CHAPTER FOUR: THE SELECTION
As the sun begins its glorious processional over the horizon, we house slaves and the family do the same. Master walks at the head of our line, with Madame behind him, and then Young Miss and Young Master. Following him is Equus, since as the butler, he directs all other servants. Diamond comes next, and then myself. Bringing up the rear are our cook, the two scullions Opal and Bear, and lastly Crow. We remain as quiet and still as the breaking dawn. To do otherwise would not only be rude, but sacrilegious. The Unumites are chanting in a tongue that none of us understands: the very one that our deity speaks.
They seem to be repeating four words in a long refrain. What are they? Perhaps they are the four Cardinal Characteristics of the One, so called because they’re as permanent as North, South, East and West. In our own language, these traits all start with the letter I: Incomprehensible, Incorporeal, Infallible, Invisible.
I remember an awful yet amusing thing that happened two years ago. Young Master, two years old, had dared to slip back toward me in line and tug on my sleeve so I’d bend down: “What they saying, Emmy?”
“I don’t know.”
I couldn’t answer for a moment and then whispered, “They don’t speak the way we do. Quiet, now.”
Exasperated, I hissed, “They’re trying to sing!” That was when Master and Madame turned their heads. I received a thrashing for my impudence as well as poor Young Master, who had to watch me being shamed. Since then we have both learned to keep our mouths shut until the Selection is over.
Incomprehensible, Incorporeal, Infallible, Invisible. I wonder: Why isn’t ‘Immortal’ one of the One’s cardinal traits? We cannot fully understand the One, yet we understand It doesn’t have a body. It is always right, but we can’t see It. We won’t be able to until after death: so say the Unumites. If the One is so powerful, then why haven’t they mentioned that It can’t die? Perhaps It can, but they won’t tell us - and never will.
We walk into the large expanse of green grass that we call our “meeting yard”, and stand patiently. The Selection is for all slaves, not just those who work in the house, and thus we must wait for the field hands. As our visitors continue their chant, one hundred and twelve slaves that our family desperately needs take their places. Next to the gatherings on the other plantations surrounding the Unumites’ mountain, this is a small one. Young Miss claims that on Aubade’s estate, there are one thousand fieldsmen. Amazing…
“How can she and her family be so wealthy, and we so much less so? We’re supposed to be equals!”
All I could think of was a scripture: The One gives life to the righteous and the wicked man alike. I knew that Young Miss would find no comfort in it, however, so I stood mute. Besides, was Aubade truly wicked? It’s true that she treats my dearest companion like something she would scrape off of her teeth before bed. However, in our holy books, wicked means murderous, thieving, and deceitful - not merely proud.
Speaking of pride: Regardless of whether we’re Selected or not, this is one of two days in the year when we slaves can hold our heads high. We may look our masters in the eye, and have them look at us as if we were not merely property. Today we all have a chance - if it is indeed chance - at equality and freedom.
Our field hands stand at attention, grouped into one massive section of ten rows and ten columns. The two odd men who make 112 stick out like sore thumbs. At the back of our yard, nearly up against the phalanx of trees that protects us from the wind, are the eight Masked Ones and their four silent Sentinels.
The clergy of the Unumites are staring straight at us through the tiny eye-slits in their masked faces. Other than that, there are two even tinier slits for their nostrils, and cavernous cavities for their mouths. Those gaping ovals make my stomach churn. How is it that they have so very little room for seeing and breathing through their noses, and so very much room for their lips? It’s almost as if the upper parts of their faces are useless, while the part used for talking compensates for the other ones - the other senses. Who needs sight, smell, and taste when the only thing that matters is to speak? Isn’t that the Unumites’ purpose?
All of the Masked Ones are wearing heavy amber robes that reach the ground, with hoods that cover their heads. No other parts of them are visible. Even their hands are covered by silk amber gloves. I can see why Young Miss hates this color. It’s funereal, meant to remind us of the world beyond the grave. Although I’m sixteen years old and have long outgrown my fear of ghosts and ghouls, these people terrify me.
I notice Young Master moving out of his place in line and trying to hide behind his mother’s long skirts. Who wouldn’t be scared of them, especially at four years old? However, Madame firmly pulls him forward. Be a brave boy, she seems to say. Someday you’re going to be a brave man, and master of this estate.
“Greetings to all,” says a Masked One. “Would the servants of the house join their brethren and sisters?”
