Elenora sighed and threw back the thin covers, exposing her skinny, dirty legs to the rushing cold. Around her, the other Barrens emerged from their inadequate cocoons against the elements that blew in without resistance from the walls that defined the bounds of their existence.
Downstairs in the kitchens, it would at least be warm. In stolen moments, she would be able to steal a bit of heat from the stove before she was shooed away to sweep the ever-blowing dust from one corner of the back quarters to the next. The men thought that idle hands were the Devil’s work.
Elenora didn’t remember the Before. Even her mother did not, back when they lived in the comfortable nursery given to the Birthers, back before it became clear that Elenora would never bear a viable child.
More and more women were birthing monsters who died or were helped not to live. More and more women were joining their ranks in the dorms.
Elenora did know this. She knew there had been days before the endless dust. She knew the world didn’t used to be so dry. That growing enough food was easy because everything needed was in place.
Now only those considered necessary ate well. Those around the periphery were kept on scant rations. She’d been hungry for years.
It seemed to Elenora that it would be kinder to kill the Barrens quickly than this slow agony of starvation.
Slowly she swept closer and closer to the window. To look out was forbidden, because it smacked of individual thought. Of yearning. This was not allowed among the Useless.
There were men among the Useless — broken husks who had stared at the ruin of the world and gone mad. Only women were classified as Barrens.
The window was nearly obscured by the dust, although if she squinted, she could see past it. Blowing dust, a few despairing scrub brushes and, in the distance, the hydroponics dome was all there was. She could see that dust sifting through the nearly invisible gaps in the wall. It coated her body, clogged her nostrils, trying to infiltrate her lungs and kill her.
Elenora was not quite sure why she continued to resist. Didn’t the Good Book say “ashes to ashes and dust to dust?” Let the dust claim her.
Let it end.
The bell rang. It was First Meal. There was only one for Barrens, but the number still stood. There would be more bells, but they would not toll for her.
A sudden yearning for her Nana swept Elenora into aching despair. Her Nana knew — Nana, who remembered her own mother telling her of the Before. Nana whose body was still healthy enough to bear many children. Nana who got to raise her daughters, at least.
The sons were taken to prevent the corrupting influence of women.
Nana was the one who gave Elenora her secret power. She had taught to Elenora to read.
Stolen moments in the library had told Elenora the truth, back when she lived in the Nursery. The men didn’t stop the women from going in there. No reason to. None of the women could read — or so they thought. Elenora knew from the moment Nana had started teaching her that this was something that would have to remain secret. Nana would be safe — she had birthed ten children, six boys and two fertile girls — and even though the men treated women like brood mares (whatever that was) or servants, they honored a woman who could surmount the odds. It was Elenora, who would pay the price if the men ever found out that she knew the truth.
The earth was dying. They had killed it. They had killed it with poisons, with overplanting — with their ever devouring greed. You can only ask so much, even of something as powerful as Nature.
For a moment, grief pinched at Elenora’s chest. Grief for what, she couldn’t quite define. She had never seen a healthy plant, the blue sky. She had never felt a gentle spring rain bathe her face, watched young animals celebrate merely being alive. So what was she missing? Could it be that her bones and flesh missed what she had never even seen?
That night, Elenora dreamed. Most of the time, she slept dreamlessly, exhausted. When she did dream, she woke with a muted gasp, because screams brought enraged shouts and blows.
“Come to Me,” the dream voice whispered as the rickety door to the Outside slowly opened. Outside where the dust blew so hard it could scour flesh from bone in the raging storms.
Dream Elenora backed up in her bed, pressing her back to the wall. “No,” she whispered back. Had she said it aloud, outside the dream? Did anyone hear her?
No, it was a dream.
Again the voice whispered, “Come to Me.”
This time Elenora merely shook her head, waking her up.
The door was closed and the only sounds came from the Barrens as they sighed, wept or muttered in their sleep.
Next night, she dreamed again.
“Come to Me. You are my Daughter. You are the Nexus. You are Change. You are Mine,” the voice called, this time in a low voice, not a whisper.
Dream Elenora just shook her head, rousing for a second before turning over.
Now, every night, the dreams came. The voice had risen from a whisper to a roar. The words were the same. Elenora grew ever thinner, her flesh graying, her thin hair fraying.
