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Sep 04

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For They Heard the First Sound and Trembled by Jessica Breheny

I am polishing in a circle—sunwise, always sunwise—when I hear the afternoon procession, the jingle of the cymborenes, the rattle of bones shaken in crystal jars. It is still far away. I see the blue robes of the Wordless; the red of the Attendants who walk beside them, some carrying incense holders, and some playing the instruments that announce their approach; the yellow of the Pilgrims, Cleansed who leave their glass cities and walk the dust roads to attend the Thankfulness at the temple. Cleaners are not supposed to look at a procession. Just in case. The Thankfulness says if we were to look into the eyes of a Wordless, we would turn to glass, just like the temple walls we clean—Mama and I—until the glass looks like new ice. That’s why the Wordless are always blindfolded. The Cleansed make laws like this. To protect us. Because we are “children unto them and in them is love and kind sanctuary.”

The Wordless hold their blue blown-glass alms baskets full of delicacies like rosewater, oranges, cinnamon, and anise, the likes of which I can only dream to one day taste. I watch the procession until I smell the incense the Attendants carry, and then I turn back to the temple wall. The Wordless are Cleansed who are purified of all words except the Word through a secret process called Elimination. They live inside the temple and are holy above all others, coming out for processions once a day to collect alms from the Pilgrims before leading them into the temple.

The procession music fades as the Wordless, Attendants, and Pilgrims enter the temple. I have always wondered what it would be like to go inside the temple, where they say the Word is spoken all day long the way a bell rings when it is left out in the wind, but I would never do it. The Thankfulness says the sound of the Word—“and hark for they heard the first sound and trembled”—would turn our bones to glass and our souls to dust. That’s where all the dust comes from. From the dead souls of Cleaners who could not resist the knowledge of the Word.

Our work has been harder since Fitz and his friends started writing on the temple walls. At night, when Mama and I are home at the Warren, they come and paint words on the glass. Today we are washing away WE ARE NOT THANKFUL and THE WORD BELONGS TO ALL. I have already scrubbed WE ARE NO. Mama says it must be someone from the D Warren writing these things. I don’t tell her it’s Fitz. After Mama and I finish cleaning away the last black “L” and scrubbing the walls until we can see—through the thick glass—the colors and distorted shapes of people walking inside the temple, we return to the Warren, which smells of cabbage and potatoes boiling for dinner in the kitchen. A dust storm is starting, so we close the Warren door tight behind us and walk down the earth tunnel. Mama takes the rags and brushes back to our room. I go to the Common Room, because sometimes Fitz is there before Evening Thankfulness, but today there are only children.

The children surround me and ask if I’ve ever heard the Word through the temple walls. Some say the temple speaks it when the storms come. But when the storms come, all I can hear is the wind and the scratch of the Cleaners’ souls on the glass, as if they are trying to scrape their way back in to hear the Word one more time.

The children try to guess the Word. Fenugreek and Ferrell, Frederica’s girls, jump around, humming and screaming.

“Tell us. Tell us what it is,” a boy named Frank says.

“Stop it,” I say. “I don’t know what it is, and we might become dust if you keep guessing. All of us. Do you want that? To become dust?”

Fenugreek holds my wrist with both her hands and jerks my arm up and down with her as she jumps and says, “Tell us the Word. Tell us the Word.” Some of the children chant, “You know you will, you know you must, hear the Word and turn to dust,” a new rhyme they’ve been singing ever since Fitz started handing out the instruments.

I plug my ears, but I can still hear their voices. Ferrell sounds like a baby trying to say its first words. Fenugreek takes out one of the instruments Fitz has been making for the children. Fenugreek looks at me with her dark eyes, dull like old buttons, and yells, “Word! Word! Word!” into the end of the hollowed-out tree branch. A sound that is like four people singing different notes at once comes out. Fitz’s newest theory is that the Word is made from more than one sound spoken at the same time.

Many times I have repeated to Fitz what he already knows from Thankfulness prayers, that our bodies are not strong enough to hold the Word. The Cleansed protect us. They leave us cast-off clothes when it is cold. Once, a Cleansedman gave me an iceberry when I cried, for his little boy had thrown a piece of rotten meat at me when I walked by on the glass streets of the city. They are like our parents, kind yet strict for our well-being.

