Like Caves Within Caves

Emily Hart 

Copyright 2019 by Emily Hart  



Photo of a nuclear power plant.


    The Atomic Clock ticks on inexorably.  Unless we turn back the hands.  

     The bed is cold as I slide into it.  Chan is rolling the rug tightly against the door.  By the lamplight I can see the shimmering of ice on the window sill.  Earlier I swept up a dusting of gray snow from the floor below the window.  There are drifts of cold throughout the house, like caves within caves.  I stretch out my legs and feel around with my feet for the hot water bottles I have placed at the foot of the bed.  They are so hot, the sensation is one of iciness as I rub my feet against them.  I reach into the growing warmth and draw one of the bottles up to my chest, cradling it against me.

     That was a mistake.

     It is better to be cold than to be reminded of some warmths.

     I move the bottle again, this time against my abdomen.  If my belly is warm I do not feel the hunger as intensely.  It is a strange contradiction.  If the bottle is against my belly I do not miss the supper I skipped quite so much.  If the bottle is in my arms I feel the absence of the wasteling even more.  I am cold even with the bottle.

     When I hold the bottle in my arms I do not think of that small non-person as a wasteling.  I think of him as my son, and I feel a burning pressure behind my eyes.  I think of how he was formed, the vacancy where eyes should have been, the twisted stubs that were meant to be limbs, the way his skin shredded from his body.  They did not let me hold him, of course.  That would have been "counter productive."  It is best to quickly dispose of these mistakes, these wastes of time and energy and womb, and try again as soon as possible.  I don't know what good trying again does.  Of all the women I know who have tried to breed, only two have produced holdings instead of wastelings like mine.  None of the women who gave birth to a wasteling has later given birth to a holding.  I think that they tell us to try again -- to have hope -- because they do not want to hear our screams when we realize we will never hold a living child in our arms, a child who is not so deformed by the residue of radiation that it's skin sloughs off.

     I think also that they tell us to try again because after several wasteling births a woman often bleeds so heavily that the life ebbs from her with the blood and these useless women are no more trouble to anyone.  I asked Chan if that was what he wanted when he reminded me that the technicians had advised us to make another attempt as soon as possible.  He looked as if I had struck him. 

     I could not bear to see another wasteling emerge from my body and be taken away to the disposal plant, I told him.     

    Chan argued that perhaps this next time would be the time it went right and we had a holding.  I did not tell him, but I thought it was interesting that the wasteling was mine, but a holding would be ours.

     I reminded him that none of the women we knew who had produced a wasteling had gone on to produce a holding.  What about Chere and Cloe, he asked.  They both had holdings.

     But they had not had a wasteling first, I reminded him.  And Chere's was not a keep.  It would not nurse and it grew thinner and thinner until it stopped moving and was taken away like the any wasteling.  Chere may call it a holding, but it is not in her arms now.  Her arms are as empty as mine.

     I don't know who it is harder for -- Chere who held a child in her arms for a few days and felt it's heartbeat slow against her breast, or myself, having only a hot water bottle to hold.  We both carry the icy dark within ourselves, the cave within the cave.

     Chan comes into the bed.  Even though his body is still chilled I love the feel of him near me.  Outside there is cold, but within we are warm together.  I would have been happy to have a holding with him, a child to keep.

     He asks me if I am ready to have the lamp out and I say yes.  I know it is only a habit of courtesy that makes him ask.  The small amount of oil we are rationed will only last until the next rationing if we use it sparingly.  We keep the lamp on only a few minutes each evening and at the lowest setting.  It is really only for the effect of a light that we use it at all.  We do nothing in the dark hours that would need a light.  I remember when I was a child and people watched television at night, or read or played board games or sat on the front porch or went places in cars.  I remember pleading to be allowed to stay up "a little longer."  I remember seasons -- spring with flowers and warm days and finding the skate key and seeds sprouting in the garden, and summer with days so hot we splashed in swimming pools and sometimes drove to the lake and swam out as far as we dared and cooled our houses with electric fans.  Then the fall came when the days were cooler and the leaves on the trees turned from green to a riot of yellow, orange and scarlet.  And then winter . . . .  When I was a child winter excited me.  Winter meant unexpected free days from school, frozen puddles that crackled beneath our boots, spears of ice broken from the eaves of the house, the frozen pond we skated on, and most of all -- the holidays with colored and sparkling lights everywhere and gifts and wonderful food.  And the baby in the manger.

     Now it is always winter and never Christmas and there are seldom any babies.

     Chan's body has grown warmer from my warmth and in return given warmth to me.  We are a circle of warmth in this immense cold. 

     An older friend told me that she had protested against nuclear bombs and the nuclear energy plants.  She said that "atoms for peace" was a lie.  She told me about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and about some of the accidents at nuclear power plants like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.  She described the burns and the way skin sloughed off of people and babies born without limbs, or blind.  She told me about the sicknesses like cancer that became more and more common.  She said that they knew a war fought with nuclear weapons would have no victor, that it would burn up most of the Earth and send up a cloud of radioactive dust which would block out the sun for years, leaving us in a gray winter.  She said they knew accidents were almost inevitable with such dangerous materials.  She said they told people over and over again what would happen.  She said that some people listened, but more did not, and little was done to stop the nuclear progression.  They marched and sang and chanted and wrote books and chained themselves to fences and went to jail and the bombs were built in secret places and the nuclear power plants promised energy for all things they wanted to do.

     All I want today is to work in a garden and grow food that will not poison my body, and to have a living child in my arms, a child that does not stare back at me unseeing.

     I touch Chan's face with my fingers.  His tears are still warm. 


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