Tuesday, 16 August 2011
Too Late for Hallelujah
© 2011 by the author
The trucks rumbling down the street invaded Edwin White’s sleep, his dream merging with the sound outside and coalescing into a nightmare. He came to with a start. For a second Edwin did not know if he was awake or asleep. He clutched the blanket and pulled it up to his chin as if to protect his body. He lay there warily alert, tracking the movement of the convoy as it neared his block. His breath caught in his throat, and his heart raced. Sweat beaded his forehead.
As he had grown older, almost any noise awakened him. Others might sleep through a child crying or footsteps in the hallway outside, but not Edwin. Even the sound of someone coughing or a toilet flushing in a nearby apartment woke him. Traffic during the curfew roused everyone, however. And these particular drivers made no attempt to creep stealthily down the street. They wanted to be heard. The trucks’ transmissions screeched shrilly during the frequent changes of gear, and the treads of their oversized tires hummed as they tore at the asphalt paving. No one who heard them needed to lift the edge of the curtain and peek out the window to see who was driving past that early in the morning. Nor did anyone want to attract their attention by standing at a window. It was safest to present a façade of innocent slumbers unperturbed by night noises.
Edwin lay tensely in bed, afraid to move lest he attract attention to himself even through the walls shielding him from the eyes of those passers-by. He held his breath, waiting for the squeal of brakes and the familiar sequence of terror. The shouts of the officers propelling the Guardians from the trucks and forming them into squads, the cadenced tramp of their boots against the ground, their chanting as they invaded one of the apartment towers, the screams of those arrested, and then the sudden silence as the Guardians clubbed them into unconsciousness. Not until he heard the Guardians march noisily back to their trucks and race off with their harvest of prisoners for the day would he be able to ease himself down into his bed again and try to find sleep for what remained of the night. Edwin wondered if everyone in the surrounding apartment blocks was praying, as he was, not me, please, God, not me, let it be someone else.
His fingers closed around the “quietus” pill in the dish atop the nightstand. He had stolen it years before from the pharmacy of the hospital in which he had worked before he retired. An order had come down to dispense the pill for a terminally ill patient in one of the private wards. Only the rich and the powerful could afford such drugs. They were not available to ordinary patients. Of course, no one called them quietus pills. The fiction was that they were simply strong sedatives used to alleviate the sufferings of those in extreme pain, a kindness in the final hours of life. But everyone knew that they brought instantaneous death, apparently without pain. Within seconds, the heart stopped and breathing ceased.
But by the time Edwin had filled out the necessary paperwork, had it signed by his supervisor and the attending physicians, presented the papers to the guards at the locked storeroom, waited for them to check and stamp the forms, retrieved the drug from the safe under their watchful eyes, and delivered the pill to the patient’s room, she had already died. The regulations called for unused drugs to be destroyed. He had completed the proper forms, but instead of putting it with the other pills to be incinerated, he substituted a similar looking capsule to keep the count accurate. The technician who operated the incinerator was lazy and never bothered to check each pill against the list the pharmacists gave him. He simply counted them to make sure the totals matched. To make sure that he paid even less attention, Edwin distracted him with chatter about the upcoming baseball season. Edwin wrapped the pill in plastic film and carried it away with the remains of his lunch. He deliberately exited the building at the end of his shift, along with hundreds of other workers, instead of waiting for the crush to clear. The guards at the exit made him turn his pockets and cuffs out and patted him down. They opened his lunchbox and glanced inside, but Edwin was relying on their reluctance to soil their hands by poking through half-eaten food. He was successful. The guard slammed the lid of his lunch box shut and handed it back to him. He waved Edwin away and impatiently motioned for the next person in the queue to step forward.
Now that he was retired, Edwin always kept the quietus pill on his person during the day and beside his bed at night. The rubbery softness of the capsule reassured him. If ever the Guardians came in the night for him, he would crush the pill between his teeth as soon as he heard the first thuds of the ram against his door. He would be dead before they found him. He thought he was safe, however. He had followed all the rules, conformed in every way demanded. The state had no reason to notice him and make an example of him, but then the state needed no reason. Some days they just needed a face for the evening news broadcasts or a subject for the preachers’ sermons. The state always had its case prepared.
But he thought himself an unlikely candidate now that he was 76 and had officially reached the status of senior citizen. He was safe at least until his savings ran out or until he had a serious illness. That really was why he had the pill. Better to die at the time of his own choosing rather than wait for the state to confiscate his life and charge him with becoming a public burden. Of course, the state would see his suicide as a crime. For the state, the good citizen gave his life willingly to the state to help others see the truth. But he would be past punishment.
The convoy continued down the street, the sound gradually growing more and more distant. Then Edwin remembered. It was the first Monday of the month. He often lost track of the date since he had reached retirement age at the end of the previous year. Today was the day of the citizens’ festival at the stadium. There would be no arrests today.
The trucks were transporting the participants in the event. There were never less than one hundred and often many times more. He wondered if he should attend. Everyone was expected to play a part in the monthly festivals two or three times each year. He hadn’t been since July, and a fourth consecutive absence might be noticed. He no longer had the excuse of work for missing them. The forecast predicted mild weather, probably the last of the year for the festival. If he attended today’s, he could use the pretexts of his age and the colder weather to justify skipping another three or four months and not go again until the spring.
The stadium sat over two hundred thousand people, about one-fifth of the adult population of the city. The chances of his being chosen as a juror or as the Messenger were quite small. He always clung—secretly—to that small point. It would not do to show less than enthusiastic hope in public that one might be chosen and disappointment when one was not. But, to his relief, he had never been among those selected in the fifty-eight years since he had become eligible. He had attended almost two hundred festivals, but he had never been one of those called to play a more active role in them. He couldn’t have done that, he knew. He had spent his life feigning a commitment to the state. Survival depended on outward conformity and lip service. Luckily he had never been required to demonstrate his willingness to be a “good citizen” more actively or had to test his resolve never to be more than a passive participant in a festival.
