Fiction | Children of Night

A Short Story

Francis, blind, blesses his blindness. Francis, blind, blesses...

The mantra streams for hours, seeping from some deep cavern of my brain. A poem? A song? Definitely from the peace-and-love days—sounds like Leonard Cohen or one of those flowers-in-her-hair folkies—but I can’t summon a tune and without handhelds or chips there’s no way to check the source.

Why are you holding your head? Andy signs from his corner of the garage, because it’s dusk outside and people might still be about. When daylight comes again, we’ll throw caution to the nonexistent winds and whisper. We keep the old hours—we kept them even before we went into hiding—but the rest of Greenglass obeys the mandatory reversal, and in daylight, everyone goes inside to sleep. If they can: since Climate Control locked the air systems, everyone tosses and turns. The old garage, of course, has no air system whatsoever and reaches hellish heat by mid-day. If not for the ancient oak drooping over our roof, we would have shriveled.

I don’t know, I sign back, though I do know, I know perfectly well. I’m holding my head because I have no other way to contain my rage at Francis for reminding me of blindness. When I was young and romantic and religious, I actually routed prayers through Francis, but that was long, long ago. Strange. This very morning, Andy said I’d cried out prayers in my sleep.

Wouldn’t that be rich? he whispered, not unkindly, as dawn was breaking. Betrayed by your involuntary prayers. His little fugitive joke.

Noreen comes at high noon with three days’ meals disguised in a thick standard-issue garbage bag. It’s risky: noon is the new midnight, but neighbors could still look out their windows to wonder why she’s emptying her trash at that ungodly hour. She wears a huge sunhat and eyeshields, so when the old deadbolt slides open and she slips the bag in the waiting can, we see mostly bobbing hat. She’s begged us not to blow kisses or wave, not to acknowledge her in any way, so we avert our eyes assiduously, good parents disappearing into the seams of the garage. Tonight, if I’ve counted right, is her licensed provisions night, so we’ll have a longer look at her when she drives off in only twelve hours.

After she leaves, Andy and I inch toward the food from our corners, prizefighters approaching worthy opponents. At the barred windows, we duck creakily: even in the dark interior we might be detected. Foot patrols scan the alleys three or four times a week in daylight, less at night when everyone’s out and about and doing their dirty work. In the dark, children instructed to look everywhere for fugitives sometimes peer in. It won’t help to tell a spying child that we’re just a couple of geezer wise guys who said the wrong thing to a Constitutional Guard.

That is, I said the wrong thing to a Constitutional Guard.

Andy always reaches the food bin first and doesn’t seem to know I let him win. He raises his fists—the champ—and dances a restrained victory jig. That’s how I know we’re going to get out of here. It may be the last sign of hope I see for the next three days, so I savor it. It’s all I can do not to lay a hand to his when I reach him, but I know that my touch would be as creepy as a black widow’s to him now.

He doles out the water reluctantly, as if he’s afraid I’ll take more than my three jars. Have I been that grabby during our life together? I marvel again at the weight Noreen must surreptitiously haul across the yard to keep us alive. The first week, she sent cheese-laden palm leaves, succulent with the caramelized carrots she bought on the black vegetable market for my eyes. The plan was for us to eat a home-cooked meal the first day, then subsist on little cans of farmed herring and xerophyte chips—but you try forcing down herring that tastes like old tires in an airless garage. We left the cans unopened. Now she sends us green bananas from the Ohio groves and coconut bars coated in local chocolate. We’ve become our daughter’s children, grabbing up the sweets and gobbling them first.

She promised she’d put a red napkin in the food-pack if anything changed, if we should hold out hope of a miraculous removal of our names from the Fugitive List, so Andy shakes the empty bag upside down as he always does, looking for the sign. Both of us know no red napkin will flutter to the concrete garage floor, only Simon and Noreen’s old unitunes, meant to be our change of clothes. We go commando underneath. My tunic’s hot pink, sleeveless, and low-cut, a sorrow on a woman my age. Over my left breast—or where my left breast stood twenty years ago—the logo says technology rules, inc. On the back it says Nuclear is forever.

