The Reader


Good morning.  Factory doors are now closed.  It is 9 hours until the next break.  Weather: warm.  Smog: Moderate.  Chances of acid rain: minimal.  Taxes: Due in 12 days.  Schedule:  All workers will report for double shifts until further notice. 

News: Our favorite little family- Monny, Poppi, and little baby Steepo are scraping by on the Outside where they are hard at work under the ashes, growing our vegetables.  They have used our taxes to plant new fields of berries and build fences to keep out the Lupines. How brave they are to labor in the dirt, knowing they could be attacked at any time, while we work comfortably inside the safety of the factory.  It is because of them, that we eat.  Because of them, that we have not seen Lupines near the factory for a generation. Because of them, that we work until there is no day or night.

They asked her, sometimes, how she learned to Read.  When she was feeling surly, when the smog was high or the vegetable trucks were late or the tax collectors had been out all night with the dogs, she said she didn’t remember.  Other times, she told them the hours she spent each day Reading at the factory were a gift from an unknown celestial benefactor.  Both of these things were true.  It was also true that she had the vaguest of recollections of sitting on her father’s lap with her head against his rasping chest, the candles flickering as he struggled to murmur words from the pages of a yellowed newspaper. She squinted at the words in the dim light, the tiny symbols dancing and wiggling even as she blinked to steady them.  But then, when the blackness in his lungs bound him to his bed, she took the crinkled pages in her tiny hands, and the words came.  From her eyes to her lips, they came. Her voice was that of an angel, he said, come to guide him home.  And when he grew too tired to breathe, he closed his eyes and smiled.  And died with the sound of her voice echoing through his body.  

News: Monny sweats as she kneels in the rusty dirt to pull weeds. Steepo clings with one hand to her indigo skirt as he uses the other to trace patterns in the soil with a stick. The air is wet today, and the dark grooves he carves look purposeful, as if he is telling a story.  Monny is thinking about Steepo’s birthday, his very first.  She knows they don’t have much, not since the Lupines destroyed the herds, but still, they will celebrate, and the rest of the farmers will come and drink orange flavored mead and toast her son who is already walking. “Won’t that be fun, little one?” she murmers.  Poppi should be back by now, she thinks with some concern.  She tries to contain the butterflies of panic that start to flutter in her stomach.  Was there trouble on the fences? 

It was dark in her little house.  It was always dark.  She remembered moments of sunshine from her childhood, sprites dancing in the sunbeams by the window, but that was before she became the Reader, and the meager hours of daytime were spent in the factory.  She didn’t mind, didn’t especially care if it was morning or evening as she rinsed her hair in the large kitchen sink.  She dried it carefully before combing a handful of flour into the straight locks, turning the lengths from chestnut to grey.  She examined the results in the mirror, lit by a single taper.  She looked like her grandmother, she thought.  She was even beginning to develop a few wrinkles around the eyes, maybe, and a roughness was appearing in her hands even though she was freed from the manual labor of the other factory workers. She tied back her hair and bound her breasts, dressed herself in the androgynous clothing provided by the Supervisors, and headed to work.

News: Poppi stretched his tall frame and searched heavenward for the sun.  The dull globe confirmed his location, the East fence, which was supporting a brand new hole.  He knelt to examine the damage. Lupines?  No. Just dogs looking for food.  Well, weren’t we all?  He’d need to keep an eye on the corn where the dogs liked to scavenge for rodents. He had wood and twine to make the repair, but he’d be late getting home, and the weak sun would be waning.  The Lupines, if they had gotten through the broken fence, would be on the prowl.  He suspected they could smell fear, so he would give them none, and he made his mind go blank with a picture of green trees and a pond and the fish his Uncles had told him about.

Her father and grandmother, by mutual agreement, did not speak to each other unless absolutely necessary, so the silence now that they were both gone was nothing new, although it carried with it a certain amount of emptiness that at times was almost deafening.  She tried to fill the void with singing but found this made her hoarse the next day and also angered the cat, her only companion.  One evening, or maybe it was morning, when the smog was so thick you could feel the grit settling into your skin, a knock came to her door.  She found no one there, but a child-sized guitar missing a string.  A gift from a Supervisor, perhaps, who liked the way her voice played over the single sheet of paper he handed her each morning. She taught herself to play in the chair by the fireplace, and the cat sat at her feet in approval.

News: Poppi should have heard the heavy breath of the Lupines behind him, but he was distracted by the laughter of the farmers who greeted him as he reached his home. Someone had cut down a tree, and a bonfire was growing, casting light on the dirty faces of the farmers who had come.  At one time, the fire would have protected them, before the Lupines became hungry and bold.  Before they developed a taste for human blood and a lust for the kill.  It was Monny who first spotted the pack, although she could not say if it was a flash of white fur or the glow of their eyes that gave them away.  She let out a cry, but they had already sprung on the farmers, their teeth finding flesh before she could scream.  She saw Poppi reach for his son and clasp him to his chest, but then all she saw was blood, dripping blood –black in the moonlight, then red as torn bodies fell towards the fire.

She kept broth of vegetables simmering on the stove whenever she was home.  It was not that she had much of an appetite, but someone might stop by, and she wanted to be hospitable.  No one stopped by.  The cat favored turnips, and she picked out little bits from the pot and fed them to him.  She made bread in misshapen loaves that burned on the outside and were doughy on the inside. Her grandmother used to chastise her for her poor cooking skills, and then she would laugh and promise her that her talents were surely to be discovered outside of the kitchen. Maybe she would be a great beauty and marry a supervisor, and live in one of the fancy houses farther away from the factory, and she would never want for fluffy white bread made by the hands of her husband’s own baker.  Of course, that was before her purpose became apparent, and she became the Reader.

News: Poppi and Steepo are gone now. Monny sits alone, but she does not cry.  The supervisors are sending a hunting party to track down the pack that attacked the farmers.  Please expect a 30% tax to fund this operation. Collectors will be making rounds immediately.

The floor needed sweeping, so she swept it.  The fire was dying, but she saved the last of the fire logs to feed the stove to keep the thinned soup warm.  There had not been any turnips for many weeks, and the cat had left to go hunting and had not returned. She paused by the window as a low howl broke the night’s silence, but it was just the wind.  She was safe.  And tomorrow she would Read.