VIEWS: 17 PAGES: 44 POSTED ON: 12/3/2011
The Search for Truth The tale of a lost Truth-Teller by Edye C. Benedict PROLOGUE The Sky God’s Order Wails penetrated the air, rising from a small, snow-blanketed cottage nestled away in the bosom of winter. A shriek, then silence, ringing and ricocheting off the frost and wind. Deep inside a hidden cave, a man stood up. He was muscular, middle-aged, clothed only in a linen toga. On his head was a circlet of gold, and he had a long beard that merged seamlessly with the rest of him. There was a small circle of bright, glowing red coals, the only light in the entire cave. Water dripped down from fangs of heavy stone and onto the cold, frozen floor. Another shadow, more slender, carrying itself lighter, slunk away into the darkness, but the older man, though his back was against the smaller figure, sensed his exit. “Not so fast, Constantine,” he growled, thick mustache bobbing. “Listen. Listen to the delicious sound of an infant’s first cry. Feel the love from its parents. Listen how quickly it is quieted, how quickly it sleeps.” A young man crept back toward the warmth of the fire. “Why, sir?” The man’s eyes narrowed. “Did I not teach you to keep quiet? Not to ask questions?” “Yessir,” he mumbled. “That is the Truth-Teller’s dwelling,” the man said, voice gravelly and low. “That is their daughter, soon to be christened and accepted into their family.” Hatred oozed in his voice. “I must have her.” “Sir?” Constantine’s brow furrowed in confusion. So this was why he had been rudely dragged from Above, practically down to the Underworld, and made to sleep on a rock in a dank, damp cave for over ten days now? Just to spy on a Truth-Telling family? To plan to steal their child? He was starting to seriously question his master’s sanity. After all, hadn’t he – “No!” bellowed the man. Constantine jumped back. Deciding that his main priority right now was to keep the mood relatively light and happy, he quickly smothered the rather petrified look on his face with what he hoped was a respectful expression. A slight crackle of electricity escaped the man’s fingertips, attached to the rocks, petering out with a hiss and plume of damp steam. “We need them!” he roared. Constantine resisted the strong urge to clamp his hands over his ears. “They are what is blocking us from victory. This is no cause for negligence or inattention, Constantine. I am the Lord of the Sky, the cloud compeller, and I must rule over everyone for my plan to be successful. I am Zeus, boy! I need that girl. I need her desperately, so desperately you would not understand. You will never fully comprehend the complex workings of my brain.” He paused, as though daring Constantine to object. Satisfied with the silence, ringing only with the rebounding echoes of his last shouts, he continued, in a thankfully softer voice, “This is your job. This is what you must do. We will make the wars, but it is you who will train the girl, make her into one of us. Our survival depends on this child.” He paused, and both men listened, cocking their heads, to the thin, plaintive wail still trickling out of the home, almost as fragile and ghostly as the smoke from the chimney. “She sounds so little, so innocent,” Constantine murmured, taking advantage of the momentary peace. He was not quite sure if he was regretful or not. “With all due respect, sir… Are you certain you have the correct child? Not, of course, that I wish to undermine your authority,” he added hastily, praying that his hot-tempered master would be mollified by his submissiveness. Zeus didn’t appear to have noticed one way or other; he was still staring at the cottage, and the look in his shadowed eyes was almost apologetic. “Don’t be misled,” he said grimly to his servant. “All children start out the same way.” “Sir…” Zeus shot him a warning look, eyes narrowed and nostrils slightly flared. Anger had replaced the fleeting remorse. “I am generous with my thunderbolts. You know that, Constantine.” The young man’s mind jumped back to a memory of blinding blue-white light and heavy torrents of rain. And pain, the feel of excruciatingly hot electricity riddling his body with a sting unrivaled only by ten thousand stinging jellyfish. He gulped, nodding. “I am the sky god,” Zeus continued, gaze intense and tone unwavering as he looked once more at the small cottage, his silhouette dark and severe, “and I order you to be this child’s captor. This is an order, a demand you must obey. Do you understand?” “Yessir,” said Constantine, backing away slightly. His master’s obsession, though bizarre – not to mention puzzling – to the young man, was clearly a delicate subject. After a moment, he added tentatively, “Goodnight, sir.” The god grunted. Sighing, his servant turned and lay down on the flat slab of rock that had become his bed, wondering if the baby knew how drastically her life was soon to change. It was inevitable, he told himself. No use feeling sorry for her. She’s my enemy, he reminded his conscience firmly. In the cottage, both baby and mother slumbered on a small cot by the fireside. The father stood for a moment, watching his tiny daughter’s chest rise and fall in a deep, natural sleep. She was the promise of a new beginning, the key for the entire nation to thrive. A small smile grew on his mouth. Perhaps, now that she was born, they might even defeat – but no, he mustn’t think about that. He shook the thought from his head. He ought to be happy. What was wrong with him? Smiling instead with affection for his wife and child, he yawned, stretched, and retreated to his own bed across the room. Soon he, too, was asleep, drugged with the joy that a new child always inspires within proud parents. The girl waved tiny fists as her eyes opened in the darkness. For a newborn, she was surprisingly aware of her surroundings; the gaze that one would expect to be murky, possibly even nonexistent, was clear and intelligent. Being a baby, however, she fell back asleep almost instantly. Her dark head, topped with a mop of coarse black locks, contrasted with the white pillow, taking up a mere fraction of its surface; it lolled back as she fell once again into blissful slumber, unaware of what terrors lay ahead in her future. Who am I? My World My world is different from other people’s worlds. Others exist merely because their lives, their hopes and dreams, are vehicles fueled by everlasting willpower. But me, I’m different. I don’t dream. I don’t dare hope for anything. Faith, trust, love – they’re all meaningless words to me. Dreaming is a fantasy in the far distance, dancing up and down on the golden horizon of places I can’t go, taunting me, pitying me. I sag against the brick wall of eternity, a jellyfish trapped in the foolish form of a person. Every night there is the leering presence of “I don’t know”s painting themselves on the canvas of blackness. It is a tiresome ritual I have grown accustomed to, for I have never once been permitted to sleep uninterrupted. Each time I attempt to slumber, all I can think about is how I don’t know, I don’t know anything. I don’t know who my parents are, why I am this way, where I am, who I am. For me, it is a constant battle for self-recognition, but I have already lost it. Opportunities fly past in a streak of light plummeting into a dark abyss. I live in a place that has no simple name. A land where the only thing I sense every day is the looming presence of desks, of powdered India ink, black against white parchment, and of books. Volumes of them, stacks, precarious heaps, piles, and rows. Red, green, blue bindings gaze at me as I crouch near the floor. Crinkled yellow pages turn themselves with a slow crackle of stiff parchment and a soft cascade of dust. Splintered wood and cool, impassive metal glare at me day and night. My views are limited; I peer through a crack under where I live. Voices croon softly and yet I cannot reach them. Murmurs, shouts, the occasional whisper floats past me in a silver thread of sound I cannot understand. I know there is light somewhere, and with it my purpose. I have distant memories – vague, shifting shadows that warp into indistinct gray masses. I remember a voice, an order to stay hidden. But even those dissipate into growing fogs that I cannot extricate myself from. I know that one day I will find out who I am. I will know what my name is, and why people stare when they see me, though I am getting better at hiding. I do not know why they look at me so, with eyes filled with pity, azure pools of compassion. And yet I can grasp it, I can understand, but I can’t speak. I am trapped in limbo, a mute full of thoughts that refuse to tumble out, a child who cannot see and yet can sense. Someday, someday, someday, I tell myself. Someday, I will know who I am. Someday, I will find my identity. Until then, I am lost – a lost soul, wandering this strange world alone. Deer in the Headlights A man’s presence wakes me. I blink in confusion, a deer in the headlights. “She’s been here a while. We’ve kept her for her own safety,” a gravelly voice says quietly. “She’s addled, sir. We don’t know where she’s from, but we expect she’s a refugee of The Battle. Her parents are dead, probably murdered for being Truth-Tellers. She sits behind the bookcase all day. Stares at people, doesn’t say anything.” Yes, that’s me, I silently agree. Gawking, silent, orphaned. Addled. A rough hand reaches to grab my wrist. Horror fills me and without thinking, without planning it, I reach forward and slap the man’s face. “She’s feisty,” a woman says, wringing her hands until her fingers are knotted together. “She’s always been feisty. If you touch her – if you get near her – she’ll get mad. She was fine at first, but her eyes have changed.” She reaches out to point at my eyes but her hand snaps back to her side. I feel a surge of emotion: thrill at my power, at the possibility that all might not be lost; distress that I intimidate grown people so easily. The woman continues with her description of me, and of my eyes. “They’re wild now, and empty.” She pauses, glancing at the tall, burly men questioning her, before admitting, almost hesitantly, “Her parents – her parents, we think, might have been the leaders of the first Rebellions. We-we can’t be sure.” “Yes ma’am,” the man, the rough one, says gruffly. He grabs my elbows and yanks me away from my hiding spot before I can cry out. As my mouth opens to yell, another hand, thick and stifling, pulls a gag of heavy wool around the lower half of my face. This is my worst nightmare: I cannot breathe; I cannot see or hear in my agony. All I can do is stare in utter, silent panic as I am lifted and carried away. Alone Once More The air is cool here. It touches my skin, gentle: a soothing salve on an angry burn. It feels like something I cannot grasp – something significant, yet impossible to comprehend. A creamy hand, slender, touches my cheek. Is it in my imagination? I cannot be sure. “How are you?” I jump at the sound. A woman smiles encouragingly at me, white teeth flashing. “You’ve been asleep a while.” I want to speak, but my throat closes. I haven’t spoken in so long that words refuse to oblige any longer. All I can do is nod my head, and even that takes strength I do not think I possess. She smiles again, as though she understands, and pulls my blankets up. I gaze around me. For so long, my world was restricted to the same view, the same smells, the same slightly stale air. Now, I am in a room, all white, with two medium-sized windows – portals to an unknown land. The cot I am on is soft and springy, and the woman is sitting in a wooden chair at the foot of my bed. Two vents directly above me send the air into my lungs. There is something strange about this room, though. After a moment of staring at the windows, I realize: what I thought were windowpanes and translucent glass are actually mirrors. They reflect back light and shifting shadows, but when I sit up, I do not see my reflection. I am so confused, so scared, so traumatized. What has happened to me? Why am I here? Who am I? What is going on? The woman is about to say something when a door, previously invisible, opens and a gangly teenager enters the room. He utters a few words, but I cannot hear him. When he leaves, my caretaker goes with him and I am left, alone, defenseless, lost, once more. You Are “Hello?” My head snaps up. I was not sleeping, exactly, just… remembering. Flashes of sound, wordless insults, then quiet. And then books, piles and mounds coating the street. The hiding place – a metal rack, filled with books, and later on a wooden shelf. “We have your identity,” the woman says quietly. She is not the same woman as before – similar, identical to the other, but I can tell from her manner that she is only pretending to be the same. I say nothing about the switch. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. “We know who you are,” she says, louder this time. My heart leaps. “Who am I?” I whisper, so deep in my throat she cannot hear me. But I spoke. Light wavers before my eyes. How good it is to feel words dance in my mouth, to have them come out with a sound. Looking straight at me, her dark eyes burning into me as mine penetrate her to find the truth, she says slowly and deliberately, “You are Alitta.” Why am I here? Alitta The wind outside is colder, the air edgier, and gazing outside the window to a place I do not know I see a hint of sadness and promise of rain. A new land is introduced to me inside my prison, day by day, as they christen me Ally. “Ally, do this,” they say. “Ally, you are accepted here. You are loved here.” I don’t know the meaning of “love” or “acceptance”, and so their proclamations are nothing to me. All I know is that I do not call myself Ally, that I am not the girl people are attempting to morph me into. I am the caterpillar who refuses to metamorphose. I still hold precious the words that pave my road to self-recognition; the words of the woman so different and yet so similar to my initial caretaker: You are Alitta. I am Alitta, the girl who is still lost and yet has been embraced, has been found, by kind people. I am Alitta, the girl who stayed so long in that cold, dark place, shrinking away from the smell of book-binding paste and powdered India ink, dark, soft, black against so much blinding white. A Blast of Truth They say I am in a better place. A place where I will learn to survive. Where? I ask myself every night. Where am I? Where will I survive? I find Master Constantine. I ask him, plead him to explain. His brow darkens, the beginning of a storm, as he says slowly, “Your mother – her name was Aletha.” “Like mine,” I whisper, basking in the glow of closeness. My mother’s name, like mine. Same sounds. Same letters. Except… her name was soft. Mine – mine is hard, tough, sharp, the name of a defiant maiden. “What else?” I press. I must know. “You are studying well,” he says, tugging at his beard. A nervous gesture, a weakness I seek out like a hawk. “You will be Released soon.” “Where? Into where?” I beg for information. “Into the Real World. You don’t understand, Ally. Your name – Alitta – is a curse. Do you know what it means?” I shake my head. “It means Truth.” He spits the word out like I once spat out a sour candy Mistress tried to feed me. He watches me as I cringe, as confusion fills me, wondering why they refer so often to words that are beyond my knowledge. Observing my suffering, his face changes. I watch questioningly. The transformation is slight at first; vein pulsing in his temple, slight shifting of his feet. Then his features crumple for a split second, smooth, and his fists, huge iron balls, clench tight. Teeth gritted, eyes sparking, hands tightened, face reddened, he speaks as though he is choking. “We live in a world where our only defense is deceit. Where our only defense is lying, is telling falsehoods. You, your name, means that you will not live without counseling. You will be given to telling to truth, and worse, pointing out when your betters do not stay truthful. Truth, integrity, honesty – we all ridicule them. You wish to know more about your parents? They were Truth-Tellers, making trouble for nations everywhere. That was why we had to execute them. The Battle put a stop to these Rebellions, stamping out anyone who had candor flowing in their veins.” He wets his lips, a quick dart of a fiery snake’s tongue, and continues, his voice hoarse and constricted with emotion, “We give you a chance to live. We reform you. We educate you and in return, you will help us hunt down the last Truth-Tellers of all.” His face suddenly relaxes, becoming an indescript pool of apathy. Feelings flood over me, a great tidal wave of confusion and despair. My old muteness overcomes me, and I can only stare dumbly at the distressed man before me. Fury replaces disbelief, and on instinct I lean forward and spit on Master Constantine’s clean shoes. A dark spot grows on the cloth moccasins until a circle covers his big toe. I catch a fleeting