Author Archives: Margaret Durand

Happy Birthday, Sis

“Citizen Ralph, we must go to the guillotine.  Today, there are spry and energetic – if somewhat aged – bourgeois, my favourite. And we must buy a wrinkled, pathetic turnip and week-old wine for our supper.”

“I also, Citizen Margaret, enjoy the shopping with a little chopping. Ha Ha. But perhaps we might steal something on the way and make a feast of it. I am rather fond of a good Bordeaux.”

“Do not get above your station, Citizen. Be satisfied with what you may find in the hands of the 1 percent. Personally, I’m hoping for a claret, and perhaps a chicken, but I’ll take what providence and your bludgeon provide.”

“It is a merry life we have, is it not Citizen Margaret, in spite of being three score years and ten?”

“It is indeed, Citizen Ralph. We have many years of enjoyment ahead. HO HO. Did you get that, Citizen? A HEAD!”

“Very drole, my dear, very drole. Onward.”

*

This scene was inspired by a postcard depicting an old man and woman, perhaps during the French Revolution, deep in conversation. In honour of my birthday, my brother, Ken, wrote  les mots amusante to accompany the drawing. Definitely the best birthday card ever.

Graceland (S)

Why were the care aides whispering about him when he lay on his motorized bed not five feet away? Just because he didn’t understand what they said didn’t mean he was hard of hearing. He was only waiting for them to say something that made sense.

Jack felt relaxed enough to drool. Over-medicated, he’d heard them whisper. His dog bothered them because he wasn’t hygienic. Sure, Elvis sleeping on his bed wasn’t completely safe, but it was fine if he spent the night in soiled adult nappies.

“You wouldn’t mind if we take Elvis for a short walk, would you, Jack.”

“Try it, and you won’t like what happens,” Jack said, letting his evil smile loose. The two care aides jerked back when he displayed a new set of poorly-made false teeth that seemed too big and brilliant for his puckered mouth. He’d even scared himself when he smiled in the mirror. “Elvis stays with me.” He imagined delivering this line in a resonant bass voice, but his old man quaver didn’t cut it. That meant using the toothy grin, the weapon he saved for dire situations. Both aides narrowed their eyes and shrugged, deciding it wasn’t worth risking a bite from his choppers.

Jack patted Elvis and watched his pet’s adoring eyes turn towards him and blink several times before closing for a nap. There was an audible doggy sigh as contagious and satisfying as a yawn.

 

Someone had absconded with Elvis two nights ago, and Jack had worked himself into an uncharacteristic state of agitation.

“Where’s Elvis?” Jack shouted at the aide, his scrawny arms crossed over his pajamas. It was difficult to appear menacing in pjs, especially ones with silhouettes of Elvis dancing across his chest.

“You haven’t eaten your breakfast. It’s your favourite – poached egg.”

“Not eating until you bring me Elvis.”

“He’s in for repairs. I told you yesterday.”

“I told you yesterday that I wouldn’t eat until you brought him back.”

He could hear the two women whispering at the door. “How can he remember even owning that bloody dog?” the grumpy one said.

“His memory must be a lot better than we thought,” the pretty one said. Jack watched them leave, wondering if he was risking an injection of something nasty by acting up.

 

“Here you go, Jack. Elvis is back.” The grumpy aide tossed a plush collie on his bed.

“Hey! That’s a stuffed dog. It’s not even the same breed. What do you take me for, a senile old man?”

 

“Jack, I understand you haven’t been eating.” The doctor was pretending to care, pouting like his old Mum when he wouldn’t eat his peas.

“Your people stole my dog.”

“You have a dog? In a care facility?” Now the doctor tried to look shocked, but that didn’t hit home either.

“Don’t play games, Doc. You know Elvis came here with me two years ago.

“When you arrived, you thought Elvis was real. Do you still think so?” Jack frowned and squinted up at the doctor. Maybe they should trade places.

“I know Elvis is a robot, but he’s my robot and I want him back.”

“Do you mind if I run a couple of tests.” The doctor pulled out a little computer and started poking at it.

“Darn right I mind. No Elvis, no tests.”

 

“Here’s your dog, you old fool.” The grumpy aide dumped Elvis on the bed. “You got us all into trouble.”

