Caught in the tidal flows of unspoken morning prayers and simple wonder, John the Collector rested against a tree with his toes burrowed and curled into the coolness beneath the warming sand. Before him, a rippling ocean stretched out until it disappeared, merging into the clear cobalt sky.
The salty fragrance of the sea was overtaken by scents of eucalyptus, myrrh, and hagenia flowers. John smiled. These were always her first embrace! Resisting the urge to jump to his feet, he instead shifted to make room, lowered his head, and took a deep breath. It had been a while.
The tall, fine-boned, ebony-black woman accepted his silent invitation and settled next to him, her hand tousling the gray-black hair at the back of his neck with the tenderness of a mother toward her child. The playful touch sent a prickling peace through his shoulders and down his back, lifting the burden he unconsciously carried.
He could have stayed like this for some time, but there was always purpose to her visits. Even so, he held off his own rising curiosity, preferring the gentle contentment of her company.
Reluctantly, he spoke. “Mother Eve?”
“John?” Without looking, he knew she was grinning. Ancient and powerful, this woman radiated the contagious joy of a child. With one arm she pulled him to her, kissing the top of his head.
“You have been in this place . . . ,” she began.
“A hundred years today,” he finished. “If that is the reason for your visit, I am grateful.”
“It is in part,” Eve said. “One hundred years anywhere is cause for celebration.”
Pulling himself up, he brushed off the sand before helping Eve to her feet. She gracefully accepted his hand, though it wasn’t needed. Coarse white hair formed a woven crown around her face, lined and creased by countless years, a masterpiece of sculpted joy and sorrow. She glowed more like a child than a matriarch, her mahogany eyes lit by expectancy.
His questions threatened to tumble out in all directions, but she stopped them with a raised hand.
“John, one good question is worth a thousand answers,” she teased. “Choose it carefully.”
It only took a moment to form. “How long?” he asked somberly. “How long must we wait before the end, when our healing will finally be complete?” Reaching out, he took her hand and placed it on his heart.
“Much sooner, John, than when I first asked that same question.”
He took in a deep breath and nodded, looking into the amber light that flecked her eyes.
“But I am here about today, John. Today, my child will be born into your world.”
John frowned. “Your child? But Mother Eve, are we not each your daughter or your son?”
“Yes, you are,” she declared. “But we have long known there would be three in particular who would stand and represent us all. The one to whom was given the promise of the seed, the one whose seed would crush the serpent’s head, and the one to whom the seed would be forever united. The Mother, the Daughter, the Bride. The arrival of this girl marks the beginning of the end.”
So stunned, he hardly noticed Eve pick up a stone and walk toward the water’s edge. John followed, disoriented and overwhelmed. She launched the stone high into the air, and they both watched it zip down into the glassy sea with hardly a splash.
“John,” Eve said, “in the ocean of the universe, a single stone and ripple changes it forever.”
John let the small incoming waves tickle his feet and tug at the sand beneath them. To be near Eve was always healing and always disconcerting.
A shrill voice sliced the air. “You’re dawdling, John.”
He turned. A breeze off the water lifted the hair at the back of his head, even as Eve’s perfumes caressed his face.
Letty had arrived, and Eve was gone. John sighed.
“The Scavengers have been calling for you for longer than an hour, and since you are the only Collector within a hundred miles . . .”
Turning back to the water, John selected another smooth stone and threw it high into the air so it would drift on its edge and slice into the water’s surface with a satisfying sound. Why such a tiny success always pleased him was a mystery.
“What’s their hurry?” he muttered, as Letty arrived at his side. He picked up another stone.
She was a bundle of a little old woman, barely three feet tall, with a cane and shawl and mismatched socks folded over mismatched shoes. She looked like an apple that had been left in the hot sun for too long, still round but shriveled up, with piercing black eyes, a crooked nose, and an almost toothless scowl. Her walking stick could have easily passed for a wand of sorts, and it was pointing right at him.
When he saw the intensity on her face, he let the rock fall to the sand.
Her words were measured. “A large metal container was spotted floating early this morning, hauled ashore, and opened. The Scholars have already ascertained that it drifted here from Earth in real time.”
“That’s happened before,” suggested John.
“We opened it up and found the remains of twelve human beings, all young females except one.”
“Jesus,” he mumbled, as much a prayer as an exclamation.
“The container seems to have been used to transport people great distances, probably on a large vessel or ship. Since no flotsam drifted with it, we surmise it was purposefully jettisoned, but not before the girls inside were executed. If there is any mercy in such a tragedy . . .” Her voice hesitated as emotion found its way.
John turned and slumped onto the sand, drawing his knees up to his chin. The warmth of the day and gentle breeze now seemed a mockery. Eve’s joy had left with her.
He felt Letty’s tiny hand rest on his shoulder as he fought his rising rage and grief.
“John, we cannot allow the shadow-sickness to find a place inside our hearts. In this broken cosmos we grieve. We rightly feel fury, but we must not let go of joy’s embrace, which is beyond our understanding. To feel all of this means that we are alive.”
He nodded. “You said the humans were female, except one?”
“Yes, there was also a middle-aged man. The shared initial view is that he may have been trying to protect the girls. There is a story, I’m sure, but we might have to wait a long time to hear it fully.”
