Sometimes India imagined that her mother was already dead.
As she leaned against an aspen tree with her palm outstretched toward the wild mare in the meadow before her, one cautious eye on the stallion who protected the herd, she considered what it would be like to finally be an orphan. The thought was uncomfortably comforting.
She was wearing a white jumpsuit, and her dark braids were tucked under a white woolen cap, so she was hidden by the trunks of the aspen and the late winter snow. But the old stallion that ruled the herd eyed her warily. His hostility seemed exacerbated by his diminutive size. She had seen him be violent to the new foals in spring, and every horse in his tiny band was decorated with scars from his temper. But she ignored him as he stomped his foot in the snow and snorted a warning. If she showed fear, she’d never get close to the herd again. She rubbed the flat spot on the mare’s forehead, and the mare bobbed her head up and down, enjoying the sensation. India could feel her strength; one sideways blow from a skull that was almost as big as India’s torso, and she wouldn’t be skiing home.
She wouldn’t really be an orphan if Astrid died. Her father, Daniel, was very much alive, for all the good he did her. She couldn’t say she had no family. Her grandfather Herman had been as good as a father since Daniel had left seven years ago, and Aunt Elin tried to mother her, in a manner of speaking. And Ola—she didn’t know what she’d do without Ola. As much as she felt like a loner, she was enmeshed in a family who loved her. She was only bitter, and, if she were honest, more than a little angry.
At twenty-four, India wasn’t sure why she still needed a mother. She would never have a child, so she didn’t need Astrid to be a grandmother. The idea of Astrid caring for a grandchild made India scoff out loud, and the mare lifted her head and took a few steps back into the meadow. India clicked her tongue to coax her back into the trees.
When the mare stepped forward, India hummed to soothe her. In her mind, she had named the mare Twitch, for the way her sensitive flesh quivered when an insect landed on her rounded haunch or muscular back. That something so huge could feel even a fly’s feet made India understand how sensitive horses were, how attuned they were to their surroundings.
The mare nuzzled its velvet nose into her bare hand, hoping to find another treat to crunch, but India had already emptied her pockets of the stubby carrots she had stolen from the storeroom. In her childhood, when carrots a foot long grew in great clumps in the gardens, India and the other children would snatch them from the baskets of the harvesters to use as swords, slashing at each other’s carrot until the loser’s snapped in half. Back then, the stunted ones she had brought for the horse would have been discarded in the compost. But nowadays every shaggy root, even half a mouthful, was stored and utilized, so she’d taken only a handful. In the great dome of Eden, the days of plenty were far in the past.
The interminable waiting wore on her—that persistent expectation that something might change, that Astrid might recover, suddenly get out of bed, respond when spoken to. Hoping for it exhausted India. The possibility that Astrid might begin to behave as a mother should—or, alternately, simply stop breathing—left her in a constant state of apprehension. If she just knew it was over, she could grieve for her mother and move on.
Suddenly the mare blew hard and wheeled away, kicking up clods of snow. India shrank behind the trunk. The stallion, ears back and head low, charged toward her. She swung the stick she carried toward his head as he sank his teeth into the tree. The branch didn’t hit him; he lifted his head to avoid the blow. But it was enough to show him that she wouldn’t be intimidated. With an angry shake of his matted mane, he chased the mare back into the safety of the open valley.
India had learned the hard way to stay protected; she had a white half-moon scar along her jaw to remind her of the lesson. She was lucky not to have been knocked unconscious, and luckier still that she was able to explain the injury as an accidental whiplash from a snow-laden pine bough. If anyone in Eden knew she came this far into the valley south of the dome to visit the wild horses, she’d have more than a comatose mother and a swollen jaw to worry about.
Astrid had been a good mother once. She had brushed India’s hair and cooked for her. She had been India’s confidante, guided her though puberty, taught her to weave. India remembered her mother in those years as vibrant, irreverent, and fun. Now she couldn’t remember the last time Astrid had said a full sentence. When India had left the house this morning, her mother was lying glassy-eyed in her bed, leaking imperceptible tears into her damp pillow, right where she had been for the last seven years.
But India was a grown woman. She didn’t need a mother.