glance of his face, shock and incredulity etched onto it, before gasping, panting, sputtering, I wheel around and run into my room. The blast of truth hits its target. Emotions go haywire upon impact, jumbling my thoughts and making me freeze in the doorway. Anger, hatred, loathing blind me, before I feel only the sorrow of a hope crushed. I have trusted my caretakers. I have looked to them for support and guidance. And what do I get in return? Betrayal. Complete, utter betrayal. I was doing so well! I was gaining awareness of this new world, acclimatizing to a new setting and new people. But this one shock is too much for me. I can’t handle it, I can’t take it all in, can’t think. I am a ship tossed on the waves, prey to the roaring blue monster of chaos. Slamming the door, I hug my knees to my chest and cry. Answers Darkness envelopes me, a blanket of sorrow, an inkblot of despair. I now know why I am here. I have two answers, shortening the never-ending list of questions I have asked as long as I can recall, but I am far from liberated. There is still the reassurance of my newly gained knowledge, offering a lantern to penetrate the heavy darkness, a light at the end of a tunnel. “My name is Alitta,” I say aloud, softly, an introduction given to the room. The words still feel stiff in my mouth. “And I am here to be a servant of the Gods.” What is my destiny? The Jug They say my fate is to find the Truth-Tellers. They say that I will find them, hunt them down, and our world will be perfect. But I disagree. I know they are lying. I can sense it – sense their slight hesitance before plunging into another lie, another story to hide their true intents. They fib with such ease that I often get confused. Is it really true, that lying is the only way to live? Is it really? They claim that life is impossible to live without being untruthful – to themselves and to their neighbors. They tell me not to be afraid, to fib, that nothing will hurt me. Is that true? Are they being honest? At night I am often haunted with dreams of being pinned the the ground and stampeded by a rampage of mingled lies and truths, for that is what my existence is here. I miss my old life. At least there, I was trapped. I was in one place all the time. I knew what to expect. Life was not the unpredictable ride it is here. I did not have to disguise my thoughts and mold my actions to please my prison guards. Here, it’s different. Here, I must face a different kind of life. If I was a jellyfish then, what am I now? A coward? A tornado? What? Here, life is a broken teapot, dark liquid spilling out of it, flowing out of the cracked porcelain the way lies flow out of the Gods. And soon enough, someone comes with a tube of glue, says they are going to fix life, and lines up all the intricate blue patterns. They seal the cracks, cease the flowing, and say it’s as good as new. And what about that tiny fracture near the base of the pot? That tiny little crack, the size of a hair, where a drop of tea leaks out every day? The person who said he would fix it, he’s a liar. Tea still drips out, sneaky, but each amber drop stains the white linen tablecloth, same as before. That is what life is here. A broken teapot, something they want to conceal, to pretend is fixed, but it’s not. Lies slip out, one after the other, after the other, and the other. Yes, that is my destiny. I must staunch the flow. I must introduce to the people, the Gods, the skies, a new truth, a new way to live. I must show them a simple clay jug, wider at the bottom, weighted at the base: simple, pure. A jug that refuses to fall, refuses to be knocked over, and doesn’t break. A jug – the jug, the jug of life, the plain jug with no fancy patterns, the jug of humility and straightforwardness. The jug that holds so much significance and has a value greater than words. The jug so critical and magnificent that its title, its label, its meaning, can hardly be summed up with our clumsy language, though still there is a name for it. The jug of truth. What Lies Beyond “What lies beyond those thick cement walls?” I ask Master Constantine. “What is it?” “That is the world,” he says. “That is where you will soon be Released. When you tell your first Untruth, you will be rewarded. And as soon as you take the Examinations you will be a Free Citizen.” “But not if my destiny is to hunt down the last Truth-Tellers,” I remind him. He can’t see, but underneath my cotton robes I am clenching my hands tightly together, tighter than tight can be. He frowns and turns away. I watch him closely. Master Constantine is odd. He seems sincere sometimes and yet others – others, he is dull and dim-witted, conforming to the Common beliefs. Lying like the rest of the Gods. A slight look of panic subsumes his face, and then all is smooth. He turns back to me and says, in his usual dull manner, “You will not be harmed. We will take care of you.” Then he is off, sweeping off down the hallway, long robes billowing out behind him, taunting me. I know he is lying. I could see it on his face. I will be harmed. They will not take care of me. Those are the real words he spoke. “No,” I say to myself. “No!” My voice rises, a thin, wailing stream of plaintive sound. I pound on the walls, anguished, furious at reality. I am becoming myself again, becoming real, no longer a jellyfish against so many books, and it is harsh. The truth is brutal just as lying is not. Lying cushions the blow, until truth comes along and straightens it out. I have returned to the endless “I don’t know”s that haunted me so. My head swirls, a maelstrom of light and pain and excruciatingly taxing choices. I don’t know. I don’t know. The sound of tears dropping onto a marble floor echo in my head constantly, agonizingly precise and perfect, agonizingly consistent. Rainbows and warbling songs take shape in what I see through the eyes that are now wild and feral. Fingers tapping on a desk, the intonations of the Gods, eating their food and living a lie… everything is torturous. I am a whirlwind of confusion, a small girl alone in a big room, left to make decisions impossible to make, left alone in a howling wind of misery. The Golden Threads of Truth I wake up, my robes crumpled beneath me, on the cold stone floor. Nobody moved me during the night, nobody. Dreams rendezvoused in my brain as I slept – more flashes of light, a cool hand on my shoulder, noiseless battles I cannot control. I struggle to a sitting position, and then lift myself off the ground, walking down the corridor, my hemp sandals slapping gently against the dreary gray tiles that make up the pathway from my room to the classrooms. There I run into Mistress Cardea. She was the first lie I saw, the one who replaced my initial caretaker – my caretaker, the one with flashing white teeth and soft hands. Mistress Cardea runs the home, not her double. Her double is gone. I don’t know where they put her, where they left her, if she’s alone and scared, like I was. But she might give me answers. I need answers; I need them to fuel my body. To make me live. “Mistress Cardea?” I say breathlessly. “Yes, Ally?” she asks, her face pinching into a frown she quickly smoothes. For an instant, I hesitate, wondering if I should trust her. I shouldn’t. I know I shouldn’t. She and Master Constantine are the leaders, the matron and the guard. The chief liars. And yet… who else is in this foul prison? How else might I ever get an answer? I must try; I must never give up my search for truth. So I plunge into my question, a diver poised gracefully, daringly, above a bucket of freezing cold water. “Can you – will you – tell me something?” She looks at me, calculating, and I hold my breath, goose bumps crawling up and down my arms. Her gaze – her gaze is like fingernails against a chalk slate, two black lozenges of deceit. Then, slowly, she says, “What is it you wish to know?” “How old am I?” I look down at myself, looking at my feet and the length of my arms. I measure myself against the woman standing before me, my head barely scraping her shoulder. “We do not know,” she says evenly, but her eyes flash a challenge. I gulp, hardly believing what I am about to do. “I need to know,” I say quietly. “I must know. It is critical for my survival to know. Tell me the truth. Now. Tell me my age. Tell me.” I punctuate every word, watching Mistress Cardea’s face. She looks at me quickly, at the anger in my eyes, the fury I am hiding beneath my intense stare. I watch as she sags, and feel almost sorry for her, but stop myself. She looks at my height, and says, meekly, submissively, “You are between ten and fourteen.” Her face then floods with hatred, sending almost-tangible waves of loathing towards where I stand. “You have been here long, Ally. We are not pleased with you. You are our only hope, the only way to break the barrier between us and complete triumph. We have searched for you, looked everywhere for someone like you, and you are failing us.” I stare at her, my emotions caught in limbo, and suddenly, our eyes are warring. Her dark, black, spiteful ones and mine are battling, each to discover something dancing far off in the distance. I search her for truth, for the honesty nobody gives me, and she scrutinizes me, a hawk who has gone too long without meat. We stay this way for a long time, neither of us giving in to the other, until finally, Master Constantine appears and with one flick of his hand tears me away from Mistress Cardea. Panic blinds me. I know that grip; I know the feel of his hand around my wrist, crushing bone and blood together. It is the grasp that ripped me away from my safe haven, the hand that pulled me out of my quiet, calm little nook at the bookshop. I writhe out of his iron clasp, my hand already numb. Then, screaming incoherently, I stamp on his foot, hard, and run to my room. Thoughts blind me, the undercurrents of terror seeping into my brain, as I droop against the wall, a jellyfish once more. The vision of Mistress Cardea’s beady eyes piercing my own, the grip of Master Constantine’s hand crushing my wrist, the haunted, possessed gazes of other noiseless Gods that roam my prison, dance before my eyes. Taunting. Cruel. Reminding me of something I have refused to face: that these people – the people who let me live, who sent to me the first caretaker who was kind, who granted me my breath – these people, they are not my friends. They will never tell me the truth. They are enemies, the murderers that made me an orphan. Yet I can’t fight fully against the Gods. I feel a certain obligation to thank them, to be grateful, even though I am being raised to kill others of my kind. Is that part of my honesty? Part of my curse, my name, my destiny? And even when I do fight, why is it I run away? It follows the same pattern, a pattern that I am afraid of and yet cannot discontinue. Something in Master Constantine’s grip, in being angered or upset, being snatched and tossed to and fro, makes me want to explode, and I must lash out. I can’t control it, but I hit anyone who comes near me. When did I develop this instinct? When I was told to hide? Those awful dark days trapped in a bookshelf, temporarily blinded? When? I must seek the answers on my own. The truth is there to be found by me, me, Alitta, the Truth- Teller’s daughter. That is my fate. To find the answers to my questions, and in it, never stop telling the truth. Never stop seeking it, hunting it down. To keep on scavenging for it, holding onto each golden thread, every fragment of golden honesty that tells me where I came from and how I will complete my destiny. And when I will go home. How will I escape? Pulling Strings Time has passed. I feel it in my bones, in the acts I make. I feel older, more mature. I may be a child yet, but I am growing in this place. There is no record of time available, perhaps because it is too precise, too on-the-dot, threatening the Gods’ beliefs. Master Constantine once told me that I was almost thirteen. Perhaps now I am older, and yet I feel no different than when I came to this prison. Just wiser, more burdened, less feisty. In the many years that have passed the last tendrils of my childhood departed. I am taller, my hands are surer. My voice is lower, no longer the shrill wailing of a helpless ten-year-old, but I was oblivious to these changes. A year, twelve moon cycles, 365 sunrises, umpteen stormy days- time did not matter until today. Now, the clock is ticking, faster and faster, sending me plunging headfirst into the frightening void of unknown places. What is time? Nothing but Man’s weak attempt to harness the unexplainable. A feeble effort to offer the order that humans feel the need for. To make everything “perfect”, everything “organized”. Truth has always been associated with perfection, precision, and prearranged policies. Dishonesty seems exactly the opposite. But what is the middle? The balance that eludes us all? Two extremes need not be one or the other. On a lyre, is your first lesson not that if you tighten a string too much it will snap, but if you don’t tighten it enough it won’t play? Truth – the true truth – is finding the balance between. If I am to find that, I must begin pulling strings soon. Signatures The history books I am given to read: thick brown volumes caked in dust, they all speak scornfully of attempted escapes in the past. The first Truth-Tellers were chained and tossed in prisons like these, until they “reformed”. But some, the ones the Master Constantine speaks poorly of, some found a way to escape. Though the textbooks say nothing further of their tactics, I know what they did. It’s in my blood, the spark of truth, the brand that binds me to my ancestors, and from that I can learn who I am and how to escape. My people caught onto a thread of hope, the fibers of faith, and wove them until they had a rope of their dreams; supreme, indestructible, impossible to unravel. And they planned, with their inmates and their co-conspirators, who had given up. They stayed up night and day, a candle dripping white wax down the hollow stone wall as they whispered calm words of solace, until the chosen rebel had prepared their escape. In the simultaneously latest and earliest hours, the interval between dark and light, they slipped out of the prison, getting past the guards, and flew away, free, into the night, joining up with their comrades as they planned yet another rebellion. By morning, when the watchmen checked on the prisoners, all that was left of the lucky fugitive was a single word, white wax melted onto a scrap of their black cloth: Truth. That is all that the book speaks of: the traces they left behind. The rest – the escape, the hopes and dreams, their unspoken emotions – I constructed from my own experiences and childish wisdom. This icon, the teachers tell me, was how the symbol for truth began. This was their first signature, and the message they left throughout history of their evilness. White wax, the pure, smooth pearly substance, melded almost completely over fraying black cloth, rough around the edges. White defeats black, light defeats dark, just as truth defeats deception. I know all of this, somehow. Much of what I know has been drilled into me by the Gods, or else by unrecognized instinct. I am not an adult when I say these things; I am a frightened child who knows that the only way out is to dive of a platform into water either frigid or boiling, and I know that when the time comes I must jump without hesitation. For I am stronger now, beginning my own battle, silent, stealthy. I rise when called, and sleep when the lights are out. I eat dutifully the food they put before me, but I refuse to agree when they speak about how I might try telling an Untruth. Only I do it so smoothly, so silkily, that they don’t even notice when they say I might put it off a bit longer. Meanwhile, I am planning my escape. Secretly, very secretly, I am gathering supplies, stocking up on what I need. But I must keep the things I steal hidden in a bundle beneath my cot, away from the maids, who might faint if they saw that what I have concealed in my bed springs is pure, simple, and dangerous: a scrap of black linen and a ball of white wax marked Truth. Breaking Free There is no doubt in my mind now that I must escape. I have climbed through the fog enveloping my brain, constructed a ladder that gets stronger and stronger, and am able to climb away from everything, away from the confusion, from the questions that haunted me day and night. Now I have a purpose: to escape. To break free of these bars, to get away from the people who lie to me every day. I have become a deceiver myself, influenced by those around me. This is a frightening reality that I face each day, and why I must escape. I hide what I am doing, lie to the Gods about my purpose, and plan my escape. Sneaky, deceptive, rebellious – all the things that lead to lying, to untruths. I have done all of them. My own set of values are intertwined and bent out of shape, wire and tumbleweed interlocking