They lined us up, taped our eyes and ears shut, put our hands together like in prayer and wrapped them tight with ribbon made of silk so it wouldn’t chafe. They took away our names and gave us each a number instead, because names were letters and letters were numbers and everything was numbers by then and numbers were the language of God.
We stood with our backs to the monolith, the one in the center of Civil Square, the one now painted with a mural of children playing in a meadow full of daisies, pink and yellow, at least we’re told they’re daisies, little dots and daubs in a multipronged circular shape. Some of us leaned back against the rough stone because we needed support. Our legs couldn’t hold us. They quivered and quaked and threatened to crumble beneath us.
Our numbers were called off, one at a time, and we were made to step forward and speak the oath: “All things in reality are formed from disillusion. There is no virtue in the virtual. The abstract is a distraction from the tangible, immutable reality. Existence can only be obtained by knowing reality.”
We repeated after someone first; a guttural voiced older woman, but they made us say it in rounds until we all had it memorized and could recite it in unison. Then they cut the ribbon from our hands and kissed our palms, removed the tape from our eyes and ears, smeared cold red and blue and gold colored oozes across our foreheads and cheeks and told us, “You are now free.”
And this we believed.
I was in my eighteenth year when I joined Sol-Eterna. The war had only just ended then, the ink on the treatise was still yet dried but the land was already cleaved and divided, the people on and amongst it splintered and lost. At the time, I was young enough to forget why the first bombs had fallen, old enough to remember how the sky had lit red and orange and the earth had trembled beneath my feet when the bombs all hit, and had seen enough years of the war to not truly know what the world could be like when the fire had ceased.
Suicide was on a rise amongst those between ten and forty-five years of age. The virtual world was constantly bombarding them, information overwhelmed, it came from all directions, in vivid colors on bright displays. Abstract constructions, images flashing in and out of existence without reference, ideas without edification, thoughts were birthed and killed in the blink of an eye. Television had become more real than reality, the people and places on the screen looked more concrete and pure than the true, tangible world around them.
My sister had laid in the bathtub and bled her wrists dry when she was sixteen and I, only twelve, had watched as my mother scrubbed the porcelain clean, rinsing all remnants of the deed down the drain. On the mirror had been written: “If everything can be erased with the touch of a button what remains to prove it ever existed. Is anything real anymore?”
“No, no, no…” my mother had chanted as she worked, on her knees, her back hunched, gnarled by pain and muscles strained, her eyes shadowed and grave, the features of her face hard-lined then and forevermore.
When our oath was spoken, our commitment validated and assured, we were taken to the compound, stripped of all our personal belongings, though most of us had brought none but the clothes on our back, and given faded gray cloth to wear. They were the same for everyone, a single garment like a long sleeveless shirt. For our feet we were given rubber cut from old tires strung with woven fibers. Our hair was clipped down to the scalp, leaving only grisly stubbles. There was a bed in the compound marked at its foot on the concrete floor with our number. They were hard spring mattresses flung on the floor and saddled with a thin white sheet.
In the mornings, we worked the fields which stretched onto forever, plots of dirt that was tightly compressed, dried and cracking. We were given little metal trowels – their triangle heads coated in a thin layer of rust – and made to crawl along the ground on bare hands and knees, chiseling away, breaking up the hard dirt for hours as the sun weighed down on us. Sweat drenched our gray cloth, causing it to cling thick to our forms. Our skin and lips chapped, split, and spilled over with blood. We were given sips of water every forty-five minutes or more, and we paused for meals every four or five hours. To eat we were given whitish, doughy globs made from milled rice. Sometimes we were given freeze-dried slices of apple. Every other day at the last meal we were given a spoonful of peanut butter.
At night, we were taught by Sol-Eterna mentors. Reality is everything, and only that which is concrete. They held up a book and asked us, “Is this book reality?” And we answered, uncertain, that it was not. “Yes it is,” they said, then asked, “Are the words written inside of it reality?” And we answered, certain, that they were. “No, they are not,” they said, “There words are abstractions, without concrete form. They have no true value and are, therefore, not reality.”
