They called her the Milkman.
They did so without understanding the origin of the word, or the gender connotations it had once held. To them she was a simple savior, the person who helped feed their babies when there was nothing left in or for them.
I knew her as Sara. She was young when she moved into the building, unlike most others here, including me. This part of the remodeled city had been designed for smaller living spaces, recycled furniture already in the apartments, and an eco-forest on the roof that often dropped down into the tenant balconies, and that we were encouraged to nurture ourselves. When I ran into Sara in the elevator, masks on both of our faces and a large space between us for safety’s sake, I asked her why she was here.
“I don’t mean to sound accusatory,” I added. “It’s just that you’re young, and well, we are much older. Don’t you have a family?”
She smiled in a kind way. Her hair was brown, tousled from the wind, and she held a book bag at her side. “I’m a student in botany, and I like the plants. It’s quiet here among the older residents. So I can get a lot done.”
When I noticed she’d hit the highest floor on the apartment, I also figured it would be quieter closer to the plants. I had my own curiosity satisfied, and those who had lived in the building before she arrived soon died off, and those who moved in after she was here were already used to her. Sara, the student.
Then soon enough, Sara the mother.
She was a tall, thin woman — but one winter, she popped. Her coat was split down her side and displayed a round belly. She would often walk between floors of the building — for exercise, she always said — so I caught her between the 98th and the 99th one morning.
“Congratulations,” I said, and hoped that I could be joyful and not have to hedge myself. “When are you due?”
“Soon. But I’m not keeping it.”
Her tone was matter-of-fact, not an ounce of sadness. I must have displayed some of that melancholy, however, because she quickly added, “This is for my sister. She was having a hard time conceiving, and I figured I could give her something she’d never receive elsewhere.”
“That’s very good of you,” I said, and meant it. Almost no one offered up their bodies like that anymore. Kidney and liver transplants were unheard of on the still-living — we needed all we could to survive the pollution and the numerous illnesses — and after death transplantation had become too risky as well. It was one of the main reasons so many people in this building lived where they did. Away from the ground floors, they could breathe easier and — sometimes — a little longer after years of car exhaust and other inhalants had lined their organs with rings of toxins.
“It’s nothing. Just something the world does anyway.”
“Don’t underestimate the gift,” I told her. “I remember what happened to my body after giving birth. It felt like part of my brain had wandered away. Still don’t know if it ever came back, come to think of it.”
She smiled politely. “I’ve read that. And about my teeth and nails and the fact that I’m basically being strip mined for minerals, like the companies did to our land. But I’m okay with that, too.”
I shook my head. An educated girl. How could she know all she did and still consent? I would have now, yes, in a heartbeat — but that was because I knew my children. She was doing this for the hell of it, it seemed. For a scientific paper.
“Well, good luck,” I told her, and my voice was not convincing. She did not reply and merely continued her daily walk among the floors of the building.
I figured, when I gave myself some time to think about her, that she would come knocking on my door in the middle of the night. Want to commiserate, talk about the baby brain she had but without the baby, or ask about the medicinal ways to make her milk stop without the child around to suckle from her. But when she didn’t come, I figured she was a smart girl. She had books to solve her problems.
I had no idea what to expect next.
The cries of so many infants were what drew me to her floor months later. I’d never truly remembered how many different cries there were amongst them all. When I’d had my kids, they were far enough apart that I didn’t hear the overlapping tenor of their needs. Each cry had been the same in its overall meaning: my baby needs me, and so I came. But I supposed, had I twins or closely-spaced babies, I would have heard the different pitches. The different language amongst the young, and I would have understood it in a new way.
I followed the noises up the stairs. I was fascinated by a baby’s cry that was sharp, not breathy like my boys had been. It was quick, almost in a consistent beat, as if the baby was running. Then another cry was wet and mucousy — a sick baby, I knew right away. Another one, a cry that was also more like a laugh, as if the child was overstimulated. I followed each one like a siren song, and came up onto Sara’s floor.
