This went on for a year, and then another. But even with the bracelets of joy in full use, no belly of a woman bulged with new life. The women were like the soil where nothing grew. The king strolled around his gray and thorny backyard, and he heard his lonely footsteps in the soil, stomp stomp stomp. The growers, when they patted the dirt, hear a similar empty echo. The jester continued to sleep with the perfumed lady, who sounded hollow if the fool tapped at her stomach. This was the kind of world it was: dirty, dry, cracked, bare.
Then one day Constance’s bracelet went off, and she put down her shovel, and pretended to leave for her apartment, but instead of turning right, she turned left and hurried down the broken roads, walking right through several picture shows projected onto the walls of the buildings, the images of children playing appearing on her skin, then they slipped off her, as she continued walking.
She came to the edge of the water that bordered the city, searching for a boat to transport her to one of the islands she had dreamed of, where fruits swung from the trees, and children, not dead ones, built sculptures out of the sand. She didn’t care if the islands weren’t completely real. She wanted to sail out to where they should be, and dive off the boat, and see what she would find. But there were no boats, only driftwood, and the bodies, and the bad smell. You might think there would have been some sort of guards patrolling the borders, but there wasn’t, because there was nowhere to go.
Constance hadn’t heard of Project Exodus yet as she stood sinking into the damp sand. Though at that moment, an exodus clerk was marking a black check next to Constance’s and Charlie’s names, and suddenly, poof, it was Constance was half-gone already. Had the clerk known Constance better, perhaps he would have passed her over, but all he had in front of him was a string of numbers and letters that suggested Constance and Charlie were of fertile ancestry and should be chosen to leave.
The change wasn’t obvious. Had you been there, you might have seen Constance crouching down, trying to pick up a shattered piece of glass that had washed to shore, something that could have been pretty if tilted right in the correct light, who knows what it was part of, but she couldn’t grasp it. The glass kept floating out of her hands, and then it washed away, back into the water.
Program Exodus is the large underlit wave of metal that swept our ancestors here, in a flash of light and the heat of the ships. The king claimed the whole thing was his idea though really it had been the jester’s, who crawled up close to the king to suggest it was Terra, not the people, who had gone rotten.
* * *
Constance tried to see every exodus fire she could, but there were so many of them, sometimes three a day. She arrived early to have a better chance at being chosen to drop the match onto the kindling propped up against the school, or the playground, or the tire swings, or the wooden churches, or the park benches, or the shuttered-up markets. It made her feel better, to know she would leave behind such an unrecognizable place, made out of ashes and ruined things.
Many people came to see the buildings burn. They ignored Constance, and her red exodus scarf she had to wear, no matter the heat. They came to see the fire, and once the fire caught, and the gray column of smoke billowed up, and the windows broke—the people joined their hands and formed a circle, with Constance on the outside. They danced a fertility dance but did the dance backwards and faster. Some women hurled their bracelets of joy into the fire, because they were useless now, and the bracelets made popping noises as they burned. People’s skin flushed like their skin had been rubbed too long. On occasion, people threw themselves into the fire, but there was not much the crowd could do about that.
After they burned the schools, and the playgrounds, and the tire swings, they begin to re-burn the remains, when there was enough of a frame left to burn.
The king said Program Exodus came to him in a dream in which he stood on a tall crag, with all the unhappy people looking up at him. They held swords and picks, ready for violence, about to charge and kill the king. Until the king pointed to an empty church, which the people rushed toward and set it to flames. Soon whatever he pointed to, the storefront, the school, a pack of animals, the people burned, like an offering to him. Everything flickered orange or red. He kept pointing, he couldn’t help it, though he hated the smell, and the smoke that made him choke. In the end, he pointed to the people themselves, because that was all that was left, and in his dream the people kept burning.
I suppose the fires were a good idea. It gave people something to do.