I get past the children still playing the instruments and guessing at the Word. When I walk by the store, Fitz grabs me and pulls me in. The earth walls are lined with jars, root vegetables, and bags of grain. The potatoes are already starting to sprout, and it is only early winter yet. This is a bad sign, but I don’t think about what it means, because I am alone in a room with Fitz. His skin is the color of rice. His hair is a black that reminds me—I don’t know why—of something I might want to eat. His mouth is always smiling, just a little, in a clever way that is not happy or kind, but not unkind either. He always looks like he knows something other people don’t. I think he knows things about me that I don’t know, and the more I’m around him, the more of these things I want to know too.

All of my life, I have wanted to marry Fitz. Sometimes I even hope it. When our bodies were small enough, we cleaned chimneys together in the city, and once when I was stuck, and my mouth was pressed against the blackened glass so tightly my cries backed up into my chest and filled my lungs with old breath, he told me to stop trying to breathe, and he pulled me by my big toe, and then my ankle, and then my leg down into the hearth. When we were older and no longer small enough to clean chimneys, he was a witness to my Papa’s Return of Gratitude. He stayed with me and Mama while we held our vigil, watching for days as the animals came and ate small pieces of Papa’s body until he was picked clean and finally ready for burial. He held my hand then, all night, even as I slept and he stayed awake to watch the night animals eat the body, even as we watched together as crows came and ate what was left of the skin on my father’s face. He said to me and Mama, through our crying, “Shh, he’s returning to the animals, and he’ll return again.”

But, of course, it is impossible for two F’s to marry. He will marry a B or a D, as will I. Everyone knows that, but I sometimes imagine I was born into the B Warren. I have the story to tell of it: there was not enough food, and the Bs had to ask the Fs to raise me as their own. I imagine my B name is Belle, and I am beautiful the way B women are, and I think this so strongly I sometimes forget to answer when someone calls, “Francine.”

Fitz takes a smooth round piece of wood from his pocket and blows into it. It sounds like a baby’s cry. I cover my ears, but Fitz grabs one of my hands and holds it so I have to listen.

“I think it’s something like this,” he says. The baby’s cry turns into a cow’s moan. “It’s just a matter of finding the right combination of notes.” He sings into the instrument, “You know you will, you know you must,” making his voice go up and down.

“You have to stop,” I say, knowing he won’t.

“Hear the Word and turn to dust.” He puts he instrument down. “Close your eyes and open your mouth.”

Fitz puts a drop of cool liquid onto my tongue. The taste is sweet like beets, but so much sweeter, a sweetness that is like light filling my mouth. The flavor reminds me of the smell of petals left by Pilgrims at the front of the temple. Rosewater. It is rosewater. I open my eyes.

“Where did you get this?”

Fitz kisses me—he has never done this before—and I feel like my ribs are opening like a blossom, and his tongue is touching me both in my mouth and under my skin, and I am turning to dust. But I want to. I am not an F, and I’m not even a B named Belle. I want to become nothing with Fitz.

This must be what it is like to hear the Word.

Fitz pulls away, holds my shoulders, and looks at me with his clever eyes. He shows me the vial of rosewater. It is the shape of a finger and carved with roses. The glasswork must have taken months. He puts the vial in my hand and kisses me on my cheek.

“You should have all the rosewater you want,” he says. “And one day you will. But I want to know the Word. I need to know it. You have to break into the temple and find out what it is.”

One must be a Cleansed to go through the temple doors and survive. “And lo for the souls of the Cleansed are tuned to the Word and it is the Word that is spoken for them and them alone.”

“To know the Word is to know death,” I say. All Cleaners knows this.

“Francine,” he says. My name reminds me that we shouldn’t be in the store together, committing forbidden acts near the food. If it spoils, if the Warren goes hungry and we must beg from the Cleansed in the streets of the city, we will be to blame. Fitz says into the instrument, “These things we are taught are lies.”

Before I can answer, before he can kiss me again with his clever smiling mouth, the bell rings for Evening Thankfulness Assembly. We must go. Absence is punished with hunger. The hallway outside the door fills with the voices and footsteps of the Warren on its way to Assembly. I reach for the door. Into my ear, so I can feel the tickle of his breath, Fitz whispers, “I have to know the Word. I need it.” His voice vibrates down my neck, and I feel like I am choking on my own breath, like I am a little girl again, swallowing my own cries in the chimney. But this time, Fitz is not pulling me out.

I separate from Fitz in the crowd. When I get to the Assembly, the only seats left are in the front. Fitz is already there, sitting in the back with Forward and Fergal. Pastor Fennimore is leading us in Thankfulness.

