By Fools Like Me

Hope creeps quietly into my bedroom without knocking, peering around the corner of the rough doorjamb. I’m awake; sleep eludes me so easily now. I know from the awful smell that she has been to the beach.

“Come in, child, I’m not asleep.”

“Grandma, where’s Mama and Papa?”

“Aren’t they in the field?” The rains are late this year and water for the crops must be carried in ancient buckets from the spring in the dell.

“Maybe. I didn’t see them. Grandma, I found something.”

“What, child?”

She gazes at me and bites her lip. I see that this mysterious find bothers her. Such a sensitive child, though sturdy and healthy enough, God knows how.

“I went to the beach,” she confesses in a rush. “Don’t tell Mama! I wanted to dig you some trunter roots because you like them so much, but my shovel went clunk on something hard and I…I dug it up.”

“Hope,” I reprimand, because the beach is full of dangerous bits of metal and plastic, washed up through the miles of dead algae on the dead water. And if a soot cloud blows in from the west, it will hit the beach first.

“I’m sorry,” she says, clearly lying, “but Grandma, it was a metal box and the lock was all rusted and there was something inside and I brought it here.”

“The box?”

“No, that was too heavy. The…just wait!”

No one can recognize most of the bits of rusted metal and twisted plastic from before the Crash. Anything found in a broken metal box should be decayed beyond recognition. I call, “Hope! Don’t touch anything slimy—” but she is already out of earshot, running from my tiny bedroom with its narrow cot, which is just blankets and pallet on a rope frame to keep me off the hard floor. It doesn’t; the old ropes sag too much, just as the thick clay walls don’t keep out the heat. But that’s my fault. I close the window shutters only when I absolutely have to. Insects and heat are preferable to dark. But I have a door made of precious and rotting wood, which is more than Hope or her parents have on their sleeping alcoves off the house’s only other room. I expect to die in this room.

Hope returns, carrying a bubble of sleek white plastic that fills her bare arms. The bubble has no seams. No mold sticks to it, no sand. Carefully she lays the thing on my cot.

Despite myself, I say, “Bring me the big knife and be very careful, it’s sharp.”

She gets the knife, carrying it as gingerly as an offering for the altar. The plastic slits more readily than I expected. I peel it back, and we both gasp.

I am the oldest person on Island by two decades, and I have seen much. Not of the world my father told me about, from before the Crash, but in our world now. I have buried two husbands and five children, survived three great sandstorms and two years where the rains didn’t come at all, planted and first-nursed a sacred tree, served six times at the altar. I have seen much, but I have never seen so much preserved sin in one place.

“What…Grandma…what is that?”

“A book, child. They’re all books.”

“Books?” Her voice holds titillated horror. “You mean…like they made before the Crash? Like they cut down trees to make?”

“Yes.”

“Trees? Real trees?”

“Yes.” I lift the top one from the white plastic bubble. Firm thick red cover, like…dear God, it’s made from the skin of some animal. My gorge rises. Hope mustn’t know that. The edges of the sin are gold. My father told me about books, but not that they could look like this. I open it.

“Oh!” Hope cries. “Oh, Grandma!”

The first slate—no, first page, the word floating up from some childhood conversation—is a picture of trees, but nothing like the pictures children draw on their slates. This picture shows dozens of richly colored trees, crowded together, each with hundreds of healthy, beautifully detailed green leaves. The trees shade a path bordered with glorious flowers. Along the path runs a child wearing far too many wraps following a large white animal dressed in a wrap and hat and carrying a small metal machine. At the top of the picture, words float on golden clouds: ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

“Grandma! Look at the—Mama’s coming!”

Before I can say anything, Hope grabs the book, shoves it into the white bubble, and thrusts the whole thing under my cot. I feel it slide under my bony ass, past the sag that is my body, and hit the wall. Hope is standing up by the time Gloria crowds into my tiny room.

“Hope, have you fed the chickens yet?”

“No, Mama, I—”

Gloria reaches out and slaps her daughter. “Can’t I trust you to do anything?”

