hillside is green just how she like it; not all yellow, not all brownish purple like grass past the base of the mountain.
Them grasses, them yellow and purple grasses, make Esmè think on her old mama, who yell and slap and bite and kick at her. Only good thing Old Mama ever done for Esmè, she done let Esmè know just how ugly Esmè is. Ugly enough to stop her wind-up watch, say Old Mama. Ugly enough to stop a train, like train what done stopped on other side of the mountain when them bio-bombs fell so close, sent that train bucking like nasty old three-headed milk cow so it buck right off its track and into the gully.
Of course, that train done crashed long before Esmè was born. That train done crashed without Esmè ever having seen a train a-go full of people, with all them people’s pretty jewelries and pretty clothes, and them pretty little babies bouncing on they’s laps. No, Esmè never seen a train a-go, but she sometimes climb down into the gully, ignore bruised grass and glowing sludge, and she play in that wrecked train what now filled so full with all them clean, clean bones, and she think how pretty all them ladies and gentlemens must’ve been; so pretty that if ugly Esmè lived back then they would’ve chased her off with sticks like Old Mama done when she got so sick-and-tired of looking at Esmè all day long. That’s what Old Mama done told her: I’m so sick-and-tired of your ugly face. Now get gone, girl. Go try the other side of the mountain.
New Mama not be like Old Mama at all. New Mama nice. She kind. She patient when Esmè slow. New Mama take in all them pretty babies Esmè find on that hillside, every single one, and raise them best she can. New Mama say there no such thing as ugly babies. She even took in Esmè, who must’ve been ugliest baby ever to breathe air, though Esmè not been a baby for a long time; Esmè near full grown.
Esmè’s ears perk up, what they maybe hear a baby cry. Esmè stand straight tall, shade eyes from sun, look careful across that hillside to maybe see if she find dimple in green grassy slope where a baby lie.
Baby cry again. Esmè turn her long skinny legs, lope over grass in direction of sound. Where you at, pretty baby? she say, silent inside where nobody hear but her. Where you at? Esmè will find you, take you to New Mama.
Esmè do find that baby. She do. She squat beside it. Wind ripple tall green grass on hillside, like how water ripple on pretty pond where Esmè like to sit and throw rocks, though New Mama tell her to never never drink from there, to never swim. Never ever even dip in a big toe, say New Mama, on account of that water be sick from jeen-o-tox-ick terat-ogens left by bio-bombs what done fall before Esmè was born. Them bombs was what make train leap off tracks, what take all them pretty pretty people to better places and leave just they bones behind, though they bones is pretty too: white and clean and straight.
“Hi, pretty baby,” Esmè croon. “You a very pretty baby. Pretty. Pretty… ”
Esmè say this like a lullaby. She reach down, pick up small bundle of blanket wrapping pretty baby, lift pretty baby to her chest. Cradle it there. Baby so little, it weigh almost nothing in Esmè’s arms. It got unusual fourth eye Esmè never seen before, extra ear-parts and a long twisted gash for a mouth. It be a very pretty baby, but it struggle for every breath it take, each tiny lungful a victory, hard won.
Esmè rock back and forth, getting careful onto her feet. “Hold on, pretty baby,” she tell it, voice soft, hands soft, eyes soft as she look down into its little face. “You hold on. We get you to New Mama, she fix you up.” But inside where nobody hear, Esmè worry about baby’s breathing. Worry all the way up the mountain.
By the time Esmè stagger into New Mama’s clearing, she crying so hard she barely see one foot a-go after the other. Esmè hate her feet; they ugly as the rest of her, big and long and five-toe.
Esmè pass a couple older babies as she stumble through the yard. James, near four years old, can hardly be called a baby. James can’t properly talk on account of him mouth, a small round hole good enough for taking food and water but not so good for making words. But he look up from him game he play by himself in the dirt, scratching letters like what New Mama show him how to make. As Esmè pass, he watch with him pretty eyes, and unfurls him third arm from where it usually fold tight against him chest unless he get excited.
