from The Carriers
by Jessica Schiefauer
introduced and translated by Alice E. Olsson
When the real-world pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, Jessica Schiefauer had been working on her most recent novel – titled The Carriers – for more than a decade. Set in a world still living through the aftermath of a fictional pandemic, the novel tells the story of the main character Nikki and her lover Simone. The Contagion has been ravaging their world for generations, forcing its peoples to separate along gender lines: open society is reserved for women, now known as carriers, while men, the transmitters of the disease, are kept in escape-proof quarantines. In a town called Irisburg in the Scandinavian Contingent, Nikki and Simone share a quiet and happy life together. But when Simone becomes obsessed with the thought of carrying a child, everything changes. All that Nikki thought she knew about her partner, her world and herself is turned on its head.
Twice August Prize-winning author Jessica Schiefauer is celebrated for her contributions to young adult fiction. In The Carriers, her first novel written for an adult readership, Schiefauer has constructed a speculative world shaped by the Contagion but also by new technologies, modes of transport, and methods of reproduction – complete with its own vocabulary. The Carriers opens a window onto a radically different society, where the political and economic systems of today have been relegated to the past and replaced by an eco-feminist vision that at first look seems brighter, greener, more fair. The citizens of its world are allowed to settle anywhere they want. Eating meat has become unthinkable, and the political debate revolves around the best way to manage Earth’s finite resources. Instead of work, carriers perform a limited number of service hours each week. And in exchange for contributing to democracy by voting, they are provided with a home unit and life voucher. Yet things are not what they seem, and Nikki comes to discover the shadow side of her society. In this brave new world, the carriers still struggle with the most human of concepts: love, tolerance and desire – fear, violence and power.
The following is an excerpt from the beginning of the novel. For information about the existing full-length translation, please contact Hedlund Agency.
TREATY OF THE UNITED CONTINENTS
WE, THE UNITED CONTINENTS AND ITS PEOPLES, ARE RESOLVED:
1) to save humanity from the pandemic (hereafter referred to as the Contagion), which in less than eleven months has caused millions of deaths and unspeakable suffering across the world,
2) to, by reason of the Contagion’s routes of transmission, immediately take the drastic measure necessary to stop further transmission: that is, to keep the sexes fully and completely separate until a cure has been found,
3) to reserve open society for women (hereafter referred to as the carriers),
4) to reserve all enclosed, escape-proof spaces as quarantine areas for men (hereafter referred to as the transmitters),
5) to put all available resources, in open society as well as in the quarantines, at the disposal of the research effort to find a cure, in order that we may return to a shared existence at the earliest possibility.
Accordingly, through their representatives assembled in Reykjavik, all nations have agreed on the present charter and hereby draw up a binding document that shall be known as the Treaty of Continents.
MANY YEARS LATER
Where does a story begin? Where does one find the origins of a course of events that changes a person, bringing her from one place to another? The more I think about it, the more impossible it is to tell. In a way, it all began when the mountain collapsed, when a large rock fell on the house I grew up in. In another, it began after I fell down the steps outside Irisburg sky harbour, when Simone helped me up. But the unfolding that brought me here, the series of events that drove me out of the known and into the unknown – it began when Simone said she wanted to carry a child.
It wasn’t just her. It seemed as though it was always on the news, each report announcing the same verdict: aging populations, negative birth rates, fewer successful fertilisations. We received constant information about new types of support for those who brought a child into the world: twenty-four hour assistance, milk stimulants for non-carrying guardians, technical solutions to minimise physical strain. And there was the Council’s slogan, flashing at us from every screen, streaming from the Allradio multiple times a day: All who wish to may carry a child! It seemed the whole city – the entire continent – was seething with the proclamation.
It didn’t come as a shock, that’s not what I mean. In fact, we’d known for a while. Over the past decade scientists had repeatedly warned of negative birth rates, but it seemed so distant we didn’t give it much thought. When the effects became clear we were at a loss; as though freshly risen from slumber, we stood shamefaced before the facts. We’d known for so long, yet we’d failed to act! Perhaps this was the reason why the campaigns became so numerous, the response so overwhelming. You couldn’t put your finger on it while it was happening, but in hindsight it is plain to see: how the thought of a child came to permeate everything, seeping into our minds, into our language. Carrying a child was described as a way of contributing, a way of repaying all that our community had given us. More and more people went to the clinics and had themselves inseminated, speaking of it as a kind of activism, saying it was a political act to put yet another healthy girl into the world. Every time someone spoke that way I felt a certain unease, keenly aware of what it actually meant: building a new human being inside you, as if your body were a factory. I could never do that, I thought, no matter how many children society needed.
No, I wasn’t made to carry a child. Physically I knew I could, but the thought seemed utterly foreign – and even more so to Simone, who’d been born without a birth sac. It was a type of syndrome, having to do with some lack in the sac she’d once been conceived in. Simone’s carrier had died at the time of her birth, she mentioned it briefly just after we’d met, but for many years it wasn’t something we spoke about.
