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By @Val

A Prayer

87 days to banishment

One does not go to Eden without their partner.

When Louisa was recommended a visit to Rosemary for the patch of heat rash on her forehead, I rejoiced in my second free day this week and have spent it greedily sleeping away the hours lost lately to guilt and worry. Now I wake, and find myself returned to my anxiety.

Ten days have passed since the incident, and in them Oliver has shared few words with me. It has been two days since he said anything at all, and those I suspect are the last ones I will get out of him. They were dark, revealing just how broken Ellie’s death has left him, and giving me enough of a fright to no longer force his conversation.

“It’s been a week,” I said to him in the privacy of the stairwell. This was where we first spoke of the incident, and so I thought it was fitting to use that spot again. “We haven’t been turned in. If they were going to put us on trial, they would have arrested us already -”

“Except you don’t know that,” he interrupted. I remember the shakiness of his hand as it ran through his red hair. He had always had a slight tremor. Trauma, I assumed, from losing the first digits of his leftmost fingers at twelve. Since Ellie’s death and what he’d done to the sentry, this tremor only worsened. “She has her suspicions,” he hissed. “She needs to make an example-” he paused then, noticing for the state of my hands. In a vicious motion, he snatched one from where it swayed at my side, lifting to examine its marks. I grew tense, each nerve buzzing at his rough handling. “What is this?” He demanded.

I did not answer. He could see plain enough that they were bruised, two knuckles split open. When he barked again for an explanation, I told of my self punishment. “As payment for the part I played that night.”

I wanted Oliver to understand, but he grew hot with anger. I have not spoken to him since. To share a secret like ours, I would have thought brought people together. For Oliver and I it worked the opposite, creating a barrier between us where once there had been, if not friendship, a peaceful existence. Now there remains nothing.

Though he could not see sense in my words, I did my best to interpret his. She needs to make an example. He meant a trial.

I have witnessed two trials in my lifetime, but that is not a small number. Trials are quick things, though their impact is far greater than the time taken to deliberate. Each trial marks the death of an unclean person, a deviant, who must be removed for the sake of Felle’s purity. But much more than that, a trial is meant to serve as a reminder to us who remain. A declaration of our position, lest we begin to think highly of ourselves.

I shiver, remembering.

Oliver seemed certain that the sentry’s maiming would not go unpunished, and that we would be the ones to suffer. We are guilty, but how he figures the Commander discovered us, I do not know. Still, a combination of understanding and fear has led me to the courtroom today.

Cold stone walls and old wooden pews offer little solace, but the silence is soothing. Here I can think. I trace my finger along the polished railing, imagining it to be bare flesh. I miss the feeling of Walt’s body against mine. I have been too distracted lately to enjoy it.

The rail is too cold and too hard a wood to be believable. I cannot trick my mind into thinking the sanded curves are anything other than that. It is made of lumbar identical to the podium. Once local wood, hewed and harvested from the forests that used to make up this land. I find it hard to place these furnishings as living things. They seem so far from life now, unrecognizable as their source material.

Much like the pews and podium, the common people seem to have fallen far from their own source. It is hard to recognize their harsh faces and shaved heads as those of the living. They seem more fitting as ranks of the dead. Philip would need to shave his head again soon. Much longer and they would call him traitor to the common standard. Already he disrespects their custom, abandoning his cap and risking discoloration. An unforgivable rebellion if anyone but me were to witness it.

To their common eye, I suppose this place holds beauty in the hour of sunfall, though its charm is lost on me. My fear of the setting sun is far too overpowering. Suspense thickens the room, dissolving any beauty that may have been. This dread inside of me is worse now than it has been in years. Though amplified by the recent trauma, it is a fear that has always been inside me.

I was only nine when I was witness to my first trial. This was my first time seeing the gates close on a grubber, locking them out in the dark night of Gratis. It has happened since, once more at trial and many more to races lost, but never so horrific as that first time. Since then, my regard for sunsets has turned sour.

