The sob cut through me like a blunt knife, haggard with layers of rust. It sliced roughly, haphazardly, tearing me in half. I choked on the air refusing to enter my lungs. My right hand flew to cover my wailing mouth; this house was too small, the walls too thin.
I could not fight myself; the second scream broke through my tightening fingers, despite my best efforts to keep it restrained. My vision was blurred, my eyes filling with tears before they tipped over the edge. One by one they made the drop, rolling over one another, crashing into their opposition. My entire body quaked with unrestrained sorrow; I had lost all control over my own entity. My limbs were not obeying, my voice taking orders from someone else.
“Alice?” The door flew open, bringing with it the petite form of my younger sister Lily. I should have hidden it; should have told her to leave, leave before she saw it, “No.” Her voice grew quiet as my wailing subsided. Realisation clouded her innocent face with pain. Her rejections continued, her voice growing firmer with each instalment of refusal.
“No! Alice no, not you!” Never before in all my seventeen years had I witnessed Lily appear so ferocious. Her heart lay in a kinder world than she did. Lily’s refusal to accept the obvious threw a dagger deep into my already wounded heart.
Lily ran from my bedroom, darting behind the lavender curtain that hung from the empty doorframe. We had sold our doors three months ago.
“Lily!” I screamed as her red hair disappeared. I sank to the floor, my body crumbling under the pressure of damnation. I dared not look down; dared not face the thing setting my world alight.
My mother appeared in my bedroom with Lily trailing behind her. I knew why they were here, but I couldn’t face them.
“Alice get up.” My mother’s tone was unforgiving; her brown eyes didn’t hold even a suggestion of the burdens harbouring within them, “Now.” You did not refuse my mother; as head mistress of South’s Academy for Young Women, she demanded authority from women and girls alike.
I rose to my feet, surprisingly sturdily. My mother snatched my left hand from behind my back and lifted it to her eyes. Being far sighted meant mother needed my hand to almost graze her nose before she could witness my new markings.
“Alice hush. Lily, fetch the basket from under my bed.” Lily nodded and ran from the small room.
My mother sat wearily on my worn bed before meeting my gaze.
“We won’t let them take you Alice. Girls have avoided it before, you can too.” Her tone was firm, as if she already believed the words she spoke. I did not share the same positivity. The stories of Evaders were no more than myths. However, I nodded, knowing my mother needed reassurance in this time.
As the eldest, my responsibilities were irreplaceable. My mother led a household of five children, all under the age of fourteen. Her job paid better than most, but South was overpopulated. I was beyond lucky to have my own room, well I shared with Macy but she didn’t take up much room; my two sisters shared a room in the attic and my two brothers shared the small alcove off the kitchen. Our father worked in North, as did all the men whose families lived in South; none of us were quite sure what they did in North as women weren’t permitted to leave their home base. Noah and Ben would leave when they turned eighteen, but that was far too far away to even consider worrying about.
As women of South, we were required to find work at eighteen also; I however had been working since I was seven. We were an unusual family to say the least; most families in South had one or two children at most. It was understandable; we were the poorest base, why burden yourself further by having more mouths to feed? My parents didn’t think like that; they understood the hardships of life in South, but they wanted a family, and being poor wasn’t going to stop them.
It worked out relatively nicely; father returned twice a year, on the Dawn of the Sun and the Night of the Moon. We were a happy family, happier than the majority here in South. Our mother had what could only be considered the role of leader of South; our house was forever harbouring lost souls or those who had been forced to sell their last possessions at the Market. So we were all busy.
Lily and Coral aged only fourteen and twelve had acquired the job of maids in our humble abode. Whether it was cleaning or seeing to guests, Lily and Coral were on it. Noah and Ben aged ten and nine were our messengers. From running errands for me to carrying parcels across the town for someone, Noah and Ben were put to good use all over South. Aged only two, Macy had not yet been assigned a role in the Turner household, however there was no doubt in my mind that she would be put to use as soon as she was able.
That leaves only me; and in truth there isn’t a title for what it is I do. I have nursed each of my siblings since Lily was four and I but seven. The house is kept impeccably clean from my elbow grease. I have trained Lily and Coral in all aspects I could. My culinary skills are tested each and every night for various audiences. My sewing kit hauled out when Ben trips on the cobbles, or Noah’s trousers wear thin at the knees. In truth, I am the mother of our house, and my own mother is beyond aware of this fact.
We do not complain. We do not refuse to help. We know we are needed. We know without us, the Turner home would fall apart. Ironic how even with all of our assistance, it still might.
“Here you are mother.” Lily handed my mother the frail basket that held my mother’s few belongings.
“Thank you darling, please fetch your brothers and sisters for dinner.” Lily nodded, aware of her newfound responsibility and my heart broke all over again. I cannot leave them, cannot force my sister to become an adult at such a young age like I was.
I watched as my mother burrowed through the deep basket. Subconsciously, my right hand moved to cover my left, aware that my body was not stable enough to see what is hidden beneath my pale fingers.
“We will hide it Alice. We can cover the marks, no one will notice them. You mustn’t tell a soul. Not Jenny, or Peony. It is bad enough that Lily knows, but by goodness you are lucky it was her who walked in and not Coral. You know the mouth that girl has on her. All of South would know by dawn tomorrow.” My mother was mumbling, and Jane Turner was not a mumbler.
“Mother please, just stop!” Her crooked fingers lynched around a dark pair of gloves as she clenched shut her eyes, “Please mother, I know this is hard, and no one wants this less than I do. You know that; but I can’t – I can’t avoid it, I-,”
“No! I will not let them take you Alice, I will not!”
We sat in silence as time seemed to slow. The muffled shuffling of wooden chairs against our uneven kitchen floor was the only sound to be heard. Neither one of us was willing to meet the other’s gaze. For the first time since I had come home that evening, I dared to glance down at my left hand. There, laying on the pale skin of the surface of my hand was the darkest trail of doom I had ever seen.
It began on my left index finger; an intricate deign of what could only be compared to flower petals. At first they were sharp, points and lines connecting to one another. As the pattern travelled down my finger and onto my hand it grew increasingly detailed. The petals spread into a larger flower dominating almost half of my hand. The dark black markings trailed towards my wrist, flowers sprouting leaves and petals forming a pathway to my arm. The mark ended at my wrist in a daring array of dots and swirls, it was a challenge. The markings were challenging me to rebel, alerting me that they were not finished.
“Mother, Miss Larking and her girls are here. Their window blew in last night and they need somewhere to stay.” Coral had appeared at the door, and in the split second it took for my mind to recognise her voice, my right hand had moved to cover my left. My body was more alert than I was, thankfully.
“Thank you Coral, please tell Rose I will be down in a moment, quickly!” My mother’s affirmative tone had returned, no longer was she the weeping woman determined to fight the system, now she was the leader, the one everyone could turn to. Except me. Nobody could help me.
“Alice, you stay in your room, I will tell everyone you are feeling under the weather, the cold of winter has that effect on some girls. It will also explain why you will be more wrapped up than usual from now on. Okay?” I shook my head, more than slightly aware that my mother was being more than a tad optimistic, “Alice please, we need you here.” I turned my head to meet my mother’s soft, brown eyes. She was right, they did need me. Could I become an Evader?
My mother left, the thought of Noah and Ben alone with Coral and Lily forcing her to turn her attentions elsewhere. I was glad for the solitude. I needed to think, and the only time I could do that, was when I was alone.
My room was small, nothing elaborate or decorative, it was basic. The wallpaper peeled on all four corners of my square room. My bed was barely risen from the floor, the legs has been chopped for fire wood last Moon when times were particularly tough. I sunk into the threadbare blanket and latched onto my flattened pillow. These things belonged to me. This room belonged to me. My family, my friends, my life, belonged to me. I wasn’t about to let some stupid mark take this away from me.
I remembered when they first taught us about the marks in the Academy. I was seven at the time and our teacher had been Miss Campbell. She was young and vibrant back then. She still worked with mother in the Academy, but her once brown hair was entirely gray now, her two sons had moved to North and she was alone. She often visited for dinner and helped with Macy once and a while if I was busy.
