The following is an excerpt from Mallory Tater’s The Birth Yard, available now.
Sex is at noon. I go to bathe and drink tea and put on my black robe. My initials are stitched into the sleeve but it doesn’t fit well and doesn’t feel like mine. Every eighteen-year-old girl gets to wear one when she is introduced to sex. My robe arrived in late November but I was too shy to try it on. My initials, S and U, embroidered on it look too real. I feel too identified, too coordinated. I face the water closet mirror.
“I can’t wear this in public. Everyone will know.”
My mother sticks her hands on her hip, squints at me. “You want them to know. It’s an honour.”
Ambrose is coming to walk with me to the tents. He’ll hold my hand and escort me. Gram Evelyn used to tell me about a time when there were bonds between a woman and Man before pregnancy. Now Babies are what make a union. We aren’t solidified until the day our child is born. But we can parade and walk and hold hands and feel a sense of union. I haven’t seen Ambrose in so long, I feel as if we are meeting all over again.
He comes to the door and He looks pale, tired. Is he still drinking a lot since Arrivals? Why doesn’t that bother me? It doesn’t. I get it. I get Him. He hugs me and says my robe is soft and I smell nice.
My mother pours Him tea and He sits on the sofa. The flowers printed on the arm of the couch seem to stretch to His slender hand. He grips the mug of tea so tight I can see His hand pulsing, shaking. My mother offers Him breakfast cake and He says He’s not hungry, that we need to go soon. My mother is doing all the talking. My body feels heavy, like my skin is simply a casing, a wall sealing in all the mania and nerves inside.
“I’m glad it’s you,” my mother tells Him. “I really like your family. I’m glad Feles chose you to be Sable’s Match.”
My mother barely knows His family. Ambrose nods and says He likes our family, too. Gram Evelyn has not come out of our room. I know she is nervous and maybe wishes I had a choice. She lives for her mother’s old life, the free thought that she felt guided Iris’s actions. Iris chose to join Lynx. Iris chose to mate with Lynx.
Ambrose is in denim, no stupid robe, and no floral crown in His hair. My mother sets mine on my head and it digs in. “You can take it off during sex,” she tells me.
We have ten minutes to get to the tents. I’m worried my body won’t smell sweet or attractive. I’m worried I’m almost too hairless and dull, doll-like for Ambrose. Too clean and prudish, even though every girl is the same. We have been taken off DiLexa and I hope that I can get pregnant but that I can also please Him. How do we even start? What do I do with my legs and hips? I think we kiss first. I think that’s how it’s supposed to begin. Then what will I say and how do I look at Him? How will He see me?
Off DiLexa, none of us are protected any longer from sex and semen. We are vulnerable and perfect, fertile. We are how the Men want us.
Ambrose clutches my hand and His palm is clammy. It makes me feel better. I kiss His cheek. We walk toward the tents. Women and their daughters and young children eat lunch and drink tea on their porches even though it’s cold. So they can see us. So they can know and gossip. We pass at least six girls I went to Lessons with whose tent-times will be later in the month or this week. I’m one of the first sessions.
There are tall candles lit once we get to the square, and the fence that surrounds the area is laced with large white flowers with red centres. My mother’s friend, Polah, is at the main tent, the tent where the food and drink were during the Arrivals. She stands inside with a clipboard. Her glasses slip off her nose. She clears her throat and greets me. She bows her head at Ambrose, who lets go of my hand and nods at her.
We sit in metal folding chairs and wait with the other Matches scheduled this afternoon. I’m glad when I see Mamie. Isaac is shirtless and isn’t even wearing shoes. Primal and regal and strange. They aren’t holding hands when they arrive at the tent.
My former female classmates trickle from the tent with other former male classmates and ones I don’t know who are older. They have just had sex and they’re flushed. Some look in love and happy, with a lightness to them, holding their partners’ arms tight. Some look like nothing in their lives has changed at all and I wonder which way I’ll feel and which one is better.
