Where Have All the Young Girls Gone?
Publisher: Vicki Wootton
Paperback: $14.18 U.S.
Download: $5 U.S. Length: 232 pages
“The worldwide decline in female births is already causing a noticeable decrease in world population,” Doctor Simon Livingston of the Social Sciences Department at the University of British Columbia stated at the World Congress on Population. Doctor Livingston continued, “Across the world, the average male/female birth ratio is now 5:1” Which means that five male babies are born for every female.
This trend was first noticed in Vancouver in 2012 when hospitals reported boy babies outnumbered girls five to four. It has taken a mere twenty-eight years to reach the current ratio. There is room for guarded optimism, however; the rate of decline has leveled off slightly over the past five years. Scientists in many fields continue to speculate on the reason for this crisis, but no one yet has come up with the its cause, or suggested a viable solution. — Report in the Vancouver Globe, August, 2040
Aldina Finisterra stopped playing the piano in the middle of Lennon and McCartney's Eleanor Rigby, breaking her husband Raymond's concentration. He looked at her, eyebrows raised.
“Sorry,” she said. She put both hands behind her hips and straightened her back.
“What's wrong, love?”
“Nothing. Just a little twinge.” She leaned forward and adjusted the score. “Let's try again from beginning of the chorus.”
Members of a string quartet, Raymond and Aldina were rehearsing Raymond's new arrangement of the Revolver Suite for an upcoming festival celebrating the centenary of John Lennon's birth. They were rehearsing at home by themselves because of the impending arrival of their daughter.
Aldina was a big woman, tall and robust, with piercing grey eyes, straw-colored hair and the complexion of someone who spends a lot of time out of doors. She was wearing a pale blue coatdress of lightweight cotton.
Raymond put his violin and bow down on the piano top and went over to her. “Has she decided to come finally?” The baby was already a week overdue.
“This could be it,” Alda replied. “Trust her to announce her arrival in the middle of a rehearsal.” She put her hands on the keyboard. “Come on, Ray, let's at least finish Eleanor.”
They continued to play for a few more minutes, but their concentration was off and they finally gave up.
“Maybe that's what we should call her,” Raymond said as he closed the lid of his violin case. “Eleanor.”
“No, it doesn't do anything for me.” Aldina put the cover down over the piano keys and stood up. “I've got a better idea, how about Julia, John Lennon's mother's name?”
“Nice, and appropriate,” Raymond replied. “And she'll even have a Lennon-McCartney song all her own.” He put his arm around her shoulder and they walked out of the room.
“Are you ready to go to the clinic?”
“Not yet. There's plenty of time, if the boys are anything to go by. Let's have some lunch first. I hope you remembered to plug the car in; I'd hate to have the battery die on us halfway there.”
“Of course I did, but I'll check anyway to ease your mind.”
Their three sons, John, Paul and David, had gone to stay with their maternal grandmother in Chilliwack until the baby was born. Raymond was on leave from his day job. He was a landscaper with the city parks board.
About four hours after the first twinge, Raymond unplugged the car and drove Aldina to the Arbutus Park Health Cooperative, a family health clinic in Kitsilano, where the baby would be born.
The clinic was a full city-block of converted townhouses. The site of the Arbutus Park Co-op had been purchased five years earlier. Plummeting housing prices tied to the population decline made such projects much easier to finance. It was jointly owned by the co-op members and the group of gay healthcare practitioners that ran it. The staff included just about every field of healthcare professional from lab technicians to surgeons. Some of the townhouses had been joined together to form larger units, and the insides of most of them had been gutted and fitted for a variety of purposes. Parts of central courtyard had been glassed over and turned into an atrium, which, with plants in containers and casual seating, provided a pleasant area for convalescents and patients waiting for treatment.
Many low-risk births and surgical procedures took place in small clinics run by coops. They had a warmer, homier atmosphere than hospitals, which made their patients more comfortable and less anxious.
Raymond parked the car in the parking area under the buildings. He helped Aldina climb out and followed her up the stairs that led to the atrium. They went straight to the cluster of buildings that housed the maternity unit.
Aldina had chosen to have a water birth. When she reached the third stage of labor, the midwife, Jeff, and his assistant helped her down into the warm pool, which was about three meters in diameter. Both Jeff and Sam, the nurse, climbed into the pool with her, wearing white shorts. Raymond sat on the edge with his legs dangling in the water, supporting Aldina's head.
Julia made her appearance at seven fourteen p.m., although, as Jeff noted, her black hair had been in evidence for several minutes ahead of the rest of her.
“Here she is, Alda,” Jeff said, handing her the towel wrapped infant. “A perfect little girl.”
