The ripeness of female expectation swelled through the subterranean Great Hall. Jostling waves fanned out through the assembled women, two hundred or more, and deepened as Mayor Noa, a tall woman with waist-length steel-coloured hair, stepped onto the creaking wooden stage at the front. Extra-ordinary meetings like this one meant only one of two things, and everyone had seen the wooden ballot box already present on stage.
“Settle, please,” said the mayor.
The cavernous, earth-muffled space emptied of sound as if a giant wave had swamped the hall and back-swelled, dragging the noise away with its monstrous suction. The two groups of women, those who were eligible for the ballot and those who were not, were conspicuous by their stance: the first could have been magnetised by the forward pull on their bodies; the second, far larger group, stood keen, erect and interested but apart. Shades of grey and white formed the colour palate of the second.
But for any observer who had witnessed the ballot before – and there had already been several since Harvest – there was an extra frisson to the air above the crowded women: a rumour had tumbled from mouth to mouth and there was a shudder of something unusual this time.
“If I can have your attention.” Every eye was already trained on her striking figure. “We are pleased to announce the arrival of the fifth donor we have welcomed this year. All of you who are eligible have now been date-checked and those within the window have been entered into the ballot. You have until sunset tomorrow night to have your names removed should you wish to withdraw for whatever reason, without prejudice. We will reconvene tomorrow evening at sunset for the draw. Thank you.”
The tall woman left the stage to a pattering of applause and the swelling buzz of the rumour circulating the hall, refusing to be squashed.
Isaac reclined on the bed in the guest quarters of the underground complex, watching his barometer fall. He had arrived that morning at the squat concrete bunker which marked the entrance to the settlement. Beneath the bunker tunnels burrowed down through the low, grassy hills which scudded down towards the sea, ending in dramatic wave-cut cliffs and deep bays where the colony’s fishing boats usually strained at their anchors in the Atlantic swell. As Isaac had traversed the cliff-top path he had noted that the natural harbours lay empty; the locals’ barometers agreed with his and they had stashed the boats deep in the caves, lashed down by ropes, away from the terrible power of the approaching storm.
On reaching the main bunker door he had held out his forearm with its tattoos for inspection. The two guards on duty, one male and one female, had read the markings, raised their eyes to his face, and studied the ink again as if for verification. They would have taken him in without his status, most likely, though they could have kept him under lock and key. He had heard of colonies that had stopped taking in strangers at all if they didn’t have a tattoo.
The mayor had visited Isaac whilst he had been eating a bowl of fish stew in his small, gaudily-painted room and had examined the tattoos and the information they contained: his counts and his successes, with the marks of the satisfied colonies dotted along the time-line.
“You can stay here until the storm has subsided, of course,” she said, her eyes flickering across his face. “Your count is impressive, one of the highest I have seen and we are grateful to have you here.” He nodded and she left, closing the door.
Whilst some donors enjoyed their status and used it to full advantage, Isaac had always been reluctant: his family had been close and as a young man he had not felt suited to the life of a traveller, even though it meant food and shelter wherever he went with no manual toil: he wouldn’t have to worry about supporting the over-heavy burden of the elderly, and his own family would be well cared for. Still, he had pushed to be disqualified. But his gifts were just too valuable and he had been ordered to leave to train for his vocation and be initiated into the lonely brotherhood of donors. At first he had cursed the buds on the gorse bushes he had passed as he strode out across the scrubby moors. He had closed his eyes to the beauty of the grasslands and the strange faded grandeur of the remains of the great cities that now crumbled, weed-laden and derelict. But the road had spoken to him as he had walked: she had shared her wild moods and her unabashed loneliness, her sky-brim generosity and her dark, dark quiet, and he had fallen for her treacherous ways and unashamed love. Isaac slept at nights under banks and the grown-out tangle of old hedgerows, sharing the subtle shifts of dawn light with nobody but the empty road. He was now entirely hers. He made his colony visits less and less until he only sought out shelter when, like now, he was driven by necessity.
His barometer had dropped again: he could sense the pressure growing in his skull and feel the ache in his knees. He leaned back against the bright-painted wall and tried to breathe through the suffocation of the rock that surrounded him. He could hear the clatter of preparations echoing through the subterranean town as the colony brought in their livestock to the vast sunless barns and secured machinery deep underground. He heard names ring out as roll-calls were taken and the shrieks of the colony’s few, precious children who were buffeted by the frantic activity into hyperactivity.
