My apologies if you have read this story before. I first posted it on this site last year (under the title 'Ros'). For reasons that seemed right at the time the story was deleted, along with several others, without being backed up. Since then it has only existed at the back of my mind, until now. So why the redo? Well, it is said that parents should not have a favourite amongst their children. Quite right too. Except, that when the sun is shining and the wind is in the right direction, this is mine.
I was a girl of barely eight when my sister was born.
As I remember it I had been sitting on the stairs outside mother's bedroom for absolutely ages, along with my elder brother, Benek (he wasn't that much older, but he made a lot of it!). At long last we heard a baby's cries, through the door.
"It's here, Ros" said Benek.
"About time too," I grumbled.
We both stood expectantly as the bedroom door opened and Father stepped out. He looked deathly pale as he stared down at us.
He shook his head slightly. "Six fingers. Six toes..."
He kept on repeating this as he descended the stairs past us.
Benek turned to me, wide-eyed. "Muto," he breathed.
The Matron stepped out briskly, holding a little bundle in front of her at arm's length.
As she passed us, I saw a little pink face, bawling lustily. The only glimpse of my sister I ever had. She looked normal enough to me.
Later that day Father spoke to us at the kitchen table. He spoke to us like adults. His voice was quiet but firm.
"We will never speak of this day again. You must not talk to your friends about it. You will not mention it to your mother. There will be other babies... normal babies... in the future. Do you understand?"
We had nodded solemnly.
Poor Father. There were to be no more babies.
Barely ten cycles later, while foraging for timber in the foothills of Mount Drammakus, he was crushed in a rockfall, along with three of our farmhands.
The shock nearly killed Mother. Combined with the Muto birth, she fell gravely ill and was confined to her bed for the best part of two full seasons. We were cared for by a succession of distant relatives until she was well again, but the farm fell into ruin and the crops were stunted.
Around the Valley word had it that our farm was cursed. Rumours of the birth had circulated and Father's accident had fuelled it. It became impossible to hire farmworkers.
Mother struggled on, alone in the main. There was always food on our plates...just.
To Benek and I life carried on as it does for most children. We went to the little school in the village. We learned the tennets of the Racial Purity Norms, chanting them daily:
Two eyes, two ears, a mouth, a tongue, five fingers, five toes, two arms, two legs, our thoughts confined...
I particularly enjoyed learning about Skaroine history, as much as was known. We learned how our valley had been shielded from the Great Light by the Drammakus Mountain range all those years ago. Of course, every school day ended with thirty-minutes Hate-Time, when we were encouraged to scream out our bile at the long-dead bogeymen of our world, the Thals.
On non-school days Benek and I would play and run free, as children do. We would play 'hide and go seek' or 'Dals and Thals' (I would always be the Dal and win of course!) Sometimes we skirted the Swamplands in search of rare Flutterbys with our nets.
Only once did we see the true fragility of our situation. We found Mother sobbing uncontrollably in the kitchen one morning. Overnight the Black Rain had come early and all our crops had withered. When she saw us she wiped her face, pulled herself together and reached for the spade without a word. I believe her to have been a remarkable woman.
Then, as I approached my eleventh year, Smith arrived at the farm.
It was a parched, sunny day as I recall. We had seen him approaching up the lane from quite a distance, Mother had paused in her hoeing as he came up to the gate and Benek and I forgot our game of finger-wrestling.
He was dressed in simple working clothes and had a small rucksack on his back. His head was bare and he had the least amount of hair I had ever seen on a man. Barely a smudge really. "They told me in the village that you could use a labourer here." His voice was strange, accented." I am passing through the Valley and could use the work."
Mother snorted a laugh. "Have you not been told that this place is cursed?"
"I don't believe in curses."
"I don't deny that I could use a good worker. But as you can see, this place is barely standing. I could only pay you with board and lodging. The food will be minimal and the work arduous."
The stranger flashed a crooked smile. "Just as I like it – arduous."
Mother regarded hism doubtfully for a moment. "Do you have your Certificate?"
"Oh..yes. Sorry." He fumbled in his rucksack and produced a paper which he held up for Mother to see. I didn't get a good look but I could have sworn the paper was blank!
However, Mother seemed satisfied. "That seems to be in order. Very well, if you are content with the terms we can come to an arrangement."
He cracked another smile. "Fine. My name's Smith by the way. Are these your children?"
"This is Benek and this is Ros."
Smith turned piercing eyes on me. "Ros..." he echoed.
Over the next three seasons Smith worked like a dynamo and virtually turned the farm around single-handed. He repaired the roof and virtually rebuilt the storage barn. He planted, tilled, dug and harvested with amazing energy. He seemed to do all of this with minimal, if any, sleep.
One evening we had found him harvesting wheat well in advance of the normal due date . He worked through the night. The morning brought an unseasonal deluge of Black Rain but our crop was safely bundled in the barn.
Smith struck up a friendly relationship with Benek that I must admit, I envied. One afternoon, in a rare moment of recreation I found them kicking a sphere of stuffed rags around the yard. 'Soccer', he had called it. Benek told me that one evening Smith had named the stars in the sky for him.
I never had that closeness with Smith. It seemed to me that he avoided me wherever possible. Even at the breakfast table his eyes slid away from me, down into his food bowl.
Once, in an unguarded moment, I came upon him at the garden gate. He had popped something small and round into his mouth and was chewing.
"What is it? Can I have one?"
He had jumped at my words and turned to face me. He swallowed. "I'm sorry, Ros. It's a sort of medicine."
"Are you ill?"
He smiled, somewhat sadly. "If I said it was an anti-radiation drug would you have any idea what I was talking about?"
I shook my head.
Smith sighed and walked off.
One evening I tackled Benek about Smith.
"Has he told you where he's from?"
"No. Just that he is journeying through the valley. He says he will be moving on soon."
"Well he's certainly worked miracles here. I've never seen anybody work as hard as him. And with so little rest." I looked Benek in the eye and lowered my voice. "Do you think he might be...Muto?"
My brother looked shocked. "What makes you say that. He showed Mother his Certificate. You saw it like I did."
I said nothing but I thought of the blank piece of paper. Perhaps I didn't see it as you did, Benek.
It was a cool early evening and I was coming home from school alone down the lane when Smith blocked my path. I was a bit surprised, to be honest, given his preference for Benek's company. I got the distinct impression that he had been waiting for me deliberately.
"I shall be moving on soon, Ros."
"Oh? I'm sure we are all grateful to you for what you have done for the farm."
"Hmm. Benek tells me that you are going into the Swamplands tomorrow."
"That's right. Flutterby hunting. There's a school prize for the first blue-glower and there's a rumour that some have been seen nesting on the Fringes."
"But it is tomorrow ?"
I was puzzled. "Yes. After breakfast. Why, do you want to come?"
Smith shook his head quickly. He stared at me for what seemed a very long time.
"I'm sorry that I haven't been more of a friend to you, Ros." I was shocked to see his eyes brimming with tears. "Take care tomorrow." He turned and walked away down the lane.
The following morning Benek was confined to bed with a fever. He had been vomiting in the night and seemed utterly drained when I looked in on him.
"I'm sorry, sweetie," said Mother over breakfast." I'm afraid your trip is off."
"Oh Mother! I'm sure I'll be alright on my own. I'll only go to the Fringes I promise."
Mother looked doubtful.
Just then Smith came in, shaking mud from his boots after an early planting session. Mother turned to him. "What do you think, Smith? Ros wants to go Flutterby hunting out in the Fringes. On her own."
Smith turned to look at us. There was a long silence. Then he spoke.
"Let her go."
I felt quite grown up that morning as I made my was through the Fringes, net in hand. I saw plenty of standard grey Flutterbys, dodging in and out of the tall fronds of grass but none that glowed blue, the object of the hunt.
Before I knew it I was standing on the edge of the Swamplands. The vegetation has thickened and diversified. I could see and smell the bubbling pools of bursting mud, flanking the narrow clay pathway.
Then I saw it. In the distance along the path under the overhanging canopy of trees. The faintest of blue glows. Thinking only of the school prize dangling in front of me I edged closer.
With sickening suddenness my right foot slipped out from under me. The net flew away as I tried to regain my balance but it was no good. I toppled sideways off the path.
Immediately, I knew I was doomed. In a fraction of a rel I was waist-deep in sucking slime. I screamed as it came up to my throat, over my mouth, covering my nose and eyes in stink.
