She woke the children in the dark and repeated to them words said years ago by her own mother: “I’m going now to fetch the baby. It’s a dangerous journey, and I may not return.”

Sleepy Aeon murmured, “Don’t, Mama. Stay with me.”

“Selfish girl, the baby’s waiting. Do you want to let it cry all alone?”

“Yes,” whispered Aeon. Her little brother was back asleep already. “Yes. Will it be a girl for me?”

“They tell me it’s a girl,” said Mama. “Shhhh. Shhhh. Let me be a good mother. Let me go fetch her, and you’ll have a sister for playing with.”

Before Mama finished speaking, Aeon slept. The child sucked her thumb, a bad habit that needed changing, and Mama made note of it.

For now, she must be gone. She was full of strength and vigor. During the past several days Mama had cooked and washed and put things in order. She was pleased with the results. Now she stepped outside and was pleased all over again at the auspicious night. The stars turned between spring and summer. Beneath the stars, tree pollen hung in curtains. The green dust lodged in her nostrils and in the pit at the back of her throat, and it powdered her lungs so that at times she hurt to breathe.

Oh, Mama had a long trip ahead of her! But she was an experienced traveler – no idle tourist or impulsive teenager. She wore a sensible traveling dress and carried a bottle of water and another of wine. She had little cakes of concentrated food. She had a tarp that could be bedding or a cloak or a cover from rain. She had a compass – a gift from a friend who became lost recently during her own journey, but who was saved by that compass and came home and would not be following any more of these sorts of quests. The friend said she was glad of it.

And the sling. Mama had a clever sling – canvas outside, felted cotton inside – for bringing home the baby. All the wives admired these slings she made of her own design, and she sewed them as gifts. They were highly prized.

Now she walked – that rolling, pregnant gait – through her own yard made mysterious in the night, for the young moon had set, and beyond it to the street. A lamp burned dimly. The familiar houses, obscured by shadow, became anonymous, like men in uniform, ranked each one close beside the other and their windows facing rigidly forward.

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This is a good beginning, to start with Mama rather than with me, the narrator, because this is her story. Although – as with the images of soldier-houses – you will see me peek through the narrative. Mama never knew soldiers and I do. What I never knew were the inhabitants and interiors of those houses. I am sorry for that, and jealous.

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