to create an inexplicable tangle of wispy-ended thoughts and dewdrops the color of tears. Sometimes I feel an ache in my heart, a tugging, that I don’t know who my mother is, if she would appreciate what I am doing, where she is. I must learn to harden myself against these emotions, for I can’t afford to be haunted day and night by them. Not while I am planning my escape. Learning It is ready. My plot, my escape, is prepared. Working through nights of inky blackness, of unknown sounds nipping at my feet, and distress tugging my arm; laying awake as workers bustle around me, conversing quietly as they prepare to sleep. I am ready. Tonight is the night I bid my farewell and run away, to follow in the footsteps of those who came before me. I want to say good bye to Master Constantine, for speaking the truth against his will, but it doesn’t seem right. There are too many things I must learn to do in the next twenty-four hours. Learn what it’s like to be a runaway, a fugitive, to be free. I must learn to be stealthy, untruthful, deceptive, if I am to survive. But far more important than anything else I must learn to lie. Sea Glass The details of my escape are murky and obscure even to me, but tonight is the night I must do it. Somehow, I slip past the guards, a tiny thing in a land of towering uncertainties, and I know instinctively how to creep close to the walls, merging my shadows with them. Slowly, cautiously, I step forward into the front veranda of my prison. It is nearly opaque, a kind of tinted sea glass that takes my breath away, and I can’t help reaching out a hand to feel it. The smooth, curving sides bring tears to my eyes, but why? Suddenly I’m whipped back in time, my hair shooting back into my skull, legs shortening, arms pulled backwards into my sockets, and I am a chubby toddler, stumbling clumsily along the beach. A glimmering green speck in the sand attracts my attention, and I run over, babbling meaninglessly to my parents, who know that I want the pretty scrap. “Someday,” my mama says, “someday you will have a room made of this pretty sea glass, all to yourself.” And I just smile my crooked baby smile and try to suck on it. Is this what she meant to happen? No. My own room. My own room, made of the sea glass that I loved so dearly. That Papa hung on a chain around my neck, always with the promise that I would have a room made of it someday. One scrap, one little portion of a vast land of possibility, is all that I had. And yet I was drawn to it, loved it even as a toddler. Why? Is this what was meant to happen? I slump against the wall, and slowly sniff my tears away. A hinge, almost imperceptible, edges the corner of this room, a hint of gold in the dark emerald and cool azure. This is a door, the door through which my ancestors traveled. I peel the wax Truth off of the wax paper I had placed it on. It sticks to my hand for a split second, clinging, and then detaches slightly so I can manage it better. I carefully attach it to the smooth glass and open the door. A wave of snow, a sprinkling of cool whiteness, drifts of angel wings coast into the room with a fanfare of fluttering silver footprints. I catch my breath at the beauty, the serenity, and press my hand to the perfect white mound. My fingers come away dusted with a fine hoary coating of clear crystals, almost as delicate as the sea glass surrounding me, and stand up. This handprint, along with my signature, should be enough. I pause. Enough… enough for what? For the Gods to chase after me? For them to see that I never gave up hope, for them to hunt me down as I was intended to hunt others? I ignore the questions swirling in my brain and focus only on the reckless plunge I am about to make into an undisturbed pool of reality. Gazing once more around the sea glass igloo, I take a deep breath and step outside to my destiny. Where do I come from? Falling My foot meets something I cannot describe, a texture with no name, as I fumble around in the dark, illuminated by glimmering white snow banks. I know what snow is, but this is different. Artificial, and yet so real, so hauntingly beautiful that I can barely resist touching it. I look up, and see only a field of blankness, of sorrow etched into wordless narratives. It all appears perfect, exquisite, icily breath-taking, but something is wrong. Looking down, I see a thin black line snaking its way towards me, getting wider and thicker as it streams through, leaving dark stains in the nearly-impeccable meadow. I cry out in horror as it gathers speed, whistling towards me, and lifts up. It’s a snake, red eyes glowing, hissing and leering malevolently. I scramble to get away from it, and in my haste trip. My palm hits the snow bank that seemed so soft and gentle just seconds ago, and when I lift my hand tiny dots of blood are glistening in the small, chapped cracks lining my palm. Suddenly, the snow itself shies away from me and I am falling, falling, falling, into a hole of fathomless depth, into a dark place, lights shooting past in curling comets. I am falling for an eternity, my screams tapering away into meaningless traces of dust, voiceless curls of vapor, arms flailing for support that doesn’t come. I am falling- falling- falling down a wishing well, a silver wish, the messenger of dreams, carried from one hopeful finger to the inky blue sea where all wishes come true. I am falling up into the sky and am carried away by glimmering angels and wet teardrops dancing with the colors of a rainbow. I am falling. I Am My head hits the ground first, the rest of my body following in a crumpled heap. Pain is instantaneous, yet relieving. I am alive, no longer in the place where people strove to make it a Utopia, and I am on my own. Flashes of white light dance before my eyes, lightning streaks down from the sky, and I realize I am on a boardwalk below a dark velvet curtain curving up and away from me. As if in a dream, I stand up. Blood cakes my elbows and knees, scrapes mar my arms, and cuts line my face, but I am able to stay upright without collapsing. Dazed, I stand dumbly as wetness hits my face. Tears, sweat, and raindrops mingle together. Arms outstretched, I feel the aliveness of nature for the first time since my distant memories. I am suddenly aware of how much time has passed. Now I am almost fourteen or fifteen, and I speak, walk, see, and think clearer than ever before. My clothing is in tatters, frayed edges of my roughly-sewn tunic unraveling as I walk; leather sandals torn to shreds; and I myself have been scarred by the sharp fangs of disappointment and sorrow. But as I walk slowly down the boardwalk, a mysterious sense of peace overcomes me. I am here, I am in the moment, I am feeling the rain, I am seeing the stars, I am facing reality. I am Alitta. “Who are you?” I whip around. A small girl, curly red hair tamed and twisted into two stiff braids, stares critically up at me. She’s pouting a bit, lower lip jutting out like a cliff, and has frank brown eyes. “I’m Alitta,” I reply. A shiver passes through my body and exits into the air, dancing blue and white sparkles before my face. I have never spoken those words aloud, and they send a new taste into the back of my mouth. “Zoe!” shouts a tall, lanky boy. His tousled blond hair is flying in the wind, a lion’s mane, as he grabs hold of her hand and bends to her eye level. I am invisible, blending against the wooden planks and star-lit sky. “Don’t run off on me like that, you hear? Mama will skin us both alive.” “I was talking to a girl,” she says stubbornly, sticking out her chin. “Alitta.” The sound of my name attached to my being makes my fingers tremble with joy. How long ago was it that they christened me Ally? How long? I fought them off for years, and this is my reward. To be called by my name, to be called by the name that I love, that my mother chose for me. Alitta. He turns around and jumps. I bite my lip. What will he say? Will he strike me, as Master Constantine did? Slowly, I back away, hands feeling along the rough railing of the boardwalk, fear making my breath flutter and dip. Instead, a smile crosses his face. It’s been so long since I saw anyone smile at me, since the woman with flashing teeth and gentle touch. Ignoring my dirtiness, he extends a long, slender hand and says, “I’m Hermokrates.” “I’m Alitta,” I say for the second time. “I – I come from the Gods.” Almost immediately, he stands in front of Zoe, hand dropping to his side, instantly protective. “Why are you here?” “I fell,” I reply, wondering why he reacts so. “What was your position there?” I feel as though he is drilling me, but I am careful to answer as truthfully as possible. “I’m not sure, really. I was a prisoner. They trapped me with their looks and mannerisms, and I just escaped. I walked through a blizzard and fell down a wishing well. This is where I landed.” He stares at me, head cocked slightly to one side, as though measuring me up. Finally, he says cautiously, “I live down the road. You may come with Zoe and me to our house.” A dizzy wave of heat suddenly shudders over me, and I tip forward onto the ground again. Hermokrates is knitting his brow, while Zoe holds his hand trustingly. Suddenly, just as it had appeared, it is gone. “What… was… that?” I gasp, puffing air through my mouth quickly, like a silver fish. “I probed your mind. You are truly not a Muse’s daughter?” “I’m not evil. I am the last Truth-Teller alive,” I say proudly. “That’s not true,” Zoe says at once. “Tell her it’s not, Hermokrates.” “Alitta, do you know where you landed?” I shake my head. No, I don’t know where I am, just that this is better than Paradise, better than anywhere. This is reality, and I have not visited it since I was lost so many years ago. “You fell down one of our Tunnels and landed Below. Above is the Gods’ reign; Below is where people mingle. We have different views and values, but one goal in life: to bring truth to the world.” Breath snags at the back of my throat. Here? People like that, here? Like me? “You are Truth-Tellers?” His head shakes back and forth. “No. Only some of us. But we are not Gods, and are not related to Muses. Very few of us are Truth-Tellers. My mother is one, as is her best friend and her husband. Those are all the ones that we know of. The rest of us, we are merely humans for the greater good.” I shudder, suddenly remembering something. “I was intended to serve the Gods. They wanted me to hunt down the last of the Truth-Tellers. They said I would be rewarded. I escaped from that destiny.” Hermokrates frowns slightly, as though still disbelieving. “Come.” He points down the dirt road. “Our house is that way.” Zoe bounces in between us, jumping up and down like a wheel of endless stamina. I am weary, but energized with what I have found. “Come on, hurry up!” she calls, already ahead of us. I look at Hermokrates. “What is your role here?” I ask. “I am a messenger,” he replies. “Hence my name.” “Oh.” A pause. “What will happen to us, to me?” “We’re organizing a war,” he says slowly. My mouth doesn’t open, but my eyes plead for more information. “I don’t think I should tell you anything further until Mother confirms your identity.” I fall reluctantly silent and stare at the ground. Every step I take, every imprint of my foot hitting the dirt, the clods of soil that it kicks up is a small miracle for me. The leather straps of my sandals are stained in their cracks. They are too small now, hinges straining, but even if I get new ones I know I will keep these shoes. The soil and dust from inside the Gods’ Prison, the ghost of the snow outside, dirt from my first breath of reality – they are all stamped, embossed in my sandals. “Here we are.” Hermokrates gestures to a sandy-colored house. It is small, with pastel green shutters shaped like crescent-moon thumbnails. I catch my breath, for the windows are made of sea glass, dancing flecks of light caught in the fluid motions of the tide and rocked in its arms for ages. “They had a room of this, in the Prison,” I say softly. “I escaped through it.” “My mother will tell you about it,” he promises. “She knows many things.” “She does,” Zoe affirms. “And so does Aletha.” My neck snaps as I whirl around at the name. Clutching Zoe’s shoulders, I kneel down and look into her eyes. “Who is Aletha?” I whisper hoarsely. “She is Mama’s best friend. Her husband is blind. They fought in the first Rebellion, and the last one too.” I am trembling inside. They must be my parents, they must! Skipping sparks of shimmering silver ignite my beating heart. “Alitta?” Hermokrates is staring at me. “We can go inside.” I nod, shaking. “Is Aletha here?” I say softly, tongue fluttering over my mother’s name. “No, she is on a mission. Recruiting other Truth-Tellers. Her husband, Fidel, is inside. He was blinded at the Battle. For a long time he wouldn’t speak, and struck out at those who came near him. Gradually, though, in the past few years, he has gotten better. Today he walked outside and felt the rain for the first time.” Hermokrates’s brow furrows as he tries to recall something. I wait with bated breath. This has to be my papa, it must be. “He said something about-about sea glass, I think. It was incoherent, but it was important. Something about ‘my little sea glass’. It made no sense.” He ponders it a moment more, then shrugs and holds the door open. “After you.” I enter the house tentatively, one step after the other. It has a musty smell, like yeast, and I warm to it at once. A lady is bending over the hearth, poking at three loaves of browning bread. She is wearing a plain skirt that billows out behind her, somehow skipping gaily over the red hot coals scattered on a scuffed tile floor. “Hermokrates, run and wash up,” she says without looking behind. Her finger prods the dough, but the outer casing of the bread has already hardened. “Zoe, set the table. Fidel is eating with us tonight.” “But Mama, we have a guest,” Zoe says, poking her mother in the back. “Alitta.” There is a heavy thud as the woman’s head bangs the mantelpiece. “Who?” she asks sharply, swiveling around. Her dark eyes widen when she sees me and she whispers, “Alitta? Aletha’s daughter?” “Hello,” I say, biting my lip. So it’s true. Aletha is my mother, the one I thought I had lost. And my father lives, too, yet the Gods told me they were dead. Was it part of their elaborate ploy? “Hermokrates, where was she? Why is she here?” Her son emerges at once from the adjoining room. “She’s real, then?” “Real! I’d recognize her anywhere. Those eyes, that hair, the mouth, her way of speaking is like her parents’.” “She was on the boardwalk,” Zoe pipes up. “All hurt and in a heap. She fell down a Tunnel from Above.” My hands are trembling, heart racing, blood pumping, as I jump for joy inside but feel fear enter my heart. I have found my family, but what is to become of me, of us? “Zo, run and get Fidel,” Hermokrates says, grinning at me. “Don’t tell him who it is.” As she scampers away, I sway and almost fall. The woman catches me, flashing a white smile, and smoothes my hair back with soft hands. I jerk up, suddenly startled, and say sharply, “You worked with the Gods.” Her face tenses. “No, Alitta, I didn’t. I – it was foolish of me, but I went to them, pretending to be my twin sister, because I wanted to know you were well and alive. They accepted me for a short while, but then Mistress Cardea, my own sister, told them who I was and they sent me Below. I was never with them, never a supporter.” “Who are you?” I ask. “I am Xenia,” comes the swift reply. I eye her, size her up. Taking my worn hands in hers with the gentle caress I remembered for so long, she whispers, “I am on your side, Alitta. I promise.” Zoe darts into the kitchen. “Fidel is here,” she says loudly. Shaking, trembling, shivering, dancing, quaking, quivering, I walk slowly to meet my father. The End of the Rope The first things I see are his eyes. They are the color of sea glass, the color of my own ones, only his are empty. Mine are wild, untamed, but not empty as his are. He is tall, olive-skinned, with dark shoulder-length hair like my own. I don’t know what to say and hover nervously in the threshold, but he senses my presence. “Who is that?” he asks. His voice trembles slightly. Is he so petrified of the unknown? So fearful of mystery? Like I was, unable to cope with not knowing where I was, who I was, who I am? “Xenia? Zoe? Hermokrates?” “It’s me, Papa,” I say softly. “Alitta.” His arms extend slowly, unfolding like the petals of a flower beckoned by the sun, shuffling tentatively towards me. I place my own bony hand into his and feel tears trickle down his face onto my palm, mingling with the blood and dirt already engraved in them. “My little sea glass,” he says wondrously, stroking my face with his other hand. “I’ve been lost for so many years, so much time, without you.” “And Mama?” I ask eagerly, waiting for his response. His face, his eyes, cloud over. A storm has corrupted his mind, and I sense it. “She is – or do you not know?” “Is she dead?” I say, panic already building in my heart. “But Hermokrates said…” “Hermokrates is a good boy. He knows better than I. Alitta,” he says, facing me and holding both of my hands, “your mother is very important to our cause. She and I are one of the last Truth- Tellers left, and now you come. But these years of responsibility are wearing down on her, and since I cannot see, I can be of little help. I-I felt myself retreat all those years, as she immersed herself in what she believes in. I was missing something, and I didn’t know until now that it was you. “You are our future. You know that, Alitta. You determine whether we live or die. If we win this war or not. You are who we depend upon. You are the hopes and dreams traveling from one mind to another, and I think you know that.” How strange to have the same words spoken to me now, by my father, by the man who I adored, one of the few people keeping this all together, keeping the string between rebellion and calamity stretched tight, that was spoken to me in my prison. I glow with pride, but listen to his next words. “Alitta, your mother feels older than she is. She is aging, because of the responsibility, the pressure, clawing at her insides. She is not what she used to be. She forges ahead, yes, but not nearly as zealously as she once did. Right now, she is traveling through our tunnels, taking quick trips Above and gathering information. But there is talk of a battle people say will soon occur. A bloody battle, a life-or-death situation. We need you as you need us. Alitta, we do not think she will be able to hold out. If she fights this war, it will be her last. She is as lost as we are, as we were. She has done her duty, and done it well. Now it is time for us to take over. I may be blind, but I have strength, as much as I always did. “We will win this war, my little sea glass. We will. What you must understand, however, is that your mother cannot hold on forever, and you must let her go. Once you have met her, you must let her drop, let her go. I’m sorry you didn’t have time with her, but it is for the greater good. Alitta, you must promise not to hold onto her, for if you do she will leave painfully and remorsefully.” My own father is asking me to let my mother die? He is willing to watch his wife drift off into death, just like that? Anger fires me, the raspy tongue of a venomous snake. “You expect me to do that? To let her go, without meeting her more than a day? You, her wife, my father, are ready to tell your child that she must let her mother die?” “Alitta, calm down,” he pleads. His strong hands rest gently on my shoulders, but there is a sense of urgency in his voice as he says tightly, “Death is not a bad thing. It is a time where people must celebrate a long and happy existence. In our Time, your mother has not served her life long. But she has packed more love and effort into her work than three people can do in hundred-year lives. It is one of life’s mysteries, but for her, she is reaching the end of the rope. And it is not a fraying rope, nor a knotted one. It is a long, sturdy rope that one can climb down deliberately.” I struggle out of his grasp, breathing heavily through my nose in a haze of rage. But he holds my arms, holds me with the intense gaze of his eyes, even though he cannot see. His voice is a whisper taut with emotion. “My sea glass, when the climb is over, your mother will not be disappointed. When the climb is over, she will be glad that it is done, and confident that she has made the world a better place, or at least done everything in her power to do so. When the end of the rope comes, a new one grows, and it is yours. When the end of the rope looms ahead, as it does for your mother, it will be good, it will be what one waits their whole life to reach. It is a mere rope, a travel along life’s road, a sample, a taste. Alitta,” he says, enclosing my small, grubby hands in his, “the end of the rope is the best thing that will ever happen for your mother.” “No,” I say loudly, “no! I came this way to find my parents, to find them whole. You can’t do this to me. I’ll-I’ll hunt Mama down, I’ll find her, I’ll make her live. You’re my father and you’re betraying me,” I spit out. My voice rises into a shrill tide of sound, and I am once more the confused ten-year-old animal I thought I had left behind. “You can’t do this! The end of the rope can’t come so soon! It can’t! I-I wish I never met you!” I scream. My father’s face whitens, but he is still. His willing to remain calm is infuriating, and in a building tantrum I grab the nearest thing- a hemp sandal lying at my feet- and hurl it at him. It hits his forehead, making him wince, but he is still as implacable as before. Tears blind me, blur my purpose, and I stamp, hard, on his toe before running outside. Hermokrates looks up in alarm as I dart past him, heaving for breath, trying to cry but not having enough strength. The end… the end of the rope… will come… the end of the rope… the rope of life… I jog slower and slower before pausing in front of a large garden. Flowers burst from around stone sculptures. Are they hurting? Are they straining for freedom, hampered only by the weight of granite and rock on top of them? I seat myself on the edge of a decorative pool and listen to the echoes of my tears. I thought I would restore a part of myself by returning home, but instead I am tearing my heart in half. Shadows flit about, tears well in my eyes, and the cold marble I am sitting on shudders. The end of the rope… the end of the rope… Chants in my mind linger forever, reminding me about my mother, my mama, and her end of the rope. Mama… Making Snowballs When I find my way back to the house, I am greeted only by Hermokrates. “Your father is resting upstairs, Zoe is in bed, and Mother doesn’t feel well. They told me to wait for you.” I almost smile, almost let my lips curve into the arc I have not felt in eternity, but stop myself. Now is not the time to be foolish, to waste time basking under the glow of compliments or any kindness put forth in my direction. “Is there food left?” I ask instead, walking into the kitchen. Hermokrates trails after me and shakes his head. “We didn’t know if you would be coming home or when.” For some reason the “if”, that horrible, uncertain sense of maybe-yes, maybe-no, aggravates me. As dirty and filthy and bloody as I am, I want a home to return to, or at least a shelter. I want people to expect me home every night, and I want a friend, someone to love me, or at least tolerate my existence. “Is there bread?” I ask curtly. I don’t want to soften, not when my own mother’s impending death is being accepted by her own husband and best friend. How long has it been since I last cried? “Some.” He tosses me a hank of dry, flour-dusted rye and gestures for me to take a seat. I tear out huge handfuls of the spongy inside and stuff my mouth, oblivious to anything but the necessity of getting real, untainted food into my stomach. “They starved you.” It’s not a question; merely a comment on his part. I stop eating for a moment, tilting my head, thinking. “Not… really,” I say, trying to find words to describe it. To describe what they did to me is nearly impossible, yet here is someone wanting to listen, to hear what I have to say. “They trapped me,” I say lamely. “They fed me their food, but everything was… wrong. It was like a lie, everything was. The food, the times, the clothes. Even their mannerisms and voices made the Truth in my blood cringe.” “When did you go there?” Hermokrates asks, before I can resume my gorging. “I don’t know, exactly. I was about ten, I think, when I was found – when I was taken from the bookshop. I don’t know where it was, or what it was called, but to me, it was my first home. I was wild, and I’m still not- tame. I was an animal, I hit people, I crawled on the floor mostly, almost cripple, I was mute, nearly blind, and my every perception was warped. I only returned to my senses when I was perhaps twelve or thirteen, and planned my escape more than a year afterwards. Things are still coming back to me,” I admit. Every so often a rush of memories floods me, everything getting clearer like mud seeping slowly out of a bog. “I’m about fourteen or fifteen now, I think,” I say. “That’s what Mother told me. She said you were a year or two younger than I, and I’m sixteen and a half. She’s a good woman, if very opinionated.” Something crosses my mind, and I cut into him, saying suddenly, “What did you do to me? When you said you probed my mind?” He hesitates, cocking his head, faltering over his words. “I- you’re trustworthy, aren’t you?” “I could ask the same of you, but I’m not,” I point out. “True. All right.” He takes a deep breath. “I can read minds.” “Right.” I raise an eyebrow at him and chew on the remainder of my bread. “No, really,” he insists, clearly sensing my skepticism. “It’s not like reading your thoughts. It’s like prodding into your mind, reaching past the layers you never use, and finding out what lies within you, at your core.” The bread suddenly tastes stale; a shiver passes involuntarily through my body. “What do you mean?” “It’s as though you’re packing snow, making a snowball, but each layer gets added and added to make a huge ball, and the part in the middle gets forgotten, because the outside is holding everything together. It could disappear and nobody would notice. But with it would go the very beginning, the purpose, because that’s how the person who made it began- with the little tiny center. My mother does it much better than me, so she could probably explain it more explicitly, but that’s the gist of it.” “How can I not know what you do?” I ask. “How can your probing teach you things about me I myself don’t know?” “That’s what unsettled me. When I went into your mind, to see what your purpose was, there was nothing.” Panic clutches my heart in a vise-like grip. “What do you mean?” His brow furrows. Now it is he that is trying to find words, trying to carve the meaning of whatever thoughts and forms are tumbling through his head. “There wasn’t- anything, or nothing. Something was there, but it was crippled. It was warped, like a tangle of wires, only worse. Voices were warbled, and it was a black knot, but void at the same time. It was frightening. I couldn’t trust you until Mother had confirmed what I saw. “We conferred after you left. She says that it’s not bad, exactly, just… different. She thinks that’s what happens when a person is locked up for so long, they get trapped inside themselves, and their core gets jumbled up and so does their purpose, and everything. That’s the thing that has been torturing you for so long.” My hands fall limply to my lap, the last crust of bread floating to the earthen floor, as I try to digest what Hermokrates has just told me. The entire theory, the entire art, is a muddle to me. I struggle to grasp it, but the more I understand, the less I feel safe in this place. Where people can read my mind, probe my purpose, find my deepest secrets, find what stopped me from thinking all those years. Words float back to me, the first ones I heard clearly spoken when I was ten. “She’s addled,” the lady said, the woman whose fingers got knotted in her anxiety. Addled… “Alitta?” Zoe creeps into the kitchen. “Oh, goody, you’re back.” She moves as if to climb into my lap, and I shoot Hermokrates a nervous glance. I’ve never touched a young child; it was always me being pushed and shoved around. He shrugs and smiles gently, encouragingly. I sit up stiffly as Zoe clambers expertly into my lap and snuggles up, a warm, soft bundle near my heart. “I’m scared,” she confides, hot breath tickling my neck. “The night is cold, and Mama said something about war to Fidel.” Fidel. My father. The man to whom I spoke so harshly today, even when I had just met him. How much he means to me, but I shoved him away. Suddenly something occurs to me. I turn sharply to Hermokrates, forgetting for a moment the weight of a small child resting on my lap, and say, “My father told me he, too, was lost for a while. Could you- would you probe his mind?” Frowning, he shakes his head. “I don’t think so. Adults are different. They’re less innocent than children, and their cores, their snowballs, are always at work, making it hard to reach into their minds. If they lose their purpose, they keep re-building it. That’s why adults make the best liars – they can lie to themselves. Even Truth-Tellers. It’s a different level of truth or dishonesty. You may not think it, but we all have evil within ourselves. All adults can lie to themselves, inside. I couldn’t read your father’s core, because it would be changing constantly. Especially since he’s so mixed-up – his center would be all over the place, trying to formulate some sort of intention.” My shoulders sag, as limp as a wet rag. Hermokrates yawns and says, almost apologetically, “I’m going to bed. Look, Zoe’s already asleep.” He gives a fond half-smile, tousles her hair, and whistles his way upstairs. I stand up, holding Zoe awkwardly, like one would carry a sack of potatoes, and wander into the den. There is a cot for me lying near the fireplace. I stare a Zoe’s red curls, willing her to wake up, but she only leans contentedly on my shoulder and begins to suck her thumb. Sighing, I lower myself and the child onto the mattress and lay her down next to me. The slow, soothing rhythm of her breath is like the gentle ebb and flow of the tides, white, pale banks of sea glass, black India ink blotches, the warm, yeasty taste of bread at the back of my throat, and all the other sounds that remind me, somehow, of a place I might one day call home. Closing my eyes and sighing deeply, I drift into sleep, murmuring, “Snowballs…” Flashbacks “Alitta.” I jerk awake, eyes flying open, and stare straight into a pair of sparkling brown lozenges. It’s Zoe, and she’s leaning over me. I blink; late morning light is filtering through the clay windowpanes. “What time is it?” I ask, voice creaking and cracking like splintered wood. “It’s past ten o’clock,” she announces cheerfully. “Fidel is still asleep, too. Hermokrates is chopping firewood, and Mama has breakfast ready for you. I’m to show you around town today.” I nod, careful not to show my apprehension to Zoe. This is all rushing towards me quicker than a blink, a whirlwind of activities, confessions, tears dropping on parchment. Blurred letters dance in front of my face. Why is it that letters appear so swiftly, so hauntingly? Parchment, ink, quills, musty book bindings, and words linger forever on the threshold of my mind, teetering between present and nonexistent. Ghosts of cases and bookshelves paint themselves in the dark. “Alitta?” “Sorry.” I jerk back to reality and find myself sitting up in bed. Next to me, on a spindly wooden stool, is a clean muslin shift, immaculate hemp sandals, and a teal and grey tunic, threads woven intermittently together to create an almost shimmering hue. A wooden hairbrush, bristles hard and stubbly, sits neatly next to them. Zoe jumps up and says joyously, “Mama’s friend gave you these to keep. I’ll wait for you in the kitchen. Promise to come eat with me?” “Promise,” I say, unspeakably touched by the thought that this little girl, really a huge mass of energy, wanted my attention. When she has left, I slip into the clothes. They are smooth and satiny, rubbing against my chafed and bruised skin like a salve made of cloth. My hair is as tangled as can be, but I manage to brush it out into a fairly manageable ponytail. I grimace at the clods of dirt and clouds of dust repeatedly rising from me each time I take a step. Walking into the pristine kitchen, a plume of grime nipping at my heels, I find Hermokrates inside, already wolfing down his midday meal. He pauses when he sees me. “Hello,” I say. “Sorry I overslept.” He shrugs. “Mama just left. Some friend of hers had an urgent message of some sort, though nowadays everything is urgent. She left those on the table for you.” I follow his pointed finger and see a white and brown ceramic plate heaped with sausage patties, fluffy scrambled eggs, five strips of bacon, and a hunk of bread adorned with a golden pat of butter. This is the largest meal I’ve had in some time. Zoe bounces in the door, grinning ear to ear. “Fidel is up. He says he will come with us on our tour. Are you coming, Hermokrates?” Her brother nods. “Where are we going first?” “Let’s go to the bookshop,” Zoe says immediately. Turning to me, she nods enthusiastically, saying, “I got my first book there, about a lost truth-teller lost in a store until the God took her away. She escaped, but it was a long journey. There’s only one bookstore, but it’s a good one.” My breath catches. A bookshop. A book. A lost truth-teller. An escape. This is all crazy, insane, unreal. Could it be…? It has to be. There is only one bookshop, one place selling books, in the entire realm of the Truth-Tellers. “Alitta?” Hermokrates and Zoe are staring at me. My eyes, I know, have gone