– CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE –
Rose called the His Hand town the “compound”. The word did not set Clara’s frayed nerves still. “Compound “made the place sound too much like a controlled, militant outpost. Saluting. Straight backs. Orders. Before speaking with Rose, Clara thought the thumpers simply fanatics whose deadliest weapons were very loud shouting, unshakable conviction, and a stubborn refusal to see their dogma as questionable belief rather than the knowable truth they preach. To think of the His Hand as an army frightened Clara. Grammy Danvers used to say armies and politics brought the ruin to the old world, whatever that meant, Clara was too young back then to understand the meaning.
With all the rules that come with compounds, there obviously was none against knocking and waiting for permission to enter rooms. Actually, there was a rule… no secrets in the compound. Closed doors and locks meant secret-keeping to the His Hand.
Two knocks, a warning rather than request, and the door to Clara’s no-thrills room opened. The door’s swing had no squeak. That ran contrary to the squeaky-clean veneer of the religious group. Clara nearly laughed at the joke.
A bruiser of a man entered the room, all shoulders and broad chest. He had the effect of seeming to tower over a person, as if he stood eight feet tall and leaned over to peer down at everyone he met, even if he or she was a few feet away. Clara put the man’s age at fifty. Once but the seriousness of adult life has carved out a hard man. Dark brown hair in a long but clean cut, his small eyes were dark unmovable mounds. She guessed this man would follow any order, especially a divine one. His Hand believers—in Clara’s opinion—tended to be as immovable as rock. This man… he was a large stone boulder! Like most followers Clara remembered seeing in Linden Grove and other towns and cities, this man wore homemade clothing of sturdy worker’s jeans and a heavy collared shirt, the sleeves rolled up to expose thick arms with dark course hair.
He ducked his head slightly to enter the room, the door only just wide enough for his entry.
Rose stood up immediately as the man entered the room, braving the oncoming roll of the heavy rock coming to smash them. “Can I help you, Mr. Croo?” she asked. Her tone was polite, though Rose clearly questioned the man’s brazen entrance into a room occupied with two young women who—for all he knew prior to letting himself in—could have been as bare as their days of birth.
From the story Rose told, the rancher’s daughter had been here in the compound for near to a week. Enough time to steady her feet, assess the people and politics, especially if she socialized with the right people. She being a rancher’s daughter and a socialite in high important circles, Rose found this course as easy as walking and singing at the same time. She knew she could stand up to this man’s actions, no matter whom he was. A quiver was in her voice, slight uncertainty, but her boldness made up for the slip.
The human stone boulder hesitated, rethinking his abrupt entrance without permission. He glanced behind him at the open door, probably deciding whether he should reenter the room properly as Rose hinted. Dogmatic conviction won out. “All of His children should have nothing to hide, from Him or their brothers and sisters,” he recited.
“Indeed I am a God fearing woman, thank you, Mr. Croo,” Rose said not skipping a beat. “But even His Almighty teaches our brothers and sisters should abide by certain manners and decorum while away from His kingdom, shepherding this gift of a world for Him. Would you not agree?”
“Certainly He does and we should,” Croo answered in agreement.
Rose’s eyes darted from the man and then to the door until his gaze caught the not-so-subtle hinting. The rancher’s daughter smiled gently and her baby blue eyes sparkled in a yes-you-got-it expression.
Suddenly, Clara realized how tense Rose had suddenly become when she noticed the rancher’s daughter standing straighter than was proper. This was a test. She was dipping a toe into the water. Rose did well keeping sweat from beading her forehead, concealing her tension.
Finally, Croo’s flat line of a mouth curved up on one side. He bobbed his head in an amiable manner and an amused puff of air left his broad, flat nose.
He raised a hand, knocked twice on the open door then… he waited.
Rose stroked her chin with a finger while her eyes glanced at the ceiling in serious contemplation. When she finally finished her reflection, she searched out Croo’s own gaze, playing at having forgotten his presence. She gave him a gracious smile. Oh! I didn’t see you there. Excuse me, sir.
“Why, Mr. Croo! What a surprise! It is so nice of you to pay my friend and me a visit. Enter, please. Enter!”
Deep chuckling gurgled through Croo and he bowed to Rose. Well played.
Rose relaxed. She crossed swords with this adult—whatever his importance in the His Hand, and he was important by Clara’s estimation—and she had won the match. She knew the game and played the game well. Clara respected the rancher’s daughter for such skillful play, though, she preferred a knife and/or her Field abilities. That final thought pinched Clara’s heart and she fought down a cry.
Stepping into the room, Croo’s gaze shifted from Rose and hardened on Clara. He looked her up and down. Those dark eyes did not slither with perverted interest but considered her like a pile of used clothes he was unsure whether to toss out or patch and hem.
“Reverend Jimmy would like to see that…” He wanted to refer to Clara as a ‘coppertop’ but decided on, “… that girl. If she’s strong enough to leave her bed now, I’ll escort her.”
Rose turned so her eyes connected with Clara’s briefly. Uncertainty. Trouble flickered between the girls. Clara knew her friend was asking if she needed more time to compose her thoughts about the current trouble she was in or if she was ready to face further, more complicated difficulties. Are you ready to dig a bigger hole because the shovel is here?
Letting out a short snort of derision, Clara gave Rose a curt nod, more for the Croo rock’s swallowing and choking than her friend’s sake.
In a blink, Rose recomposed herself, folded her hands across the waist of her skirt, and settled her smile once again on Croo. Demanding yet courteous, a proper lady’s smile.
“It wouldn’t be proper for my friend to greet the Reverend himself in her current attire, would it?”
Until now, the only adornment Clara had been concerned with was her shiny new Field dampening accessory. For the first time, Clara noticed she wore a shift far too sheer for her liking and modesty. At least the garment was clean, unsoiled by a weeklong unwashed body. Not that she was concerned about exposing her flesh. She preferred the support of a sturdy pair of breeches, heavy boots, and a warm coat. I would like my knife too! Kell probably had her blade with him, wherever he and it had scurried off too.
Clara pulled her bed sheet up over her barely covered breasts and tried to keep the heat from her cheeks.
“‘Course. That’s why Reverend Jimmy sent some proper clothes for her to wear.”
A young woman only a few years older than Clara—maybe in her middle twenties—stepped into the room when Croo moved to the side and cleared a path through the doorway. Folded in young woman’s arms was a bundle of flannel and muted cloth.
That better not be a dress or shirt!
Even though locks and doors—privacy—seemed more blasphemous to the His Hand than cursing, Croo left the room so Clara could change clothes. He went as far as to close the door too. Despite these inches, Clara still sensed the muscular follower leaning against the wall right outside. In fact, she could hear him humming some church hymn. The tone was rather sweet sounding, solemn and uplifting.
The young woman who brought the bundle of clothing stood in one of the room’s corners, her half hooded eyes darted away from Clara every time the dangerous and unholy conduit noticed her.
Too much thumping The Good Book against her head has made the girl nuttier than a squirrel during the mad nut gathering dash before winter.
Clara unfolded the provided bundle mechanically, her eyes on the follower as her fingers worked. She bit her lip. Something nagged at her. Recognition. Did she know this young woman? Many people possessed the young woman’s same midnight dark hair, so black it shone blue in the right light, tied in a sever braid. Clara’s dark locks with brown highlights were light by comparison. The female follower was short, handsome, under five feet and with a grown woman’s more than generous curves, which she hid with the thick skirts and high neck blouse of a follower.
Nah. Clara tried to clear to the cobwebs with a shake of her head. How would I know her? I steer clear of followers like h—
The bundle was a skirt. The garment was of sturdy wool and the length stopped at Clara’s ankles, long enough to trip her up when running or fighting.
I really wish I had my knife so I could stick myself with it!
After drawing on a deep breath, Clara showed the eye jerky female follower her back and began to dress. Rose jumped in eventually to help Clara do up the buttons on the back.
Grammy Danvers used to say people had two choices in the days following Black Out Thursday. Clara remembered the infamous words well. “Get busy livin’ or get busy dying.” She thought this was a quote from some famous author. It did not matter.
Living came down to surviving. The way Clara saw things, there were three ways to get along in the world after the lights went out.
When conduits emerged—displaying talents to Wake the machines humans once used to create lives of convenience, and “laziness” as Grammy was fond of saying—people had a way back to a semblance of normalcy. Conduits could Wake the machines—the old world—maybe even bring up the power grids again, lighting up the ruins. People were afraid, though. Either they cowered at the idea of such power in the hands of a special group of people, a group that may lord this power over them like gods or simply as tyrants. Or they were afraid of the technology they once came to depend on. That same technology failed them, what if the conduits and machines failed them too? Clara thought this second fear childish. To her, most people hid this second fear behind their faith, people like the thumpers.
For most, there were two ways to survive in the lightless world.
The easiest way to survive was to repurpose, make the old world work in new ways. To do this, the Light moved to scaled down towns and cities, more manageable communities. People moved into existing sturdy buildings easily maintained with the low technology still available. Where they needed room, people expanded using metal, concrete, and wood. They learned to rework the sanitation and water systems, took the buildings off the sleeping electrical systems and used the wind and tamable beasts to bear the burden.
Then there were the His Hand. They loathed the world their god took away with the Flood. Their soap box preachers called for complete abandonment of the old ways. The preachers asked the Lighted to cast away even the meager dependence most still clung to, to shed the extra pounds their sins had packed on. They claimed the Flood was a message, a second chance to become better stewards of the world He had given them all.
The His Hand survived and rebuilt their own way, led by priests like this Reverend Jimmy. Their survival was a stark contrast to the communities Clara knew. The compound was very different from her home in Linden Grove or the river port Rivend, which for the most part lived off the junk trade.
Instead of repurposing the old junk and rundown buildings, the His Hand moved far away from the ruined cities and started with bare land near clean water sources. They raised new homes made of the forest’s trees. Dug wells where needed. They planted their own crops, growing produce and grain. Many people in the other communities salvaged furniture from the old tenements and abandoned homes. All the furniture Clara saw in the compound was constructed and carved by hand. The His Hand used no metal she could see except for the nails in the boards or the decorative finishing on cabinets or the doorknobs, but these items the followers had cast new. Everything was made of polished wood. The His Hand did not have junk relics as decoration like so many other people. Many of the other communities converted the old iron street lamps from electricity to oil lamps. Here the His Hand’s master crafts casted no lamps for the homes and streets. The place had a handmade esthetic rather than a cobbled-pulled-together hodgepodge appearance. Clara assumed all the homes were similar in feel to the place she had woken inside.
Clara and Rose followed Croo through the house the thumpers had placed Clara in after bringing her to the compound.
Other conduits the Junkers had caged alongside Clara were in the house too. The conduits now smelled of soup and fleshly scoured of filth; they also wore clean clothes and collars. A bath and soup were nice but a couple days could not stick fat on their bones, many of a conduit appeared rail thin, slat ribbed, and hallowed eyed. Some wandered around the house like spirits locked out of the afterlife and unsure how to function in this strange world. More conduits sat in circles studying together, each circle led by a His Hand follower, a Bible open on his or her lap; these conduits too wore lost expressions. However, what made the conduits stand out from the followers even more than their lost faces, were the metal collars—Clara imagined each was a copy of her own bondage, each conduit a sore thumb sticking out.
Good thing the thumpers are here to tell them how to act and think, Clara mused. Pound the nail heads until each one lays flush with the grain.
Scuffing, Clara began to catch some snippets of the propaganda the followers called “His good word”. Each circle leader claimed they were revealing the secrets behind the Flood and the temptation that lived in all of them—the conduits specifically. Hopefully no thumper would pull Clara into a circle and start ministering to her too.
Clara kept an eye out for Wendy’s dark face—the only face she might recognize—but did not catch sight of the other conduit. She deflated a little bit and hope escaped the sagging balloon in her chest.
Clara tapped Rose’s shoulder and the other girl ahead of her turned her head around.
“Did they manage to get all the conduits out of the Junkers’ golem?” she asked quietly.
Hesitation kept Rose from answering, more from the search for an answer rather than an avoidance of the truth. “I think so,” Rose finally replied seconds later. “Hard to say if the Junkers took a few or more when they fled. Clayton said he and the other followers took away whomever they found inside the golem. They’re fairly certain every conduit was brought out.”
“Everyone is being held here?” Clara noticed her phrasing referred to the conduits—and herself—as the thumper’s prisoners and not the group’s guests. She did not correct herself.
“This is one house some conduits are staying in. There’s always a few followers around who watch over them and make sure they have everything they need to build up their strength again. Clara, there is no need to worry. I promise! You’re safe here. It’s not ideal but the Junkers are long gone. And whatever the His Hand’s ideals, they seem good people we can trust. At least, Clayton believes so.”
She’s not certain about Clay’s trust in these people, Clara realized from the other girl’s tone, picking up on Rose’s wavering doubt.
“There was a friend of mine in the golem,” Clara revealed, “someone who took care of me and me her when things sunk to the worst.”
Before Rose could both offer a reassuring smile and assurance that they would find Wendy as soon as possible, Croo halted their progress. The two girls nearly ran into his wide back. Two girls. Not three. At some point, that jerky eyed follower had disconnected from their group and run off. Something about that girl tickled Clara’s memory… But what?
“Once you speak with Reverend Jimmy,” Croo said, not looking back at Clara or Rose, “you can find your friend. Come now. He’s a busy man and I will not have us keep him waiting.”
What Croo meant to say, and what Clara choose to take from the man’s cracking leather voice, was this: do as you’re told and you’ll earn nuggets of freedom. Freedom on their terms, not Clara’s terms. Clara felt puppet strings tug at her as Croo made her dance her way out of the conduit house and toward this Reverend Jimmy.
“We wouldn’t want to keep Jimmy Boy waiting,” Clara grumbled under her breath.
If Croo heard her comment and found it offensive, he made no move to cuff her ear or reprimand her with a swat on the bottom. She imagined not following the rules at the compound landed you in worse trouble than the child who sneaks a cookie from the cookie jar. Here, the adults and priests did not send you to your room. Likely followers got a switching as punishment. Rose leveled her gaze on Clara, a stern warning for her to be on her best behavior. In return, Clara shrugged and rolled her eyes. She attempted to shove her hands in her pockets too but then remembered the followers had put her in a skirt. For that wardrobe choice, Clara would provide swift retribution… if for nothing else!
Outside the conduit house, Clara found her initial assessment of the compound correct. The stories were true then. Like the house’s interior, it and the other buildings in the His Hand community were wooden buildings, raised by hundreds of hands, the boards cut with hand saws, each nail placed separately with a hammer and the strength of a man’s arm. Each of the homes had a green lawn, spacious for children to romp freely and play large organized games of sport. Cute porches wrapped around two or three of the sides and if the house was two stories high, there might be an upper porch. No houses were larger than two stories… well, except one structure. No fences divided the neighbors. The only border was the one around the entirety of the compound. In the distance, Clara noticed log walls piled high—as high as the largest tree she had ever seen, if her estimate was correct—stuck together with stucco to reinforce the strength. She could not tell how thick the walls, a few feet might suffice for a fair guess.
The His Hand want unification in their compound but to hell with the people who won’t enter their gates and come to their alters.
They walked on. Clara quaked in amazement. No junk to speak of but the craftsmanship of the buildings left her with a high degree of professional respect for the thumpers. Only professional respect. Even the cobbled streets were paved expertly, the edges of the individual stones rounded, the surface swept clean, you would never know horses pulled carts down the lanes. A perfectly kept little city, straight out of a storybook. Sweet on the outside, rot your teeth on the inside.
Croo made a point of walking Rose and Clara through a park at the center of the compound, in particular the large stage at the middle of the park. He even slowed down.
This was not a stage, though, more a gazebo. People got married in this type of gazebo. Lovers met here late at night for secret kisses under the witnessing stars. It had a conical roof made of wooden shingles, the perfect place to find shade or a break from the sunny summer afternoon, maybe a passing cool breeze too. Its maker had painted the outside white and the sun made the place of summers of lovers glow. Columns were evenly space to support the shingled roof, curving benches between each for sitting. The space underneath the gazebo was big enough to entertain a crowd of many families at mealtime.
Around the three of them people set to flinging out blankets and opening baskets with food. It was lunchtime then, if the sun overhead was an indicator. The men wore the typical full, woodsman-like beards associated a male follower and the women’s long braids fell past their waists. Clara had seen all the follower women who visited the towns for trade and soap box preaching wearing this style of hair.
There were no beggars in the park. Children played, laughed. Outside the park, people went about trading and delivery goods to the shops, their bellies full, pockets jingling, their hearts filled with genial demeanors toward each other. This was a nice place.
A nice place, yeah, unless you were a conduit.
People snuck looks at Clara out of the corners of their eyes. Below the sounds of play, she heard gossiping whispers. Both penetrated Clara. None of it was hate or discord. The followers perceived her like a cancer. A blemish on their fair community, something easily cut away. Question was did they want her cut away or her conduit powers? Would they welcome of her without her conduit abilities?
There were always rumors about conduits whisked away and burned like witches in the old stories told in the history classes all children took when in school. But people also said conduits went willingly to the His Hand out of some divine awakening, wanting to live a life without the Field, as if they’d become sick of its sweetness and believed the flow of life were a temptation from the old world that the His Hand’s god drowned out.
Clara met the followers’ gazes, fearing no one. She did not challenge them but tried to determine who might be a conduit who gave give up their abilities, a conduit who swore off touching the Field for a life of full bellies and happy neighbors. Did they require those people to wear the collars as a safety measure or did they earn trust or swear an oath of loyalty?
All eyes shifted away from Clara quick enough, just as the girl who had brought her clothes.
Since her father’s death, Clara’s mother urged her to keep her abilities a secret. This was why.
Clara let out a heavy sigh and urged Croo to lead on.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Twenty-Four by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved