– CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE –
The soapbox preacher called it the cleansing. Bread and water twice a day, enough to abate hunger, tasteless to the point eating quickly became mechanical and dull.
The preacher had stripped her to her skin, telling her to bare herself to God. She asked him to remove her inhibiting collar too—so she could be free of all earthly hindrances between her and their god. He didn’t believe her fake sincerity.
He kept the light from Clara. He told her to find His light within herself. In response, Clara asked the preacher to point her to the nearest wall switch. A baffled expression followed. Of course, the soap box preacher didn’t know anything about junk tech. Switches to turn on electric lights was a foreign concept to him. With a sigh, she asked him where the closest candle and matches were… that earned her a sad smile. That was all. Then the soap box preacher—always one, the same one—closed the door. Cold, lonely shadows closed in around her.
The treatment was little better than what Kell and his Junkers offered their batteries.
Just like in the beastly road golem, time slipped through Clara’s fingers. She slept for however long the preacher allowed. She woke after what seemed like minutes since she had closed her eyes.
The same soapbox preacher shook her by the shoulder, held a candle up her face, and waited for her to bat the sleep from her eyes. He would be bent over, his long stork-like torso close to completely horizontal because of his superior height and because Clara was lying on the floor and short by comparison. Although he spent much of his time on the road—traveling by foot from town to city to the tiniest village—his flesh was tallow grey, wrinkled by advanced age. He was maybe in his sixties. His lips were plump as if stung by a bee. Her fluttering eyes always settled on the massive wart on his cleft chin, which stuck out further than his broad nose.
Shaking back a voluminous sleeve, the old preacher slapped her lightly on the cheek. The light from his lantern rushed into her vision.
“Ah! I see you clearly, sister.” What he meant to say was he saw her sins, along with her young body. His eyes always lingered too long away from her gaze.
“Have you seen the light, sister?” he asked again, as he had hundreds of times before.
Her chin rested in his cupped hands. She could feel the palm and cross brands against her cheeks. She turned her head toward the lantern’s light, a motion he allowed her.
“Light? Just the one hanging there.” She answered with a grin in her speech. “Is it day? If you take me outside, I’ll surely see the sun. I’ll see your light there.”
“Look inward,” the preacher commanded. “Hear His words. Know your sins. Know how you’ve squandered the Second Chance he allowed you.”
Clara thought about asking the soap box preacher if Eve Powell had looked inward and saw her own “sin”. Did he know Eve herself was a conduit? That the collar around Clara’s neck was junk tech, locked in place by Eve Powell?
Telling would betray Eve Powell’s possible secret. And whatever the Reverend’s wife was or wasn’t, she was a conduit and Clara could not bring herself to share another conduit’s identity. She had not arrived at that point yet.
She was more concerned with how Eve Powell had locked the collars. No seam. No actual locking mechanism. Maybe magnetism was involved. That would mean the collar was two equally charged pieces attracted to each other and the junk tech inside the collar kept a continuous amount of Field flowing through the parts, maintaining the bounding. How to counter the attraction was what Clara needed to determine in order to save herself. The cleansing gave Clara plenty of time for theorizing.
The lantern—the precious yellow-orange light in its iron belly—left once more with the preacher. Clara again lay back on her bed.
Did anyone know the His Hand held her captive here? Rose? Merlyn? Wendy? Sammy? Sammy saw Croo take her away to the Reverend’s place. Did Clayton know his religious best buddy was holding her in the church’s basement? Clayton likely did know and accepted her cleansing as a necessity toward bringing her away from the junk life of a conduit.
No one had spotted the soap box preacher usher a gagged and subdued Clara down a back stairway, a private way of entrance and exit away from public areas in the church building. Below ground, deeper than any sewer, were harsh concrete rooms large enough for a bed, a bucket for Clara to relieve herself in, and some walking space. Here is where the converts contemplated their relationship with the His Hand’s god. Solitary spaces. Away from the world. All a person had in their room was their mind, and even that grew claustrophobic when all you could smell was your own stink and waste. Anyone would shout out her conversion just to be free of this personal hellhole.
Clara spoke to Tink. She imagined the Nite buzzing around her head, scolding her for getting herself into such a mess, a mess bigger and more dangerous than the one with the Junkers. From the pot and into the fire her Grammy used to say. For all Clara knew Tink was in the room, trying in vain to break through the noise blocking all things about the Field from the conduit wearing a collar.
Hand outstretched, Clara imagined waving her hand through the currents of the Field, disturbing the Nites like fish startled by a rock suddenly plunged into the river, in the middle of their course.
By now, Marty and Kell would have given up hope on their plan, especially if Roos couldn’t contact her. She was supposed to meet Roos the following morning after their first meeting. When she didn’t show, he probably took that to mean she didn’t want his help. She wasn’t exactly nice to him when he offered help. Had Kell taken his Junkers and gone in search of more conduits to power their huge golem monster and new roads far from the His Hand? Ruins to raid. Travelers and caravans to rob.
