Feel Her Waking
THREE HUNDRED souls. That is all.
The entire world, all of human existence, comes to three hundred souls born and reborn again. No more and no less. Countless billions of people share these souls, each individual with a slight piece or sliver of grace. It is as it always has been since the beginning. Humanity has a unique connection to one another in this way. No other creature has such a noble genesis. Not even us. Since untold billions are part of the three hundred, harm a stranger and you may yet harm yourself.
But we find people tend to forget things not screamed at them.
We are watching now, as the folk hero, Colm Archer, is standing naked in front of a hushed crowd, the imposing Kingdom Guard behind him in their silver uniforms. Those city-dwellers wealthy enough to afford the show, watch him with condescension drawn on their faces. Their begrudging admiration is well-hidden. Also hidden, costumed in ridiculous finery, are those the world calls sinners—fragments of Colm Archer’s band of rebels, though their new leader and Archer’s lover, Usker Lance, has wisely chosen not to watch. He would be spotted immediately, even in drag.
Colm Archer is a hero, yes, but not to the first ring of the inhabited Five Rings of the Immortal City. People do well here. They have plenty. They are blessed by GOD and do not care for upheaval. The sinners are a nuisance.
Colm Archer is a hero to the other four, however, and they will cry for him today, though none will see him die. Only those in the first ring have the privilege of watching executions or punishments.
He stands stoic before GOD, facing his “relocation” to the ninth and final ring, a ring well past any proper habitation, with strength and grit on his battered but still handsome face. He glares up at GOD.
“You will fall!” he cries. “You will fall! Aye, and it will be a beauty to see. I’ve seen it, ya see. I’ve seen it in my dreams.”
This is his crime. Colm Archer, like many before him, is charged with spreading vicious philosophy, rumors of prophecy, and false words against GOD. They all get caught in the end. The ferrymen, GOD’s dogcatchers, do their jobs well. Of late, it has been discussed, however, in the more hidden and earless realms of the Immortal City, how much longer it took for GOD to find Colm Archer than any of the other heretics and apostates before him. It was as if he had help escaping.
No one cheers for Colm Archer’s release. There are no heroic or tearful last pleas. Yet no one cheers for his immediate death, either. The crowd is silent. Many do not want to see the punishment, not really. There have been too many recently. Of course, no one would dare speak this aloud.
He stands upon a gleaming stage for death that reflects the orange tinge of the cloudy sky. His arms are chained to the dramatic, large steel columns on either side. He is an anatomy specimen, muscles and flesh.
The slightest inkling of fear can be heard in his voice as he cries, “You will fall! What you do today is the first step to your own death, ya piece of shite!”
GOD is unmoved.
The Kingdom Guards get to work. A metal clamp is fixed tight around Colm Archer’s scrotum and hooked to a chain brought up from a hole below Colm Archer’s straddle. He closes his eyes to gather strength. Clinking and grinding begins as the chain attached to the clamp pulls his scrotum toward the burnished stage. Colm Archer does well at first as the clamp ring cuts into his tender flesh, causing dribbles of blood. He is breathing harder. His teeth are still gritted. His eyes are open now, and his glare at GOD undisturbed.
But then, he can take it no longer, and he begins to cry. His knees want to buckle, but of course, they are unable. His muscles become ever more taut as he writhes in agony. And then, as his scrotum is slowly torn from his body, he begins to scream. His screams make even us moan. He thrashes about in a frenzy. He wants to be free of the pain. We can see the lightning in his eyes, the sheer white pain as the gleaming stage is soiled with blood.
Many in the audience avert their eyes. Some cover their ears. Some even hide their tears. GOD has won.
Blood drips from the stage. Colm Archer passes out from the pain. At least there is that. He will be bandaged and taken out of the metal stocks. He will then be taken to the ninth ring, a hero no more.
We are truly concerned.
WE THOUGHT Colm Archer was the man who would open his people’s eyes. We are saddened this did not come to pass. He was a good man. He had… passion. More so than any of the Great Sinners before him. Yet we are not discouraged, for we have found another. One who hears us, and regards us with more than vague curiosity.
