Ch. 8: The Baby
On Sunday morning, Clara walked the short distance from her hut to the amphitheater. She wore a blanket over her shoulders and back and crossed her arms in front of her to ward off the chill. It was almost Spring, and with Spring would come a little warmth, but for now, it was still cold and her breath streamed up into the air as she sang under her breath. Under the blanket, she wore a nice dress. Made by one of the elder’s wives, the fabric formed a long-sleeved top section, then gathered neatly around her waist and spilled down toward her ankles. It was trimmed with lace and accentuated by the occasional pearl bead. She’d been grateful to the elder’s wife for this gift. She had wanted to look nice, for once. She hoped that by looking her finest for service, she’d catch the attention of one of the boys. That paper bag dress, as she called it, was fine for her pre-teen years, but now Clara stood on the cusp of turning into a woman and would need to look nicer.
Clara often wondered when she’d be married—at 21, as is the custom, or much later, as happens sometimes with the less desirable women. She would imagine herself holding a newborn infant, his or her soft cooing, her rocking him gently while singing a lullaby. In these times, she could almost smell that newborn scent: earthy and natural and flowery. Then as he or she grew older, she’d train him like she’d done to so many young minds over the last four years. She hoped she’d find someone similar to the Dean to marry.
But this morning, there were more important matters at hand. Without her visions, the whole village could fall victim to some unknown threat.
Clara had arrived early, hoping the pastor’s wife would arrive early too, hoping for a glimpse of the new baby. Then, as if all was blurry and had suddenly come into view, Clara saw her from a distance. The basket that the pastor’s wife carried her in was decorated in flowers: Cherokee Rose, with it’s bright white petals and recurved thorns, said to ward against evil spirits; Heal-All with it’s purple petals, used as a cure for all that ails; and Spring Beauty with it’s white petals and pink veins, an edible treat for the young kids.
Clara wanted to run to her, but didn’t want to seem too eager. The baby’s cries punctuated the morning. Clara walked calmly over to where the pastor’s wife stood.
“So this is him! I’ve heard so much about him.” And when she spoke, her emotions gave her away.
“Clara meet Kelvin. Kelvin meet Clara.” The pastor’s wife lit up in delight.
Little Kelvin’s face featured plump cheeks, a rosy little button of a nose, and blue eyes, bright and questioning. He yawned and blinked at Clara from the baby carrier. For Clara, it was love at first sight. Her heart sank as she remembered that Kelvin had not been in her hut with her in the dream. She remembered why she was here. The point was not to see a baby, but to save a baby.
Clara waved an oversized cartoon-like wave for Kelvin’s benefit. “Hi there, little Kelvin.”
He coo’d back a hello. Drool pooled down his chin, onto his miniature silk suit. His face broke into a clumsy smile.
“Well aren’t you a sweet one. Yes you are. A sweet one. Yes.” Clara felt sick. All the blood. All the carnage. All the horror.
Kelvin reached out toward Clara.
“Don’t let Clara fool you, little Kelvin. She’s quite the sweet one too.”
Clara smiled in a sheepish way.
“The pastor and I have been watching you with the children. You are a natural.”
“I don’t know about all that. I just try to treat them like little adults-in-training. You know, respect them and all.”
Kelvin wiggled his tiny fingers and squealed.
“Look! He heard what you said!” Now Clara squealed. She wanted so much to have one of her own. “You know, if you and the pastor need a vacation, time to heal and get back on your feet, I could care for Kelvin for you for a while.”
“Oh my, Clara, well that’s quite the offer, but I don’t think you know what you’re getting yourself into. He can be quite the handful.”
“Yes, I imagine he can be. But I’m a natural, right? I can handle him.”
“Why, yes, I imagine you can, Clara. I’ll talk to the pastor and let you know. But between you and I, I could use a break!”
“Ok then. You’ll get back to me?”
Ch. 9: The Lost
Gage walked down his path to the village and wondered what pastor would speak to them about this week. He wore his finest outfit, made of crocodile hide, passed down to him from an older friend after he’d outgrown it. Gage stepped onto the road at the edge of the village. As he walked, he watched a few villagers emerging from their huts. Gage followed them to the amphitheater. A light layer of frost lay on the grasses in the meadow, along the fence line which corralled the village, and on the steps of the amphitheater. He filed in on the first row around the campfire ring. He held out his hands and warmed them against the heat of the fire. He usually arrived late and had to take a seat on the edge of the amphitheater, but today, since he was early, he might be chosen to extinguish the flame as the sermon started. A few older parishioners sat to each side of him. Each of them had likely extinguished the flame a number of times before. The parishioners had their routines and often arrived in time to sit in their familiar seats.