A line of women holding infants, all shapes, sizes, and ages, led to her doorway. I watched from the stairwell as more poured out from the elevator and also got in line. After about ten minutes, there was no more room in the hallway. One woman, older like I was with grey hair that seemed as if it had recently been plaited but now hung in loose waves at her side, stared at me with wide, perturbed eyes. She held a small baby dressed in blue and green in her arms.
“This is my daughter’s boy,” she said, voice tremulous. “She died. Are you in line for the milkman?”
“I… no. I was going to see Sara.”
The woman made no connection between Sara and the Milkman. It was the first time I’d heard the term applied to her, but it was so obvious to me what was happening. She was no longer a mother to her sister’s child, but the gift she’d been given with the advent of labor and delivery, she’d not wanted to shut off. She’d wanted to give to the community of sufferers who could not grasp this rite on their own.
I had no idea how many people there would be.
I got out of the way for the woman, though I watched what I could of the commotion and the line-ups from different floors, different windows, and friends’ apartments where I could be the nosy neighbor my age had given me the right to be. There were so many people. Hours and hours of line-ups. So often I’d watch one woman in the line all day, only to finish up with Sara, and then get right back in at the end of the line once again.
“Little babies need so much,” I said to Merta, a woman’s whose apartment I had commandeered with my small vigil. “I don’t know how she can do it.”
“Give her some ointment and some common sense,” Merta said. “My babes were formula-fed. Nursing was overrated. Hurt like knives.”
“Yes,” I said. I blinked past the first few days I’d fed my babies. It was brutal, full of bloody bras and the sensation of knives — or pins — as Merta had said. But it had only lasted the first few days with my babies. Then I learned. Then my babes also learned, since they were new to the feeling, too. “But it’s not all bad for some women. Some like it.”
“And she’s one of them, I guess. So good for her. Maybe her charity will run out eventually, but for now, I don’t care. Unless she wants to give me some cream for my tea. I could kill for something like that.”
It had been years — decades, truly — since we’d had cream. True cream, not the powdered stuff on the shelves of the grocers now. It had been decades since dairy from cattle as well, as they were mostly done away with to save space and what remained of the environment. “I wonder about formula,” I said aloud. “You raised your kids on it?”
“Yes, and they turned out fine. Except for braces, you know, but I always thought that was a scam. They could have gotten away with a crooked smile. May have made ‘em more humble.” Merta had flicked on her small device, which she mostly used as a TV. A reality game show came on. They gave away small amounts of money, ridiculous now to consider, yet people flung themselves at the stage like lemmings for a small taste of fame and glory.
I looked back out the peephole and saw people flinging themselves at Sara’s door, their babies crying in their bitter symphony, begging for something more. I wanted to know why so many women were here. Some were older — clearly grandmothers of their kin, the mothers either dead or drug addicts that could not take care of new life — and some were men, too, possibly there for the same reason or stranded after adoption papers went through with no real guidance on how to nurture.
But what about formula? Merta’s kids had been raised on it. I had seen it in the grocery store, in the pharmacy aisles, in a dozen different contexts, even as free samples in hospitals when I was young. What had happened to that option, an option which saved millions and millions of babies’ lives? And could be used to save some now?
“Be right back,” I told Merta, but she was too enchanted with a spinning wheel of fortune, and cheers from a recorded crowd.
I stepped outside and almost cut in line. The man in front of me gave me a look, almost a hiss, and held his infant closer to him. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not seeing Sara — the Milkman.”
He relaxed. He even smiled at me, since I had been told in the past that even without pictures of my children on me, I still radiated a grandmother’s energy. I seized that energy now. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” he said. His baby stirred and he held them closer to his chest, shifting from side to side. The baby-dance. Oh, I knew that well. I missed that dance. I wanted to offer to hold the little one, but I didn’t think I was in a trusted position. No one really was anymore.
Except for the Milkman.
“Why are you here for the Milkman?” I asked. “Why not get your baby formula?”
He gasped as if I had said something terrible. “Formula?”