“I don’t want to see—”
“Don’t worry. The bodies have been transported to the Sanctuary of Sorrows and are being prepared for tomorrow’s celebration of fire. Right now, you must do what only you can do . . . so the Scavengers can dismantle and the Artists can find ways to memorialize these precious children.”
John closed his eyes and turned his face to the sky, wishing his conversation with Eve had not been so unbearably interrupted.
“Go on,” Letty encouraged. “The others are waiting.”
• • •
THE SIZE OF THE container surprised John. At least thirty feet in length, its sheer weight had required a dozen of the Haulers’
beasts to drag it out of the water over rolling logs. Deep ruts were clearly visible behind the box on the cove’s sandy shore. Tents held tables piled high with its contents: clothing, blankets, and a few stuffed toys. It was colder here, as if the sun itself had turned its warming face away.
From a pocket he took out a small case, opened it, and slipped a ring on his finger. He then turned the edge so that the impress changed. Anything he touched with this ring would bear a date mark and later be taken to his home, the Refuge, where it would be stored for analysis and reference. From his other pocket he took a pair of thin gloves and pulled them on.
The first item that drew his attention was a three-drawer, black, locked file cabinet, which he marked. It was cold to the touch. He waved over a Crafter, a woman with skills for locks and keys, and it took her only a few seconds to open it, leaving John to the contents. It was what he had expected: files of records and information, shipments, and bills of lading, accounting, and various other reports.
The bottom drawer held folders documenting the girls’ scant personal information, including a facial photograph of each. Height, weight, age, health. The names were obviously aliases, each an earthly country beginning with sequential letters of the alphabet: Algeria, Bolivia, Canada, and down to Lebanon. He paused for a moment to stare at the images. The faces and eyes in the photos were windows into twelve stories that deserved a proper grieving.
John was about to shut the drawer and move on when a thought crossed his mind. He counted the folders. Twelve, just as Letty had said. But that was wrong. Her number had included the man. He counted again. Twelve photos, all girls, all young. It
meant a girl was missing. Perhaps she had escaped or the records were inaccurate, but the discrepancy nagged at the edges of his thinking and wouldn’t let him go.
Had Eve been referring to one of these?
On a hunch he walked a few feet over to the container itself. A row of boots for the workers was lined up near the doors, protective footwear that would later be thoroughly cleaned and decontaminated. He picked a pair his size.
An Engineer greeted him, “Hey, John. Terrible tragedy, all this.”
He nodded as he laced up his boots. “I want to go inside for just a moment and check something against these records. Anything I should know?”
“No, there are still odds and ends to go through, but we’ve already removed what’s most important.”
John nodded sadly, acknowledging the man’s kindness.
“Also, we just turned off the refrigeration unit. It’s still freezing in there. Probably got damaged and stuck in the cold cycle, which was a blessing I suppose. The bodies were almost frozen. Be careful, it’s pretty slick.”
The doors opened easily, groaning on their hinges, letting the sunlight spill inward. Internal lighting flickered on, indicating some sort of closed battery system separate from the refrigeration. He realized as he stepped in that he had been holding his breath. When he let it go through gritted teeth, his exhaling vapor drifted up and around him.
The hold was about a third full of larger items—boxes, mats, plastic containers—along with litter and bits and pieces of trash, a
hodgepodge he would have to go through at some point. Frozen bloodstains were scattered around the metallic tomb, the walls, the floor. Carefully, he stepped around these, every sound he made reverberating in the stillness.
At the far end he could see the refrigeration fan now silent and unmoving, a thin layer of ice already forming on the blades. A quick survey almost satisfied him that there was no place left that could hide a missing girl.
But an anomaly caught his eye. At the end of the wall near the cooling unit was a welded metallic frame jutting out about a foot and a half. He cautiously made his way back and examined it closely. Under the bottom were hinges, and when he ran his fingers along the top, he found two large clamps. John knew that if he undid them, the entire thing would open down and out. A sleeping area, like a bunk or tabletop perhaps? Maybe for a guard?
He hesitated. Then he blew on his hands and unsnapped the clasps, which released with a hollow clack. As he lowered the metal wall, the frosted steel bit into his palms and fingers through the thin gloves. It was heavy and he had to use a shoulder to let it down until chains at either end unraveled their lengths. It stopped a couple feet from the floor, level and sturdy. That is where he found her.
The teenaged girl was broken inside this space. Someone had forced it shut and she had not fit. She could have been peacefully asleep, her limbs at odd angles, her head folded down on her chest, were it not for the cuts and gashes that began to ooze with the release of pressure. One foot was almost severed. As she lay there frozen, he stood staring, stuck in time.
John turned and walked out, too sickened to avoid the blood this time. He needed to fetch those trained to deal with such things.
“I found another girl!” he yelled, setting off a flurry of activity that rushed past him and into the container. Outside, he unlaced the boots and took them off, walked back to the tent where he had marked the cabinet, sat down, and leaned against it.
“God, how is it that You still love us?” he whispered. He paused and glanced in the direction of the container. “Please, grant to her Your peace,” he prayed.
Another explosion of activity and shouting brought him to his feet. A Hauler friend burst into the tent and hugged him.
“John! That girl you found! She is still alive! Barely, but alive!” The man beamed and hugged him a second time. “You’re a Finder now, John!” the Hauler yelled as he left. “Who would have imagined?”
John dropped his head into his hands, feeling numb. If this was Eve’s child, it was a sorrowful and wrenching birth, in blood and water. What good could come of such evil?