He ate alone. He re-soled his shoes and mended his shirts. He slept, badly, away from the caress of the wind. He wasn’t ordered to but he remained in his small, functional room.
That evening, the door opened and the mayor entered with the details from the evening’s ballot.
“We have selected three names, as is custom here.” He nodded. “One a night for the next three nights, starting with tonight.”
“Rates have been good here, compared to the average, and we are keeping a healthy stock, with one current pregnancy from a recent donor. We have even been able to father three of our own.” He nodded again and felt her gaze linger on his face for a moment before she left.
Lael had heard the rumour and the thought of it filled her mind as she made her way from the married quarters down through the labyrinth tunnels to the guest rooms. The smooth sandstone walls were painted cheerful colours, coded to aid navigation. Murals had been added over time to some of the more open spaces: scenes of the land above to remind them of the touch of the air and the sounds of leaves for when the storms came.
She knocked on the guest room door.
“Come in.” A pleasant voice, with an accent from the North. She pushed at the door and sidled round it, suddenly shy. The donor welcomed her in and poured her a drink, seating her on the edge of the large bed. She could only stare: the rumours were true: he was beautiful. Tall and well-muscled, his face intelligent and wind-beaten from his years on the road. His eyes spoke of the reflections of living things and his hands where he touched her to settle her more comfortably were firm and kind.
He was far, far too handsome to be a donor.
He saw a question in her eyes and nodded, holding out his forearm. She studied it, realising what he was telling her, about his unquestionable vocation.
“But you haven’t fathered any in two years,” she said, frowning, concerned, her fingers tracing the mark of the harvests and the colony stamps.
“Aye, I’m mostly retired from the service these days. But the counts have been confirmed, see.” He pointed to an addition to the timeline just before the harvest.
“Is it the storm? That’s why you’re here?”
“Aye. It’s going to be a while and I need to earn my keep. What’s your name?”
“Lael.” He leaned forward and kissed her.
The storm bullied its way across the surface of the earth, throwing the seas into confusion and ruining the land. Waves engulfed the cliffs and blasted new contours in the coastline as they dragged down great chunks of rock and hurled them into the water, swirling them far out into the depths. Rain drowned the air, pounding any living thing into oblivion.
The stunted grandchildren of what were once called trees bent low in submission as the hurricane tore through them, stripping leaves with teeth found in the stones and debris of the fields, clinging to life with roots that tore one by one until they lost their grasp, and branches, trunk and all were hurled far up into the clouds that boiled kilometres deep.
Down beneath the earth the colony waited, feeling the booming of the storm through the thickness of the rock. Their heads rang with the pressure and their vision slurred with electricity. Tension skewered through the hemmed-in bodies and vibrated across nerves; arguments flashed like lightning in the heat that ebbed from their blood and thickened with nowhere to go. The surface air vents failed under the weight of the deposited debris.
Breathing thickly, his eyes half-closed, Isaac waited in the darkness of his small room and thought of Lael. Of the three women, she had stayed for the longest, afterwards, lying beside him with her hand on his chest. She had told him about her husband and how they still tried for a baby every month because he was only borderline and there was still a chance, maybe. She had been put forward for a ballot eight times but this was the only one in which she’d been successful. She told him how she’d heard about the other donors and the way they’d been with the women, and how she’d been almost glad she hadn’t been picked. She’d looked up at him then, shyly, and ran her hand down to his stomach.
He’d had to stop her then: it was only supposed to be once and there were rules for a reason.
The lights had been turned off to save the generator. Isaac’s head lolled onto his chest; he had no way of knowing the time away from the night sky and he felt sluggish although it could only have been early.
A knock sounded in the room and he opened his eyes.
“Donor!” A man’s voice, low and rough.
“Come in.” He felt for a candle and matches, striking one in the inky blackness and casting a feeble glow across the sparse furniture.
A huge man entered, bending to avoid the doorframe. He looked too large for the room, too large to be contained in the underground anthill of the colony. This was a man built for fields and ploughing, for hefting and grinding. He bristled wetly in the cave-like room: the humidity caused sweat to sheen on his skin and run in rivulets down the contours of his body like dew in a ravine.