wild, untamed again – as they always do when I lose control over the core of my mind, of my purpose. “Sorry. Just tired,” I respond hastily. “Let’s go now.” “Alitta, your food?” Zoe says, staring at me like I’ve lost my mind. “No, really I-I’m not hungry right now. There’s something important at the bookshop. I need to go there. Please, show me where it is.” “Well, alright then.” Hermokrates looks dubious. I cross my fingers, attempt to cross my toes. If he refuses, if he won’t take me, then where will I be? “Follow me.” Zoe pads out of the house in bare feet. I would go barefoot as well, able to finally feel the soil that saved me, but my feet are so sore, so swollen, so cut up, that I could only hobble. I slip on my decrepit sandals, ignoring the brand-new ones that Xenia’s friend gave me. They would help, but I would like to feel whole today. Wearing shoes of another person seems too odd, and for this mission, I need to be strong. “What about Fidel?” Hermokrates asks. “Isn’t he coming? I mean, he’s never been, and maybe he’d like to get out. Not that he could see it, but still… well, is he coming?” I swallow, hesitating. This is something I do not want my father to know about, to be with me when I uncover more of my disturbing past, of my roots, my first ten years. I was without undoubtedly a book-reader. I knew how to read at the Gods’ prison; I surely would have come to the bookshop like flies to a jar of honey. My mama would have taken me. She would have understood, would’ve taught me to read. Why else would I have sought refuge in the bookstore? “I think he’s tired,” I blurt out. “In fact, he’s probably really exhausted. We should just go. We’ll get back in time for the midday meal.” Hermokrates and his sister exchange a dubious look but I ignore it, following Zoe’s lead down the twisting path. Rocks and stones jut out of the soil at random intervals, creating a mosaic of taupe, russet, and soil intermingled. We walk in silence, until Zoe halts at the foot of a winding wooden staircase, overgrown with flowers and long grasses. “This is it,” she says, bounding eagerly up the stairs. “After you,” Hermokrates says, stepping to the side. I slowly step on the first stair, musty, slightly moldy wood creaking under my foot. The stairs are surrounded by flowering trees and thick, waving weeds cast into shadow by the looming presence of a huge tree. I realize only when I’m close behind Zoe that the red and purple painted sign, which I had assumed was some sort of property indicator, reads “BOOKSHOP”. “The tree is the store?” I ask, breath snagging at the back of my throat. The idea is so perfect, so fantastical. A hollowed tree: a bookshop. Who would have guessed? My old prison, the one that transformed into home when the Gods took me, was a tree. “Yep.” Zoe nods happily and the door creaks open as I turn the black metal handle. Slowly, ever so slowly, I creep inside, staring at everything around me. A musty odor hangs over everything in a fog of distant memories and open-ended thoughts. A fragrance of book-binding glue, of stale ideas, heavy reams of parchment paper, whispers that have no beginning or end. I walk forward on unsteady legs and close my eyes, inhaling deeply, longing to know where I come from, what my past was, but dreading what I might find. “Can we help you?” A woman, with mousy brown hair and a nervous manner, approaches us timidly. “Are you looking for anything in particular?” “No thanks,” Hermokrates says hastily. She gives me a long look, and my eyes slowly meet hers. Suddenly frightened, the woman runs off, wringing her hands until they are tangled together in a knot. I stumble, hip bumping a tall podium on which rests a sheet of parchment paper. An inkwell sits pertly near the top, peacock feather quill sticking out of it, and a small brown packet of powdered ink is near the edge. When I jog the stand, the powder cascades out in a thin black stream. I catch it lightly on the palm of my hand and breathe in sharply. I would recognize the feel anywhere. Crumbling and soft, dark and light, dusty and sparkling, it’s the India ink that haunted me so much, so black against my white palm. I pound the dust until it is light, a curling mist of hazy grey vapor. Powder sinks into the cracks of my skin, tingling slightly. This is my first memory, the first step, the first cobblestone to pave my road of self-recognition. Books. Stacks, volumes, heaps – they all find solace here. They all belong here. Where do I belong? Will I ever fit so effortlessly into my world as novels and encyclopedias do here? The same life, the same environment, was once mine. But it didn’t work. Books and addled little girls don’t mix. Books have a purpose. Their cores live on in every reader’s head. Mine doesn’t. Mine lives nowhere, yet everywhere. An empty void. Then we see the bookshelves. All simply formatted with four level shelves and books sorted alphabetically. As if in a daze, I move forward, hand outstretched, and feel my fingers meet the blunt edges of a ledge. The contours are familiar, yet alien. This is not my bookcase. I move down the line, towards the smallest one, which stands forlornly in the corner, nothing but dog-eared manuscripts and cobwebs adorning its shelves. Even before I reach it, I know it is mine. It’s the small one, the shrimpy one, the outcast. Strange and lopsided, it calls to me, beckoning forth its human equivalent. I slowly drift towards it, and, hardly aware of my actions, crouch behind the bottom shelf. I no longer fit as well, but I know the feel, the sense of security, of being partially concealed. If I couldn’t see them, I thought, then they couldn’t see me. “Ma’am.” I jump up, head banging the top shelf painfully. “What?” The same woman as before stands before me. This time, I remember my manners and stand tall, almost on eye level with her, extending a grimy hand. She hesitates for a moment, then shakes it. “Who are you?” I ask. “I am Aikaterine. The store-keeper’s daughter.” She looks at me as though waiting for me to hit her. “Years ago,” I say slowly, staring into her eyes with a force surprising to myself, “I lived here. I was lost, a lost soul, a jellyfish. One day, the Gods came and took me away. You told them that I was ‘addled’ and let them imprison me.” “Why are you here?” she whispers, face turning whiter and whiter. “I thought you would be safe with them. Your parents told me nothing. There was no note when you came here. I didn’t even know who you belonged to. Do you not remember how you found us, how you got to safety?” “No, I don’t,” I begin to say, when suddenly I do. Flashes of light, shouts, gunpowder. People lined the streets, shouting, chanting, pounding javelins and spears. I clutched my father’s strong hand trustingly as we stood to the side, watching people cheer, when all of a sudden two men appeared. Looking sharply at her husband, Mama stepped forward and said politely, “Welcome.” The men gave no response, but stared at Papa. I was lost to them, a tiny slip of a girl, soft brown hair and bony shoulders and liquidy eyes the color of sea glass. “We ask you to come with us, sir,” one said in mock courtesy. “Into our realms, where the troublemakers go.” Papa said calmly, defiantly, “No.” “Then we will take the girl,” the other said, pointing to me. I shrank against Mama’s skirt. I suddenly wished for the solace of the bookshop. Still talking in that soothing, level voice, Papa said firmly, “You will take no one. We wish to make peace with you. Perhaps you could come to our cottage for tea?” “Your cottage can crumble into nothingness along with the rest of you,” sneered the first, more impudent one. He was younger than the other man, who gave him a stern, quelling look. “Stop. You will crumble no one.” That even tone was beginning to aggravate both of the men, who fidgeted, gripping their weapons. A pregnant pause hung over us. No one spoke, but Papa and the man held each other’s gazes for what seemed like eternity. Suddenly, the younger of them lunged for him, shouting a hoarse war cry. My father, my lifeline, deftly moved out of the way, letting go of my hand. Terror filled me as I looked for Mama’s reassuring figure, but she was gone, disappeared. “We can do this my way, or yours. Take your pick,” the man said, breathing heavily through his nose. “I mean no harm,” Papa replied, taking a slight step back, muscles tensing imperceptibly. “You and I have different ideas. You live in your realms, I live in mine.” He pointed up, then down at the ground under his feet, gaze never wavering. “We are separate people, separate ideas, separate worlds. Why war?” “You are a disgrace to mankind. Our people are better. We lounge all day, eating grapes and wine and good food, while you snivel down here.” His eyes flashed and, in a sudden, effortless leap, jumped onto Papa. Chaos ensued immediately as everyone shouted, fighting, clawing and yelling insults that became garbled in my terror. Blood slowly pooled on the ground, marking everything in a haze of pink. People ran right over me, and suddenly, Mama was there, fighting through the crowds to reach me. “Alitta!” she yelled. “Alitta!! Get to safety!” I ran for the nearest thing, blinded with panic as screams got louder and hatred worsened. The bookshop, the bookshop, lifted above everything else, safe. I ran into the door, tore through the store, and hid, crouched, trembling, sobbing, crying myself into silence and blissful oblivion. “We were your safe haven.” Aikaterine’s voice jerks me out of the memory. “We fed you, small scraps every day, but you were a wild animal. You had seen terrible things in that battle. Too terrible for a young child of Truth-Tellers. We did not know what to do wit h you, and when the Gods came down to take you, when they offered you safety and took you away, I thought it was for the greater good. I am neither with them nor with you. I am my own person, stand for my own values, and no wars. You were a nuisance, coming close to making us war with the people opposed to your presence, and so I willingly gave you up.” I glare at her. “What woman lets the Gods take away a defenseless child?” There is a pause as Aikaterine bites her lip, sighs in thought, shifts from foot to foot. I wait to hear her excuses. “A scared woman,” she finally says. “I was scared. Scared of what would happen, frightened of the Gods and of… well, of you. You would strike out at the smallest thing; you had power, even in your wild state of mind. You intimidated us, made us cower, scared of your violence. Me, I was just the bookshop owner’s daughter: I ran the shop, and that was it. I never felt important or anything foolish like that. This was my life. I was humble, simple, and lived above, in the eaves. I had no reason to pay attention to life outside.” I know fear. I know how you felt. Scared. Alone. Out loud I merely say, “It doesn’t matter to me anymore.” Her reasons are valid. I respect her more now that I have all the facts I need. I have seen a part of my history. I have felt the ink, the books, my hide-away. I have talked to my father, felt his hands hold mine. I have remembered what caused me to run. I have found friends when there were only enemies. There is just one part missing, one puzzle piece to complete the puzzle, a dash more of seasoning to make it a meal, a scrap of kindling to fire the delicious golden flames of finding my identity: Mama. “Alitta?” Zoe slips forward, tapping my shoulder lightly. “She zones out a lot,” I hear Hermokrates say. “Let her be.” Everything is spoken as though in a tunnel, a silver tunnel. Sounds echo off my brain as I struggle to piece together everything that just happened. I was lost, so deeply submerged in the cavernous depths of confusion, that now it is shocking, traumatizing, to know who I am and why I am here. A life boat has been offered to me: a chance to survive, to escape the rollicking waves of foggy intentions. But everything is dim, yet brilliant. Opposites clash together as I realize that my questions, posed so long ago, are slowly being answered, being explained. “Alitta?” My head jerks; the last of my vision dissipates, though not before I heard the ghost of a lilac lullaby. “Yes?” Hermokrates looks at me, biting his lip. “Are you… alright?” he asks after a pause. “That must have been upsetting to you. To find out your origins. Do you want to go back to our house?” I shake my head, bony wrists trembling. “I would like… very much… to walk. To take a walk. To escape.” “Okay,” he says dubiously. “I’m sorry if we made a mistake in bringing you here.” “No, it was the right thing,” I assure him. “I know it was the right thing to do. I needed to know about my past. I didn’t expect it to be so… painful.” “Come along, Zo,” he says, holding out his hand to her. She frowns, solemn for once, and follows him out of the building. I sigh, remembering that gesture. Mama used to do that, used to hold out a hand and take me along. Will I ever have the same comforts that a mother can give? I never had a mama, not really. Why? Because I never fully accepted her as the role she fulfilled; she was always so harried and worked so hard. I didn’t embrace her while I had her, while I should have. Her mannerisms jump out at me from a mass of memories waiting to be discovered. Hugs every night, little rituals we followed before going to bed, a kiss on the cheek when she served me my meal. And always, there is the ghost of a lullaby lingering in the distance, piercing, swaying, murmuring sounds that form a calming melody. As I walk down the lane, seeking freedom, redemption from my pain, I shut my eyes and remember everything that was lost and disorganized for so long. Flashbacks begin, popping erratically like firecrackers into my mind. Slowly, I sit back and begin to watch my life. I was born in a cottage in the middle of the winter. Frost hugged close to the windowpanes, and even the howling wind crept closer to me, talons of mist and gales sneaking under the door. Hoary fibers of snow hypnotized the swirling air to create huge sheets of confused blizzard. I was bright red, like a typical baby, but for my eyes. My eyes opened within minutes, as startling to me as to my parents. Our tiny cottage was frigid, creaking on its splintered foundation, but I was strong. An itchy wool blanket was placed over me and I stayed awake, alert, staring at my surroundings. I was too young to understand the concept of language, so when my parents spoke to me I heard only the inflections in their voices. I didn’t know about words then, and I didn’t care. We moved when I was almost three. I sat on a packing crate outside the house, sucking on a smooth wooden carving Papa had made me. It curved into a dolphin, though I had never seen one. Papa made me promise not to suck on it after he applied the paint, but I didn’t think he would ever paint it. He kept saying he was too busy with work and couldn’t find the right hue. He wanted it to match my eyes. I kicked my legs in the dust, watching a cloud settle on my white socks, and tugged at some stray threads on my tunic. I was bored. Suddenly I was aware of voices that shouldn’t be there. I jumped off the box, suspicious, and crept slowly against the edge of my cottage. That was when I saw two men discussing something with Mama and Papa. Although they were keeping their voices down, I could tell that the conversation was intense. Papa gesticulated furiously as the other men hissed at both of my parents. My eyes widened in horror when I saw the taller man grab Papa’s shoulders and back him up against the wall. Mama cried out, but the other man stifled her cry with his thick woolen glove. I stood, petrified, while this scene played out. Now the man was saying something to Papa; Papa was nodding; everything would be alright. I was about to sneak back to my crate when a hand reached out and grabbed both of my shoulders, squeezing them tight. I squealed and started trying to kick my captor. It was a young boy, about fifteen, who also wore the thick woolen gloves that the men did. I hit his hands with my tiny fists, making no impact. “Help!” I yelped, struggling madly. My voice was tinny; nobody heard, or cared. His hand clamped over my mouth, gagging me. “Look here, child,” the boy said into my ear. I fell limp. “You are to tell no one about what you just saw. It’s a matter between your parents and the Gods. Forget about it. You never witnessed anything of the sort.” I managed a nod and he dropped me uncaringly to the ground, whistling as he walked off. I did as he said and remembered nothing of the occasion – except for the feel of that thick, stifling wool gag. One day, soon after we moved, Papa and Mama took me to the beach. I held onto their hands, kicking the sand and making footprints where it was wetter. We walked up and down the sandbar – Mama, Papa, and me, a chubby toddler, stumbling clumsily along the beach. A glimmering green speck in the sand attracted my attention then, and I ran over, babbling meaninglessly to my parents, who knew that I wanted the pretty scrap. Papa gasped in delight, saying that it was the perfect color for the dolphin; it matched my eyes exactly. “Someday,” Mama said, “someday you will have a room made of this pretty sea glass, all to yourself.” And I just smiled my crooked baby smile and tried to suck on it. I started school when I was four. The teacher liked me right off; she came from across the sea, and admired my eyes. People seemed to like my eyes early on – they were so different from all the hazels and browns that everyone else had. Mama and Papa said it came from the Truth flowing in my veins. I was honored to have such a wonderfully unique eye coloring, but I never thought much of it. One and a half years of hard schooling did me good. I could read a little, and with Mama supplementing my education I was able to write as well. Then came the day that would haunt me forever: the day that we went to the market and the same two men appeared as before. They didn’t have the boy with them, but I was still scared, holding tight to Mama’s hand. And all those years brought me here, to this day, this moment. I stand up shakily, realizing why the man’s gag was so petrifying to me in the bookshop. He stifled my cries, gagging me, and carried me away like a sack of potatoes. I remembered that thick cloth; being gripped with abandon and lugged around like luggage. When will my memories stop haunting me? Today? Tomorrow? Years? I dip my head and slowly, slowly, walk up the path, phantom memories nipping at my heels. Lullabies Now Found I walk to my temporary home in the darkness, kicking stones and watching them tumble like my thoughts. As I approach it, I think I hear a lullaby, quivering notes sailing effortlessly into the breezes of love. When I open the door, a woman looks at me. She is tall, though smaller than Papa, with the same mouth as me. She has flowing chestnut hair and bright eyes. When she smiles at me, her face bursts open like the petals of a rose. Mama. “Mama,” I whisper. And as I run towards her, the name, which I have not applied to a person in so long, sails out into the eternal universe of long-awaited arrivals and dances with the trembling ghosts of lilac lullabies now found. I Come From I know where I come from. I came from the coldest nights, the darkest secrets, the worst fights. Motherly love carved my early existence: tears and hugs and kisses and laughter. My childhood was a strange mix of secrets, sorrow, and joy, mingling together to create a medley of intense emotions. There are still wars to fight, threats to survive, and I do not know when I will return home – or if I will at all. But my questions are answered, and that’s the best I can do. Today, tonight, I have what I want. Today, tonight, I am liberated. Today, tonight, I feel my entire body pulsing with joy, and I know that I am, truly, Alitta. When will I go home? They’ve Come It is night time. Hermokrates walks softly into the yard, where I am sitting, staring up at the moon. I jump when he stand in front of me. “Sorry,” he apologizes, sitting next to me. There is a pause, an interval in which several crickets begin chirping softly and soft rose petals caress the engulfing tranquil. We’re both silent, until Hermokrates asks abruptly, “What’s it like?” “What’s what like?” “Being lost, then found. What does it feel like?” I think for a moment. How to describe such a phenomenon is beyond me, and even I am still trying to piece together the whirlwind of happenings that have affected my entire life. My recovery has been swift, albeit painful. I thought, when I first fell, that I had a jolt of reality, but even then my mind was protecting me from harm. Now I feel naked, exposed. “It’s like coming out of a fog. Only more so. I went to the Bookshop when I was only five and a half. That was when I sank into oblivion. That was the first time I lost my purpose. It was… frightening. But then I became the wild animal that I was, first so feral that people daren’t near me, but then slowly I began to understand where I was, who I was, and what I had to do. It took forever, and it hurt. It hurt a lot. Not mentally, not physically, nor emotionally – it just ached. I can’t explain it.” I glance over at Hermokrates, who is listening attentively. He nods as though he understands, though I know he doesn’t. “When I fell here, it hurt physically. I thought it meant everything was alright. Before, the Gods made my prison their Utopia. I couldn’t feel pain, or see it, or anything like that. So when I hurt myself, and felt the pain, I thought that I was free then.” “But you weren’t.” I shake my head. “No, not really. I had broken the barrier between feeling and not feeling, but I was still muddled and confused inside.” He nods. “I understand. That’s what I saw when I probed you.” “Mm-hm. I was scared when I got here, but it felt safe. It felt right to be with all of you. You’re part of my people. “I heard about the Bookshop, and I guess that’s when I knew I needed to go there. Going there, and having that first flashback; feeling everything that made me feel safe once – it all hurt mentally. I felt a mental strain. I guess my brain wasn’t used to working like that.” “Seems reasonable.” Hermokrates nods in agreement. “It can hurt, to have your core suddenly straightened out. I suppose when you did that, when you got that flashback, your mind went wild. You have memories buried deep inside you, but your brain isn’t used to picking them out. Suddenly it had a new, important purpose, and I imagine that was painful.” “And then seeing my mother for the first time – that hurt emotionally.” I sigh, a wisp of air pressed between my lips and released into the rose-fragranced air. She is all that I imagined, but I can tell she is tired. Even now, she sleeps fitfully, dark head tossing on the clean linen pillow Xenia set out for her. I wish I could talk to her. I wish she would talk to me. I wish that these wars and conflicts would never occur, never come between family ties once again. “Are you okay?” I realize tears are trickling down my cheeks. Why couldn’t this be perfect? It should be, shouldn’t it? A reunion with my parents, a friend, an almost-family. Isn’t that what I wished for, even when I didn’t dare dream? “Why isn’t life perfect?” I ask suddenly. Hermokrates looks taken aback by this question. “Um…” He clears his throat, clearly at a loss. “I mean, this should be all I ever wanted!” I gesture around me with a pleading hand. “I know my parents, I know my origins, I’m not lost, and I have new friends. But I still feel empty.” He hesitates. I think for a moment, then realize something. Xenia and my father had been discussion a war. Could it be…? “Hermokrates, is it the war?” I ask, facing him and biting my lip. “Could it be that the last part of me is waiting to be found? Does that mean that I will discover more of myself when the battle comes?” He seems startled, but then laughs, soft hazel eyes flashing in the dark. “I’m flattered you consider me to be all-knowing, but I’m just a quirky sixteen-year-old boy. I don’t know as much as I may boast about.” “Sorry. I guess I’m asking myself more than you.” “That’s okay. I’ll have to take you to see the rest of the village sometime. Me and Zoe, we’re really glad you came here. Zoe needs a big sister. There aren’t any other girls here your age. I really just need someone to talk to, other than my mother. She’s always so… preoccupied. With work and things.” I nod. I know what he’s talking about. My mother was also preoccupied; work took up all her time. Papa was always laid-back, the one I could count on to play a game with. I love my mama with unconditional love that never wavers, but I worry secretly about what it will be like to meet her. She saw me, exclaimed over my height, my maturity, and collapsed in bed. We have not met really, not yet. “What if she doesn’t like me?” The whisper, the small confession of my childish concern, escapes my lips before I can control it, so quickly I am not sure I ever voiced it aloud. Hermokrates is silent, elbows resting on his knees as he stares up at the sky. Finally he turns to me and says, “What if? There’s an entire universe of what-ifs out there.” His hand sweeps across the heavens above. “We can’t ask those questions. I know you worry about it, and I’m one to talk, but I think you should let things go, Alitta. You are becoming truly you, no longer the ‘creature’ that the Gods turned you into. You have more power than you think, and far more talent than you give yourself credit for. You are strong enough to withstand the shock and trauma of finding yourself again, pulling yourself out of the tornadoes that caused your core to warp.” But I wasn’t. I wasn’t strong. I was scared, and weak, and trembling. He smiles reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Alitta. She’s your mother. She’ll like you no matter what. Even in your dirty, exhausted, confused state, she’ll love you for being yourself. Be yourself around her, and I guarantee she’ll like you.” His face twists into a lopsided grin. “Come on, let’s go back inside. If your mother’s up you should talk to her. She’ll like you.” I look dubiously at him. “You think so?” He nods. “I know so.” We head into the house. Xenia is up again, baking another loaf of bread. She barely turns around as we enter. “Food’s on the table. Aletha is still asleep.” She stretches, then comes over to me. “Alitta, I thought you might like to clean up before talking to your mother. We have a wooden tub and well water out back that we can heat in the fire. You ought to bathe; goodness knows how long it’s been since you were properly looked after.” A bath. It seems such a foreign thing to me now, a meaningless word from the realms of lullabies and tender goodnights. I was cleaned, yes, at the Gods’. But I was never allowed to go unsupervised, or to bathe. “Hermokrates, get the water in the tub.” She hands me a bar of rosemary soap. “You stay here and eat.” As I eat a hunk of cheese and bread, I comment, “You order Hermokrates around a lot.” She frowns slightly. “I know. It’s how I am. Ever since I lost my husband, he’s been the man of the house. He does everything else. He can’t afford to be distracted or relaxed. He’s mature beyond his age, learning from his father’s teachings and mine. I can’t help it – I need all the extra hands I can get.” “I know, but don’t you think that he deserves more relaxation? There’s a war coming up. What if it’s his last, and he dies never having been a child?” Xenia looks sharply at me. “Don’t say that,” she snaps, and a flicker of fear crosses her face. “Don’t be afraid,” I whisper, looking at her with my most intense gaze. “Don’t fear the unknown. Let Hermokrates be the boy he is. We will win this war.” She returns my gaze, eyes hypnotized, and then turns away from me and begins scrubbing the dishes like her life depends on finishing them. “Eat up. Hermokrates should be finished soon.” I sigh, recognizing a lost battle in the rigid set of her chin, pursed lips, and steely eyes, and begin to eat. The door slams open. Hermokrates stands in it, holding a wooden pail of sloshing, dripping water. His hair is wet, and panic clouds his features. “It’s them,” he whispers. “Ma, they’ve come.” “Who?” I ask. The cheese crumbles in my mouth as I freeze, staring at his terrified face. “The Gods,” he says hoarsely, and my heart stops beating. Let the Blood Be Shed “Alitta, get up!” Someone is tugging at my hand. I lift my head slowly, painfully. It’s Zoe. “This is the war,” I murmur. My head drops back to the ground. “Alitta, you must get up! They’re coming, any minute! They’re coming to storm the town, and they will. They’ll kill people to get to you and your parents. Please,” she pleads. My parents. I jump up. “Where are Mama and Papa?” “Fidel ran off,” she whimpers, “when he heard them come. Aletha is with Mama. There’s an emergency meeting in the town square. I’m scared, Alitta,” she confesses. I am about to sprint out the door when I look back at the little girl. Her brown eyes are wide and round as she looks imploringly at me. I stop mid-stride and walk back to her. “Here,” I say, bending down, “get on my back.” She weighs next to nothing and I am reminded of riding on my own mother’s back. Suddenly queasy, I stumble towards the crowds, wanting to be swept away, seeking the same oblivion that came to me so many years ago. I want to be merged with a hundred others, all with the same goal: to feel loved, joined, and wanted. This is why I love it here, and why I love my people. The Gods push everyone away; Truth-Tellers embrace them. I realize with a jolt that I am standing in the middle of the path, Zoe yelling in my ear to move. But that’s when I understand something else, something of supreme importance. It comes to me, a fledgling idea, rumpled and torn to pieces, but I realize it. “Zoe,” I say, “love!” “Alitta!” she cries in anguish, “please just get with the others!” As I jog to keep pace with the masses of people streaming into the town center thoughts churn in my head. This is too much. This is too real. This is crazy. I am not standing here, in the crisp, clear night air illuminated by lanterns and the excitement of the people surrounding me, feeling an adrenalin rush I have never experienced before – am I? I am not the same confused, uncertain, addled little girl that didn’t know her name and fought off the Gods – am I? I am Alitta, and yet I am not. I am Alitta, a Truth-Teller, one of many, fitting flawlessly into the mural of other paints, other hues, other textures. I am a fiber on a scrap of parchment paper, a tiny speck on a page full of narratives. I am undeniably Alitta, but this time, I am not alone. This time, I am with my friends, with strangers I know will be kind, with loving family close by. This time, I am a new person. There is more to me now than there was, even just weeks ago, when I fell, tumbled from the sky down to earth, a comet streaking through the endless universe, without even uttering a sound. “Alitta!” I look up, and Hermokrates is pushing through the crowd toward me. Zoe clambers down from my back and grips my hand. “Don’t let go,” I warn her, knowing that she could easily, too easily, get swept up like an inconsequential tendril of seaweed floating on the beach. She nods and bites her lower lip, solemnly waiting for her older brother to join us. “Take my hand,” Hermokrates orders her when he approaches. She obeys without question and all around me, I see families doing the same, protecting the younger ones from inevitable harm. “Where’s my father?” I ask him anxiously, scanning the crowd for a glimpse of the man who is suddenly so important to me, though I have only interacted with him once. “He can’t wander off alone, unseeing. What if someone attacks him?” My voice almost rises to a shrill wail but I gulp, pushing the lump of anxiety down my throat. “Alitta, calm down,” he says calmly, comfortingly. “He’ll be fine. He’s safer than the rest of us, able to sense better than a wolf.” I nod, biting my lip nervously, and wait. They come into the square. There is not pretending, no foolery. First is a huge man, and the crowd draws back in terror at his thunderous brow and the hatred clouding his gaze. His hair is graying, and biceps bulge through the thick muslin toga swathed around his muscular body. Even in the growing darkness, his glaring eyes shine bright and spiteful. Next is a long line of men, all dressed in the same thick material, making me cringe as I recognize my gag, and the gloves: the same cloth that was used to trap me so many years ago. Their faces are hidden in half-shadow, and some utter hoarse war cries. “What do I do?” I whisper to Hermokrates. He shrugs. “I don’t know, just wait and see what happens.” “We can’t lose Zoe,” I add firmly. He nods and holds his sister’s hand tighter. There is sudden silence over the square. The Gods stand in the same stances: feet a shoulder width apart, hands clasped behind their backs, weapons slung over their right shoulder. I shudder, remembering how perfect, how identical they strove to be at the prison. “We come today for one thing and one thing alone,” the big one bellows. “WAR!” The roar soon picks up and down the line of ranks, men begin pounding spears and weapons and chanting, “Warwarwarwarwarwarwar…” Then two figures step forward. I strain to see them, but Hermokrates gasps. “It’s your parents,” he says in surprise. “What? Just like last time?” “I guess they’re the leaders.” “I guess they are.” I stop standing on my toes and instead listen to what is going on. Next to me, a family draws nearer in a rustle of cloth and panting, nervous breaths. “Do you need to see?” Hermokrates asks. “I would like to,” I say. He nudges me forward into a gap in the crowd. “About ten years ago,” I hear Papa say, “we gathered in this very square. It began with two men, him” – he points to a young man – “and him.” Another older man steps forth, falters, and awkwardly steps back. With a hint of a smile, my father