“Please, Gloria, it’s my fault. I sent her to see if there’s anymore mint growing in the dell.”

Gloria scowls. My daughter-in-law is perpetually angry, perpetually exhausted. Before my legs gave out and I could still do a full day’s work, I used to fight back. The Island is no more arid, the see-oh-too no higher, for Gloria than for anyone else. She has borne no more stillborn children than have other women, has endured no fewer soot clouds. But now that she and my son must feed my nearly useless body, I try to not anger her too much, to not be a burden. I weave all day. I twist rope when there are enough vines to spare for rope. I pretend to be healthier than I am.

Gloria says, “We don’t need mint, we need fed chickens. Go, Hope.” She turns.

“Gloria—”

“What?” Her tone is unbearable. I wonder, for the thousandth time, why Bill married her, and for the thousandth time I answer my own question.

“Nothing,” I say. I don’t tell her about the sin under the bed. I could have, and ended it right there. But I do not.

God forgive me.

#

Gloria stands behind the altar, dressed in the tattered green robe we all wear during our year of service. I sit on a chair in front of the standing villagers; no one may miss services no matter how old or sick or in need of help to hobble to the Grove. Bill half carried me here, afraid no doubt of being late and further angering his wife. It’s hard to have so little respect for my son.

It is the brief time between the dying of the unholy wind that blows all day and the fall of night. Today the clouds are light gray, not too sooty, but not bearing rain either.

The altar stands at the bottom of the dell, beside the spring that makes our village possible. A large flat slab of slate, it is supported by boulders painstakingly chiseled with the words of God. It took four generations to carve that tiny writing, and three generations of children have learned to read by copying the sacred texts onto their slates. I was among the first. The altar is shaded by the six trees of the Grove, and from my uncomfortable seat I can gaze up at their branches against the pale sky.

How beautiful they are! Ours are the tallest, straightest, healthiest trees of any village on Island. I planted and first-nursed one of them myself, the honor of my life. Even now I feel a thickness in my shriveled chest as I gaze up at the green leaves, each one wiped free of dust every day by those in service. Next year, Hope will be one of them. There is nothing on Earth lovelier than the shifting pattern of trees against the sky. Nothing.

Gloria raises her arms and intones, “’Then God said, ‘I give you every plant and every tree on the whole Earth. They will be food for you.’”

“Amen,” call out two or three people.

“‘Wail, oh pine tree,’” Gloria cries, “‘for the cedar has fallen, the stately trees are ruined! Wail, oaks—’”

“Wail! Wail!”

I have never understood why people can’t just worship in silence. This lot is sometimes as bad as a flock of starlings.

“‘—oaks of Bashan, the—’”

Hope whispers, “Who’s Bashan?”

Bill whispers back, “A person at the Crash.”

“‘—dense forest has been cut down! And they were told—told!—not to harm the grass of Earth or any plant or tree.’”

Revelation 9:4, I think automatically, although I never did find out what the words or numbers mean.

“‘The vine is dried up!’” Gloria cries, “‘the fig tree is withered! The pomegranate and the palm and the apple tree, all the trees of the field, are dried up! Surely the joy of mankind is withered away!’”

“Withered! Oh, amen, withered!”

Joel 1:12.

“‘Offer sacrifices and burn incense on the high places, under any spreading tree!’”

Amy Martin, one of the wailers, comes forward with the first sacrifice, an unrecognizable piece of rusted metal dug up from the soil or washed up on the beach. She lays it on the altar. Beside me Hope leans forward, her mouth open and her eyes wide. I can read her young thoughts as easily as if they, too, are chiseled in stone: That metal might have been part of a “car” that threw see-oh-two and soot into the air, might have been part of a “factory” that poisoned the air, might have even been part of a “saw” that cut down the forests! Hope shudders, but I glance away from the intensity on her face. Sometimes she looks too much like Gloria.

