Friday, May 29, 2009

Chapter One, Paradise

Chapter One

The day began as I perched in the highest fork of the geroth tree. The dawn bent down to kiss my bare face before spreading in an arc of light across the garden. My hands caressed the silvery bark as the breeze exerted its invisible pressure, rocking me in the arms of the oldest of the sacred trees.

My fingers lingered on the skin of the geroth fruit before the stem released it. The crimson flesh felt warm as a child’s cheek as I burnished it to remove any traces of dust.
Reverently I laid it in the top of the harvest bag across my shoulder.

A sweet smell rose from the ever-blossoming limbs, laden with fruit that had already matured. I hungered, but knew to be patient. I tried to concentrate on the beauty around me, tried to give each geroth one more burst of good feelings to absorb. The fruit would multiply the happiness it recorded, returning to us in each bite the feelings they had absorbed.

These fruit had been sung to, read to, washed, and were ready to set all things right within our bodies. With a full forty pieces of fruit bumping against my ribs, I surveyed again the bright crimson spots evident across the whole family of trees. All the way to the garden walls, the trees we had lovingly grafted from this tree spread their limbs.

My hesitation to climb down and join my sisters was not unusual, but this morning it was different than savoring the first light. Underneath the canopy of the teardrop shaped leaves, someone was waiting for me in confusion. As I hooked my arms around the broad trunk and swung down branch after branch, a poignant mixture of sorrow and shock wafted up. We had to leave the grove right away, before the fruit could be damaged.

“I’ll meet you outside the gate! On the bench!” I yelled down. The verdant leaves obscured my visitor’s form, but as I neared, her influence increased. I thought of my own mortality- how simple it would be to slip, and crash through the branches to the ground. It would be like flying, so free.

“Get a grip, Lara,” I chided myself, as my mind sought for the hurricane windows, trying to bolt them down in time to face the storm raging inside my sister. She plodded away from me with her veiled head bowed. I jumped from the lowest branch and my feet thudded against the earth.

“Refrain thyself from weeping.” The words Mother taught us came unbidden from my mouth as the gravel crunched under my quick steps. I pulled my veil back on and adjusted it so only my eyes were visible. After I jammed my fingers in my gloves, I nudged the heavy wooden gate. The soft click behind me assured me that it had shut as prescribed.

She waited on a low granite bench. Head bowed, small shoulders hunched, keening too softly for me to hear until I sat next to her and pulled her into my arms as I spoke the words of comfort.

“There is hope in thy end.” Ella’s voice joined with mine and she put her gloved hand in my own.
She was going to cry, and we were too close to the orchard.

“Let’s walk, Ella. You’ll feel better.” She swayed without rising as I pulled her arm.

“I remember, Lara. I know what happened to me…”

“Shhh! Don’t speak of it here. We should find Mother; let’s go.” But my tugging was useless and she pulled off her veil, her golden hair on end from the static. My eyes were averted, but the yearning to be understood seeped out of her and my will melted. I slipped my veil off and dropped it at her feet.

“I knew you would help me.” Ella said, and she began freeing her fingers from her gloves one by one. I responded sympathetically, shedding my gloves like a skin that had grown too tight.

“You know I will whether I want to or not,” I whispered.

“Please don’t make me go alone.” Her forlorn voice was my first personal experience with full-blown sorrow; it was too big for her small frame to contain.

“Are you sure? We don’t know what happens when Sleep comes.”

“I don’t know what else to do. I can’t forget; the geroth won’t let me forget anything. I can’t stay here with these memories. You only feel them with me; I see and hear and taste them. It will hurt everyone if I stay.” The despair amplified around me until all I could do was nod my head.

“Mother would want to say good bye.” I tried to dissuade her, but I had never persuaded anyone to do anything and I wasn’t surprised when she shook her head.

“I can’t do it, Lara. She shouldn’t have made me forget. She told me I couldn’t stay unless I let her hide what happened, even from myself.” Ella wiped away another tear and the contamination seeped into me; my eyes began threatening to overflow.

