I wrote this in 2004, living back in Western Illinois, seeing my mother off in her last year of alcoholism and reflecting on the world. Anyone reading this who knew me back then will remember my columns in the Western Courier. I was angry, newly awakened to the injustices of the world, trying to find ways to express my anger toward them. I submitted it to Strange Horizons, where I’ve submitted all of my short stories. So far, they’ve rejected them all, and for good reason. I’ve read – I don’t remember where – that everyone has ten horrible short stories in them before they write a good one. Which is fine. I’ve written four, which means that, if this is true, I only need to write 6 more and I’ll finally write something worth reading. This means I only have six to go. So here is a glimpse into the mind of my 23 year old self. Raging and thrashing at the world. Two down, eight to go.
It is dawn and I’m meditating, crosslegged in the sand, hands buried to the wrists, feeling the movement of Mother Earth. From the center of the village, a ways down the road, I can hear the steady thwack thwack thwack of hammers. The priests of Sol are building are building platforms for the Solstice festival tomorrow. Remembering what that means snaps my concentration. I pull my hands out of the ground and stand, dusting the sand from my robe.
“Geo Gratias,” I say, bowing to the ground.
I get up and walk to my house. The round dome is a black silhouette against the new sun. Swirls of dust kicked up by the wind blow around the village. When I enter the house Nicholas is playing on the floor and I pass by him, walking to cupboard. I open grandmother’s cupboard and begin pulling searching through her medicinal jars.
“What are you doing?” Nicholas asks me.
“Preparing for Mansol’s ordeal tomorrow.”
“Because he will be very badly hurt, I’m afraid. Everyone who goes through the ordeal is very badly hurt.” I pick up the three jars I’ve selected and carry them in a bowl to the table beside Nicholas. I open them and start mixing the contents in.
“So why do it?”
“Mansol is a very devoted man,” I say. “He wants to be a priest.”
“Are you going to be a priest?”
“Yes,” I say. The ingredients have formed a thick white paste in the bowl. I keep stirring, conscious to get all of the clumps out.
“Are you going to do the ordeal?”
I sigh. Nicholas is only seven. He won’t begin his religious instruction until next year. For him, there aren’t the Two Orders, yet. “No, it is not our way.”
Thankfully Grandmother enters carrying a large, steaming black pot full of stew. It’s not my place to instruct Nicholas in our ways and he’s not ready anyway. Grandmother puts down the pot on the table and looks at the bowl I’m stirring. She puts her finger into the paste and tastes it.
“To much alon,” She says in a disapproving voice.
“He’ll need a lot,” I reply.
“It won’t hold over night like that. You wait. It’ll be hard as bakesoil by morning.” She grabs the bowl from beneath my arms and starts shooing me out of the kitchen. “Go on, now, both of you. I’ll fix this batch up. Go and fetch the others now.”
Nicholas has already run out of the kitchen. “Yes, Grandmother,” I say, and leave after him.
Grandfather, Father, and Hadi are in the side yard, sacrificing a bird. They will needle me for not attending again. It is a man’s duty, after all. But I don’t like sacrificing and always meditate around sundown so I have an excuse not to go. In the low light I can see Hadi is digging a hole with a spade while father sits on the ground binding the bird’s wings with leather. Grandfather is sitting next to him. Nearing, I hear the two of them speaking of the troubles far off to the East. I hang back and listen.
“…And what do the Sols think about this?” Grandfather asks Father.
“Well obviously they ain’t having none of it.”
“Bastards ought to mind their own business.”
“Ought to but they ain’t. It’s the highest point in the region and they don’t want one of our temples so close to the sun.” Father says.
“But isn’t it our mountain?” Hadi asks.
“Damn right,” Grandfather says, “And that’s why they can’t do a damn thing about it.”
“I hear tell they’re planning a rally tomorrow, though,” Father says, finishing up the knot. “Marching right up to the base, they are. Might be violence I hear.”
Hadi sets down the spade. “Done.” Father hands the bird to Grandfather. It’s his right to do the sacrifice, but his hands are too old to tie the knots properly. He places the bird in the hole and it starts chirping wildy, but it can’t move. He gently fills in the hole with earth.
In unison, they bow. “Geo Gratias.”
Now I walk out and call to them. “Grandma wants you. Breakfast!”
