Rowboat – K. G. Anderson

Metaphorosis_2016-02_1k-1I’ve never seen an ocean, but I grew up playing “Rowboat” in my family’s cramped living module on level C of Xinxin Colony. The worn blue carpet was the water, the concrete floor beyond it, a sandy shore. With a broomstick as an oar, I pretended I was Gramma Jen, rowing hard against the tide to get us home.

“They’d restricted travel by then, but Gramma Jen wanted us to know about beaches and the sea,” Mom said. “One afternoon we found an abandoned rowboat and she took us out on San Francisco Bay. A government patrol nearly caught us.”

Mom paused. Sitting in a faded chair, propped up by a thin pillow, she looked exhausted. Dad had told me she’d be gone in a matter of days. Like many of the colony’s pioneers, she’d ignored the dangers of radiation to build our station on Ceres.

I closed my eyes, as if that would shut out the sour air of the sickroom. Then I finished the story Mom had told me so many times when I was a kid. The one that had always been my favorite.

“Gramma Jen hid the boat behind an abandoned freighter,” I whispered. “By the time the patrol passed, the tide had turned against you. But she rowed you back to shore and beached the boat just as the sun went down.”

When I opened my eyes, Mom was nodding.

“Thank you, Maya. I hope you’ll always remember that story. Remember Gramma Jen.”

With time running out, Mom was telling us all the stories again. How she’d volunteered to come to Ceres on an Early Migration mission. How our Gramma Jen had encouraged her every step of the way.

“Your Grampa Peter didn’t want me to go, but she told him she believed I had it in me to be a pioneer,” Mom said.

My half-sib, Dad and CeCe’s son Rikki, 10 in Earth years, was hearing some of the Gramma Jen stories for the first time.

“So, did Maya’s,” Rikki hesitated, looking for a word we didn’t use much on Ceres, “—did Maya’s grandmother want to someday live here with us?”

Rikki was playing soldiers on the floor using my old “armies” of hex nuts and bolts. He sounded doubtful.

Mom and the other pioneers were the only ones who talked about Earth. Our teachers always told us to focus on the future.

“Rikki, there was a time when we thought we’d finish all the asteroid colonies in time for our families on Earth to Migrate,” Mom said. “And, maybe we could have. But no one expected the Last War—or at least how terrible the Last War would be. Everyone who stayed on Earth, including Maya’s grandmother and grandfather, died.”

Rikki shrugged and went back to advancing a line of hex nuts toward a regiment of bolts. I knew how he felt. In spite of Mom’s stories, and the pictures they showed us in school, for those of us born on Ceres so much of the Earth stuff seemed unreal.

At Earth-16, I was long past my days of playing “Rowboat.” I’d moved from my family’s living module into the First Gen dorms, five levels down. The Xinxin families had agreed that their children should be weaned away from them, taught to focus on the long-term survival of the colony, and prepared to be assigned to other colonies on other asteroids. We’d form families and have children there. My assignment could come any day now, as soon as the next freighter arrived. My throat tightened when I thought about how I’d never see Ceres, or my family, again.

Mom was asking Rikki a question about school.

I wanted to tell her that I dreamed about Gramma Jen and Grampa Peter. My battered tablet had a copy of the one picture we had of them, taken when they were only a few years older than me. I look at the picture almost every night. In it, they wore the bright, sleek clothing of the 2070s. They were picnicking with friends in a park. She, dark and lively; he, tall and thin. A bridge—the “Golden Gate,” Mom called it—spanned the sparkling blue water behind them. I’d seen it in Earth movies.

In my dreams, I was Jen’s best friend. We drove a vehicle, a car, with the windows open, across the Golden Gate Bridge, the blue water rippling below, and green forests rising beyond. Because of Mom’s stories I could imagine it all: Trees. Oceans. Rain. Earth gravity. The wonders of atmosphere. I smiled to feel the pull of Earth all the way out here on Ceres, tugging me towards the planet where my parents and CeCe had been born.

But Earth wasn’t just millions of miles away. Thanks to the Last War, everything on it was rubble. The Earth they showed us in pictures and videos existed only in my dreams.

Voices from the living room told me that Dad and CeCe were back. Rikki jumped up and ran out to greet them. Mom had drifted off to sleep.

I could hardly stand to look at her, slumped in her chair. I knew she was getting weaker. I’d heard CeCe say she’d reached the point where there were more bad days than good. Yesterday a glass bottle filled with a pale green liquid had appeared on in our refrigerator, labeled with Mom’s name. I’d changed the subject after CeCe told me what it was. Mom would be confronting death as fearlessly as she’d confronted everything else. She expected us to, as well. I didn’t dare disappoint her.

A hesitant knock on the bedroom door. Another one of the pioneers wanted to say goodbye. Edison Kang and I nodded a silent greeting as we exchanged places. I tried not to shudder as his arm brushed against me.

