Art Pact 89

During the fiftieth day of the siege, much to my surprise and to the annoyance of the Shil who were billeted with me, I gave birth for the first time. I'd been supplying them with food, of course, and I could tell immediately I woke up that there was something different going on with me that morning. I crouched in bed and let the leathery egg-casing slide out of me with a few quick convulsions of my abdomen, the examined it carefully. The two Shil, who had begun to stir at the other side of the room, padded over and began the polite coughing routine that would work up to one of them asking when breakfast would be ready.

"Nothing today," I said, forestalling them. The egg-case rippled under my touch, and I bent over to sniff at it. It was subtle, the slight tinge of essence mixed in with the sulphur fumes and the slightly iron smell of blood, but it was definitely there. The oddness I'd felt was exactly what I'd thought it was.

"Nothing?" growled Lasta. "Whaf you mean, nothing?"

"Nothing to eat."

"Whaf you gof there?" Last asked suspiciously, extending a tendril from his right hand to point towards the egg I was holding. I wiped some of the membrane fluids off the darker end of the egg, remembering from my sex and reproduction classes that the darker end was usually the head end. Under my right thumbs I could feel the contours of a tiny face, and a sort of twisting gumming motion from within confirmed it as my child tried to grip my thumb with its nurse-teeth.

"A baby," I said to myself, although loud enough for Lasta and Gesh to hear. Gesh uncurled from his sleep-tree and scuttled over to join his colleague, the two of them propped up at the end of my bed on their first row of arm-legs, their snouts working furiously to detect the scent of the child.

"Whaf fifferenf?" Gesh asked. "Smells the same fo me. Why nof breakfass?"

"This one's a child," I said. "It's alive."

"Look now, your job is fo feed us. There is food, give if fo us, the same as yesferfay."

"But it isn't the same," I pointed out to them. "Look, this one's alive."

"One yesferfay was alive," said Lasta. "All are alive."

"No, no - those ones were just-"

I realised that it was going to be difficult to explain this one to them, and that I would need to make alternative arrangements. The food shortages were getting worse, and at yesterday's morning conference there had only been eight women still producing. With luck I'd be producing again tomorrow, but Gesh and Lasta wouldn't be able to survive the day unless there was something for them to eat, and all of the other producing women already had soldiers garrisoned with them. The baby wriggled in its casing. It would be perhaps another hour before it was ready to emerge, I could go to the council and see whether they had any suggestions. I laid the egg gently on the bed, and swung my legs out.

No, wait. Can't leave it here, or they'll eat it anyway.

"I am hungry," Lasta said stubbornly, rising up onto his rear arm-legs so that he was almost as tall as a man. I stood up myself, snatching the child up and cradling it over my belly, staring down at the belligerent Shil. I could smell the scent of hunger coming off him, the slightly acid odour in his mouth that signaled he'd used up his fat reserves during the night. He clearly /was/ hungry.

"I can't feed you a person," I told him sharply, then softening my tone a little: "Come on, we'll go to the council. They must have a plan for this. They'll have something you can eat to hold your stomach until tomorrow."

"Alrighf," he grumbled, and dropped another pair of legs to the ground. Gesh rose up into a matching walking posture, although he was looking at me oddly, speculatively turning his left eye up to my face and then down to the egg-case again. Working out his chances, I thought, and clutched the egg instinctively closer to me. The child's membrane twitched, and I felt it grasp onto the carrying pad on my belly. The sensation was comforting for a second, then a second later I idly thought to myself: I have a baby, and it felt as though I were falling off a high building.

"Come on," I told them, forcing myself to focus. "Let's go and get you something to eat."


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