Two more sacrifices are offered. Gloria takes an ember from the banked fire under the altar—the only fire allowed in the village—and touches it briefly to the sacrifices. “‘Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briars the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s glory, for an everlasting sign which—”

I stop listening. Instead I watch the leaves move against the sky. What is “myrtle”—what did it look like, why was it such a desirable plant? The leaves blur. I have dozed off, but I realize this only when the whole Village shouts together, “We will never forget!” and services are over.

Bill carries me back through the quickening darkness without stars or moon. Without the longed-for rain. Without the candles I remember from my childhood on Island, or the dimly remembered (dreamed?) fireless lights from before that. There are no lights after dark on Island, nothing that might release soot into the air.

We will never forget.

It’s just too bad that services are so boring.

#

ALICE IN WONDERLAND

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

BIRDS OF INDIA AND ASIA

MOBY DICK

MORNING LIGHT

JANE EYRE

THE SUN ALSO RISES

I sit on my cot, slowly sounding out the strange words. Of course the sun rises—what else could it do? It’s rising now outside my window, which lets in pale light, insects, and the everlasting hot wind.

“Can I see, Grandma?” Hope asks, naked in the doorway. I didn’t hear the door open. She could have been Gloria. And is it right for a child to see this much sin?

But already she’s snuggled beside me, smelling of sweat and grime and young life. Even her slight body makes the room hotter. All at once a memory comes to me, a voice from early childhood: Here, Anna, put ice on that bruise. Listen, that’s a—

What bruise? What was I to listen to? The memory is gone.

“M—m—m—oh—bee—Grandma, what’s a ‘moby’?”

“I don’t know, child.”

She picks up a different one. “J—j—aye—n…Jane! That’s Miss Anderson’s name! Is this book about her?”

“No. Another Jane, I think.” I open MOBY DICK. Tiny, dense writing, pages and pages of it, whole burned forests of it.

“Read the sin with the picture of trees!” She roots among the books until she finds ALICE IN WONDERLAND and opens it to that impossible vision of tens, maybe hundreds, of glorious trees. Hope studies the child blessed enough to walk that flower-bordered path.

“What’s her name, Grandma?”

“Alice.” I don’t really know.

“Why is she wearing so many wraps? Isn’t she hot? And how many days did her poor mother have to work to weave so many?”

I recognize Gloria’s scolding tone. The pages of the book are crisp, bright and clear, as if the white plastic bubble had some magic to keep sin fresh. Turning the page, I begin to read aloud. “‘Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank—’”

“She has a sister,” Hope breathes. Nearly no one does now; so few children are carried to term and born whole.

“‘—and tired of having nothing to do: once—’”

“How could she have nothing to do? Why doesn’t she carry water or weed crops or hunt trunter roots or—”

“Hope, are you going to let me read this to you or not?”

“Yes, Grandma. I’m sorry.”

I shouldn’t be reading to her at all. Trees were cut down to make this book; my father told me so. As a young man, not long after the Crash, he himself was in service as a book sacrificer, proudly. Unlike many of his generation, my father was a moral man.

“‘—or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversation in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?” So she was considering—’”

We read while the sun clears the horizon, a burning merciless ball, and our sweat drips onto the gold-edged page. Then Gloria and Bill stir in the next room and Hope is on the floor in a flash, shoving the books under my sagging cot, running out the door to feed the chickens and hunt for their rare, precious eggs.

#

The rains are very late this year. Every day Gloria, scowling, scans the sky. Every day at sunset she and Bill drag themselves home, bone-weary and smeared with dust after carrying water from the spring to the crops. The spring is in the dell, and water will not flow uphill. Gloria is also in service this year and must nurse one of the trees, wiping the poisonous dust from her share of the leaves, checking for dangerous insects. More work, more time. Some places on Earth, I was told once, have too much water, too many plants from the see-oh-too. I can’t imagine it. Island has heard from no other place since I was a young woman and the last radio failed. Now a radio would be sin.

I sit at the loom, weaving. I’m even clumsier than usual, my fingers stiff and eyes stinging. From too much secret reading, or from a high see-oh-too day? Oh, let it be from the reading!