When the sirens sounded to indicate that curfew had ended, he switched on the light beside his bed. He knew that if he looked out the window now, he would see hundreds of lights being turned on. He dressed quickly and then drew back the curtains. Good citizens did not hide behind curtains. They had no secrets from the neighbors. As he ate his breakfast at the table in front of the window, he planned his day’s activities. Should he do his shopping before or after the festival? The stores opened at 7:00 and he wouldn’t have to be at the stadium until around 10:30. Perhaps he should wait until after the ceremony. There was always tomorrow in any case. It was the beginning of the month, plenty of time to spend his assigned quota. It was best to arrive at the festival early—that was viewed as enthusiasm.
He left his apartment at 9:00 and caught a bus. It had, he realized immediately, been wise to skip the shopping and leave so early. Even three hours before the start of the festival, the streets leading to the stadium were already jammed. All the seats were taken, and the aisle of the bus was packed. A child perched on her knees faced the window, watching the scene outside slide past. The young man seated next to the aisle picked her up and moved over, nodding at Edwin as he did so. Edwin maneuvered his body gratefully past the other standees and into the seat the young man had vacated. “Thank you. Your daughter? What a pretty child.”
“You’re welcome,” said the young man. “Say ‘thank you’ to the man, Susan.”
The child glared at Edwin and struggled in the young man’s arms. “Let me go, Daddy. I wanna sit by myself.” She kicked at Edwin’s leg with one of her feet and elbowed him in the chest.
“Now, behave yourself, Susan, or I’ll take you back to school and Daddy will go to the festival alone.” The man grabbed the child’s foot and pulled it back. He glanced apologetically toward Edwin. “This is her first festival. She’s very excited. I arranged for her to take a day off from school. She’s going to make a report to her class tomorrow and tell them all about what happens today. Aren’t you, Susan?” He smiled at the child. When he received no response from his daughter, he turned back to Edwin. “They have had several lessons on attending festivals, and the school is encouraging parents to take their children so that they can experience one firsthand and practice what they have learned.” He put his arms tightly around the squirming child and held her firmly. “And the first lesson, Susan, is that we behave. Bad children are not allowed to sit in the stands and watch the festival. They have to take part and learn their lesson in another way.”
The threat worked. The child ceased her struggles and turned her attention back to the street, pointedly ignoring both her father and Edwin. There was much to attract her notice. The closer the bus got to the stadium, the more crowded the sidewalks became. Throngs of people dressed in the national colors of white and gold and waving miniature flags spilled out into the street. The crowd-controllers tried to keep a path open for traffic, but even they were infected with the festive mood of the crowd and grew tolerant of jaywalking and other minor offenses.
The young man offered Edwin the support of an arm when they reached the bus stop and began the trek up the hill to the stadium. He accepted with thanks. As the crowd neared the entrance gates, the fences and barricades forced the throng into orderly lines. A group of young people in the queue ahead of Edwin had painted their faces and hands white and gold. One of them was exclaiming, “Today’s my turn. I woke up this morning feeling lucky. I just know I’m going to be picked to be the Messenger.” Her companions laughed and shouted her down. “Not a chance, Sarah.” “You should be so lucky.” The line became more subdued as it neared the entrance, each person holding out his or her identity card to be scanned and receiving a ticket with a seat assignment in return.
Edwin was relieved to find that his seat was in one of the lower tiers. His knees would have protested if he had had to climb to the upper seats. He thanked the young man for his help and waved good-bye to the daughter, who scowled at him and turned away. Their seats were in the section reserved for those with small children. The young man wished him good luck on being chosen as a juror or the Messenger—because he was with his daughter and needed to watch her, he was not eligible for selection. Edwin almost wished that he had a grandchild to take to festivals so that he did not risk being conscripted into serving. The young man’s good fortune, Edwin noted, was mixed, however. The child was already pulling her father by the hand toward the concession stands and pestering him to buy her a souvenir doll dressed in a hooded black robe. The man won’t get much enjoyment from today’s festival, thought Edwin. The daughter had better learn to behave or she will end up becoming a participant in a festival as the father had threatened.
The stadium was filling rapidly, and Edwin’s progress toward his seat was slow. Luckily it was three seats in from the aisle, and he only had to edge past two people to reach it. Even more fortunate, the seats further in were already filled. With any luck no one would step on his toes getting in or out. And he wasn’t too far from an exit gate. He should be among the first to leave after the festival ended and might even catch one of the first buses. The last time, he had waited over two hours in the bus queue.
The noise level rose as the start of the ceremony drew closer. A person sitting two rows behind Edwin had brought an air horn and let it off every few minutes to the encouragement of his companions. When the cheerleaders rushed onto the central platform waving white and gold pompoms, the crowd exploded. The stadium became a moving sea of flags and banners, and the cheers grew deafening as the crowd rose to its feet and sang the anthem of the fighters of the Second Revolutionary War. Its rousing chorus with its repeated refrain of “Death to the . . .” and its long list of outlawed groups was particularly popular at these events. The song ended with a sustained cheer from the crowd.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our leader for this joyous occasion,” the stadium announcer’s voice cut through all the noise, bringing expectant silence. “The Reverend Todd Heath.” The crowd erupted in cheers again as Heath came into view on the top tier of the platform. Heath raised his hands above his head and waved. The platform on which he stood rotated slowly to allow him to acknowledge the applause coming at him from all sides.
