Chapter 21: Taking a beating
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
I turned my back on the whipping. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I wondered just why I’d let Alex Bancroft talk me into going. Not that I had told him so before he left.
My first difficulty was Sonia. She arrived just after I had showered and dressed, expecting me to come with her to the whipping. I figured that my protest would annoy her, so I spent the walk to Center Village telling her how our father had acknowledged his offspring among the Children to me, and how he would be willing to meet with them. This “solution” backfired on me. It did make Sonia very happy. But then I figured that meant she’d be even more disappointed in me when I turned my back on the whipping.
There was quite a crowd gathered in the square by the Great Assembly Hall to see the whipping. They’d already brought out Jacob Lawrence, the man who had spat on our shoes. He had been tied to a post, with his back exposed. He was also stripped, not stripped to the waist, but stripped, period. Sonia helpfully explained it was so that his dripping blood didn’t ruin his pants. I asked Sonia if she would be doing the whipping. I have to admit I wanted to blame all this on her sadism. However, she told me no, that an officer of the Center Village Watch would do the job. That made me feel ashamed, almost.
The crowd fell silent. Suddenly there was no one in front of us. People had cleared away so that Sonia and I would have a clear view. Officials gathered around Lawrence to announce his punishment. I looked down. I didn’t want to see this. And then the officials announced my name and Sonia’s as the offended parties, and called on us to witness the guilty party suffer the penalty for his sinful behavior. I looked up, and could see everyone’s eyes upon me. If I turned away, I would be rejecting this community, rejecting the people I was supposed to help, rejecting the people who were doing this for me.
With all that weighing on my mind, I saw the watchman raise his whip, and I turned away, almost without thinking about it. And when I realized what I had done, I decided to stick to it. To hell with these people or what they thought of me, I was not going to watch this barbarism. I could hear the whip strike. I could hear the crowd gasp. I could see Sonia standing beside me, watching the spectacle. To my surprise, she didn’t look as if she were enjoying it. In fact, there were tears running down her cheek. But she watched.
When it was over, I turned around. And found that I was not the only one who had not watched. There were others in the crowd who had also turned away.
Several people went over to the post to untie Jacob Lawrence. I almost moved to join them. But Sonia grabbed me by the arm and told me we had to stay where we were. Then the oddest aspect of this whole ceremony took place. The spectators began falling into a line to walk past us. Some smiled, some scowled, some didn’t look at us, some pointedly gave one of us a favorable look while showing disfavor to the other. Every single one of them did this, even, at the very end, the whipped man, who just stared at us without saying a word.
Alex Bancroft and Jezebel Johnson were near the end of the line. Jezebel gave me a cold look. “You shouldn’t have come,” she told me. She gave Sonia a murderous glance, but said nothing to her.
When it was over, Sonia turned to me and said, “Thank you for coming. I was afraid you would refuse.”
There was nothing sarcastic in her tone. So she understood. I thought she deserved an honest reply. “I almost didn’t come. I don’t approve of this sort of punishment.”
Sonia gave me a grave nod. “Which is what I expected from you. So why did you come?”
I ducked my head, thinking of how to sidestep that one, and then decided to address it straight on. I looked up at Sonia and said, “I didn’t want to, originally. Alex Bancroft told me I was better off making a visible stand than not showing up and letting people speculate.” I thought a moment, and then added, “Though I have to admit I was afraid of how you’d react.”
Sonia straightened up looked away, and sighed. Without turning back, she said to me, “I have found that fearing what other people will think is a waste of time.” She turned back to me, a serious expression still on her face, and a tremble in her voice. “But when I said I was afraid you would refuse, I meant that literally. I want our family back together again, Emily. That above all else.” She immediately turned and walked away as quickly as she could.
I had an unfinished task from the previous day, to see Hilda Strong. She now sat on the High Council, after an eternity on North Village’s council. I saw her briefly at the whipping. I didn’t notice if she’d turned away or not.
It was Saturday, and I figured Hilda had probably gone home to North Village. Still, I took a chance that she might be in her office in the Great Assembly Hall. As it turned out, she was. She asked me if my business could wait for another day. When I said not, she let me into her office, closed the door, and told me I had five minutes to explain my business. That was Hilda, all right. She hadn’t changed from the days when she’d been my schoolteacher.
“I’ve just been up to the deserted village,” I said to her. “I ran into a strange woman who lives up there, who called me ‘Emily Fisher the Damned.’ I need her cooperation in the performance of my duties. Who is she? How does she know who I am? And how can I get her to cooperate with me?”
I would have expected Hilda to answer immediately. Instead, she got a troubled look on her face. “I had expected you to complain to me about the whipping, Emily, not this. This,” she sighed, “is a complicated matter. It will take some time to explain. Do you have time?”
This was quite out of character. I had to wonder what could disturb Hilda. I nodded. “I’ll make the time, if it will help me. That is how important the matter is to my investigation.”
Hilda formally nodded in return. “Very well. Have a seat. There are some prefatory matters I must cover before answering your questions. Bear with me.”
I took a chair, while Hilda settled down behind her desk. She said to me, “Your sister Elsie Fisher has been working with Alex Bancroft, the so-called Prophesied One, to get the Council to reopen your family’s case. Do you know about this?”
This seemed an unrelated matter, but I trusted Hilda to have a reason. I answered, “They were expelled, not excommunicated. Go on.”
Hilda continued, “Just so. While your sister has not approached me, I have had my own reasons for investigating your family’s situation. Rumor had it that the Instrument Selena Sawyer had engineered your expulsion. That made no sense to me, for your personal friendship with her was well known, and I had seen you two together often when you were a child. Once I attained the High Council, I examined the records on your case. Those records are normally sealed, but I was able to convince Angus McPherson to let me look at them. You might say I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.” There was no humor in her voice when she said that. Hilda was being deadly serious.
She leaned forward across her desk. Hilda was a big woman, about six feet tall, broad in the shoulders and husky in build. It matched her domineering personality. Age had not diminished it in the slightest. I felt the full force of her personality as she spoke. “You, Emily Fisher, were the reason your family was expelled. Selena Sawyer stated on her authority as an Instrument that you were eternally damned. Your parents were included in the expulsion order to take care of you in the outside world, and for no reason relating to their own conduct.”
I felt like one of Hilda’s pupils again, being asked about a lesson I didn’t understand. It did not pay to pretend with Hilda. “I thought no one was eternally damned until the Judgment.”
Hilda shook her head. “You were never very good at theology, Emily, but this is one time your ignorance can be excused. That is what you learned because that is what we teach children. It is not completely true. There are two possible justifications for eternal damnation. The minutes do not state which one Selena cited, but it is obvious. You were too young to be a notorious . . .”
Hilda paused, and I filled in the silence myself with the expected term, “whore.” “Whore” is the one of the few truly obscene terms among the Children. Even though it appears in the New Revelation, many of the Children will not use it. Hilda must be one of them.
Having thought of another way to put it, Hilda resumed speaking. “As I say, you were too young to have defiled your body by selling its pleasures for trifles. It follows that Selena Sawyer must have accused you of the other justification for eternal damnation, that of being a demonolater, a demon worshiper. That there is a passing reference to your Priest ancestors on both sides of your family can mean nothing else.”
I hardly knew what to say. Why would Selena think me a demon worshipper? Just because I was descended from the Priests? Wait a second! “Both sides? My mother’s side, yeah, but my father was West Village born and bred.”
Hilda’s stern expression broke for a pitying one. “No. Ask your father about his mother. You have Priest blood on both sides. There is no doubt about it.”
Hilda gave me a few moments to digest that before she continued. “You were a troublesome child, Emily. I would not normally confess to such a thing, but I disliked you when you were my pupil. Nevertheless, I knew you well enough to be certain you were not a demonolater, no matter how much I disliked you, no matter whom you were descended from, no matter what Selena Sawyer said.