“I am Esau, husband to Bethany. She was picked from the ballot and chosen for donation this cycle.” His words were carefully chosen, stripping away sentiment.
“I want you to try again. She was too early in her cycle, I think. She will have more chance of conceiving if you donate a second time.”
“You know the rules, you know I can’t do that.”
“She might not get another chance! We might not get another chance. Please, I can give you anything I have, anything you want. Tools? Gold?”
“I don’t need anything.”
“Do you think I want to be here, asking this? I want you to do your damn job. You leech off the work of others, of other hard-working men, and you think because you have a gift that makes you special? That you can take where you like and not give back?” He calmed himself and wiped his face that gleamed in the light from the candle. “Just do your job, Donor.” He left.
Isaac blew out the candle and lay down again in the dark, hating the oppressive press of the rock above him. Bethany, like Lael, had had that desperate air about her. He saw this often, and used it as a cue for his façade; he became reassuring and strong and they responded by allowing him to lead, like a dance. Many had never been with a donor before and didn’t know what to expect. He wore his professional mask at all times and when he left he could turn his face back to the road without fear of compromise.
The first time Isaac had visited a colony to make a donation, the tattoos on his arm still raw and livid, he had been taken straight to a room in the married quarters where a girl, no older than sixteen, had been waiting for him. She had been pretty, with a rounded figure, long black hair and astonishing blue eyes that flashed like a diving kingfisher. He had called on his training to help his nerves and had been asking her some simple questions to put her at her ease when her husband crashed through the door in a rage. He had looked Isaac up and down and demanded to be present during the donation: some of the other men had heard the rumours and had teased him, winding him up into a fury. Isaac had managed to persuade him to remain in the main living room but from the moment the girl had lead him through to the bedroom, eyes down, scarlet with embarrassment, he could hear the man’s shuffling footsteps just outside the door and his angry coughs at the slightest sound from the girl.
He learned to set his own ground rules: he would always use the guest quarters and never mingled with the residents. He didn’t ask the women personal questions and avoided answering any himself. He requested all his meals in his room and never stayed more than one cycle. When he left it was with a sense of relief to have emerged from those claustrophobic confines with the tinge of distrust and resentment tainting every breath he took.
Even the other donors he met on the road greeted him with hostility, their eyes raking his face and the glowing testimonial of his tattoos. They refused to share information with him and he took to using the lesser-used paths to stay away from them, striding the high country and the barren areas where crops would no longer grow.
Isaac’s candle burned increasingly sluggish in the dank air. He lay, watching it, thinking of the beauty of the sunsets that burned in the spoiled atmosphere. His stupor was broken by the arrival of the mayor at his door.
“The council and I have been questioning the wisdom of allowing you to stay here without continuing your donations,” she said, folding her arms above him. “The women want to be allowed a second chance. What do you think of this?”
“There are rules.” He sat up and ran his fingers though his hair. “A second round would increase the chance of a successful pregnancy but would bring the chance of two successful pregnancies into unacceptably high levels. The inbreeding guidelines forbid it.”
“But if the women in question were willing, as were their husbands, and proper records were kept…”
He saw the same desperation in her eyes. The desire for a future for her colony ate at her judgement and decayed her rationality like damp in the harvest stores.
“The rules are there for a reason. As mayor, you swore to uphold them.”
“These are special circumstances: the storm keeps you here for longer than a usual visit. One of the women was still early in her cycle and does not feel that she has had a fair chance.”
“I will abide by the rules. I cannot help you, though I sympathise with your position.”
She left and he blew out his candle. When he awoke in the morning he found the door to his small room locked.
The clustered women moved like wheat fields in a squall. Their bodies blustered and swayed, turning and leaning with the muttered talk that swept through the Great Hall. An announcement was to be made and speculation hissed: could there be a second ballot? Hope glimmered around the edges of the words that fell from eager lips; the donor had the highest count seen this generation. Moreover, he was handsome, something that should have disqualified him but for his remarkable gift. If they were going to conceive with a donor they would choose this one above the others.
Mayor Noa stepped onto the stage accompanied by the three women already selected by the ballot. She carried the square wooden box and at the sight of it a murmur rolled around the Hall.