“But it’s poison.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“In the hospital,” he said. “From the nurses, the social worker. They made us sign a form to get the baby, saying we’d feed her the best and only the best. Gave us a pamphlet that said it was 400 times more lethal than breast milk.”
“What?” I shook my head, finding it hard to believe that those in charge had misled someone so genuine, who only wanted to love a child. “It’s perfectly safe. My friends used it to feed their babies when nursing was too difficult. Surely, it’s still around? Even if they made you sign a form, which I don’t think can be legally binding — ”
“I adopted her,” he said simply. “I need her and she needs me. So we will see the Milkman to avoid the poison.”
He turned to the side, clearly not wanting to engage anymore. I couldn’t blame him. Bags under his eyes told me his girl had kept him up all night. He engaged in the baby-dance once again as she stirred, and I swore I could hear the pain in his joints.
“It’s the water,” a woman behind him said. Her skin was dark, her hair braided, and she held two babies, small and screaming in low cries, in her arms. “The water isn’t always safe.”
“Oh, of course.” I felt foolish, still thinking in my own generation’s freedom. “Surely you can boil it?”
“Not all of have big enough stoves,” she said. Her babies’ quiet cries became a roar. I offered my arms. The mother looked at me sideways, and then when I produced my mask from my pocket, she handed over one of her babies. “Hi there,” I said.
“Jacob,” the woman said. I repeated his name. He was so small, so underfed. His arms and legs spilled out of his onesie. I wanted to save him. I wanted to feed him. I understood Sara’s plight, her urge to nurture them no matter the cost to her physical body, but I still didn’t get why there wasn’t another way.
The line moved before I could ask more. The woman held her arms out for her son. I handed him over and wished her, and the man in front of me, good luck. They nodded, their eyes tired. They lived in lines, I realized. They needed more than simple luck.
That afternoon, I made soup. I couldn’t make nearly enough, given the fact that we were only permitted what we could eat, and hoarding was absolutely forbidden, but what I did make I gave to those who waited in line in small cups. Not everyone took it, but that was okay. Those who did, I spoke about formula, water quality, and the expense that I had not factored in. In the many years since climate change initiatives, and numerous other governmental policies had passed, there had been a marked change in companies making formula. Many rules stopped them entirely, especially rules that prohibited the profiting off ‘natural resources’ or stepping in to detract from natural resources — such as a mother’s breast milk. In the same way we could no longer profit from selling blood or even synthetic blood, companies were practically forbidden from trying to synthesize breast milk. Those companies that could get around that through legal loopholes, were still run out of business by the many prohibitions on ingredients such as corn, soy, and dairy. All of this meant that formula was still available, still in stores, but only for the rich. Only for those who lived in areas with better water to mix it, or to afford to buy the even more expensive premade formula with sterilized water. It was no longer the former option it once used to be.
And so, Sara had stepped in.
“There are many milkmen,” one parent said to me. She was young. Her breasts were too small, her milk supply too low, to feed her gigantic son. I couldn’t believe a woman so minute could produce such a large infant, but I held him in my arms as proof, and saw the same nose shared between mothers and son. “But this Milkman takes everyone. So many have requirements.”
“Pay,” she said, and then hedged. There were more requirements, like political faction, ideology, maybe even gender and race of the child. I had no idea. She had no true idea, either. It was an unregulated industry, a completely natural one that the government would not step in and stop production on, and that companies could not exploit, so it was left alone. Mothers could do what they wanted, and if they wanted to become milkmen, that was fine to those who were not watching anymore. Years ago, I would have thought that was good.
Now I knew better.
“Do you pay?” I asked the woman.
“We give what we can.” She dug through her purse, after looking around, and brought out a peach. A single peach, almost futuristic in its perfection. “This grew outside my window. I had to fight off scavengers for it. I took it for her.”
The woman slipped it back into her purse almost as fast as she brought it out. It was like gold to her, a new type of currency, but it was also more than gold, too. She must have watched that tree like a hawk, probably during her pregnancy, and coveted that peach more than any of her other possessions. I thought of the cravings that flooded me when I had my babies, for olives and beans and lemons. I’d given anything for fruit some days, and was baffled by my wanton cravings on others, desperate to even know what it was my body wanted. That desire for sustenance was what this woman probably thought as she watched the peach grow and grow, as her belly grew and grew.
But she was not eating it. She was giving it away so her baby could eat. “Sometimes we bring soup, too. Like you,” the woman added. “But she asks for nothing.”
“Nothing,” the woman repeated, and many others nearby echoed.
“She truly is the mother of the earth. Praise the Milkman!”
“Praise the Milkman!”
The line-up repeated like a chorus. Even their babies calmed. I thought of Sara, the young girl I’d met in the elevator. Then the radiant pregnant woman in the hallway. I wanted to see her as a Milkman, to witness her as these people witnessed her, as a glorious Gaia, earth mother, fecund with the fat of the land and worth a bounty everyone wanted to pay though she did not ask for a thing.
But to stand in line meant that I’d deprive another desperate parent or grandparent, and so I went back to my own apartment. I put on another pot of soup, and hoped that the young girl I knew was as glorious as the rumors.
Three days later, in the middle of the night, there was a knock on my apartment door. I’d not gone out in the hallway for a while; it was getting cooler now, and though there was no true winter anymore, I never liked the cold in any way and believed that the constant opening and closing of the downstairs doors brought it too close to me. The winter season reminded me of my lost loved ones, too, and so I’d taken to reading by a repeated sequence of a fire on my device. I had only drifted off to sleep when I heard the knocks.
I barely recognized Sara through the peephole. It was only her hair, long and flowing now passed her ample breasts, that let me know it was her. She wore a dark jacket, almost a cloak, and a hood that obscured her face.
“Jean,” she said when I opened the door. “Hi.”
She gave me a broken smile. “You mean the Milkman,” she whispered, then faintly audibly said, “praise the broken Milkman.”
I took her inside without another word. Over cocoa — which I said was an absolute necessity, and not a luxury as it was typically categorized by the grocers — she told me what I had missed out on earlier in the day.
“There was a fight. A bad one. Someone cut in line, or someone else tried to cut in line after using a restroom — I don’t know, honestly. All of this is repeated second or third hand. It was on the seventh floor.”
I raised my brows. She only nodded. “Yes, they’re down to the seventh floor now. I… I just don’t think I can do this anymore.”
“You’re in pain,” I said. “I think I have some ointment. Maybe — ”
“It’s not that kind of pain. I don’t have that. Even with the constant attention, it only seems to help lessen the pain so many women told me about. Like knives and pins and split open sores.” She shook her head. “After I nursed Matthew, my nephew now, it was surreal how easy it was. I just flowed. My sister came by for a few days, but eventually, she was able to do it herself.”
“Hormone replacement therapy,” she said as if it was obvious. “There are pills you can take to make the milk come. She’s a scientist, like me.”
“I see.” I didn’t add: and she probably lives in the better part of the city, with clear water, and one of the only viable markets for formula.
“So, yes, she is fine. They are fine. But I saw so many people who weren’t. I…it was so easy for me. I just wanted to help. But now they’re hurting one another. Now they’re harming one another. A man and a woman nearly died today. All for milk! All for me. And the babies still die.” She let out a low moan then. I could see the sadness radiate off of her. The pregnancy had left her with a body that could be useful, with a skillset she’d never anticipated being able to use for good before; it was only natural to want to share it and do the right thing. But that didn’t mean that it wasn’t hard, in spite of what she said about her flow and ease of production. Her skin was paler than I’d ever seen it. The muscles around her neck seemed saggy, surely from lack of sleep and fading nutrients in what she was giving out. Her hair had fallen out in clumps when she’d pulled her hood down, and as she gripped the mug of cocoa, I saw that her nails were split and broken in numerous places.
“You’re falling apart, Sara.”
