The colony was well-protected, a beehive the bees never left. The woman had been born there. Like the others in her world, she had no name.
One day, a page from an old novel floated up from the depths of her computer. On that page lived characters who did have names. At that moment, the woman knew that she, too, wanted one.
The word “emerald” caught her attention. She liked its murmuring sound and its meaning: a rare and precious stone. The woman adopted Emerald as her name.
She told no one of this odd ornament she’d acquired, for the colony disapproved of surplus possessions. Its inhabitants’ needs were well provided for. An array of smoothly functioning devices supplied nutritious food, clean water, a pleasant climate, appropriate entertainment and continuous contact with others in the colony.
Emerald had several friends she’d never met, though she saw them and corresponded with them daily. All of them looked like Emerald, their faces round and sweet, their bodies small, their limbs underdeveloped. Only their hands were strong and flexible, adapted to moving speedily over keyboards.
Emerald loved her keyboards. She felt they were part of her, as if they’d sprouted from her fingertips. She spent most of the day at her computer, with short breaks for meals and entertainment.
There was a small window in Emerald’s cell at which she liked to gaze. It wasn’t a window as we know it but simply an old painting of the sea, its reds and purples reflecting a summer sunset. Each cell had a landscape chosen by its tenant. Emerald loved her picture more than anything in her cell, even her keyboards.
Not long after Emerald had found her name, her computer displayed another surprising thing, a column made of small clusters of words. It seemed harmless enough. But when Emerald read the words, she felt queer, as if she’d swallowed something alive, something that wriggled within her. She rubbed her chest, stuck fingers down her throat, drank a warm and soothing infusion, but nothing helped.
Finally, Emerald curled up on her bed. She thought of contacting friends to ask advice, but time passed in a maze of indecision and darkness came. Communication was discouraged after dark. So Emerald lay awake in her tiny cell, alone with whatever had crawled into her heart.
The word “lonely” slipped into her mind, a word she’d never needed before. I’m lonely, thought Emerald, frowning, I’m afraid. There is no one here who understands. Then Emerald began to cry. Once she had begun, she couldn’t stop. She cried so hard that a small lump sprang from her chest and fell into her hand.
To Emerald’s amazement, it was a baby, iridescent green and perfectly formed. She had actually given birth, a forbidden process. Birth was carefully monitored in their world. It was carried out elsewhere and in secret. Only perfect newborns were given cells. The rest were discarded and recycled.
Emerald’s baby was blinking, her mouth opening. She was no bigger than Emerald’s palm and fit there perfectly. As Emerald was wondering how to care for her, what to feed her, the answers came as if she’d always known them. She fiddled with her machines until they produced the proper warm fluid and fed her baby. She molded one of her softest towels into a nest and placed her there.
Soon Emerald had less and less time for keyboards and friends. Her baby was demanding and energetic. Her limbs were sturdy and her chatter was unique, sounds that were syncopated, rhythmic. Emerald decided to give her a name, she called her Leaf.
When the crisis came, Emerald was unprepared. Leaf wanted to go out. “There is no out,” protested Emerald. “There is only in.” Leaf pointed towards the sunset window and emitted squeals that grated in Emerald’s ears. Emerald begged her to be content, but Leaf only scowled and ripped the cherished painting from the wall. Oddly enough, there was a hole behind it. Leaf crept quickly through the hole and disappeared.
Emerald grieved for a time, then returned to her tranquil life. She renewed contact with friends, who responded as if she’d never been away and showed little concern about her silence. For many months, whenever a column of old words marched like tiny spiders across her screen, Emerald squeezed her eyes shut and clicked them away.
Then, one day, she gave in to temptation, and read a phrase. Incautiously, she whispered the words aloud, feeling a throb of pleasure deep within her. All at once, the room began to spin. Emerald fainted. When she awoke, she was surrounded by mewling, crawling babies of different colours. Though newly born, they were extremely strong. They began to scratch at the walls of Emerald’s cell and soon they’d managed to tear her cell apart.
Emerald slid through a fissure in the floor. She felt that she was falling a long way. At last, she found herself in a summer field, sprawled on the earth, her babies scattered around her. She winced as pebbles and grasses pricked her skin. Dark birds perched along the branches of nearby trees stared with voracious interest at her babies.
As Emerald thought frantically how to protect them, she noticed, in the distance, a moving dot hurrying closer and closer. It was Leaf, her own Leaf, now fully grown. After heartfelt embraces, Leaf lifted Emerald as if she were a child, then spoke to the birds in their own trilling language. Each bird picked up a baby in its beak and carried it to Leaf’s cottage beside a lake, its rooms sunlit and spacious, its large windows open in all directions.
At day’s end, the women sat together, their fingers linked as comfortably as vines, their faces reflecting the red and purple sky.