We eat breakfast quickly, so we can get out and do our chores before the Midday. Grandfather starts a long story we’ve all heard before about how he single-handedly beat up 2 or 5 a legion of Sol priests at a bar in the City when he was young. Grandmother hushes him up, despite Nicholas’s pleas for more. He’s the only one who’ll really listen to Grandfather’s yarns.
“That’s enough talkin’ now, everybody eat,” Grandmother says, and we all dig in to our plates. I finish up first and excuse myself.
“You gonna get around to the back field today, son?” Father calls after me, as I duck past the blanket.
“On my way now!” I call back.
I make like I’m going away from the village, to the fields. I pick up my weed hook and a bag and turn around the wall to the side of the house. Quickly abandoning these, I run down the alleyway behind the house instead, deeper into the village, toward Mansol’s house. The sun is still low in the sky so the heat is very mild.
Our village isn’t large, only about 200 homes, but it’s segregated just like the City. I cross the main avenue to the Sol side of town and when I get to Mansol’s house he’s at work in the garden alone. He is constructing a shield over a row of plants to protect them from the sun. I run up beside him and sit on the ground, crosslegged.
He sits up, dusting his hand together. “Hey, Jordy, What’s new?” His white robe is dirtied at the knees.
“Not much. I’m supposed to be de-weeding the back field.”
“Still?” He laughs.
I hold out my hands hand cock my head to the side. “Hey, there’s a lot of leaves.”
“There can’t be that many.” He laughs, and gently punches my leg.
“Well Father never goes out there, so he’ll never know.”
The sound of hammering comes from the center of the village again as the workmen return from breakfast. My brow creases and I stare at the ground, not saying anything. Monsol looks at me and the same expression comes over his face, too. Whatever worry this causes me, I know it has to be tenfold for him. Still, he places his hand on my thigh, and tries to comfort me. We’re almost caught though, as the sound of feet crunching on gravel signals the approach of someone, and he quickly retracts his arm.
A young Sol named Typhos walks around the corner of the house and as soon as he sees me his eyes harden. Typhos is zealously religious, I’m guessing all the more so now, so close to the solstice. His white robe is stark in the early morning sun.
“Hey Mansol,” He says. He doesn’t address me.
“Typhos.” Mansol turns his head but doesn’t smile, and I smile inwardly at this.
“Just seeing if you’d be up for a game later on in the courtyard, after dinnertime.”
“Game of what?”
“Four on four kicker. We need an extra guy.”
“Sure,” Mansol says. Mansol is extremely athletic, muscular, and good at sports. I’ve always been terrible at them.
“Great.” Typhos looks down. “Putting up a new shield?”
“Yeah. Old one got torn by that last windstorm.”
Suddenly he turns his attention to me. “You know why those plants turn, don’t you, Geo?” He says. “Because of the sun. Without the sun you don’t eat.” He smirks triumphantly and Mansol flashes him a glare which he doesn’t see.
“And what do you think they’re growing in, genious?” I say.
“Why, you…” Is all Typhos says but he clenches his fist and takes a step toward me. Mansol leaps up and stands in way, placing his hands on Typhos’ shoulders. I stand up and clench my fists as well, though I wouldn’t stand a chance.
“Hey, man,” He says. “I think you better go.”
“You sticking up for him?” Typhos points at me.
“Yes. I am.” Mansol says, his voice nearly a growl. “He’s my friend. Now I think you better go.”
Typhos backs off and says “You need to choose your friends better, Mansol. It ain’t right.” Then turns and leaves.
Mansol turns back to me and his expression softens, but it’s clear he’s unhappy with me. Starting trouble doesn’t help either of us.
“Look, I gotta get to work,” I say, before he can scold me, and start to turn away. He grabs my shoulder, stopping me.
“See you tonight?” He asks.
I half-laugh. “Of course.”
“This is just like when them bastards tried to build one o’ them damn spires in the bogs back in the old village. Didn’t get away with it then, either,” Grandfather says. It’s Midday and we’re eating lunch. The blankets are all closed across the windows, blocking out the light.
“But Grandfather,” I say, “This time we’re building a temple, not them.”
“That don’t make no damn bit o’ difference, boy.” Grandfather says, leveling his spoon at me. “It’s all the same them Sols buttin’ in where they ain’t welcome.”
