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Fresh Shoots

by Angie Smibert

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

“I’d be glad to pour.” I reached for the teapot, remembering the look of countless guests as the enormity of our years slid across their faces. Later would come the relief as they realized they weren’t the aberrations they thought they were. Elise laid her hand on mine as I picked up the teapot.

“No, the real question is would you be a mother?” She looked at me earnestly. “Any of you?”

“Table rules,” she added before I could object.

At every meeting, we entertained some question that would potentially influence the course of womankind, mortal or immortal, over the next 50 years or so. Last time we talked about birth control. Elise’s lab became a pioneer in the field. Calla ran several clinics. And I wrote insightful articles.

But we’d had this conversation before. Many times. I poured the tea, annoyed. After fifty effervescent years, years that had seen the world grow smaller, faster, more volatile, yet more wondrous, years that had seen men and women in space, television bringing wars into our living rooms, computers connecting people instantly across the world, we had much more interesting things to talk about.

“Even though all those centuries in a convent slowed me down a bit, I’ve been a mother at least a dozen times since Caesar conquered Britain.” I set the teapot down with a little more clatter than I intended. A little black streak of fur shot out from under the table and into the nearby bushes.

“No, I mean biologically. Not adoption. Of your own body.” Elise was serious.

It was Merit’s turn to be annoyed with our youngest member. “Elise, it’s not possible. We are infertile. You, of all people know that.” She stopped, suddenly suspicious.

“What have you been up to, Doctor?” Calla settled down at the table as if to hear some juicy gossip. “Do tell.”

Elise took a long, slow sip of her tea and then began explaining her latest research. She still accessorized her speech with a slight French accent when she was excited. And she was excited. She’d done it. She’d isolated the genetic sequence responsible for our infertility and developed a gene therapy to counteract it. She excitedly rattled off the details, losing me somewhere after the word introns. My attention wandered towards Jessica, who was flirting with a customer, all of 20 years old. She’d obviously regained her equilibrium.

“But there’s a catch.” Elise instantly regained my attention. “The gene therapy reverses the coding for immortality.” She explained more slowly this time.

There it was. When all of us so-called immortals were born, our genetic dipswitches were reversed: immortality on, fertility off. As we grew into adulthood, we lingered at that age precisely before cells began to decay: always 29, biologically speaking. We were perpetually at prime child-bearing age, but incapable of conceiving. Some thought it a price, others a gift.

After 800 years, the twelfth-century French midwife with a multi-million dollar research lab in California had figured out how to reverse the dipswitches, but evidently only to the children on, life off position. If any one of us used this treatment, provided it truly worked, that woman would most likely not be sitting at the table 50 years from now. Certainly not in a hundred years.

While we all, even Elise, stared into the depths of our cups, Jessica returned with a plate of scones. Her step was light and airy as she laid the plate before us. She wisely respected our silence and went back to work. Calla smiled as she watched Jessica.

“I’m going to introduce her to a few women nearer her own age. I have a 300-year old Iroquois tribal elder and an 150-year old aviator in mind.” This was one of the most important things Mother Minoan arranged for young immortals. Friends. Connections. Branches on the family tree, so to speak.

“Would any of those women sacrifice their lives for children? Should they?” I looked from Calla to Elise to Merit. “Should we, for that matter? Especially now. The world doesn’t need to be peopled any more than it is. And, things are getting good for us. Well, in most parts of the world.

“Still, there’s so much to do. Our generational meetings used to be a bit dull. Me writing plays in Latin and preserving Gaelic stories in some interchangeable monastery somewhere. Elise birthing babies and healing women. Merit digging up Crete.” My brogue was getting as thick as Elise’s accent, and even Merit was smiling.

“Okay, I guess we really haven’t changed that much,” I conceded. “But, except for Merit, we’ve all raised children as our own. Darn good ones at that.”

“But not one that was of our body, our own eternal essence.” It was Merit. And she looked oddly reinvigorated.