The supersize television screens suspended above the platform simultaneously displayed his image. The wind ruffled his silver hair. His locks were still abundant despite his seventy-plus years. His white teeth shone against his sun-bronzed skin. His blue eyes twinkled in his guileless face. “God blessed me with looks and health,” he was fond of saying. “And He has further blessed me with abundant opportunities to use them to His greater glory.”
Heath motioned for the crowd to be quiet. They responded by applauding and cheering even more loudly. Heath smiled helplessly at someone off screen and shrugged his shoulders. He raised his arms again and waved to the crowd. After a minute, he began speaking. His amplified voice echoed throughout the stadium. “Let us pray.” All sound in the stadium ceased instantly. Everyone stood silent, hands clasped before their chests, their heads bowed, their eyes tightly shut.
“O Lord, who guides us in the path of righteousness, bless our endeavors today and watch over us as we celebrate Thy victories. Bless our President-for-Life and support her in her holy work of cleansing our nation of sinners and leading us to Thee. Bless those who help her. Bless the members of the Revolutionary Army and lead them to victory in their wars against the remnants of the heathen states in the west and the northeast still resisting Thy goodness. Bless the Guardians and help them root out the sinners in our midst and deliver them to Thy justice. Give us this day the wisdom to judge the wicked brought before us. Lend us the strength of Thy mighty arms so that we can render the punishments they have earned. . . .”
Reverend Heath continued praying for another fifteen minutes. Edwin felt someone move almost noiselessly down the aisle near him. Without opening his eyes, he knew that it was a Guardian watching the crowd for any sign of restlessness or disrespect. The Guardian and his colleagues would not interrupt the prayer, but they would record the seat number of anyone they found wanting. The misdemeanor would be entered on that person’s record and followed up by a visit from the local warden, if not a member of the Guard.
With one voice, the crowd echoed Heath’s closing “amen.” There was a loud rustle as everyone sat down. Hats were replaced on heads, programs were consulted, water bottles were pulled out, and drinks and snacks were hurriedly purchased from the hawkers who suddenly swarmed the aisles. Someone seated further down Edwin’s row bought four bags of peanuts, and the money and then the bags were handed from person to person. The bags were still warm from the roasted peanuts as Edwin passed them on.
Heath let the crowd settle in for a few moments before continuing. “And now, we will select the jury for today. I am pleased to announce that Patriot Motors on Avenue of the Revolutionary Martyrs in Park Woods is giving each member of the jury a new car to celebrate their work here today. Patriot Motors, where every day is a sales day, is proud to sell only cars manufactured solely with components made in this nation. It guarantees that all parts are made by your fellow citizens for you. Please join me in giving a big round of applause for Mr. Robert Wilson, President of Patriot Motors.”
Beside the jury box, a man stood up and waved to the crowd to acknowledge the applause. The television screens briefly showed his face before cutting back to Reverend Heath.
“Each member of the jury will also receive a gift certificate worth 500 Revolutionary Dollars from NewMart, your one-stop center for all your shopping needs. If you can’t find it at NewMart, you can’t find it anywhere. NewMart guarantees that everything it sells is made here in the home of democracy and freedom by certified citizens just for you. Ladies and gentlemen, remember to support NewMart the next time you go shopping. And now, Citizens, the selection of the jury. The names will be chosen at random by the stadium computer. If your name is called, please identify yourself to the nearest Guardian, who will escort you to the jury box, where Mr. Wilson will hand you the keys to your new car. Our jury bailiff for today is Angela Carson, this year’s student association president and head cheerleader at Holy Tabernacle High School. After Holy Tabernacle’s football team lost its first two games this year, Angela knew that the Lord must be angry with the school. Thanks to her investigations, the Guardians were able to arrest a group of teachers and students who were polluting the school with foul practices. The Lord showed his pleasure the next Friday by granting Holy Tabernacle’s football team a victory. Please join me in welcoming Angela, a model for young women everywhere.”
A teenage girl bounded up the steps leading to the platform. Her long blond hair was swept back into a ponytail. She wore a white, long-sleeved blouse, a gold skirt that fell below her knees, white knee socks, and gold tennis shoes. To celebrate the day’s events, she had tied a gold and white ribbon around her ponytail and wore a belt in the same colors. The maiden’s monitor suspended from a gold chain around her neck glowed white to indicate her continued purity of mind and body.
Heath advanced to meet her, microphone in hand. Angela smiled, revealing a perfect row of straight, white teeth. “Oh, I’m so honored to meet you.” The words spilled out in a high-pitched squeal, magnified a hundred times over by the loudspeakers. Angela giggled, “And nervous too.”
“No need to feel nervous, Angela. Everyone here is rooting for you today. Well, not everyone. There are a few people who aren’t happy to be here, but we’ll deal with them later.” Heath grinned and winked knowingly at the cameras. The crowd exploded in raucous laughter, mixed with cheers for Angela and a few jeers for those to be dealt with later.
“How do you feel today, young lady?”
“Well, I’m like so honored to have been chosen. It’s a great responsibility. But I know that it’s not me who is choosing today’s jury. I am but a vessel for that power that is mightier than all of us and who has blessed this great nation with a leader who can restore His dominion on earth. The Lord is choosing the jury today. I am only His humble servant.” Angela’s face shone with fervor.
“Praise the Lord,” shouted Heath. The audience rose to its feet, and the cheerleaders led the crowd in repeating his remark. The stadium rang with their cries. On stage, Heath escorted Angela to a large display board, with a prominent red button. His voice could not be heard over the noise of the crowd, but the television screens showed him pointing to the button and apparently explaining her duties to Angela. A signal was given, and the cheerleaders turned their backs to the crowd and faced the center platform.
Heath lowered the pitch of his voice and spoke in a deep dramatic tone. “And now, Angela, if you would choose the first juror.”
Angela smiled at Heath, closed her eyes briefly as she mouthed a few words of prayer, and then pushed the red button. Above her a series of nine-digit numbers sped across the television screens. The machine stopped first on the right-most digit, and then a few seconds later on the second digit. One by one the numbers were filled in until the screen was still. A name flashed on the screen.
Heath announced the name jubilantly. “The first juror is Michele Brookman. Come on down, Michele.”
A television camera zeroed in the face of a middle-aged woman. She held her hands to her cheeks, and her mouth gaped open in surprise. Her companions patted her on the back in congratulation. The man sitting beside her hugged and kissed her. A Guardian came down the aisle and motioned for the others sitting in the row to move aside so that Michele could reach the aisle. She waved to the crowd and rushed down the steps as the crowd applauded. When she reached the jury box, the president of Patriot Motors handed her the keys to her new car.
“And how do you feel, Michele?” Heath motioned for an aide to hold a microphone close to her mouth.
“I’m so honored. I’ve always prayed for this opportunity to serve the Lord and our president. It’s a dream come true for me.”
“The Lord and the nation are depending on you, Michele. Don’t fail us.”
“You can count on me to do my duty, Reverend Heath. I won’t falter.”
“Take your seat, Michele Brookman. This is your lucky day.” Heath spread his right arm expansively and motioned the woman to sit. Brookman smiled and waved at the crowd again. Heath waited until the applause for her was dying before speaking again. “And now, Angela, the second name.”
The same ceremony was repeated eleven times. Each juror selected outdid those selected earlier in fervent protestations of a desire to serve. When all twelve members of the jury were seated, Heath addressed the crowd again. Edwin let his thoughts drift. Heath would talk for half an hour on the virtues of the state, the importance of vigilance, and the duties of good citizens to practice goodness and watch their neighbors for signs of weakness or backsliding. Weaknesses were to be reported to the local warden, backsliding to the Guardians’ special hotline. Even though monetary rewards were given for such reports, the good citizen cherished not the money but the satisfaction of working to promote goodness. It was a familiar message, one that everyone heard dozens of times a month, if not daily. Edwin kept half an ear cocked to respond at appropriate times with applause and other expressions of enthusiasm. When he heard Heath call for everyone to stand and pray for the safety and well-being of the President-for-Life, he knew that the preacher had reached the end of his sermon.
Everyone remained standing with head bowed until the playing of the national anthem finished. Edwin didn’t recognize the singer, but, as he reminded himself, he no longer kept up with popular music. To judge from the enthusiastic cheers from the younger members of the audience, the singer was well known.
“And now, Citizens, are we ready to rumble?” Loud cheers and whistles greeted Heath’s question. No one knew why, but it was the traditional signal for the start of the second half of the festival. Led by the cheerleaders, the crowd began shouting “Bring them to judgment. Bring them to judgment.” For several minutes the demands grew louder and louder.
When everyone in the audience was standing and shaking both fists in the air, Heath signaled for silence. “And now, Citizens, the moment we have all been waiting for.” A long drumroll began as the picture on the screens above the platform focused on one end of the stadium where two uniformed attendants were opening a gate. For a minute all that was visible was a gaping black hole. Then a squadron of Guardians marched out and formed two rows stretching from the gate to the central platform. When they were all in place, they turned as one and faced one another across the space between the rows.
As Heath announced “Citizens, the first group comes to judgment,” a line of people began entering the stadium. A pair of Guardians escorted each of them, holding them tightly by their arms. Their hands were cuffed behind their backs, and each wore a black robe with a black hood over their head. “Today the first group consists of three persons accused of manslaughter and five of murder.”
The Guardians led each person in the group to one of the hundreds of poles that suddenly rose from the stadium floor and refastened the handcuffs so that the person was chained tightly to a pole. The crowd gasped in anticipation as the number of poles sunk in. Today’s festival promised to be special.
“Praise the Lord,” someone in the row behind Edwin said. “There must be four or five hundred participants today.”
“I knew this would be a good day to attend,” said someone else. “The Messenger’s reward will be enormous. I hope I get selected.”
“Members of the jury, what say you,” Heath intoned, “Guilty or not guilty?”
“Guilty,” shouted each member of the jury.
The crowd clapped politely. Only a few whistled or cheered. The person sitting to Edwin’s left yawned. Her elbow hit his arm as she covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh, pardon me. I didn’t get enough sleep last night, I was so excited about today’s festival.” She gestured at the group of eight murderers. “I’ve heard that they’re thinking of eliminating this group from the festival. I hope they do. This is so boring.”
“It’s supposed to make us appreciate what comes later,” Edwin smiled sympathetically and mouthed the usual rationale for including those who had taken or attempted to take a life. “But you’re right. This isn’t the most exciting bit. Still, they deprived the Republic of the services of another person. And for that they should be here.”
“I suppose so,” said the woman. “But it will never be my favorite part of the festival. I guess I’m just impatient for the morals segment today. I reported the couple who lives next door. They were behaving inappropriately in public. Kissing and pawing at each other. They couldn’t keep their hands to themselves, and with the drapes open so that anyone looking in their windows could see them. Luckily they were only married a few months ago, so they don’t have any children. I think it’s terrible when the children have to suffer for their parents’ mistakes.”
“They were arrested?”
“Oh, yes, three weeks ago. They didn’t return, and the block warden told me that their unit has been reassigned. So I’m hoping they will be here today, and I can collect the reward. Of course, I didn’t turn them in because of the reward. We have to protect ourselves from immorality. We all know where tolerance of sinners led the last time.”
Edwin nodded to show that he was listening. His eyes were on the television screens. Down on the field, the technicians had finished their preparations. As each of the eight criminals was wired, a Guardian pulled the hood off exposing the criminal to public view. The television cameras zoomed in on the faces one by one. As it did so, the person’s name and address and the crime of which he or she had been found guilty appeared at the bottom of the screen. Five of them waited with the usual resignation of the condemned. The faces were slack and betrayed no emotion. Their bodies slumped forward away from the poles to which they were chained. A young woman, a mother whose child had drowned while she was occupied elsewhere, was crying and pleading for mercy. A man struggled against his chains and began jeering at the Reverend Heath. A Guardian rushed over and hit him with the butt of his rifle, knocking him unconscious. The eighth person, an elderly woman, appeared to have fainted. She had attempted suicide upon learning that she had cancer and that her medical benefits had run out. Luckily she had been found and resuscitated. The state expected its citizens to show forbearance and acceptance of their fate and not attempt to short-circuit their eventual demise.
“No abortionists today,” said the woman beside him. “There must be none left. Are the women still included in the morals group?” She sounded disappointed.
“I think so,” said Edwin. “They were at the last festival I attended.”
Heath’s face filled the screens again. “And now, Citizens, the second group comes to judgment.”
Down on the field, the cheerleading squads lined up on either side of the rows of Guardians. “Make ’em pay. Make ’em pay,” they began to chant. As the doors in the stadium walls swung open and the line of those accused of economic crimes began to emerge, the crowd joined in the chant. The organist began tapping out the rhythm of “Make ’em pay” on his instrument. The crowd clapped in time, and the chants grew louder and louder. The cheerleaders began to form pyramids. Each time one of the cheerleaders completed a successful vault on to the shoulders of her fellow team members, the crowd cheered.
The number of criminals in the second group was much larger. It took nearly half an hour for all of them to be paraded onto the field and then bound to the stakes. By the time the last criminal had been dealt with, the stadium was rocking with trumpet blasts and shouts. The cheerleaders led an even more tumultuous round of “Make ’em pay.”
Heath let the chant continue for several minutes before motioning for silence. “Members of the jury, what say you? Guilty or not guilty?”
The answers of the jury were drowned out by the shouts of the crowd demanding punishment. The television screens displayed the statistics. The twelve jurors had found all 132 of those accused of economic crimes guilty. There were 54 cases of theft, 28 cases of work sabotage, and 40 cases of medical or welfare claims exceeding the lifetime allotment. The Guardians quickly wired each of them. The crowd was growing impatient for the third group to be led out.
Even before the Guardians were finished, Heath motioned for silence. “And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The third group comes to judgment.” Heath paused to build suspense. The crowd waited breathlessly. When Heath was satisfied that the moment was right, he said, “Today we have 33 members of outlawed political parties, including a coven of 22 Democrats discovered in East Ferndale; 14 environmentalists; 6 proponents of ‘evil’ution; 23 feminists and witches; 42 unpatriotic wretches who expressed discontent with our government and the President-for-Life; 18 heathens and nonbelievers; and 143 people accused of improper sexual behavior, including 8 couples accused of public immorality, 10 couples who committed adultery, 11 women who sought to use birth control, and a shocking 96 perverts. I refused to sully my mouth or your ears with the crimes of which those 96 are guilty. I can only add that it is thanks to the efforts of Angela Carson that 89 of those in this group were uncovered at Holy Tabernacle High School and their godless practices brought to an end.”
Heath paused between each group to give the crowd time to hiss and boo. Heath’s announcement of the size of the last group momentarily stunned the crowd into silence. The number of perverts was unusually large. Most of these had supposedly been removed from the body politic at the close of the War of the Second Revolution.
“I know that most of you,” Heath continued over the noise of the crowd, “will be shocked at the young age of many of these criminals in the last group. You may be inclined to pity. Do not be. We must defend ourselves against this unspeakable practice and rid ourselves of those among us who would revive it. Have no pity. Show them no mercy.”
Before he had finished speaking, half the crowd was on its feet, jeering and shouting for punishment of the offenders. A chant of “Stone them, stone them” started in the section of the stadium reserved for the families of the accused and quickly spread around the amphitheater.
Heath motioned for silence. “What say you, members of the jury? Guilty or not guilty?”
The jury rose as one and cried out “Guilty.” Applause and cheers filled the stadium as everyone stood up. The screens above the platform zoomed in on the face of a boy, one of those convicted of perversion. He was shuddering so uncontrollably that the pole he was attached to was shaking. He looked up and watched as the Guardians positioned a large stone ball above his head. It was held in place by a guide wire secured to a crossbar. The bottom end of the wire was attached to the chain at the back of his neck. As tears rolled down his face, the crowd began to laugh and point at him.
“He can’t be more than twelve or thirteen,” thought Edwin. “What could someone that young do that was perverted? What did he do to catch that Angela’s attention? Eighty-nine people—she’ll be set up for life with all the reward money she’s earning today.”
The jeers of the crowed continued as the Guardians wired the rest of the third group and suspended a large stone above each person convicted of perversion or adultery. As the last of the Guardians moved away, however, the crowd suddenly became silent.
“And now, Citizens, it is time to choose the Messenger. Please welcome Angela back.” A polite round of applause followed Heath’s request. The audience was too intent on the next act of the ceremony to accord her more than minimal amount of attention. “In a few seconds, Angela will activate the computerized program that will randomly select the Messenger. We know that you will want to congratulate the person chosen, but we ask that you refrain from obstructing the aisles and allow him or her to reach the platform quickly.”
Heath consulted a piece of paper before continuing. “I am pleased to announce that today’s Messenger will receive a new car from Patriot Motors on Avenue of the Revolutionary Martyrs in Park Woods, a certificate from NewMart worth one thousand Revolutionary Dollars, and a check for $50,000 personally signed by the President-for-Life.”