Gemma Kerr. She will have more problems than Colm Archer. That is a given. She is a woman, after all. The humans separate their sexes and genders, but it was not always so. Once all the sexes worked together. They disregarded ancient prejudices and were becoming a more enlightened world. We were proud of them once. But then GOD manifested, and any light was blown out. GOD abhors free thought.
We tried to stay out of the affairs of man for centuries, but we cannot stand by and watch you kill yourselves. What sort of animals would we be then? What indeed?
We visit Gemma in her dreams, disguised as the ancient human goddess of light, Abrythnia.
Abrythnia. The hermaphrodite. The goddess who flooded the ancient world with understanding by unfolding her arms. Gemma knows the image well from her secret studies in her father’s library, poring over actual tomes there that have not been purged or burned. Books from before the End of the World and scrolls from after. Of course, no one has any writings about the century that bestrides the two, because no writings exist.
We visit Gemma tonight as she sleeps. We meet her in the Garden of the Passions, the ruins of which still exist in another, lesser ring. But in Gemma’s dream, the Garden is still beautiful, alive, and easily accessible. It pulses with life even in the night. Streams and fountainways glitter under the moonlight, though the moon rarely peeks from behind the clouds. Fresh dew settles on the tips of the tall green grass and the wide feathery ferns. Nightlight bugs flitter around us, chirping their melancholy tune. The breeze is warm and sweet with the scent of flowers and pine. We stand nude, waiting for Gemma under a weeping willow tree, our arms outstretched, our smile warm.
Gemma approaches slowly, but she is not frightened. She has seen this garden many times before in her dreams. She is a young woman now, but she has visited here since she was a child. Gemma is dark-skinned and dressed in a gown of light. Her eyes are wide, seeking as much truth about the Garden as they can accrue. Her dark hair is gathered on top of her head and adorned with white morning glories. She is barefoot and, thinking us something divine, bows as she nears. We do not require this, but she is comfortable with her tradition. She then rises to our embrace.
A kiss on the lips, and then we turn to watch the Passion spirits play in their mischievous manner on the Garden hills. They are small, with both animal and human characteristics. They delight in laughter. They tumble and trip and chase after nightlight bugs. They are gone from the Immortal City now, existing only in dreams and on friezes of ruins.
We take Gemma by the hand and lead her down a smooth, winding stone path.
“You must find us,” we remind her. “You must find us outside of the city. We believe it is time.”
“Past the walls?” She is a frightened child still.
“Past them all.”
“But each ring stretches on and on. It would be quite a feat to travel them. I’ve never even been past the fourth ring, and going farther than the fifth is not permitted.”
“Not permitted by whom? By GOD? Who is He to tell you what you are resigned to? This is your world, too.”
She looks at us with embarrassment and shame. She has never believed in the Power of GOD, but to say so out loud would be dangerous. GOD’s Tower watches and hears all. It spears the very heart of the world, built at the center of the Immortal City, domineering and invasive. You may keep no secrets from GOD. The wealthy know this and retain their wealth by staying in His favor, but the wealth disintegrates as one gets farther from the Tower. The first and smallest ring basks in His glory, enjoying the most fertile plots of land for parks and the most unpolluted water for drinking. But the second ring struggles, and the third hobbles. The fourth and the fifth merely trudge along like crippled or dying slaves. Yet those rings are where humanity may find its Salvation.
“I hear,” Gemma says, “the Kingdom Guards in the walls past the fifth ring will kill any who dare approach.”
“And then the remaining rings—the sixth through the eighth—are a No Man’s Land, devoid of any life until the colony in the final ninth ring.”
We stop and look at Gemma with confusion. We wonder if her own ignorance is reflective of the larger culture. “But there are twelve rings in the Immortal City, dear Gemma. Not nine.”
Her eyes widen in disbelief and hurt. “Twelve?”
“The oldest is the twelfth.”