Mamie twiddles her thumbs and says I better be first. Her robe is too big on her and I step on her foot gently so she knows I’m here and I care. We are not supposed to speak or distract from anything happening in the six small tents to the left of us. I wonder which will be mine. I hear a few shrieks from Tent Five and wonder if the girl in there is all right. My mother says sex makes you moan and shriek and I hope it’s because her partner’s sex feels good and tight inside her, not because He is hurting her.
Ambrose says He is a virgin and I believe Him. Polah calls our names. She takes us into a screened-off area behind her. A healer I don’t recognize is sitting on a stool and says, “Welcome,” and we nod. The healer tells me He wants to check my ovulation with a small tool. He tells Ambrose to stay and me to remove my robe and expose my sex to them. Ambrose has never seen these parts of me. I lie on the small blue fold-out cot and, looking to the fabric sky of the tent, open my legs.
The healer has liver spots on His hands. He tells me to wrap my legs around metal bars at each side of the stretcher. I do so and He inserts a small plastic stick inside me before I can breathe. The pain is startling but manageable. He makes a small circle and pokes at my cervix and counts to twenty, asks Ambrose to join in. Ambrose only mumbles with Him until twenty is up and the healer removes the stick. I realize Ambrose has not let go of my hand and is not at the foot of the bed with the healer staring at my sex. He’s waiting.
The healer shakes the stick and it starts to turn a pale, pale green. He says I have a good chance of impregnation today. I put my robe back on. We go back to our chairs and wait for a breeding tent to be freed up for us.
Polah calls Mamie and Isaac in to see the healer next. We can hear them in there. Isaac calls her “Baby” and cusses when the healer starts counting, as if He is either disgusted or in love with her sex, as if He’s never seen it, never touched it before. I know that is not true, even though unregulated sex is forbidden. If the healer discovers what He has done the punishment will be severe. I swallow hard and feel helpless.
Ambrose says we should’ve brought some cigarettes to occupy us and I nudge Him in the ribs and re-braid my hair, the crown still sitting in place, digging into my head with pins. Small curls fizz above the rest of my hair. The air is wintry. I must be sweating but the robe protects me.
A girl wearing a darker robe leaves Tent Four alone. Polah tells us we are next. She goes into the breeding tent with a fresh gold cloth and a basin of water. We see the curtain of the tent fall over her, her backside sticking out slightly. I want to make a joke to Ambrose, make Him laugh, but the pit of my stomach is so tight I could vomit even though I skipped my morning meal, threw it into the trash when my mother wasn’t looking.
Polah snaps her fingers, tells the Boy still in Tent Four to follow His Match and leave the breeding tent. His hour is up. It’s Claude from Lessons, whom I haven’t seen in months. He follows Polah, leaves with His pants half-unbuttoned. His sex is peeking out, limp and exhausted. I look away. Claude fixes His trouser buttons and offers a hand to Ambrose. Ambrose nods but doesn’t touch Him. Claude says His girl was amazing. He says hi to me and I lift one hand, then He says He’s off back to Lessons now. I wish I could go, too.
Polah comes to us and says it’s our time. We shuffle down a small runway of green carpet whose mouth stretches into little lanes leading into each tent. We enter Tent Four. There’s a mattress, the gold cloth over it, lit candles, soft music playing that sounds like Dinah’s uncle’s fiddle. There are no pillows or blankets. There are two large plants with long stems stretching to kiss the light above in the centre, a dangling pendant light that switches from red to yellow. A bright projection hits the back of the tent.
It’s Feles’s face on the screen. He tells us to lie down and face the screen, not to touch each other before the talk is finished. I haven’t seen Ambrose’s face since we got inside. I hear Him zip the flap of the breeding tent. We lie on the mattress, a wide space between us. Feles welcomes us, says that He is proud and congratulates us on getting to the conception stage.