“He’s right, son,” Father says. “Things may be quiet around here, on account o’ we’re so isolated. We gotta be. In the city, things is different. If the Sol’s don’t start mindin’ their own business, they’ll start trouble again.”
“Father, nobody started anything last time,” I say. “Everybody started everything. What does it matter anyway, who builds what where? Why do they have to fight about it? It’s stupid!”
Father’s voice grows noticeable sterner, and he says “Don’t backtalk me boy. There are some things you just don’t understand yet.”
Nicholas looks up from his plate grouba, which he’s sculpted into a mountain. “Why do the Sols care so much about the hot old sun?”
“Cause they’re wrong, boy.” Grandfather says. “Mother Earth gives us life. Gives us food. The Sols-”
“Grandfather,” I say, “He’s not ready to-“
“Mind your tongue, boy,” He snaps, then turns back to Nicholas. “The Sols think they sun created everything, damn fools, and they’ll pay for it, too. That includes that friend o’ yours.”
I can’t stay at the table and control myself so I make do with rather petulantly pounding my fist on the table and going to my room. When I leave, Nicholas is constructing a breadstick temple on top of his mountain of grouba.
Later, after everyone else is asleep, I steal out of my bedroom window and run across the dusty, quiet streets until I get to Mansol’s house. He is waiting in the shadows behind the rear wall of the compound.. I run up behind him and kiss him on the neck. He wheels around, grinning.
“Hey.” He whispers, and pulls me close to him. We kiss, and he grabs my hand, leading me out of the town through dark alleyways until we’re away from the village in our hidden spot behind the main house of a derilect ranch. He sits down, crosslegged, his back against the wall of the house and pulls me close to him. I lay his head in my lap and I stroke his hair. In the moonlight I can see the large red circle painted on the front of his robe; a symbol of our separation. A few moments pass before I say anything. We’re in private now, and there aren’t any pretentions.
“I wish you wouldn’t do this,” I whisper. “Please don’t.”
Mansol sighs deeply and his breath tickles my leg hairs. “Let’s not go over this again, Jordy, please.” He says. “It’s too late anyway.”
“But there are other ways. You don’t have to do it like this. It could kill you.”
“It won’t kill me.”
“It could”, I say. “People have died.”
Mansol sits up and grabs me by the chin. “Only the very old or sick. Not me. Besides, your order has an ordeal, too. You’re going to do that, aren’t you?”
“Being buried up to my neck in the Mother Earth for two days is not like what you’re doing. You won’t have water, you won’t have shade, laid out like a strip of leather…” My voice quivers and I cut myself off.
He pulls me in close to him, and I lay my head on his chest. “Shhh. Just be there for me tomorrow, that’s all I need. I’m going to need your care to get over this.” We sit late into the night like that, not speaking.
I oversleep the next morning, and when I wake up it’s nearly dawn. Cursing myself I run to the kitchen where Grandmother is cooking breakfast.
Without turning around she says, “The salve is on the table. Get going now.”
I take the jar of paste from the table. It’s very smooth and not as thick as mine was. The blanket on the door is still tied and I unfasten it before running down the street to the square, where a good crowd of people has already gathered. Mansol and five other initiates are standing naked in front of their platforms. I muscle my way through the crowd, and put the jar down in front of him, careful not to stare at his bare body.
“Thought you weren’t going to make it,” He laughs. “Then I really mighthave died.”
His grandfather is squatting next to him, fixing the bonds on the four corners of the platform. He looks up at me and does not smile.
“Alright,” to Mansol, “Get down there.” Mansol lies down on his back and I start rubbing the thick white paste over his dark skin. I’m careful to look serious while doing this, not aroused.
His grandfather ties his wrists and ankles one by one, then looks at me, then at Mansol. “If you ask me I still say it’s a damn silly thing having an Earth Worshipper be your boy during this. Should be one of us.” He turns and walks off and it’s only then, following him with my eyes, that I realize the crowd at the square is entirely segregated. On one side are Solarians, in their white robes with the red circles on the chests. On the other are the Geos, in the dark brown tunics we wear.
“What’s this all about?” I ask him.
“Word came in early this morning from the East,” He says, his voice heavy. “Transport pilot said violence broke out in the City overnight. Two of our temples were burned by a Geo mob.”