“The Cleansed are our shepherds, our lanterns in the dark night. They are the star we follow that guides us along our path to holiness. For they are strong and bear the burden of the Word so that we may live, so that we—” Pastor Fennimore stops and looks at the back of the room. I turn around to see what has interrupted the Thankfulness. Fitz, Forward and Fergal are whispering. Fitz points at me and nods to Forward and Fergal. Pastor Fennimore looks down at me from under his glasses. “I will start from the beginning,” Pastor Fennimore says, and the elderly Felipe next to me heaves a low sigh.

During the list of one hundred Qualities and twenty-two Aspects, I think about what Fitz is asking. It is too dangerous to risk turning to dust by going into the temple; it is wrong to leave Mama without a daughter to take over the temple cleaning when she is old; it is a betrayal of the Cleansed, who protect us from harm. After Assembly, I eat the meal of cabbage, potatoes, and milk. I scan the wooden tables, but I don’t see Fitz or Forward or Fergal.

I return to the room I share with Mama. She is already back, washing our rags for the morning work. Her hands look like old leaves from the soap and water she has cleaned with for so many years. Her face is wrinkled dried fruit.

“Mama, is it possible a Cleaner could hear the Word without dying?”

Mama hangs a wet rag on the side of our chair. “The Cleansed protect us from the Word. They keep it in the temple, so it is always there but will never harm us.”

“But, Mama.” I take a rag and rinse it in the black water. “How do you know for sure?”

“It is written in the book of Thankfulness.” The Cleansed wrote the book of Thankfulness. That is one of the one hundred qualities. “There is a story that my grandfather—your great-grandfather Fred—once told me, but it is a lost story and I have forgotten almost all of it.”

Lost stories are stories that no one is supposed to tell, but people sometimes tell them anyway.

“Tell me the story,” I say. “Please.” I love lost stories. Everyone does.

Mama turns off the lamp. Lost stories are best told in the dark. “I remember lying on my pile of clothes and listening to my grandfather tell the story of a young man who was in love with the daughter of a wealthy Cleansedman. When the father found out, he sent his daughter away to be locked in the temple—as an Attendant to a Wordless, I think. The young man disguised himself as a Wordless and went into the temple to find her. There, my grandfather said, he learned the Word, and he must have had special powers or have been stronger than any other Cleaner, for he did not die. In the story—as I remember it— he was able to tell the Word to other Cleaners, because through him they could hear it without turning to dust.”

“Did he find the Cleansed girl? Did he rescue her from the temple and marry her?”

“All I remember after that is he named the Warrens. But, of course, the story isn’t true. He must have made up a word and told everyone he had been inside the temple.”

“But what did he tell them the Word was?”

“Nobody remembers that part of the story,” Mama says.

I kiss Mama good night and lie down in my pile of clothes. I want to give her a drop of rosewater, but it is forbidden to have such a thing. I don’t even dare open it and smell it in the dark. Though the glasswork on the bottle is sharp, I sleep with it in my pocket.

After Morning Thankfulness Assembly, I pass Fitz in the breakfast line. He mouths, “Please.” I want to go back to the store with him. I think that if I got the Word, if I didn’t turn to dust, we would have to run away because of our terrible and dangerous knowledge. And if we ran away from the Warren, and there were no one to see, we could kiss and marry and be together alone for the rest of our lives with no one to tell us it is wrong. And if I did hear the Word and turn to dust, I wouldn’t have to marry someone other than Fitz, and he would always think of me. He could breathe me during the storms, and I would be with him forever.

I go back to the room to get the rags for the day, and I almost leave before I see it—just a scrap of blue sticking out from the clothes I sleep on. It is the unmistakable blue the Wordless wear, a blue like the sky in the summer and like perfect water. A blue I could breathe or drink. I pull the piece of fabric out. It is a full Wordless robe with a blue blindfold tied around a sleeve. A note is pinned to the collar that says THE WORD BELONGS TO ALL.

The robe weighs nothing. When I touch it, I feel as though I am passing my hand through air. It is almost too beautiful to look at. I hide it in my bag of rags.

