Chapter 8: The geography of a religion
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
I put aside my worries and sat in the study, debating on how to proceed with my investigation. What I really wanted to do was call up Eric Jansen, the sharpest detective I was friendly with in the agency, and ask him for help. But I knew Eric well enough that he’d chew me out if I didn’t do some thinking on my own, first. Besides, I had to wonder if the Children had a tap on my phone.
Instead, I looked around the study for inspiration. And there on the desk was a map of the Children’s lands. Be systematic, I told myself. You already know something about the who and the when, now look into the where. So I unfolded the map and spread it out on the desk. At first glance, it was clear things hadn’t changed much. There were still six villages, four larger and two smaller ones, all connected by a system of paths. To an outsider, that is all the map would have told them. To me, who had spent my first nine years among the Children, it said so much more.
I hadn’t realized until I went to schools in the outside world how little emphasis the Children placed on history, especially their own. It was commonly known that they had come to Quasopon early in the 1800s. Where they had been before then, or even if they had existed before then, I had never heard. But when they came, they first settled in Center Village. It was still the largest village, and the High Council met there. By reputation, the people in Center Village were the smartest and most devout of the Children. This was sometimes turned into a criticism, that they were the smartest or the most devout, but rarely both.
To the south was Milltown. It had originally been called South Village, and officially still was, but the Children had put up a dam and a factory, and it had been Milltown ever since. It was also the only village with rail access to the rest of the world, courtesy of a branch spur to the factory from the main line down by the river. By reputation, Milltown people were hard-working and pragmatic, or, if you didn’t like them, dull and unimaginative drones with little religious faith.
The dam had created a lake that curved south and west around Sacred Mountain. At the head of the lake, and out of sight from Milltown, was one of the smaller villages, Lakeside. Lakeside was by general consent the prettiest village, which might explain why the Prophesied One had set himself up there. Lakeside people were the opposite of Milltown people. They were the bohemians, laid back, or, if you preferred, shiftless dreamers.
West Village was, naturally, west of Center Village. It was the most conservative of villages, retaining practices that had been abandoned elsewhere among the Children, among them the iron fetters Tanya had expected to wear. West Village people considered themselves to be the purest in the faith. People in the other villages thought them dogmatic and narrow-minded.
While the other villages had both a positive and negative image, this pattern broke down with North Village. The image was overwhelmingly negative. You see, North Village hadn’t really been settled by the Children. No, instead it had been settled at the end of the 1800s by some other religious group that had fled a catastrophe of an unspecified (but understood to be dreadful) kind in Massachusetts. The Children had taken them in, and they had officially converted, but in the eyes of the other villagers, North Village people were always suspected of heresy, at the very least. It didn’t help that a few of the North Village families had regularly produced trouble-causers ever since.
I knew the North Village reputation well, because I had suffered on account of it. My father had come from a West Village family, but my mother was from a North Village family, one with several of those black sheep in the family tree. My parents had been living in West Village when I was born, but they moved to North Village not long after. Thanks to living in North Village, I was despised by the kids from the other villages. Thanks to the fact I hadn’t been born there, the North Village kids despised me, too.
But I had a refuge as a child, one place where no one, no one, would dare despise me, and that was Hilltop. Hilltop was the youngest and smallest of the villages. It was where the Children’s eccentrics lived. The story goes that Hilltop had been founded by two people, one from Lakeside and one from North Village, two people who had been too weird even for those places. Yet, ever since the village had been founded, it had been the favored residence for most of the Instruments. Selena Sawyer had lived there ever since she had become an Instrument, and that’s why I was often up there. You see, you just didn’t go visit Hilltop. It was understood that the only reasons one should go to Hilltop were because one wanted to live there, or because one had been invited to visit. Selena had given me an open invitation to come see her any time I wanted. Being able to say I could go visit Hilltop and talk to an Instrument any time I wanted was the only form of prestige I had while growing up among the Children.
So much for my memories. In the present, according to Ethan and Bonnie, Center and West Villages were strongholds of the True Believers. The followers of the Prophesied One dominated North Village and the two smaller villages. Milltown was either evenly split or indifferent. I hoped that was why the Children had set me up in Milltown.
Stephen Nash had been found shot to death on the edge of Hilltop. That did and didn’t make sense. He was a leader of the True Believers, while Hilltop favored the Prophesied One. It was a reasonable place for him to get killed. But no one could explain what he was doing near Hilltop that night. According to what people had told Bonnie, Nash had no friends or supporters in Hilltop. And while West Village is Hilltop’s nearest neighbor, there is no path directly connecting them. Hilltop does indeed sit on top of a hill, and the slope down to West Village is too steep and broken for a path. You want to go to Hilltop from West Village, you have to go most of the way to North Village or about halfway to Lakeview to pick up a path that will take you there. So Nash had deliberately gone a ways out of his usual way to get himself killed, if in fact he had been killed where his body was found.