“As if I care,” Jack said. He ran his hand over Elvis’s stomach, felt the comforting heat radiating from the battery pack, and checked to see if the dog’s eyes turned to look at him adoringly when he stroked him. For the first time in days, he could relax and enjoy being pampered. Lunch was a mystery but it never tasted better.

 

Then the doctor showed up with his tests and asked a bunch of meaningless questions. Can you remember three items from that picture I showed you? Can you tell me the time from this clock face? Jack shrugged and waited until the doctor said something that made sense.

“Jack, I can’t help wonder if you’re playing games with me. Yesterday you were lucid. Today you can’t answer simple questions.” Jack’s eyebrows were hitting each other. He couldn’t understand a word.

Elvis moved his head to look at Jack, blinked his eyes, closed them, and sighed. Good plan, thought Jack, and he imitated the dog’s actions and fell asleep in an instant.

 

“What do you mean, the dog’s doing it?” The doctor banged his pen up and down on his iPad as if it were a bongo drum. He was glaring at the pretty aide.

“I tell you, Jack’s a zombie when that dog’s around. Take it away and he’s almost normal.”

“That’s ludicrous.”

“Sure, but I’d bet I’m right. Try it and see what happens.”

 

Jack sensed something was up. The aides were snickering and saying things that made no sense. He heard the word Elvis, and something in his brain clicked. He started to shake. His hand wobbled on the warm battery pack, and he stared into Elvis’s glossy black eyes, looking for help. Slowly his shaking subsided and he felt a lovely calm descend. When the doctor entered with the pretty aide, Jack was asleep. They took Elvis.

 

“He’s not upset?” the doctor asked.

“I wouldn’t say that. He’s stopped eating again, but he’s not talking rationally the way he did last time. He just sits there drooling.”

“You’ve changed his routine. That’s why he’s not eating. Now I’m worried about your mental state. Really? Suggesting the dog was making him senile?”

“Sorry, but I thought Elvis was affecting his brain.” There was a long silence when Jack wanted to open his eyes and see what was happening.

“Can we give him back his dog?”

“Why not? See if he starts eating again.”

Jack heard it all, but he didn’t let his face muscles tense or his eyes react. Funny thing was, he enjoyed listening to them talk. He could tell there was a budding relationship between the doctor and the pretty aide. He wanted to know more, but if he let on he wasn’t senile, everything would change for the worse because they’d evict him from the care home. Whatever it took, he wasn’t going back to that filthy hostel to fend for himself, and no way would Elvis turn him into a drooling idiot, either. That care aide had the brains to figure it out.

 

“Everything’s back to normal,” the pretty one said. “Jack’s eating again, so the doctor was right. We must have upset his routine. Funny though, Elvis has stopped doing his companion thing – you know, wiggling, blinking and sighing. I offered to change the batteries, but when I tried to take Elvis away, Jack bared those awful dentures and growled at me.”

“If he doesn’t miss that bogus pet affection, why should we care? Let him enjoy his plushy germ-ridden toy.” The grumpy aide shrugged and left the room with Jack’s empty dinner tray.

After they had gone, Jack wondered how Elvis had managed to make him act demented. He knew it had something to do with the battery he’d removed and shoved in the diaper pail. What really bothered him was not being able to remember which one of his wretched relatives had given him the dog as a present. Jack released a big sigh which was almost as satisfying as hearing one from Elvis.

 

***

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Wed, Nov 29, 1911

As someone anxious about the near-future, I find it odd that my husband is developing an addiction to  Ancestry.com. However, many people are obsessed with searching for their ancestors on-line. If you don’t believe that, a quick web search will reveal someone who describes himself as “the Walter White of family trees, always looking to build a better meth lab”. Perhaps these people are incipient tech addicts or wanna-a-be detectives, but hours can disappear while researching your roots, only to be buried in dirt. For those wondering if you have the symptoms, I’ve included a (partial) list below taken from the Geni.com website.

You might be addicted to genealogy if…

  • You’re more interested in what happened in 1815 than 2015
  • You spend your vacations visiting cemeteries, courthouses and archives
  • You introduce people as “my aunt’s husband’s second cousin once removed”
  • Your doctor asks about your family history and you ask, “how many generations back?”
  • You know more about your friends’ family history than they do
  • The pharmacist asks you to decipher the doctor’s handwriting

For me, uncovering dates of birth, death, marriage etc. of my ancestors is so dry as to require a drink. I crave those important details that bring a life to life, and, rarely, that  happens. My husband found this wonderful newspaper article about his great-grandfather who moved from Quebec to Alberta in 1903. It’s too good not to share.