James is beautiful, but Esmè got no time to play scratch-dirt with pointy stick; she got to take poor pretty baby she done find to New Mama, though she already know what New Mama going to say.
Esmè push door wide open, careful with her blanket bundle though she can’t see nothing through tears. Without words she thrust bundle at New Mama bending over box with baby what Esmè done found last month, what New Mama call Bonita on account of her being so pretty. Bonita so pretty, she probably never walk. Not even walk like New Mama, who hunch over cane and hobble like on third leg–though New Mama not that pretty, what with her having only two like most.
New Mama’s young: maybe not much older when Esmè done found her than Esmè is now, though she walk like Old Mama who’s so old she remember them bombs when they fall, when they light up sky for days and kill all them pretty people and them pretty trees, leaving behind just bones and dead grass on the prairie far as Esmè can see from top of the mountain.
New Mama’s face make sorrow when she see what Esmè hold. She take bundle very gentle and limp close to fire she always keep a-go, even when it’s sunny and perfect outside like today. New Mama look up, face sad and smooth. “Sorry, Esmè. This one didn’t make it.” She reach out, place arm around Esmè while Esmè’s shoulders heave and water leak out Esmè’s ugly blue eyes. New Mama’s other arm still cradle bundle what used to be pretty baby. “There, there, Esmè. There, there. Some babies are just too pretty for this world.”
Esmè wipe her cheeks. “I already knowed you was going to say that,” she say. She reach to stroke baby’s cheek, but it’s already cool. Esmè take a deep breath, try to picture sorrow all draining away from her like old washwater draining away from that unstoppered tub in the chicken-yard like New Mama done taught her. She stand straighter, wipe hands on skirt. “I go get the shovel,” she say, and turn to the door.
A few babies live, though some prettier than others. There’s James and Bonita. There’s teeny tiny Clara Lou, so small she practically fit in Esmè’s palm when Esmè done found her. There’s the twins, Pax and Rumpole, what share one arm out of three and one leg out of four. And there’s Mikey, who always get into trouble, scooting around in dirt after chickens, too fast for New Mama to catch him even though he’s pretty like Bonita and don’t have the kind of legs what to walk on.
There used to be Gabby and Lewis too, but they both done died last year. And Angel and Tibbet and Rev and Tucker and Rosie, all dead. And all them little ones Esmè don’t name, what don’t live long enough to last through a night. No matter how hard New Mama try to keep them alive, some babies are just too pretty for this world. Esmè know this. Doesn’t mean she don’t cry about it. She do.
She don’t cry now, though. She dig little baby grave and try to think on the positive. She try to think on wind rippling grass, and on sunshine, and on the sweet honey warmth of day. She try to tell herself that at least she got a chance to meet that pretty baby, to tell her how pretty she was before she die. Most times, Esmè don’t find them babies quick enough. Most times, all Esmè find is a small quiet bundle on the hillside, or sometimes even just tiny bones, picked clean.
Sometimes Esmè hide out on that hill and watch. Sometimes she hunker down in cool night, wait for them what come in the middle of darkness in they loud motored city carts. She hear them carts rumble rumble across the bruised grasses on other side of the gully, hear them whine and belch and chugga chugga on up the hill. Esmè sit very still, only her face above tall grass, and watch them figures in loose bag suits climb from filthy belching motored carts, watch them leave little bundles, watch them sputter and puff off into night again, loud and blinding. Esmè don’t ever see what them city people look like inside them loose sacks they wear, but they must be ugly, like her. Them sacks sure is ugly, and them carts.
Old Mama used to tell Esmè ugliness was what keep her deep into bio-bomb country in the first place, far away from the city. She say barely anybody live on the mountain even in the olden days. In the newen days hardly nobody live up here at all: nobody but Old Mama in her hut on the far side of the mountain, New Mama in her cottage on this side, and Esmè. Everybody else all just pretty babies, and them only left on the hillside these last few years, starting near about the day New Mama find Esmè, or maybe it was Esmè find New Mama? Either way, that was the best day of Esmè’s life.