“The Council have met and discussed the situation. The storm prevents the donor from leaving and we have decided that advantage should be taken of the fortuitous timing to increase chances of conception.”
The gathered women strained forwards as smiles crept across their faces.
“It has been resolved that, to reduce the risk of multiple conceptions and therefore future inbreeding, a second ballot should be taken of the three women already chosen to determine which one of them should be allowed a second donation.”
Voices swelled in dissatisfaction and threatened to drown out the mayor’s thin voice. She held up a hand.
“This is what has been decided. I have the three names here if I could have a volunteer to draw?” She pointed at a girl towards the front who must have been one of the youngest in the Hall, hardly more than fourteen. Blushing, the girl climbed the shallow wooden stairs to the stage. She reached deep into the box; the three names didn’t even cover the bottom. The audience watched every movement of her body as she passed the piece of folded paper to the mayor. The three women on stage with her were pale with expectation.
Naomi gasped and looked as if she might faint. The mayor accompanied her from the stage as the other two candidates watched her leave. The muttering swelled again as kind hands helped the remaining women down from the platform and away.
“I told you I cannot do this! It is against the rules.”
Isaac glared at the mayor and the young woman called Naomi who was huddled in his small room, pressed against the side of the mayor. The stale air tasted of sweat and used breath.
“The Council and I have weighed up the risks and benefits and we have concluded that this represents the best option to maximise the chance of a successful pregnancy whilst reducing the risks of multiple births. I take full responsibility for the decision.”
“I will have no part in this.”
“You have received the hospitality of this colony for longer than the usual time and you owe us this extra donation. If you do not comply we will withdraw our hospitality and you can take your chances with the storm.”
The mayor left and the two guards she had posted outside his room locked the door behind her. Isaac turned to the girl.
“I understand that this is not your fault, but I will not go through with this: it is against the codes of conduct of my profession and…”
The girl had started crying.
“Please. You don’t know what it would mean to my parents. They want a grandchild so badly. My sister had a baby by a donor but he died and now she’s too old to go in the ballot.” She broke into tears again and Isaac guided her to the bed where she sat and leaned into his shoulder, sobbing.
“It’s unfair of them to put this expectation on you.” He made his voice soft and tried to stifle out the anger that rose within him. “It’s not your fault.”
But his voice was tired. She stroked his hair and saw the fight leave his eyes and the loneliness that replaced it. She pressed her advantage.
“Please,” she said, again. She pulled the dress up over her head and lay down on the bed, her eyes closed. Isaac looked down at her thin, freckled limbs and the hope in her face and lay down beside her, gathering her to him.
The endless storm tore grass from the soil and soil from the bedrock. Rivers rose and flowed outwards across the fields until rotting crops turned the standing water stagnant. Torrents of water ran off towards the heaving sea bearing massive amounts of topsoil that settled thickly over the shellfish beds. And still the rain hammered and the wind roared the injured pain of the blighted skies above.
Isaac couldn’t remember the colour of the moonlight on the grass or the sound of the swell of the ocean at peace. He slept for hours at a time until the ache of his listless legs woke him and he stared up into the candle-lit ceiling with its sick, sterile yellow flush, yearning for the sky.
The mayor called for volunteers to help Esau, the foreman, clear the air vents and tend to the overloaded generator. Two did not come back; Naomi’s husband Elijah was one. They said there’d been an accident with a damaged extractor fan and he had been crushed. Naomi came to Isaac’s room and wrapped herself in him and when she left he lay, naked, thinking of the wind on his skin.
Air began to circulate through the warren of tunnels and rooms as the generator wound back into life and the vents sucked in great gulps from outside. To Isaac, the air tasted strange, like an old friend he no longer recognised. He breathed it in and tried to imagine the weight of the sun bearing down on him as he walked the road.
The guards unlocked the door for Naomi every night once she had finished her work in the weaving room and when she left in the morning he missed her smell and the way her body folded into his. As she slept he rested his hand on her soft belly, willing her to conceive a child to replace the husband she had lost.
Lael come to him too, after the midday meal, first once, then every day. Her furtive manner when she left made him think her husband didn’t know, but he had ceased to care about the rules: once he left he would never come back here. The desperation had not left her eyes and, as he counted the days since he had arrived he realised it was not only due to her desire for a child. He didn’t think to question the complicity of the guards, who were well aware of the rules.