I can suddenly feel the eyes of the Solarians burning into me. This was always the one eventuality Mansol and I never talked about, because it was one thing we couldn’t control. “Anybody killed?” I ask, but I’m interrupted by the head Solarian priest of the village who starts giving a speech. The Sun is already peeking over the horizon. I finish putting on the ointment and tell Mansol “Good luck,” followed by a whispered “I love you,” which is stupid but everyone’s attention is focused on the priest.
After the priest finishes up he blesses each of the young men and slowly the crowd disperses. The men must be alone with the Sun through their ordeal. A group of men bring forth a wicker barricade they erect around the five platforms.
That morning, after breakfast, I sit out in the side yard with Grandfather, Father, and Hadi, listening to them talk of the troubles. Nicholas is playing on the ground and Grandmother is inside preparing lunch. It’s only a few hours after breakfast and the heat is already getting bad.
“There’ll be war, for sure.” Grandpa says, lighting a pipe. “Bastards went too far this time.”
“But what about the truce?” I ask. “It’s been honored for three centuries, how can they just break it? Don’t they remember what happened last time?”
“Sols is to dumb to remember, boy.” Grandfather says, shaking his head. He never used to talk like that, at least not openly. I decide to ask father.
“What do you say, father? There can’t be a war, can there?”
“I don’t know, son,” He says, “I don’t think anybody around here wants it but city folk is different from us. They don’t think the same.”
“But last time millions died, father! Don’t they remember that?”
“I told you, boy, Sols is too dumb to remember that.”
I lose my temper and yell at Grandfather. “Damnit, I’m not just talking about the Solarians! I’m talking about everybody! The Geos, too! Everybody who thinks it’s a good idea to run around killing each other over the Earth and the Sun! I’m talking about you!”
The four of them sit there, gaping at me. Father and Hadi look to Grandfather for a reaction. They won’t do anything; it’s not their place. I’ve thrown down the gauntlet to Grandfather and he alone must pick it up. He puts down his pipe and stands, quivering with rage.
“You. Get…out…of my house.” He sputters. He’s too old for a direct physical confrontation and he knows it, but the fact that he owns the house is a trump card. What I did was stupid but I was planning to leave anyway. After Mansol became a priest and went to the city, I was going to go through the ordeal and move there, too. That plan’s finished now but there’s nothing I can do.
“I’ll be gone in the morning,” I say, spitting on the ground, and go inside. I go to my room and close the blanket. In the kitchen the family eats a hushed lunch. They’re talking in low tones and I don’t know if they’re talking about me or the troubles, but I suspect it’s both. Sitting on my mat I catch the word “militia” a few times, meaning, I figure, that the Geo mililita has been called up, and the war really is coming again.
I’ll have to go to the City, of course, but I don’t know what I’ll do. I can’t join the priesthood now but I can still get a job and support myself that way. As I’m sitting, it hits me that this is moment that will change my life forever, and I’m scared.
A gong sounding outside tells us it’s now approaching noon, and everyone better get off the streets.
Outside I hear someone yell “Stay inside, Geos! Sol’s wrath will be great today! Hide from the truth!”
I can see through the gaps in the window between the blanket and the wall light starting to change, getting whiter by the second. Bright shafts of it come into my room, cutting swaths through dust. I position my eye directly in the path of one but can only hold it there for a brief moment.
It’s even hot inside of the room now, in the shade. Noon at any time of the year out in the West is a bad time to be out but on the solstice it’s deadly. That’s why they choose this time to do the ordeal; to show their devotion to Sol.
The light grows brighter by the second, until I swear I can almost hear it humming. Screams start coming from the village square as the initiates skin starts to cook on their bodies. I try to pick out Mansol’s voice in the chorus but they all sound the same, shrieking, almost animal like. I want to run out there but I can’t; I just sit there, bury my head between my knees, and weep. One by one the voices stop as the initiates pass out, and soon after the light begins to dim. I run out of my room and the family is still sitting at the table, where they’ve been listening.
I make for the door and Grandmother tries to stop me. He jumps up and grabs me by the sleeve. “You can’t go out there, yet, Jordy!” She yells.
“I have to!” I say, the tears still in my eyes. “It’s my job to treat him.”