As often happened when a girl was born, there was a reporter waiting for them when they left the delivery suite. Raymond groaned.
“Be thankful there's only one,” Jeff murmured, patting Aldina's arm. “Let him take a picture, then I'll get rid of him.”
“How are you feeling, Ms Finisterra?” the reporter asked.
“Tired,” she replied.
“Mind if I get a picture of the baby for the Vancouver Globe?”
“If you must, but make it quick. My wife needs to rest.”
“What are you going to call her?”
“Julia.” Raymond and Aldina replied simultaneously.
As soon as the reporter had snapped a picture, Jeff pushed Aldina's recliner through a door and nudged it shut, leaving Raymond to answer questions.”
When her brothers came home from Chilliwack on Julia's third day, they watched their mother's every move as she tended the baby, fascinated by the little girl. At first, they took an inordinate amount of interest in the novelty of their baby sister, but their natural exuberance took over after a few days and they started going out again with their friends, relating all they had learned about this mysterious creature, the girl.
During her toddling years, Julia was both protected by her brothers and exploited when they subjected her to undignified exhibitions of her female attributes for their friends.
However, she took the curiosity of the boys in her stride, soon learning that these events would usually be rewarded by some sort of treat. She seemed to know instinctively it would be inappropriate to tell their parents. It wasn't that she was a pushover; she soon came to realize that she could usually turn the situation to her advantage. And she was quite capable of digging her heels in when things didn't go her way.
It started when she was two. She was playing in the sand box, shoveling sand into one of David's toy trucks, when her second oldest brother John joined her, accompanied by his friend Victor.
“How would you like an ice cream?” John asked. He was a sturdy six year-old with reddish brown hair and blue eyes.
She looked up from her pile of dirt. “I cweam.” She dropped the spade and stood up, looking at her brother expectantly.
“Yeah, but first I want you to do something for me.” He took her hand and led her into the shrubbery at the end of the garden, then kneeling down in front of her, undid her diaper.
His friend, Vic crowded behind him, looking over his shoulder. “I can't see anything,” he complained. “Make her lie down.”
“Why don't you lie down so I can put your diaper back on? Then we can go get some ice cream,” John said.
Once the diaper was back in place, John picked her up. “Good girl.”
“I cweam,” she replied.
Julia was an attractive child with creamy skin, thick dark hair and soulful brown eyes. She got her coloring from her father, but had inherited her mother's inner strength.
Julia started school when she was four. There were twenty-two boys in her class and eight girls, which was about average ratio in that particular school. Although she attended public school, Julia was never allowed to go anywhere without an escort for protection. It had been apparent for years that girls and women had to be safeguarded, not only from unwanted attention, but also from the threat of abduction and assault.
1st boy: I bet you don't know what's over that wall.
2nd boy: I do so. What?
1st boy: It's the girls' school.
2nd boy: Wow! Have you ever met a girl?
1st boy: Uh uh. My brother has, though.
What's wrong, Farida?” Julia asked her friend.
Farida had been moody and downcast for several days, sometimes lashing out at Julia for no apparent reason. This time, she responded by bursting into tears. She sobbed for a few moments, her shoulders heaving, while Julia comforted her by patting her back. Finally she stopped and looked at Julia, her eyes still swimming in tears.
“My father's selling me,” she announced.
“What?” Eleven year-old Julia was horrified. She'd heard of things like that happening in far-away places, but not in Canada. “You're not serious. People can't sell people, not even their fathers.”
“Well he is,” Farida asserted.
“Who's he selling you to?”
“Some rich guy at the temple. He's some sort of big shot there. My mom says he's got about a zillion sons and he's trying to find wives for them. He wants me to marry the oldest.”
“Ugh, yuk. You're not serious. You aren't old enough to get married.”
“But it's true,” Farida insisted.
“I don't know. Soon, though.”
Julia was beginning to believe Farida. After she considered it for a moment, the idea began to take on a certain glamour.
“Do you have to go live with him, when you're married?”
“Will you have to . . . you know . . . like, sleep with him?” Julia squirmed uncomfortably at the idea.
“Not 'til I'm old enough.”
“When will that be?” Julia didn't know whether to feel sorry for her friend or envy her. It sounded so grown-up.
“My mom said when my periods start.”
“God, that's awful. How old is this guy? What's he like?”
“He's about nineteen. I haven't met him. I hope he's not a fat little man like his father.”
“God, that's so old.” Julia sat, pensive, for a moment, trying to put herself in Farida's place. The idea gave her a shivery feeling. She couldn't imagine marrying someone she had never met, but assumed it was customary in Farida's culture.
“I'll run away,” Farida said miserably, but without much conviction.
“You can't do that,” Julia replied, “Where would you go?”
“I don't know. I'll think of something.”
“What are you two whispering about?” Julia's youngest brother, David, was coming across the lawn from the house.
“Hey, guess what?” Julia jumped excitedly. “Farida's . . .”
“Don't tell anybody,” Farida interrupted. “It's a secret.”
Since the public schools had separated boys from girls when she was six, Julia attended an all-girls school in a converted mansion on a quiet street in the Shaughnessy area. The school had about a hundred students. The only thing that distinguished it from its neighbors was the high brick wall that surrounded it, and the armed guard inside the gate. The girls were all delivered to and picked up from school in motor vehicles. No one walked.
The following Monday, at school, Farida related to Julia some of the events that had taken place the previous Saturday. “I saw him,” she said, offhandedly.
“What's he like?”
“He's okay, I guess. For somebody so old. At least he's not fat, and he's taller than his father.” Farida sighed.
“Did he say anything to you?”
“Are you kidding? All he and his brothers did was stare at me as if I was some sort of dog they were buying. I was so embarrassed.”
“God,” was all Julia could think of in response.
Her mind didn't dwell on Farida's problem for long. When she got home that afternoon, she felt a strange atmosphere in the house. Both her parents were home, which was unusual in itself at that time of day. Their friend and fellow musician, Antoine LaSalle was also there. The three grownups were in the sitting room, her parents side-by-side on the sofa, Antoine sitting on the adjacent love seat.
“Come in, Julia. We've got something to tell you.”
Julia walked a little way into the room and looked at the three faces, trying to gauge whether or not it was good news. Her father looked as if he was trying to put on a good face. Her mother looked happy, but a little worried, while Antoine, who was about ten years younger than her father-which made him eight years younger that Aldina-looked happy and nervous.
“What is it?” Julia asked. She went over to her father and leaned against his knees.
He patted her shoulder. “Your mother's getting married again,” he said.
“But how can she?” Julia protested, feeling as if the ground had opened up under her. She looked up at his face. “What about you, Daddy?”
“It's all right, angel. We can both be married to her.” He looked over at Antoine.
Julia turned and followed his gaze. Antoine smiled at her and nodded his head. He had a dimple when he smiled. She had to admit he was handsome with his shaggy, ear-length brown hair and blue eyes.
It was her mother's turn to comment. “You see, dear, there aren't enough women for all the men in the world, and Antoine is a good friend of both of us.” She looked at both men in turn. “Oh dear, I'm not saying this very well, am I?”
“It's all right, Alda,” her father said. “What Mommy means is she still loves me, and she loves Antoine as well, so we're all going to live together.”
“But where will he sleep?” Julia asked, fearful that she might have to give up her room and move in with David.
“That's another thing we wanted to tell you,” Mother replied. “We're going to move to a bigger house.” She smiled at Antoine.
Julia sat on the couch between her parents and thought about this for a while. Her mind was in turmoil, trying to assess the effect all these changes would have on her. She had too many questions and couldn't decide which had priority. Finally, she sighed and looked up at her mother. “Can I be a bridesmaid?”
* * *
Farida Khalsa stared down at her hands. Earlier that morning, her mother and grandmother had carefully painted the backs of both hands with intricate traceries of kohl. She looked at her hands because they had told her she must not raise her eyes during the ceremony. Gold jewelry weighed heavily on her shoulders and wrists. She was wearing a bright pink langha, the traditional long tunic, over matching pants with bands around the ankles embroidered in purple and gold. She had wanted to wear red, the traditional color for weddings, but her mother said it was too strong for a little girl. Still it was a pretty garment. A gossamer-light pink veil, embroidered with gold thread, covered her head and draped over her shoulders. Her gaze, kept low, moved around to where her mother and grandmother were standing with the groom's mother and two grandmothers. Most of the women present were her mother's age or older; there was no one Farida's age at all.
She remembered her grandmother's wedding pictures. There had been many girls her grandmother's age, friends, sisters, cousins.
The men started singing the hymn, “Kita loria kam so Hari pai akhia”, seeking the blessing of God on the ceremony.
She heard her father's soft voice say, “It's time, child.”
Her four brothers stepped into place, two on either side of her. Farida was aware of a group of men approaching the front of the temple where she was standing. One of them, she knew, was her bridegroom, but she didn't dare look at him.
She had been introduced to Sarap Gurdwara Singh briefly a few weeks earlier when the final arrangements had been made for the marriage. She had been awed by the tall, slender young man who seemed impossibly old to be marrying someone as young as she. He was nineteen; she was eleven. But perhaps he had no more choice than she had. It was an arrangement agreed upon between their fathers.
Farida's mother had wept when she told her daughter about the impending union. “We have no choice, child, Dada's business will fail if he doesn't get the money. Think about your brothers; what will they do if the business goes under?”
“But what will I do? Will I still be able to study? Where will I live?”
This question brought fresh tears to her mother's eyes. She hugged the little girl. “You'll have to go and live with your husband's family, darling, but Dada has asked them to let you use one of their terminals to keep up with your schoolwork.”
“Will I have to sleep with him, like you and Dada?”
“Not right away. Later, when you get older. For the time being, you'll be like a daughter in the family.” She sniffed and squeezed Farida very hard. “You're so precious, little Farida.”
The Priest started to intone a hymn from the Guru Granth, the Sikh holy scripture. Her father took her hand and placed in it the end of a silk scarf, then he moved away from her towards one of the nearby men-Sarap, she realized. Keeping her head down, she glanced through her lashes and saw her father give the other end of the scarf to him, then back away with his hands pressed together. Sarap held onto the scarf.
She had been through several rehearsals of the ceremony with her brother Raj standing in for the groom, so she knew what to do next. She and the groom made obeisance to the Guru Granth, then he draped the scarf over his shoulder, still holding the end, and turned his back to her. The chanting turned to singing and they started to walk around the canopied Guru Granth. Her brothers walked beside her.
She became dazed as the long ceremony proceeded, alternating between chanting and singing of hymns, more circling, then sitting cross-legged on the floor to listen to admonitions from the priest. At last, everyone stood up for the final Ardas.
When it was over, they were served the sanctified pudding, then everyone moved into another room for the wedding feast.
* * *
Julia stood on the sunny lawn beside her father, holding a spray of flowers. Aldina was between Raymond and Antoine facing the minister. It was the first time Julia could remember seeing her mother in a dress. In truth, she couldn't remember the last time she had worn one herself. Aldina's dress was ankle-length crêpe in deep teal decorated with tiny lavender floral sprays. Julia had chosen a cream colored, high waisted gown trimmed with dark green.
The three brothers stood behind their parents, John and David in dark blue suits with matching high-necked shirts, Paul in a white high-buttoned jacket and pants, his hair freshly shampooed and sweeping in glossy waves over his shoulders.
The ceremony was being held at the home of Antoine's parents. Most of the guests, not surprisingly, were men and boys. Aside from Antoine's mother, Adele, the only other females were Antoine's cousin Gabrielle, her two-year-old daughter, Charm, and a friend of Aldina called Spencer.
The minister opened a leather-bound bible and began to read from a sheet of paper held on the pages.
“We are gathered together in the company of family and friends to celebrate this day the union of Antoine Louis LaSalle with Aldina Marie Finisterra and Raymond Charles English.”
He turned to Antoine. “Do you, Antoine, promise to honor, cherish and respect Aldina and Raymond for as long as the union shall last?”
“Do you vow to value and protect the children of Aldina and Raymond as if they were your own?”
The minister smiled at John, Paul, David and Julia in turn. “Although this is not part of the ceremony, I would like to add that I hope you young people will welcome Antoine into your family with kindness and respect, and come to regard him as a second father.”
Julia nodded earnestly, although she wasn't sure about the father part.
Antoine took the ring Raymond was holding and placed it on Aldina's finger, then she handed her bouquet to Julia and put a matching ring on his. Antoine kissed Aldina and shook hands with Raymond.
After the exchange of vows, the guests began to socialize. Some, children in the lead, went to the marquee in the garden to help themselves to food and drinks from the buffet.
Julia gloried in the unaccustomed masculine attention-she rarely got to meet boys socially-but she was soon brought down to earth when two older boys cornered her while she was searching for a lavatory.
One boy pulled her into a corner, pinning her arms behind her. “Let's see what you've got,” other boy said, grabbing her skirt.
“No!” she shrieked at the top of her voice.
“Let her go, you stinking little creeps.” John barged into the room.
“We were only playing,” the boy whined, letting go of Julia's arms.
Julia ran to John who took her arm. “That was stupid to go wandering off alone,” he said. “Where's your beeper?”
“I forgot to bring it.”
John sighed and shook his head. “If your legs weren't screwed on, Julia, you'd be riding in a wheelchair.”
He was still blocking the boys' escape. He turned to them. “If I see you even looking at her again-well you know she's got three big brothers and two fathers-so I’ll leave it to your imagination what will happen.”
Copyright © 2006 by Vicki Wootton