Beyond the gate stands Sentry Philip. He resides at a bridge between two worlds. One our sanctuary and the other our hell.

His hair is growing out from the common cut, buzzed close to his scalp but not completely shaven. The flesh beneath is as pale and unblemished as any other common man’s. He ought to be wearing his cap, but it got tucked within his back pocket as soon as the first wave of workers disappeared. Though Philip has resigned to the shadows, he poses a risk by removing an article the community has assigned him. Sun deviation is allowed in only the four deviant classes within Felle: the dockmen, grubbers, ranchers, and plowmen.

Philip stands with rigid posture, his hands locked behind him and neck taut. He is young, perhaps sixteen, and on the skinny side though his body is lean and tightly corded with muscle beneath a thick military jacket – or so I can imagine. What truly lies beneath the navy suit is a mystery to me. His flesh has forever been hidden from sight, hands cloaked in leather and collar buttoned high even on days when the true sun is fat and the air seems to ripple with its heat. I have never been properly introduced to the skin under the course shell of blue, and it was only ten days ago that I first ever thought about it. That sort of debauchery is not allowed in Felle, nor would he care for it. He is not the sort of man who would look at me. His eyes do not wander to the courtroom that I alone inhabit, but remain forever unwavering in their position.

Sentries do not take interest in deviant girls like me. Not interest, and certainly not preference. I understand this, but cannot help but wonder.

Like all sentries, Philip does not speak, and in return the common people do not speak openly about them. They whisper, mutter, and mumble. Never loud enough for the dark guardians to hear. It has become a known truth within Felle that sentries are not men. Perhaps they are normal at birth, whole and without deformation. Perhaps they grow up common and healthy. Perhaps a lot of things, but all men die when they become sentries.

They say something happens to break them. A sort of training. It is meant to be secret, but those who are not let in on it are smart enough to figure; kill a man’s heart and you kill his potential to betray. They must never develop familiarity with we who know them best – the deviants. Those who pass through Philip’s station day in and day out must be as good as strangers. If not, there could be no assurance that he would lock the doors each night, locking out those who did not return before the setting of the sun. I like to think that Philip is not without his heart. He gave me hope for this the moment he chose to shelter Oliver and I. Not truly hope, but a fantasy. One I do not share with anyone. To share these thoughts would be treason against Felle’s standards. The sentries protect us from that which would harm us, and this is all we need to know. To think more or less of them is betrayal of thought, and betrayal of thought is punishable by banishment.

I step inward, turning my back on the open gate and instead face a darkened figure cast from the sun’s light upon my body. Its dark edges trace my shape; oblong, but not dissimilar to myself.

Beyond the edge of my shadow self sits the dim wood of a judge’s podium. By way of distraction, I move cautiously up the aisle. While the courtroom itself holds a sense of fear for me, and for others like me, the podium is something worse when singled out from the room’s entirety. It is the center of this justified fear, and in the silence there echos a banging gavel, protesting cries, and tight fists shaking at the closed gate. This is a shared memory that haunts the conscience of every deviant man, woman and child. One is never too young to learn their place in Felle.

Instinct tells me turn away, think no more of this damning throne, but I cannot. There is something about the podium that surprises me.

Possessed by curiosity, my fingers move to touch a small etching set into the wooden paneling. For a moment I hover, afraid, but this caution lasts only briefly before fascination compels my fingers against the disrupted wood grains. It is jarring. Unnatural. A faint marking, yet against my flesh it feels deep as a mortal wound. I want to recoil, yet I linger. My middle and index fingers, both purple with bruises, trail together down the crooked line, trail back up, then down again. Once familiar with this path, they part at the solitary intersection and memorize this too.

I know what this is. Not well, but confidently enough to withdraw my hand and turn away from it, the symbol etched as permanently into my mind as it is in the wood. Though meaningless to Felle, a cross once represented something monumental. There are still shadows on Felle’s walls that outline crucifixes once hanging, but now discarded. This very room, known to us as the courtroom, was a chapel once. We do not call it that anymore. Just the courtroom. While we may be a governed people, Felle is not ruled by religious debate. Such heresy has become a thing of the past.

I withdraw from the podium, taking seat in the farthest pew. This is where I sat for both trials I witnessed. My fingers toy with the embellishments on the seatback in front of me. They are ornate little designs, serving well to distract my shaky fingers. If I were to drop my hands, reaching below for the pew bottom, I would find small scratches in the wood from where my nails dug in in the past – the smaller indents from when I was nine, and larger ones from the trial of deviant Christopher only three years ago.

“Philip,” I say, my voice wavering with uncertainty. I have never spoken to a sentry before. Though I witness no reaction, I sense he has heard me. There is a shift in the atmosphere. Perhaps the wind, or perhaps Philip pulling his boots across the gravel in anxious anticipation of my next words. It is soft, but my eager ears extend the sound, making it larger than itself.

My fingers are still working the embellishments.

My eyes flick across the courtroom. I do not look behind, towards Philip, but instead scan the entrance to Felle. It is empty. The long hall gives off no sound of approach. Its lights remain dull, awaiting movement to trigger the fluorescent hum within. For now, we are alone.

Against everything I have been taught, I humble myself. The floorboards are made of hardwood to match the furnishings. It is strenuous on the knees, and yet I remain balanced between my toes and knee bones. My eyes flit shut and I compose a prayer. There are proper ways to do this, particular words to say, but I do not know them. I keep my message simple, asking for Oliver’s paranoia to be wrong. I ask this again, over and over, hoping repetition will make my prayer heard. Not that many people are praying these days, but surely I am not the only one bending God’s ear.

Help me keep Oliver safe. Please help me save him. Please-

A cough interrupts my prayer. I am on my feet before I realize it came from Philip. He does not face the courtroom, yet the tension in his frame tells me he knows what I have done. Slowly, my white grip releases from the pewback, fingers sliding down the embellishment one final time as I step into the aisle.

Approaching Philip, I observe his growing discomfort.

“Your name is Philip,” I say. “Family name Randen.”

He says nothing in response. I take a hesitant step forward. This is the closest we have ever been when not passing through the gate. There is a tweak in his cheek muscle, telling me he wishes to respond. I wait for him to succumb to this urge but his moral strength persists. I fill the silence for him. “I had to figure that out for myself.”

This time his whole head shifts, neck tightening in discomfort. “Do you keep many things hidden?” I want to reach out, to touch him. My hand lifts, only slightly from my side, but I stop myself. Betrayal of thought is small, betrayal of practice is worse. Praying took things perhaps too far, but acting on this inclination would be one step beyond. A betrayal of custom. To actually touch Philip – that would be my life lost.

“Why lie for us?” I whisper, so close to the sentry that I to touch would be as easy as a breath. My eyes roam the side of his face, memorizing the bruise patterns that have faded from vibrant color to a dull yellow-brown. I thought it was shocking the day in Rosemary’s office when his gaze met mine, but I am blown away now by the reflection in his offlooking eyes. I can see the horizon of Gratis reflected in them, low rising buildings silhouetted in a deep orange sunset. And then the images shatters, broken by a swift tear falling down Philip’s cheek. Words in a voice I have never heard before escape the sentry’s lips, which flutter only enough to breath out, “Isn’t it beautiful?

I retreat from his side, taking place at a standard distance. Together we watch the rich sunbeams edge lower along the low rooftops, a calmness settling between us. This brief serenity ends with words now echoing throughout the courtroom. “Another day off, I see.”

The voice belongs to Walt. He manages to catch Philip and I off guard, though the sentry is good at hiding it. I notice only a tweak of his neck muscle, slight but present. “Hmm?” I do not part my lips, nor do I turn to face him. His shoes tap gently on the hardwood floor and I wonder how he managed to sneak up on us.

Walt repeats his statement as he stops mere feet behind me. I can almost feel the heat radiating from his skin, inviting me to turn and face him. “Be careful or they’ll charge you for sloth,” he adds.