“What about your work? You’ve been sifting through ruins looking for answers for a millennium. Have you found what you’re looking for?” I asked.

Merit lowered her eyes. The world’s foremost authority on ancient civilization evidently thought she was a failure.

Elise answered my question instead. “I’ve always birthed other women’s babies and felt empty. I know, very Lifetime.” Elise could always laugh at herself. “But, that’s what’s driven me: to find out why we couldn’t have children and fix it. Along the way I’ve fixed a lot of other things, cared for men and women, and been called both saint and witch. Now that I’ve achieved what I set out to do... well, let us just say I decided the journey was more fun than the destination.”

“You’re not going to use your own treatment?” I was relieved. Elise would leave a big hole in my life, one she’d filled since we met in a fourteenth-century monastery in the Rhine Valley. Selfish, I know.

“Like you said, there’s so much else to do, no?” She smiled and reached over to hug me. “Maybe I’ll devote the next 800 years to cancer.”

Elise could always make us laugh. At least Calla and I laughed. Merit was still staring into her teacup. She took herself very seriously.

“Merit?” I probed gently.

“I can’t shake a deep-rooted belief that children are the true path to eternal life.” She looked up from her cup. “I still may get hit by a proverbial bus tomorrow. Then where would I be? Utterly dead for all time. No continuance in this life and maybe none in the next.”

The priestess of Hathor had emerged in Merit. I sometimes forgot that she’d spent nearly half her life, longer than the history of Christianity, believing that children ensured your place in the afterlife.

“And I may never find what I’ve been looking for,” she added.

“What exactly is that?” I pressed.

Now the Cambridge don emerged in Merit. “Throughout the Neolithic era and in the beginning of ‘civilization’, man and woman stood together as partners in society.”

I imagined her giving this lecture at the beginning of term to a room full of fresh young faces.

“Minoan civilization, a perfect example of that partnership, flowered at least a millennium before I was born. And something happened that brought war and subjugation. I’ve been looking for that something. Why with each succeeding millennium or century did women’s place in society deteriorate, with some pockets of remission? In Egypt when I was born, women were respected religious leaders. Gradually, over the generations, women were excluded from the priesthood and relegated to being temple musicians and then to attendants and then...”

Merit sagged back in her chair. “I’m tired of looking to the past.” She looked utterly defeated. The little black cat took the opportunity to reassert itself again between Merit’s feet.

My turn. I leaned in. I wasn’t going to let her go quite that easily. “You wrote once that the Minoan civilization was like a fire-ravaged olive tree that went dormant for a time and then sent up fresh shoots through the Aegean region.”

Merit nodded warily. She kicked the cat away from her.

“Our whole history is like that olive tree. Something scorched it, and you’ve been trying to figure out who or what lit the match. Elise has been healing the burns. I’ve been, oh I don’t know, watering the ground, so to speak.” That brought a hint of a smile to Merit’s face.

“And, Calla has been nurturing the fresh shoots.”

Calla raised an eyebrow at me this time. She was fond of saying that we all had our roles in this little garden club of ours, and none was more important than the other.

After a long moment, Merit said quietly, almost to her self, “Maybe I need a fresh shoot of my own.”

Elise gave her a little hug but murmured something about no guarantees. Calla cut me off with a look and then waved Jessica over.

I sagged back into my chair. Calla was right. I wasn’t going to win this argument. Nor should I. It was Merit’s life. Her decision. That was the most important table rule of all.

Jessica set a fresh pot of tea in front of Merit. After she’d poured tea for everyone else, I passed her my empty cup but I put my hand over hers before she could pour.

“I support whatever you want to do.” I let her go. “But maybe you should start with a cat,” I added.

Merit finally laughed. The little black cat, though, was nowhere in sight.

“Girl, we’re all fresh shoots.” Then I let her go.

Copyright © 2007 by Angie Smibert

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