continues, “Soon ranks streamed from the clouds and the sky, and a war began. We tried to make peace, but it did not work.” I hear another voice, one I don’t recognize. It is clear, like bells, never wavering, and ripples like water over smooth grey stones in a brook. Leaning towards the sound, I find myself at the front of the massive crowd, staring at my own mother. She glances in my direction and gives a gentle, half-smile. Her hair flutters quietly in the breeze, dark like mine, and her soft eyes glint in the harsh light cast by lanterns around the square. “Your men fought valiantly, killing many and injuring even more. But your only goal was to get us, this whole family.” She gestures me forth, and indicates the triangle of father, mother, and child. People stare at me, and I see Aikaterine wringing her hands again. “You captured my husband and me, and claimed to have executed us. “But you didn’t. When you gave us young Akakios, he lived up to his name, which many of you may consider cursed. He was innocent, and not evil, and allowed us a chance to escape. So we did. We escaped through a sea glass room and fell down the tunnels to land here, where our home has been since then.” Papa steps slightly in front of both of us. “There is one person who was not present last time,” he says gravely. Then, as though they are friends, he holds out a hand to the huge man in the middle, the one who began the chanting, and touches his forearm in a familiar gesture. The man flinches at his touch, looking surprised that Papa, though blind, can sense his presence. “Our good friend, the lord of the sky, Zeus.” I stiffen, frightened. I knew the entire time that my captors were being commanded by a greater force, but little did I suspect that it was Zeus, the almighty king of the Olympus that once existed, now buried in a heap of rubble and barbed wire. “He joins us today, I suspect, to rip out our guts himself. To finally join in on the dirty work.” Papa ignores the cries of horror from the crowd. “But we are strong, are we not?” His voice gets louder. “We are the Truth-Teller’s nation, and we are strong! We will beat them! The greater good will win, and we will fight to the death.” Everyone begins jumping up and down, shouting too, saying that they will defeat the Gods once and for all. Then Zeus steps forward, grinning. “I have more,” he says, voice booming. The sound ceases almost immediately. “More soldiers on my side, more for the Gods. I am no fool. I have an army far bigger than yours. We can murder you, squash you with one blow.” “Let the battle begin, then,” says Papa in a calm, level voice that seems to soothe the frenzied masses despite the contradictory emotion of his words. “Let the blood be shed, the shouts commence, and the greater good win.” We Meet Again Out of nowhere, Papa grabs a sharp, metal spear and begins thrusting it at the Gods who are closing in on him. In one sweep of the blade, he leaves five men groaning on the floor and is gone, stepping lightly and surely despite his darkness. “Alitta…” Mama says, turning to me as chaos reigns around us. I put my hand on hers. “Don’t,” I say calmly. “Don’t tell me to get to safety or stay hidden. I’m fourteen, fifteen even. I can fight. Give me a weapon, any weapon, and I will make you proud.” She opens her mouth, then closes it, shuts her eyes, and nods. “Weapons are over there. Alexander is dishing them out. Good luck, Alitta, my truth.” She is gone, in a puff of brown, fragrant hair and her last lingering words dancing in my head. “Alitta!” I hear the shout above the grunts and thunks of metal hitting flesh. I run towards the sound, blindly beating away people with my fists, stumbling over prostrate bodies and slipping in blood. I can’t tell whose it is, if it’s ours or the Gods’, and I don’t want to find out. With a heavy thud I slam into someone and shriek. “Calm down, Alitta,” Hermokrates orders. Zoe is clutching his leg. “Did you get a weapon?” I shake my head no, too winded to speak. “Here.” He tosses me a javelin, a bow, and an arrow quiver. “You’ll need these.” “Right.” I nod and begin to run off. He grabs my elbow. “Alitta, I’m not sure if you realize this,” he says as people cry in anguish and victory around us, “but it’s you the Gods want the most. They can kill anyone, but they will trap you and make us watch your death.” “I’ll be careful,” I insist. Right now my fingers are itching to strike, to come down on the evil men that have tortured my family and me for so long. “Really.” He looks unconvinced, but I ignore him. Bending down, I hug Zoe, whose body is trembling like a grass in the breeze. “Bye for now,” I say, refusing to visit the idea that this may be the last time I see her. I shake Hermokrates’s hand and thank him for all he has done, finding the thought that we may never see each other again unbearable. “Goodbye, Alitta,” he mumbles at the ground, grabs a spear, and runs off, Zoe darting behind him like she has all her life. I turn around, face the battle, and with an earsplitting cry of passionate revenge I plunge into the crowds below. The fight is exhausting, but energizing at the same time. I manage to injure seven of the Gods, daze three of them, but cannot stomach the murder of any, no matter how cruel they are. With my javelin in one hand and my bow slung across the opposite shoulder, I fight until my weapon become slippery with sweat, tears, and blood blended together. Every time I come near a God, they scamper away, but with my bow and arrow I send a streak of feather and wood flying through the air to pin them to the ground. I am in my element, enjoying the fight, the terrors of it, the anger, the lashing out, and the strength that each injury and terrifying moment gives me. The number of people still standing dwindles down. There is an equal amount of both Gods and Truth-Tellers still in the square as night hurtles down upon is, making even the lanterns of meager help once we are tempted away from the light. “Alitta!” It’s Mama, hurrying toward me. Her face is pale and drawn, and she stumbles as she runs, but she doggedly approaches me, jumping over bodies and expertly dodging sword thrusts. “Where’s Papa?” I pant, and we are alone together for a moment, battle seeming distant yet near. “He’s fighting three Gods at once, and winning. I never thought he could be so violent, but he is a quick and merciless killer.” “Killer?” I whisper. “I couldn’t stomach killing anyone. It makes me queasy to see blood.” She gives a weary smile. “You get that from me.” Her face pales as she leans over and gives a hollow cough which seems to last forever. “I’m alright, Alitta, I’m fine. This is my last battle,” she says wistfully, “and I intend to win it.” “I’ll win it for you,” I say vehemently. “I will. You rest, go with the others to the tending place, and I will fight for you.” “Thank you, Alitta, but I need to be here.” “No,” I say stubbornly. “Go and rest. You will die here.” “I will die anywhere,” she says. “I prefer dying on the battlefield than in a cot with sympathetic looks surrounding me.” The end of the rope… I slowly nod, and we emerge out of our hiding place. Almost at once, four Gods run towards me. I stand firm, bow poised, arrow quivering on the string, and wait for the perfect moment to let it fly. It hits one man in the eye, and I quickly loose three others, each with perfect aim. Then I run, scampering over bodies towards the mass of 20 or so Gods still fighting. By a quick and rough count I note that 25 of our men are still fighting and 10 women still have weapons. A surge of confidence cascades over me as I run once more into the fight. Now we are down to 10 and 15 on each side, battling fiercely. Blood flows thickly, and though Mama hangs on she is getting whiter and whiter and ready to faint. I am standing in front of her, trying to protect her as her body is racked with hollow, thick coughs. We are inside an abandoned cave when there is a dull thud and she collapses. Behind her is Zeus, holding a small white thunderbolt in his hand. I freeze as my mind reels, not knowing what to do. Slowly, he begins to chuckle, then laugh, faster and faster, more and more sinister. Finally he calms, wiping his brow with a hand the size of a dinner plate. He looks down at me, almost in amusement. “So, Alitta,” he says. “We meet again.” Love I think I strike first, lunging with my dulled javelin, but he roars and hurls a huge, slender yellow thunderbolt my way. I avoid it by a hair, and shoot five futile arrows into his arm. Spots of blood appear, and he winces, but pulls them out as though they are meaningless sewing needles. “That’s all you give me?” he asks in scorn. “Take this, and this, and this!” Lightning shoots from his hands, and I dart away from each one, missing them by a sliver of merciful air. He backs me up against a wall, electricity shooting from his fingers, when there is a clunk and he roars in pain. It’s Papa. I turn around and he is holding Mama’s limp body, glaring heatedly at the man who killed his wife and is about to murder his child. Though he is clearly blind, his eyes white and milky, he told me he is able to sense light and dark, and sense murky shapes where there should not be any. He lowers Mama gently to the ground and strikes, clutching two spears. I gingerly step away from the wall, my knees feeling like jelly, and join the fight with anger and fury almost rivaling my father’s. We back him up against the wall, blades pointing to his throat and heart, and force him to raise his arms. “You will never bother our people again,” Papa says, voice shuddering with hatred, “and you will slink away into the Underworld to join your worthless brother, Hades. You and all your people. We will give some the opportunity to join us, join our people, live their life with truth as the rule, and you will never again send lightning and thunderbolts down our way out of boredom or spite. We are your betters, and we promise that Truth will soon overtake your Deceit, and you will be sorry.” “You are a fool,” growls Zeus, “a fool whose wife is killed in battle because of your own idiocy, and who cares nothing about their daughter but using her as a weapon against the Gods.” “That’s not true, and you know it. By now, you, the mighty god of the sky, are trying to spin stories. Want my advice?” “No,” Zeus mutters, but Papa cuts over him. “Leave the fairy tales for the children. Let them run you out of town. You have a bad reputation down here, Zeus, and even Above, where you govern, people are intimidated by you.” “Not true…” he says, but I can tell he is trying to process what Papa has just said, and fear sputters in his eyes. Fear of what? Of the truth? The fact that he may not be as perfect as he pretends to be? As he tells himself he is? “Surrender. Now.” Papa’s voice is once again even and calm, sure of himself. “Truth will always defeat you, no matter how hard you try to deny it.” Zeus splutters, and I tighten my grip on the javelin pointing straight into his heart. Looking at me in near terror, he says slowly, “I will surrender for now, but you will see. You will see who is better when I am in the Underworld. You will see that I am right, and always will be.” “Your arrogance is disgusting. Go complain to Cerberus, because he is the only animal that will ever respect you. “Alitta, get a rope and some cloth,” Papa orders me. I run down the path, panting, and bump into Hermokrates, who is holding a stained bandage to his forehead. “Alitta?” he asks in surprise. “I thought you were in the battlefield still.” “We backed Zeus against the wall,” I say. “I need some rope and cloth.” “Over there, by the first white tent,” he replies, pointing. “Is the war… over?” “I’m not sure,” I say, and I’m not. This all feels so surreal, like a dream. I fought a war, I hurt people with blades, and pinned my mortal enemy against the wall. Is this real? Is this it? Is this the climax, what all past Rebellions and disputes have been leading up to? “And your mother…?” The image of her limp body flashes before my eyes. Tears surge up from the confused depths of my heart and I swipe them away angrily. “I’m sorry, Alitta,” Hermokrates whispers. After a hesitant pause, he moves forward and hugs me, offering the strength and sympathy that I so badly need. I have never been hugged, never been comforted, by a friend before. I have never had a friend other than my parents. “You know she was bound to - ?” “Don’t say it,” I snap. I don’t want people to tell me that it was inevitable. My mother is dead. That should be enough grief without everyone else making it worse, thinking it will lessen the blow to know that my mama would have died anyway. “You should go back to the tent,” I say, drawing a long, shuddering breath. “I need the rope and cloth. I’ll come and get you and Zoe and your mother when it’s over, okay?” “Why do you push people away?” he says hoarsely. “In your efforts to take on all the burdens, all the responsibility, you will turn out like your mother, old before your time. Why do you shove away those you need the most? I’m your friend, Alitta. Mama and Zoe and I – we all love you, and still you push us away, insisting we let you handle it.” I stand, stunned, and feel a flash of anger smothered by a tide of uncertainty. Is it true? I have been solitary for so long that I hardly know what it’s like to rely on others, to lean on them for support when I am about to collapse. “You can come, if you want,” I say finally. “You’re right. I’m unused to being a team. It’s always been just me against the bad guys. Come with me to get the materials.” I look at his forehead, which is still bleeding. “Are you sure you’re okay?” “I’ll live,” he says tightly, but he looks pale. I hurry over to the tent and grab a coil of rope and the cloth, worried that I have left Papa too long with the crafty and conniving Zeus. As we run towards the cave I rip off a length of cloth and bind the bandage to Hermokrates’s head so he can use both hands. “Alitta!” shouts Papa as I arrive, panting. He is barely restraining the big man, but I throw him the rope and he ties Zeus firmly to a stalagmite. I watch in awe as he moves carefully around it, murmuring something that sounds like muffled cries of triumph. He slowly turns and stands in front of the man, plucking one of my arrows out of the crook of his elbow, and writes on Zeus’s chest, directly above his heart, using the scarlet blood as ink, Τρυτη δεφεατσ ∆εχειτ; φαχε ιτ, Ζευσ. Strangely, he uses English words but our Greek letters. Zeus grunts and attempts to rip off his bindings, but whatever minor spell Papa used works. He is stuck there until someone lets him out. My father turns around and with a cry of dismay kneels to the ground. It’s Mama. I grip his shoulder as I join him, staring at my mother’s peaceful face, willing the pink lips to part and utter a word but knowing it will not happen. “I love you, Mama,” I whisper, and for an instant her eyes flutter open. Zeus cries out in rage but can only pound on the rock imprisoning him. Suddenly I recall my words to Zoe earlier. “Zoe,” I had said, “love!” Just one word, one thing bigger than the universe, stronger than anything, able to defeat the Gods once and for all. Love is what good has and evil will never obtain. Her voice is cracking as bony, twig-like fingers grasp my father’s and mine. I cannot hear what she says, but her eyes gaze almost apologetically at us before she heaves a sigh, shuts her now-glassy eyes, and breathes her last breath. Then her spirit is released into the air, almost tangible as it whispers past my ear and skips out of the cave, singing with joy as the woman I once knew leaves the body she lived in. But as she does so, a small part of her enters my heart to be locked away forever with a key no one will ever uncover. The part of her that she gifts me with is all that I ever wanted. It is her soft hands, her gentle eyes, her dancing voice. It is her nicknames, her kisses, her hugs, her laughter, her jokes. It is a part of her entire being, her heart, her mind, her soul. It is, to put it simply, her love. Overdue “The war is over.” I say these words, still staring at the cold body once concealing my mama. “The war is over,” I repeat, hardly able to register their meaning. “We will no longer be killed by the Gods. It is over.” Zeus’s head lolls back as the sun begins to rise, a glimmering sphere of lemon light. The pathetic gesture, making him look like a tired infant, is enough to thaw my stiffness. “We did it!” I jump up and hug Papa, then Hermokrates, and Papa again. I can’t believe it. Everything seems awash with color, with new beginnings. “We did it,” murmurs my father, as though unable to process the concept. “Aletha…” he says, tenderly running a finger along my mother’s stubborn jaw line. Her body is stiff and cold as it lays on the ground, lids closed over eyes like marbles, the ghost of her last words warming her lips slightly and giving them a rosy, unearthly hue, as though she is about to awaken. Papa gazes unseeingly at her face as though longing to see it, but he can only sit on the ground and cradle her head in his lap. I feel instantly bad for the lack of sorrow I feel at her death – but wasn’t it my father that told me to embrace the loss? “What was the cloth for?” Hermokrates asks. He holds up the bolt of white cloth Papa asked me to fetch. “I have a slight cut on my arm.” Papa extends his left arm gingerly, still feeling the last traces of life emanate from Mama’s whitening cheeks. A ragged gash mars his bicep. Hermokrates’s eyes widen in horror. The skin around it is swelling and raw. “Slight cut? Fidel, this is serious. We need to get you to the tending tent!” “But Aletha…” I step in, put a hand on my father’s trembling shoulder, and speak as though to a fretting child: “No, Papa. You told me yourself that the end of the rope is natural. We must celebrate her life, not mourn her death.” “You’re right… of course, you’re right, Aleth- Alitta,” he says, standing up, dazed and unsteady. Hermokrates and I each grab an arm, looking worriedly at each other. As we walk out, black-clothed bodies dot the ground in an erratic array. Blood has seeped into the tiles of the square and dried, making them look rusted. There are no more Truth-Tellers still standing; according to Hermokrates, they are all in the tents. Slowly, we make our way up the rickety stairs to the Green, where about twenty large white tents have been erected. “Alitta? Fidel? Hermokrates?” It’s Xenia. She runs towards us and engulfs us all in a massive hug, ignoring Papa’s groans as she grabs his injured arm. “Ma, please,” Hermokrates says. “Fidel’s got a nasty wound. Get him to the tending tent. Where’s Zoe?” “She went into the bookshop, of all places.” The bookshop. I run up the winding steps, stumbling where small stones jut out, tripping over the long grasses, and arrive in the doorway. Aikaterine and Zoe look up at me, startled, and freeze. “Alitta.” Aikaterine seems to gasp as she gets up and moves towards me. “Isn’t this terrible?” Staring at her frenzied eyes, I shake my head. “No, it’s not. We won! Zoe, we won!” Why is she looking so sorrowful, so sad? “Um… Alitta? Maybe you should take a look around you.” I rotate on the spot, confused, when I see the destruction so cleverly hidden. All the bookshelves but one are splintered, mauled, smashed to pieces. Fragments of parchment and shattered inkwells lay on the floor in disorderly heaps of shredded hope. And yet at first glance, this all seems invisible. This is no doubt the work of the Gods. “Do you need help?” are the first words that come out of my mouth. I bite my tongue quickly. How insensitive can I be? This is her life, her world, just destroyed by the people she so carefully avoided. Destroyed by the people that I brought into her life. A stab of guilt shoots through my body. I shake my head quickly, as though trying to rid myself and Aikaterine of the words I just spoke so uncaringly. Instead, I say hastily, “I’m so, so sorry for everything; all the trouble I’ve caused you. Everything.” And I see just a hint of a smile on the dour woman’s face as she hears my much- overdue apology. An Open Invitation The sun rises quickly, moving smoothly, as though relieved the war is over so it can continue with its business of shedding light for all the people. Lines of men dressed in ripped black clothing and injuries march dejectedly through our square. Only a select few – such as Master Constantine and Akakios, the “not evil” boy who was assigned to execute my parents and the teenager I saw conferring with Xenia so long ago at the Gods’ – were chosen to stay with us, to live our lifestyle. Families who have lost members will gradually learn to appreciate the new ones that come to us today in the shape of reformed Gods. Soon, very soon, the bitterness when we pronounce “Gods” will disappear from our lips, replaced only by the normal cadence of describing a people that once dominated the land. They are merely, and always will be, gods with a lowercase ‘g’. Nothing more than a trivial title referring to men and women who once, very long ago, were a threat. Someday, I suppose, their evil will no longer bother me; the fact that they killed our people out of spite and warped beliefs will become nothing more than a simple fact. Papa has recovered. Thankfully, in addition to his arm wound, which is healing quickly under the influence of an herb poultice the nurse gave him, he only suffered a mild headache following the battle with Zeus. He is being tended to by an overly-enthusiastic Zoe, who for some reason is suddenly taken with him. Apart from the bandage that will soon be taken off he is in very high spirits. Xenia’s husband, Tryphon, is a soft-spoken man with an overall soft demeanor. He is gentle and very kind but as unlike as his children as can be. Last time I saw he was helping with small chores around the house. I walk outside, feeling contented for the first time in ages. It’s almost spring, and the timid tips of tulip tubers are tentatively emerging from the thawed soil. “Where are you going to go now?” I jump and whirl around. Hermokrates is standing next to me, also staring at the beginnings of new flowers. “Will you stop appearing behind me and saying things without warning?” “Sorry. It’s my specialty.” He grins. “So I noticed.” We’re quiet for a moment, but then he repeats his initial question: “Where are you going to go now?” I had hoped he wouldn’t bring it up. “I don’t know,” I admit. “Papa hasn’t mentioned anything, and I don’t want to pressure him. He’s already stressed enough.” “Where do you want to go?” “I…” I stop, pause, and try to think. What do I want? Freedom, love, happiness – all the things that I didn’t have when I was a young child. But this is an impossible question to answer, when the war is still tumbling in my mind and making my thoughts disorganized and confused. I turn my back on him, looking for something that isn’t in the horizon I’m staring at. “What do you mean?” I ask, though it’s perfectly obvious. “Alitta, you’re always thinking of other people and never yourself.” “I thought I’m always thinking of myself and never other people. That’s what you said.” “I never said that.” I’m suddenly angry. “Oh, so now I’m a liar, a God. Thanks. Because that’s sure the impression you gave me.” “I said you were closing yourself to the people that care. Which you still do. Like right now. Your posture, your tone – you’re trying to dig a hole and hide.” I turn sharply back to face him, about to deny it, when he continues, speaking softly, like I’m a timid animal about to fright, “Why, Alitta? Didn’t this war teach you anything about yourself? You’re strong, you’ve defeated Zeus; you’re faithful, and clearly loved – love – your parents. You – ” I stamp on the ground in frustration. “I don’t know, okay? First I thought everything would be fixed once I escaped; then I thought it would be over when the war was over. But guess what? Now it’s over, and I feel crummier than ever.” “Alitta…” He opens his mouth to say something. I cross my arms and glare at him, daring him to speak. “I’m angry, so you’d better not get in my way,” I snap, glowering at the ground. His voice is gentle, like a father soothing his child, and does nothing to alleviate me. “Is this really anger, Alitta?” he asks. “Or is it fear?” Tears well unexpectedly in my eyes. I swipe them away. Why do I cry so easily when fear is mentioned? When someone points out that I’m hiding my emotions, burying them deep in a pit of oblivion? Wasn’t that my defense mechanism so many years ago? I have always sought nothingness, but when others observe that I am doing so I get scared. Is it because I actually fear the thing that I can’t control? “I don’t know, Hermokrates,” I confess, calming down and drawing a deep, shivering breath. “I still feel lost. I don’t really have a home. Mama was a roamer, Papa lived with you, and I was nowhere and everywhere. Our old home is demolished. I don’t know where we’ll go. If Papa will even stay with me.” Hermokrates gives me a stern look. “That’s a foolish thing to say, Alitta. You know he would never leave you.” “He left me before, didn’t he? He let go of my hand at the battle, didn’t he?” I whisper. “I’m not sure he wouldn’t leave me again. Where would I go?” “Well,” he says slowly, “I’ll need to confirm this with Mother, but our house can definitely take two more people.” My eyes widen. “Really?” I breathe, barely unable to believe it. Zoe is like a little sister to me, and Xenia is the only woman I could ever imagine fulfilling the place in my heart where Mama once was. “Seriously? I mean, you’d do it?” “Definitely.” He smiles. “From now on, Alitta, consider it an open invitation.” Going Home Later in the evening I take Zoe out for a walk. I haven’t had time alone with her for a while, ever since she found me and introduced me as Alitta, the first time in my memory that I was ever labeled by my true Truth-Telling name. We ramble along the pathway, picking bouquets of the bolder spring grasses that dare feel winter’s icy breath, and play kickball with various pebbles we discover along the way. The sun is setting once more, reminding me of the words I have yearned to say all day, ever since my conversation with Hermokrates. I take Zoe’s small, warm hand in mine and swing it as we walk down the road. “Come on,” I say to her as the gentle spring breeze tickles our faces and I feel a sense of unspeakable calmness and wellbeing wash over me, “we’re going home.” EPILOGUE The sun was just beginning to set, a melting pat of golden butter dissipating into the shadowed horizon, when the tall, dark-haired woman stood up. She had been kneeling by the fireside, next to a small trundle bed barely larger than a drawer. Her eyes were a beautiful crystalline teal that glimmered as she watched the light fade into a glow merging with sharp, triangular treetops in the distance. There was a soft creak as the door opened and her husband, a lanky man with straw- colored hair, came in. She turned to greet him, tears making her eyes shine. Wordlessly, he went to her and embraced the slender figure. “It’s been twenty years,” she whispered softly. “Twenty years since she died. It was a cruel thing, unfair. I hadn’t met her for a day. I hadn’t had a mother for a day, when she left me.” “It was imminent, remember,” her husband reminded her. “It was bound to happen, whether or not Zeus did it.” “I know. I know. But why couldn’t it have been a natural death?” She wiped her eyes and pulled away, sitting down at the table, hands flopping uselessly to grip its curved edges. Her five-year-old son walked in and sat down on her lap. “You ought to be in bed now, Nic,” scolded his mama, kissing him nonetheless. “I was about to go to bed, too.” “Well, you can’t. Not while I’m awake,” he said, giving an angelic smile. “Silly boy.” She rubbed his tawny curls affectionately. “Sit down. Papa will get you a small bit of milk and bread to make you fall asleep.” “You’ve been crying,” he said matter-of-factly. “Is it because Gramma Aletha died?” She bit her lip, nodded. “Yes.” “But you said yourself it wasn’t sad. You said it was coming.” “She was my mama, just as I am yours. Mamas are things all children hold dear, Nicodemus. They are important for the nurturing I didn’t have.” Nic cocked his head. “You look fine, now.” His mother shook her head gently, smiling. “I wasn’t fine for a long time.” “Tell me about it.” “I know it, but I can’t tell you about it. It lives on in my heart, every detail of it, impossible to word. I can only feel it and experience it like it was yesterday.” “Oh.” He looked crestfallen. His mother picked up on this and said, thoughtfully, “There is one thing I haven’t done.” “What’s that?” “Has Papa taught you about conclusions yet?” “You mean when you wrap up your story?” “That’s it. I haven’t wrapped up my story yet.” “Can I help you?” “You sure can,” his mother said, smiling. Little Nicodemus was thrilled. His papa brought him in a mug of milk and a slice of rye bread, sitting down at the table next to his wife. “Nic, bring me some parchment and the inkwell,” she said gently to her son. He jumped up and did so. She took them from him and began to write in curving, slanted letters. Both husband and son craned their necks to see. Twenty Years Later I sit here today, with my husband and son standing by me. It seems unreal that I am the girl that once was so confused, who didn’t dare dream for anything, who “sag[ged] against the brick wall of eternity, a jellyfish trapped in the foolish form of a person.” Who was lost, haunted by not knowing, feverishly oblivious to everything around her. And yet I am that person. I am Alitta. I am the girl whose name means truth, whose mother died, whose father was blinded, who lived to see the day when Truth-Tellers defeated the Gods. I never thought I would be loved, by anyone or anything. In my own words so long ago, as a young child, barely older than young Nic, “Faith, trust, love – they’re all meaningless words to me.” Now I know all of those and more. I know love, faith, trust, truth, loyalty, sacrifice, justice, kindness, family. I would never have guessed, so many years ago, that one day I, too, would be loved from all sides of the table. I would be loved my my friends, my mother, my father, my husband, and my four children. If I had known, would I have done things differently? I don’t know. Nicodemus pointed to the part about children. “Don’t forget to mention me,” he said. Smiling, his mama touched his nose. “I wouldn’t dream of it.” Hermokrates and I have four children. The firstborn is Democritus. He has grown up to be tall and loud, demanding justice and judging everyone. He plans to attend an academy for aspiring politicians and can be pompous at times. Like all of his friends, he has a good heart hidden inside him, though in the heat of debate he very rarely displays it. His hair is dark like mine, but his eyes are clear and blue like his father’s. Second, just a year behind the oldest, is Irene. She lives up to her name: calm, peaceful, and serene, with dreamy teal eyes and flaxen hair. She often keeps the peace within the family when opposites clash. Third is Nicodemus, four years younger than Irene. “That’s me!” Nicodemus exclaimed joyfully. He is his father all over again: messy blond hair, blue eyes, and a gentle sense of humor. Even at a mere five years old he has a calming influence on all the children around him. It is to him that Hermokrates teaches the art of mind-probing, explaining carefully and deliberately the delicate skill. Last is a tiny girl, a perfect mix of mine and Hermokrates’s temperaments. She has dark hair and wild sea glass-colored eyes, but is a kind, gentle thing. We named her Eumelia, for the beautiful melodies she has already begun stringing together at her young age of three. Despite the serenity and sweetness with which she conducts herself she can be a spitfire, quick to anger and quick to calm. Just like me. She paused to look tenderly at the bed by the fire. The tiny bundle in it tossed and turned before falling asleep. So what? you might say. You lived, you have children; that was a tame story, easily told to children at bedtime. So what? It meant something to me. It carved my existence. Even those years trapped in limbo, that was important to finding me. And I didn’t find myself, myself found me. We joined slowly, as I discovered my own uniqueness, piece by piece. I was a confused child, a scared one. I didn’t know who I was; I was trapped within my own being, a hypocrite to myself. Identity was a murky fog I couldn’t find. Whether I lived or not made no difference; I was certain that I would still die with my core unfound. I didn’t even know my parents. I was stubborn but had no idea where my personality, my core, would take me next. With a tinkle of bells, chimes, and swaying diamond pendants I was off to my next adventure, never knowing what would happen to me. If I would live or die. If I would change at all. If all of this had not happened to me, I would still be a jellyfish. I would still be the girl I once was. I would be somewhere, locked up, lost forever from this galaxy. If all of this had not happened to me, I would not be me. I would not be Alitta. I would be no one, disappearing into the growing fogs of miserable darkness. If all of this had not happened to me, I would probably have died. Perhaps my body would have lived, but that last flickering flame of my soul would be extinguished by the pain, the remorse, the sorrow, the “I don’t know”s. But if you asked me if I would re-live it, re-do it, all over again, the answer would be instantaneous: Firmly, decidedly, unquestionably, NO. It was my key to survival, all those events. They came as naturally as the sunset arrives now, never to truly end. For when one day comes to a close, somewhere in this vast, unfathomably enormous world, a new one begins. And that is the story of my life.
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