“Oh, what a big prize today,” said the woman next to Edwin. She crossed her fingers and silently mouthed a few words of prayer. “I hope I get chosen. I hope. I hope.” Everyone in the stadium leaned forward.
“And now, Angela, if you will select the Messenger.”
Angela clasped her hands in front of her chest and again bowed her head in prayer for a minute. Then she stepped up to the console and pressed the selection button. She looks insufferable, thought Edwin.
The television screens showed a blur of numbers as the computer cycled through the list of nine-digit ID numbers of all those in the crowd who qualified for selection. Again the right-most slot was the first to be filled in. One by one, the remaining slots were filled. For a few seconds the ID number of the person selected remained on the screen. Then the numbers faded, to be replaced by a shot of Edwin’s stunned face.
“It’s you. It’s you,” shouted the woman sitting next to Edwin. “Oh, you are so lucky.” She began thumping him enthusiastically on the back. When others seated nearby realized that Edwin was the Messenger, they too began touching him and congratulating him. A group of Guardians quickly moved up the aisle to the row in which Edwin sat. They beckoned the other members of the crowd to move back and allow Edwin to reach the aisle.
It had happened—something that Edwin had counted himself lucky to avoid all his adult life. All he could think of was the young boy’s tearful face. He did not want to be the Messenger for him, or anyone else. He reached in his pocket and found the tissue that he had wrapped around the quietus pill. He removed the pill quickly and, on the pretext of covering his mouth while coughing, put it in his mouth and crushed it between his teeth and swallowed the liquid. There was no taste.
He felt weak and faint. He stumbled and nearly fell. The officer in charge of the group of Guardians escorting Edwin motioned two of them forward. They practically carried Edwin down the stairs and onto the field.
“Citizens, the Messenger for today is Edwin White.” Down on the field, Heath was reading a short account of Edwin’s life to fill in the time it took Edwin to make his way to the platform. Edwin felt like one of the condemned. The pill wasn’t working. He should have been dead by now. It must have been too old to be effective. He couldn’t go through with it. He couldn’t play the assigned role of the Messenger. But if he refused, he would be cuffed to a pole and wired up. His breath grew short. He felt weak.
“Here, are you all right?” The commander of the Guardians looked into Edwin’s face with concern.
Edwin shook his head slightly. “Dizzy . . . the excitement,” he said.
The commander signaled to Heath. Over the loud speakers, Edwin heard Heath say, “Citizen White is overcome with emotion at the honor of being chosen the Messenger. Let’s give him a warm round of applause to encourage him and show our appreciation.”
The organist played a six-note fanfare ending on an upbeat. As one, the crowd leaped to its feet and shouted “Charge” and then erupted into an orgy of screaming and fist-shaking. As the cheerleaders waved the national flag, thousands of those in attendance did likewise. Every air horn in the stadium sounded.
The Guardians lifted Edwin up the stairs. Edwin felt the platform shift beneath his feet. Black circles swam before his eyes. The bile rose in his throat, and his heart began beating irregularly. Finally, he thought, the pill is working. Heath switched off his microphone. The last thing Edwin heard was Heath saying, “Quickly, help him push the button.”
A Guardian grabbed Edwin’s right hand and bent it into a fist with the index finger extended. The television cameras closed in for a tight shot of Edwin’s finger. Quick editing by the broadcasting crew eliminated the Guardian’s hand from the picture. As the television screens showed Edwin pushing the button, the stones suspended over the heads of the sex offenders were released. As the stones crushed the heads of those beneath them, 2,500 volts of electricity surged through the bodies of all the condemned. Their bodies convulsed and spasmed. Fountains of flames burst from jets in the poles. A smell of burning clothing and hair and flesh drifted across the field. The screams of the condemned went unheard over the jeers and laughter of the crowd.
“Take him below,” ordered the commander, motioning to the two Guardians holding Edwin’s body. “Tell the crowd that he fainted from the excitement,” he said to Heath.
In the staging room under the field, the Guardians dragged Edwin’s body across the floor and left it on a trundle. “What shall we do with it?” asked one of them.
“Just toss it on the trucks with the others and take it to the crematorium,” said the commander. “Poor devil. It must have been a heart attack. Well, he saved the state some money by dying. It will make a good story for tonight’s news. A citizen’s final patriotic act. With his dying breath, he serves the state by fulfilling his duty as the Messenger.” The commander checked himself in a mirror. That peacock Heath was still occupied with the ceremony. If I hurry, he thought, I can find a television reporter before he finishes and be the one to make the announcement. It will be my face on the news tonight and not his. “Hey,” he called to his troops, “What was this guy’s name? Does anyone remember?”
Thursday, 4 August 2011
A bear escapes from a zoo and wanders into the rare book room of a library. The library’s prize possession—the earliest known copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets, printed on both sides of 72 sheets of paper—is on display in a glass case. The bear attacks the case and destroys this priceless relic of our literary heritage.
Bear ruined quires where sweet the late bard sang
(I am fond of puns.)
Posted by Nexis Pas at 15:02
Wednesday, 5 January 2011
The Book’s Tale
© by the author 2011
Oh, good, they’ve turned the heat on. I hate the vacation between Michaelmas and Lent terms. It’s cold enough in here most of the time. They say they keep the temperature down to help preserve us. I say that’s just an excuse not to spend money. But it’s worse when the Library is closed during vacations. If there aren’t any people around, they don’t heat the place at all.
