The New Wilderness Page 1

Author: Diane Cook

Genres: Fiction , Science Fiction

Part I

The Ballad of Beatrice

The baby emerged from Bea the color of a bruise. Bea burned the cord somewhere between them and uncoiled it from the girl’s slight neck and, though she knew it was useless, swept her daughter up into her hands, tapped on her soft chest, and blew a few shallow breaths into her slimy mouth.

Around her, the singular song of crickets expanded. Bea’s skin prickled from heat. Sweat dried on her back and face. The sun had crested and would, more quickly than seemed right, fall again. From where Bea knelt, she saw their Valley, its secret grasses and sage. In the distance were lonely buttes and, closer, mud mounds that looked like cairns marking the way somewhere. The Caldera stood sharp and white on the horizon.

Bea dug into the hard earth with a stick, then a stone, then hollowed and smoothed it with her hands. She scooped the placenta into it. Then the girl. The hole was shallow and her baby’s belly jutted from it. Wet from birth, the little body held on to coarse sand and tiny golden buds brittled from their stems by the heat of the sun. She sprinkled more dust onto the baby’s forehead, pulled from her deer-hide bag several wilted green leaves, and laid them over the girl. She broke off craggy branches from the surrounding sage, laid them over the distended belly, the absurdly small shoulders. The baby was a misshapen mound of plant green, rustred blood, a dull violet map of veins under wet tissue skin.

Now, the animals, who had sensed it, were converging. In the sky, a cyclone of buzzards lowered as if to check on the progress, then uplifted on a thermal. She heard the soft tread of coyotes. They wove through the bloomy sage. A mother and three skinny kits appeared under jaggedly thrown shade. Bea heard whines ease from their impassive yawns. They would wait.

A wind stirred and she breathed in the dusty heat. She missed the stagnant scent of the hospital room where she’d given birth to Agnes what must have been eight years ago now. The way the scratchy gown had stretched across her chest and gotten tangled up when she tried to roll to either side. How the cool air blew around her hips, between her legs, where her doctor and nurses stared, prodded, and pulled Agnes from her. She’d hated the feeling. So exposed, used, animal-like. But here, it was all dust and hot air. Here, she had needed to guide the small body—had she been five months pregnant? Six? Seven?—out with one hand while with the other she’d had to block a diving magpie. She had wanted to be alone for this. But what she wouldn’t have given for a probing gloved hand, stale recirculated air, humming machines, fresh sheets under her rather than desert dust. Some sterile comfort.

What she wouldn’t have given for her mother.

Bea hissed at the coyotes. “Scram,” she said, pitching the dirt and pebbles she’d just dug at them. But they only slid their ears back, the mother sinking to her haunches and the kits nipping at her snout, irritating her. She probably snuck off from the rest of the pack to get her young something extra, or to let them practice scavenging, to practice surviving. It’s what mothers did.

Bea shooed a fly from near the baby’s eyes, which at first had looked startled over having not made it, but now seemed accusatory. The truth was Bea hadn’t wanted the baby. Not here. It would have been wrong to bring her into this world. That’s what she’d felt all along. But what if the girl had sensed Bea’s dread and died from not being wanted?

Bea choked. “This is for the best,” she told her. The girl’s eyes clouded over with the clouds that rolled overhead.

During one nightwalk, back when she’d had a flashlight and still carried batteries to make it glow, she’d caught two eyes gleaming in her beam. She clapped her hands to scare the eyes, but they just dipped down. The animal was tall but crouching, sitting perhaps, and Bea feared it was stalking her. Her heart sped up and she waited for the cold dread that she’d felt a couple of times by then. Her inner sense of being in danger. But the feeling never came. She walked closer. Again the eyes dipped down, supplicant, like a dog obeying, but it was not a dog. She had to get closer before she could see that it was a deer with its sloped back, the peaked ears, the resigned flick of the tail. Then Bea saw another eye in the light, small, not looking at her, but quivering, unsteady. The deer heaved up and then the quivering eye wobbled up too. It was a small glistening fawn, on shaky, toothpick legs. Bea had unknowingly witnessed a birth. Quiet in the dark. Bea had come stealthily upon the mother like a predator. And the mother could do nothing in that moment but lower her head as though asking to be spared.

There were few things Bea let herself regret these days, these unpredictable days full of survival so plain and brute. But she wished she had walked another way that night, not found their eyes in her light, so that the doe could have had her birth, nuzzled and licked her baby clean, could have had the chance to give her baby a first unblemished night before the work of survival began. Instead the doe lumbered away, exhausted, the fawn stumbling after her, disoriented, and that was the beginning of their life together. It’s why, days ago, when Bea no longer felt the kicks and hiccups and flutters and knew the baby had died, she knew she’d want to be alone for the birth. It was the only moment they would have together. She did not want to share that. She did not want someone watching her own complicated version of grief.

Bea peered at the coyote mother. “You understand, don’t you?”

The coyote pranced impatiently and licked her yellow teeth.

From a far low ridge, some foothills of foothills to come, she heard a joyless howl; some watching wolf had seen the carrion birds, was signaling prey.

She had to leave. The sun was going. And now the wolves knew. She’d tracked her shadow becoming long and thin, a sight that always made her sad, as though she were seeing her own death by starvation. She stood, stretched out her sand-pocked knees, wiped the desert off her skin and ragged tunic. She felt foolish that she’d tried to resuscitate what she knew to be dead. She thought the Wilderness had cast all sentimentality from her. She would not tell anyone about that moment. Not Glen, who she thought wanted a child of his own more than he would ever admit. She wouldn’t tell Agnes, even though she thought Agnes would want to know about this sister who never materialized, would want to understand the secret particulars of her mother. No, she would stick to the simple story. The baby did not survive. So many others hadn’t. So we move on.

She turned without another look at this girl she had wanted to name Madeline. She gave that mother coyote a sharp kick, landing it against her visible ribs. The dog yelped, slunk, then snarled, but she had more pressing concerns than engaging a human insult.

Bea heard the scuffle and yips behind her. And though the dogs’ rising excitement resembled a newborn’s cry, Bea knew it was just the sound of hunger.


An unmistakable shadow of a path led toward the camp. It was hard to know if it was from the Community’s own impact, animals making their own animal trails, or a remnant of all the things the land had been before it became the Wilderness State. Maybe it was Bea alone who had blazed the trail. She visited that place as often as she could, whenever they migrated through the Valley. It was the reason she’d chosen it for Madeline. There was something subtle in that view. It seemed like a hidden valley. The depression of verdant grasses and coarse bushes lay slightly lower than the land around it so that it had a secret view toward the horizon and the inky hump of mountains there. All the land in view formed a mosaic of blurred, muted colors. It was pretty and quiet and private, she thought. A place someone wouldn’t want to leave. Again, Bea felt a fleeting relief to have Madeline poised there, instead of facing an unknowable landscape with her, a mother who felt incapable of maneuvering it with grace.