I wrote it based on a dream I had...
‘There is always hope where you can see the sky.’
Imagine a bunk bed that rises as high as a multilevel parking lot—a dimly lit tower of white, enclosed by walls of darkness. Layers upon layers of king-size mattresses and cloudlike linens, layers of children lying clustered in the dark and the warmth. It is in such a cloth cave as this that my family and I live.
The bodily comfort does not extend to the spirit—our bodies are warm, but our spirits are shivering. The priests rule over all, and their reign is one of terror and oppression. Our little society has strict boundaries. Live, eat, sleep, fall over the edge into the drawer-bed, and be reborn. Again. And again. Speak out against the cycle, and you are punished severely.
Monotony breeds madness. My sister, the closest thing we had to a mother, broke one day. She just couldn’t take it anymore. She didn’t raise hell. No, she rose the calm hope of heaven in the midst of a living death—one quiet prayer—and for it, she was extinguished. Now, she lies above us, undergoing exorcism by the High Priests. Her muffled screams reverberated through the mattress as we huddled terrified below. The occasional tips of instruments, thin and sharp, poke through the mattress every now and then. They are dimly gleaming reminders of the punishment for speaking out loud.
As I sit there and listen, an ember grows within me, hot and corrosive. It is not the haughty, indignant anger of a person wronged. Rather, it is the flickering, bestial rage of one who is already low to the ground, but feels the burn of injustice nevertheless. Thoughts come to me, defiant, mutinous. Dark plots of rebellion form themselves.
An acolyte is descending by us on the ladder—newly chosen, eager for blood. Beside me, her hair downy soft under my palm, my smallest sister murmurs incomprehensibly in a dream. The acolyte turns his head. “What was that?” He demands, sharply. He steps off the ladder, our mattress creaking under his tread, and crouches by my sister. He seizes her hair and lifts her head off of the mattress. “Did I hear you speak, blasphemer? What words of mutiny are you planning against our High Father?” He shakes her, roughly. My sister has awoken to a nightmare, but still she has the sense not to babble. She only watches him, mutely, eyes wide and terrified. The acolyte’s hand goes to his belt, fumbles at his side. It is all I need for the ember in my chest to burst into flames, unthinking, furious, and free. I kick him in the side with all the strength I possess. He tumbles over the edge, his face blank with surprise. A few moments later, I hear a wail rise. Cautiously, I look over the edge. Far below, lying swathed in the acolyte’s robes, a newborn infant squirms and cries in the drawer-bed.
I pull my head back inside. Despite the cold knowledge that we are now in imminent danger, the flames in my chest glow brighter than ever. A slow, mad grin spreads across my face.
It is late that wake-cycle, almost too late for dinner, and we wait in suspense. Have I been discovered? Then at last, I hear the slow, plodding steps of a meal-bearer, and I check a sigh of relief. But when the meal-bearer comes into sight, he is not wearing the white robes of an acolyte, but a black, close-fitting outfit of a type I have never seen before. His face, too, is not smooth like that of everyone but the Wisewomen. It is craggy, and rough, and slashed by lines that darken when he frowns. Silently, he holds out the tray. On it is a single white envelope. I take it. He turns and leaves, before I can voice a single hushed question.
The faces of my family are furrowed by the same question that is on my own. Carefully, I tear the envelope open. A piece of paper falls out, haphazardly folded. Unfolded, it reads: 1000 breaths past the start of the sleep-cycle. Meet me at the top. This is your family’s only chance for salvation. Marked hastily lower down, as if a last-minute thought, is: Bring your sister. The paper answers no questions. If anything, it raises a thousand new ones. My family had not been to the top since the time we received our newest baby—my youngest brother, sleeping soundly at my feet. And by sister, he can only mean… My gaze travels upwards. No longer does my oldest sister scream, but sometimes, in the middle of the sleep-cycle, when the only sound is the continuous breathing of a thousand families, I can hear her muffled sobs.
It only takes a few moments to decide. It is die trying to escape, or wait for the priests to come next morning and drag us all to a permanent death. At least this way, we can act instead of waiting for our fate to come to us. At least this way, we have hope.