This is it. In the sight of the One, there is neither male nor female, neither bondman nor bondmaid. All are united.
I and my fellows, including Opal and Bear, go and stand among the field hands to make 119 slaves in total. Officially, no one may take part in this ritual until they’re eight years old. The two scullions are both ten. They may have a long road ahead of them, and many more Selections, before they’re finally chosen. Some never are, but that is the way of the world as well as our visitors. Not everyone is so fortunate.
Great One, please let me be Selected! If you are merciful, have mercy upon your most penitent slave.
“I am the Exarch, High Priest of the Masked Ones and the Unumites as a whole. We, the most perfect of the One’s creations, extend joyful tidings upon this holy day. It is one of remembrance, repentance, and redemption. The eight of us shall now recite the Scriptures of Selection, to remind us why we gather here.”
The Exarch’s voice is deep and stentorian, but has a dull flatness to it. Perhaps he’s given this speech so many times that it no longer moves him. However, as the Masked Ones chant, we are certainly moved:
“In the beginning were the One, and also the Dragon:
Once allied, but now opposed in all respects.
The One desired unity with that proud and willful Beast,
And yet the Wyrm refused It.
He would not become one with the One,
And so our Creator cursed him, called him ‘foe’.
The very firmament became a battleground,
A place of endless war and chase, instead of peace and rest.
Facing defeat, the Dragon rent himself apart -
Thus a fragment of his form resides in each of us.”
I cringe. This is why we sin. This is why, no matter how hard we try to be fully obedient, we will always fail.
“Nevertheless, the One was full of mercy, and blessed those who chose to follow It:
We, the First-fruits of Its mighty works,
Set ourselves apart from this tainted world
And reject the Dragon utterly.
We call ourselves Unumites, meaning ‘those of the One’.
Our will is naught, as we are also naught.
The Second-fruits, the masters of this Earth,
Are blessed with wealth and power, but not piety.
The One has given all It has to these wayward souls,
Who still prefer the Dragon’s carnal pleasures.
Offered the world, they then chose the world.
They would not spurn it for their own Creator’s sake.”
This has never made sense to me. The One grants people like my Master wealth and power, but then they aren’t supposed to enjoy it? They are given many earthly gifts, but are meant to reject them and give themselves as gifts to the One instead? Is this world a trap, then, a test to see what we will choose? How is giving thanks for the One’s blessings appropriate if we’re meant to live ascetically, as the Unumites do?
“Lower yet are the slaves of this Earth, deserving of their fate.
These are the distant children of the heathen who rebelled against the One,
Reveling in their blasphemy, and following the Dragon ‘til the end.”
Several of us look down. Our fathers and forefathers chose this path, and passed their curse down to us.
“Still, did our god not turn Its gaze upon them?
Unworthy as they were, did our deity count them all as dead?
Nay! It offered them freedom from their bondage,
If they would but repent and prove their worth.
The One has given us the Law of Selection:
Eight slaves each year, from all estates high and low,
Shall earn Its favor. It shall choose them to be free.
They shall live with us, and we shall call them brethren,
Together awaiting Unity.
So let it be;
So must it be.”
There’s a short pause, and then:
This strange word, rhyming with rule,
has always fascinated me. It made Young Master laugh when he first heard it, and me as well. Again, we were silenced. It seems to be so sacred that even though chanting it sounds ridiculous, it would be profane to say so. Is it the One’s real name, in Its own language?
The Exarch nods once, bowing his head and raising it up solemnly. He reaches into one of the pockets of his robe and pulls out a large drawstring sack. My muscles tense. Within it are the means of our salvation.
Please, please. I’ve tried so hard to follow your every commandment, turning to you and no other!
“All slaves shall draw one stone,” he says. “You will take it from this pouch and hold onto it, but keep it hidden - even after you have each had your turn. Then, one by one, you will come before me in a line. You’ll finally take a look at your stone. If it is an ordinary black one, it goes back into the pouch. You have not been favored by the One, and are not meant to enter our holy city. However, if it is an amber one, it is a similitude of our god - a sacred stone. There are only eight of these, as per the divine Law of Selection. Naturally, if you draw one, then our deity has deemed you worthy to join us and prepare for Unity.”