In many ways we were very different, Simone and I. I liked to use my head, only putting my body to work with reluctance. I’d been assigned to serve at the Language Centre in Irisburg, where I taught Scandinavian for newcomers. I loved to support them and follow their progress, listening as they conquered phonemes once foreign to them: the various sje sounds, the differences between b and p, k and g, d and t. I considered it a personal victory to give my clients a ‘pass’ upon completing the course, and felt just as proud every time someone registered as a fully-fledged Scandinavian resident. I too had been a newcomer once, and remembered what it was like to twist my tongue in order to achieve that singular Scandinavian pronunciation. I remembered the joys as well – the feeling when I showed my certificate, applying for a Scandinavian home unit and life voucher.
My service was a calling. To me, languages have always been a way of life, a cornerstone of my identity. The impossible, titillating search for the exact translation of a phrase, the shifting colours and sounds of different languages – I’m drawn down into them as if in a whirlpool, losing all sense of time and space.
Simone was of a different kind. She, too, performed her service with great dedication, but as a custodian of the elements she loved using her muscles and loathed being still. She’d come home in the evening with moss in her hair and muddy shoes, sometimes with singed eyebrows and her face black with soot. For many years we had a wonderful life together. Simone pulled me up out of my languages, forcing me to put down my screenbook, making sure that I ate and exercised and met other people. I picked the pine needles out of her hair, dabbed the scratches she couldn’t reach and some days I ordered her to stay in bed, when she had such a bad cold she could barely stand upright but still wanted to go clean up after a downpour or a storm. We seldom fought; neither of us was the jealous type and we were able to give each other both space and companionship as needed. It was a warm and simple existence. I wasn’t in want of anything and neither, I thought, was Simone. But then, last summer, she began to talk about carrying. It felt like something was missing, she said, there was a growing emptiness, a hole that could no longer be filled. She spoke of new research, a technique by which a synthetic birth sac was placed inside the body, like a deflated balloon. As the child grew the balloon inflated – it functioned just like a natural sac. The procedure had been devised for people with a defective birth sac but who were otherwise fertile, and now it was offered to those suffering from Simone’s syndrome too.
‘It might not work,’ Simone said, ‘but I want to try. I want to be able to! And isn’t that what they say: all who wish to may carry a child?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but our life, all of it… It would be so different, don’t you think?’
‘It only has to change if you want it to,’ Simone said. ‘You can register as a guardian if you feel like it. And if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. If only I can have a child, society will see to the rest.’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘But it’s still a big deal, a big decision. Do you really believe it wouldn’t change things? Perhaps even a lot?’
But Simone didn’t think so.
I came here with almost nothing. A few items of clothing and, inside them, my body – tired and worn, but intact. A short time after arriving I found my screenbook. It was dented, with dark stains across the red cover. Perhaps the book had gotten wet or been lying in the sun for too long, I’m not sure. But my name was still visible, engraved on the front: the ‘N’ in Nikki and the ‘O’ in Oleander in elaborate initials, the rest of the letters punched into the cover in delicate lines of gold. I was moved by the discovery; to think that it had travelled all this way, that someone had made sure I kept all the notes, stories, news features. But when I opened the book, it was empty. I turned the thin leaves of the screenpages over between my fingers, spread after shimmering white spread. The network symbol had been extinguished, the contents were gone for good. Nothing of my old life remained.
The book lay untouched for several weeks. Now I take it out every day, writing down things I remember, fragments and chains of events. It comes over me suddenly, as if in the heat of the moment. Afterwards, I look at what I’ve written, wondering whether it has any significance at all, whether it’ll be intelligible. So far, it is the act itself that enthrals me: carving each letter into the surface of the screenpage, with the tip of a pen, a spike, a nail or some other sharp object. It leaves me with a sense of calm, a feeling – despite everything – of being rooted. And every time I open the book, every time I put the nail to the screen, another piece of the story comes out.
Simone tried all throughout the summer. She’d go on regular visits to the clinic in Dorishamn, leaving early and coming home late. There were blood tests and measurements to be taken, preparations to be made. In the cupboard, our food jostled with pill capsules and liquid supplements. Ahead of the first visit, she was hopeful. Ahead of the second, she was dogged but not dispirited. After the third failed attempt, she was advised not to continue. The balloon shrivelled up inside her; no child would grow. The doctor didn’t believe that a fourth try would yield different results. Instead, Simone was encouraged to look for other options: find a surrogate, or try a sac module carried outside the body. There are plenty of good ones, the doctor had said, lots of people use them with splendid results!
Simone’s gaze darkened when she told me of the doctor’s suggestion. I pointed out that she may want to consider it, that these repeated attempts were hard both on her body and on her soul.