I’m glad I’ll never see my sorry reflection in this shirt, not that I trust my own vision. I was scheduled for the flash cataract removal the week we went into hiding and now, as the months pass, everything grows indistinct. I fret that it’s not just cataracts making my vision fuzzy, that it’s the retinopathy that blinded my mother. Andy and I are both covered with arthritic knobs and cysts. Our ears ring, our hearts race, our hands tremble. Our bodies smell so rank we’ve lost the sense of smell. Andy’s beard has grown biblical (though there are still bald patches on his cheeks, so he’s a comic prophet). I should talk: wiry whiskers sprout from my chin. Wild-eyed elders, we’ll be relegated to the Permanently Disabled List and sent to live in automated care centers, where my world will dim to darkness and strange phrases will pop into my head to torment me. I grab up my supplies and retreat to my corner, that line playing on an endless loop. Francis, blind...

 

WHAT SORT OF A fugitive am I, living in a two-car garage, that old temple of middle-class respectability? That first night we arrived safely, Simon almost sneered: You’re not exactly Anne Frank, you know. You’re not runaway slaves.

I think I hear wind, though it’s only March and the windstorms don’t usually start till April. Everything comes earlier and earlier, but I never adjust, and it’s hard to keep track of the passing months. All February I knelt by the door, even on these knees, to catch the scent of roses. Smell the roses! I whispered to Andy, another little fugitive joke. Noreen has somehow managed to save one bush, maybe the last rosebush in the Midwest. Until she got enough cacti for camouflage, her neighbors accused her of hoarding water—little do they know how much she’s hoarding now. We can’t afford to wonder how she manages. Today may be the day we come up with a plan to escape, to stop putting her at risk. Today may be the day the insurrection throws everything into a chaos that will cloak us. We’ve heard more sirens lately, though God knows our imaginations trick us.

Of course we know the garage by heart: would that there were more to know. Brick walls—another reason we’ve made it this long, that and the slate roof—and handsome oak rafters inside, refurbished elegantly like the rest of Noreen and Simon’s tasteful landmark house. Nothing hangs from those rafters. No work table like Andy’s, cluttered with tools and gadgets, rests against the walls. An antique sled—the children can’t fathom what it’s for, no matter how many times their parents explain—hangs on the wall alongside one expensive rake and one expensive hoe, those too unused, but Noreen’s a multivalent quantum engineer who values tools. A forty-pound bag of cactus food: that just slays us. And of course the Wiggy. Only the most expensive model glider car for Noreen and Simon, regulation neon yellow. It’s on my side of the garage, and as I inch along the wall I’m glad to trace the curve of its roof, the cliff that drops behind two little seats, the tiny tires, the tightly folded wings: it’s a clown-car, but I can make out its shape without panicking again about impending blindness, and so I feel affection. Once we all thought these gliders would save us, but the Wiggys—like the eyeshields, like Climate Control—came too late.

 

WHEN WE FIRST moved in at Christmastime, we thought the Wiggy was our magical carriage. We planned to sleep upright behind its tinted glass, but it’s torture to bend our old backs into the mini-seats and anyway, we might expire from the stench. Andy’s rigged up porta-potties for us, clever stands he made from the neat bundles of ancient garden stakes. We insert a dusty little magicello garden bag and, when we can squeeze anything out, tie it up immediately—sometimes tough dogs that have survived the ban roam the neighborhood, sniffing. Even the dogs, fellow fugitives, would betray us. Day or night, we crawl over to put the bag behind the Wiggy’s seats. On her shopping trip Noreen will glide our waste wherever she takes it, another dangerous act. I can’t bear to think about how she manages that either.