We do not sleep that sleep-cycle, as my youngest sister counts the steady breaths of my youngest brother. Instead, we huddle together, one pack, one circle. We reminisce, remembering past lives as well as this present. In all, we had been together. I apologize and they forgive. We weep and laugh together, sharing our goodbyes until my youngest sister speaks and tells us it is time.
Silently, we climb the ladder, I in the front, my youngest brother cradled in one arm. Desperately, I hope that he will not awake, that all the priests and acolytes are sleeping and not climbing the stairs. My head knows that this is most likely a suicide mission, but my heart clings to hope and life with fervor. A moment passes, then another, and we reach the level of my sister’s exorcism. My heart nearly stops. I hoped that my sister’s torturers would be resting in their own beds, but they are curled asleep around their victim. Three lions, so close to their terrified prey! My sister is awake. She is looking at me.
She is thin and pale, but more alive than the skeleton I expected. She is sitting upright, and her eyes bore intensely into mine. The spirit in those eyes had not been broken by the endless cycles of torture. Instead, her ordeal tempered her, forging that spirit into something as hard and bright as steel. I am gratified, and a little afraid. The sister I knew, the comforting mother figure who sang hushed lullabies at night, is nowhere to be seen.
Her gaze breaks from mine, and I exhale. I pass my youngest brother down to my second-oldest sister, unwilling to set him down on my sister’s bloodstained mattress. Now, I can freely examine my oldest sister. She is fumbling at the oldest priest’s belt, the shackles around her wrists clinking as she moves. Her fingers seem stiff, and as she bends over him, I notice white streaks in her hair. There are old scars showing through the tears of her clothes, silvery-white, and some new ones. The priests healed her as well as hurt her, so as to prolong the torture. I see burns, as well, and wounds that have a strange resemblance to tooth marks.
At last, my sister stops fumbling, having found what she was looking for. She takes a key from the priest’s belt and unlocks first the shackles around her wrists, then the ones around her ankles. They fall without a sound, revealing chafed red wounds underneath. Slowly, ever so carefully, she walks toward us, stopping a few times as the pain takes her. After what seems like an age, she is before me on the ladder, and without so much as a nod, she starts climbing. I take my brother from my second-oldest sister’s arms, and we resume our ascent.
We pass a thousand levels by, leaving the place of my sister’s torture far behind. As my arm cramps and my legs start to burn, my sister does not seem to tire, but climbs more quickly than ever, hurrying to get to the top. My muscles protesting, I climb faster as well. The sleep-light falls softly on us, silvery, and a little bluish. It gleams on my sister’s scars, on the white streaks in her hair that were never there before, and lends a dreamy sense to our quiet ascent. It feels almost as if I am asleep, but for the cold on my skin and the light that grows ever brighter as we near the top.
We are there. My legs keep on climbing into the air, and I collapse onto the soft mattress, my brother rolling from my arms, still asleep despite everything. My sister stands before me, looking into the eyes of the man clad in black standing at the far edge, waiting for us. “We are ready,” she says, and her quiet words seem loud in the stillness of the sleep-cycle. The man nods. “Very well,” he says, and gestures for us to come to the edge. My sister takes my hand and pulls me up, and I take up my brother in turn. We walk to the edge. All of us are there, our faces pale and grave in the sleep-light. My sister is palest of all.
We look down. Here is the endless abyss, the place the priests throw those of us who have committed the greatest of crimes. Fall here, it is said, and you will die a permanent death. But now, glinting at the very bottom where there should be naught but utter black, I see a faint gleam of white. I have just begun to turn when the man pushes us, as I knew he would, as I have always known he would. We fall.
We fall in silence, befitting this world of silence. The cold wind feels refreshing on my skin, and I smile. For the first time, I feel almost alive. We fall into oblivion, but the light grows brighter still—a pure, clear light, silvery, and a little blue.
I wake up. The cool sheets feel nice on my skin, and I wonder if it was all a dream. Lying around me is my family: Andrew, Alex, Avery, Angela, Ally…Alexis. I say the names out loud, taste them on my tongue. There’s a window high above our place of rest. Through it, I can see the sky. Blue.