It had all sounded like a fairy tale. She made it beautiful, desirable, magical. I struggled to recall her exact words but I remembered exactly how the day had gone.
The classroom had been cold, we were well into Moon and most of the class didn’t have coats. A small fire was burning at the top of the room and all sixteen of the girls were huddled around it. Miss Campbell drew a picture on the blackboard, the chalk squeaking harshly as the picture emerged; soft swirls joined together, dotted here and there. It was beautiful, and of course various hands shot up, all with the same question in mind:
“What is it?” Miss Campbell smiled at our naiveté,
“This, my dears, could be your future if you are very, very lucky.”
She had us enticed by that first sentence, and it only got better. We were told when we became adults a special transformation can occur within our bodies. A very rare portion of the women of our country are born with the special ability to bear children for the men of the Centre. We had all heard stories about the Centre, the large palaces, the parties, the princes and princesses. It was like a real life fairy tale; and we had a chance to be part of it.
If you were one of the lucky ones, you became marked, marked by the magic of the Founders of our country; the first men who had travelled from faraway lands and arrived here. They founded the Centre and their families joined them. Unfortunately, the air of our homeland was different to that of theirs. When their women became pregnant their babies would only be male, and not only that, but they were born without the magic of the Founders.
Of course this story had loose ends that no one seems to tie up; but don’t all stories? The women died out, leaving only the men as holders of the Founder magic. The men knew that eventually their race would die out without their women, and they needed to find a way to continue their magical lineage. So they looked elsewhere, they scoured our lands for women of different species, human women.
They discovered a tribe not far from the site of their Founded Country. The women of the tribe displayed the most unusual markings on their skin; the Founders were intrigued and spent some time with the tribe. They discovered that the markings had only begun to appear in recent months, which just so happened to coincide with the Founder’s arrival in the area.
The Founders were smart men, well educated in various subjects, and they did not believe in coincidences. They convinced the tribe to move to their Founded Country to live. However, the tribe were not like the Founders, they weren’t as intelligent and they didn’t possess any magic. So the Founders could not allow the tribe to live in their beautiful Centre. So they built the four surrounding bases: North, South, East and West.
The tribe continued to grow, populating all four bases, and a rare number of their women displayed the markings. The founders took these women into their Centre and experimented on them, they discovered that they could bear the children of the Founder race, and the children still harboured the Founder magic. Not only that, but male and female Founder children were born. However, when the women became of age, they still could not successfully bear Founder children.
So that is what we were told. That is what we believed; that the girls who grew up and became marked were special. They were chosen and rare and everything little girls wanted to be. I believed it. I wanted it. Until I saw it happen.
South is the largest base. So I didn’t know the girl, but everyone knew her story. I had been running errands with Lily for an entire day, the sun was dipping behind the mountains that surrounded our country and we were heading home.
We were on the outskirts of the town, the houses were smaller, the lanes quieter. Then we saw her. Out of one of the houses on the corner of the street a trolley was pushed. Lily and I met each other’s gazes before I motioned for her to remain silent. We tiptoed closer to the house to investigate the commotion.
Soft sobbing could be heard from two houses down. Two men in unusually fashioned suits were pushing the trolley towards a large car. It wasn’t often anyone from South saw a car. We had no use for them in a town where you could walk anywhere you needed to go and didn’t need to go anywhere you couldn’t walk.
We watched as the trolley was lifted into the large car. The sobbing grew louder as the owner of the house stepped into view. I recognised the woman, but only vaguely. She held her hands to her mouth as she sobbed loudly into her worn sleeves. Another suited man appeared and ushered the woman back into the house. The woman protested for a mere moment, stretching her arms towards the trolley, before she was forcefully pushed into her house.
One of the suited men gave the trolley one last push to heave it into the car. That’s when I saw it. From atop the trolley a pale arm hung. What had been covered so carefully with a white blanket was a person.
The image of that girl’s arm is one I will remember forever, the pale skin so like my own, tarred by one, long red wound running from her wrist to her inner elbow; and even more memorable than that, was the dark black pattern of swirls and dots, sliced in half but still spreading across her skin.