The spectacular Sarah Gailey asked me to be a part of their Building Beyond newsletter series and I, ah, may have gotten a bit carried away. Since my response was a little longer than the usual format, I’m hosting it in its entirety here.
For readers who came here from Gailey’s newsletter, you can click here to continue where you left off.
How does the dominant culture of this society distribute the work of tending and harvesting?
On your Tending Day, you make your way to the Nursery with the others who share your day. The morning air is crisp and just slightly cool, the sun hovering above the horizon. A breeze stirs your hair, a reminder of the changing seasons.
“Harvest soon.” Tillie smiles when she says it, a tiny expression of pure delight.
She and the others of her pod have been waiting for almost a year for their child, nearly four full quarters. Last week after Tending, Tillie showed you the little nook they all prepared in their apartment down the hall from yours. The small clothes, the shelf of books, the little cap and blanket that Ani, one of their Elders, crocheted, soft as a dream. The five of them could talk of almost nothing else, their love shining out like it could reach their child where they slept, nestled safely in the earth.
“Soon.” You haven’t been counting the days like Tillie, but the air has been warming for weeks, and the Equinox banners have started going up throughout the city. “Are you ready?”
Her smile widens. “We’re all so excited we can hardly sleep. Last night I dreamed they were here.”
The two of you walk in silence for a few more moments, before Tillie asks.
“And you? Are you going to apply? You’re more than current on your Tending Days.”
You shake your head. “No, I’d rather be the favorite Agi to all the littles. I’ll come and hold yours when you need a moment’s rest, and then I’ll go back home for some quiet. Taye and Sidney and I, none of us want our own right now. And we still need to find another Elder before we can qualify, anyhow. Zale says they quite like the break and they’re not in any hurry.”
Tillie nods, her attention drawn away from you as the two of you join the line of Tenders streaming through the gates. The Nursery plots are out of sight from here, but she still cranes her neck, looking.
You and Tillie have been assigned to the same plot all quarter, the one where their child is growing. Tillie is a good Tender, giving equal care to each cluster of babies. A stranger would never know from watching her that she is waiting for a little one, or which one.
The babies are active this morning, wriggling in their sacs, stretching as the morning sun lights their fluid environments to gold.
With Harvest nearing, they don’t have much room to move, their bodies curled and folded into the sacs. The nearest cluster of three all turn toward you and Tillie as you near the plot, waving arms and kicking legs to get your attention, umbilical cords pulsing gently where they lead down to the placenta, rooted in the earth.
You don’t know if your pod will ever want a child. But whether or not you do, Tending Day is its own reward.
What kind of garden pests are we dealing with? How do we fend them off without harming the crop?
As you settle in to check the bloodgrub netting under a cluster, you talk to them. The Nurses say it doesn’t matter what you say, just that they hear the words and the voice.
“Oh, looks like it’s getting a little worn here. We’ll just tape it up, make sure it lasts until Harvest. Are you excited for Harvest?”
They don’t understand, of course, but all four of them wriggle with excitement at the question.
“This is special tape.” You pick the cut edge free with your fingernail, pulling enough from the roll to cover the worn spot. “These holes are like the nets. Big enough to let the placenta roots through, small enough that bloodgrubs can’t get in. We don’t want them getting your blood with all those nutrients, do we? You need that to grow big and strong.”
From across the plot, Tillie starts to sing. You join in as you place tape on both sides of the netting, securing it back in the earth to protect the placenta.
One of the small terriers that patrols the nursery goes yipping past, clearly on the scent of some trespassing rodent. She disappears into the border trees, so it can’t be close by.
“Last mesh over here.” Tillie calls to you, straightening and wiping sweat off her forehead.
“Me too.” You don’t rush, even though the night shift will double-check, and tomorrow’s Tending crew. Bloodgrubs are serious business, even if these babies are almost Harvest-ready. They probably wouldn’t be harmed if a grub or two latched on to the placentas, but you’re not going to take that chance.
How are children raised to adulthood?
Tillie’s pod is the only family in your building getting a child this Harvest. Not everyone came to see, but most of you are there, waiting near the plot, lit candles lighting the pre-dawn to welcome the babies.
Tillie, Sean, and Akim kneel next to their child, singing the welcome with the other parents-to-be. Their Elders, Ani and Talin, stand slightly behind, singing too, hands on their shoulders.
The final note seems to ring in the air after it ends, fading so slowly that you can’t tell when silence actually falls. The Nurse in charge of this plot raises their hands, their amplified voice soft despite being clearly audible.
“These are our children. The Earth fed them, the Waters cradled them. They grew in our care.”
Tillie doesn’t need the attendant’s help, cradling their child’s sac in her arms. Gently, not uprooting the placenta yet.
“With Fire, we bring them into the Air, to breathe with us.”
Akim takes the cauterizing tool from the attendant with a nod of thanks. Sean covers his hand with theirs, and together they cut the sac.
All across the plot, other parents do the same, amniotic fluid flowing down into the ground, babies slick and wet in their parents’ arms.
“We return the Waters to the Earth, to feed a new generation. We welcome these new spirits.”
Talin helps Tillie open her tunic, nestle the child against her skin, while Ani wraps them both in a blanket. Sean and Akim wait for the pulsing to stop, then cut the umbilical cord, burying the placenta in the earth.