“Grandma,” Hope says, coming in from tending the chickens. “My throat hurts.” Her voice is small; she knows.

Dear God, not now, not when the rains are already so late…. But I look out the window and yes, I can see it on the western horizon, thick and brown.

“Bring in the chickens, Hope. Quick!”

She runs back outside while I hobble to the heavy shutters and wrestle them closed. Hope brings in the first protesting chicken, dumps it in her sleeping alcove, and fastens the rope fence. She races back for the next chicken as Bill and Gloria run over the fields toward the house.

Not now, when everything is so dry…

They get the chickens in, the food covered, as much water inside as can be carried. At the last moment Bill swings closed the final shutter, and we’re plunged into darkness and even greater heat. We huddle against the west wall. The dust storm hits.

Despite the shutters, the holy protection of wood, dust drifts through cracks, under the door, maybe even through chinks in the walls. The dust clogs our throats, noses, eyes. The wind rages: oooeeeeeeeooooeeeee. Shrinking beside me, Hope gasps, “It’s trying to get in!”

Gloria snaps, “Don’t talk!” and slaps Hope. Gloria is right, of course; the soot carries poisons that Island can’t name and doesn’t remember. Only I remember my father saying, “Methane and bio-weapons…”

Here, Anna, put ice on that bruise. Listen, that’s a—

A what? What was that memory?

Then Gloria, despite her slap, begins to talk. She has no choice; it’s her service year and she must pray aloud. “‘Wail, oh pine tree, for the cedar has fallen, the stately trees are ruined! Wail, oaks of Bashan, the dense forest has been cut down!’”

I want Gloria to recite a different scripture. I want, God forgive me, Gloria to shut up. Her anger burns worse than the dust, worse than the heat.

“‘The vine is dried up and the fig is withered; the pomegranate—’”

I stop listening.

Listen, that’s a—

Hope trembles beside me, a sweaty mass of fear.

#

The dust storm proves mercifully brief, but the see-oh-too cloud pulled behind it lasts for days. Everyone’s breathing grows harsh. Gloria and Bill, carrying water, get fierce headaches. Gloria makes Hope stay inside, telling her to sit still. I see in Gloria’s eyes the concern for her only living child, a concern that Hope is too young to see. Hope sees only her mother’s anger.

Left alone, Hope and I sin.

All the long day, while her parents work frantically to keep us alive, we sit by the light of a cracked shutter and follow Alice down the rabbit hole, through the pool of tears, inside the White Rabbit’s house, to the Duchess’s peppery kitchen. Hope stops asking questions, since I know none of the answers. What is pepper, a crocodile, a caucus race, marmalade? We just read steadily on, wishing there were more pictures, until the book is done and Alice has woken. We begin JANE EYRE: “‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day….’”

BIRDS OF INDIA AND ASIA has gorgeous pictures, but the writing is so small and difficult that I can’t read most of it. Nonetheless, this is the book I turn to when Hope is asleep. So many birds! And so many colors on wings and backs and breasts and rising from the tops of heads like fantastic feathered trees. I wish I knew if these birds were ever real, or if they are as imaginary as Alice, as the White Rabbit, as marmalade. I wish—

“Grandma!” Hope cries, suddenly awake. “It’s raining outside!”

#

Joy, laughter, dancing. The whole village gathers at the altar under the trees. Bill carries me there, half running, and I smell his strong male sweat mingled with the sweet rain. Hope dances in her drenched wrap like some wild thing and chases after the other children.

Then Gloria strides into the Grove, grabs Hope, and throws her onto the altar. “You’ve sinned! My own daughter!”

Immediately everyone falls silent. The village, shocked, looks from Gloria to Hope, back to Gloria. Gloria’s face is twisted with fury. From a fold of her wrap she pulls out ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

“This was in the chicken coop! This! A sin, trees destroyed…you had this in our very house!” Gloria’s voice rises to a shriek.

