Alice, surrounded by those colored candles, whose flames magically glowed the color of the wax, was in a trance. But it wasn't hypnotic. I know she was aware of herself and of me. There were no deceptive illusions created by the flames of the candles, no visions conjured up by the words intoned.
"The candles," Alice said, "are shaped around me in the form of a man." She was sitting in the belly. "We were formed from the gut of man," she explained. "And from the mind of woman." She pointed behind her, at the head of the man. There was a single candle sitting a few feet above the head. A red candle.
"Does that candle symbolize the mind of woman?" I asked. She shook her head slowly. "The mind of woman is too sacred to symbolize with candles." She waved her arms around her head, slowly.
"Then what is it for?" I finally asked.
She smiled and let out a tiny laugh. But it wasn't a humorous sort of laugh. It was more like a laugh of... pity. Pity that I was a man, perhaps.
She didn't answer right away but continued waving her arms. There was no pattern to the waving, just spontaneous whirling motions. I fidgeted, waiting for an answer. She let out that tiny laugh again.
"It symbolizes you," she said, stopping the waving of her arms to point a long finger directly at my chest. And that was all she would say about it. Whether she meant it symbolized me as a person or me as a man, I can't say. But it gave me an odd sort of feeling, like she was hiding some important truth from me because I was either too stupid to understand or because I was a man. I sat in front of her, outside the candles, and frowned. If the candles represented a man and the single candle above the head represented me, what, then, did it represent together?
Alice laughed again. I wondered if she laughed because she saw the uncertainty in my eyes, and it made me angry. How dare you mock me, woman! I came here to learn from you, to glean from you all that I can and you reward me with mockery? "You better go," she said, breaking the ritual by resting her arms in her lap. The traces of a smile were still etched around her lips. "You don't want to be late for your shift." My shift. God-forsaken, blood-sucking electricity! To be forced to feed that monster was altogether against the constitution, and I would have nothing of it except that it was the law. "I'll not go today," I said.
Alice shook her head, puckered her lips and made a ticking sound with her tongue. "Defiance in the face of the Hall is courageous but stupid, Adam. You of all people should understand the consequences."
"I've been through it before. I'll go through it again."
"Men are stupid. I know that now."
"Three weeks ago you told me you knew men were stupid, and only now you discover it? What does that make you?"
Her smile vanished and reappeared on my face. "You have the brains of an ass, Adam, the audacity of a queen, and about as much sense as a frog."
"You forgot one thing," I said. She waited expectantly. "The ego of a woman." This time I didn't laugh or smile. Neither did Alice.
She turned around to face the head of the outline of candles on the floor, toward the single red candle above the head of the man. "Your tongue will one day kill you if you're not careful," she said.
"Killed for my tongue, you mean, not by it."
"It is the same."
"It most certainly is not," I countered.
"Go, Adam," she commanded. Such the woman, I thought. When confronted and losing, they always back out.
"The audacity of a queen," I said. "Queens, you know, are women."
Alice flinched as if I had snapped a whip across her back. She turned slowly to look at me. Her face was stone. "I'll forget you said that."
"No you won't." Did a woman ever forget anything a man said that made her angry?
Her stone face got harder. Her deep, brown eyes were brimming with anger. It sent a thrill up my spine. "You will go to your shift now, and if you don't I will personally see to it that you are given the Fourth Degree."
"The Fourth Degree doesn't frighten me anymore," I lied. "I've experienced it, remember?" Defiantly, I stood staring at her. Did a touch of pity come into those dark eyes? Or was it anger? Beneath it all I could see tiny pools of need. Like a thirsty man's parched mind, she needed me. She couldn't live without me. I had something she could never give up. As soon as the pools were there, they were swallowed up again by the anger.
"I will not warn you again," she said, then turned around. I thought I knew her well enough to know when to keep quiet. Unfortunately, it was the last thing I should have done. And it was the last time I saw Alice alive.
"I never asked you to lie for me."
"You want the Fourth Degree like I want a woman," he said. "There is hardly a comparison." Indeed, there was hardly a comparison. He might have been shocked to know that I held woman and Fourth Degree on the opposite sides of the scale that he did. I had had a woman. I might have been the only Elewheel Engineer who had. That was Alice's sin. Elewheel Engineer. Ha!
I put on my gloves and set at the wheel with as much monotony as Sam. The din of the Elewheel had always bothered me, but tonight, after the ritual, it was almost amusing. Chink-a, chink-a went the wheels, the only music I had heard in a year. They had taken away my music, those women, and replaced it with their own. That was one thing Alice never let up on.
"I'll take the Fourth Degree instead," I said.
Sam laughed. It was a rare sound. "Bravery is foolery. Don't you ever listen?"
"Don't you ever think?" I retorted.