“Jordy,” She says, “I know he’s your best friend, but…”
“He’s more than my friend, Grandmother!” I say, and stare at her. She looks confused at first, trying to figure out what I mean. Then the realization hits her and she jerks her hand away from me, putting it over her mouth instead. I don’t even wait for the other’s reactions, and head out the door at a sprint.
When I was very young I was caught in the sun at noon. It was in the middle of winter, and I was out playing with friends. We were playing hide and seek, and I had gone far off to find a good hiding place. I got wrapped up in the game, though, and didn’t hear the gong sound. I sat there for a long time, underneath a bush, waiting for someone to find me. When I finally noticed it was noon, it was too late. I was too far from the village to make it safety. I was in bed for a week as my skin blistered and peeled. I almost forgot what it felt like.
The light is blinding, and my skin feels like it’s being filleted off my body. I stumble down the street, my closed almost shut. Each particle of sunlight that hits my body is like a needle. ‘I’m being cooked alive’ I think to myself, and almost turn back before I realize what that means to Mansol. I can’t make it, though. I fall into the shadow of an overhang on one of the neighbor’s houses, but quickly stand back up because touching the ground hurts so much. Instead I stand there, in agony, until the light dims more. When it does, people come running out of their houses wearing very wide white hats to protect them from the sun.
I follow them and when I make to the square the wall has already been torn down and a mixed crowd of people has formed around the platforms. Everyone is yelling and I can’t make out what’s going on until I make my way through and see for myself. I know they are all dead immedeatley. Mansol’s flesh is blistered and peeled. Blood pours from the places where the flesh had burst open. He is bleeding from his eyes, too, which are still open. His tongue hangs out of his mouth. It is the same with the rest of them. Mansol’s grandfather is cradling his head in his lap, weeping openly.
“It was bad this year.” I hear someone say behind me.
An elderly voice replies: “I ain’t never seen it like this. Not this bad.”
Mansol’s grandfather looks up, his face full of rage. He points at me. “This your fault! You burned down Sol’s temples and brought his wrath, you bastards!” This prompts a fury of yelling and screaming. Blackness starts creeping in from the edge of my vision and I see myself falling…
When I wake it up it’s dark outside and I’m covered in white bandages. I’m in my room, naked on my bed, and Grandmother is beside me, mixing up a batch of salve in her wooden bowl. I jerk my head up and try to speak, but she puts her hand on forehead, forcing my head back down.
“Shhh, Shhh, young one. Just lie there.”
“Mansol,” I say in a weak voice. “He’s…he’s…”
“He’s dead, Jordy. He’s dead.”
I don’t weep. I just lay there, focusing on nothing, while she puts more bandages on me. After a minute there is a knock on the wall and someone pushes the blanket aside. I hear father’s voice say “Is he awake?”
“Yes, bring them in,” Grandmother replies.
Father enters the room flanked by two men in military uniform with weapons at their side. Father squats down beside me and the men say nothing.
“Jordy, these men are from the militia. They’re here to take you.” His voice is cold.
“What?” I ask.
“The militia, Jordy. We called them before lunch. You’re going into the militia. They’ll put some discipline into you.”
“Father, please, I – I can’t, don’t do this,” I say.
“Fighting’s broken out in the city, Jordy. Real fighting. You’re going to go there.” He turns to the men behind him. “Okay, go get the stretcher.” They leave. He turns back to me.
“I didn’t tell them what happened. If I did, it wouldn’t be the militia here. They’re going to help you be a man, Jordy.”
“No, please, not that,” I plead, but he ignores me and walks out of the room.
A minute later the two men come back in carrying a stretcher and they put me on it. They carry me outside, and it’s a full moon and torches are lit everywhere, so I can see what’s happening. Geo militia troops are all over the town, herding scared looking people down the streets at gunpoint. Some of their white robes are splattered with blood. Figures in brown tunics run in and out of abandoned houses, carting off goods.
Outside the village, a dozen ships are idling. Some of them are military vessels, some of them are cargo ships. Outside of the military vessels are lines of young Geo men, waiting to go to war. Soldiers are packing Solarians into the others. As they hoist me into one our ships I can see, not too far off, soldiers throwing blistered, naked bodies into a large hole. The last one is Mansol; I catch a glimpse of his face as they pick him up. After they throw him in two soldiers start filling in the hole with dirt.
I fold my hands, close my eyes, and say, “Geo Gratias.”