On me too, Simone. Watching you so withdrawn, so consumed with something I can’t be a part of is hard on me too. Sometimes it feels like I don’t exist anymore, like I’ve played out the role I had in your life.
But I gritted my teeth around the words, and the ones I’d already spoken were enough to turn Simone’s disappointment against me instead of her doctor. She glared at me, the silence between us thickened. I’d begun to recognise the kind, always followed by a fit of crying. When the tears began to roll down her cheeks, conflicting emotions clashed in my chest: I couldn’t bear her sorrow and wanted to lift it from her, and at the same time I was so tired of it.
As she cried, she told me she felt so alone, that no one could understand. ‘I feel useless,’ she sobbed, ‘my body can’t do the things other bodies can, and it feels so… degrading. So unfair.’
She wiped her cheeks. ‘I have a right to four attempts,’ she said, ‘and I’m going to use them. They can advise against it all they want, I have to try one last time. Otherwise I won’t be able to live with myself.’
I sucked in my lower lip between my teeth, searching for the words. The wrong ones could cause another outburst, the right ones could suppress it.
‘Let’s not lose hope, then,’ I said. ‘But if it doesn’t work this time either, then that’s the way it is.’
Simone nodded, and there was nothing more to say. There was a veil between us, it had emerged gradually, becoming opaque.
Summer came to an end. As the October chill arrived, so did the public service announcements. They were broadcast everywhere, through the speakers in the street and on the hybrid, a blanket of soothing voices and images:
… no cause for concern. Getting a cold is completely normal. Your body will heal on its own. Stay home, rest, and drink plenty of fluids. Remember: the Contagion can only be passed from a transmitter to a carrier. If you have not come into physical contact with a transmitter, your symptoms are completely harmless. Anyone who happens to have been in close contact with a transmitter must, regardless of symptoms, register with the Guard on code XY and await further instructions. For others, there is no cause for concern. Getting a cold is completely…
I hurried inside to escape the cold, climbed the stairs to our unit two steps at a time. The smell of food swept toward me as I stepped inside the door. Simone was standing by the steamer in our kitchen module, with a masher in one hand and a bunch of boiled corn beets in the other. Her hair was wet, her sweater covered in green stains. I sat down at our cluttered mess of a table.
‘Weeding all day, huh?’
Simone nodded, crushing the mushy beets.
‘The reeds had reached all the way to the drinking water. But we took care of it.’
She poured the pulp into a pan, flattened it out into a thin cake. As it fried she walked over to the tree, stroked its gnarled bark tenderly.
‘Katja and I went to the park afterwards. She’s getting big now, it’s really starting to show.’
She tried to sound normal, but there was a crack in her voice. Dreamily, she fingered the glossy leaves, giving the ripe plums a squeeze.
‘She’s so good with the young ones. I hope I’ll be like her, when it’s my turn.’
A sizzling from the stove, but she didn’t seem to hear it. I got out of my chair and flipped the pancake, trying to make my voice neutral:
‘I’m sure you will.’
Simone could sense that my tone was forced; she glared suspiciously at me. I averted my eyes and looked down at the pan, thinking that the seared surface of the pancake resembled a moonscape. Spots, craters, a burnt crust. With a flick of my wrist I tipped it onto a plate, quickly cut it into four equal slices.
‘It looks yummy!’
I put a big piece into my mouth with exaggerated gaiety and Simone did the same, we chewed and swallowed, I said that corn beets were my favourite and Simone agreed. After dinner, she did the dishes and I brought my book into my room. The sunset over Irisburg was beautiful that night and we didn’t speak about it again, not for several days. [...]
Simone’s door was ajar when I got in. She lay with one hand on her tummy, fingers splayed over her skin as if for protection, as if to keep something in place. A feeling rose in my chest. It turned into words, a question in my mind:
Who are you? Where’s my Simone, what have you done with her?
The words swelled and grew, the question tore me open from the inside.
Simone was drifting away from me. She was walking in a direction I couldn’t understand, and soon we’d be losing sight of each other. I couldn’t bear the thought, didn’t want to look at it, refused to let it take hold in my mind.
I rinsed my face several times with cold water, brushed my teeth with more tooth salt than usual. Then I lay down next to her, as close as I dared. She rolled toward me in her sleep, mumbled something, frowned as if she was in pain. The rest of the night I lay awake, watching dawn spread its grey light across her face.
Romanus & Selling, 2020
Rights: Siri Lindgren, Hedlund Literary Agency.
We are grateful to Hedlund Literary Agency for permission to publish this translated extract from Bärarna.
Award-winning author Jessica Schiefauer (b. 1978) has established herself as one of Sweden’s foremost writers of literary young adult fiction. Reviews of her previous works have featured in SBR 2016:1 and SBR 2012:1. Bärarna is her first adult fiction novel.
Alice E. Olsson is a literary translator working across Swedish and English and a PhD researcher at University College London, specialising in speculative fiction and human rights. She lives somewhere in the Swedish mountains.