by Karen Herkes
The proud ones died first. They died in the exam rooms, they died on the train platform behind the intake offices, and they died standing in the hot sun as they waited for a ride to oblivion. They refused to disrobe, defied the orders of their uniformed kidnappers, and demanded water and shade. Pride was a sin, and they paid for their transgressions with their lives.
Ruth remembered her Scripture in time to save her life. Patience is better than pride, the Bible taught. When the government thugs came for her with their legal papers, their uniforms, and their red, sweaty faces, she bowed her head and opened the door. While the thugs drank sweet iced tea and mocked her daughter’s crooked shelves and small treasures, Ruth packed the one bag the law allowed her to bring, and then she hugged her grandchildren and kissed her daughter’s salt-wet cheek.
She would not be provoked in spirit even when the thugs grew bored with the farewells. They pulled her from her family and called her an old nigger bitch in front of her grandchildren, but she lowered her eyes and swallowed pride. Humility was a frail shield, but it was all she had. She consoled herself with the hidden truth. She might be an old bitch, but that made her a cunning old dog who could learn new tricks. Her time would come. There was a time for everything, under the sun.
The thugs brought her to the government building, where she was inspected by men who looked at computer screens more than her naked form. She was humble, they were indifferent, and they passed her back to the thugs with stamps and papers that were promptly taken away, as her bag had been.
The rules of this new existence seemed simple enough, and not much different than the ones that had governed her old life. Never expect help, never challenge authority, never show weakness, never rebel. Disrespect was death. Weakness was death. The silent and the strong survived.
She wanted to survive. She had been patient all her life, and her time would come soon. The official diagnosis only gave numbers and labels to what anyone with eyes could see; even as Ruth’s womb had shriveled and her hair turned gray, God had touched her body with strange new blessings.
Old nigger bitch, the thugs called her, but her skin was whiter than theirs now. She was changing, and that was what they feared most. Weeks past, her wrinkled skin had begun to peel like the bark of a sycamore tree, leaving pale tender flesh exposed. Silence would be easy now. The shifts within her body had stolen the voice she once raised in joy with the church choir every Sunday.
She would have other powers to replace the lost skill, if she completed this metamorphosis that came to the old and killed the proud. Rollover, the thugs and bureaucrats called it, like a command to a pet, or a sleepy stretch in bed, but it fell where it pleased, and it was not restful. No one understood why or how it happened, but everyone knew one thing: some of those God touched were given talents beyond human understanding.
This mystery was dividing the world the same way every other transformation in history had split it: into the wanted and the unwanted; the haves and the have-nots; the privileged and the oppressed. Ruth would be sequestered while she changed because that was the law for those who could make no other arrangements. The poor and unwanted were exiled to places where the system could do its best to destroy them, out of sight, out of mind.
Power in the hands of the powerless threatened the status quo, and authority fought against disruption. Legislators had passed laws to keep the downtrodden from profiting from new abilities, police enforced laws that pulled lives and families apart, and judges gave the scraps to their friends and followers. It wasn’t the way the laws were supposed to work, but they twisted in the hands of the unscrupulous and the greedy. Life was not fair. Evil was real.
Ruth had been praying for deliverance from evil all her life. That would change, if she lived, and so she prayed for time and patience. She would deliver herself, if she survived this test.
She wasn’t the weirdest of the lost souls reaped together by government hands on that day. The doctors and the bookkeepers called the group a cohort, as if they were ancient Roman soldiers going off to war, not prisoners torn unwilling from homes and family. Ruth’s crop started off fifty strong, at the intake office. By the time the train arrived, after the long hours spent standing in a line, bags at their feet–silent, hungry, thirsty–their count stood at forty-four.
If they had been Roman troops, harshly punished for failure, they would have lost fewer.
One man arrived with stubby wings springing bloody from his shoulders, raw and half-formed. He raised his voice to a doctor, and the thugs broke him into pieces in front of the rest. One woman could not walk without the ground turning hot and fluid beneath her feet. If she had been patient, she might have raised a volcano from the sea in time, but she begged, please help, when she slipped and slid on the train platform. The guards shot her in the face and flamed her body to ash there in the sunshine. Two more of the prideful complained of the heat and were shot where they stood. One woman simply evaporated, to the consternation of her neighbors. She might have become a hurricane wind, if she had held herself together a little longer, but she had looked around with despair in her eyes and let it destroy her.