“I know,” she said again, and sobbed. Her cries made her breasts leak. Her shirt stained in a matter of minutes. She didn’t even notice, or if she did, it was so much part of her world now, she didn’t bother to react.
I rose from the table and brought her tissues, another luxury. I also went to my closet, in search of a big enough shirt that could go over her breasts. It was hard to estimate her size now; she was tall, thin, but she had a new radius to her, one that still seemed like a foreign landscape to her. I found what I could at the back of my closet and brought it back to her. She changed into the sweater without another word, and without the embarrassment that usually came with the nakedness. She’d been seen by so many people, hordes and hoards of them since giving birth, that she had no modesty anymore.
“Thank you. I didn’t know who else to come to.”
“I know. I’m not even sure I’m the right person. I…” I turned to my coffee table, where I’d been reading about water, formula, and the fluctuations in the marketplace. “You’re going to have to start seeking alternatives, though. I can tell you that much.”
“There are other milkmen,” she said. “But they’re far away. I thought they were rumors, you know, when I was in the birthing center with Matthew. Then I became one, and now it’s like I can feel every other Milkman. Every other city where there is too much hunger, too much pain, and I… it all became too real.” She stared into her mug for a long time before she spoke again. “People shouldn’t have so many damn babies.”
“That’s not the right answer,” I said. “It’s good to give people information about family planning, birth control, and all that. Give people the options who want it, and it’s there for them. Condoms are free now. There are clinics.”
“Then why don’t people use them?” Her tone was harsh, bitter. She was not the fecund mother in that moment, but Kali the destroyer. I could not blame her at all for the change. “Why do people keep bringing babies into this world who are only set up to die? Who are only set up to starve and be in pain and that I end up holding when they take their last breath?”
“I know. I’m sorry. But that’s not their intent.” After a while of searching my own memories, I gave Sara the only advice I could not from books. “From what I’ve seen, having my own babes, everyone’s basic urge is to survive — and to create. You just happen to be flung into the middle of that matrix.”
“It’s not good to create when you can’t survive.”
“I know,” I repeated. I sighed. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”
“And I don’t know what else to do. I can’t help anymore. I just — ”
She sobbed again. The sweater soaked with milk, bringing with it a sour scent. I brought my hand around her shoulder, rather than worrying about getting her a new outfit. She turned into me, sobbing as if I was her mother now, and she were my child. That was how I held her, at least. That was, I think, all she truly wanted in that moment. “Birth and death are so much work,” I said. I had no idea where the words came from, only that they were true. “It’s a nonstop job. We think it’s so simple because it’s natural, and we’ve been taught to value what is hard, what is man-made. But my God, it’s so much work.”
“I didn’t know,” she said between cries. “I’m so dumb. I — ”
“No, you’re not. You’re normal. No one knows until they give birth, or until they hold someone as they die.” I fought off visions of my husband, the days leading up to my move here, in this strange castle-like apartment complex for the dead. I thought I was coming to die here, too.
But Sara, in her strange way, prolonged even my life. This hopeful renewal still didn’t mean our tasks were easy, in any regard. But I realized we had to work together now to make sure we both understood what we were doing, and make sure we got it right.
“I have an idea,” I said, once we were both done with our crying. “But it will take a while to perfect. If we ever get there.”
“I’m listening,” Sara said. She wiped tears away from her cheeks and mouth, and stared into me with her deep brown eyes. The babies looked into that, I thought. As they thrive and as they died.
“No more base survival,” I said. “We need to create.”
It took six weeks to get the formula correct. We had to find the right substitute for the milk itself, something of which we could not rely on previous staples of corn, dairy, or soy. That was where Sara and her plants came in; she’d added to the forest on top of the apartment, grafting new breeds from what branches and vines fell into her window. I moved into her apartment for a short time, as small as it was, and learned as much as I could about the new life blooming under her balcony while she continued to feed the new life that came to her door.
“Here,” I said one morning, holding a plant bud. “This is the best.”
“Peas,” she said with a smile. “I loved split-pea soup when I was pregnant. Go with it.”