Haven’t we told you to be glad, children? Thank our myth mothers that you are here, on this unburning planet, even if we have to eat the bitter greens, you are here among the vines, you can peer into a river and see your face reflected there with the red birds.
* * *
Life continued. Charlie hunted brown squirrels with his arrows, in quiet forests full of men crouched similarly on their knees. Constance continued at her garden plot, massaging the dirt amid the other growers, the seeds cupped in their hands like little dull useless diamonds. And every night the smell of another gutted, skinned, then fried squirrel drifted out through the kitchen window’s screen, while caws from their perches made their terrible racket that sounded like something being hit hard.
One hot day at her plot, Constance emptied out her jar of seeds, a ration that should have lasted her another decade, thousands and thousands of seeds, she spilled them all into the dirt, all at once, when the other women weren’t looking. She patted her dirt down. She poured a glassful of water, her drinking water, onto the ground, since no rain ever came. She brought back a handful of ashes from the exodus fires, and sprinkled them over her plot, because out of the ashes—what? Something, right? Isn’t that how those stories go?
Most exodus winners were happy to leave behind such a dying and ugly planet, where if you planted seeds in the ground, the ground spit it back up at you. After all, they had won something. They threw up their arms and said “hooray,” and when jealous people spit at them, they wiped the spit off. But you know Constance. She did not want to leave the stupid old world. She did not want to leave her child, even though her child was dead and in the ocean somewhere. You can imagine Constance there gripping the ground. There she is, handfuls of dirt inside her fists. She is holding onto the door frames. She is holding onto every one of her stained dresses. She did not want to have another child on another planet. No one really cared though. The exodus was not about what one wanted.
When Constance came home that night, after wasting all her seeds, she unwrapped the exodus scarf from her neck and stood at the window, hoping for a breeze, but there was none. Later in the night, in sagging bed, dreaming of their new bed in a shining home, Charlie rolled over and placed his hand against Constance’s bare damp back.
* * *
At the elementary school’s second fire, Constance thought she saw, on the other side of the rekindled ruins, a woman holding the hand of a child. A crowd surged around the girl. Constance lost sight of her several times. She assumed it was a screen picture until the child turned toward the woman whose hand she held then began crying. Screen pictures didn’t cry.
“Go away. Shoo,” the mother said, pushing away the men and the women. The mother was scanning the crowds, moving her head this way and that. When she spotted Constance, she waved her arms as if they were acquaintances and dragged the child around the collapsed rafters and the burning wood to where Constance was standing.
Constance couldn’t believe in the child at first—a slight girl, a barely-there girl, the yellow tint to her skin, the too-small dress that didn’t reach her knees. She couldn’t even imagine that being allowed. Did all children used to have such yellowed skin with that odd sheen to it? She couldn’t remember. Constance studied the girl’s eyelids, her eyelashes, the small smooth face.
“Constance,” the mother said. “My old friend. Do you remember me? Flora? Your old friend? Say hello to Constance,” the mother, now Flora, instructed, and the little girl looked at Constance. “It’s good to see you, old friend.”
“What do you want?” Constance asked. The child made her dizzy. “They gave us one suitcase. It’s filled. Everything people have given me to take I’ve burned.”
“Come for tea Wednesday afternoon.”
The girl clung to Flora’s skirt, and with her other hand, clung to Constance’s dress. Constance had to pull her dress out of the girl’s hands.
“I leave next Thursday,” Constance said.
Beside them, the fire grew. The smoke grew.
Flora is not a lie. Though Constance barely remembered, they had been childhood friends, back in the time when there were childhoods on Terra. Constance and Flora had stood on the edge of a river together. They had thrown stones into the water together. Then they had grown up, and somehow Flora became the chosen radiating one, oh Flora, oh Flora. Somehow her children grew sick but hadn’t died. The children had to lie in bed and sleep most of the day but a sleeping child is better than a dead one. The garden in her backyard but didn’t die either. There were stories about why this all was, about what Flora did. These stories were not kind.