Esmè hide now on the hill. It’s dark. It’s quiet this close to bruised-grass land, what New Mama say is wasted land, what wrap around base of the mountain, sometimes threaten to creep up mountain’s side. Them loud city motorcarts what come across the wasted land come fast, and they leave fast, going back to only city what Esmè ever hear exists anymore. Last city anywhere maybe, though Esmè never been off the mountain, so she don’t know for sure.
But no-one come tonight. Sometimes at night Esmè watch them city lights glow far, far off–twinkle twinkle, glow glow–clustered together like a clump of falled-down stars. The city’s too far across bruised grasses for Esmè ever to try to walk to, even if she wanted to leave New Mama and all them pretty babies, which she most certainly do not. Walking out on bruised grass make Esmè sick when she try it, make her sick sometimes for days. New Mama tell her not to go out there, not to try to cross that wasteland, which Esmè think be a funny word.
Besides, lots of things glow at night. Don’t mean Esmè should wander too near them. That’s what New Mama tell her: Esmè, if it glows, don’t drink it… If it glows, don’t eat it… If it glows, don’t touch it.
New Mama’s only trying to keep Esmè safe. Esmè know this.
The day them people in they ugly sacks come talk to Esmè, Esmè’s playing in the yard with James. James plays him stick-in-dirt game, making them swoops and angles what New Mama tell him he can someday talk with, though him tiny pretty O of a mouth never make a sound, not even hoot hoot or grrrr. James is a sweet-tempered baby, even if he’s not a baby much longer. Nearby in dirt Mikey scoot-scoot after chickens. Cluck cluck! they say, and Mikey say cluck cluck! back, though he’s too much a baby to talk any other words but chicken words. And James, of course, say nothing.
So when them sack-suit people come, Esmè don’t first understand what she’s looking at.
She’s seen city sack people with they chugga chugga carts leave little babies on the hillside at night, but she’s never seen them people in middle of day. Middle of day, sun glance off they crinkly sacks, reflect like reflectingest pool on the mountain, what glows in the dark and what Esmè’s not supposed to drink from or dip big toe in. And they tall. They so tall. Esmè never seen one up close, so she never realize they tall. Only Esmè’s so tall of everybody what live on the mountain. Only Esmè.
Them half-dozen suited people stop, make half-circle around Esmè and James. Esmè stand from where she squat in dirt, grip tight on stick what she play scratch-angles with James, glance at Mikey where he watch from the chicken-yard. Both boys so still, they look froze like ice. Froze like pond in winter. Froze like them pretty little babies Esmè sometimes find on the hillside after a snow.
“James,” Esmè say, “you take Mikey, go into that house. Go now. Get gone.”
Esmè keep her voice steady, keep it low, but make her words serious so them boys do as she say. Other pretty babies all inside with New Mama; all but the twins, who done run off into woods some three-four days ago, holding each other hands what they don’t share, running on that leg what they do.
James, he’s a good baby. He go to Mikey, lean down, pick him up and carry him into the house. Them sack people watch with only they crinkly bright silver heads turning, and them flat black glass squares over they faces, where they eyes probably sit behind.
Esmè hear door slam shut after the boys. One of them sack people lift a box from him belt, hold it out at Esmè, watch dial on little box jump, listen to little box crackle crackle whine. Esmè know it’s a man, because he say: “She’s registering a little toxic, but not off the charts. With some gene therapy and vigilant medical monitoring, she’ll be fine.” Him voice ring tinny from him suit. Tinny and hard, with rumply echo like what come from inside a crinkly sack.
One of them other sack people, a woman, she step forward. “Sweetheart,” she say to Esmè, “there’s no reason to be frightened. We’ve come to take you someplace safe, a place protected from the wasteland.”
Esmè know the only safe place in this world for an ugly girl like her is inside New Mama’s cottage with New Mama. Not on other side of the mountain with Old Mama in her hut. Not out on the wasted land and its bruised grass. Not with city people who come across the wasted land in motorcarts, what leave tiny little babies to freeze in the night.
The door to New Mama’s house creak open behind Esmè. It’s New Mama. New Mama come limping out on her two leg, with her wood cane looking like three. New Mama, hunched tiny, look even smaller beside tall reflecty suits. Sun come down, bounce off them crinkly sacks, near leave Esmè blind.
New Mama draw herself up tall as she go. She still much shorter than Esmè. Much, much shorter than her in the crinkly sack what call Esmè sweetheart. “You have no business here,” say New Mama. “This is my home. Private property. You should all leave immediately.”
Him with the clickety box step forward, hold it near New Mama. New Mama try to hide her flinch, but Esmè see it. That man, he step close to sweetheart woman, show her what click click box say about New Mama.
Woman nod, wave him away. Though Esmè can’t see woman’s face, she think she hear sorrow in her voice. “You know you can’t keep her,” she say to New Mama. “It’s a violation of Article One Hundred and Fifty-Seven dash Twelve of the Post-Devastation Treaty.”
“I never agreed to any treaty,” say New Mama, and Esmè hear sorrow in her voice too. Different kind of sorrow, but sorrow still.
Click-box man speak, no sorrow in him voice. “Genotoxic malforms aren’t protected by the Articles,” he say, step forward with box held out like a hard stone to hit with. “You know that.”
Esmè step between him and New Mama. Suited woman put hand on man’s arm, make him lower the box. Other few crinkly people what don’t talk have hands to belts, grip ends of black metal tubes. But the woman make motion in air, a hush, hush movement with her hand, and everybody step back.
When that woman speak again to New Mama, Esmè hear more sadness in her voice, but hardness too. “I’m sorry,” she say, “but you can’t keep her. The last city is dying, fewer offspring surviving every year despite our best efforts at water, air, and soil filtration. We’re on a collection mission, with strict orders to bring back all viable rural survivors of child-bearing age.” She pause, look at Esmè. They both look at Esmè. Everybody look at Esmè. “You know it’s for the best,” say suited woman. “The best for her. There are no other cities left. Not that we know of.”
New Mama hear something in that woman’s words what Esmè don’t, because she nod, step to Esmè and hug her tight. “Take care of yourself, Esmè,” she say at last. Her words come hard and raw, like her throat trying to close against tears.
Esmè shake her head, not understanding. “But I live here with you,” she say, her words rising to wailing. “I stay here with you! With James and Mikey and Bonita and Cara Lou. With you….”
But New Mama push her away for the first time since Esmè meet her. First time ever, she push her away. “It’s for the best, Esmè,” she say. “Go with these people. They’ll take care of you, give you at least a fighting chance.”
You take care of me, Esmè want to say, extra strong so everybody know it true. You always take care of me….
But sack suit woman move to put arm around Esmè’s shoulders, pull her away from New Mama. She clutch Esmè close, and Esmè surprised to feel the shape of an actual person under all that crinkle and reflection. Shaped more straight and tall like Old Mama, but firm and young like New Mama. Woman say over top of Esmè’s head to New Mama, “Are there any other children inside that house we should know about? There’ll be only one chance, and this is it.”
Now it New Mama’s turn for a hard voice. “There’s nothing in that house you haven’t already discarded once.”
Most of them sack suits stay silent, but click-clack box man’s voice stab. He say, “We have orders to check all dwellings, euthanize if necessary, for humanitarian reasons and to destroy teratogen-affected gene pools.”
Esmè know what man find if he go into New Mama’s house: he find Bonita, lying in her box. He find Mikey scooting on the floor, and itty bitty Clara Lou wrapped in blankets near the fire. Maybe he find James, maybe not; James good at hiding.