Feles says, “ You have half an hour. The Man must ejaculate into His Match in that time. It must be sufficient. There must be a sense of cordial approval between both. Afterwards the woman must use the sponge and water at the bedside to cleanse the Man after His loss of semen. The Man selects the positions that are comfortable during the half hour. The Man must report to the administration at the main tent if the woman does not bleed. Should the woman bleed excessively, or if either Man or woman experiences problems or excessive pain during the half hour, ring the bell under the pendant light. Thank you and enjoy. Thank you for your gift of life.”
The projection turns off and I’m dry and afraid. Ambrose touches my hair. “What’s the point of a safety bell we can’t reach?”
I stand on the mattress and touch it. “Sure we can. But we won’t need it.”
A clock begins to tick. We are at twenty-nine minutes.
A voice from a speaker in the pendant light tells us to remove our clothes.
I’m stiff and scared. Ambrose removes His clothes quickly, down to His socks and shoes, kicks them to the corner. I feel like I’m adrift in water and His body is dry land to me now. I don’t know how to touch it or navigate its shores. His body is strong and dark and He has lots of arm hair and leg hair and a thick briar of hair framing the top of His sex. His sex looks like a caterpillar. I’m not ready for Him.
He removes His socks and shoes now.
“Sable, please stop looking at me. Take your clothes off.”
I undo my robe and my legs shake violently. I turn to face Him. He reaches a hand out to my belly. “We can do this,” He says. We lie down.
He slides His hand down my arm and I flinch and ask what we should do. He says, “Let me touch you,” so I press my hands flat to the mattress and try to stop the shaking, try to make this work. He tells me to spread my legs and asks if He can touch me, says it’s supposed to firm up His sex.
I nod and slide my left leg over His. His sex is hovering below mine but I’m floating, holding myself up with my hands. His hand comes out and strokes under me. It feels both tender and like lightning, but not as good as when I touched it myself at night. I feel my labia softening and widening under His finger and I now know why some mothers call it our flower. Ambrose is kind. He takes a break from touching me when I want to let out moans but I’m too afraid. Our candles are dripping wax. They weren’t replaced. They’ve been lit for others too and I find this comforting. We aren’t alone here, the two of us.
Ambrose says His sex is hard and can I suck and touch it. I say okay but I’ve never. “Just touch it,” He says. “It’ll be fine.”
His sex is so slim and long and it feels odd to the touch, like it could be its own animal separate from Ambrose. Like it could burst out from His own body. Ambrose’s crotch is covered with hair and I think this is wonderful. He smells like soap—the soap has clung to His sex. How could hair make a person smell cleaner? I’m straddling over Him now on my knees, the tarp floor not saving me from rocks and sticks digging in. I grip His sex with one hand and place the other flat on His thigh. I tug. “Sable, we can do this. Sable.” He keeps saying my name.
It makes me tug slower, more focused. His sex rises and falls and His breathing sounds excellent. I’m pleasing Him. He reaches in between my legs to please me back. I tense up with His finger inside me, plunged deep along the small walls I barely know. He’s a tenant in my body. I’m surprised to find that I like it just fine.
The clock is moving. We need to move with it. Should we? Can I? I push myself on top of His sex. It burns and chills me at once. The tearing of myself. I yell out. There’s blood on the tarp now, some leaking out onto Ambrose’s thighs. I’m mortified I’ve stained His sex red.
“Are you okay?” He asks.
I nod. Keeping going. I ride and move over Him and try to imagine pleasure. His hands reach out to my waist and He guides me along. He says we can stop if it hurts.
“You need to ejaculate,” I tell Him. “You have to.”
“Sable, if you’re hurting, it’s fine.”
My legs are scorched and my belly churns with nausea at the blood and the scent. It’s ten times worse than a monthly. He’s breaking my barrier. We are connecting. We need this tearing to be with each other.
“Tell me something.” Ambrose says, sweating.
His eyes roll back gently. I reach for His hair but miss and slam my hand on the ground. I tense my sex as if this will stop the bleeding. I feel His testicles with the back of my buttocks. They’re round and make me think of fruit. I reach back to touch them. He calls out to me. I nod and keep squeezing His fruit. It doesn’t take long after this. He fills me.
I know I’m supposed to look at Ambrose but I can’t. I feel shame. Our clock ticks down. We are finished. He removes His sex from mine slowly. It doesn’t hurt. I feel a loosening and breathe deep. He says He could sleep but He grabs the small cloth in the basin beside us, begins to wipe the blood off His sex. My blood. I want to apologize but I can’t. I let Him wash me. He moves the cloth up my legs, gets the few dark clots of blood on my thigh. He dips the cloth back in the water and squeezes it over me, grabs a small bar of soap in a dish beside the tired, dripping candle. He washes me, though I’m supposed to wash Him. To comfort Him. To make up for what He lost inside me. A small stream of himself. I wonder if it worked.
He says that trying again wouldn’t be awful. He keeps rubbing the cloth up my leg. His touch is so nice. His fruit and His sex are darkened in colour from when we started. His sex snakes against His legs as He rubs the cloth against my nipples. I reek of soap. His sex is still firm and starts to loosen, starts to relax. I exhale.
“I think I believe you.”
“When I say we can do this? Be together?”
I nod, reach out for His head, crowned with a layer of sweat, and kiss it. I mean it.
The pendant light turns red. I slip my shoes back on before my robe and Ambrose laughs at me. He takes longer to get dressed and I leave Him to go see Polah. Polah rubs my back and congratulates me. She’s standing over a new group of Matches. They can probably see I’m flushed and changed, and this makes my cheeks brighten even more.
Polah says to tell my mother hello, hands me a pregnancy test, and says if she doesn’t see me again it must have worked and happy December. I chew my nails and wait outside the tents for Ambrose. Mamie and Isaac have gone to her breeding tent.
“I wish we could do that whenever we wanted,” Ambrose says.
I tell Him one day we can, when I’m back on DiLexa to control my bleeding and ovulation, once we know I won’t get pregnant in off times. I’m itching with blood, itching to take a real bath, unnerved that I have to go home and face everyone who knows Ambrose was inside me and when. I think of the privacy that Iris once owned, how I’d give anything for it.
“When do you take the pee test?” Ambrose asks. He means the pregnancy test.
We walk home, cutting behind tall rosemary bushes so we don’t have to see His friends or other children leaving Lessons during their lunch break. So my friends do not see me after sex. I need to collect myself. My hands are shaking and I’m staining my robe with cool sweat.
“In two weeks,” I say.
I think of Dinah who is already pregnant by a Boy she selected herself. I don’t know what Dinah will do but she needs us as witnesses, and I’m going to help her fake it. Going to help the best I can, even though I’m afraid. They’ll take her baby away and ruin her, possibly even exile her. No one will want her here. She will never make another baby. I dread it all for her. Why did she do it?
“Come see me. When you know,” Ambrose says, lighting a cigarette.
I wish my Match took better care of himself but I also don’t know Him well enough to say anything. He reaches for my hand and I take it. I don’t know what we are or where we stand, but for now it’s nice and it could be worse.
Kassia is on the couch waiting for me. She came home from Lessons early to see me. Her hair drips with bath water. “I drew it for you,” she says, “but then I got in first. It’s still hot.”
I nod and go to the water closet. She follows me as I undress again. My body is a display piece. I get in the tub. Kassia sits on the toilet seat and asks me how sex was. She’s upset I didn’t tell her it was scheduled for today.
“I couldn’t,” I say. “I felt too sick to say it out loud.”
I rub my belly. What is growing? What seed was sown, what wasn’t? My sex is still moist and strange from Ambrose. Kassia looks into the mirror and tells me she’s proud of me. I touch a finger to my sex and stare up at the ceiling tiles. I move my feet in small circles in the warm water, revive myself. I feel no pleasure. I’m nothing but a vessel occupying water. “If you do get the Ceres Yard,” Kass says, “do I have a good chance to go there too?”
Ceres is the best Birth Yard, according to the women who have given birth before. I say nothing. I don’t know. I don’t know where they will send me.