They wouldn’t have time to waste on me, Clara told herself. She clutched hard at the Field she imagined in front of her. Survival. Kell wants to take his lost boys to a promised city of junk powered by conduits. A new way of life made up of the remnants of the old. They had no time for little ol’ Clarabelle. He wasted enough time waiting. Revenge burns away like any fire left unattended. Without me…
Marty too would have gone back to Rivend, spurred by the daughter he settled for when his blood rejected him. Thing was, Clara would have accepted Marty’s help. She knew that now. Her own fire had burned down and out. Those embers she could easily move to a new bonfire ready to torch Reverend Jimmy’s life! She could forgive Marty, the poor wretch.
She pictured her father, years ago, going along with Marty’s plan to retrieve Deseray from the His Hand, if only because Marty was his best friend. It didn’t make Marty’s betrayal acceptable but it tossed water onto the fire.
Warty the soap box preacher—as Clara started to refer to her new friend—entered Clara’s cell for one of his never-ending ritualistic visits. This time Clara was awake. She was considering whether Deseray had seen her, Wendy, Rose, and Merlyn together and deduced they were messing around with the inhibiting collar. A fair assumption. At this point, it didn’t matter who had ratted on her attempted machinations for escape.
He closed the cell door. She heard a lock slide home. Then Warty measured her as if he could see inside her soul. Did Warty think she was considering converting, giving up her abilities for a leash and collar? No. The preacher wore an expression filled with cunning, he knew Clara’s lighthearted jockeying was a game, that she knew she was poking a sleeping bear and didn’t care. He could wait, though. A prolonged cleansing frightened her, but she tried hard to keep her trepidation hidden.
She and Warty danced to the same song. The music was familiar now. The steps choreographed. Have you found the light? Clara would throw out a sarcastic response. He would nudge more. It is within the person, between them and God. Look inward, sister.
Yeah. I’ll look “inward”, if you stop groping at my breasts with your supposed celibate eyes!
Something was different this time. This time—at the end of the interrogation when Warty would leave and take the only light Clara ever found—Warty rose from the stool next to her cot and took out a bundle from somewhere behind his back.
“Make yourself decent, coppertop,” Warty told her flatly. “You are unable to wash yourself clean so you will stand for judgment as you have chosen.”
Up until now, Warty had always referred to her as sister, as if he held some hope for her cleansing. Using the coppertop moniker meant he’d reached the end of his patience while waiting… that or the Reverend’s patience.
Clara had the distinct impression Wart had not tried very hard to cleanse her.
They were stalling.
Clara dressed while mulling over the reasons for the stall, she turned her back toward Warty to affect some amount of decency.
Outside her cell, Clara saw more light then she had in… she wasn’t sure. All she knew was she too late in seeing the light.
A soap box preacher led Wendy out of another room not far from Clara’s own. They’d bound her hands behind her back, just as they had Clara’s. Dark purple circles ringed Wendy’s eyes but those yellow eyes still brightened upon glimpsing Clara.
“Clara! You’re here too!” Excitement picked up Wendy’s grim appearance.
“You alright, Wendy? They didn’t hurt you did they?” Warty put a hand between Clara’s shoulder blades and pushed hard enough to keep her walking forward. With her hands also bound, Clara had to comply with the nudge or lose her balance and pitch forward.
Wendy shook her head in the negative, but the fatigue of having her sleep disturbed over-and-over again, never being allowed more than an hour at a time, had taken its toll. To Clara, the dark skinned conduit appeared tired and emotionally beaten; the His Hand done nothing better for her than Kell and the Junkers.
“No. I’m fine,” Wendy assured Clara. “They just wouldn’t let me sleep. They wanted me to—”
The soap box preacher herding Wendy pushed her forward and shushed her harshly.
At the end of the slender corridor made completely of concrete and brick, Wendy and her preacher caught up with Clara and Warty.
Scrunched shoulder to shoulder as they headed for the stairs that would take them back up to the chapel level, Clara whispered to Wendy, her eyes kept forward. “They try very hard to cleanse you?”
“Not really. They mostly asked the same questions, kept me from sleeping. I’m tired, Clara.”
“Me too.” Clara sighed and wanted to rub a hand down the front of her face. “Me too, Wendy. Hang in there…”
This is almost over. One way or another.
“Do you know how long they kept us locked up for?” Clara asked.
Wendy bit her lower lip while thinking. “A follower came for me after you left to find that boy… What’s his name?”
“Him. Yeah. Anyway, I asked what I did wrong and where she was taking me. All she told me was I needed to discover the light and make my choice. She brought me down here, took my cloths, told me to look deep within myself for the light. I’ve been down in that room ever since. Felt like a week. I don’t like being in tight places, in the dark.”
Wendy was close to dropping to the floor to curl up and retreat inward, the same defensive measure she’d used to survive her time in the conduit kennel aboard the Junker bus golem.
“Same pitch they tried shoving down my throat. You did well holding out,” Clara told her. That drew forth a half smile from Wendy. She stood straighter while taking the stairs and after a moment nodded to herself.
Waiting at the top of the stairs for the two conduits, Croo stood crestfallen with hands behind his back. A headsman displayed more cheer.