Walking with Mama on the way to the temple, I try to re-feel Fitz’s kiss exactly, but when I imagine his mouth on mine, I can’t imagine his hand on the back of my neck, and when I imagine his hand, I can’t imagine his mouth. I forget and remember and then forget again the taste of his breath, which was sweet and sour like fermented milk. Mama is talking about the slogans. I wish I could tell her about Fitz. I think of the Thankfulness story about the simple Cleaner girl who followed a clever goat to his house under a bridge, and how she agreed to complete four tasks for which he promised he would lead her and her Warren to a cave made of gold on a mountain. The first three tasks were easy: to bring the goat a sprig of fairy lanterns from the meadow; to find the one sweet apple in the forest of apple trees; to build a man made of brambles. Of course, the fourth task was impossible and dangerous: to eat from a bush of magic iceberries and, with the special sweet breath the berries would instill in her, breathe life into the bramble man. She had to eat just the right amount of berries, and breathe into the bramble man’s mouth for the exact amount of time to bring him to life. She didn’t eat too much and she didn’t eat too little, but she breathed too long, and he took all her breath, and his bramble arms wrapped around her and scratched her skin to ribbons.

CLEANERS ARE THE TRUE CLEANSED is written in letters almost as tall as the temple itself. Mama looks at her bag of rags.

“I don’t know if we brought enough,” she says.

I am angry at Fitz and his friends for giving us so much to clean. I feel so angry at him as I scrub CLEANSED on the opposite side of the temple from Mama that I forget about the Wordless robe in my bag until I reach for a clean rag and pull the weightless fabric out instead.

Among the rags and the gray flat landscape around the temple, the color of the robe is shocking. I stuff it back into my bag. I scrub the letter S until it is faded, but it won’t scrub away.

I can hear the wind before I feel it, a gust that pushes me away from my faded S and into the still black D. I close my eyes against the few pieces of dust that precede the storm and call for Mama, but by then the wind is so loud, she can’t hear me. There is nowhere to take cover when the dust comes—“to the temple the dust flies and in its path does cover the crops and the people”—so Mama and I always put rags over our faces and lie on the ground until it passes. Past the temple I see a procession of Pilgrims, Attendants, and Wordless. I can’t hear their music through the wind. Though the dust is coming, they still proceed slowly, as is required for entrance into the temple. If they were to run, the temple doors would not open for them. I find Mama on the other side of the temple. She is still scrubbing C, despite the rising storm. She looks like a burrowing insect trying to dig her way inside the temple.

“Mama, the storm.”

If we don’t put the rags over our mouths soon and lie face-down, we might breathe the drowning air and our lungs will fill like the bottom of an hourglass, and we could die like Forrest died last year, coughing silently over a spittoon of black spit. Mama stops cleaning and hands me rags from her bucket. She takes a few for herself and puts them over her face.

“Let’s keep working until the storm gets worse,” she says. “There’s so much to do.”

I walk back to my S on the other side of the temple. The air is getting thick, and the dust scratches my face. Instead of cleaning, I look into my bag at the blue that makes me feel thirsty for a kind of water that might not exist anywhere in the world. The procession is getting closer. It would be so easy to join it and get out of the storm and inside the temple. I imagine how Fitz’s face would look when I told him I got in, and that I joined a procession to do so. I re-taste the fermented milk smell of his breath.

On the side of the temple I am on, I am out of sight of Mama and the procession. I change into the robe, leaving my dirty rags and dress against the temple wall. I tie the blindfold around my eyes loosely, so I can still see if I tilt my head back. Through the blindfold, everything takes on the blue color of the fabric. I carry the vial of rosewater like a candle, the way I have seen the Wordless do.

In the blue robe, I can walk past Mama. She would never look closely at a Wordless, in case the blindfold came off, and also to show respect to those who are “for and of the Word and to the Word the holiest of holies.” I am sick with deceiving her, and if I turn to dust inside the temple, I will deserve it, but I go on anyway, thinking of Fitz beside me, and thirsty for a drink of water that is the Word in my mouth. I join the procession of Wordless, led by a few Attendants in red robes, followed by a group of Cleansed pilgrims leaving a trail of rose petals and calla lilies behind them as they walk.

Someone takes me by the elbow, and for a moment I imagine it is Fitz, willing to risk his life alongside mine. But I tilt my head back and see that it is a Cleansedwoman Attendant holding an urn of burning incense.

“Please forgive me,” she says. “I almost lost you. Please. Please.” Through the loose blindfold, I can see the woman bowing desperately in a cloud of smoke. She puts an orange in my free hand. “I beg you for your pardon.”