Tanya interrupted my musings to ask if she should prepare lunch. I told her to do so, and then spent five minutes aimlessly looking around the study before deciding to join her in the kitchen.
Tanya had made up tuna fish sandwiches for both of us, using the Children’s vegetables, along with homemade potato chips and a tall glass of the root beer on the side. Some things hadn’t changed. The Children’s own produce was good. And the root beer still tasted of sassafras and had about a 5% alcohol content to boot.
I figured the onus was on me as the authority figure here (yeah, right!) to start the conversation, so I just started asking Tanya about herself. And got an earful. Tanya was a very innocent girl, as innocence is understood among the Children. She was just so open about everything, as if she had no secrets and wasn’t worried about being hurt at all. And that extended to her sex life, which she described in considerable detail.
This was one of the ways in which the Children were a lot different from most Americans. We try to protect our children from sex, and give them a heavy dose of body shame, certainly at least until they hit puberty. Then we tell them the biological basics, and warn them not to have sex, at least not until they’re older or married. That’s why we equate “innocence” with sexual ignorance and inexperience; we treat sex as a corrupting force. Among the Children, it’s different. They don’t protect their children from sex. It would be hard, anyhow, given how many farm animals are around. Long before they hit puberty, kids know how animals reproduce, and know humans do it the same way. They’ve certainly seen adults swim naked because that’s the norm among the Children. It’s even likely they’ve seen people having sex, one way or another. So when they hit puberty, it’s no big deal for them to start thinking about having sexual relations themselves. And the idea that sex itself corrupts just doesn’t exist among the Children.
Because I’d left the Children just before reaching puberty myself, I had a very confusing adolescence trying to sort out the differences between the Children and the rest of the world on sex. It didn’t help that the boys in the public schools all assumed, since I had been one of the Children, that I’d have sex with any guy just for the asking. It took several well-timed knees to the groin to disabuse them of that notion. So instead, I never got a date in high school, period. I managed to have a more normal life in college. Though there was that bull session one Sunday night in my first year when I casually mentioned I’d seen my parents having sex, and brought the conversation to a dead halt.
Tanya had no such traumas. No, her problem was that she was pursuing one guy, being pursued by another, and sleeping with both. And the guys had romantic complications of their own. After explaining this all to me quite frankly and explicitly, she wanted to know if I had any advice. I was tempted to tell her that the only time I’d come close to having two guys involved with me at the same time was during a night of very drunken skinny-dipping that did not end well. Another knee to the groin, if you must know. Instead I mumbled something about following one’s heart and seeking guidance from her spiritual counselor, whoever that was. Tanya said something about how there was supposed to be a new Instrument up in North Village who gave good advice on such matters, and that ended that discussion.
Sonia had told me she would serve as my liaison to the High Council. But the High Council was my official client on this job, and horror stories from the detectives in the agency told me I should definitely meet with my client as soon as possible, lest misunderstandings arise or be deliberately fomented. So I set out for Center Village. The High Council meets in the Great Assembly Hall there, and all the councilors have an office there, even those who live in other villages. Angus McPherson, Chairman of the High Council, lived in Central Village, so I expected he would be in.
No one spat on my shoes this time, but I got enough hostile stares on my walk. Once I arrived at the Great Assembly Hall, Angus’s secretary kept me cooling my heels for an hour before showing me in to see him.
Given how well the interview went, I probably could have used it being postponed for a bit longer, say a century or two. Angus McPherson was in his sixties, a tall, narrow, pale politician masquerading as a holy man. He shook my hand, told me how delighted the Council was that I was there, how he hoped I was all settled in, how he knew they could trust in me, and how my investigation should clean up everything by tomorrow thanks to my great talents and Divine Favor (pronounced with capitals). Every question I asked was met with an answer that it was someone else’s responsibility.
It was easy to think of McPherson as a fool, easy and wrong. Bonnie and Ethan had told me that he ruled the Council without a rival, and had kept the two factions from splitting the Children so far. He handled me much the same way. Apparently Sonia had already come to him about the way people were treating me. Angus somehow managed to apologize for the bad behavior while subtly implying that it was my own fault.
I came out of my interview with exactly nothing accomplished. Yet I had the satisfaction of knowing that his attempts to find out my plans had failed. He couldn’t very well find out what I intended when I didn’t know myself.
The afternoon was getting well along, and I had made no real start in the murder investigation so far. Tanya was supposed to be getting dinner ready for six p.m. I had maybe just enough time to try to get something done that might constitute progress. So I decided to go see my principal suspect, the Prophesied One, Alex Bancroft.
End of chapter eight