Isaac awoke to find that Naomi had already left. The door stood open and the guards were gone, as if they had never been there. He ventured out into the tunnels with their bright-painted walls and picked up on snatches of talk about the world outside and the reports of damage and drowned fields. A number of the livestock had died during the storm as disease had swept through the confined subterranean barns and he heard the rumble of distressed cattle and sheep as they were driven to the surface to graze on the hills and grow strong again on the grass that remained.
Following the sound upwards through the vast complex, Isaac emerged into the daylight on the top of the bunker and looked out across the ravaged landscape. Every tree, however stunted and resilient, had been dragged from the hillsides and abandoned to the elements. Landslides buried valleys and new bare rock shone like bone. But grass still clung to soil and the sky looked clearer than he had ever seen it, with a new-washed sun peeking through soft, high clouds.
“Isaac.” A hand on his shoulder made him turn and he saw the male guard who had greeted him when he arrived all that time ago. “The Council want to talk you. Come with me.”
As Isaac followed him down into the tunnel system two more guards fell in behind them. Both held their truncheons in their hands rather than at their sides. They escorted him to a large chamber where twelve people, mostly elderly, sat at a table with the mayor at the head. The guard showed him to an empty chair and left, closing the door.
“Isaac. We may celebrate the passing of the storm today but we are saddened to have been struck by tragedy.”
Isaac frowned: he hadn’t heard the news.
“Benjamin, who was husband to Lael, died this morning of head injuries sustained in a fight with Esau last night. Esau’s wife Bethany had been told by the other women that Lael had continued in her relations with you despite the rules. Is this true?”
Isaac replied that yes, it was true, and the elders around the table grumbled their displeasure.
“What is more, it is rumoured that you also continued your relations with Naomi, beyond the one extra donation we had approved,” said Mayor Noa. Isaac merely nodded and received a louder grumble from the council members. “The rules exist for a reason and you have abused your position as donor. On top of this, we have a new concern. Both Naomi and Lael have confirmed pregnancies.”
“That is heartening to hear.”
“And yet both have recently lost their husbands, meaning that they have no-one to support them as they begin the duties of child-rearing, on which so much depends.”
“Esau will be reprimanded, but he is a vital worker and cannot be spared. However, a portion of his crop will go to Lael, as is fitting. The council have agreed on this.”
“The council have also agreed that you should remain here to help in the raising of the two children you have fathered.”
“But I can’t, I must leave…”
“Isaac, hold out your arm.”
He hesitated, then did so.
“You have had many successful donations but these are the first for two years. Unless we care to wait for another storm like the one we have just weathered I think we can assume there will be no more babies born from your donations for the foreseeable future. Are we agreed?”
A snicker ran around the assembled council members and Isaac hung his head.
“Then it is about time you began to contribute. You are still young and strong and will make a fine worker for years yet to come. Your efforts will help to mitigate the loss of Benjamin and Elijah, and will be much needed with two new young additions to our colony.”
“You can’t do this, there are rules!”
“I think you’ll find you broke them.”
Mayor Noa stood tall and strong on the stage, with her long grey hair would up into an elaborate bun. She wore her gold mayoral chain and her official robes of office, reserved for special occasions, such as the one for which this extra-ordinary meeting had been called.
“Settle, please,” she said, and the mass of bodies, the entire population of the colony, shifted their attention to the four figures on the stage.
“We welcome today a new member of our colony, a man who will be father to two children and who will continue to contribute to our community with his hard work, providing for his new family and ensuring the future for all of us. In time, we hope for many more additions from him.”
There was a cheer and clapping at this. Isaac stood between Naomi and Lael, both wearing white and glowing with their elevated status.
“Isaac, do you take these women as your family, and do you promise to support them with your labour and your love?”
Isaac thought of the night sky, shut out from his locked room in the family quarters, and of the taste of the salt in the wind that blew in from the sea when he worked in the fields to clear the debris of the terrible storm, watched at all times by his guards.
“I do,” he said, and Mayor Noa took his hand and pressed a ring onto his third finger with triumph in her eyes.
Jennifer Stakes writes mainly science fiction, although she has also had poems published. She has lived in various countries and now calls Gloucestershire, UK home.