I have never seen a Cleansed act like a servant before. I nod at her in a way I hope means that I am not angry. I hold the orange up to my nose, not knowing if this is proper behavior for a Wordless, but I am drawn to its sharp perfume. The Attendant leads me along with the procession through the temple doors, and we get through just as the dust is thickening into drowning air. Before the doors close, I look back to see Mama—a mound of rags pressed into the dirt—cast in the blue light of my blindfold.

Inside the temple, I want to cover my ears to protect myself from the Word, but the Attendant’s hand is still on my elbow, leading me forward into the giant halls. I listen for the Word, half afraid and half curious, but at first all I can hear are footsteps and echoes and low talking. When I tilt my head back, I can see through the blindfold that everything in the temple is made of glass. It is like being inside ice, but the temple is hot. I hear a sound like hard rain. It is the Word, I think. But it is only the dust scraping against the temple.

“You can take your blindfold off now,” the Attendant says. “We’re safely inside.”

We are in a hall. Glass chandeliers as large as rooms hang above us. They look like icicles, like knives, ready to drop. Other hallways lead off from the main one. All the corners are as finely carved as kitchen blades, and I am careful not to get too close. The glass is beautiful, but in a way that makes me want to run back to the Warren, down into the soft ugly earth.

A Wordless walks by us, looking right at me. I look down to avoid his eyes, but I can feel his searching for mine. I turn my head away to the wall. Through layers of glass, I see the blurry movement of people in other rooms and halls.

“You are being greeted,” the Attendant says to me.

The Wordless man is still there, staring at me, searching for my eyes, and I realize I am supposed to meet his gaze. I lift my head and then my eyes and look right at him. His eyes are yellow. I have never seen eyes like his. I stare into them, waiting to turn to glass and shatter, but nothing happens. There is a red sash wrapped around the man’s arm. He nods and walks on.

“The Elimination hall is close,” the Attendant says. “Are there any words you would like to say before we get there?”

I stare at the Attendant. I don’t know how she knows I have never gone through Elimination. I look behind me, wondering how I could find my way back to the temple doors, but we have walked around so many bladed corners, and the light moving and reflecting off the glass is disorienting. I think of how tonight’s dinner at the Warren will be a mash of parsnips and carrots, and I think of Pastor Fennimore’s Evening Thankfulness Assembly and how warm the room will be filled up with the Warren. If my words are eliminated, I will never be able to tell Fitz about the temple and all its glass. I want to go home, sleep in my clothes pile, listen to Mama snore next to me in the dark.

I say nothing, and the Attendant seems to accept this. We walk on. The walls start to vibrate, and I feel the Word before I hear it. It is low, almost too low to hear, but I know it must be the Word. I concentrate on my body, waiting for the moment I will turn to dust and become part of the storm outside, but I am still here, not dust at all, walking with this Cleansedwoman Attendant to the Elimination hall. The sound gets louder, and it is familiar, like a song I once knew, but I can’t remember ever having learned it. The chandeliers, the walls, the glass paintings . . . everything shakes.

A group of Wordless are standing in an archway, conducting a conversation through nods. They all have red sashes around their arms. They stop their conversation and look at me, circling their heads widdershins. I know this must mean something, since they are all doing it. I respond by turning my head the same way, but the Attendant tightens her grip on my arm.

“The other way,” she says softly but not gently.

I follow her orders and rotate my head the sunwise way. One Wordless, a woman, almost smiles, and they go back to nodding at one another.

“Have you forgotten your lessons?” the Attendant asks me as we continue toward the Elimination hall, but I cannot answer because I do not know the nods to do so.

I am wondering if Elimination hurts—and, were I to run from this Attendant, if I could find my way back to the temple doors and out to the dust storm and lie down next to Mama and breathe the sweet smell of the ground. The sound gets louder, and I can almost pick out the notes. I think I hear one of the clapping songs the children have been singing, about a little girl who gets sicker and sicker until she finally dies and is reborn as a Cleansedman who gets sicker and sicker and is reborn as a Cleaner girl again. I hear other songs too, a funeral song and a Thankfulness song and the first few notes of a lullaby that my father used to sing to me when he was alive and would kneel by my clothes pile and sing and whisper me to sleep. We keep walking and the sound is like every song I have ever heard and also like the beating of my own heart and the blood moving through me and the vibration of Fitz’s voice in my ear saying, “I have to know the Word.” I want to bring this to him, all the sounds in the world, and I keep following the Attendant toward the Elimination hall, because with every step the Word gets louder and I want to hear what I will hear next.