“But, we have been told…” She does not need to finish the statement. “Is there life in these other rings?”
“There is. But barely.”
We feel her waking. It thrills us. “Come find us,” we say. “Come look for us beyond the walls.”
“Twelve?” she says again, taking the word with her into the waking realm. And she thinks, But what then, is beyond the twelfth?
Gemma wakes with question on her lips. She opens her eyes and takes in her palatial surroundings. Her family lives well, thanks to her parents’ connections. They are friends of GOD. Or were. Now, they are mere acquaintances. Their standing lies in their past. They have long since been uninvited from the first ring’s extravagant soirées and lavish dinners.
The Kerrs live in one of the grander manses of the first ring. Like the city itself, the house is a tall untouchable thing with large wings to either side, though such ornamentation would be too heavy to ever take flight. Inside, silver and glass crystal glimmer and float down the hallways, nearly blinding the house staff with their resplendence. And while the halls of the manse are glutted with luxurious furnishings and overelaborate statuary, the walls reach so high they feel eternally empty. The ceiling frescoes have not been closely examined for years. Certain beauty must sacrifice touch to retain its luster. GOD would consider those paintings highly immoral.
Gemma rises. She is a dot in the massive room. Even the furniture pieces are distant strangers to each other. She dresses herself in something appropriate. A light blue gown suit that seems to be trending among those her age, with a thin black necktie bound delicately. She thinks of wearing a bracelet, but decides against it. Too much ostentation can garner one the wrong attention. Those in the first ring can show their station in life, but it must never seem too prideful.
Approved by GOD, the large frescoes on her walls watch her every move as she dresses. These, she has been told since childhood, are great men her parents knew during the Revolution. Great men have exceedingly mediocre faces. Their vacant expressions show no judgment of her as she dresses. They show no interest at all. They are as lifeless as those she works with every day. Yet these are not the original paintings that once hung in this old home. Those depictions of giddy Passions and lusty gods in blushing pinks and sweaty reds had been covered decades before. Maybe centuries. How long since the world ended? We are not certain. But we knew some of those delightful spirits depicted in those naughty colors, and we can swear to you, those paintings were tame.
Ten house servants are on staff, though none except the old steward Rugal have been here longer than six months. They always offer to make Gemma breakfast, to be any use at all lest her mother add them to the unemployed, but Gemma smiles and says, “No, thank you.” This has always been her way. Her father, of course, needs the servants. He is ill, and her mother cannot care for him alone. But Gemma thinks of herself as a resourceful young woman. She can get what she needs, and if she cannot get it, she does not need it. It is an admirable style of thinking for a privileged child of the first ring.
“Darling,” her mother had once said with natural condescension, “let the servants help you. That’s what they’re here for.”
“I can dress myself, Mama. And I can feed myself as well.”
“Very well. But you are just adding to the unemployment problem. And we cannot simply just fling them off into some other far-off ring. The destitute are resolute in their destitution.”
Her mother always looks upon Gemma with an expression of concern, albeit judgmental concern. Her eyebrows are as arched as cathedral spires.
This morning, Gemma leaves the manse without seeing her mother. The large front doors open on the bright sheen of the silver street. The clouds are a white and sherbet blend and are letting a bit more light shine through than they usually do. Gemma puts on her tiny circular sunspectacles and descends the steps of the manse to join the waking city.
The first ring is alive even in the early hours of the morning. People politely parade through the pristine silver streets, the women in expensive day gowns and the men in elegant suits and hats. The serenity has an uneasiness, though, as if it is all being held together by a threat. The parks of the first ring are so lush, given only the best fertilizer from farms all over the Immortal City, they rival any from the ancient days. People enjoy them, but one hears little proof of it, even if one listens closely. The laughter of children is stifled. Even babies are trained to cry less obtrusively in the first ring. Gemma remembers snippets of her dream last night. How the Passions played exuberantly on the hills of the Garden as she and the goddess Abrythnia walked. She had wanted to join the Passions in their play. To be a child and to truly play like a child… what a delight!