Mr. Kang had many of the early signs of radiation sickness—limp gray hair, creased and wrinkled skin, and ugly lesions. I dropped my gaze. Raised in the safety of the Xinxin compound, I could not imagine him and Mom working for years on the asteroid’s surface in the original flexsuits. But they had. All to make Xinxin our home.

#

That night I dreamed I was rowing a boat through space, searching for a shore. Earth shone bright in the vast emptiness, impossibly far away. I had to get there—Grandma Jen was waiting for me.

I woke soaked in sweat and burning with curiosity.

After morning classes I went looking for Mikel Clark. Mikel was smart, but not well liked or trusted. I usually avoided him, but I’d overheard him bragging about hacking into the inter-colony databases and I knew he’d be eager to show off his skills.

“Is it true they’ve found more Earth data?” I asked.

Mikel’s eyes lit up. He pulled me into an alcove where we wouldn’t be overheard. “Two of the other colonies had it all along. They weren’t sharing. But now the Xinxin Council has it.” He grinned. “The security guys haven’t opened up general access yet, they say they have to ‘review’ it, but people like me can get around that.”

“I want to look for some images. Family stuff. Nothing classified.”

Mikel flipped his braid over his shoulder.

“You came to the right man. I could get you in through a workstation in the admin section,” he boasted.

“Tonight?” I swallowed hard. I’d never broken the rules before.

Mikel glanced down for a moment, as if weighing the risks. “Sure, why not?”

That night I followed Mikel through a maze of hallways. He used someone else’s override codes on the doors. We were leaving tracks, but someone else would get blamed. By the time we entered the cramped office deep in the admin sector, I felt sick to my stomach. But it was too late to stop now. Mikel pulled an old data pad from a drawer, connected it to the system, and attached my data card that held the image of Grandma Jen and Grampa Peter.

Sure enough, Xinxin Colony’s network now had the Earth archives we had been told were lost or held in secret by one of the other colonies. With Mikel’s help, I searched several of the databases with facial recognition software. My first hit was a low-res image of Grampa Peter. He was older—handsome but worried looking. Just as Mom had said, he’d been an official in a California city called Palo Alto. But the matches for Gramma Jen’s face were an Elisabeth Washington, a music professor in Georgia. I frowned. I was pretty sure Georgia was nowhere near Palo Alto.

Where was Gramma Jen? I searched for Grampa Peter’s name plus “Jen,” “Jennifer,” and “Jeanne.” Nothing. Real estate data from Palo Alto paired his name with a Margaret Dempster. His sister? His mother?

Mikel fidgeted at my side, not as confident as he’d seemed before.

When I typed in “Margaret Dempster,” a news story appeared. I saw the words “arson conviction.”

Before I could read more, an orange bar flashed at the top of the data screen. Mikel grabbed my arm.

“We gotta go. We’ve been spotted.”

In the distance, an alarm shrilled.

Mikel yanked out my data card, logged out of the pad, and shoved it back in the drawer. Following him as he retraced our path, I saw him toss my data card into the corner of a dark stairwell—figuring, I guess, that I’d be the one blamed for the break-in. I stopped to snatch up the card and nearly missed catching the door he’d keyed open. I’d been stupid to trust Mikel.

Sure enough, there was trouble.

#

“You went looking for Gramma Jen.”

It wasn’t a question. Mom beckoned to me from her narrow bed.

“I’m sorry.”

Mikel and I had been caught on the admin network and they’d told not just Dad, but Mom. I’d hoped I’d find something to make me feel better, but all I’d done was make my mother feel worse.

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

“No, Maya,” Mom said. “It’s my fault.”

My eyes went wide. This didn’t sound like my mother.

“I hoped you’d never find out,” she said. “So many records were lost in the Migrations and the War. But I guess they’re finding some of that data can be recovered. I should have told you.”

“Mom, I didn’t find anything,” I lied. “Just a picture of Grampa Peter from his job.”

Mom gave a clipped laugh, devoid of humor. She reached for a cup of tea from the bedside table and took a sip. I watched her trembling hand and tried not to show my confusion.

“Maya, you didn’t find anything because there’s nothing to find. There is no Gramma Jen. Never was.”

What?

Mom, sitting on the edge of her narrow bed, flinched.

“If there’s no Gramma Jen…” my mind spun with possibilities. Was I adopted? “But you’re still my mother?”

She reached out her thin arms and I knelt beside the bed to be hugged.

“Oh, Maya, of course I’m your mother.”

Relief poured through me. After a minute I felt Mom square her shoulders. I settled cross-legged on the floor and waited, shivering. Mom was getting ready to tell me—once again—that things weren’t as frightening as they sounded.

“Maya, I invented Gramma Jen. I need to tell you why.”