“Do you understand how serious a matter this is? An Instrument of the Spirits lied. We do not know why. And the High Council, with that judgment in the records, will not reverse themselves. No matter what Alex Bancroft may think, even if the case were to be reopened, the High Council would never reverse itself on something like this. We, the entire High Council, are complicit in a false judgment.”
Hilda sat back in her chair and was silent. I contemplated the enormity of what she had just told me. The High Council is not supposed to make mistakes, especially in spiritual matters. Instruments aren’t supposed to lie. And yet Hilda Strong was telling me both had happened, and that there was no way to fix things.
And then there was this little matter about my father’s mother being a Priest, and likely from North Village as well, given how little the Priests were loved elsewhere. It might explain why my father and mother left West Village for North Village not long after I was born. But in all the years I had lived with my parents, this had never come up. I was going to have to have a few hard words with my father, never an easy prospect.
I had forgotten all about the original reason for coming to speak to Hilda when she interrupted my thinking. “You are probably wondering how this is connected to the woman in the deserted village.”
I shook my head. “I was still digesting what you told me. But yes, now I am wondering.”
“Bear with me a bit more, Emily Fisher. Tell me, have you met the girl Jezebel Johnson, who associates with Alex Bancroft?”
“And the so-called Instrument, Hannah Priest Wyatt?”
The “Priest” threw me for a loop, turning up for the second time today, but I nodded again.
“And then there’s Alex Bancroft himself, our ‘Prophesied One,’ whom you have met. There is your sister Elsie Fisher, said to be possessed by a demon. Finally, there is the woman in the deserted village. In a matter of a few days, you have met all of these people, each of whom raises some question about whether we have judged them rightly. There is a pattern to this I do not like at all.
“As for the woman living in the deserted village, she should have been excommunicated long ago, but the High Council took pity on her. She was, well, crazy, even as a child. As she grew to womanhood, she became,” Hilda struggled for an acceptable term again, “a wanton, selling herself to strangers in town when she grew bored with our men. For all that, she must have been careful, for she never bore a child until fourteen years ago. And then she went completely mad and fled to the deserted village. She’s been there ever since.
“She was of North Village, and we see to our own, as we always have. So we have supplied her with necessities, seen that she does not suffer much, and otherwise leave her alone. She ignores us when she can, and cooperates with us not at all.
“There is one person she will listen to, though. For you see, the madwoman’s name is Penelope Wyatt. The Hannah Wyatt you have met? That is her child, her only child. If you want Penelope’s cooperation, you will need Hannah to go with you.”
It took me a while to take all this in. It was good to know that there was a way to get Penelope Wyatt’s help. That it was Hannah was another matter. After last night, I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with Hannah just yet. Thinking of Hannah reminded me of something Hilda said that raised other questions. “You called her Hannah Priest Wyatt?”
Hilda nodded. “As you know, middle names are not common among us. That was Penelope’s doing. We think she was hinting at who the father was, clearly someone among us, but no man has ever come forward to claim Hannah as his own.”
Hilda leaned forward on her desk again, and now her expression was troubled. “We have been barely avoiding a schism since Selena proclaimed Alex Bancroft the Prophesied One and the High Council grudgingly accepted her word. Everything depends on Selena having told the truth. And now you come here, Emily Fisher, living proof that Selena lied at least once to the Council, if they will but open their eyes. Everything you touch points to something rotten, some corruption among us, something enveloped in mystery. Though it is a profoundly disturbing notion, I cannot help but think the Divine has sent you to expose our sins.”
That was uncomfortably close to what Hannah had said to me, that the hand of the Divine was upon me. But I was of the Fallen! It was absurd. And I was reminded of something that had recently come to mind. “Selena once told me that the Children receive Instruments of the Divine in their times of trials.”
Hilda’s voice dropped until it was barely above a whisper. “Well, at the moment the only person claiming to be an Instrument of the Divine is the one you met, a fourteen-year-old child who bears an infamous name, who isn’t recognized by the Council, and who is likely deluded. If Hannah Priest Wyatt is what the Divine has sent us, then she’s going to need to work miracles to save us.”
End of chapter twenty-one