Let nothing upset you; let nothing frighten you. Everything is changing; God alone is changeless…
— Teresa of Avila
She was Thérèse for the French one but the words of the Spanish one saved her. Calm practicality; unarguable truth. Ecstasy is not wanted where people have survived madness.
The innocent dead, Thérèse could finally believe, must be safely in Heaven, and the others would be barred entry. If somehow God forgave them in His capacities beyond human understanding, He would keep them in a separate room.
If you heal, you don’t recover a prior state of being. You are different now.
They’d torn her, ramming in their seed, and this baby ripped its way out. You’d think she’d been dragged through a thornbush spreadeagled. The doctors, the nurses inured themselves to seeing the tender parts of women reconfigured.
With killing proved so ordinary, Thérèse had thought she could manage it too.
How did she fail at such a simple thing?
“Please,” the sister said, Therese’s first time in hospital, “God doesn’t want you to commit this double sin.”
“Do any of us still have reason,” Thérèse asked, “to care what God wants?”
But the baby must have had fingers like its father — whichever one of them he was — to grasp onto her womb so tightly. It exacted its full nine months.
Thérèse wouldn’t give it a name, so the sister — the same one! — chose with great care for her. Claudine Marie. Beautifully written out, as though such a civilized hand might disguise to what the certificate testified.
“No,” Thérèse said. “I am the mother only of dead children.”
And yet her milk came in as though Moses smote her breasts with his staff.
“It is God’s great mercy,” the sister said, “you are both healthy.”
“Oh yes, ma soeur?” — mouth twisted as one spits gutter words. “Mercy would have let us die, too.”
The sister understood these feelings. She had not stopped being a human being, underneath her habit. She had questions she knew unlikely to be answered here, in this place and perhaps not ever; perhaps a perfect peace is empty of any need to know. But she must give people strength to go on, centimeter by centimeter, as far might be within their capacity. Thérèse had a little bag and the sister tucked a little book inside. She could spare it; she knew it by heart.
Bernard was summoned — she never asked how. He looked thirty years older than his age. The scar bifurcating the lower part of his face meandered like the course of the Nyawarungu as it heads eastward. Only four teeth missing; less than nothing in the scheme of things and not such a miracle as it seems. Machete handles grow slippery after only a little such use. Even the experts sometimes lose their grip.
I’ve got a pickup, he said, for you and any things—
She put up an angry protesting hand.
“Howl from the porch all day, if you want,” Bernard said. “Just put the voice of a living woman back in my house. A child again in my house.”
“Can you even look at her?”
The baby lay swaddled by Thérèse’s side.
“I see her,” Bernard said. “She has our mother’s face. Your face. She is more than gold and diamonds to me.” It cost him, to say such a thing in this place where children wear the identity of their fathers. But Thérèse must either drown her like a kitten, or take her home.
The porch hadn’t been rebuilt yet.
In these new rooms, ghosts had no familiar corners in which to rest. This was harder for Bernard. Thérèse didn’t think her dead had any will to follow her here. They were angry, she knew, that in failing to find their corpses, she could do no honor to them. At least her real children couldn’t watch her bathe Claudine. Her husband wouldn’t see this alien hand at her breast.
She and Bernard never talked of the ones who weren’t there. Those names would have seared through their tongues. There is no point. It brings no comfort.
The perplexed tried to make sense of this strange disaster. They’d done the work of the nation right in the open air and the whole world saw from beginning to end, so what were they being blamed for? Do you call the householder a murderer when he rids himself of vermin?
The survivors saw the frustration in everyone else’s eyes. Why are you still alive?
You don’t wonder, when you look at a neighbor, did you kill also? You just wonder how many?
It was worse for the smallholders, their houses rubbing up against each other and their plots adjoining, mere paces apart.
Bernard and Thérèse’s father had been counted a prosperous man and no other brothers were left to claim a rightful portion.
If you knew nothing, if you’d come visiting from a place where people don’t keep up very much with other people’s affairs, looking out over the terraced coffee plantations and the acres of tea and bananas and all of the goodly fruits of the earth that God is reputed to have made, this place might seduce you into thinking it was a paradise.
Bernard hired anyone who was a good worker. No point in asking what they’d done during those hundred or so days when people had been very very busy. He did choose widows and orphans first; this is the best one can do.
Aid workers started showing up everywhere; Bernard had heard a presentation touting the health-giving benefits of goats’ milk. He bought a pair of pregnant Toggenburger does; he built a little shed for the dairying work. He taught Claudine Marie to sip from a cup, her in the crook of his arm and him sitting in the garden, trying to see beauty.
Truth manifests slowly. One morning Thérèse could taste her cup of tea; astringency tempered with sweetness. She could think, now, sweetness was possible.
Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Perihelion SF Magazine, 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and 101 Word Stories; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — have been featured on Flash Fiction Chronicles.) She enjoys regular visits from her dead cat.