“Hide what? What do you remember?” I leaned away to lessen the influence of her exiled memories, but their tenor still tore me. It would ruin my robe to wipe my eyes on it, but there was nowhere else to put them. My tears absolutely couldn’t be allowed to soak the ground.
Ella ignored my questions and began to recite the psalm I had never heard spoken aloud. I grabbed her hand again to pull her up.

“Let’s go to Mother. I’m sure she can explain,” I pled as I willed her to stay. She squeezed my hand and paused for a moment to kiss my cheek, and I felt her waver in her heart. Maybe she would bottle up the bad memories again, and Mother could make her spirit clean enough for her perfect body to tolerate its presence, but she continued speaking.

“For I have satiated the weary soul, and I have replenished every sorrowful soul. Upon this I awaked, and beheld; and my sleep was sweet unto me.” Her words felt like somber music in my heart. I could feel her sadness draining away and her eyes drooped. She slouched over into my lap and her grip loosened on both my heart and my hand. Only her body remained, untroubled now by the experiences that Ella couldn’t leave hidden. Her heart grew still and cold; unchangeable now as a ripe geroth fruit untouched on the branch. Her bronzed skin was flushed with pink in her cheeks and lips, but she did not move. There was nothing left to tell it to move, and her body was resting now, forever young and empty.

With Ella’s despair diffusing into the air around me, my strength returned and I tended to her Sleeping body. When her arms were folded over her heart and her veil covered her still features, I went to find Mother. Over the high stone wall, I saw leaves dripping off like cherry blossoms from the top branches of the grandmother geroth tree. It appeared the contamination was extensive.

* * * * * * * *

Mother and I sat in separate rocking chairs, facing opposite sides of her living room. The runners made quiet creaks against the terra cotta tiles. The sun was high enough to shine directly in the cupola skylight, and rectangles of light projected onto the solid walls around us.

Mother’s house had especially thick walls and was nestled deeper in the soil than the houses the rest of us shared. Her walls had to be thicker since the new girls stayed here until they were in control of their memories. Unfortunately, sometimes they surprised us by Sleeping, even after many seasons of remaining secure. Like Ella.

“Lara, when did you realize you were not alone in the orchard?” Mother questioned me with an air of latitude, but I noticed she did not say Ella’s name. A hidden past was bulging in the recesses of her heart, and I felt the change clearly as she locked it away again. I wished she had not asked me to remove my veil.

Mother seldom revealed her face, but I remembered with clarity her expression of authority. Her even teeth and rosy apple cheeks remained hidden behind her veil. Only her pale blue eyes, so light they were almost white, were visible. Of course, I did not look.

“I was halfway down the tree and I told her to leave. It didn’t seem that bad it was until we sat on the bench and…well, she couldn’t move then. She had already weakened me; I couldn’t carry her away.”

Mother patted my arm, but her words belied the gesture of comfort. “You have a special responsibility, Lara. You are the only one who can tell if someone is releasing their memories. You know that the trees all went through abscission, don’t you?”

I nodded, mute, as she confirmed my guess that the rest of the leaves and fruit would abort also. It was the only protection the trees had against undesirable feelings that we exposed them to; otherwise they would die from our mistakes, and without them, death would find the door open to us, also.

Mother was very careful with her feelings, so it had taken me many seasons to recognize her muffled fear. But I felt it now in my own spastic heart, and the urge came to hide things on her behalf, but what to conceal I did not know.

“I am sorry. I did the best I could.”

“Of course you did. I simply want to explain why you will not be allowed to enter the main grove anymore. The girl by herself wouldn’t have been able to do much damage. Every leaf and every fruit was shed because you couldn’t stop yourself from commiserating. Of course, you will continue to monitor your sisters, just not in the grove.” Mother continued to swab her hand up and down my arm and her compassion filled me with relief. She still loved me.

“Yes, Mother.” I smiled, relieved of my burden in her benevolent glow.

“Don’t worry about the body or your sisters. Forget about this and be happy.” It was exactly what I wanted to do.

As I donned my veil before leaving Mother’s house, the beds overflowing with flowers and the blue sky reminded me it was still a beautiful day. The expectation of disaster faded as I felt the warmth soaking through my robes. There was a part of me that still believed that nothing bad could happen in the light.