Ruth could feel power moving in her bones like seeds moving under dark soil. She would wait. Her time would come. When the door to the boxcar shut behind the last of the intake cohort, she made her way to the corner by the water barrel, and then she sat down and prayed.
The weak ones died next. The air in the train car was thick and rank, and the noise of the rails came through a splintered wood floor that shook underfoot. Vicious flies bit and stung every bit of skin they could find reach, and the doors never opened, when the train stopped once, and then again. They shared the water, equal lots to all, dignified and civilized to the end, but the water did not last. The cold night seeped in, the motion rattled their teeth in their heads, and when the sun rose again, the metal walls grew hot enough to blister skin.
The headcount of the living, when the doors finally opened to daylight again, fell to thirty-eight.
More died on the long hike from the train through sharp grasses and dunes to the seashore. Their guards rode on little cars with wide tires and engines that buzzed like the flies, and those who fell behind, stayed behind, ashes smoking in the sand. At the end of the trail they came to a pier that jutted far into the water, well beyond the lapping waves. The long tongue of fiberglass and metal aimed its impudent length at the black line of an island on the horizon, and two more thugs scuffed back and forth along its sandy surface. These two were matched like Adam and Eve, man and woman dressed alike in gray short sleeves and darker trousers.
Swim for it, the thugs said, and laughed when most of their victims sat down on the beach and waited to die. Ruth dropped her bag and walked to the water’s edge. The odors of rotted fish and living ocean rose to her nostrils, and the gentle surf filled her ears with a murmuring song of yielding strength and swelling power.
“Don’t be damned fools,” said one of the guards from the pier, but he was not speaking to Ruth. He said to the escorts, “Haven’t you done enough damage already? Nobody needs the hassle of an investigation on top of the loss reports.”
“Sit and rest,” he said to the cohort. “The boat is coming. Sit and wait. Don’t worry. The worst is almost over. Everything will be better once you get to the camp. Hold on. We’ve radioed for transport.”
Was it sympathy in his voice? Pity? Ruth wanted no part of the man’s emotion, whatever it was. She wanted no part of this thug or his precious system, that might work for people like him but took everything from people like her. She wanted power and freedom, so she smiled and nodded, and she bided her time in silence.
No one died, while they waited to be carried over the water to exile. They were given water and food from locked boxes, and they were told to sit, and rest, and walk as they wished. Interns, the pier guards called them, assigning them the status of innocent youngsters apprenticed to a trade, and the travel escorts were ordered to set up canopies for shade.
The thugs from the escort pulled plastic sheets and supports from a shed nestled into the dunes and built a shelter. They grumbled, and they kicked sand, but they followed their orders. Ruth chewed on bitter insight along with the food, and swallowed it down with cool water.
This new man and woman, they were as dangerous in their own way as the others. Kindness could be as effective a weapon as pain. More so, when relief was offered in opposition to abuse. Comfort and flattery could seduce even the strong into compliance. Charity was sweet bait around a poisonous core.
Ruth ate and drank and smothered gratitude in its cradle. She was neither an intern, nor a soldier, and she would not be tempted into forgetting herself. She was one of God’s fools, culled from the aging and the experienced to demonstrate His glory to His people. She deserved more than shade and sandwiches, and she needed no one’s pity. She would not be so easily seduced into befriending the enemy.
Two boats came over the sea to the pier. They were sleek and deadly, with dark metal cannons on front and back. Their high cabins bristled with antennae, and windows gleamed bright. A whole new cadre of guards stood along the deck rails. Dark faces as well as pale ones regarded the prisoners with hard eyes and tight mouths.
Ruth’s companions in exile were as varied in race as they were in their strangeness, but until now, their tormentors had been uniformly white as they were uniformly dressed in gray. That was the way of the world. This new development disturbed her like nothing else she had yet seen. She would have prayed to be spared the knowledge that the oppressed could embrace hatred, but she was too tired to even pray now.
