Up three floors and across the big room and the bridge, then down three or five? It must have been five. That was what Dante said, wasn’t it? Every floor looked alike. The stairwell was the same on every level. The only way to find the differences was to check each level.
I came out of the stairwell in the Birth Hall, and opened the double doors, looking for the great room and the bridge across to the Youth Hall. But instead I found a large room full of beds side by side like an infirmary. At the end of each bed was a small crib and table, and beside each bed was a chair. On the beds were new mothers, or soon-to-be mothers, wrinkled with age, but frightened with youth and inexperience.
It should have been a place of joy and new life, but the Birth Hall felt like a nightmare of helpless distress.
There were no nurses or doctors and no loving husbands and fathers. Just sixty, or so, teenage girls trying to live long enough to make sure their babies would experience their own fleeting moment. Some had recovered from birth enough to help others with their newborns. One was in labor and crying out for help from her peers. A sister or friend held her hand and nursed her own baby with her other arm. Many of the babies were crying, and the room was noisy with distress, both that of the young mothers and the newborns.
The room held at least twice as many beds, but half of them were empty. The number of mothers was apparently not as great as it had been.
The third bed I passed held a girl’s body, completely covered with a sheet. In the crib at the end of this bed lay a newborn baby, crying inconsolably.
“Give her to me,” the young mother in the next bed said as I walked by. “Maybe I have enough for her too.”
She was nursing her own newborn, wrapped in a linen blanket. I picked up the tiny infant and brought it to the young mother. The baby’s tiny face was red from crying. She opened her eyes and looked right at me and was quiet for a moment. I laid her down beside the new mother.
“I’m Alina,” the girl said and handed me her own, now satisfied baby. “You must be the visitor from the stars.”
“My name is Lani,” I said, and sat down in the nearby chair. It was difficult to avoid looking at the sheet-covered body on the bed next to me.
The baby boy in my arms was sound asleep, but wriggling uncomfortably with a belly ache. I put him over my shoulder and began to pat his back. At length he burped and slept deeper. Alina watched me curiously, but said nothing.
“She was my best friend,” she said, nodding toward the bed. “We gave birth one day apart. My son was born first. If I can, I will give milk to her daughter.”
“And if you can’t?” I asked. The girl was thin and pale. Her brown hair was pulled simply back in a braid that hung over one shoulder. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen, but she looked fifty years old.
“I must live my own moment,” she answered. Her words didn’t sound like an excuse so much as a statement of priority. Her friend’s baby cried in frustration, unable at first to figure out the mechanics of nursing. The young mother focused on helping the infant latch on and soon the baby fell quiet.
“What is your baby’s name?” I asked, to make conversation.
“He doesn’t have a name yet,” she answered. “We don’t give them names until they are a year old. In case they don’t make it, it’s easier.”
She looked around furtively, and then added in a low voice, “but I’ve been thinking of calling him Valor. It’s not a real name, though.”
I smiled. “I like it. It’s a great name. Little Valor. And what about her? Your friend’s baby.” I nodded toward the baby girl who was now quietly nursing. Alina looked past me at the covered body.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe I should wait. Her mother was going to name her Lilly.”
Alina glanced at me sideways to gauge my response. “But I’m pretty sure Bartroles would not allow her to be named that. So we better just leave her nameless for a while. In a year, it might not matter anymore.”
“Because. . . Bartroles might be dead by then,” I explained to myself.
“Long live the Marchempor,” Alina said in a frightened voice, looking around at the startled glances of other girls who had heard my words.
“You’d better go,” she said, her face expressionless. “The baby is asleep now. I had enough milk. Put her back in her bed and give me my son.”
Alina gave out orders like a pro and I found myself obeying without hesitation. I took the baby girl and put her over my shoulder to burp her like I had little Valor. I patted her back and she let out a big belch that left thick milk residue on my shoulder.
“What are you doing?” Alina asked, curious in spite of her impatience for me to leave.
“Burping her,” I explained. “It helps them sleep better after they’ve just nursed.”
“How do you know that?” Alina asked suspiciously.
“I had a baby brother,” I explained. “He was ten years younger than us - than me.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw several new mothers put their infants on their shoulders and began patting their backs.
I put the baby girl gently down into her crib and tucked the blanket around her.
“I have to go now,” I said to Alina, and all the other girls who were now quite aware of me. “Good luck with your - birthing and baby care.”
Many of them nodded, and I left the hall feeling if I stayed any longer I might not leave. There was so much need there; need for care, hope, and love. Solanti was like a vacuum that sucked everything into the depths of the moment that did not linger.
I found the right floor and crossed the bridge to the Youth Hall without seeing the paintings and statues I had wanted to look at only an hour earlier. The Birth Hall had left me depressed.
Lilly. Valor. And so many others. I couldn’t think of a way to save them. I remembered Leon laying under his bed, so ill he had almost died. It would be a miracle if just the two of us could make it out of here alive.
It was mid-afternoon, and I needed to get back to my room. I skipped visiting Madia and jogged down the stairs to my floor. When I turned the corner, Jenassi was standing in the hall, staring at me with suspicious, gloating eyes. She lifted her finger to point at me and her mouth opened in accusation, but I didn’t wait to hear what she was going to say.
Instinct kept me from hesitating. I kept right on jogging, right past her and to the end of the hallway. Then I turned around and jogged back. She watched me with an open mouth, her gloating expression turned to confusion. I turned again, jogging back toward her.
“What are you doing?” she asked. I stopped right beside her and fell forward onto my palms and did several pushups without answering.
“I said, what are you DOING?” she reiterated in a demanding voice. I turned on my side and stretched, beginning to enjoy myself.
“Exercising,” I said cheerfully. “Don’t you exercise around here? No wonder you’re all so puny.”
“I don’t know what you mean. Why would anyone do. . . that?” Jenassi asked. She looked and sounded defensive.
“To be strong,” I said, doing a few more pushups.
“I thought you were ill,” she accused. “You told the Marchempor you were ill.”
“I am. But I’m exercising so I’ll get better and stronger and be ready for my hot date tomorrow.”
“What’s a hot date?” Jenassi asked. It was clear she was recording my words and images as eagerly as a social media investor.
“My tour of the Marchempor’s kingdom, of course,” I said, trying not to laugh and give myself away. “I want to be well and strong enough to make it tomorrow.”
Jenassi looked thrilled. Bartroles was going to love this report. I sagged onto the floor and rolled over onto my back.
“What?” she asked again. “What’s wrong?”
“Maybe I overdid it,” I confessed. “I haven’t eaten in a long time.”
“I’ll bring you sustenance,” Jenassi offered eagerly. “It will hasten your recovery.”
“You’re probably right,” I agreed. “What would I do without you, Jenassi?”
The little girl’s chin lifted and jutted out with pleasure and for a moment she looked just like Bartroles. Then she glided down the hall and toward the Vaer. There she turned to assure me that she would be right back with sustenance.
I laid down on my bed and fell asleep.