The cold bothers me more than it used to. My spine aches. Lord, how it cracks whenever I move. Things were much better during my youth. They always had a fire going in the library at Mashleigh on cold days—no talk of preservation there. But then the Earl liked his comforts. The colder it got, the more logs he threw on the fire. There’s something to be said for owning your own forest and having enough money to hire servants to chop wood. They should put the students to work chopping wood or hauling coal or whatever—they’d be more use that way. Or at least let them talk in here. Then we’d have plenty of hot air. But no, it’s ‘Quiet, please’ and ‘Shhh!’—as if a little noise would bother us. Anything would be better than that annoying whispering your lot does—sss ssss sssss—it sounds as if a hissy phit of adders had been let loose some days.
Ah well, the Mashleigh days ended soon enough. Too soon. When the Earl died in 1652, he left his library to his college. And that was the end of warm days for me. They didn’t allow fires, not even candles, in the Old Library. It wasn’t until the renovations in the mid-twentieth century that they installed central heating—not that they use it much here in the rare book room. No ‘central heating’ for us—‘central refrigeration’ is more like it.
Not all of us suffer equally, however. Things are much better for the incunabula. They qualify for ‘special treatment’—all because they were published before 1500. I was published in 1623—over a century too late. You wouldn’t think 123 years would make much difference after nearly four centuries, but it’s always ‘We have to preserve the distinction. Otherwise our incunabula would lose their value.’ Rotten class system. In this day and age we should be past that. But not here. Oh no. God forbid their precious incunabula should lose their value by having to associate with the likes of me.
I have long argued that the date that defines incunabula should advance by a year each time a new year begins, that all books of a ‘certain age’ deserve special treatment. But does anyone listen to me? An impertinent duodecimo from 1854 with a black buckram cover (not even his original binding—the library had to rebind him when he entered the collection) sneered at me and dared call me a ‘little red book’. That I should have to endure such calumnies at my age! I’m a quarto edition, bound in morocco leather with marbled endsheets specially made in Italy and the Earl’s crest blind-stamped into the centre of the front cover, as were all the books in the Earl’s library at Mashleigh. Of course, I never dwell on my distinguished appearance—unlike some I could name.
And then that silly Golden Legend had the audacity to accuse me of special pleading. He reclines at ease in that hermetically sealed, climate controlled case, and he accuses me of special pleading. I’d like to special-plead him. Put him on an open shelf and see how he would like that. And his name-dropping—‘Did I mention that I was printed by William Caxton himself?’ As if he ever lets anyone forget that. Never misses a chance to trot old Billy Caxton out.
Not that I’m jealous or anything like that. Far from it. Let them keep their ‘special’ status. Who needs it? You ought to see what goes on around here whenever a nabob visits. I can feel my pages foxing every time I witness that little rite. The head librarian—he’s a silly twat, they will promote anyone these days—puts on these prissy white gloves and holds open the incunabulum chosen to deign to grace the ceremony so that the dignitary can bend over and pretend to read a few words. Oh, no, mustn’t touch the precious incunabula. They get white-glove treatment. Don’t soil them with oil from your fingerprints. Whereas anyone who comes in here can yank me off the shelf, toss me on a table, crack my spine, and finger me with his filthy hands. Who knows what those hands have gotten into? You want to talk about mistreatment? I could tell you about mistreatment. I’ve had four centuries of mistreatment. Oh, shhh yourself. So I’m shouting. There’s no one here except us books. Go back to sleep.
It must be January 3—I overheard Ms Glasses on a Chain tell someone the rare book room would reopen on the third. That’s the only reason they would turn the heat on. But I don’t suppose we’ll have many visitors today. It isn’t as if we overrun with people at the busiest times, but during term there are always three or four people in the room. Not that I get much attention. Sometimes a researcher studying the history of printing asks to see me. My illustrations are ‘particularly fine examples of early seventeenth-century English woodcuts’, according to the annotated library catalogue. And the large red initials that mark the beginning of each chapter have been praised in several books. I was even taken to London once for an exhibit on the history of English printing. So I’m not unknown. Not as well known as I should be, of course. I won’t mention names, but there are celebrated books that have less (much less) to recommend them. But, then, I’ve never chased after superstar status. A bit infra dig, that. It’s enough that a few connoisseurs recognize my value. Better the praise of the knowing than the applause of the crowd.
Occasionally, someone even reads me for my content. Unfortunately those who take me seriously are labelled ‘cranks.’ I’m more often studied as an example of ‘wisdom literature’. That’s the term I prefer. Unfortunately The Golden Legend once overheard a scholar refer to me as a ‘pseudo-deuterocanonical’. Of course, that bastard offspring of mythology and Clio has never let anyone forget that. I’m sure it’s not entirely my imagination that he always stresses the ‘pseudo’ part.
In truth, as my preface states, I have a distinguished ancestry. Nicholas of Bayonne (trad. 1236–1302) translated Solomon’s Shamir into Latin from a ninth-century Arabic translation of the original Hebrew text brought to France by a monk travelling with an embassy sent to the Spanish king Alfonso X by Clement IV in 1266. So you can see that from the very beginning I have always travelled with only the best. The Latin version, De shamirō salomonis, circulated widely and was found in all the pre-eminent libraries. Unfortunately the edition here is a modern reprint published in 1827. Luckily he’s shelved in another part of the library, and I don’t have to put up with his tedious attempts to claim kinship. I’m told that the University of Padua has a beautiful manuscript version dated 1301. That is the earliest extant copy—one hesitates to speak ill of others, but the date of 1252 on the copy in the Vatican Library is an obvious falsehood.
Late in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the eminent Cambridge scholar and churchman Peter Braithewinter rendered me into English ‘for the general aedification and instruction of the saints of England’, by which he meant what are now (incorrectly) called Puritans. The first printed edition, of which I am an exemplar, was, as I mentioned above, published in 1623.
In my youth, I was studied closely and carefully for the truths hidden in my pages. Some of my devotees devised elaborate mathematics to prove the statements I contain. Two Oxford masters even came to blows over the disputed existence of an amphibologia in Lemma 34 in my fourth chapter. They were much criticised here in this bastion of decorum, but perhaps they can be forgiven their enthusiasm.
‘Progress’, however, has undermined belief. It’s a sad commentary on the times that there are so many sceptics. I suppose it’s this modern science everyone talks about. We have only a passing acquaintance with it in the rare book room. If it lasts, then time will bring the books on science to us, and we will add them to our collective wisdom. In my day, ‘science’ stood for ‘knowledge’, true knowledge, not all this test tube nonsense and smells and bangs. My long-time neighbour and good friend, Horticultura hebraica, assures me that we will outlast all passing fads. Scholars will flock to the rare book room and turn to us for guidance and wisdom. I hope he is right, but I fear that he is becoming addled in his dotage.
By and large I lead a peaceful life. It wasn’t always that way. I had one great moment of passion. You might not think it to look at me now, but I ‘have lived and loved’. Oh yes, truly I have lived and loved. I suppose I can talk about it now. It happened so long ago. There will be a record of it on the college books, of course, but I will be discreet and not mention his name.
I never learned what led him to me. I was shelved in the Old Library (which wasn’t then called the ‘Old’ Library but simply the Library). At that time, the category of rare books did not exist. Even an undergraduate could browse the shelves and read whatever he liked. Perhaps one of his tutors had mentioned me to him. Perhaps he plucked me at random from the shelf.
Our first encounter held no portents of what was to come. Shelf space was always a problem in the Old Library. We were so crowded together that sometimes the glue used to bind a cheaper book ran and it became stuck to its neighbours. My shelfmates were in no danger of that from me, since I was made of leather and my pages bound by cords. And luckily, despite the crowded conditions we were forced to endure, I was fortunate in my companions. Still we were pressed in so tightly that the young man had to pull me forcefully from the shelf, eliciting a few stifled groans from my neighbours.
He carried me to a desk next to one of the windows. I must confess that I paid little attention to him at first. It felt so good to be freed from the close quarters of the shelf and allowed to breathe. The sun was warm, and I ruffled my pages to circulate air between them and freshen them. (Books do need proper ventilation—a requirement too often overlooked. I’m not one to complain, but some of the books I’ve been shelved next to do smell a bit.)
When my attention was drawn to this new reader, my initial impression was favourable. I was in the hands of someone brought up to handle books correctly. He took a few minutes to inspect my binding and peruse my illustrations. Then he began reading. My contents soon entranced him. I could tell from the way his fingertips caressed each word. He lingered, he reread, he savoured. Truly for a book there is no greater reward than admiration and, yes, belief.
Curiosity may have brought him to me. Passion made him return to me over and over. Day after day, he would retrieve me from the reserved book shelf behind the clerks’ desk, where he had left me the previous evening, and pour over my contents. As his fever grew, I joyfully gave up my secrets to him. I hid nothing. He possessed me completely.
Our love did not pass unnoticed. His constancy and devotion roused the jealousy of the narrow-spined. As he carried me to his desk each morning, I had to endure arch mentions of David and Jonathan, whispers of ‘unnatural’ and ‘unhealthy’ infatuations. Biblical verses were cited, anathemas practiced in anticipation of their utterance. There was talk of a special committee of books to investigate the matter. I stared them all down. Love like ours was beyond their comprehension. We had the wisdom the Shamir granted Solomon. We were one.
At the end of each day, we parted with regret. He would hand me over to be placed on the reserved shelf to await his return the next day. The warm touch of my lover suddenly replaced by the cold, unfeeling clutch of a Library clerk. Sundays, when the Library was closed, were vacant episodes of longing, the minutes creeping by as sunlight filled the Library with its false promises. Each shadow passing the window was my lover come to risk a look at me. Each distant shout, a wail of unrequited yearning. For a love like ours, a second of separation lasted an eternity.
As the end of the Easter term approached, we faced a new dilemma. He had to return to his family in Kent—three days’ journey away. I never doubted that he would reappear in October with his fidelity to me intact. We would resume our life together. But he was tormented by nightmares. A master might claim me during the Long Vacation and exercise his right to monopolise me. Lightning might strike the spires of the Library, and I would perish in the inferno. In his passion, the poor lad imagined the worst. He could not conceive of three months without me.
I do not blame him for what happened next. In vain have books of all ages warned of the mad fires of love! The cold ashes of wisdom are born in the flames of ardour.
The library clerks grew accustomed to his nightly ritual of placing me on the reserved shelf. He found another quarto volume from the library at Mashleigh. To the indifferent eye, we looked much alike. In the half light of the darkening day, the clerk did not notice the substitution. My lover secreted me in the folds of his gown and spirited me to his room. For three days he hid me away, but in our bliss we became careless. A college servant discovered me lying open on a table in his room.
Two masters were called. The brave lad, far from denying his crime, spoke feverishly of the passion that had inspired it. Remorse and repentance might have saved him, but he was besotted—for that I take the blame. I was the elder and should have taught him the coward’s lesson that love must be tempered with discretion. But those of you who have known the fire will understand—love is not for the temperate and the discreet.
His penalty was rustication for a term. Mine was a return to the Library. I waited expectantly for the period of his punishment to end and for him to reappear. It was only many years later that I learned that his family exiled him to India, where his shame would not be known and a life of service to the crown might redeem him.
I resumed my place on the shelf. We never saw each other again. And never again did I encounter another reader whose eyes consumed me with such love. It does not matter. There is an old saying in the Library that every book finds the readers he deserves. I found mine.