The boat crew loaded the cohort aboard and sat them on the deck in the blazing sun. Only crew allowed below, the new guards said, and the apologies in their voices rang out like a discordant chiming of bells. There were rules, and devotion to principle left no room for humanity. No matter their sex, their race, their past, they were thugs first, humans last. Ruth ignored their guilt and watched the pier guards and the original escort recede across foam-flecked waves.
Sea spray tickled her face, and the hum of the engine lulled her into a doze as one shore fell behind and the other grew in front. Her belly was full, and the sun was warm but no longer a searing force. Power pumped through her veins, and moved inside her flesh much the same way that her infant daughters had kicked long ago. A sense of serenity fell over her, and she drifted on the waves of life and growth.
She came back to herself when someone jostled her elbow. The woman to her right tipped herself back, over the rails and into the sea. She smiled as she went down, and she sank fast, but not fast enough.
The thugs manning the back of the boat stood and shouted, the front settled with a hiss of foam as the driver slowed down, and the guns coughed.
The ocean plumed up in huge gouts and fell in a curtain of cool spray. Fish rose in the boat’s wake, bellies and bodies distorted, like miniature replicas of the dead woman’s rounded form. The thugs brought her into the boat with gaffs, hooking her flesh with the sharp, merciless points, and they carried her body below decks in silence. The engines roared again, and the boat moved on.
If only the woman had been patient a little longer, Ruth thought again, and she let herself mourn, because there was a time for that, too.
Soon, there would be a time to learn the names of the dead and hear them sung to the heavens. The time would come, when she would reap what had been sowed in her heart this day.
Three months into a life bounded by bells and blared shouts, painted lines and painful lessons in failure to conform, Ruth stood at her bunk and prepared for inspection. Her bare wet skin ached from the ragged scrub brush, and the high-pressure shower had left new bruises across her shoulder. Her scalp itched, and her hair, brittle from harsh soaps, had split and crumbled away. She was as bald as a stone now, but for a thin patchy fuzz that refused to surrender. She smoothed clean sheets onto the thin mattress that smelled of disinfectant, sweat and pain, folded her clean clothes atop them, and knelt naked beside the bed.
This was her favorite time of day, this quiet pause between the back-to-bunks bell and call for the morning’s first headcount. Silence ruled the dorm by mutual agreement during this short respite. Ruth used the precious moments to say her silent prayers and nurture a little peace within her soul.
The road to hell was paved with bunk inspections, physical examinations, and countless other daily indignities. The island internment camp was staffed by people so committed to their cause that they were blind to their sins. The degradation they inflicted was impersonal, born from devotion to routine rather than malice. The humiliations were a matter of regulation, not evil intent. The guards did not mean to be cruel. They did not even mean to be guards. They called themselves counselors.
They were all hateful, in a million ways that they never saw, because they meant well. They were rude and brusque, not vindictive, but they valued efficiency above all else, and efficiency was a cruel taskmaster.
Ruth remembered little of her intake processing. The orders and questions had blurred past without time for understanding. She had moved from station to station with the rest of her battered fellows, gathering equipment and lessons in procedure without comprehending any of it. Hours had passed in a blur of announcements and questions, ending in assignment to this duty or that, based on past employment and ability to work.
The counselors insisted that the purpose of the camp was to induct the newly-changed into the mysteries of their new abilities. They believed in themselves and their mission, even as their every action undermined and belied their words of encouragement.
Interns were expected to master their new talents without even being taught how those talents worked. They were set up for failure, and when they failed, they were blamed for their laziness and their lack of ambition. Exploration learning, the guards called it, and refused to interfere unless–until–their charges’ lives were in danger. Even with those obstacles to overcome, the cohort learned from and with each other. Slowly, ever so slowly, Ruth learned to tap into the warm power she could feel still growing, still maturing, inside her.
It told her its name in the dark, hot nights after curfew. She made its acquaintance through the voices of frogs and the whine of mosquito wings. God was filling her with the fullness of the world. Songs of stone and wood, air and water would be hers to sing. Souls would be hers to move. Miracles would answer to her heart, if she lived.