“It is our charge to escort the unredeemable,” Warty announced petulantly, a child not wanting to give up his toys.
“Reverend Jimmy has ordered me to take the coppertops to the park myself,” Croo reached out to Clara and Wendy to lead them each by a shoulder.
The soap box preachers glided in front of the girls with a whisper of robes. Both held up their hands to display the brands on their palms, grotesque badges of their office.
Warty was tall, yet Croo towered over him and his fellow preacher. Croo was ready to crush them both. He carried the Reverend’s authority with him, that together with his physical presence were greater obstacles than a mountain range standing in a traveler’s way. “You would go against the Reverend’s words, he who is the voice of God here during the Second Chance? Hmm, would you, brothers?”
Warty and his fellow soap box preacher hissed like snakes ready to strike. “We shall confer with Rev—”
The other soap box preacher turned to Warty, reason in his gaze. “Brother, there is no time. The appointed hour is nigh. Let Brother Bernard shepherd these coppertops to meet their judgment.”
Warty attempted to argue but the necessity to keep to their timetable won out. He stepped aside. Croo extended his hands and ushered Clara and Wendy through the empty chapel, taking the rear to push them forward.
When the soap box preachers were out of earshot, Clara spoke softly to Croo. “How long?”
“Day and a half since the Reverend and Sister Eve sent you away,” Croo answered, keeping his attention forward, paying the girls no mind. He was merely leading two conduits, not being affable toward them. “A cleansing is common for older conduits. We sequester them. We allow them to prayer, to reflect. Never have the gideons taken part.”
“Wait,” Clara interrupted. “The gideons are the soap box preachers?”
Croo gave her a dubious look. Soap box preacher was not terminology used by the His Hand.
She cocked an eyebrow at the Reverend’s right hand. Well, I don’t call myself a coppertop.
“Younger conduits then?” Clara asked, pressing forward.
“They are sent to our schools, to learn about the religion, to be taught about God and His plan after the Second Chance.”
Because when you’re younger, you’re more malleable. Prune to suggestion. Clara understood perfectly. Spend enough time with a particular group and you start to pick up their ideologies, their customs, their morals. A kid hasn’t yet formed a rock solid identity. Her expression went hard and she snarled. Children are easier to brainwash. Adults are too stubborn. Set in their ways.
And I’m as stubborn as the next person… probably more. Which Warty had found out quickly.
“What will happen to us, Mr. Croo?” Wendy asked meekly, bracing herself for the worst.
“Neither of you swore to give up your abilities,” Croo said with a sigh. He looked at Clara sadly, his unshakable expression really cracking now, but his voice firm and reprimanding. “I told you, be the sheep. The sheep. One word. Why couldn’t you?”
Clara stopped in the middle of the chapel, amongst the circular pews. She rotated in a circle, taking in the chapel. The raised dais fit for an omnipotent creator of life. The gilded throne atop that dais, seat vacant and never sat in. The encircling pews, painstakingly carved and gilded. The banners hanging from the edges of the domed ceiling, pristinely white, embroidered with purple and gold, depicting scenes from The Bible. It hit her then. She knew what was missing from the chapel. Clara had visited many churches in ruins. They all had one visage this place of worship lacked… a tribute to the Christ. Some churches had his crucified image curved on a cross. Others simply exhibited the cross itself. There were crosses here… but bigger still was the flattened hand with the cross brand in the palm.
God is not here…
Again, she regarded the splendid throne. It never looked emptier to her then right now.
She returned her attention to Croo and smiled kindly up at him, appreciating his thoughtfulness. “I am who I am, sir. If people desire to see if I am the wolf or the sheep… well, that is for them to decide.”
This didn’t settle Croo in the slightest. Wendy pushed out her chest, tilted her chin up, and set her face sternly.
“What about Sammy?” Clara asked. It was too late for her and Wendy. A day and a half, gone? Kell would not have waited, no matter how fervently Roos tried to convince the road pirate captain to do otherwise.
“With his foster family, in class this morning,” Croo revealed. “Some bruising but he holds his head high.” He paused and his eyes went hard as they peered off, imagining Sammy. Clara saw concern there. Croo shook it away. “Classes are let out early this afternoon. Reverend Jimmy dismissed everyone to the park. Everyone will be there. Probably already are, crowding in.”
Around the gazebo is my guess, Clara reflected, remembering the wooden structure, crafted beautifully by a master craftsman’s calloused, splintered hands. I should have known better.
“Pleading your case,” Croo told her. Clara expected nothing less. “She’s offering the farm in exchange for custody of you and Wendy… literally, her family’s farm.”
“What’s happening in the park today?” Wendy asked cautiously.
Croo held one of the large church doors open for them, the large fruit-baring tree carved on the inside too. “It’s where the sheep are coming to watch the wolves beaten back.”
Wendy walked through the door, at a loss. She was not there when Croo told Clara to pull on the sheep’s wool coat. She had no clue that she and Clara were the wolves and this is what happens when wolves wander near the grazing ground and the shepherd’s sheep.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Thirty-Six by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved