– CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR –
During their walk to meet Reverend Jimmy, Clara decided she would believe the His Hand wanted conduits to swear off their abilities, to vow never to touch the Field. It was choice. Like believing in God—and Clara did have such faith, just not in the same version as the His Hand’s prescription—she could choose how to live her life, including whether to go to the His Hand, or her decision to become salvager instead of a seamstress like her mother. And that meant she could choose to leave the compound. The His Hand believed in free will, everyone’s free will.
Clara wanted to believe. All she had was hope. In the Junker’s beastly golem, she held on to hope as a lifeline. She was almost out of the sinking mud.
All I want to do is go home. I want to see Leo and Mom again. I want to make sure Uncle Marty’s body isn’t lying face down in a cloud of haze.
I just need to hold on a little longer, that’s all.
Groping for the Field, only hitting that wall of buzzing, Clara wondered if Tink was around, sending pings out to her. Clara could feel braver with Tink hovering around her head.
The compound was as big as the ranch Rose’s family held, maybe larger. By Clara’s estimation, the compound was three times larger than Linden Grove with all the wooden houses and gardens, its shops and other businesses. Most people thought of the His Hand as an independent nation, wanting only to keep to themselves but a people who would open their borders to any who knelt and put their nose to the dirt in prayer.
Almost in the center of the compound—across from the central park, of course—was the single dwelling that stood out among the others. Four stories tall and made of brick, the building reminded Clara of city public buildings. She thought of a place where people held public meetings to vote and discuss common grievances. Towns/cities meted out justice here. Law enforcement—the local militia—made their homes in these types of buildings. Strong. Sturdy. A fortress of its own. An anchor. Except the structure was decorated finely as opposed to the plain, whitewashed exteriors of the other homes in the compound. Thick, ribbed columns held up the wraparound porch on the second level. Crosses venerated the many steeples and arching roofs. A golden doom topped the building, catching and spreading out the sunshine for all to behold. Clara had to shield her eyes from the harsh glare that made the thumpers’ looks toward her seem gentle and welcoming. A second dome—half the size as the larger—sprouted towards the front of the building at a lower level; this dome did not blind her half as bad. Robed angels made of stone flowed out from the corners of the second level to look out toward the street that looped around the building’s lush front lawn. Some angelic statues held harps and others blew trumpets to announce the Second Coming.
It was more than a little over-the-top for Clara, grand for a people who preached modesty. Pompous and arrogant.
Clara said as much in a low voice of judgment.
Croo told them the building was the community’s alter to God, a monument to represent their dedication and adoration.
“Would you not construct a thing of beauty and wonder for one who you adore and venerate above all? How else do you show you’re devotion and love and commitment?”
“You say God is all powerful?” Clara asked.”He destroyed the old world and spared some to provide a second opportunity, a chance at redemption? Yeah? Because he didn’t like that our puny heads swelled and we thought ourselves deities, above even him. Right?”
Nodding her correctness, Croo spared Clara a look over his shoulder to say he believed her a worthy sparing opponent, as if she understood him and his faith perfectly and this delighted him.
Too bad she had no such illusions for herself. “Okay. So, why would such an omnipotent being want us to build monuments to him? Seems He should be above wanting such selfish idols erect to Himself. Why would He lower Himself to the puny insect’s level? All powerful, all seeing, all knowing… He could hear you whisper over a toilet.”
That same look the followers in the park leveled on her came crashing down on her, a hammer to smash her for her ignorance and audacity to question ideals so lofty she could never imagine grasping a single idea. It was snobbish and angry. From Croo, the look scared Clara.
Rose saw the escalation, saw how Clara had decided to cross a line and dance on the other side. The rancher’s daughter interjected herself quickly. She explained to Clara that this building was where Croo was leading them… it was Reverend Jimmy’s home.
This sanctimonious monument was the priest’s residence, as well as the thumpers’ commonplace of worship and where their community’s law headquartered.
Double doors carved with an intricate fruit tree stood closed at the top of the stairs that lead from the looping pathway and up to the porch. As she approached, Clara saw the carved tree bore apples by the bushel, the surface of the door and the carving varnished a rich red-brown.
Before Croo could put a hand on the golden rings that acted as door handles, both doors opened out. All three of them moved out of the way of a young man leaving the mansion-temple.
The young man was Clayton Mathers.
Clara raised a speculative eyebrow towards Clayton. “Hey, Clay. Uh, did you have an enlightened prayer?”
He looked her up and down, taking in her modest His Hand approved skirt and blouse. Approval sparkled in his eyes, more so when I looked at the collar locked around her neck. More than a week ago, Clara would have wished for Clayton to look on her that way, with those stone blue eyes, and finally accept her for the conduit she was… and as something more. Now, all she wanted him to do was avert his gaze. He did not accept her as she wanted, as herself, but as a dog who’d been leashed and was behaving.
“I was praying you’d come back to us,” Clayton said. Of course, he meant us as in the thumpers who reviled and shunned conduits. “When I found you… you were not in a good way, Clara.”
“That’s what days near burn out gets you,” she mumbled, looking away and crossing her arms below her breasts. Her breasts rose and stood out this way—more than she intended—but she adopted the firm, stubborn posture and she would not bulk and show indecision.
“If you’d found a trade more suitable, you might not have fallen into that trouble.”
“You mean if I’d stayed hidden! Psh, I can’t pretend to be who I am not, Clay. Not anymore than you can.”
She almost preferred Roos’ outlook on conduits. At least he sees me as useful. Better to be needed and used than stare up at someone’s nose!
“No one is asking…” he rubbed at his temple and caught himself before a curse slipped out. “Listen. I-I don’t want you to change. Just… It would be nice if you’d see things as I do, as many do. I wish you’d admit what you are, see what your abilities represent—something gone, buried, better left alone. Something we should not dig up again for fear we might stumble into the same hole!”
“You speak of fear, Clay,” Clara told him softly, pitying his ignorance.
Curling her arms around one of Clara’s, Rose pulled her friend along, past her elder brother. All the while, Rose tossed dagger-sharp glares at her brother’s square, impassive face.
Clayton placed a strong hand on Clara’s shoulder. In that brief second, Clara felt at the middle of two separate ropes, one tied to reach wrist, both tugging at her from different ends. Appropriate.
“These are good people,” Clayton assured her. “Listen to Reverend Jimmy. Really listen. Clara… Don’t be… well… stubborn.”
“You mean myself? Don’t be myself. Sorry to say, Clay, but I admitted a long time ago what I was, who I am. I accept myself.” Clara interpreted with a wince, a response to the hard tug from Clayton’s direction.
“That’s not… You know… Damn it, Clara.”
“Clayton. Enough, please,” his sister urged. “You cannot push your beliefs on others. Father Yoss always told us God’s greatest gift to us was choice.”
Croo gave the rancher’s son a disapproving glance, his face a boulder ready to roll over the younger man. He then turned his attention to Rose, making sure he didn’t include the sinful conduit.
“You know, miss, you are free to choose whether you stay or leave. You were allowed to leave from the moment you brought Brother Merlyn for our healing. That is our gift. As is our hospitality. Reverend Jimmy’s blessing is for everyone.”
That’s when his eyes shifted to Clara. Even she could be saved, but she needed to choose. Clara resisted the compulsory to stick out her tongue at the big man.
Rose blinked, laced her fingers through Clara’s, squeezed, and tilted her chin up to regard Croo in the eyes. “I’ll leave when Clara is allowed.”
Cold sweat trickled down Clara’s spine when the Reverend’s strong arm declined to provide a response.
After gesturing quickly, asking the Reverend’s lieutenant to forgive his tongue’s stumble, Clayton turned to face Clara and Rose. He spoke to Clara and ignored his sister’s pleas to let off. “You’re a good person, Clara. I know. We grew up together.”
For a second, Clara saw the boy she used to chase around his family’s ranch. Carefree giggles of children romped back through her memories.
He continued. “Everyone is a little mixed up, sometimes. We need guidance. The Reverend can help fix that, set you right.”
“I’m a mechanic, Clay,” Clara said firmly. “Fixing things is what I do. I know when things are broken, it’s my way. I also know when something needs no tinkering.”
The two girls walked into the His Hand’s place of worship then, the human rock following at their rear to close the double doors on Clayton.