His hand, warm and gentle, touches my shoulder and I tense at the shock of contact. This passes and I sink comfortably back into him. I turn in place so that we face one another, his hand adjusting so that it rests softly upon my upper arm. Remaining in contact, we step slowly into the courtroom, far enough from Philip to allow some privacy.

There are wooden boards blocking stained glass windows that decorate the courtroom walls. You can still see their designs of heavenly figures from the outside. I admire them every morning as I march off to Eden and every evening as I return. Though boarded most seamlessly, there is one crack in the barrier. One fault in Felle’s armor against the gypsies and dangers of Gratis. Through this crack streams the remaining sunlight, distorted red from the tinted glass. It falls upon Walt’s face.

“Louisa got recommended to Rosemary.”

Walt shakes his head, red hues flicking across his features as the shadows flip between turns. He laughs. “You’re welcome for that.”

My eyes roll and I lace my fingers through his. For the moment, I feel confident that things will all be okay. Oliver will be fine and things with Philip will not come to trial. As brief as this assurance may be, it is appreciated. The possibilities loop again through my tormented mind of what Oliver could be doing right now, and the ways he tortures himself believing in this doomed situation. My head drums as I contemplate for the hundredth time this week what will become of him if this mania progresses.

Walt asks if I want to talk about it. He senses something stirring in me, though he knows nothing of the situation. Part of me cries yes. That way it is all out in the open, yet I tell him no. I have thought long and hard about this, and the conclusions are all the same. Telling Walt would only rope him into things, landing him in the same boat as Ruth, who now looks at me with fear every time the Commander enters the commons or a sentry does a nightly lap through our all. I decide, as we stand before the setting sun, that I must demand a moment of selfish happiness. I have let myself be distracted long enough.

I lean my head against his shoulder so that we stand, side by side, and watch for the sentries to return with each pack of deviants. He is warm against my cheek, smelling of the manor ward. It is a scent familiar to me from my days of volunteering, but beneath that there is something else. Something only I can detect. Like flesh and sweat and the natural smell of a body worked for hours a day, but more specifically, there is the smell of Walt. It is hidden well by the sanitary medical smell, but like cinnamon or cloves, it is intensely familiar a smell. One that I cannot miss.

His fingers squeeze mine, tight, but not so tight as to hurt my bruising. He asked about them the day after my punishing, and accepted my refusal to explain. With his trust and his comfort, all else is forgotten if only for a moment. This is precious time, after all.

I steal a glance. He looks exhausted. Sleep shadows the bags beneath his soft eyes and his hair shines with a day’s worth of grease yet to be washed away in his nightly shower. Long lashes flutter as though he is having a hard time keeping them from shutting completely. No child should be so worn down as him. That is what Walt is – a child. Only sixteen and working sunup to sundown for Felle’s medical team. I am no better – two years his junior with a year of experience in plowmen’s labor under my belt. Being a child in Felle, I suppose, is much different from what people of the past thought childhood meant.

Walt’s lopsided smile persists through all weariness and the injustice of his life, though he seems only half present. The other half is miles away from here and already asleep.

It is odd, but for just a moment things are different between us. They are quasinormal. When it is just the two of us, his scars mean nothing and my deviant markings become me. I recall the spots of white that interrupt my otherwise dark skin. A moment ago they existed around my mouth, framing my lips white, and rested symmetrically across my cheek and beneath my eyes. If I stripped naked, they would have touched the crooks of my elbows, outer regions of my thighs, and about half a dozen other spots across the plains of my body. They would have hurt me to look at, but as I think of them now, they conjure no hatred.

I wish this could go on forever, but the sun is almost fallen. It pours its final lazy rays into the courtroom, hues of gold flitting past the gate where it settles at our feet. Sentry Philip becomes a silhouette before us, and I am reminded of his tears. Whatever it is that haunts this man’s heart, it has saved mine and Oliver’s life. I may never learn why, but I settle comfortably into Walt’s arms and try to forget that his will not be forever. 

This is certainly precious time.

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