And that was the end of our conversation. Sam hated confrontation. Of course, we had been raised by these women to believe what they wanted us to believe. The difference between Sam and I was that I had read the forbidden histories. How could I blame him for his ignorance? As the Elewheel chink-a chinked away, I couldn't help but see the counter dial at the center of the wheel. 451,002 it said. I groaned. One thousand numbers was a lot, and it didn't count very fast. Sam always finished before I did.
I thought of the women feeding on our labor, in their offices, in their rooms, reading the books they forbade us to read. I thought of what would happen if they found the books taped under my bed. Sam, as usual, was gone long before I finished.
"About what?" I said sourly.
"You're in a lot of trouble, young man," said Mother. Her twist on the word man was strangling.
"What did I do now?"
"I found books under your bed," said Mother Two. She did not look happy. A shiver of fear made my knees buckle. I promptly sat on the bottom step of the staircase. "So. Who cares?"
Mother Two's lip was quivering. "I'd send you to the Fourth Degree without a second thought if not for Mother."
"We've already discussed this," Mother said to Mother Two. Mother Two turned to Mother and frowned. "You've always been too easy on him! It's time he learn a lesson!"
"Once at the Fourth Degree is enough for a lifetime," said Mother. She knew. She'd been through it. For being with a man, once. It was fortunate that she hadn't been killed. Ninety-nine percent of offenders were.
"You paid for your sin, now he'll pay for his!" said Mother Two.
"But he's had the Fourth Degree already."
"And the difference between you and him is that you learned your lesson," said Mother Two. I wondered if Mother really had learned her lesson. Maybe she had just learned to keep a lie from showing up on her face. Alice surely had. Maybe Mother, like Alice, wanted both worlds and had found a way to ease her guilt into gratifying submission. I know I had. I was going to hell. So what?
Mother walked into the kitchen. Mother Two shook her head at me. "I'm very disappointed in you."
I shook my head, too. I wish I had had a father. Having two mothers was... well... hell.
Mother Two went back to the couch. She reached to the floor and came up with a book in each hand. "The Short History of Man," she said, reading the cover of one. "Understanding Lesbianism and Homosexuality." Abruptly she threw them across the room. They smacked the wall and slid to the floor. One of them left a deep gash. She reached down and came up with two more. "Anderson's treatise on the superiority of man." "The contradiction of Women's liberation." I wanted to crawl into a hole and die as she read a dozen others. When she finished, she turned to me, threw her arms into the air and said, "Where did Mother and I go wrong?"
"In keeping the truth from me," I ventured. It was almost a whisper.
"If the truth is harmful, don't you think your parents have the right to keep it from you?"
"Don't I have the right to decide for myself if it is harmful?" I was trembling in my boots.
"It is harmful, Adam. As a society we have finally evolved into more than mere animals. We have-" She stopped talking when she heard me laughing. "What are you laughing at?"
"We're still animals."
"Men are animals! But we've learned how to chain them! And one day we'll breed out your wicked, killing nature. Men will evolve into women, and wars and killing will come to an end." I laughed again. I knew that I would not escape the Fourth Degree or worse, now. "You're only breeding manhood into womanhood," I said. "Eventually women will evolve into men, and you can't see the truth of it. You are as blind as you think men are. Why can't you see that?"
That was the blow that broke the dam of patience Mother Two was delicately holding. She assailed me. She beat me half to death that night with one of the books she found under my bed.
Next morning Mother came to my room. She was always calmer than Mother Two, but that morning she wore a rare frown. "We know about you and Alice," she said. "She's carrying your child," she whispered. I could tell it rankled her to say that. It was every parent's worst nightmare. "She will be killed today."
That was when I howled in despair. Of course I received no sympathy from Mother. It was likely that I would be killed, too. "How could you do such a thing, Adam!"
"It was the way of life a hundred years ago. Besides, it's part of who and what I am. What I want to be." There was no sense hiding, now.
"Well it's not the way of life today!"
"What if I don't agree with today's way of life? What if I think it's wrong?"
"Wrong?" Mother laughed. "We have taught you what we know is right, have endeavored-"
"There was a time when our way of life was taught as being wrong, Mother."
"In the day of man's reign, yes, because some men thought it was wrong." I threw my hands up in exasperation. It was an old argument.
"Who did you get the books from?" Mother demanded. "And don't you lie to me."
"From Alice," I said immediately.
"Damn her to hell. And that bastard she carries," she said. She was crying when she left. I couldn't summon up a drop of pity or guilt. Those books had turned me into someone else. A someone I liked; a someone dreaded by five generations of hypocrites.
Bastard had a different connotation today than it did in the history books. There was not a dirtier curse. The fact that Mother had called my child my child! a bastard, made me angrier than ever. I knew, then, that it was time to leave. I had envisioned my own society, one patterned after the old. One where Alice and I raised children, together, in the wondrous sin of procreation between man and woman, not woman and woman.
I cried for a little while, horrific images of Alice dying playing through my mind. Images of our child-our child-being ripped from her womb. I was not going to let it happen. I went to find her.
I hadn't taken two steps into the outer grounds when a Blaster bolt jolted me. The next thing I knew, I woke up in bed. Mother was there. She looked like she hadn't slept in days. When she saw me awake, she looked to heaven and praised Mother God.
"Don't touch me!" I commanded when she came to kiss my cheek. She pulled away in horror.
"I've been here for three days, waiting for you to wake or die, and you treat me as if I were a man?"
"You could have stopped it!" I yelled. "But you did nothing!"
"I could not have stopped it."
"The Hall doesn't listen to you anymore, Mother?"
She bowed her head. "You understand perfectly why I couldn't stop it. Alice deserved-"
"She did not deserve it! And what about my child? My child, mother! Your grandchild! Why can I not be a father?"
"You know that, too, son."
I threw my pillow at her. She batted it away. "You truly are a man," she said. "I had higher hopes for you."
I laughed scornfully. Then I stood up. The Blaster wound on the left side of my ribcage burned, but I gritted my teeth and dropped my pants. Mother didn't so much as flinch. She looked at my penis. "Higher hopes for me?" I ranted. "I am a man, mother. I'm proud to be a man! There is no shame, for me, in having a penis!" I grabbed it and waggled it at her. This time she turned her head away.
"Stop it, Adam!"
"I will not stop, Mother! Why don't you kill us all? You don't need us to procreate! Why do men still exist? Women are happily asexual, now! You don't need us!"
"When God Herself decides to stop sending males, that will be the end of man. And you know we won't abort or clone any child."
"Except my child. Except Alice's child! Except your own grandchild!"
"For one, that was not yet a child. Two, the circumstances warranted the verdict."
All through the conversation, she hadn't turned back to look at me.
"Get out of here," I commanded. "I don't ever want to see you again."
"Stop this nonsense, Adam."
"It isn't nonsense!" I yelled as loud as I could. "You and the other bitches in the Hall clamor on about how all are created equal, and yet you strip of me of this!" I waggled my penis at her again. "Because I have a penis, you have placed me below the animals. In the same breath that you cry equality, you cry that men must be eradicated, that womanhood must be bred into them, that only then will humanity evolve into what God Herself wanted it to be! And in the process, you have only become like us, like men."
"You will have the Fourth Degree."
"Kill me instead, Mother! Eradicate me, for I have a penis!"
She left, then. And I fell to my bed in exhaustion. I don't know if I could have staid standing a moment longer. They would kill me now; I knew that. The Fourth Degree was no longer an option. Mother would kill her entire posterity. But I knew she would rather have me dead than face what a rebellious son would do to her name.
"They let you come see me, eh?" I asked him when he arrived.
"No," he said. "They said no. I came anyway."
"You've finally grown a backbone."
"No," he said, shaking his head again. "I've finally gone insane. Like you."
We laughed ourselves to tears over that. When we were finally able to speak again, Sam said, "You've made the Hall sit in council for three days straight. They're going to kill you."
"They've not made a decision yet, have they?"
"No. But you know they will."
"I know. But I won't be here for them to kill me."
"You'll not get away."
"Oh, I will. I will."
Sam had to go soon after. It was his shift at the wheel. We said goodbye. It would be our last, we both knew, but we shed no tears. We weren't allowed to become too close. Man with man, in the Hall's eyes, was as bad as man with woman.
My last day in the hospital was quiet. I had time to think about Alice. I thought about the time that we shared together, when I was truly a man. I thought about my frame of mind during our forbidden act, how I felt no guilt and how Alice did. Afterward, she always reminded me of our evil, of how I was marring her purity. How could we be together that way, both with such different thoughts in our heads? One was in hell, the other in heaven. One was denying her identity. The other had no identity except in that act. Like oil and water mixing. And the child of that paradoxical union...
It was too much for me to bear.
I broke out of the hospital the next day and ran away. As far as I could go. I ran and ran. From the hell of my home to the hell of solidarity and the hell of my own thoughts.
I have shed countless tears from the day I discovered the meaning of that ritual in a forbidden book. Oh, how blind Alice was! I did not kill her! I did not take away her womanhood! She was the only true woman among them all, and I was her savior.
I have other saviors with me, now. Men who have found their identity, who have brought with them women who have accepted their identity as well as their own. That horrific guilt, however, is not easy to clear away. Some have left us, fearing the judgment of God.
Children are now growing up among us who do not have the shackles that Alice did. We are small in numbers, but our hearts are right and we fear not the masses arrayed against us.
We are constantly on the move, running from exactly the thing that modern society has tried to stamp out. The irony is grotesque, the blinders dark.
I have not seen Mother in twenty years. She and Mother Two are dead to me, buried in the lie of lesbianism, the very ism of genocide. I will not allow humanity to stunt itself into a cycle of cloning, for that is where it will go. That was Mother's vision. For looking beyond the mark, she missed the purpose. May that ignorance die with her! May we stamp it out in two generations.
As for Alice... she understands, now. In the next life, we, together, will make children.
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