Ananie Durand, 56 years old and father of nine children, came 2000 miles from Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, to St. Louis to find a wife. He arrived Thursday. He was introduced to Mrs. Mattie White of IOC614 O’Fallon street Friday, sampled her cooking Saturday, proposed and was accepted Sunday, bought a wedding outfit for her Monday and engaged a priest Tuesday to marry them Wednesday afternoon. Mrs. White is 53 years old and has two grown children. Her husband died last February. Durand’s wife died last March. Durand says he has a $100,000 farm In Alberta and he is sure his bride will like to live there, although he has warned her that the temperature sometimes drops to 50 degrees below zero. This being a mild winter it was only 14 below when he left home, he says.

“I don’t mind the cold,” says the prospective Mrs. Durand. “I always did want to live on a farm.” Durand wrote to friends in St. Louis several weeks ago, telling them he was looking for a wife. He will not divulge the names of these friends but says that after looking over the matrimonial field there they advised him to come to St. Louis and take his pick of their selections.

Durand went to the Alcazar Hotel, 3127 Locust street, and then called on eligible widows whose names had been furnished by his friends. “I didn’t let them know what I wanted, though,” he said slyly. “Some of them kept rooming houses. I would ring the bell and ask to see a room. They would show me through the house and I would note whether they were tidy housekeepers. Most of them were not, and I went away without telling them I wanted a wife.”

I liked Mrs. White’s looks when I was introduced to her. I found her house neat and clean. I came back the next day and ate dinner with her and learned that she was a fine cook. The meal was so good that I came back for a Sunday dinner. No man ought to marry a woman who can’t cook.  In order to marry It was necessary for them to get a dispensation from Archbishop Glennon, as Durand Is a Methodist and Mrs. White a Catholic. “Religion makes no difference if the cooking is good” said Durand Wednesday. Mr. and Mrs. Durand will depart on their 2000-mile journey to Alberta next Wednesday evening. After arriving at Red Deer, they will drive 30 miles in a sleigh to Durand’s farm.

 

 

[Any news article published in the United States before 1923 is in the public domain and can be reprinted or republished without any copyright concerns.]

Blood Memories: The Prequel

“From: Doctor John Forbes
H.M.S. Rossamond
Havana, 16th February 1854

My Dearest Anne,

My last letter to you left here yesterday morning in the American steamer “Isabel” for Charleston and if it goes safe I calculate it will reach you in a week. I am now beginning another letter to you; my dear Anne, next to receiving a letter from you my greatest pleasure is in writing to you. You see I don’t put off much time in beginning a fresh letter – the English mail steamer has not arrived here yet but is hourly expected and I suppose soon after that we will take our departure from Havana…”

 

A tell-tale squeak from the rocking chair drew Donald to the chilly front room. Mamma’s lap was covered by a warm woolen blanket that nestled the only one of Penny’s kittens to survive their harsh Niagara winter. As his mother lifted a letter to the last light of the day, her auburn hair caught the rays of sun that were streaming through the frosted front room window. She had failed to notice him staring at her until he touched one of the patches of bright orange fur that speckled the kitten’s coat.

At nine years of age, Donald was a small version of his father. Light brown hair fell over a broad forehead above curious green eyes. He pushed a lock of unruly hair from his eyes and gently lifted the kitten to his chest. The kitten opened one eye briefly but remained determinedly tucked in a ball. Donald smiled and squirmed as he felt the vibrations of the purring right through to his skin and he inhaled the sweet milky aroma of the kitten’s breath. In spite of rarely seeing his father, Donald had tried to adopt his father’s mannerisms. He would wait until Mamma looked directly at him before beginning to speak, but this time he could not contain himself.

“Where is Papa? Will he come home soon? Does he ask after me?” he said, his questions running out on a single breath.

His mother’s eyes moved to him, softened, and returned to the letter. “He is still in Cuba, he should be home in a few weeks, and I don’t know because you haven’t let me finish his letter.”

The mild rebuke reminded Donald that his father would return home exhausted from his tour as ships’ surgeon with the Royal Navy. He was always too tired to spend much time with him and he had to plead to hear a sea story at bedtime. Mamma said that Papa would take his retirement soon but then they would need to be more careful with money because he would receive a half pension, whatever that meant. He thought it would be a good thing to have Papa home all the time, even if he would no longer be called the man of the house. He’d earned that title by feeding the horses and milking Annabella, but he didn’t care much for feeding the hens and reaching for eggs guarded by fierce beaks. He sighed when his mother finally finished reading the letter and turned to him.

“Papa sends you his love and hopes that your school work is going well.”

“School work? Doesn’t he ask after the calf? You told him I birthed him didn’t you?” Donald tried to make his brow furrow in annoyance, just like his father’s, but his mother only smiled.

“I think Annabella did most of that dear, but yes, I did tell him you contributed to a good outcome. It’s a fine calf, but I’m sure your father has much on his mind. You can tell him all about it when he arrives home.”

Donald placed the kitten back in her lap and frowned at the roughness of the woolen blanket compared to the kitten’s silky coat. Disappointed with the letter, he stomped from the house, grabbing his coat and felt cap from the peg beside the door. Seeing his mother watching him through the window, he tugged at the small oak tree that Papa had planted several years earlier. It had stubbornly withstood many of his tugs of frustration. Then he saw Mamma rise up and walk towards the kitchen, and he hoped that she would make a cake for his birthday. His favorite was White Mountain cake piled high with icing and decorated with strawberry preserves. He licked his lips in anticipation, and the image pushed the disappointing letter from his mind.

 

Warmth from the animals engulfed Donald as he pulled open the barn door. He lugged the wooden water bucket towards the stall, managing to slop very little. He felt proud of his efforts to muck out Annabelle’s stall that morning, and he imagined his father saying that it looked ship-shape. But he dropped the bucket when he saw the calf lying ominously still in the fresh straw, its mother looming over the limp form. Donald’s skin grew moist then cold as he wondered how this could have happened. The calf had been bright-eyed and feeding well that morning.

When he tried to move closer to the calf, Annabelle refused to let him. She swished her tail and mooed a warning for him to keep his distance. Talking in a slow lilting voice, the one he used when milking, Donald slowly calmed her and then led her to the back of her stall. He secured her halter to a ring in the post and returned to kneel beside the calf. His little belly was swollen but the calf was cool to the touch. Blood had dribbled from the corner of his mouth and created a shiny pool under his muzzle. He touched the surface of the pool and then quickly lifted his finger, drawing a red thread with it. His stomach turned when he thought about the loss of the little creature. Papa would be vexed and would blame him for sure, especially if the calf had swallowed something it shouldn’t. If only his best friend Jessie were here. She might know why the calf had died.

Just as he was considering how to break the sad news to Mamma, Rhoda appeared silently at his side. His sister was five years younger, but she missed very little. “Just like you to show up right now,” Donald muttered.

“What’s wrong with the calf, Donny?” Rhoda asked, looking more perplexed than upset. Small for her age, she had auburn hair like her mother’s and a nose just a bit too big for her face. Papa’s nose, Donald realized. “Why is he so still?” she persisted, touching the calf tentatively with one finger.

“The calf is dead, Rhoda, and I don’t know why,” Donald sighed. “Annabelle is very upset, so you should stay away from her for a few days.” As if on cue, Annabelle emitted a mournful bellow, and Donald realized that the pressure of the milk meant for the calf must be paining her. He turned to his little sister. “Could you go get my wagon?”

My wagon, you mean,” her eyes wide. “You said I could have it.”

“Of course, your wagon,” he sighed. “But I need to borrow it to move the calf from the stall.”

Before Donald could get an answer, Rhoda had streaked from the barn, yelling “Mamma, Mamma. The calf is dead.”

 

Outside, there was just enough light for him to retrieve the wagon that was leaning up against the leeward side of the barn, but when he saw the wooden toboggan hanging on a hook above it, he lifted it down instead, realizing that it would be easier to pull over the fresh snow. He would leave the calf under a tarpaulin next to the fence so that their hired hand could help him deal with it the next day. Returning to the barn, he bent down, grabbed the calf’s legs and began to drag it slowly backwards from the stall. His face warmed and he felt a wet drop slide down his cheek. Sweat, not tears, he told himself. As he pulled the front legs onto the toboggan, he spotted something shiny in the hay where the calf had been lying. He tugged the stiffening body onto the toboggan, draped a tarpaulin over it, and dragged it out to the fence. Then he returned quickly to examine the shiny thing in the straw.

A curved metal shard, about three inches long, had been lying beneath the calf. He kicked aside the hay and found two more pieces, one much larger. Knowing that calves would eat just about anything they found, he wondered whether the calf might have swallowed a bit of the metal that cut his insides. He searched all around inside the stall, then outside, checking the small rakes and spades hanging on the wall. Some of their tools were made of wood, but the spade, pick and hoe were hand forged of steel as was the pitch fork he’d been using that morning. None of the tools was missing bits of metal. He turned over the small fragments in his hands feeling their smooth curved surfaces. It looked like the broken rim of a small wheel. Perplexed, he walked back to the house to show his mother.

She was waiting for him in the kitchen and consoled him with a pat on his shoulder. “I wonder what could have happened to that calf,” she said. Donald handed her the metal bits.

“I found these in the stall, but they weren’t there this morning,” he said, anticipating her question. His mother was joining the pieces together and looked concerned. “What is it Mama? Could it have killed the calf?”

“Yes, Donny, if he swallowed something sharp like this. They look like pieces of a slave neck ring to me.”

“A slave neck ring,” Donald repeated, his eyes widening as he remembered his father’s story of the injustices committed upon the slaves transported from Africa. They were shackled to their berths for weeks at sea and often died on ship before seeing the new world. Papa had said that dogs were treated better than slaves. He was proud that his father helped stop these ships and free the slaves. “There is no one in the barn now,” he said.

“No, I suppose whoever it was just kept running, poor soul. He’ll be miles away by now. Although I do not begrudge that poor Negro from removing this tormenting device, it is unfortunate that the calf had to suffer for it, if that is what happened. There is nothing you could have done, Donny,” she added “Your father will be disappointed, but he will know that you are not to blame.”

“Would I find a piece of metal inside the calf, do you suppose?” he asked, wanting to know for sure why the animal had died. It would be something to tell Papa.

His mother smiled and patted his head. “Perhaps, but first you would need to develop your skills in surgery. That would please your father.” Donald looked up at her and set his mouth in the way his father did when he was pleased but trying not to show it.

“I’d like to be just like Papa. Then maybe I could have saved that calf.” Before he could savor this thought, a bellow from the barn reminded him that he must return to milk Annabelle.

***

 

Loosely based on letters written by my ancestors, this story takes place in 1854 on a farm near the village of Chippawa, now part of Niagara Falls Ontario. It provides a background to my novel Blood Memories, a historical “coming of age” story about Donald Forbes and his childhood friend, Jessie MacKay growing up in Ontario and Virginia during the American Civil War.

Blood Memories was short-listed for the 2015 Cedric Literary Awards. It was published with Kindle Direct Publishing in October, 2016.

 

White Mountain Cake

 

3 cups of sugar
1 cup of butter
Whites of 10 eggs, beaten stiff
½ cup of milk
1 tea-spoon of cream of tartar in the milk
3 ½ cups of flour
½ tea-spoon of soda put in the flour
Flavor with lemon. Makes 3 layers
 
For Frosting:
1 lb of sugar
Whites of 3 eggs

***

Who will save us from ourselves? (S)

Seen from the door of the upscale cafe, three women sat frozen in a ‘tableau vivant’. Heads together, hands clenched in their laps, only their scarlet lips moved, and those movements were barely perceptible.  Renada’s friends wore colourful print dresses and their hair was beautifully coiffed.  They epitomized the new middle class of educated working women, and they shared a deep concern for environmental protection.  Renada glided to the vacant chair, hating to disturb their concentration yet anxious to hear what so enthralled them.

“…the fetus was normal. She didn’t want to chance it.  Many babies look normal on ultrasound, but you can never be sure,” Andrea said, sotto voce.

The three young women looked up and smiled as Renada sat down. She was the only one of the group with a baby with a small head. Microcephaly, it was called.  Max was born before the health authorities had warned the public about the virus.  She thought Max was perfect, but later her doctors told her his head was smaller than normal and his brain would be affected.  What was normal, she had wondered as she studied her beautiful baby boy. She hadn’t brought Max with her today, hating how these women stared at him and angry at her hypersensitivity.

“We’re not having a child until they discover what’s happening, or someone makes a vaccine for that virus. It’s just too risky.” Maria said.

“No one with a brain is getting pregnant,” Andrea said, eliciting an abbreviated laugh from the other women.

Renada wasn’t upset. She had her own ideas about what was happening.  In Brazil, almost three million babies were born annually.  The number of babies born with microcephaly was typically under two hundred per year, but that number had risen to over four thousand in association with the recent appearance of Zika virus carried by mosquitoes and possibly transmitted through semen. Controversy erupted in the medical and scientific professions.  What was the evidence for the virus causing this increase in microcephaly?  Could it be caused instead by the pesticide used to kill mosquitoes?  Why had the criteria for classifying microcephaly changed?   Could the virus really be transmitted through humans?  Lacking answers, the authorities had still issued warnings against travelling to infected countries or becoming pregnant if living there.

“Are you sure this isn’t a ploy to reduce the birth rate?” Renada asked. Her husband believed that a declining birth rate would be the end of the growth economy.  He made it sound like a bad thing, but she couldn’t agree. Never-ending growth was illogical.

“Why be concerned about the population here?” Emilia said. “Brazil’s fertility rate has declined a lot. On average, women are having fewer than two babies now.”  Her large dark eyes looked disappointed, not angry, Renada thought.  They’d had this argument before.

“You know it’s not just the fertility rate,” Renada said. “It’s the numbers. Brazil’s population is four times higher since 1950.  We’re the fifth largest country by population in the world.”

“Population density in the north is ten times lower than the coast, but we have more microcephaly here in the north,” Emilia said, smirking. Renada shrugged, feeling defeated once again.

She couldn’t win the argument because Emilia was right. Reducing population growth in Brazil, where the ability of the land to feed the people was still greater than the population, wasn’t as important as reducing it in India or England.  Brazil had plenty of land, if you included the rain forests.  Still, maybe that’s why the outbreak had started here.  Maybe it was a testing ground.

The unsubstantiated threat of damage to the developing fetus had been enough to slow conception rate, or so the papers said.  She’d read an article about couples choosing not to have children because of concern for an uncertain future on a planet that was facing ecological collapse within the century.  Although few people were swayed by distant threats, the Zika virus was here right now.  With a vaccine said to be two years away, most women, like her friends, would wait to conceive.

Earlier that week, Renada had an epiphany when she read that El Salvador, the most densely populated country on the continent, had asked women to delay conception until the outbreak was contained. No government had ever warned its citizens not to get pregnant, and this would be very difficult in a Catholic state where the poor could ill afford contraceptives but were most likely to be infected.  To support their recommendation, the government had made a commitment to increase access to family planning resources as part of their emergency response to Zika.  This was the beautiful part of the plan, she thought.  When over fifty percent of births were unintended, access to free family planning would reduce population growth even after a vaccine was developed.  Was this also happening in northern Brazil, she wondered?  Could this be a the start of a global plan to reduce the population?

That’s why she’d come to the café today. Emilia’s husband was a font of knowledge on Brazilian politics and population growth, which was why Emilia had effective counter-arguments to all of Renada’s positions.  But could she worm this information from her friend?  She decided to pose the question directly.

“Do you know if the government has instituted access to free family planning?” she said, looking around the table but expecting Emilia to answer.

“We all use it, of course,” Andrea said. “It costs so little.”

“For us,” Renada said, “but for the poor, the cost is a reason not to use it.” She saw Emilia squirm, fighting an urge to speak.

“Yes, they’ve opened clinics and asked doctors to provide free condoms and pills,” Emilia said. I suppose we’ll all be paying for that.”

“Odd. I’ve seen nothing in the papers about free birth control,” Maria said.

“That’s because of the Church,” Emilia said, and Andrea nodded. They’d all seen the articles advising against abortion for women infected with Zika, but the Vatican had been silent on contraception so far. Renada thought it far more likely that the corporations would object if the number of consumers dropped.  She suspected Emilia was too cautious to suggest that there was a long-term plan by governments to contain population growth.  Once contraception was freely available, babies could be planned, and this was a good thing, she believed.  “Naturally, they’ll only provide free contraception for a couple of years, until the vaccine is ready,” Emilia said.  She was smirking at Renada, as if reading her thoughts.