Hope shrinks against the wide flat stone and she puts her hands over her face. Rain streams down on her, flattening her hair against her small skull. The book in Gloria’s hand sheds droplets off its skin cover. Gloria tears out pages and throws them to the ground, where they go sodden and pulpy as maggots.

“Because of you, God might not have sent any rains at all this year! We’re just lucky that in His infinite mercy—you risked—you—”

Gloria drops the mutilated book, pulls back her arm, and with all her force strikes Hope on the shoulder. Hope screams and draws into a ball, covering her head and neck. Gloria lashes out again, a sickening thud of hand on tender flesh. I cry, “Stop! No, Gloria, stop—Bill—let me go!”

He doesn’t. No one else moves to help Hope, either. I can feel Bill’s anguish, but he chokes out, “It’s right, Mama.” And then, invoking the most sacred scripture of all, he whispers, “We will never forget.”

I cry out again, but nothing can keep Hope from justice, not even when I scream that it is my fault, my book, my sin. They know I couldn’t have found this pre-Crash sin alone. They know that, but no one except me knows when Gloria passes beyond beating Hope for justice, for Godly retribution, into beating her from Gloria’s own fury, her withered fig tree, her sin. No one sees but me. And I, an old woman, can do nothing.

#

Hope lies on her cot, moaning. I crouch beside her in her alcove, its small window unshuttered to the rain. Bill bound her broken arm with the unfinished cloth off my loom, then went into the storm in search of his wife.

“Hope…dear heart…”

She moans again.

If I could, I would kill Gloria with my own hands.

A sudden lone crack of lightening brightens the alcove. Already the skin on Hope’s wet arms and swollen face has started to darken. One eye swells.

Here, Anna, put ice on that bruise. Listen, that’s a—

“Grandma…”

“Don’t talk, Hope.”

“Water,” Hope gasps and I hold the glass for her. Another flash of lightening and for a moment Gloria stands framed in the window. We stare at each other. With a kind of horror I feel my lips slide back, baring my teeth. Gloria sees, and cold slides down my spine.

Then the lightening is gone, and I lay my hand on Hope’s battered body.

#

The rain lasts no more than a few hours. It’s replaced by day after day of black clouds that thunder and roil but shed no water. Day after day. Gloria and Bill let half the field die in their attempt to save the other half. The rest of the village does much the same.

Hope heals quickly; the young are resilient. I sit beside her, weaving, until she can work again. Her bruises turn all the colors of the angry earth: black and dun and dead-algae green. Gloria never looks at or speaks to her daughter. My son smiles weakly at us all, and brings Hope her meal, and follows Gloria out the door to the fields.

“Grandma, we sinned.”

Did we? I don’t know any more. To cut down trees in order to make a book…my gorge rises at just the thought. Yes, that’s wrong, as wrong as anything could ever be. Trees are the life of the Earth, are God’s gift to us. Even my father’s generation, still so selfish and sinful, said so. Trees absorb the see-oh-too, clean the air, hold the soil, cool the world. Yes.

But, against that, the look of rapture on Hope’s face as Alice chased the White Rabbit, the pictures of BIRDS OF INDIA AND ASIA, Jane Eyre battling Mrs. Reed…Hope and I destroyed nothing ourselves. Is it so wrong, then, to enjoy another’s sin?

“We sinned,” Hope repeats, mourning, and it is her tone that hardens my heart.

“No, child. We didn’t.”

“We didn’t?” Her eyes, one still swollen, grow wide.

“We didn’t make the books. They already were. We just read them. Reading isn’t sinful.”

“Nooooo,” she says reluctantly. “Not reading the altar scriptures. But Alice is—”

Gloria enters the house. She says to me, “Services tonight.”

I say, “I’m not going.”

Gloria stops dead halfway to the wash bucket, her field hat suspended in her hand. For the briefest moment I see something like panic on her face, before it vanishes into her usual anger. “Not going? To services?”

“No.”

Hope, frightened, looks from her mother to me. Bill comes in.

Gloria snaps, with distinct emphasis, “Your mother says she’s not going to services tonight.”

Bill says, “Mama?”

“No,” I say, and watch his face go from puzzlement to the dread of a weak man who will do anything to avoid argument. I hobble to my alcove and close the door. Later, from my window, I watch them leave for the Grove, Hope holding her father’s hand.

Gloria must have given him silent permission to do that.

My son.

Painfully I lower myself to the floor, reach under my cot, and pull out the white plastic bubble. For a while I gaze at the pictures of the gorgeous birds of India and Asia. Then I read JANE EYRE. When my family returns at dusk, I keep reading as long as the light holds, not bothering to hide any of the books, knowing that no one will come in.

#

One heavy afternoon, when the clouds steadily darken and I can no longer see enough to make out words, a huge bolt of lightening shrieks through the sky—crack! For a long moment my head vibrates. Then silence, followed by a shout: “Fire!”

I haul myself to my knees and grasp the bottom of the window. The lightening hit one of the trees in the Grove. As I watch, numb, the fire leaps on the ceaseless wind to a second tree.

People scream and run, throwing buckets of muddy water from the spring. I can see that it will do no good—too much dry timber, too much wind. A third tree catches, a fourth, and then the grass too is on fire. Smoke and ash rise into the sky.

I sink back onto my cot. I planted one of those trees, nursed it as I’d once nursed Bill. But there is nothing I can do. Nothing.

By the light of the terrible flames I pick up JANE EYRE and, desperately, I read.

And then Hope bursts in, smeared with ash, sweat and tears on her face.

“Hope—no! Don’t!”

“Give it to me!”

“No!”

We struggle, but she is stronger. Hope yanks JANE EYRE out of my hands and hurls it to the floor. She drops on top of it and crawls under my cot. Frantically I try to press down the sagging ropes so that she can’t get past them, but I don’t weigh enough. Hope backs out with the other books in their plastic bubble. She scrambles to her feet.

“We did this! You and me! Our sin made God burn the trees!”

“No! Hope—”

“Yes! We did this, just like the people before the Crash!”

We will never forget.

I reach for her, for the books, for everything I’ve lost or am about to lose. But Hope is already gone. From my window I see her silhouetted against the flames, running toward the grass. The village beats the grass with water-soaked cloths. I let go of the sill and fall back onto the cot before I can see Hope throw the books onto the fire.

#

Gloria beats Hope again, harder and longer this time. She and Bill might have put me out of the house, except that I have no place to go. So they settle for keeping me away from Hope, so that I cannot lead her further into sin.

Bill speaks to me only once about what happened. Bringing me my meal—meager, so meager—he averts his eyes from my face and says haltingly, “Mama…I…”

“Don’t,” I say.

“I have to…you…Gloria…” All at once he finds words. “A little bit of sin is just as bad a big sin. That’s what you taught me. What all those people thought before the Crash—that their cars and machines and books each only destroyed a little air so it didn’t matter. And look what happened! The Crash was—”

“Do you really think you’re telling me something I don’t know? Telling me?”

Bill turns away. But as he closes the door behind him, he mumbles over his shoulder, “A little bit of sin is as bad as a big sin.”

I sit in my room, alone.

Bill is not right. Nor is Gloria, who told him what to say. Nor is Hope, who is after all a child, with a child’s uncompromising, black-and-white faith. They are all wrong, but I can’t find the arguments to tell them so. I’m too ignorant. The arguments must exist, they must—but I can’t find them. And my family wouldn’t listen anyway.

Listen, Anna, that’s a—

A nightingale.

The whole memory flashes like lightening in my head: my father, bending over me in a walled garden, laughing, trying to distract me from some childish fall. Here, Anna, put ice on that bruise. Listen, that’s a nightingale! A cube of frozen water pulled with strong fingers from his amber drink. Flowers everywhere, flowers of scarcely believable colors, crimson and gold and blue and emerald. And a burst of glorious unseen music, high and sweet. A bird, maybe one from BIRDS OF INDIA AND ASIA.

But I don’t know, can’t remember, what a nightingale looks like. And now I never will.

Copyright © 2017 by Nancy Kress

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