No matter how hard I try to focus on details that first day and week is still kind of hazy. I don’t know if it is shock or what but it feels like there are chunks of time missing, or maybe I was just “gone away” trying to deal with my terror.
I remember sitting in the orchard, trying to escape some of the heat. I remember feeling full as a tick from eating the first of the ripe plums. I can even remember how juicy and delicious they were in contrast to my expectations; I was surprised that the drought hadn’t done more damage to them. Rand and Austin had come and gone again and then I heard a noise like they’d come back for some reason and that’s when I was attacked.
A large man back handed me hard enough to set my ear to ringing, cause a gash inside my mouth and bloody my nose all in just a single swat. I tried to grab my gun but it was kicked away from me by another man and in the process it felt like a couple of my fingers had been broken although it turned out they were just badly bruised and sprained.
I remember Fraidy squalling as she leapt from the limb she’d been laying on above where I had been sitting. She raked the face of the man that had hit me and he shouted and threw her off and then shot at her. I was too disoriented at the time to know whether she had been hit but I later found out that she’d collapsed on the spot, bleeding profusely for an animal her size. That and shock is what killed her, I just didn’t know it then.
Before I even had time to register the questions of who and why in my mind a sledge hammer sized fist caught me on the side of the head and that’s all I remember clearly for what seems a long time.
I must have been in and out of consciousness several times because hazy pictures, like phantasms drifting in front of me, give me the feeling that I was lifted up onto a horse and held there in a vice like grip. Then there is a sense of being transferred to small boat, maybe a canoe or bassboat and covered by something that crinkled and smelled bad. But that was the last thing until I came to completely and found myself in the dark. I could tell it was night after I sat up and peered through the small, mesh covered windows used to ventilate the box that I and several other women and girls were being held in. I could also tell we were being transported on some type of wagon by the sound of wheels, hooves, and the creaking the wood made as it swayed.
“Where are we? What’s going on?” I asked the woman I knew was beside me though I could not see her face clearly.
“Shhhh,” several of them shushed. “Don’t make noise.”
I didn’t have time to wonder why because something loud was banged on the box we were in and an oily voice said, “Last warning. One more cluck out of you hens and I’ll pull to the side of the road and let my men use you until you grasp the concept of obedience.”
I felt a hand, a calloused but definitely female hand, cover my mouth. Not hard enough to hurt my busted lip but firm enough for me to get the point that this wasn’t the first warning that had been given and that the group didn’t want to pay the consequences for one captive’s actions.
The motion of the wagon was nausea inducing and I fell into a stupor just to escape feeling ill and frightened at the same time. As a few days passed, and we continued being transported like livestock, I learned that I wasn’t the only pregnant female in the group. In fact almost three-quarters of the dozen women were obviously pregnant but I was the one furthest along. It made no sense but no answers were forthcoming. We were forbidden to speak or make any sort of noise or communicate with each other in any way.
It was a strange existence. We were let out of the box three times a day under heavy guard. While we were out of the box we took care of our bodily functions and were fed surprisingly well. I don’t know about the other women but I was so numbed that I really wasn’t living in this dimension of time and space. I thought of Rand and Austin and everyone else but it was like I existed in a fog that protected me. It was a lot like the fugue state I had survived in after the accident … I was insulated and protected and was able to function to a primitive degree that helped me to survive without drawing unwanted attention. But even in my state however I could tell some of the other women weren’t fairing as well.
On my fourth fully wakeful day one of the women finally collapsed completely. She was one of the pregnant ones. She started cramping and bleeding. The other women tried to hush her cries of pain and fear but I’d gone beyond the level of simple acceptance.
Despite the other women practically begging me to stop I tried to get the Oily Man’s attention. “Excuse me …. Hey Mister … excuse me … we have an emergency and …”
The wagon stopped, “What did I say was going to happen if you hens gave me any trouble?” he snarled.
Forcing myself to behave in an ingratiating way I said, “Yes sir, I know sir but one of the women … she’s bleeding pretty badly.”
There was a great deal of cursing that was followed by, “You better not be yanking my chain you little @#$%& or I’ll guarantee you won’t be fit to serve a man for the rest of your life. Cardo, see if we have a sick hen in the box.”
The guy the Oily Man had called Cardo opened the larger window on the back door of the box letting enough light in that we all had to shield our eyes. One look was enough to convince him there was a problem and he let out a string of foul words that would have peeled paint if there had been any on the box.
It was over in less than two hours and they hid the body of the woman and her stillborn daughter in a shallow grave that wouldn’t have kept out the laziest scavengers. We were all sniveling and crying if we weren’t in shock and that’s when the Oily Man gave another one of his terror inducing ultimatums.
“Listen up you buncha broody hens. I won’t accept the loss of any more profit. You feel the baby coming you cross your legs and you hold it. We’ll be where we’re going in less than a day. Anyone of you do what that one did and before you expire you’ll wish you’d never been born. I’ll gut you and take the baby out of your body myself before I let another one of you spoil this haul for me.”
We were all forced to eat even though none of us had an easy time of choking the contents of the MRE down. But either we all ate or we would all reap the consequences. Peer pressure was how they’d started out controlling us and they still haven’t deviated from that tactic. After that we were made to drink some kind of electrolyte drink and the remaining eleven of us were forced back into the box while my back and tail bone ached in protest.
It still didn’t make a bit of sense to me, none of it did. I’d never heard of slavers that actually sought out heavily pregnant women. It would seem to be a contradiction. We couldn’t do the kind of work that would make our purchase worth it. Certainly we weren’t fit to be a part of some male fantasy racket. And the way they were feeding us and taking care of our needs … relatively speaking anyway … made even less sense. We had nothing in common with the Sabine women of Roman folklore. All I could think of was the stories like the women of Jabesh-gilead, the Midianites, the victims of the Canaanites … all the stories that my Aunt had used to criticize in painful detail the treatment of women in the Bible. I had to stop after that because I couldn’t handle my own thoughts anymore.
It was some hours before dawn of the following day when I started to hear water … big water as in moving water and the kind of wind you only get along a shore line. I hadn’t known whether it was fresh or salt water until I smelled the tendrils of air that penetrated our prison.
The briney smell got stronger and then we could hear and feel the wagon switch from the rutted dirt and paved roads that we’d gotten used to to some type of wooden planks. And then the wagon stopped.
We were left to wonder what was going on because no one bothered to tell us. In fact it was eerily quiet except for the creek and groan of what I was to learn were the ropes that tied a ship to a dock at the abandoned and derelict yacht club where we waited.
After nearly half an hour the back door of our box flew open and we were ordered to climb out and line up. Our only connection to our past soon drove away as the Oily Man and his minions left without a backward glance and were replaced by men that were even harsher. A man whose voice and grammar belied his rough nautical appearance said, “Well ladies, times a wasting. Follow Mr. Hempley to the holding area so you can receive your promised ticket for a free cruise.” When none of us moved the formerly benign smile turned into a shark’s grin. “Move. Now. Some of you aren’t so far gone that the men on this dock wouldn’t be happy to spend some quality time with you.”
We were driven into two chain linked cages that reminded me of large dog runs. The first one held all of the non-pregnant women, all young and relatively pretty under the dirt and grime of their captivity. Those of us who were pregnant were ushered to a cage on the other side of a warehouse where we found even more of our kind. Here it didn’t matter what your age or looks were, just so long as you were healthy and obviously well into or passed your second trimester.
Rough looking men walked around with the kind of automatic weapons I hadn’t seen since my run in with the Russians. But these weren’t foreigners. The few times I heard the men speak they had American accents … most of them were kind of mid-west but a few stood out … Kennedy sound-alikes from Massachusetts, Minnesota with their long drawn out O’s, a beach blonde “Dude” from the west coast. The deep south had their fair share of representatives too that sounded too much like home to me not to bring a tear to my eyes.
Every so often two men would come in, separate one or two women out of the group and push or drag them down a hallway where they disappeared never to be seen or heard again. I tried to catch the eye of some of the women but they were all too frightened and cowed to do anything but avoid me. Finally I was too tired and too sore to try anymore. The fingers on my right hand were still swollen and discolored and hard to bend. I found a relatively clean piece of floor, sat down, leaned against the fence and re-entered my protective fog.
I don’t know how long I was like that but at some point I started noticing that I could hear snatches of male conversation coming out of a broken window one floor up from where I sat.
“This will be quite a manifest Mr. Hempley. I do believe that I’ll be able to refill the coffers of my retirement plan as planned.”
A bored snort was his only response.
“And yourself Mr. Hempley? Do you still wish to buy me out as soon as the season ends?”
“Ayuh. You wouldn’t be thinking of backing out of the deal now would you?” A man with a Maine accent asked with a dangerous edge to his voice.
“Oh perish the thought. Why would I do such a thing? I have other plans for my life that do not include this two-bit dog and pony show.”
There was some quiet and then the Educated Man asked, “Any trouble makers in this group? If there are the sooner I know the sooner they can be culled from the inventory.”
“No there aren’t any or no you think there aren’t any?” the Educated Man asked in a slightly irritated voice.
“Nah, theyah all numb from the shouldahs up.”
I could almost see the satisfied look on the Educated Man’s face. “Good, good. The fewer culls the higher the profit we’ll turn. As it is I have more orders for brats than I could fill in a year.”
I felt my stupor draining from me. Brats? Were they talking about us … or about our babies?
“Got sahm that are close tah poppin.” I was beginning to get extremely annoyed at the casual disregard for humanity in that New England voice.
“Too close to transport intact?”
Again I could hear the irritation in the Educated Man’s voice. “Well, which is it, yes or no?”
“Where I in chahge I’d put ‘em on the next ship out.”
“Hmmmm.” A brief silence and then, “Done. It will mean running heavy on an already overloaded packet but needs must when the devil drives.”
With the business over with the Educated Man’s attention was on something else. “And?”
“Oh Lord, not more of your heathen weatherlore.”
“Ayuh, but I’m not the bahsmahn.”
“And don’t you forget it. You show me the money and you can buy me out, maybe even sooner than you think. But until then go get the next packet ready for loading and shipping out.”
A grunt and the sound of a chair dragging across a floor and the conversation was over with. Trying to appear nonchalant I looked around to see if anyone else had heard and not one of them appeared to have done so until I looked into the eyes of a dark skinned woman who was also leaning against that part of the fence. Our eyes looked questions at each other, hers wiser than mine. I looked at her belly and she was even bigger than I was.
It took fifteen minutes but she slowly maneuvered until we were near each other. It was another few minutes while she repositioned herself and pretended to sleep while the guards passed by our position. I nearly jumped when she finally whispered from nearly unmoving lips, “We’ll be next.”
Looking around I saw she was right, we were the only two that looked big enough to fit the description of being ‘ready to pop.’
I nodded as I scratched my nose. I hid my lips behind the same hand, “Do you know what they mean?”
It took forever but I finally pieced together her disjointed phrases and my own questions uttered like code so that no one else would be able to tell we were having a conversation. “These slavers, they kidnap pregnant women and sell them to these places called brood farms. One of the pandemic vaccines given in Europe during the second wave seems to have affected the fertility of a significant number of people that got that particular shot. So many children were lost and there are still plenty of people in the world with money to buy a baby to raise as their own and inherit their wealth.”
“If it was a vaccine given in Europe what’s the problem here?”
“A lot of rich people went overseas to get the shot that the FDA refused to approve and import for US distribution." As soon as she said it I vaguel remember the scandal of it when the cat was let out of the bag. "It did protect people from the second wave but when the third wave rolled around some mutation in the virus got mixed up with the vaccine antibodies and it attacked the reproductive organs of the vaccine recipients.”
“How do you know this?”
“My brother is a radio tech in the Army in the Keys and I worked at the Base medical center. I got taken during a pirate raid to take out the Station on Key Largo. I’ve been here longer than most of the others you see in this pen. My husband was a Norwegian ex-pat and I made the mistake of thinking that it would be harder to place a bi-racial child and I hoped to hold on long enough to be rescued. Only it turns out the reverse is true. My baby is considered an ‘exotic’ and the bidding really gets jacked up when they have one that is guaranteed.”
I was … well I don’t think there is a single word in the English language that described what I was at that moment, mostly though my mad was coming back and erasing the protective fog I’d been drifting along in. I still had enough sense though to hide it when I was ordered, at gun point, to take my own walk down the long hallway.
Something must have shown though because at the end of the hallway the body that belonged to the voice of the Educated Man stopped me and my escort. “Hmmm. Looking a little … militant. Are we going to have trouble with you?”
I did the first thing that popped into my head. I started breathing faster, closed my eyes shut tight and muttered, “I’m not going to be sick. I’m not going to be sick. I’m not going to be sick," like I'd never heard his question.
A rather contemptuous look followed by a jerk of his head telling us to move along told me that I’d managed to pull off my subterfuge. But my anger was warring with my fear as I was taken onto what looked like a pleasure craft that used to take cruises out into the Gulf. It wasn’t big as far as cruise ships went … one of those dinner, dancing, and gambling boats they used to scam the tourists and retirees with … but it was bigger than anything I’d ever been on.
I was taken to and then locked in a room with several other pregnant women. A few moments later the woman I’d been whispering with was also ushered into the room. The only positive to mention was that the room had a bathroom attached to it and it was used well and frequently by all of us. A few hours later we were given food but my new friend – her name was Taylora – shook her head and only played at eating while putting some of the fruit and sealed packages into her pocket. I pulled the same ploy while the other women acted starved to death and fell on the food like hyenas.
“What gives? Is it drugged?” I whispered.
I could see her nostrils flare while she looked at the other women, “No. You don’t have much experience of being on the water do you?”
“No,” I whispered back.
“Trust me, until you know how your stomach is going to act the last thing you want to do is fill it up with unfamiliar food.”
Made sense at the time. Made a lot more sense after we had headed out into open water. Taylora and I were the only two not puking our guts up as the waves got rougher and rougher but it was close for both of us. The smell and the sound of retching was almost more than I could stand.
Then it started to rain and thunder. Taylora appeared frightened for the first time. She crossed herself and said, “Someone has lost their marbles. We need to find a safe harbor and fast. This is some bad ju-ju. Can’t you feel it?”
“Yeah but maybe they’ve figured it out. We seem to be going a lot faster than we were before and … ACK! … Lordy, what is the deal with trying to operate this thing as a wave runner? We’re too big for wave … oomph … hopping!”
Taylora and I both would have been knocked to the ground if she hadn’t told me to make sure I always had something close at hand to grab in case a freak wave rocked the vessel. The other women weren’t quite as lucky though and now instead of being able to puke into the toilet or sink they were heaving onto the floor where they’d fallen.
Then there was the sound of an explosion. Taylora shook her head. “This isn’t right, the engine is the other direction. I hope those fools haven’t let any explosives just roll around in this storm.”
And then one of the starboard windows gave a huge crack as something slammed into at high velocity. Taylora shouted a fairly imaginative curse regarding the origins of the male species and told us all, “Get down and stay down! We’ve got some fools shooting at us!”
Now you could hear the sounds of large caliber, automatic weapons going off and frantic running up and down the hallway outside of our locked door.
“Taylora, let’s try and get the door unlocked!” I shouted above the chaos.
“And go where?!” she asked like I’d lost my mind.
“No where for now but at least it would give us other options! What do we have to lose?”
The only problem was there wasn’t anything left in the room that would make a good weapon. I took off my boot and tried whacking at the knob but because of my hand and the rocking of the boat I couldn’t hit it hard enough to do any good. And then suddenly there was a huge noise and it felt like we’d hit a sand bar or reef or something.
I only got it partially right … we hadn't hit, we'd been hit by something but that something was another boat ramming us. All of the women screamed and cried and prayed to whatever they believed in. Only Taylora and I seemed to still be capable of constructive thinking. A battle raged over our heads and then it got closer. Occasionally a bullet would penetrate the thin walls, once even coming close enough to me to crease the calf of my leg. I was down on the floor with Taylora trying to tie a makeshift bandage from strips off both of our dresses when there was sudden silence.
Then the boat did some kind of strange twist followed by a sudden list to the port. That got the other women screaming again. Taylora and I helped each other to our feet and I had just drawn back my arm to go at the door knob again when the door was actually wrenched open from the other side.
An apparition stood in the door frame and said, “Ladies, we need to go … now!”
Several men in sailors’ uniforms rushed in and started hauling the gapping women out and up the stairs to the main deck. Taylora and I struggled up the stairs both of us gasping for air and holding our stomachs by the time we’d reached the last one. That’s when Taylora bent over and groaned.
“Taylora?” I asked, worried for my new friend.
“Oh why didn’t I listen to my mother?! She said if I married Jarl all of our sons would be born on the water. I am so going to kill that man!”
A pink faced boy that didn’t look as old as I was got a panicky look on his face and asked, “Ma’am? Are you say …?”
Taylora squinted at him and asked, “What do you think I’m saying boy?! I’m in labor!!!” before nearly falling over.
“Medic! Medic!!!!” the boy yelled, his voice cracking.
“What’s the problem Murphy?” asked the man who had busted down the door after running over.
“She’s having a baby!”
“No kidding … oh … Oh @#$%!! Here, get her over to the railing. We need to get these women off. The storm is growing worse and she’s starting to list badly.” Even as the words left his mouth the boat shuddered and shifted under our feet and the rain was now coming down directly onto the deck making it slippery.
The calm removal of the woman from the damaged vessel suddenly became chaotic and the screams and cries of the women competed with the wind and rain that had definitely grown worse.
Taylora was across as were half the other women when one of the lines linking the cutter and slaver vessel snapped injuring two of the sailors on our side. They were sent over and then the rest of the women went across, each accompanied by a sailor to try and speed up the evacuation process. Then it was down to me and the last sailor.
The waves were fierce and the salt spray stung my eyes so bad I could barely see. Both ships were rocking and even over the roar of the storm I could hear how tortured the ropes sounded. And then the slaver ship seemed to completely give up the fight and started listing to the port and showing its underside. I held my breath so long my chest hurt as the cutter was pulled over. As fast as they tried to bring us on board it wasn’t fast enough. The tension finally broke, the remaining ropes snapped and the sailor and I dropped into the waves below us.