Mom hugged herself as if she were cold. I reached for a blanket to cover her, but she waved me away.

“I’m afraid the story starts with Margaret Dempster,” Mom began.

“She was my…” she stopped, worked her lips, and continued. “She was the woman people would say is my mother.”

Her tone turned as grim as I’d ever heard it; my stomach twinged. Margaret Dempster, the arsonist, was my grandmother?

“Margaret was …” Mom sighed and shook her head, casting about for words. “I know now that she was mentally ill, but when I was a child, all I knew is that my brother and I seemed to get punished no matter what we did and my father…well, he loved us but he just couldn’t admit that there was anything wrong. He couldn’t protect us. We left home as soon as we finished high school.”

“I thought that simply by coming to Ceres—as far away as anyone could get during the first Migration—I’d solved my problems,” Mom said. “And, in a sense, I had. Our work building Xinxin was important—far more important than anything I could have done on Earth. I met CeCe and your father, we all were in love, and—Maya, we were so happy.”

A smile lit her face and eyes.

“I don’t think you can even imagine what our lives were like,” she went on. The smile faded.

“Then, the Last War—only six days, but when it ended, everyone on Earth was gone and we were alone in space: six colonies on three asteroids. Two of the colonies failed—one from starvation.”

I nodded. They’d told us this, over and over again, in school. But what did this have to do with Gramma Jen?

“We were focused on mining, agriculture, manufacturing, and production of everything we needed to survive—including children. With no more Migrations from Earth, it became crucial for the colonies to have children before we got too much radiation. That’s when I began to have nightmares. I dreamed that I’d had a baby and when I took the baby in my arms, I turned into Margaret. I dreamed that I hated my baby. Once I dreamed that I … was lighting a fire.”

I shuddered. Mom didn’t know that I knew about the arson. Tears rolled down her skeletal cheeks. Her head fell forward. Her thin, lesioned hands covered her face, then fell to her lap.

“Maya, I would wake up from those dreams knowing that something was terribly wrong with me. My friends were having children. They loved those children! I saw Edison Kang holding Leah when she was born, and I couldn’t imagine ever feeling like that. I was a sick, broken person. I didn’t want anyone to find out.”

I turned my head so Mom wouldn’t see the tears rolling down my cheeks. “Mom, why didn’t Grampa Peter help you? Why didn’t he divorce her and take you away?”

“Maya, I’ve asked myself those questions a thousand times. We’ll never know.”

Mom put her ravaged hand on my arm and gently shook it, as if to wake me up.

“Let me tell you about the picture.”

Mom stretched out her hand for the battered data tablet on the table by her bed. I handed it to her, and with a few taps she brought up that picture of the young couple at the Golden Gate, the two I thought of as Gramma Jen and Grampa Peter. I stared at the striking young woman. Elisabeth Washington.

“This photo saved me,” Mom said. “I found it in a digital album my dad had given me years before, when I left Earth. I’d never bothered to look at it. I thought he’d given me a lot of images of nature and landscapes, in case I never came back.”

“After the Last War, when it was all gone—then, of course, I looked at the album. I came across this picture, recognized him, and I looked at the metadata. It was taken in 2071, two years before he married Margaret. I realized that my father had wanted me to know about that beautiful moment in his life. He wanted to send that woman, whoever she was, with me into the future.”

I sat on the bed beside Mom and saw the picture as I never had before. The woman looking at the camera while Grampa Peter held her hand and gazed at her as if she were the most precious thing in his world. What had happened to separate them?

“That’s Elisabeth,” I said. “Mom, I found her.”

Mom frowned.

“I found her. Facial-recognition software. She’s Elisabeth Washington. She taught music in Georgia. What do you know about her?”

I’d thought I knew all Mom’s stories, but now there was so much more to know and so little time left.

“Elisabeth…” Mom stared at the picture and shook her head. Then she dropped the tablet onto the bed and lay against her pillow.

“Maya, all I know was that my father had loved her. When I saw that picture I realized I could rewrite history, for him and for me. I could make her my mother. The mother I’d always wanted. A wonderful mother.

“I named her Jen after the neighbor who’d given me the art lessons Margaret refused to pay for and who told me I had talent. Her courage came from the ship captain who mentored me on the First Migration. Her generosity is from CeCe. I got all those great recipes—and the story of the rowboat—from Nina, my first roommate on Xinxin.”

While Mom told the story, my dad and CeCe had slipped into the small room. Dad caught sight of the tablet with the photo of Grampa Peter and Gramma Jen.

“Gramma Jen is one of your mother’s finest creations,” he said, sitting carefully on the bed beside Mom.

So he had known. Mom leaned her fragile body against him. Her dark eyes were bright with tears.

“Maya, for me, your Gramma Jen was not just real—she was essential,” Mom said. “She changed my life. She made yours possible.”

