She grips my hand tighter. “Gene, there’s so much that’s off here.”
I nod slowly. “I’ve noticed. I mean, what’s with those dainty feet, all the pregnant girls? The elders walking around like peacocks? All those bylaws and precepts. And where are all the teenage boys, the adult women?”
“You don’t know the half of it,” she says excitedly. “You’ve been mostly unconscious, blissfully unaware. There were times I wanted to slap you awake, just to have someone to talk to.”
“How about Epap, the boys? Haven’t they noticed anything?”
She shakes her head with frustration. “The boys—including, no, especially, Epap—have been useless. Useless. They’re too taken in by this place, completely oblivious.” She grits her teeth. “And when I brought this up to Epap, he accused me of being paranoid.”
I nod, remembering she’d mentioned this earlier today. “I can’t believe he accused you of being paranoid. You’re like the most levelheaded person I know.”
She lets out a laugh, and I can hear her insides unknotting with relief. “Oh Gene,” she says, “sometimes they even had me second-guessing myself. Honestly, I spent a lot of time wondering if all this really is weird, or just a normal I’m not accustomed to. I mean, I’ve spent my whole life in a glass dome, what do I know of the real world?” She shakes her head, then starts thumping me on the chest. “Don’t ever get sick again! Don’t ever leave me alone like that!”
The sound of wind flutes through the woods, shifting the branches. A drop of water, collected in the cup of a leaf, falls from above. It lands on Sissy’s temple, slides down along her jawline. I wipe at it, my fingers brushing wet against her soft skin.
She is still thumping my chest, but her hand moves slower now, distracted. Until it halts halfway, left hanging in the air between us. I gaze into her eyes. They were once merely brown; but now they seem to burst with the color of the woods about us, the color of chestnut and orchard and cypress.
I move my hand from the side of her face, and gently cup her fist. She is about to say something.
And then I am averting my eyes, releasing her hand.
After a moment, she lowers her arm. We stand without moving, without speaking.
“You said I don’t know the half of it,” I finally say.
“About this village. What else have you seen?”
She looks about. “Oh, right.” She laughs, not with humor but as if she’s clearing her throat or changing the conversation topic. “Come this way. I stumbled on something really weird the other night. I’m not sure what to make of it.”
She leads me through the trees, occasionally bending low to duck under low-hanging branches. We stop when we come upon a sudden clearing. Before us is a steep embankment that serrates the forest cleanly into two.
“Up here,” she says, climbing the embankment.
We crest the embankment, our boots dislodging and rattling loose pebbles and small stones. Two narrow metal rails lie stretched on top of the embankment, running perfectly parallel to one another about a child’s body length apart. They seem endless, running the entire length of the embankment and disappearing into twin bookends of darkness. Wooden planks lie perpendicular to and between the metal rails, connecting them like rungs of a downed ladder.
Something colder than ice freezes in me.
I stoop, grab hold of one of the rails. Cold knifes into my skin as I stare down the rail’s length, my eyes trailing its gradual fade into the darkness.
“Do you know what it is?” Sissy asks. “Is it a track for some weird sport?”
I stand up, gaze down the length of the rails in the opposite direction until they disappear. My neck stiffens with dawning fear. “It’s something called a ‘train track.’ I read about them as a kid. In fairy-tale picture books.”
“‘Train track’?” She stares at the tracks. “What’s a train?”
“Something big,” I say quietly. “A locomotive used for travel. Over vast, unimaginable distances, hundreds of miles, even. On these metal beams. With incredible speed.” I am trying to hide my emotion, but my shaking voice is giving my fear away.
“Hundreds of miles?” Sissy takes a step toward me, her face paling. “What’s a train track doing here?”
“I don’t know.”
She looks at the distant cottages of the Mission.
“Gene,” she whispers, her eyes wide. “What is this place? Where are we?”
DESPITE BEING UP most of the night, I’m up at the crack of dawn. I’m in my own room, but not in my bed. Sissy lies there, adrift in slumber, her face lax on my pillow. But her body seems tense, even in sleep, as if the memory of the last few hours—and probably, for her, the last few days—has seeped into her restive mind.
She wanted to stay with me, she’d told me last night at the train tracks. I asked if that might get us in trouble. Wouldn’t her absence at the farm be noted, wasn’t it against the bylaws—
“Screw the bylaws,” she’d replied. Truth is, I didn’t want to be alone, either. Back in my cottage, by the time I got the fire going—we were chilled to the bone—she’d fallen asleep. Quickly, as if for the first time in days.
Not wanting to wake her, I sit up quietly on the sofa and stare at the dead embers in the fireplace. The windows to my left face east, and the curtain is rimmed with a burnt orange. There’s no sluggishness in my mind or body, only adrenaline. Within a minute, I’m flinging on my jacket and stepping outside.
Warm sunshine butters down, gaining in strength as I make my way along the still-empty streets. The mountain peak, rising up behind the village, is largely stripped of snow, only the uppermost tip covered in white. I take in a lungful of clean air.
The path winds around the village in a horseshoe manner that doesn’t quite make a full circle. As I come to the end of the path, my attention is diverted to a brook gurgling on my left. A well-trod path leads down to the bank where sits a large wooden deck crossed with laundry lines. Scrubbing boards and buckets are stacked neatly underneath a sitting bench. I could use a drink of water. I head down.
The water is cool, clear, cold. After drinking enough to slake my thirst, I douse my face and hair. Drops of water line down my back, stinging and energizing. I feel my thoughts crystallize, alertness sharpen.
Across the river, someone is standing. Watching me.
“Hey, Clair,” I say, startled. “Clair like the air.”
She doesn’t answer, only continues to stare at me. “You shouldn’t be out here,” she finally says. Her voice cuts crisply through the still air. “It’s against the bylaws.”
“Nor should you,” I say. “Come over here,” I urge her, motioning with my hand.
For a second, she pauses. Then she relents, leaping from rock to rock across the brook, her boots hardly getting wet.
“Hey,” I say, realizing something after she’s crossed over, “how did you do that?”
She’s confused. “I used the stepping stones. You saw me—”
“No. I mean, you’re not like the other girls. You’re not hobbling or waddling. You’re like … normal.”
“You mean ugly.”
“I have ugly man feet. Just say it.”
I stare down at her boots, stained darker brown by the water. “I don’t see how—”
“Yes, yes, I know. They’re huge. They’re man feet. I get it. So they haven’t been beautified into lotus feet yet. You don’t have to stare.” Her lips turn down in revulsion. “But my time is coming. I was supposed to have my procedure last year. But then I got assigned.”
“Assigned to what? What are you talking about?”
“I’m a wood collector. I need to have man feet to forage the forest, gather wood. That’s my assignment.”
“That’s why you were so far away from the village. At the cabin.”
Her eyes open in alarm; she looks quickly around. “Broadcast that to the whole world, why don’t you?” She steps closer to me. “Please don’t tell anyone, okay? I’m not supposed to stray that far away. Not anymore, anyway.”
“The log cabin. That’s where the Scientist—Elder Joseph— retreated to, wasn’t it, where he lived?”
She nods, her eyes dropping.
“Why did he live there? So far from the Mission?”
“I must go now.”
“No, please. You’re like the only person I can talk to here. What happened to the Scientist?”
Her eyes narrow with suspicion. “He died. Suicide by hanging.” She studies me carefully. “Haven’t you been told?”
“It wasn’t a suicide. It wasn’t, was it?”
Her face goes dark, her eyes recede into their sockets. “I have to go now,” she says. “We’re breaking the first bylaw. ‘Remain together in groups of three or more. Solitariness is not permit—’”
“I know what the bylaws state. Forget them for a second, will you?” I step toward her, soften my tone. “I’ve got the creeps about this place. You can tell me, Clair. What happened to the Scientist?”
For a moment, a light flickers in her eyes.
“He didn’t die by suicide, did he?” I say with urgency.
Something in her relents. Her posture softens and she opens her mouth to speak—
The sound of singing issues behind us, rhapsodizing about sunshine and grace and a bright new beautiful day. A line of village girls, arms weighed down with full baskets of laundry, appears from around a bend. The girls stop in surprise on seeing me standing on the deck.
I turn back around. Clair’s gone. I scan the woods, trying to catch movement. “Clair?”
But she’s disappeared.
Frustrated, I walk past the line of laundry girls. They stoop low, heads bowed, lips pulled back to expose teeth in what’s supposed to be a smile. So fake, even my put-on smiles look more sincere. Good morning, they chime. Good morning. Good morning.