A sibling group passed me, pushing wheelbarrows complete with a rake leaning out of each. I moved to the grass to let them by, regretful again that I hadn’t stopped Ella. They would have a long, sad day in the orchard to gather all of the contaminated flora and many days of toil after
with the damaged trees.

In the next few weeks, they all rotated through the assignment of singing the sacred songs, encouraging each geroth tree to eat the sunlight and drink the consecrated water. But I wasn’t even permitted to carry empty buckets to the sacred caves. Watering the trees had to be done by our own hands, and my hands were too changeable.

Our thoughts avoided the sister who had gone to rest and the barren limbs. After weeping their leaves and fruit to the dust, the trees themselves had fallen into mourning. Everyone labored by singing the sacred songs to coax them out if it. Except me.

No one else understood their reasons. But I felt the subtle whispers of their stiff cellulose hearts and knew Ella had scared them and my reflexive empathy had magnified it. The trees had recorded the sorrow in their rings; their bark sealed it in and we all skirted past the question of when this would happen again.

For now, we were content to watch the flowers unfold and gather the petals as they fell, revealing the swollen nubs that would grow into the geroth fruit. After weeks of songs and prayers being fed to them, the geroth fruit was ripe.

The chapel bell rang on the first harvest day and my sisters all hurried to the thanksgiving service. I hid behind a rhododendron and watched the bouncing stream of bodies flow in. Their excitement was contagious and I wished again for a wall between them and me.

When the last girl had entered and joined the psalm recital, the instructors followed into the sanctuary. I slipped into the narthex unnoticed.

Hiding above them was easier to tolerate, because when they were unaware of me, their feelings were less poignant. I recognized the voice of Mistress Andrea as she began the admonition, though I could only see one of her hands gripping the rostrum from my seat behind the marble column.

“Dear Sisters, I am pleased to stand here today and announce that the winter is over. The geroth trees have again born fruit.”

There was a joyous ripple of nodding heads in the congregation.

“We are grateful, for there is only one alternative to our life in these gardens: Outside.” Fear then rolled across their ranks, pressing low their heads.

“Examine your hearts, for we cannot allow feelings that belong Outside to come into this sacred Home. If they feel anger Outside, in the Home it is buried. We are chosen for a great purpose. We are chosen to rule: first over our selves, then over the Home.”

Mistress Andrea paused, and her sonorous voice echoed against the cold stone. The polished mahogany benches with their thin cushions had all of the majesty of thrones to us in that moment.

“If Outsiders fear strangers, we find comfort in the familiarity of our sisters in the Home. If Outsiders doubt themselves, we revel in the faith of our collective wisdom, in this, our beloved Home.”

The effect on the masses below me was like music too beautiful to ignore, and I realized I was standing, swaying to the rhythm of her words and the pitch of their feelings.

“If we forget what we have been blessed with, we will be the same as the Outsiders, and the Home will die.” A gasp rose up from my sisters and my knees collapsed, dropping me onto the lonely bench I had chosen.

The stone walls were too thick to let our dismay reach the geroth orchard, though. Andrea would calm us in a moment. She was careful to always re-cover raw emotions before releasing us.

“The geroth requires our hope as surely as it requires sunlight and soil.” This was better; hope was a reassuring topic, budding in them, then blossoming in me.

“We must choose to live up to the promises we have been given. It is simple to love. It is simple to care. It is simple to hope. If we do these things we cannot fail, and the Home will remain a paradise forever. Disease will not infest the Home and war will not raise its dragon’s head. The Home will be safe if we choose it to be so. Do not be the one that forces the trees into abscission. You must seek help from your instructors if you suspect you are a danger to the Home. If you wonder, then it is time to talk to Mother.” Andrea spoke further of the patience of the trees, forgiving us the contamination of our thoughts again and again. We all trembled with eagerness, ready to taste the geroth once more and refresh our perfect existence.

I crept out as Mother gave the closing prayer. Ella had taught me a permanent lesson, and I was determined to keep us all safe. I would stay away from my sisters, however it hurt me to feel the separation.

In the empty dining hall I plucked a geroth off of the plate nearest the door and was back up the ramp as my sisters were just blinking in the sun at the chapel doors. I hurried out of their sight.
It’s not that I wanted to be aloof, but how many times could I nod in complete agreement? Perhaps they grew bored of my conversation. I had.