Plenty of churches were scattered through the ruins of Nork. Most had their windows blown out, anything valuable—like the gilding, art, furniture—picked clean over the last hundred years. Yet, Clara always found the holy sanctums held a quiet power, a beauty that touched the soul. She felt these things rather than saw the former splendor. Take what they will… vandals could not strip from a church its spiritual gravitas. That lay in the heart of a person willing to kneel and pray in a flooded chapel amongst shards of broken stained glass, splinters from busted wooden pews, and the dropping from the birds who called the rafters their home now.
Within the His Hand’s place of worship—and their leader’s home—there was beauty enough to indulge the most spoiled of deities. The smaller of the two domes Clara saw from outside gleamed above the room, the stained glass panes beaming weavings of gold, whites, and purples to every corner of the room. The glow warmed the room, banished the shadows. Rows of pews curved around a circular, raised dais and numbered enough to hold more than a thousand people with room for them to stick out their elbows. The comfy cushions in the pews were hand stitched, the wooden ends inlayed with gold leafs and vines baring fruit enough to feed a town twice, more fruit than what grew on the church’s tree-carved door. The same light entering through the stained glass dome lit the dais the encircling pews faced. At the platform’s center sat a throne taller than two men, purposed for a giant or… a god.
Is that where Reverend Jimmy plants his butt? Or does it wait for their God?
Clara believed the latter. The chair—no throne—had the look of a seat never sat in, one waiting for the right pair of cheeks to indent the velvet cushion embroidered with the crest of the church: a upraised pawn branded with a cross.
He doesn’t sit there during his sermons, Clara guessed, not when people could see him indulging in his dream of godhood. Maybe the Reverend takes a squat there at night when no one’s around. I hope he has a moon burn!
Something seemed missing from the chapel. Clara couldn’t put her finger on what. She rarely attended the services given by the more laid-back faiths in Rivend or Linden Grove—though her Grammy often dragged her when she was younger.
A number of followers knelt among the pews, closer to the throne, their hands clasped, heads bowed in supplication, lips murmuring quickly. Clara noticed collars like her own. Conduits then. Conduits asking for salvation, duped into believing their abilities are a curse, a temptation that needed abstaining, the ultimate test. They probably believed their faith was tenuous and in need of testing more than any other thumper living around them.
This was repulsive. But at least the conduits were alive. The His Hand didn’t kill conduits. They didn’t burn these individuals for their unique powers that seemed something from an age left in ashes.
All I need to say is I want to embrace my temptations, after that I’ll ask to leave. They’ll let me go for sure. Yet Clara continued to have doubts.
Croo led the two teenage girls up a staircase that flowed to the second floor in a loose curl along the right wall. They passed the place where a choir or band might sit during religious services; the spot looked down over the worship area, faced the back of the empty throne. Behind this space, a door opened into a corridor with numerous doors and another set of stairs. The girls followed Croo and climbed these stairs to the third floor.
He led Clara and Rose to a room that reminded Clara of a reception area. There were chairs, tables between the chairs, richly woven rugs atop the polished wood floors, and plenty of bookcases with reading material to keep a person occupied. By the titles, the books contained religious and philosophic writings. The collection was extensive. The well cared for books must have cost a fortune to procure, given an excellent quality. Paper was not cheap to make these days and texts from before Black Out Thursday where even more expensive when found. Some of the leather covers and spines were cracked but not bad off that someone might say the volumes were falling apart.
“Wait here,” Croo ordered. He eyed Clara specifically, as if he expected her to steal something or that her curious fingertips would tip over something valuable. “It won’t be long until the Reverend sees you.”
His back turned, Clara stuck her tongue at the man, and waggled her fingers underneath her chin.
Without turning around or looking back, the man nodded toward a table with a tray of food Clara had not noticed at first. “Feel free. It’s well after the time for midday meal and the Reverend did express his pleasure at sharing a meal. He never has people wait for him. Dig in.”
“‘Growling bellies are rude but making them wait is ruder’,” Rose said, as if reciting a line she’d heard previously.
Clara shot her a questioning glance.
Shrugging, Rose’s lips quirked. She’d not expected to interrupt Croo, likely she was speaking to herself only. She apologized to Croo and answered Clara’s look, shrugging first. “Something the Reverend said to me. He’s insisted on taking dinner with Clayton and I most nights while we’ve been waiting for Merlyn to heal up.”
A primal grumble came from Clara’s midsection, demanding she agree with the Reverend’s quote.
Clara wrestled the hunger until Croo left. When he left, she dug in, only remembering the utensils after a few bites.
“If I didn’t know better,” Rose said, “Clara, I would say no one has fed you in a week. Which is not true! I’ve fed you the last day or so while you slept, to increase your strength.”
Mouth full of food, Clara commented. “Could’ve fooled me.”
A prim and proper lady, the rancher’s daughter joined her conduit friend but picked up and carefully used the utensils provided by their dallying host. Clara poured herself and Rose two cups of water from the pitcher beaded with condensation. There were no nicks or cracks in the clay vessel. The craftsmanship was flawless. People knew His Hand followers not only as deft weavers but also as wonderful artisans all-around. Underneath the Danvers kitchen table was a rug woven by the His Hand, half of the dishware Clara’s family owned the religious zealots had shaped and fired. Though Clara protested supporting the conduit-hating, fervent converters, her mother insisted good china and warm rugs were welcome in their home whoever made them. If it were the thumpers who’d killed her father, Clara didn’t think her mother would give a cent for even a pinky-size shot glass.
The His Hand were good cooks as well it seemed. Clara couldn’t complain about the fare she wolfed down between gasps of air. A meat pie still warm. Fresh vegetables. Tarts for after. Everything tasted wonderful, especially after the mush the Junkers called basic nourishment. If Reverend Jimmy and his people wanted to kill a conduit like Clara, they could do worse than stuff her full and clothe her. I’d prefer a pair of breeches and coat to this skirt, though. She could hardly complain. Rose enjoyed the food as well, though she paced herself and smiled appreciatively between bites. She slipped a couple of consternated looks at Clara when she caught a glimpse of the massacre on the conduit’s plate and the mess on her face.
“What?! I’m bloody hungry,” Clara lashed out with exasperated defense. “Junkers nearly burned me out each time they strapped me to their golem.”
“I fed you for the couple days you were out cold!” Rose insisted, before poking at a piece of cooked carrot and depositing it slowly between her lips. She chewed before going on. “I’m just surprised at your appetite. If you’ll wait, you can lick my plate after you’re finished lapping up your own.”
“My dad used to say creating Nites uses up calories,” Clara explained. “And that uses up the body’s energy.”
“Sleep doesn’t help you recuperate then?”
A shrug. “Yes and no. When you’re worn out, sleep helps untangle the knot the body twists itself into using the Field. But it’s not enough. Gears and hydraulics might be lubed and ready to grind but the machine still needs fuel.”
“Will you ever stop referring to things as if they’re machines?”
“Why?! That is a perfectly good analogy! The human body is a makeup of parts working in unison to accomplish a task. If a machine’s parts do not function correctly and work together, the thing will trip over itself trying.”
“Mechanic philosophy,” Rose said with a complimenting grin. “That’s probably the best way to describe your brain’s processes.”
“Stick to your skirts and tea sets and parties, Rose,” Clara jabbed, “and I’ll continue to pick up my wrench and talk to Nites. ‘Kay?”
Whatever Rose was about to say died on her lips. All she managed to get out was, “Did you say you—”
Someone entered the room, prompting the girls to look up from the crumbs on their nearly empty plates.
Clara was not sure how she imagined Reverend Jimmy to look, not exactly. However, she knew she didn’t expect the man who strode toward her and Rose. Maybe she expected a man who styled himself a regent keeping a king’s seat warm while away at war. But that was not the Reverend.
First off, the man possessed the gait of someone confident of his every step, someone who knew each footfall was where it should land whether or not he intended the ant under his boot to die or for the sole to cake with the mud after a heavy storm. Assuredness. The Reverend was as old as Clara’s father might be if he were alive today, late forties to around fifty. He was dressed plainly in jeans and a long-sleeved work shirt suitable for the fields, his boots worn and scuffed. His outfit was all similar to what any His Hand male would find comfortable. He wore no regal robes of purple and gold or sinless white. Neither gold nor silver bedecked his calloused, worker’s honest fingers. Like other male followers, he wore a neatly trimmed beard threaded with more grey than brown these days. He kept his brown hair cut short as it receded severely from the temples, temples showing grey wings. Sunburned skinned—he spent time outside with the other followers as much as within his mansion-church—and worn from hard work. He was like any other man, unassuming, of little notice.
All of this threw Clara off. Clara expected a modest priest and instead a rancher like Rose’s father walked toward her. More than that, the confident and unshakable expression that grew out from the man’s swagger frightened Clara the most. Like Croo and the other followers Clara had seen—inside the towns and cities and within the falls of the compound—the Reverend was devote and sure in his beliefs and probably his decisions. This was a hard and decisive leader. This is where the soap box preachers, those who came to Linden Grove trying to convert people, got their unshakable conviction and zeal. A leader with influence. His control over people made the Reverend dangerous.
Clara had to force her last bite of food down. It was trying to choke her.
A carefully crafted smile swopped across the Reverend’s face, as easily as if his flesh were supple leather; he beamed this genial grin upon Rose. Rose stood up immediately. Then she remembered she still held a knife. Embarrassment coloring her face, the knife clanged back down on Rose’s plate.
With a chuckle, the Reverend excused the silver’s clattering and took Rose’s hands in his own. He was tall. Rose would have had to bend her neck almost all the way back to breaking to look him in the eye, if she weren’t bowing slightly with the due someone younger gives an elder. The Reverend raised her hands and bent his brow over her hands, as if to kiss the backs. Except he wasn’t. Clara had seen other followers do this. What the Reverend was doing was a greeting followed by a short prayer of thanks to God for allowing him and this person to meet—at least, this is what Clara understood the gesture to include. Remember, she stayed away from these junk-hating, conduit-condemning people.
What Clara knew about the Reverend was legend, if you call such stories legends just because they stretched back to her grandmother’s generation and before—the Lighted, those who lived through Black Out Thursday, as time as unbelievable as walking on the moon. Lighted say people did walk on the moon, once.
Communication lines went down with the lights and electricity that day. Governments could not contact its citizens, could not bring them messages, hope, order. Families lost contact with loved ones they could not walk down the street to visit. Miles once shortened by a dial tone or login, stretched out, doubled, tripled. Though the continent once made up of joined states remained intact, it seemed like oceans split up the cities, the neighborhoods, the states. Without a way to join the people, the government collapsed. Leaders went silent, if they were not already dead. The people looked to each other for support, or to altars for comfort. In those days church doors opened to all who would walk through seeking… a voice, a reason, a path, a people, a leader…
A white-haired man by the name of Wallace Powell rose up in the first days after Black Out Thursday. Wallace Powell spoke to the people, those who called him Reverend and those who would. He made promises of a second world. A second chance. He said God’s all-seeing eye knew the wickedness created by man. Pollution, a dying earth. Over population, space strangled. Beasts dying, the first of God’s creatures, those He left in man’s charge. Powell blamed man for the problems of the world. Greed and corruption. He wagged a big finger at the people and said this is what God had done. He, God, had waved a big holy finger at the world. But God is as much love as wrath. The Second Coming was postponed. Instead, the “Second Chance” would come after the “Flood”. This was their second chance. God drowned a feral cat in barrel, pulled it out, and tossed away the corpse. When He did this, He left behind two things…the second chance people and the skeletons of man’s transgressions against His design. Post signs. Warning signs. Don’t go here. Here is where the Flood began. Hands off.
Powell’s first church could barely hold a hundred followers and on day two after the Flood there was standing room only. Within a week, Powell moved his growing flock to a shelter three blocks away. The followers—as other people began to call Powell’s flock, in those first innocent years—took over the nearby buildings, the apartments.
Food in the markets became scarce quickly. Powell saw this food shortage problem early on. He also decided his people could not live amongst the sign posts, the temptations. Before ranchers solidified their individual borders, Powell grabbed up as much land as possible and sent his best lieutenants out to take up more in far out territories, to build up the land God wanted them to heal and gather the shepherds to tend those precious reserves.
Two Powell generations later found this room with Rose and Clara standing next to grand pappy Powell’s most recent successor.
And Clara’s teachers said she never paid attention in history class. She knew enough. The conversions, tech abstention, and burnings she chosen to glaze over. These parts of history gave her nightmares. She assumed the Reverend would shake loose those memory pebbles soon enough, causing ripples.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Twenty-Five by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved
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