She turned and waded through the snow, weaving through the aspen grove to where she had left her skis. It was good that the stallion had chased her mare away. If she had allowed herself to daydream any longer, she’d have reached the dome after dark. The three doors on the western, southern, and eastern sides were locked exactly one half-hour after sunset, and the six smaller satellite domes were always locked. She didn’t want to spend the night in a tree again, scared out of her mind and listening to the wolves.
Being outside the boundary of Eden during the day was thrilling, but the Whole was terrifying at night. That previous time when she had been trapped outside after curfew, it had been high summer, so she hadn’t frozen to death, but being alone in the dark and vulnerable to any wild thing that happened along had left her with a deep unease. It was one thing to open a window at night and hear the muted sounds of insects, the rustle of wind in the pines, or the cackling calls of the bands of coyotes that traipsed through the valley in the dark; it was another thing altogether to hear the frantic, incessant screaming of frogs mating, the threatening whine of disease-carrying insects, and the crash of a grizzly pushing over a dead tree nearby to hunt for grubs. She’d known that if the wolves smelled her, all that would be left of her in the morning was a smear of red on the grass below her pine tree.
She didn’t like to remember her naked fear that night, the constant surge of adrenaline that came with each strange noise. Her body had been acutely attuned to what was happening in the dark around her, and her imagination fueled her fear. She’d had no knowledge or understanding of how to protect herself, and she had wept, gasping silently so as not to be overheard. When she was finally back in the safety of the dome, she’d had to beg off community hours to recover.
When she had found her skis and strapped them onto her snow boots, India tucked her braids back under her white cable-knit hat, then began the climb up the ridge to the high mountain valley that held the dome like an egg in a nest. As she skied, she thought about how far she had come with the dun mare. From the time when she was old enough to ski to the crest of the basin, India had watched the herd of wild horses, fascinated by their beauty and elegance. She had longed to see them up close, but would have never dreamed of breaking the boundary and entering the Whole. It was only when her mother got sick, and everyone in the dome began to approach her with pity or advice as if she were the one who was ill, that she had sought respite outside the dome.
Each spring, when the wild horses returned to the valley, India would watch them from the crest of the basin. Then one day, three years prior, on the backside of a jagged peak that enclosed the basin to the south, India had found a gulch leading away from the basin. It was hidden from the dome, disguised by the trees and impossible to see from even ten meters away. With a little jump down, India could reach the gulch’s rocky floor and climb down into the valley south of the dome without being seen. That was when India had said to hell with her upbringing, to hell with the Protocols, and climbed down the hill to try and befriend one of the horses.
At first she had just watched them, waiting in the foothills until they were accustomed to her presence. She’d moved closer on each visit, sometimes only by inches, and soon she had caught the interest of a stubby buckskin mare with a mud-colored hide and a mangled hind leg. That first year India had managed to rub the mare’s hide a few times before she moved off to another patch of grass. The memory of her earthy smell, of the thick ripple of neck-flesh as the mare pressed into her scratching fingers, made her wish for more. She had dreamt of a time when she could mount the horse, when they might be partners, but when the snows began in the fall the crippled mare had moved south, or east—somewhere beyond the valley—and India had never seen her again. She’d had to start over with the dun mare the following year. Now, after two seasons, this second mare reliably allowed India to run her palms over her muscled flanks and head. As long as the stallion didn’t notice.
India shouldn’t have been messing with the herd. It was bad enough to go outside the boundary, but interaction with the Whole was specifically forbidden. “Utilization of, influence over, or alteration to any community within the Whole” was directly forbidden in the Protocols, the cause for the strongest of sanctions: loss of access to community resources, even banishment. Horses were not a part of the O-man cycle. Yet she continued to visit them; she couldn’t resist. Fortunately for her, no one was paying attention.
As she skied out of the valley and began her ascent toward the dome, India picked up her pace, feeling her heart respond, until she found a steady rhythm between her lungs and her limbs. Around her the alpine valley was unimpressive, a contrast of black and white on rolling hills. The clouds obscured the jagged peaks to the west, and the rise of the mountains that held Eden revealed none of the insurmountable dangers they held. Avalanches, bears, blizzards, frozen ice, rockslides, mountain lions, lightning storms, wolves. And beyond that, who knew? To the south and north of the mountains there was desert, but where exactly? Was it twelve kilometers or twelve hundred? She would never find out.
India reached the rockslide that she had followed down into the valley and took off her skis, then hoisted them onto her backpack and tied them on. She began the steep climb. Although there were easier ways to leave the basin, the rocky gulch was the only place where she wouldn’t leave obvious tracks in the snow. The route was treacherous but not impossible, and she knew from experience which rocks threatened to shift.
When she reached the crest of the basin, India stood for a moment hidden in the pines, catching her breath. She shrugged out of her backpack, peeled off the white jumpsuit, rolled it into a ball, and stuffed it into her pack. Then she strapped her skis back onto her feet and moved out of the trees to the open hillside that led to the dome.
Looking at it below her, she imagined the dome as an alien orb from space that had crash-landed in the valley. It appeared to have had a crop of six babies, who had spread out a few hundred feet and grown, and then another dozen babies, who hadn’t yet broken free from their mother. The twelve lesser domes that clutched the southern edge of the great dome were the living residences, and each held three homes. Three hundred and forty-one souls. The O-man of Eden.
Now that she was back in the valley, the anxiety India carried with her whenever she went outside the boundary fell away. If she were spotted here, she could simply say that she’d gone out for a late-afternoon ski around the dome. She had every right to be here.
She turned her skis downhill and was about to make a series of elegant turns through the snow back to the dome when she heard an angry shout. It was her cousin Ola, standing in the trees not ten meters away.
“India!” Ola yelled. She was wearing a bright red felted jacket that stood out in the bleak landscape.
Ola preferred the theater to anything strenuous; she wasn’t an outdoors type. India couldn’t imagine why she was there, and after a moment of confusion she felt a violent mix of emotions: fear, alarm, concern. Had Ola seen India in the valley? Was there an emergency in the dome? Had something happened? She felt sick. Her heart thundered in her chest. Battling the urge to ski away as fast as she could, she waited for Ola to reach her.
“What the hell, India? Didn’t you hear me calling?” At the top of the basin Ola bent over and put her hands on her knees, gasping for breath in the thin air. When she had recovered, she threw up her hands in anger. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
India decided to pretend she had no idea what Ola was talking about. “Ola, calm down. What’s happened? Are you hurt?”
“Am I hurt? Are you kidding? Did you not see me climb that rock pile? No, I’m not hurt.” She was yelling again.
India patted the air in a placating manner, but Ola, with surprising ferocity, swatted her hands away. “Don’t tell me to calm down. How dare you? I’m not the one doing the wrong thing.” She pointed at India, shaking a finger in her face. “I saw you. I saw you skiing in the valley. You were outside the perimeter. You were in the Whole. Damn it, India!”
India had never seen Ola so angry. She didn’t know what to say. “Ola—” she began.
“Don’t! I want an explanation. Or no, forget that.” Ola spread out both hands as if she were wiping away her words. “You don’t have to explain. Not to me. But you’d better figure out a good reason, because you’ll have to explain it to someone.” She stamped her foot in the snow.
“Ola, please. Can we just talk about this?”
Suddenly Ola deflated; her face crumpled. “What you just did was wrong, India. You know that, right?”
“I know it was wrong.” India looked around. She couldn’t think of an excuse or a reason or anything but the pit of guilt in her stomach. She wanted to throw up.
“Elin sent me to find you. I should have been back hours ago.” Ola was on the brink of tears now. “When I got to the top of the basin, I looked out into the valley, watching the horses. It was only a fluke that I saw you. When the sun broke through the clouds, I saw your shadow on the snow. I saw you in the Whole. I couldn’t believe it was you. I wish I could un-see it.”
India wanted to beg her to un-see it. Quietly she asked, “Do you have to tell?”
Ola looked at her open-mouthed, her wide eyes filling with tears. “You want me not to tell?”
With shame, India realized what she was asking of her cousin. In a community as small as theirs, there were no secrets. You’re only as good as your word, India thought—a maxim she had learned at her grandfather’s knee, that she had adhered to for her whole life. Asking Ola to lie was further evidence of her crime. She felt a blanket of something, fear or self-loathing, wrap around her. She wanted to explain, to make Ola understand that…what? That she was endangering the O-man mission, threatening her community, flouting the rules of the last three hundred years because she wanted to ride a horse? Or that she believed, because her mother was sick, that she herself stood outside the rules?
Ola knew the damage India had done; India could see it in her eyes. The magnitude of her own behavior began to flood into her mind. She felt as if she were drowning. Going outside the perimeter was akin to sedition. India had made a change inside the Whole, and no matter how minuscule, no matter how impermanent, the touch of her hand on the mare’s head, the fact of dome-grown carrots in the mare’s belly, had altered the Whole. And if she were a person who could change the Whole, then she didn’t belong in the O-man community.
Now that she’d been caught, the act would have even more serious consequences. Despite the minor nature of her impact, the fact of it would grow like a tumor. “Going outside the perimeter” would be considered, discussed, debated. It might become a seed in someone else’s mind. It would require deliberation, and then action. It would foster argument and hostility and grief. It would create sorrow, guilt, regret—all the things that prevented successful community. It would be written into Eden’s official record.
In her mind’s eye India saw the council meetings, the endless taking. She saw her grandfather having to advocate for her, her Aunt Elin’s disappointment and tears. She prayed that the fracture created by her behavior would scar over, but she knew it could not do so without penalty, or surgery. She would have to pay, for the sake of the community.
Ola knew it too. They stood together in the gloam of evening, the dome below them. Slowly a change came over Ola’s face. India saw her resolve harden, and she thought Ola was imagining the scenario too: the consequences, what would happen next. She thought it was a signal of her sealed fate, of Ola cutting her out of her heart. But she was wrong.
“I won’t tell.” Ola said.
Hope rose in India’s heart.
Ola’s eyes were steady on hers when she said, “I can’t tell, India. Telling would make me the instrument of change. I don’t want the stain on our family. I don’t want to see Herman, and Elin, and Rolland, and even Aunt Astrid…” Ola looked away. “I don’t want them to feel ashamed of you. I don’t want them to have to try and understand it.”
“Ola—” India began.
Ola cut her off. “No. It’s decided. I know what you did, and I know you understand the consequences. I know you won’t do it again.”
As she spoke her eyes filled with tears again, and India knew that keeping the secret would burden her cousin. It would change their relationship forever. Her own shame and sorrow deepened.
“I can’t ask that of you. I shouldn’t have.”
“It’s done. We’ll pretend I saw you here, at the perimeter. You were contemplating going into the Whole, and I showed you how wrong that would be. You understood. No harm, no foul.”
India felt swamped by relief. She stretched out her arms to hug her cousin, but Ola didn’t return the embrace. “You can’t do it again,” she said. “Not ever.”
“I promise,” India replied. And she meant it.
As a gardener and anthropologist, I am deeply concerned by both the changing climate and America’s rapidly evolving and divisive culture. My novel, BRIDGE TO EDEN, is speculative fiction set in the future. It came into being as a thought exercise in which I crafted my utopia, but, in the nature of utopias, I soon discovered the conflict for a story.
In a post-apocalyptic future, the human species has escaped extinction by living in isolation in high-altitude domes. The people of Eden practice a completely sustainable lifestyle, affecting nothing outside their dome. Faith in their mission has kept their micro-community intact for over three hundred years, and they resist change at all costs. But whether they admit it or not, things are changing in the dome. The community desperately needs new seeds to sustain their agrarian lifestyle. If the people of Eden refuse to adapt, they will go extinct, just like the despised moderns who destroyed the environment centuries before.
The story follows Astrid, a woman waking up from a years-long depression, and her daughter, India, a woman longing to have a mother again. When Astrid’s mental condition deteriorates to the point where she can no longer function as a member of the community, she is expelled from the dome. India, under the guise of acquiring the seeds that her community needs, follows her into the unknown wilderness to save her. What the two women find outside the dome will irreparably alter the future of their community.
One of the themes of BRIDGE TO EDEN is evident in the book’s title: finding a bridge to a metaphorical place of security and innocence. On a planet crippled from the effects of our sustained attack on it, how would we behave if we had a chance to start over? The novel examines the question “Where do culture, nature, and faith intersect?”
As a long-time sufferer of bi-polar illness, I am also fascinated by the effects of the mind on behavior. Behavior plays an integral part in societal workings, and it is only the strictures of culture that dictate what we find acceptable and what we sanction. Mental illness is a rubric for health in any community, and how we, both individually and as a society, transact with the mood-afflicted is profoundly worthy of consideration.
Alicia Winter is a writer, gardener, and cook. With a degree in Cultural Anthropology, she teaches gardening at The Marvelwood School and works in a geodesic growing dome. She has two grown children and lives in northwest Connecticut with her husband.
Embark, Issue 18, April 2023