The path I took wound around the high stone wall of the main orchards and led me to my second favorite tree; a loblolly pine with low branches that weren’t too sticky. I climbed its evenly spaced limbs to picnic alone, careful to look away from the distant bench that Ella had gone to sleep on. Andrea’s admonition had made it clear that I must stop myself from wondering about Ella’s reasons for choosing sleep.

When Andrea had spoken of choice, she had meant everyone but me. My choices were made by those around me. If Mother wanted me to garden with her, then I would get my work gloves.
Not because she would fuss, but because in my deepest heart I was reluctant to disappoint her.

Being so malleable to others emotions had not been harmful since my sisters only wanted varying goodness. But what if I was ever around people that were not so perfect? The events with Ella had scared us all, and I looked away from our houses to the edge of the Home.

All around the borders, underground rivers slumbered. They wound past us in beds of limestone, wakened only where the rock had crumbled away to expose their sacred waters. It was forbidden to enter the caves; Mother told us how dangerous these pits into the underworld were. Death stalked Outside, and Outside began in the caves.

I twirled a pine needle between my fingers and inhaled the scent that transferred to my gloves, then tossed it into the air to watch it fall. Mother was expecting me, and I reluctantly began the climb down, rubbing the residue of sap from my gloves once on the ground.

The damaged pine needle was easily to locate on the bare ground, and I carried it back to bury with the other refuse my sisters had gathered today.

* * * * * * *

In Mother’s quiet sitting room, the flickering light of the TV was normal in the evenings. But tonight I waited in the darkness for her to come in and start the program. Most girls eventually graduated from Outside Education, but Mother was trying to cure me. I just wished I could leave my veil on.

Her walk was nearly silent, and I startled when she sat and opened her notebook. Her white veils revealed only her eyes, but I read too much in them and turned from her suffocating compassion to the empty wall. I wouldn’t look at the TV unless she asked me to.

“Lara, you seem reluctant to be here.”

“I don’t want to go Outside and I don’t have any memories. This isn’t necessary.” I didn’t want to pout, but I knew what was coming and it troubled me. My feelings had abandoned me too consistently to be trusted.

“This isn’t about leaving, it’s about control,” Mother instructed me and I paid attention, just like she wanted.

“I am in control. I don’t cry; I take turns; I forgive. I do as well as anyone in my sibling group.” My insistence did not sway her.

“You do as well as them because they are in control of you.” Her folded hands rested in her lap. Though it would have comforted me to have her rise to give me a hug, I was glad that she didn’t.
“That’s not true! I only do what I want to do!”

“Lara, I know you better than that. Let me remind you of how it has always been: after you left my house and became a part of your sibling group, your mistress called me for help. You were standing between two of your sisters, not moving. Meredith had brought her new jump rope and Felicia brought a tea set to play hour. They were trying to convince each other what to do first, but your head turned from one to the other with every new attempt they made. You had lost yourself, and you do it still.” She began rocking again.

“I remember.” Only when mother had scooped me up in her arms and carried me away could I reconnect with my wish: to sit in the topmost branches of the geroth and feel only the wind swaying me.

“You feel complete empathy. I can help you retain that blessing, but you need to put a space between feeling and acting, a space where you decide. You finished Outside Education long ago, but you will benefit by coming every evening to watch the news with me.”

“I’m safe. There’s nothing wrong inside me.”

“Nothing stays inside you long enough to be wrong, Lara. I have tried to give you permanence, but happiness doesn’t seem to stick. Turn on the TV.”

My hand shook as I pressed the button and the screen lit up the dark room.

Her rocking chair creaked as she scribbled notes. The peaceful scene was deceiving, though. What we watched was not calming at all.

A polished woman with even peach skin tones told us of a toddler in the hospital, burns covering eighty-five percent of his body because she had wet her pants. The man seated beside the woman at the desk nodded soberly.

Mother’s pen scurried across the paper, her eagerness intruded on my revulsion, and I marveled that she could feel so.