He looked around behind him. There must have been one hundred and fifty people, all seated in the cramped space.
Five minutes later, the pastor took his place in front of the congregation. “Any man who would leave his comfort behind and confess his sins in public could be saved. Now is the time for naming all our great sins in the preceding week. Well, it looks like we’ve got a special guest to the front row. Gage, will you extinguish the flame, please? We’ll start with you then, Gage. What great sin have you committed this week, for we have all sinned before God.” Pastor said.
The wind caused the flames to lick at the edge of it’s ring. Gage basked in it’s glow, soaked up its warmth. It would be cold, real cold once the flames were extinguished. Still, it was a great honor to extinguish the flame of the campfire.
Gage nodded. He picked up the tightly woven basket filled with water and poured it over the flames. The water hissed as it met flame. The steam rose off the deadened campfire. Big puffs of charcoal colored smoke rose into the sky. It swirled as it hit the air and Gage got lost in it’s movement. The color had always mesmerized him. He didn’t know why. It had always struck him as a tip-of-the-tongue type of experience like something was being left unsaid, something that deep down he knew all too well. But he’d never managed to figure it out. It seemed, to him, unsolvable. The smoke continued up into the sky and dispersed further up, above tree line.
In fact, his earliest memory consisted of smoke. And of a blackness he didn’t understand. It wasn’t night, no, the daylight had shown on this blackness and highlighted it’s movements. Maybe it’s a memory of something from before. From before they found us. Soon after the previous Keeper’s tragedy, the villagers had found Clara, Hope and him swaddled as infants in the forest. A note had been tucked into the basket concerning their care and feeding. He knew the blackness wasn’t anything from here.
“Gage, the dreamer.” The pastor joked. “Gage, will you please wake up and tell us what sin you’ve committed this week.”
Gage’s startled out of his thoughts. His mind spun with the possibilities. He’d be punished if he spoke of the lies he told for Clara’s sake, and she would be subject to worse, maybe outcasted, maybe even worse than that. The visions she had were not of their religion. The visions would be seen as the work of the devil, perhaps. No, that won’t work. He quickly fixated on another, lesser crime. “This week I had stayed at my hut too long making weapons and had almost missed the entire time slot allotted for the group chores. Sister Macky reprimanding me on my tardiness and I got irritated at her. ”
“Thank you, Gage. God forgives you.” Pastor said. He then continued down the row Gage sat on, called each parishioner by name and asked for their sins. Gage shook from the cold, but was relieved his turn was over and that he’d not spilled the beans about Clara’s visions. In fact, he rarely told the whole truth at service. He couldn’t.
As each parishioner had taken their turn, a low murmer settled over the aphitheather. Each parishioner had opinions on each other’s sins, of course, and sitting so long in quiet was hard.
When everyone had spoken, the pastor said, “And now we’ll begin the sermon.” He grabbed the edges of the lecturn and leaned over it’s frame. “Are you lost? Are you one of The Lost?” A hush fell over the crowd. The Lost, as they were known, like many other groups, were a group of people living in an separate encampment in the vast countryside of the USA. Word had gotten back about them, though no one knew where exactly they lived. “I hope not, parishioners. I hope not. It starts with a little lie, and then the lie takes root. It grabs a hold of your soul, worms its way into the very core of who you are. Before you know it, you’re lying all the time. And then you’re turning your back on your friends, turning your back on family, turning your back on God himself.”
Gage squirmed in his seat. He didn’t always know how he felt about God, about the rules and customs of this community, but he knew one thing as strongly as he knew anything: he didn’t want to be one of The Lost, those good for nothin’ scumbags. But he had always had to lie about Clara’s visions to protect her. He sagged under the weight of those lies now.
“And what happens when you turn your back on God?” Pastor paused for dramatic effect.
“You go to hell.” One parishioner yelled out.
“That’s right. But first, you start playing God. You take your own life into your hands, you refuse to die, in your alotted time, as God commanded.”
Gage had known the stories all too well. The Lost were a group formed by people displaced from the government’s secured facility. When each had been read their last rights—I’m sorry you have heart failure or I’m sorry it’s an enlarged heart or I’m sorry but it was a massive heart attack—instead of taking their last walk into the wilds, similar to walking the plank on a pirate ship, as prescribed by the Doctor and the administration, they’d undergone a black market surgery instead.
“And next thing you know, you’ve ripped out your own beating heart and replaced it with hydraulics.” The crowd gasped at his point.
Gage tensed at the thought. If I cross paths with one I’d thrust my sword into that mechanical contraption of a heart without asking any questions.
“That’s right, parishioners. They’ve lost their humanity. They’ve willingly destroyed it. And now they walk the earth with a whir instead of a heart beat. A whir. And God has turned his back on them now. As you walk the earth this week, parishioners, don’t tell lies, don’t start to swing the door closed on God. Go now and take God with you, always.”
The crowd applauded and cheered. Gage sat there, stone cold with the lies he had to tell.
When Gage arrived at the after service gathering for teens, located on the edge of the village, everyone was already there. Clara stood on the outside edge of the campfire, stared into the fire with a blank expression. She wasn’t her usually cheery self. Cross sat on a log, near the fire, laughing at a joke. And the boys, spread out along it’s outer edge, also laughing.
Gage slipped in between Clara and the boys. He placed a hand on her lower back as he stepped in.
“Gage!” Her face lit up momentarily before returning to it’s previous seriousness.
The campfire had died down and he stepped in and picked up a limb and poked and pushed at the log in the center of the ring. Sparks burst into the sky, swirled around him, and settled back into the fire and the surrounding rock.
“How goes it?” Gage plopped down on a stump nearest to the fire. He rubbed his hands together for warmth, held them palms facing the flames.
“Good. But you know the full moon’s coming up.” A young boy said, the incredulity seeping into his voice.
“So? Is that all you’ve got to say about it.” Cross said.
“Well, at least we won’t need our lanterns. The moon will be bright enough, God forbid it’s cloudy, to light our way. Less use means less exposure for Hope in the city gathering supplies.”
“You got that right.” Hope said.
“You’ve heard the stories man. The Lost.”
“Ah, The Lost. Well, we haven’t seen them yet. But we’ll be ready.”
“How can you be ready for someone who has turned inhuman?”
“That’s why we train everyday of our lives. That’s why we go through The Great Celebration. That’s why we cluster in groups.”
“Yeah, you live up on the ridge all alone.”
“I can hold my own.”
“Nobody can hold their own against The Lost.”
“Well, we’re doing everything we can to be ready.”
Ch. 10: The Baby, Part 2
Clara arrived at the pastor’s house early. She had rehearsed her lines over and over again. Just so you have some time to yourselves, she’d tell them. But lines be damned, it was already done. They’d already agreed to let Clara watch over the little tyke for a week. She’d take him everywhere with her, to school in the mornings, to her hut afterwards. And she’d watch over him so that if anything tragic befell the rest of the villagers, he’d be safe with her.
She knocked on the pastor’s hut.
The door opened and the pastor stood before her.
“Good evening, Pastor.”
“Why good evening, Clara. You ready for this? He can be a fussy one.”
“I was born ready for this, pastor.”
“Yes, I suspect you were much like Gage was born ready to arm the villagers.”
They both laughed. There sprouted a crying from the recesses of the hut.
“Good evening, Clara.” A voice called from those recesses. “Shshsh… It’s ok little fella.”
The pastor’s wife carried him to Clara, rocked him gently as she walked.
“Now I know you’ll take good care of him Clara. But if you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. Or if he’s too much trouble, what with the other kids to look after…”
“I’ll keep it in mind but I’m certain it’s going to go well.”
As the pastor’s wife handed over the infant to Clara, carefully, she placed a hand on the back of his head.
Clara took the infant and cradled him in her arms.
“Now here’s his basket. He’ll sleep soundly in there.”
“Okay. Looks like I’m all set.” Clara grabbed the basket and turned and walked toward the field.
Clara set the basket down on the edge of the field and tucked the infant into it. The kids gathered around. They oohed and ahhhed.
“I’m sure you all have heard the good news. The pastor’s wife has a new baby boy, Kelvin.”
“I saw him at sermon.” Timmy said.
“I didn’t get to see him. Mom was down with the flu and Dad was taking care of her and I didn’t get to go.”
“I’m sorry you missed sermon Katie. If you speak with pastor, he’ll give you a recap. It’s important not to miss sermon, but I know the flu is serious.”
The baby gazed up at all the curious faces who peered down at him. He waved his arms at the baby mobile that was attached to the handle of the basket. It dangled over him and chimed softly. It caught the light from the sky and reflected it in a prism over his face and arms. Made out of old cd’s, found in the city, broken into different sized pieces, and tied at different lengths. The broken edges were filed smooth. He marveled at it’s prism of colors that washed over everything below it, including his arms and chest.