THE YOUNG GIRL cringed when they buckled the eyeless leather mask around the upper half of her face and blinded her. It felt grotesque and unnecessary, but she didn’t object. It was the procedure. She knew that. One of the other Vessels had described it to her at lunch a month before.
“Mask?” she had asked in surprise, almost chuckling at the strange image. “What’s the mask for?”
“Well, it’s not really a mask,” the young woman seated on her left corrected herself, and took another bite of the crisp salad. “It’s a blindfold, actually.” She was whispering. They were not supposed to discuss this among themselves.
“Blindfold?” she had asked in astonishment, then laughed apologetically. “I don’t seem to be able to converse, do I? I keep repeating what you say. But: blindfold? Why?”
“They don’t want you to see the Product when it comes out of you. When you birth it.” The girl pointed to her bulging belly.
“You’ve produced already, right?” she asked her.
The girl nodded. “Twice.”
“What’s it like?” even asking it, she knew it was a somewhat foolish question. They had had classes, seen diagrams, been given instructions. Still, none of that was the same as hearing it from someone who had already gone through the process. And now that they were already disobeying the restriction about discussing it — well, why not ask?
“Easier the second time. Didn’t hurt as much.”
When she didn’t respond, the girl looked at her quizzically. “Hasn’t anyone told you it hurts?”
“They said ‘discomfort.’”
The other girl gave a sarcastic snort. “Discomfort, then. If that’s what they want to call it. Not as much discomfort the second time. And it doesn’t take as long.”
“Vessels? VESSELS!” The voice of the matron, through the speaker, was stern. “Monitor your conversations, please! You know the rules!”
The girl and her companion obediently fell silent then, realizing they had been heard through the microphones embedded in the walls of the dining room. Some of the other girls giggled. They were probably also guilty. There was so little else to talk about. The process — their job, their mission — was the thing they had in common. But the conversation shifted after the stern warning.
She had taken another spoonful of soup. Food in the Birthmothers’ Dormitory was always plentiful and delicious. The Vessels were all being meticulously nourished. Of course, growing up in the community, she had always been adequately fed. Food had been delivered to her family’s dwelling each day.
But when she had been selected Birthmother at twelve, the course of her life had changed. It had been gradual. The academic courses — math, science, law — at school became less demanding for her group. Fewer tests, less reading required. The teachers paid little attention to her.
Courses in nutrition and health had been added to her curriculum, and more time was spent on exercise in the outdoor air. Special vitamins had been added to her diet. Her body had been examined, tested, and prepared for her time here. After that year had passed, and part of another, she was deemed ready. She was instructed to leave her family dwelling and move to the Birthmothers’ Dormitory.
Relocating from one place to another within the community was not difficult. She owned nothing. Her clothing was distributed and laundered by the central clothing supply.
“February vacation soon, students! Just ten more days!” Mr. Leroy, the school principal, pointed out, after he had made his usual announcements on the intercom. “I hope all of you have wonderful plans!” The second-graders wiggled in their seats and began to murmur. Vacation, vacation, vacation. Even though they loved school, vacations were always exciting. “I’m going to—“ Ben began. “My family’s—“ Barry Tuckerman whispered loudly. But Mrs. Pidgeon put her finger to her mouth and reminded them that the announcements weren’t finished. “Shhh,” she said. “And we mustn’t forget,” Mr. Leroy continued, “that this month we are celebrating the birthdays of two of our most important presidents. Let’s finish up this morning’s announcements by singing to them, shall we?” Mr. Leroy started off. “Happy birthday to youuuuu,” he sang. In every classroom in the Watertower Elementary School, the students joined in. Some of them sang, “Dear Abe,” some sang, “Dear George,” and dome tried to fit in Dear Abraham-and-George.” Gooney Bird Greene, at her desk in Mrs. Pidgeon’s classroom, sang loudly, “Dear George-Abraham-William-Henry-and-Ronald.” She was still singing the list of names after the others had finished the last “Happy birthday to you.” So she sang her own final line all by herself. The other children all stared at her. But Gooney Bird didn’t mind. “I am never ever embarrassed,” she had once said. And that seemed to be true. Now, after she concluded, “Happy birthday to you,” she folded her hands on her desk, looked up toward the front of the room, and cheerfully waited for the school day to begin. “Goodness,” Mrs. Pidgeon said. “Who were all those people, Gooney Bird?” “Presidents with February birthdays,” Gooney Bird explained. “I don’t think it’s fair that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln get all the attention.” “But they were important guys!” Barry Tuckerman pointed out. “All presidents are important,” Gooney Bird said. “I don’t even know who those other ones are,” Chelsea said. “Well, let’s find out,” Mrs. Pidgeon said. She began writing on the board. “George, Abraham. And who were the others, Gooney Bird?” “William-Henry-Ronald.” Mrs. Pidgeon wrote those names on the board. “All right, class. Who was George?” “Washington!” the children called, and Mrs. Pidgeon wrote “Washington” on the board after “George.” “Abraham?” she asked, and the children all said, “Lincoln!” So she wrote that. “William?” she asked, but the room was silent. “Well, it could be Bill Clinton, I suppose,” she said. “But President Taft was also named William, and—oh, dear. There might be lots of Williams…” At her desk, Gooney Bird sighed loudly. “Henry? Anyone know Henry?” Mrs. Pidgeon left “William” blank and held her chalk beside Henry’s name. Gooney Bird sighed again.
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