The Elimination hall is as intricate as a forest. The glass under our feet is carved to look like a carpet of fallen leaves. The ceiling is formed into the shapes of icicles. An archway is decorated with frightening faces with long, arching tongues that, at first glance, look like the stamens of flowers. Another arch frames an altar alight with flames set into the glass. The hall is filled with the blue of Wordless awaiting Elimination. They all have their blue blindfolds wrapped around their arms, and I realize it is the red blindfold that distinguishes the true Wordless from the initiates. For a moment, I wonder if Fitz knew this when he left me the robe and blue blindfold, and I think of the story of the girl and the goat, but I put these thoughts away, because Fitz could not have known what the colors meant.

The sound in the chamber is dogs barking and women laughing and horses running and wheels turning and ice cracking and plants growing and sharp growling sounds that make me think that maybe I will run, but I don’t move at all, I just stand with the other initiates, all of us in our robes the color of thirst and drinking.

An old man and woman stand above us on the altar. They wear the same blue color of the Wordless, but their robes are layered like feathers, and they wear hats that reach almost to the chandelier above them and form waterfalls of fabric from the tops. The room is silent save for the rustling of robes. The woman pulls away a layer of her robe and reveals a harp made of glass and strung with silver strings. The man strums the harp with a glass wand, and the sound—the Word—is like hearing the flames inside the altar, and my blood moving, and the blood of the Cleansedwoman next to me, and a cleaning song my mother sings, and her blood as well, and the dust outside, and the rags drying, and the Thankfulness song called “Holy Gratitude,” and Fitz’s breath going in and out of him, and I am turning to glass and shattering to dust and blowing around in the storm . . . . only I’m not, I’m still in the Elimination hall.

The hall gets very quiet until the man strums the harp again and two initiates, a man and a woman, climb the glass stairs to the altar. The other initiates begin to hum, and between their voices, I can hear buzzing and whistling sounds that remind me of the songs of singing insects. The man and the woman take off their robes, and their bodies are as clean and smooth as the glass. I hum with the others, a note that approximates one nearby. The man and woman embrace, their arms and legs slithering around each other’s bodies and tightening. They kneel on the altar, their bodies rocking together, and they kiss. I think of Fitz, and then I feel ashamed. Their mouths are pressed together, and their eyes are open, and then I see tears in the woman’s eyes and blood running down their mouths. The blood pours like a long piece of fabric, and I don’t know why no one is doing anything about it. The initiates still hum.

Then the man and woman pull away from each other, and the man spits something small and red out of his mouth. The glass walls reflect the red that now looks like a carpet that the man and woman stand on. The woman smiles a red smile. The old woman with the harp picks up what the man spit out and holds it up to the crowd of initiates. It looks like the heart of a rabbit, but I see that it is a tongue, the woman’s tongue. The smiling woman kisses the man. He struggles a little, but she holds him close, and a fresh stream of blood unfurls from their mouths. She spits out his tongue, and the two embrace more gently this time. The old man strums the glass harp the old woman holds and gives the naked man and woman each a red blindfold. The couple dress, wrap the blindfolds around their arms, and descend the glass stairs.

Two by two, the couples go up to the altar, disrobe, and perform their ritual. I want to run, but the Attendant keeps a grip on my arm. Each time the harp is strummed, I hear another song I thought I had forgotten long ago. I hear songs no one sings anymore, songs for cleaning and songs for scrubbing potatoes, songs about babies who live in trees and frogs that can speak. The music takes away my will to run. I don’t know who I will be coupled with, but I don’t care. I feel as though I am half-asleep in my clothes pile with a fever. But the man strums the harp again, and I hear a note that wakes me up. F, the sound of the Warren. I think Francine, Francine, and I want to go home.

The Cleansed woman leads me to the base of the stairs. I am cold and all I think about is the dirt smell of the Warren, the children and their instruments, Mama washing rags. She will miss the company of my voice while we clean. I will never go home to the Warren again, or see Mama, or sing the songs I had forgotten. I will never kiss Fitz or listen to Pastor Fennimore’s Thankfulness. The old man strums the harp, and I hear the lullaby about the bee who married the flower. Little bee. Little bee. Are you awake? Are you awake? Your bride is flushed and waiting, her pollen yours to take. She’ll marry you in the meadow, she’ll marry you in the tarn, she’ll marry you in the blackened ash below the mossy carn.