The room spun. I didn’t know what to think. Gramma Jen had become a stranger. My real grandmother—I opened my mouth to ask about the fire. But I closed it again. Mom was falling asleep. I tried to slip out of the room, but CeCe stopped me.

“Maya…tomorrow,” she whispered, squeezing my hand.

I pulled away, mumbling that I needed to study for an exam. That was true, but instead I took the long way through the corridors that led back to the dorm. I walked close to the grimy, familiar walls, afraid that the artificial gravity I’d grown up trusting might prove as unreliable as my ties to Earth. Fearing, as I never had before, the cold and airless world where I’d been born.

The next evening, my mother asked for the injection. With all of us gathered in the room and a recording of her favorite Beethoven sonata playing, Dad slipped a hypodermic into a vein. She took three, perhaps four, shallow breaths and then Mom was gone.

We gathered again a few days later, to watch as her ashes, wrapped in fragile Earth-made fabric, were taken out onto the frozen surface of Ceres and placed in the colony’s communal grave for pioneers.

#

“Maya, you can refuse,” Dad said. “I asked them not to tell you about this when your mom was so ill.

He sat on the bench beside me, looking over my shoulder as I opened the tablet and read the message.

I gasped. They were offering me a permanent assignment to Charboneau Colony on Vesta. This was out of the blue. I’d always thought they’d send me to Pallas or Hygiea, never imagining I’d qualify for the agricultural engineering team at Charboneau.

“Mom would have been thrilled.” I felt tears start to well, but shook them away.

“I think it’s too soon for you,” Dad said. “But the freighter will be packed and ready to go by the end of the week. And this is the closest Ceres will be to Vesta for 17 years.”

I nodded, my eyes fixed on the message. Permanent assignment. Charboneau. I’d have only three days to pack and say goodbye to Dad, and CeCe, and Rikki and nearly everyone I knew on Xinxin. Three of us from Xinxin First Gen would leave on the freighter Sunrise and travel 930 million miles to join the agricultural engineering team at Charboneau. We’d live on Vesta for the rest of our lives.

I thought of Mom again. She’d left Earth to build the first colonies. She’d understand. And Gramma Jen. She’d…but there was no Gramma Jen. Confused, I shook my head. So I think it surprised Dad when I turned my face to him and said “I’ll go.”

The words sounded so small, so flat and empty. But once I said them they set in motion a whole new story.

Dad and I hugged without words.

I walked slowly back to the dorm, trying to imagine my life on Vesta. Living with strangers—and eventually creating a family with some of them. New foods. A new religious system—some of the parents were worried about that. A quasi-military system of government, stricter than the democracy we’d maintained in Xinxin. I frowned as I recalled that data access on Vesta was rumored to be far less liberal than on Ceres. If I wanted to find out more about Elisabeth or Margaret, I’d have to do it now.

To my surprise, Dad got me official access to the Earth files. I read the news story I’d glimpsed before—”Palo Alto Woman Convicted of Arson.” Margaret Dempster had set her family’s house on fire. Everyone had escaped unharmed. A small, blurry photo showed a pale, frightened woman. To my relief, she looked nothing like my mom.

I would never know why Grampa Peter had married her. But now I understood why my mother had replaced the broken world of her childhood with the fantasy of Gramma Jen.

I found real estate records for Elisabeth Washington in Atlanta, Georgia, and a review of a concert performance. One of the pieces she’d played I recognized as Mom’s favorite Beethoven sonata. I pressed my fingertips to the screen, as if I could reinforce that connection between the two of them—but it was as thin and as wishful as my own ties to Earth.

Had Elisabeth Washington married? Had children? My searches came up empty. I knew as much as I would ever know.

#

The inside cabin Leah, Jinx and I were assigned on the Sunrise proved to be cramped and stuffy, the bunks narrow and hard. We complained at great length that first night so none of us would be tempted to talk about home and the families and friends we were leaving. At last I crawled under the thin blankets, exhausted, but too excited to sleep.

I thought of Mom, and the many times she’d soothed me to sleep with her stories. In the dark cabin, I began to tell my own tale.

Like Gramma Jen, I’m rowing a boat. I’m not alone. There are people in the boat with me. My friends. And someday, my children. I envision a small boy and an even smaller girl, their faces pale with worry, who sit facing me, their hands gripping the seat.

To pass the time I tell them stories of Ceres and Earth and their families, both real and fantastic.

I feel the polished wood of oars against my palms. Each stroke I take sends the light of the stars around us rippling through the black of space.

“Almost home,” I murmured as I drifted off to sleep. “Almost home. I’ll get you there.”

###

2 Comments

  1. Only one typo that I noticed: “I pressed my fingertips to the screen screen,”

    A good story, well written — it put me there; I could smell the air. Thank you for sharing it.

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