And this we believed.
My father had been one of the first killed in the Hedonist Genocides. If I close my eyes, sometimes, I can still recall the feel of his calloused hand as it rest on my bare shoulder, whilst we stared up at the blackened heavens exploding with sizzling sprays of color on a summer day otherwise long since faded from memory. I used to think that this was strength, my father’s hand, but then Sol-Eterna defined and standardized such abstracts and I was taught reality.
My mother owned one picture of my father, and I carried it with me for a time. His jaw had been squared, his nose pronounced, jutting far outward and very broad. His eyes in the image were a creamy blue color, though I seemed to remember them being a brighter turquoise when I was a child. He used to read me poems, his voice had been deep and harsh but I can never quite recall its proper timbre, “…shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…”
When the war ended I had to stow the picture away with the rest of my father’s belongings. First, I locked them in a storage unit but when martial law was enacted during the Seventy Days of Tears, and all civilian property was subject to search and seizure, I moved them to the apartment of an old family friend. He had served in the war at officer status and, his loyalties without question, was exempt from the searches. Later, when I joined Sol-Eterna, I went back and burned everything.
At the compound, we were not given calendars or any means of marking off the passage of time. Some attempted to count the days but quickly lost track as night melded into day and back again. Most of us saw no need to bother. Even before Sol-Eterna taught us, we knew that time was not concrete, it was not reality. This we had learned long ago, when the fires poured from the sky, when the sirens screamed agony in the stale air, when we watched our family, our friends, people we knew and that we loved before we were taught that love was not reality, waver in and out of existence.
And this we believed.
Sometimes we cried in the compound at night. We would listen to one another, sobbing in the darkness, but never would we go to one another and offer comfort. Comfort was an abstract. Sorrow was reality. When suicides happened in the compound, though there were only a handful they happened often enough to become accustomed to, we knew that it was only because those who did it were not strong enough to know reality, and validated ourselves with the knowledge that we were strong and looked forward to one day existing in the face of their ceasing to exist.
My sister had been a dancer, it was this one thing about her that had remained in my mind for some time even as everything else faded and disappeared until I no longer knew who she had been and how she had looked. If I concentrated I could recall music and glimpse a shadowy memory of her lithe form gliding across the floor of our family room in the house we lived in before the war started and we had to flee when the bombs fell. She would show me how to twirl and twist and sashay and we would perform for our mother and father as they sat on the couch wound in each other’s arms, smiling at us with glistening white teeth. It is only their teeth that I remember.
It was on the floor of this family room that we sat and watched the television as the newscaster, a woman that appeared more beautiful and real than any woman I had ever before and after seen standing in reality, told us that the threat of war was eminent. A clock wound down the hours, minutes, seconds until the bombs would fall. My father put on music and asked my sister to dance. My mother went upstairs to the bedrooms and packed our clothes in bags as she wept. I watched for that last time as my sister twirled and twisted and sashayed.
Eventually, our bodies became wafer-thin and hard. The skin on our hands, knees, feet became thick and rough and dark in color. Our skin became stained olive and gold colored, the mark of our ageless struggles with dried and cracked dirt. We no longer bled or sweat. We worked, we ate, we drank. Our Sol-Eterna mentors asked us questions, we answered neither certain nor uncertain, and they told us, “Now you know reality.”
And this we believed.
They took us into the shower area, where we had before been forcefully scrubbed with cold water that ripped into our skin, and let us languish in warm waterfall but we were not accustomed to the feel and did not linger long. We were stripped of our gray garments and given clothes all at once foreign and familiar: pants made of blue canvas and shirts of all colors cut from textile made of soft cotton fibers. We were taken from the compound then.
They loaded us on buses, white inside and out, and drove us into the city. All around was the virtual but we knew reality now and saw no value in its illusions. We were brought to the dormitories, clusters of slate gray buildings, in the center of the city, and assigned rooms. We were given a roommate each, those who had been taught reality by Sol-Eterna before us and that would ease our transition into existence.
It was our roommates that took our numbers and gave us back our names: “Tabitha, welcome to reality.”