I really can’t fathom why we don’t just lie down in the dust to die, but we curl up instead on bamboo yoga mats we found rolled on the shelf. I see Andy holding his head now, and I make the same Why-are-you-holding-your-head sign he made to me. He points directly to his partially-completed implant site, partially another stroke of luck that’s kept us alive and free. We were the last holdouts, though Simon and Noreen swore there was nothing to fear from the Gibson chips: they were such a convenience. The chip would see for me if my vision went! But blind or sighted, I want my own organic brain to be the only witness to my secrets and sins. For a while it looked as if Andy would be my partner in paranoia, but he’s always been a sucker for gizmos.

At least at his age he had to wait to check for rejection before the chip went live. On the trip home from the insertion, I prayed that sometime in the waiting period he’d change his mind. I didn’t like the way he looked, head bent forward, stunned from the implant. Since we still drove the old pavement-only solar see-through we were already the object of attention, and a CG on foot patrol waved me over. The guard trotted up but kept his distance, clicked his palm amplification button, barked that he’d just seen my vehicle two hours before. I hollered my responses through the open window. I told him about our special permit, but I was flustered as always before authority and searched a little wildly through the handheld for the license. I wasn’t used to driving in the middle of the night, wasn’t used to the reverse hours everyone else kept, wasn’t used to being so frightened.

The CG pointed to my handheld—probably he’d never seen one so old—and under his visor-light I thought I could see beads of shiny terror forming on his own thin upper lip. Drop that! He thought I had an explosive.

Don’t be a knucklehead, I called. It just popped out, the same silly phrase I directed at Noreen when she told us she was marrying Simon, the most ridiculous thing I could have said to a daughter who promptly ran straight into the arms of the man who’d agreed to marry her without her data. Now I’d said it to a CG who held my freedom in his hands.

Even in the nightlight I could see veins bursting on the guard’s ruddy face. He was a kid, the kind of self-important, marble-white kid they recruit for the hot boredom of night foot patrol. He tapped his blue-veined forehead, his own knucklehead, to make a transmission. “Bringing in two OWOs,” he told whoever listened at the other end, but I was still not used to autophone. Even I knew the CG’s acronym for old folks, but Andy and I weren’t On the Way Out. I liked to think we were generously middle-aged. I still scrolled recklessly, searching for the license.

Beside me, Andy muttered, Gun it. I thought he was hallucinating from the brain-stun, but gradually it dawned on me: Andy was telling me to gun it because he thought we’d never get out of an interrogation without being subjected to some kind of torture session, even once they’d located our license, even if we were On the Way Out. I’d dissed a Constitutional Guard. They would scan our files and discover open-channel comments we’d sent after we drank too much palm wine.

It’s not as if you have time for rational thought at a time like that. By then, I’d gunned it and jettisoned the handheld out the open window. Air roared in from the blast furnace outside. Andy lifted his head and directed me down back alleys. He knew more about CG facilities than any of us—before we went into hiding, he was a defense lawyer who heard the worst interrogation stories. I did as he said.

Big screens haven’t been around for years, but that day, as I raced the solar to the outskirts of town, I starred in a 2-D big-budget Hollywood production. We ditched the car, then huffed and puffed a mile into an abandoned barn that reminded us of our past. If we’d had any sense of decency, any impulse to save our daughter the danger we now cause her, we would have politely dehydrated in that hayloft. But no. Living beings cling to life. For a few days we survived on old scraps of spilled animal feed and rancid rainwater pooled in rusty cans. Andy tasted rock-hard dung—we were desperate—and spat it out. Finally, another stroke of good fortune: one of the western volcanoes erupted yet again, and in the dark spew of her ash drifting eastward we were able to scurry in daylight from alley to alley, stealing fistfuls of water from the winter barrels. The theft of even a handful would have given a CG permission to shoot us on sight, but we were in a part of Greenglass that’s ashy with or without volcanoes and short on CGs. The dark-skinned poor inhabit those streets, half their young men zapped in the frontal lobes. It’s our version of lobotomies: everything old is new again, even in end times. We were spotted, I’m sure we were, but nobody turned us in—with your frontal lobes out of commission, it must be hard to summon the energy.

Finally we moved through more prosperous zones, too exhausted to appreciate the irony of the wealthy in the inner city, and wept when we finally saw the sign:

The Personal Responsibility=Personal Wealth Authority Welcomes You to

Old Town: A Healthy Individuation Community.

We dragged our haggard, dehydrated, individuated selves to Noreen and Simon’s stately pickled house under cover of ash. At the back door, Simon’s jaw snapped like a pit bull’s under his thick red beard, and he pretended not to know us, but Noreen yanked the door open wide enough for us to crawl through.

The CGs had no way to link us to our daughter: Noreen’s records had been lost when one of the early floods destroyed a primitive data center. No one would come round to question her, not in this part of town, and we thought we could hide in their basement and bide our time reading—Noreen’s our child, data or no data, with enough spirit to keep a box of the old texts hidden away in a dark recess. But Simon was sure our grandchildren would spot us, and it wouldn’t be fair or even sane to expect them to keep such a secret. You’re not runaway slaves.

I admit I haven’t been a good grandmother to the triplets: all three girls are a little remote, a little superior to our strange old-fashioned ways. I’m jealous of the way they took Noreen from us so completely, how they finished that job that Simon started. I can’t always tell one triplet from the other. I can’t follow the games they tap on their foreheads.

What could we do? We skulked off to the garage. Once we rehydrated, we’d think of a plan—but now we have no plan, no more volcanic ash to hide our flight. We considered stealing the Wiggy, but neither of us knows how to glide and even now, we’re not desperate enough to betray Noreen.

The wind picks up through the day—I haven’t imagined it. Anticipation seeps in through the cracks. Andy does jumping jacks against the wall, which alarms me: his flapping arms might attract a day patrol. Does he think he’s urging the wind along? He hasn’t tried that kind of exercise in weeks, and I’ve very nearly given up any movement beyond sitting, standing, racing Andy to the porta-potty. It’s desperately hard to not-think of water. Thinking will lead me to empty the three jars prematurely, and I mustn’t do that if I want to live. Do I want to live? Every joint stings, humiliated like the rest of me.

If it weren’t so dangerous to summon memory, I could distract myself by turning the past, too, into a Hollywood production. But it is dangerous. Not-thinking about our past’s as hard as not-thinking about water. I wince at Andy, who’s touching his toes now, looking ridiculous, a tattered tunic on a stick. The new unitune he’s taken from the food bag has big block letters that might say get real or gee whiz or god damn. Strange shadows have fallen on our concrete floor. The hot wind outside stokes my old fury and I can’t stop the scenes of our youth from flashing.

 

WHO NEEDS A Gibson chip? I see those days bright and clear: the old dove-gray farmhouse, the sagging barn, the struggling crops. We spent the early days of our marriage in an idyll, Children of Light, an intentional community our mimeographed newsletter said. More like unintentional, Andy used to say. We knew less than nothing. We were hippies with a spiritual bent and we thought we were frolicking through paradise. Everyone at Children of Light agreed on faith, but faith in what, exactly, was not entirely clear. We crowded into the kitchen at all hours of day and night to out-sanctify each other and got each other hot instead.

If we wanted privacy, Andy and I lay up high on the rude planks of the barn loft, where touching each other on a summer afternoon left us slick as seals. The goats wandered between barn and farmyard, devouring everything in their path, and we called them the way we imagined Francis would have—Sister Goat, please don’t eat those work gloves—but the gloves were goners. When we drank her thick warm milk for the first time, we gagged. Poor Sister Goat. We killed her unintentionally, the way we killed the chickens, and the kale and the spinach yellowing even then in the angry sun. The turnips and potatoes lay desiccated under the earth, its core already bubbling upward to destroy us. None of us at Children of Light knew the least thing about farming. Andy used to say God sent the intelligent life to other planets and gave earth the know-nothings. As the crops and animals failed, Children of Light descended into breast-beating piety and forced cheerfulness, and I knew my fellow communards were shedding their faith like winter fur. I felt my own falling off.

I watched Andy fall in love with one of the singles. I’d been cranky, I admit—you try living with a bunch of religious nuts—so my handsome young husband picked a paragon of patience. I suppose her long skirts and long sleeves were meant to signify her modesty in an age of sexual license. I could sense him mooning over her golden braids as she stood at the sink, washing our dishes, cleaning our mess, no self-sacrifice too large for her sunny saintliness. Her name was Mary: of course. She wove flowers into those braids—that made me gag, too—and when it was her turn to lead us in hippie-dippie prayers, I had to leave the table. There. That was it. I rewind blessings-at-table and hear her chirp Francis, blind, blesses his blindness.

Now I windmill my arms. Andy thinks he can summon a storm? I wish the hot air outside would knock these brick walls down. I know how tricky memory is, but I’ve convinced myself I’ve found the source of my torment, and my arms beat out the rhythm of St. Mary’s mantra: Francis, blind. Francis, blind. Francis, blind. I might burst with venom.

And that, of course, was exactly how I felt near the end at Children of Light. The hotter I burned, the more Andy drifted into Mary’s cool orbit. Finally, one sweltering August night, I heard the two of them creep out for some assignation: an innocent walk-and-talk, I thought, but still it enraged me. I fled in the commune’s old pick-up to my mother’s house in Greenglass, where I sobbed the whole betrayal story.

You should have some faith in him, my mother said mildly. And then, as if it weren’t completely contradictory: And even if he did take up with her, he’s very young. You’ll just have to forgive him.

When Andy hitchhiked after me, and I asked if he’d fallen in love with Mary, he said: Not intentionally. A little Children of Light joke. His look was so strange I didn’t know if it signaled his innocence or guilt, but I knew how to read the silence that followed. Forgive that.

Somehow we got past it: I don’t know if you call that forgiveness. As the years passed and the earth heated, belief itself seemed more and more childish and hypocritical to me, false innocence in a dangerous age. When Noreen began to study quantum mechanics, and delighted in parallel universes, I soaked it up with her. How could I believe in God after the God-particle, the Trinity after triad-beams? What sort of God would create a lush earth only to fry it? Even Andy quit eventually, because he refused to belong to an institution whose clergy, he said, out-authoritarianed the Constitutional Guard.

Another memory flickers: chandelier light. Andy and Simon in the elegant dining room around Noreen’s big oak table. Sunday dinner with the aged parents. Bored out of their wits by our conversation, the little girls tapped their foreheads surreptitiously, watching flickies, and Andy tapped his forehead too, not realizing he was mimicking the children, trying to contain his frustration. My God, Simon, he railed. Don’t you get the joke, protecting liberty by taking it away?

Simon stared out, another creepy habit. His gray eyes never made contact: no wonder he didn’t recognize us at his door. That Sunday he was expressing mild sympathy for the Guards, for putting up with arrogant Old Towners, for keeping his daughters safe from the shadowy figures who make their way into even his fortified sub-city. He had a piece of packaged protein stuck between his teeth, or anyway I put a piece of protein there when I picture him. I watch Simon, too spineless to argue his point, rise to land a big sloppy protein-laden kiss on the top of Noreen’s head. That showy gesture, too, repels me.

The real torment of this garage is that I live too much in the past. I drift until I realize that Andy’s waving his arm across the room, this time to get my attention. Listen, he signs. I hear the old oak tree creaking wearily above us. Andy’s eyes flash at the thought of an out-of-season storm, and as if in answer the sky slits itself open and spills down hail. Hail! We haven’t seen such a thing in five years, and the sound of it ricocheting off the slate is almost as good as being able to see it. Thunderbooms rattle our tattered-stick bodies, and I watch Andy slide down the wall to the floor in thanksgiving for water in any form. The temperature drops by the minute.

I’m giddy with joy, my bitterness swept away. Lightning rips through Noreen’s cactus garden. I’ll bet the little girls are crowded at the window—I can’t tell, in the storm, if it’s day or night anymore, if my grandchildren are asleep or awake, but I have the strangest urge to pick them up to the glass and tell them how hailstorms used to form. How they form this very instant.

We feel the great shudder, the old oak riven when lightning strikes above. It takes a long time for the splintered branch, stubborn as the rest of that death-defying tree, to come down. Its weight could flatten us when it finally descends, but we sit there grinning like clowns—at least I do. I can’t make Andy out at all in the dimming light, so when he reaches me—he’s crawled across the garage—I let out a little yelp of surprise. The fury outside drowns the sound, and Andy throws his body over mine (a little melodramatically, a little cinematically) to shield me from the thick creaking branch that will land any minute, bringing the roof down with it. I haven’t felt his dry skin in so long I think at first that I’m touching tree bark. We wait and we wait. We wait so long that Andy must finally peel his arthritic self off. I’m touched by the chivalry, but it’s a relief when he hoists his overripe body up. I haven’t lost my sense of smell after all.

The instant Andy rises, the big branch breaches the roof, glances off, crashes onto the cacti. We rush to the hole above, liquid rushing down, both of us opening our mouths like newborn birds. It’s not hail but warm water now, thick with organic matter. We gulp down all we can, so greedy we don’t even hear at first the desperate jiggling of the door. Noreen, who always punches the code so precisely, so discreetly from her Gibson chip, can’t get in.Andy opens the deadbolt the old-fashioned way, but we both freeze when the door swings open. It’s Simon who stands on the threshold. I can hardly make him out, much less recognize him, but I see his beard soaked into a burlesque mask. Get into the Wiggy, he chokes so fiercely that I almost forget this man is sympathetic to the Constitutional Guards, and I move toward the glider.

But Andy holds me back. What’s the plan? He begins a lawyerly interrogation, the two men hissing at each other in the clattering rain, the door not even properly locked behind them. I can’t hear any better than I can see. I stand beneath the newly rent hole in the roof and try to make out the horrific gash in the tree, the open wound. Beyond, a green sky pocked with scarlet cloud pustules descends. It must be twilight, or stormlight, or maybe it really is end times. We shouldn’t have joked about that.

 

SIMON, A DESPERADO heading off the posse, looks straight into Andy’s eyes when he answers him, and I hear shards of his answer: Resisters...provisions. Maybe those are the syllables I want to hear. He turns to me again and barks: Fold yourself up behind the seats. He means atop our waste bags. I’ve never heard him so resolute before. Has Noreen come up with a plan? The black market’s one thing, but resisters are quite another, and Simon could well be delivering us to the guards. I have never trusted this man Noreen trusts.

Noreen, I whimper, but he shoos me toward the Wiggy. The girls.

Safe, safe inside. Go. Go!

Every resentment I’ve ever felt—at Andy for cheating, at Simon for being Simon—surges through my body. How many fugitives have prayed for deliverance, only to be delivered to the enemy? Wouldn’t that be rich, if I must have faith in Simon to leave this prison, and then must forgive him at another prison’s door?

Now Andy stands by the passenger door, waiting for me to join him. We know nothing, less than nothing. I’m not sure I can trust anyone’s judgment, after all these months of hiding, but I climb into the back of the Wiggy and stretch myself face-down over the bags of our excrement. Liquid seeps onto the overhang of my hands, and I gag. Inter urinas et faeces nascimur. Already I’m twisted into a torture position. I’ve lost track of day and night, light and dark, and I know now that I’m losing my sight even faster than I feared. At least I’ve stopped gagging. I remember incongruously how much I loved gliding when Noreen first treated me to a ride.

Simon is backing up the Wiggy, moving forward, speeding up. I feel the wings unfold themselves. We rise, and I let myself imagine that wherever Simon is driving us, prison or refuge, the low green sky will eventually lift too. Maybe, from some slit of window, I’ll catch dim sight of the cool moon, the stars I haven’t seen for so long, the distant planets bursting with intelligent life.

Published in the July 12, 2013 issue: 
Tags

Valerie Sayers is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and the author of six novels, including The Powers.

Also by this author
Brooklyn, Bewitched

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Books
Collections