Renada smiled back. If this virus were truly being used as a ploy to reduce population growth, perhaps it was only meant to be a delaying tactic until a better solution emerged.  “There could be other reasons for the microcephaly,” she said, “or the population may demand that free contraception methods be continued.”  Arranging her expression to try to appear innocent, she said, “It’s not possible to see into the future, but you have to agree that population growth must cease eventually.”

“Of course, and it will. Most countries show declining population growth rates already, if you discount immigration.  There is no need to invoke some scheme by our government.  I’m surprised at you.  It’s  tourism that’s suffering the most, and you haven’t mentioned a conspiracy there.”

“What do you mean?” Renada said, feeling her face warm under the scrutiny.

“Airlines and cruise ship lines are waiving cancellation fees for pregnant women. More than half the people in the United States said they won’t vacation here or Central America until this outbreak is contained, and I doubt if they’re all pregnant.  I’m waiting to see what happens at the Olympics in Rio, whether fewer tourists will attend.”

“Ah,” Ranada said, “and cruise ships and airlines contribute huge amounts to global warming. Any global pandemic will reduce travel, and especially if people believe the virus can be transmitted between people and not just by mosquitoes.”

“Why are you smiling, Renada? That’s terrible.” Andrea said.

“Because she wants there to be a conspiracy,” Emilia said. “You thrive on them, Renada, but I have no idea why.”

“Don’t tell me all of you can’t see where our country and our planet are headed. There are too many people consuming too much, and we show no signs of controlling our addiction.” Her friends were looking at her wide-eyed, not because they didn’t agree with her but because she rarely displayed her passion. “I need to believe that we will be saved from the worst that’s coming.  Andrea, you say we’ll be saved by technology, but there isn’t enough time.  Now I’m wondering if we have evidence that our behaviour is being manipulated in our own best interests.  Fear of Zika is leading us to control our population growth. We know there are corporations that manipulate us to achieve their goals, but surely there are others with benevolent motivations who work silently against them?  Believing in a conspiracy helps me maintain my hope and sanity.”

Emilia’s eyebrows were raised, and she was no longer smirking. “You surprise me again, Renada. Most people who imagine conspiracies see malevolence, but you see good intentions.  Unfortunately, I’ve never heard of a secret group manipulating people for their own good.”

“What about the Church?” Ranada said, and heard a sharp intake of breath from the three women. Maria and Andrea began speaking loudly, angry at Ranada for even suggesting this, but Emilia looked thoughtful.

“You’re talking about people in positions of power but not accountable to anyone. That eliminates organized religion, government, and even corporations.  If I were imagining a secret group, arrogant enough to believe they know best how to run our world, I’d put my money on the old, guilty, ambitious and extremely wealthy,” Emilia said.  “There are many who have made fortunes over their lifetimes, but now, as the end approaches, they may feel the urge to leave the world in a better state than they found it.”

“You mean, after a lifetime of plundering the environment for profit?” Maria said, looking doubtful. “It would be difficult to replace what’s been poisoned and consumed.”

“But not impossible. And changing the course of humanity?  What could be more satisfying to an oligarch with visions of ultimate control?” Emilia said.

“People who leave a legacy will want others to know about it,” Renada said. “If this is a secret society, their efforts would never be acknowledged.”

“Not to be the bearer of bad news, my dear, but my husband says that we have already left it too late,” Emilia said, “so if there are altruists working behind the scenes, they aren’t working fast enough.”

“You talk as if money was enough to change our course,” Renada said, “but it’s only a part of the solution. We need to be led to stop consuming, just as we were manipulated to start down that path in the first place.”

“That won’t work,” Emilia said. “The reason we were made to believe consumption was wonderful is that we were being promised something better.  A new car, a refrigerator, whatever.  Giving up what you have enjoyed or believe you deserve doesn’t make anyone feel better and provides no motivation for change.”

“Then we need to sell the benefits of a simple life,” Renada said.

“Most on this planet already lead a simple life,” Andrea said. “They want more of what the wealthy have.”

“Besides, Renada, you argue against yourself. If we had no ambitious, greedy people, who would save the planet for you?”

This time, all the women laughed.

***

A 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University found that the climate impact of having one fewer child in America is almost 20 times greater than the impact of adopting a series of eco-friendly practices for your entire lifetime, including driving a high-mileage car, recycling, and using efficient appliances and light bulbs. But what if your greatest contribution is not something you do but someone you raise?

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