A mouth is like a flower.

An initiate man stands before me and removes his robe. His genitals are as pale and smooth as the rest of his body. He waits for me to remove my robe, but I do not. I am so cold. The old man strums the harp again. I hear B and D, and then I hear F, B, and D together, and I understand everything now. The three Warrens form the Word. The Cleaners are the Word. I laugh because this is something Fitz might write on the temple walls. I laugh, and I can’t stop laughing. The initiate man embraces me gently and removes my robe. All of the sounds in the hall stop. My body, compared to the other initiates, is filthy, and I am wearing an undergarment made of cleaning rags Mama stitched together.

The Attendant who led me to the halls yells, “Uncleansed!”

I am surrounded by blue robes and pushed onto the bloody glass floor. The initiates turn their heads in circles and wobble them side to side. I look up at them, trying to interpret their silent conversation. Feet kick me, I slide in the blood. The old man and woman who had led the ceremony stand over me. The man nods, the woman shakes her head, and the man nods again. I am picked up by an initiate, a man, whose hands are gentle despite the look of disgust on his face.

“Please,” I say. “Please let me go home.”

He circles his head three times. His eyes are angry. I cry and hide my head in his shoulder. He is taking me somewhere. This man will kill me, I think, but I wrap my arms around his neck, soaking his robe with my tears, staining the blue with the blood from the floor. He takes me down a flight of stairs and into a room, then down another flight of stairs. I don’t hear the Word anymore. All I hear is the man’s footsteps on the glass floor and then an earth floor. We are underground. The damp earth smell soothes me. The man balances me against one arm and takes a key out of his robe.

He carries me up a few stairs to a wooden door. I hear the dust outside, scraping against the door. He opens the door and throws me into the storm. I am almost naked. The dust tears at my skin.

“Please,” I say. “Don’t leave me out here without rags.”

The initiate wobbles his head and goes back inside, closing the door behind him. I cover my face with my hands and lie face down on the ground. Mama can’t be that far away, but I would never be able to find her in the storm. Everywhere I look is brown. My skin is scratched by the dust, and I can’t breathe. But I can almost hear the Word from the temple. I listen through the dust. I sit up so I can hear it better. I stand up. I gasp a deep breath, and the brown narrows to a circle at the end of a tunnel inside my eyes that closes into black.

I wake on my back. It is night and cold. I can feel the dust crowding and holding me from the inside. I can barely cough. I stand up and walk towards the Warren, coughing a deadly, silent cough and spitting out dust. I come to a copse of trees and go into the room of leaves and branches they make. Among the trees there is more air. I can feel it on my skin, but I can’t breathe it. Everything is hushed. There are no birds, no pigs rustling the branches. I sit in the dust-coated leaf litter and lean against a tree. I know I need to get indoors, away from the carpet of dust and the cold. I fall into a half sleep.

Inside my eyes are the colors red and blue and the shimmering disorienting glass of the temple. I hear footsteps. A finger touches my cheek, and I hear Fitz’s voice say, “Drowning air.”

I open my eyes. Fitz, Forward, and Fergal are in the copse.

“Fitz,” I try to say, but I have no breath to speak with.

I want to sing the notes of the Warren for him, so he can hear the truth, but there is too much dust in my lungs.

“What is it?” Fitz asks. “What is the Word?”

I hold my hand up to my throat to show him that I can’t speak.

“She’s been out here in the storm,” Fergal says, “without rags.”

“Did you hear it?” Forward asks.

I spit dust onto the dust-covered ground. I find a stick and write into the dust: WE ARE THE WORD. Fitz dampens my lips with rosewater. I can barely taste it. He breathes into my mouth. His breath pushes against the dust in my chest. It is not like a kiss. He is unbreathing me. Unwinding me. He pushes my breath backward. I cough and spit and vomit black onto the ground. Fitz holds me up, presses into my stomach hard with his hands.

And I laugh, a silent, painful laugh.

END


Jessica Breheny lives in Santa Cruz, California and teaches writing at San Jose City College. Her work has been published in, or is forthcoming from, Avery, Clade Song, Eleven Eleven, elimae, LIT, Other Voices, and Santa Monica Review among other journals. She is the author of the chapbooks Some Mythology (Naissance Press) and Ephemerides (Dusie Kollektiv).

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