Only my hands poked out above me. I was so stupid...they would never even find me.
Suddenly, miraculously, something clamped onto my left hand. For a moment the power from above and the power from below cancelled each other out. Then there was a wrench which nearly dislocated my shoulder and I found myself lying on firm ground, gasping.
A hand pawed at my face. "Breathe, damn you. Breathe."
I spat out a plug of mud and coughed a lot. The hand cleared my face sufficiently so that I could see.
My rescuer was a man dressed in unusual black clothes with a high collar. He was distastefully scraping mud from his own hands. He looked directly at me with intense eyes. He had a growth of dark hair on his chin, rare in these parts.
"Your name, Child. Quickly!"
"I am Ros, sir."
He surprised me by breaking into a huge grin and, making a fist, he punched the air.
"YES!" it was almost a scream.
I started to scrape the caking mud from my clothes and hair.
"May I know the name of the man who rescued me?"
"Name? Well, you can call me Magister if you must."
"Thank you, Magister. I'm sure my Mother will want to meet you to express her thanks too..."
"No, no," said Magister. "No time for niceties child. I must be away." He turned to go, paused, then looked back at me. "You don't understand what's happened here, do you?"
"I know that you saved my life."
" Not just that. I have restored things to the true path."
He sighed."Your brother was supposed to be here with you today, wasn't he? It was he who should have pulled you from the swamp. Only he's in his sick bed. Poisoned."
Magister nodded. "The man Smith."
"You know Smith?"
"You could say we have met before." Magister seemed to find this amusing. "Smith is evil. Scheming. He tried to kill you today."
I looked anxiously around the bushes.
"Oh don't worry. He's not here. He had to be very careful. Very adroit. You are a fixed point, after all."
"I don't understand. Why would he do that? Will he try again?"
"Of course you don't understand. How could you? Still, he's had his shot. You're safe now."
Without another word Magister walked away down the narrow path that led deeper into the Swamplands.
I lay gathering my strength for some time, trying to make sense of Magister's words. Eventually I cleaned myself off as best as I could and went home.
There was a terrible row when Mother saw the state I was in. I told her that I had slipped off a path but had managed to pull myself out. I didn't mention my rescuer. Benek nearly bust a gut laughing when he saw me and soon recovered from his malaise.
Smith had gone.
As the years rolled by Smith, Magister and my accident in the Swamplands were relegated to childhood memories that seemed to belong to someone else.
I became a teacher at the little school I had attended.
Benek became a famed archaeologist. He was among the team who discovered the lost city of Metallika, deep in the Petrified Forest, on the other side of the continent. One summer day he returned to the farm for a break, bringing with him a friend from his archaeological team. This was Davinta, the man who I married just a short season later.
I left the farm forever to set up home with my husband. Mother remarried and they ran the farm well. He was a good man, her new husband. They had no children.
It was with a mixture of joy and trepidation that I learned I was pregnant. The joy came because many of the team who had worked at the Metallika site had become sterile. Fortunately not Davinta. The trepidation was because the Muto rate amongst the newborn was now running at fifty per cent...
The Childbirth was as painful as I had expected, not helped by the Matron being delayed almost to the last minute by a sudden Black Rain shower.
She fussed around and sent Davinta out of the bedroom. The baby was born barely five deccarels later.
Davinta burst into the room at the first lusty cries. We sat on the bed holding hands as the Matron took our son over to a small side table and conducted the Examination.
We scarcely breathed as she studied him in minute detail from tip to toe. The pain of childbirth was a pin-prick compared to this agony of waiting.
At length she straightened up and a smile played on her old leathery face.
Davinta and I hugged, crying in our relief.
The baby was wrapped in a blanket and placed in my arms, where we looked wonderingly at him, all pink and wrinkled and perfect.
"I'm relieved," said Matron as she pulled a document and stylus out of her bag. "My last three have all been...unclean. Oh the things I have seen!" She paused, stylus in hand.
"And what is the child to be named? For the Certificate of Normality?"
Davinta stood. "We have decided on a union of our two names, my wife and I." He smiled down at me and I smiled back.
"He is to be named Davros. "
With acknowledgment to 'The Chrysalids' by John Wyndham for the inspiration.