She kept her knowledge to herself and bent her neck to the yoke. Any rebellion, however small, generated an immediate, uncompromising response. First offenses resulted in punishment–physical, painful and public. Any further infractions–any infraction–resulted in counseling. No one who returned from that office committed a third infraction. They came back to their bunks with slack faces and empty eyes, and they were models of proper behavior forever after.
Ruth bent her head, and prayed as she did every morning, for the patience to endure one more day, for her transformation to reach its end, and for deliverance from counseling. The sympathetic, smiling men and women who stripped the souls from their victims were the only enemies on the island that she truly feared.
She made no friends. Alliances were too dangerous. After watching lovers join and pairs bond, only to be counseled into docile propriety, she resigned herself to wandering alone in this wilderness. When she was alones she recited the names of the fallen to herself, to keep them vivid in her memory. There would be a time for them.
Inspection went well. No one was beaten. Only one woman was taken away for punishment. The insults and accusations were bitter to swallow, but swallow them Ruth did. She dressed and followed her bunkmates to breakfast, where they ate not nearly enough, and there she received her duty for the day: beachcombing.
The chore of cleaning storm debris from the shoreline was a torture and a reward as closely bound together as a chunk of tender meat marbled with gristle. Her power grew steadier whenever she walked barefoot on the earth, near the whispering dune grasses, but the labor tore her flesh and racked her aging joints.
The ranks of her crew were composed of others equally challenged, and they were set the task of moving an uprooted tree at the high edge of the tideline. Find your gifts, they were told. Reach deep. Push yourselves. Don’t be lazy.
There were others in the camp who could already move heavy objects with the force of their will. They had been given other tasks, requiring skills that would not come easily to them. The counselors were not interested in teaching mastery or providing practice, no matter what they said. They cultivated suffering.
No one spontaneously developed telekinesis. They rolled the log by hand, back to the sea through the stubborn sands. Just as they reached the wash of the surf, Ruth felt something tear loose, deep inside. Her knees gave out as muscles spasmed in her belly, in her back. She fell, crying in her soundless voice, and her palms scraped against the tree’s splintered, soggy bark when it moved onward and she did not.
“She’ll get up or she won’t,” one counselor said to another, while they watched her tremble helpless beneath the weight of the air. “You know the statute. No interference with the natural order. Call it in.”
They left her there, lost between land and water, between the agony of consciousness and the solace of oblivion. No one spoke up, no good Samaritan came passing by. Ruth lay on the sand, alone and abandoned, but in that dead silence, God smiled on her at last. Her power burst forth.
She pressed her hands against the wet earth full of a million crawling microscopic things and took the gift of creation and destruction into herself. Her skin rippled and darkened as life tingled through her body. Aches and pains vanished as if they had never been, and strength flowed into her limbs.
She sat up, admiring the beautiful walnut skin she had thought lost forever. Another thought, another wish, and she touched springy hair as soft as cotton, and she knew it would be as black as it had ever been in her long-ago youth. Next she chastised herself for the sin of selfishness, and she stood.
It was time. She gathered up the all the slights and the hurts, all the fears and humiliations, and anger rose in a whirlwind. She stood primed to release justice, but a voice whispered in the silence at the eye of her storm, and she paused to listen.
Her daughter’s new baby was laughing at sunbeams. Her grandson was singing.
The wind fell. Cold water lapped Ruth’s toes. The sun burned down. She smiled. The retribution of flood and fire was not hers to dispense. Vengeance belonged to the Lord. She held death in her hands now, but she held life as well.
She opened her mouth and raised her voice in thanks. Tears flowed down her face as she sang, and they dried in salt tracks on her skin before she finished. She sang the oppressors back to shore, to their families, to contemplate their sins and find their own fates. They had sown the wind, but the whirlwind would pass them over, this once.
She sang the souls back into the deadened hearts of the counseled next, and then she sang of cleansing, and healing, and life. When she was done, the sky was twilight purple, and she was no longer alone. Hands reached out to her, ears pricked up, and eyes human and inhuman stared at her amidst a crowd of bodies wondrous and common. Shoulder to shoulder they stood, God’s gifts on display, brought into their powers by hers. They smiled and rejoiced with her, for they were free.
“What will we do?” someone asked.
“The Lord has brought us to this place,” Ruth said. “We will make it ours.”