So we did. We tested it on Matthew, her nephew who had grown strong, and he handled it well.
After we found the right substitute, we needed to make sure we could treat the water with sterilization that could happen both with and without fire, and in several different locations in the city. Once again, Matthew became our substitute baby, growing fatter and fatter off our samples, proving to us that we could prosper in this new culture and climate — with care and attention.
We also had to ensure that the mixture itself wouldn’t be rationed in an attempt to make it last longer amongst the poorest people. We didn’t need babies still dying, or not gaining enough weight, because someone thought they could thin out the mixture and still have it be okay. There was only so much we could do about that, other than correct education and packaging. So while Sara fed the babies, I took parents, grandparents, and well-wishers alike over to the balcony and showed them how to make the formula. I had to push past their resistance to the idea, too, which was a lot harder than I thought. Even though I showed them that the formula itself came from life — a plant, right here, right in front of them — it still did not calm some of the most anxious parents. Bringing Matthew in for demonstrations, however, worked wonders. Seeing a baby in the flesh, with a Buddha belly and bright eyes, made even the most skeptical parents melt away all fears.
Matthew helped with Sara, too. Seeing her baby’s eyes light up again, his body grow and expand outside of her, gave her a new life. His cry was different, I noted, when he was with her. A soft laughter amongst the excited sighs. He knew he came from her. And while he was more than willing to go back to Sara’s sister, there was a kinship, an invisible thread that passed between them, and that I knew would never be broken.
Finally, all was complete. When families came to see the Milkman, we sent them home with bottles and formula. We sent them home with instructions and education. We sent them home with hope.
“But if, what if — ” so many parents interjected, even after all had been said and show. “How do I — what if she — ”
“You can always come back,” Sara said. “I will always help. But I can’t be everywhere at once.”
They nodded. They understood. There were going to be no more fights in line. No more babies dying as they waited. And no more, for the love of all that was in this city, no more people fighting to survive and feed what they had decided to create.
Eventually, the lines stopped. The floors of the building went back to being empty, save for Sara, who now walked with purpose amongst them. When I saw her six months after I’d helped develop the formula, I was delighted to see her back to normal. Skin and hair healthy, and a hearty bounce to her step. I said hello to her, then quickly added, “Praise the Milkman.”
She smiled, but shook her head. “I’ve fed the last baby.”
“Until the next one,” I added. “We always forget how painful survival can be, and suddenly, want to create again.”
“Maybe.” Sara fiddled with a gem on her neck. It was bone white. She noticed my gaze fall there, and held it up for me to see. “I met a woman in the last of the lines who said she could give me a token of what I’d done.”
“What is it?” Under the low lights of the hallway, the whiteness seemed to glimmer like a pearl, but it was in the shape of a half-moon. “I’ve never seen a gem like that.”
“It’s my milk. Made into a stone. Just for keepsakes.” Sara tucked it back under her shirt, next to her two breasts, and where her heart was. “I don’t know if I’ll ever do that again, but I want to remember the good over the bad.”
I nodded. I understood. “Sara,” I added. “All you need to do to remember that truly is look outside from your top floor.”
She sighed. “Same to you, you know.”
I didn’t say anything in response. After a moment, she invited me for cocoa.
I went, following her up the long set of stairs, my knees aching as I did. I was getting too old, I thought, then pushed it away. I was still alive, and that was enough to create.
We were silent as we sipped our cocoa until we stepped in front of her window. The city twisted in front of us, harsh skyscrapers taller than our apartment complex. Neon light and advertisements. Pollution and smog. But there was life, too. People. Families in building, raising what they could. Some people were visible amongst the sidewalks, though we were so high up they looked like dots. Like glimmers and grains of sand. New life added to the already full world, but that would survive and create all their own.
“Everything can change, if we want it to,” Sara said. “Sometimes it just takes on person. Or two.”
“Praise the Milkman,” I said.
She smiled and added, “Praise the Milkmen.”
Illustration: Julia Lazebnaya