She might not understand all them words, but Esmè understand brittle fear what spark off New Mama. Looking at shiny black metal tubes on belts on sacks on strangers behind woman, Esmè go all of a sudden still. Her heart, it stop beating. Her breath, it lie quiet in her chest.
Esmè know what she need to do.
Esmè clasp woman’s suited arm. Underneath, she feel what probably flesh, what probably cover bone what probably shape like arm like Esmè’s arm. Woman tilt her head down to look at Esmè, she’s so tall. Esmè look into woman’s flat shiny face-cover, but all Esmè see is Esmè looking back. “I go with you,” she say, reflection-Esmè mouthing the words as she say it. “I go with you now, no trouble. Right now. I go only if we leave right right now.”
A chorus of wailing bust from the trees like a two-headed goose a-fire. It’s the twins, all three arms stretched out toward New Mama as they lope up from woods, hug her tight, fourth leg what they not use flapping off to one side. She clutch them close, not looking away from woman’s flat-glass face.
“Her name is Esmè,” say New Mama, her words rasping. She close her eyes, shut Esmè out. Hugging them boys tight, she press her face to the tops of they heads.
Woman nod, turn, and still holding Esmè begin walking over the rise downslope. Even through eyes starting to blur with tears, Esmè see a no-wheel cart, shiny and silver and reflecty like them crinkle suits, with long big blades flat on top. It’s a different kind of cart than them she done seen bumpety bump across the wasted lands in the night. Bigger, for one thing; silent, another. Look like it could rise straight up into the sky, not have to go across bruised grasses at all.
Blackbox man shove crinkly silver arm to block Esmè’s and woman’s way. “We’re going to take the word of a malform?” he say. Esmè never before today heard that word he use twice now, but she done heard the tone plenty. She done heard it from Old Mama every day of her life until she finally done come to other side of the mountain. That tone, it full of fear. It full of hate. It full of hate and fear and a mess of other things Esmè never hear once in all her time with New Mama and all them pretty, pretty babies.
Woman start walking again, push man’s arm away to make room for Esmè, who now shiver so hard her teeth rattle in her head. “Yes, Lieutenant,” the woman say, “we’re going to take her word for it.”
Nobody else say a thing as they climb into that shiny cart with no wheels. Nobody else say a thing as they lift straight up into air so Esmè’s stomach tilt, make her shiver harder. Even Esmè say no thing at all, though when woman take her arm away from Esmè and run fingers along flat black plate over her eyes–de-snap, de-snap, hiss–and push silver crinkly sack back over her head like hood of a cloak come undone, Esmè see her ugly, ugly face and cry.
Woman look like Esmè: only one nose, plain mouth with curving red lips, wavy brown hair pulled back from face. She even got only two eyes, matching blue ones both exactly the same, with lashes long and thick. Nothing pretty about this woman, nothing at all. She just as ugly as Esmè.
Esmè cry harder as the silver cart lift higher. Woman tighten her arm again around Esmè. “There, there, Esmè,” she say. “There, there.”
But Esmè can only think on all them pretty little babies. All them pretty little babies what going to be left on that hillside, with no Esmè to find them soft little bundles, tell them how pretty they are. She think on this and she cry.
About the Author
Alex C. Renwick
Under various iterations of her full name, Alexandra (Camille) Renwick’s award-nominated genre-elastic fiction has been translated into nine languages and adapted to stage and audio. She splits her time between an urban swamp in Austin, Texas and a crumbling historic manor house in Canada’s capital city of Ottawa. Find her most recent stories in Asimov’s, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, & The Baltimore Review. More at alexandrarenwick.com.
About the Narrator
Laura Hobbs works in infosec by day and is a random crafter by night. Twitter is her social media of choice, and she despises the word “cyber”. When asked nicely, she sometimes reads things for people on the internet. You can find her online at soapturtle.net.