The five of them turn back toward you as the first rays of sun filter through the trees.
“This is our child.” They speak as one, turning so you can see the tiny head, the cap of hair still dark and wet, eyes scrunched closed.
You wait a breath, but no one else speaks. “What is their name?”
Akim brushes a finger lightly over the baby’s head. “Their name is Marin.”
Marin settles in quickly, or so Tillie tells you when it’s your afternoon in the building creche. They’re a content baby, happy to sleep in a sling or on a pallet, watching with dark, intent eyes when being fed.
“They’re so tiny.” Lane is one of the oldest children in the creche, old enough that they’ll be starting an apprentice program soon. But for now they’re obsessed with Marin, always hovering and helping. “Are all Harvested babies this small?”
“You were smaller.”
“Mada!” Lane swings around and flings themself at Darit, trusting their parent to catch them. “Was I really?”
Darit swings them up into the air. “You were small enough to fit in my two hands when you curled up for sleep. And now you’re almost old enough to start apprenticing! You grew up so fast!”
You smile at the two of them. “You’re going to start apprenticing, Lane? Surely not!”
They nod importantly. “Mada says I’ll start in the gardens after solstice. Not the Nursery, you know. Not yet.”
You share a look with Darit over their head. “I know. But before you know it, you’ll be old enough to have a Tending Day.”
Lane wriggles down and crosses back to you, dropping a gentle kiss on Marin’s forehead. “First I have to learn things.”
“You do.” Shifting a sleeping Marin up to your shoulder, you accept Lane’s hug with one arm. “And you have to grow big and strong, so I shouldn’t keep you from your dinner.”
“The spring greens needed thinning today,” Darit tells you, holding the door open for Lane. “I left some with Rowan for you. She said something about salad with dinner.”
Your stomach rumbles as the door closes behind them. Lane and Marin were the last children left in the creche, all the others gone to their apartments. Not that there are many small children in the building currently; most of them are apprentices or journeyers, a few nearing their opus and preparing for independence.
Tillie pings, her face popping up when you blink to accept the request. “I’m so sorry to be late! The coastal track got damaged and it took longer than we thought to repair.”
“No worries.” You tuck Marin back into the sling, smiling when they make a sleepy noise and snuggle into you. “I’ll take Marin up to mine and whichever of you makes it home first can get them from there. Rowan has been saying he wants more cuddle time with them anyhow.”
“Thank you.” Tillie’s face is smudged with grease and dirt. You can just barely see the blur behind her as the train speeds toward the city.
“What are neighbors for?”
You head up the ramp to your floor, Marin snoring almost inaudibly in their sling.
The door chimes gently just as Sidney gets to their feet to clear the dishes.
You start to rise, but Taye nudges you back into your seat. “Sit, I’ll get it.”
The touch of his hand turns the door one-way, showing a lanky adolescent in journeyer uniform, holding a tool bag in one hand and a small terminal in the other.
“Oh, they must be here about the network.” Rowan smiles, cuddling Marin closer to his chest. “Good, it’s been going in and out all day.”
Taye opens the door, gesturing the journeyer in. Without the field between you, you recognize them—him, you correct yourself when you see his armband. “Jax! Are you old enough to be doing calls by yourself?”
He flushes a little, but straightens his shoulders. “I passed my certificate last month. My Guide says I’m almost ready to propose my opus.”
“Well, it’s no opus, but if you can get the network unscrambled, there are some cookies in the kitchen.” Rowan visibly restrains himself from reminiscing about Jax’s younger days.
Sidney places the last dish in the cleaner, wiping their hands. “Let me show you the access point. Have you started thinking about what you want for your opus?”
“I think I want to work on the weather safeguards…”
Tillie pings the door with the access code you gave her, opening it as Sidney and Jax disappear into the apartment. “Seriously, thank you so much for keeping them.”
“No thanks needed.” Rowan doesn’t move to disentangle Marin from the sling. “Why don’t you sit down and eat something, if your pod isn’t expecting you back? I could use a little more cuddle time.”
She all but melts into a seat, smiling her thanks at Taye when he slides a plate in front of her. “Thanks. Ani and Talin are holding Last Watch for a friend tonight, and Akim has night crew rotation. We would have been fine if I hadn’t been late, or if Sean wasn’t still recovering from their surgery, but—”
Rowan tsks at her. “I told you, no thanks needed. This is why you need a building or a neighborhood when you have children.”
Tillie nods agreement, wolfing down her food, making it disappear as if by magic.
There are two journeyers from the building graduating this Solstice. Rio’s opus, a redesign of the water collection system to cool the rooftop solar panels, is met with cheers and whistles when presented. Jital’s is less concrete, but when she finishes playing her original composition, there is a moment of complete silence before the entire neighborhood erupts into thunderous applause.
The two hug each other before retreating back to their pods, their parents and Elders crowding around to congratulate them. You see more than one parent surreptitiously wiping tears.
There will be more tears tomorrow, when the two new adults move into their new building. But they won’t be going far, and if what you’ve seen since moving in is any indication, they’ll be back frequently. Maybe permanently, if they find their own pod.
Goodbyes, however temporary, are for tomorrow. Tonight, you celebrate, as the solstice fires dot the night like earthbound stars, and a new crop of babies sleeps, waiting for their Harvest.