On the TV, the man adjusted his tie, frowned slightly, and then introduced us to a man who had shot his girlfriend. The children were in protective custody. Even with the television separating us, bestial hatred had streamed out of his chipped and discolored teeth, ‘She was cheating! Why else would she duck my call? Answer me that!’ Story followed story, and the torture went on until something broke inside me and the tears poured out.

Mother pressed the button and the screen went dark. I observed the percolating feelings wash through me, but despite my efforts to gather the fear and lock it away my tears kept falling.

My own memories of Mother brushing my hair were not strong enough to calm me, nor were the recalled squeals of the younger girls excited over a fresh set of sidewalk chalks. These strangers’ videotaped experiences were more potent than my own life.

“I can’t…stop, Mother. I can’t bear it!” I cried. She knelt beside me, stroking my hair. “What did he mean, ‘cheated on me?’ None of it makes sense!”

Mother whispered to me as she had when I was a newcomer, “Don’t worry about that, Lara. It’s okay. You don’t have to cry anymore. It’s over. You can let it go.” Her breath blew some stray hairs lightly against my cheek, and I almost giggled. I sat up, suddenly untroubled.

“Thank you. That is much better.” I smiled and meant it.

“We’ll try again tomorrow. Come back after chores.” Mother closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. Her eyes flitted to her notebook, but when I followed them with my own she shut it very deliberately. She was ready for me to leave, so I put my veil back on.

I let myself out, but didn’t go straight to my building.

My solitary walk led me around the perimeter of the houses, and then I left the paths completely when a pair of sisters came strolling my way. Mother had dissipated my wretchedness, but I was still reluctant to be around anyone. As I walked in solitude, I wished there were a way I could be autonomous. It wasn’t fair that I connected with my sisters so completely, and they never felt the same unity with my feelings. I couldn’t figure a way out of it.
When I finally got back to my front door, the atmosphere was calm. Many of my sisters must already be asleep, but I wished they were all asleep. I was tired of ‘listening’ to them.

The problem was I could not tell my own impulses and motivations from theirs. I would have to violate every feeling I had to keep them out.

A whole lifetime of defiance was surely out of the question, but maybe I could do things that wouldn’t occur to them. A small test would be good. If it was too painful, I could always stop.

So, on my way to the showers, I grabbed Cleo’s hairbrush from the counter and slid it across the open room to the bunk beds. I felt my cheeks lifting, and my chest seemed to swell with warmth and happiness. I looked around, but no one else seemed particularly happy, just content. I laughed, surprised at how good it felt to decide for myself. I hurried in the adjoining room to shower before anyone had any strong feelings that would influence me again.

A new set of robes and a fresh veil waited for me in the stacks of clean laundry outside the steamy bathroom, and I snagged them and locked myself in a small shower room. The latched door and the soothing water were very insulating.

I didn’t want to continue in Outside Education. It seemed unnecessary to fill me with scenes of so much violence. What if it backfired and I had to leave the Home? What if I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who were unfortunate enough to live Outside? I knew I couldn’t save them; it was difficult for Mother to rescue the girls she did and it took her a lot of effort to make them clean enough to be near the geroth.

Maybe I could fight. It couldn’t be bad to feel so giddy. Surely it wouldn’t hurt the geroth or the Home if defiance felt good.

My allotment of warm water ran out and I dried off and dressed in clean robes. Then I deliberately passed the hamper on my way back through the bathroom. I reached my bunk and dropped my dirty clothes on the rug. My bunkmate Susan frowned, but some of our sisters were fussing about something, and we both turned to see.

Cleo was asking if anyone had seen her hairbrush, and was irritated that someone had moved it. Cindi was snickering, and across the room Jennifer was rubbing her foot, pained because someone had thoughtlessly left a hairbrush on the ground.

My laughter bubbled out through my veil, and I tried to calm myself long enough to grab a pillow and a flat sheet, and left their puzzlement. I would be free of their feelings eventually. This would work.

That night I settled outside the door that led down into Mother’s house, concealed in the shrubbery beside the walk. The night air was temperate as always, and the fragrance from the white jasmine calmed me. It was more restful by far than sleeping in the dormitory with the ever-placid dreams of thirty-nine other sleepers swirling around me. My cheeks hurt from smiling as I drifted.

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