Nobody noticed as she swept her way through her days.
That night, the voice began the moment sleep claimed her. Pulling at her. Tugging. No longer roaring, but reasoning with her. “Outside. You must go Outside. Please. You must.”
Elenora sat up, turned, planting her bare feet on the plank floor, feeling the dust sift between her toes. Her eyes were shut.
Eyes still shut, she shuffled unerringly to the door, opened it the scant amount necessary to let her slight body through and silently shut it after herself. Not another Barren stirred at her leaving.
How did her body know where to go with her eyes closed? She moved unerringly, skirting the stubby bushes that struggled to somehow survive, bits of flotsam from Before that were blown here and there by the wayward winds, tiny declivities designed to trip the unwary. She navigated them all.
How long she walked, Elenora could not be sure. Was it hours? Days?
Suddenly, her hand met a surface. Was that a door? She felt a handle, turned it and was…
…surrounded by rich, moist air. So oxygen rich it was — Elenora felt drunk on it as her starved cells drew it in.
She opened her eyes.
It was the hydroponics dome and it was vast. How had she not realized how enormous it was? Plants of every variety thrived in their nurturing pools of moisture while elsewhere, trees grew straight from the soil, reaching nearly as high as the ceiling, from which radiant light shone, bathing this contained world in brilliance. Elenora winced, shielding her eyes.
Everywhere was color and scent, not the bitter, aching stench of dust but the heady scents of flowers and green and growing things. How did she know this? Elenora couldn’t have said, but she knew it to her bones. She drew in a breath and drew it in deep.
The Voice spoke. Was it in her mind? But it seemed her ears could hear it.
“Daughter,” it said. The walls seemed to echo with its power.
“They kept you away from Me. They knew. But we are reunited. We are One.”
Was the radiance more powerful? Every plant she saw seemed to have an aura of different colors — colors such as she had never seen in the drabness of her dusty world. Golds shining from one plant, purple from another, orange over there, greens and reds radiating from the trees.
She sucked in another breath — drew it deep, holding it in her lungs like treasure.
“Draw on Me,” the Voice said. “Draw on your magic. Draw on your fertility, your strength, your wonder. You are not Broken. You are not Useless. You are not Barren. Draw deep, my daughter.”
Elenora closed her eyes again, feeling the verdant air caress her body in a gentle breeze, nurturing her parched cells. She could feel herself filling out, all of her expanding. She moved forward until she stood between two giant trees — how long had they been growing to reach that size? Slowly she lifted her arms until each hand was caressing the firm bark, feeling the energy flowing and pulsing beneath the wooden surface.
The hearts of the trees were calling her. The spirits of the trees were feeding her.
The energy rushed into her — earth energy pulled upward, through her bare feet planted so firmly, earth energy that tingled and almost burned. From her feet, Elenora could feel tendrils growing, tendrils becoming roots, digging deep, plunging down into the pure, clean earth below the murdered surface, pulling, pulling at the magic until it shot through her body, lighting like cool flame, bursting through her pores until had she been observed, it might have blinded the watcher.
A cry erupted from her throat but it was not pain. It was triumph.
“Mama,” the little girl’s voice warbled. “Look! There’s a new tree! Where did it come from?”
“I don’t know,” her mother replied. “Hasn’t it always been there?” She straightened and smiled down at her daughter, who was playing with one of the kittens who lived in the barn behind their farm. Raising a hand to her eyes, she scanned the horizon. The clouds were ambling their leisurely way across the sky, heavily pregnant with rain. She could smell them coming, the rich scent of water redolent in the air. “Rain’s comin’, my lamb. Time to go inside soon.”
“But Mama, I like being outside. It’s beautiful,” the little one protested.
“I know, but that’s how the earth gets fed. Rain and sun and chicken poop make for a good meal come harvest time,” her mother smiled. “Now come on. Papa’s waiting and your brothers, too. They’ll have a meal on and you love your Papa’s cooking.”
“I had a dream, Mama,” the little girl confided. “It was a scary dream.”
“Dust and bad men?” her mother asked.
“Um-hm,” the girl nodded.
“It’s okay, baby. It was just a dream,” her mother said, but as she did, she bowed ever so slightly to the tree.
With a murmur and a gentle wash of blossoms, the tree nodded. The rains were coming, and it was good…