Yes. I want to be one with you, to be rid of the Dragon forever, who torments me, and also the -
There’s a worm wriggling on the ground at my feet, and I - no, no, no, no, no -
I’m in the Void. The stars should be around me, but there are none to illuminate this vast expanse. The only things that I can “see”, cast in inexplicable shadows, are the forms of my friends - slaves all. We lie supine, suspended high above the Earth. Within each of my fellows’ fleshly frames crawls a worm.
One parasite per body, per lost soul, per sinner.
I can actually witness them writhing tautly underneath the skins of the ones I call dear. Their cylindrical segments ripple in firm concentration, as if to inflict the most pain possible as they move. The worst part is that they don’t even know what they‘re doing. In their own way, they’re in just as much agony as we are.
Where is my tormentor? I try to crane my neck, but can only lift my head up so high as to see my belly.
It waits there. With neither eyes to see nor hands to feel, it’s searching for the opening that gave me life.
“I offer you one final decision. You, who value freedom so highly, must choose your eternal companion.” Again the One speaks: “Behold the Vermiis, which shall not die, even as your immortal soul shall not.”
Paralyzed with horror, I take a closer look at its long body. Every lie I’ve ever told, every time I’ve taken the One’s name in vain, every time I’ve hurt another person, and every time I’ve disobeyed my Master: these are the segments of the animal that yearns to dwell in me. It sniffs my body hungrily, with its head being…
I shudder in a violent convulsion and stomp upon the worm, over and over, until its body is an earthy pulp.
“Emerald?” Equus grasps my arm in a hard, subduing hold. “Are you all right?”
“I…” I stare at the mess beneath my heels, once a living creature but now no more. “I’m so scared.”
“It’s all right.” He pulls me close to his side in a familial hug. I never knew my father or my mother, but at this moment, our butler seems like both. “Whatever will happen is in the hands of the One now, not ours.”
“I know.” Our field hands are passing the pouch of stones down from hand to hand, as it has been passed down from the Exarch. We house slaves watch with bated breath. As it turns out, we’re the very farthest from the Masked Ones and nearest to the house, and so we’ll be last in line as well as in this large group. We wait. It’s absolute torture. Even finding out that I have an ordinary black stone would be better than such tension, not knowing whether the One has deemed me worthy of Unity or not. My stomach is liquid.
We’re not supposed to talk during the Selection, but Equus dares to whisper: “What frightened you so?”
“A worm.” It’s so childish, so stupid! I’m ashamed. Please leave me alone, and let me wait in silence.
Equus stays perfectly still for a moment, squinting as the morning sun attacks his eyes. He doesn’t say anything, and for that I’m immensely glad. Relieved. Standing next to him, I know I won’t come to harm.
At last the pouch comes to the back row where we’re standing. Diamond takes a stone, then Equus, and then myself. Click, click, click. They are all supposed to feel the same, despite their color. Do they? As I pass the bag down to Opal and Bear, I wonder which stones they will draw. Are they as nervous as I am?
When old Crow, the last of the slaves to draw, has taken his turn, the Exarch motions for us to form a line.
“Grab onto me if you wobble,” Equus rasps. “I’ll make sure you won’t fall down.” He hugs me again, in a full embrace this time, and then I feel him take my hand and hold it. I also think I feel something - odd.
It’s nothing. You’re definitely not first, but you’re not last. If Equus doesn’t catch you, someone else will.
Chasing this thought is another one: Great. I’ll land right on top of Opal, Bear and Crow in a heap!
Frustrated with myself and my weakness, I file in line behind Equus, determined never to wobble again. I’ll stand until the end of time if I must, but I won’t just topple over like a stack of Young Master’s blocks!
Eventually, however, both my will and my body prove weak, and I hold onto Equus for support. He senses me, but doesn’t look me. He keeps gazing straight ahead at the back of the previous slave’s neck. Inch by inch, we creep forward like a - Don’t. You’re in a long line, but don’t think of that - thing - you just killed.
Birds sing. Insects brush our faces. In the warm sun, the dew on our shoes and feet dries and disappears.
At last it’s our turn. The others have drawn and revealed their stones. I can’t bear to look at how many of them are standing alongside the Masked Ones. I keep my head down, intent on gazing only at my token.
Equus opens his hand, and without another word, he drops his black one back into the Exarch’s pouch.
I almost drop mine because my own palm is so sweaty. As it quivers, I open it wide - and my eyes widen.
Glinting in the sun is a reflection of its light and color as it sets: a perfect amber stone, with gnats inside.