Notes: This is an excerpt from my Nano Novel, At Setting. The novel is a dystopia that takes place in Strata, a miles high society fashtioned above a war-ravished Earth. In this colony, all girls born with blue eyes must be resgistered with the Council as an "Ide" -- in other words , a girl who has the potential to become the next Idol, a powerful figurehead in Strata. Cora was born with dark blue eyes, but her father has managed to hide them per her now deceased mother's wishes. A full synopsis can be found here.
As we are finishing dinner, we hear a knock at the door and a brooding face peers through the window. My father calls for Cade to enter and in he shuffles with his hands in his pockets and his eyes cast downward. A tall, lithe boy of sixteen, like myself, he wears a loose black shirt and demin pants and his dark hair falls in a shock over his eyes. When he looks up they are a surprising bright blue. It just about killed his mother, they tell the story in the Village, whispered during times of labor by midwives who tell stories to distract their patients. To have eyes that bright blue, wasted on a boy. Still, I think secretly to myself that they are not wasted at all. The contrast of his dark hair is striking, and in a world of sameness, Cade’s eyes are a welcome sight. Though, I am sure to his mother they are only a reminder of what could have been.
“Good evening, Sir,” he says politely to my father. He makes a slight gesture to me, not quite a bow, but some sign of respect for my place as woman of the household.
“Cade, good evening,” my father replies. “Welcome. What brings you here at dinner time? Shouldn’t you be home making those boys mind their mother?”
Cade smiles, a rare sight and one usually reserved for my father. He and Cade are in on a joke -- Cade’s mother, since the death of her husband, has shown quite an interest in my father. It only seems natural
, I heard her murmur to another Village woman once in the market place when she didn’t know that I was listening. He without his wife and never remarried, me with these boys and no man.
She had clucked her tongue on the roof of her mouth. And,
she said, leaning closer into the woman confidentially, I still have a chance. Maybe one more chance next year to bear an Ide for the Village. I could, I feel it. Look at my Cade Put eyes that blue on a girl, and she could be the next Idol.
Cade is the eldest of the four boys, so at first he was embarrassed when his mother would drag him and his brothers along on her courting trips to our bungalow. But my father is a man who can put anyone at ease with a few words. Though he assured me that he had no intentions of remarrying, he did become close with Cade. Sometimes I think he sees him as the boy that he would have liked to have. Other times he views him more as a peer, a man to exchange his thoughts with. There are many afternoons when I come home from the market only to find them bent over with their heads together like the women from the Tower gossiping. What exactly they talk about, I am not sure, but I know that it is better if I don’t know. When I interrupt them, Cade always leaps up and hurries off, saying that he has to get home for dinner.
Tonight is different. “My mother wanted me to come because she is busy feeding the boys. Caleb is sick.” He notices me eyeing him warily and hurries to explain, “Not contagious. Something he ate.” He exchanges a glance with my father. This one I am privy to -- Cade’s mother sometimes smuggles out scraps of food that are discarded by the Tower citizens that she cleans for. But not all the she takes away is fit to eat, it seems.
Cade continues, shifting his eyes to me. I blink faster, an unconscious tick I have developed to shield the eyes that may betray me. It feels like batting my eyes at him, but I push that thought out of my head, glad he can’t see it.
“My mother sent you a gift for your sixteenth birthday.”
He holds out a small object wrapped with rich cloth, another scrap that she has pilfered from the Tower. I don’t know why my hands should tremble a little as I take the bundle and Cade’s hand brushes mine. I weigh the gift in my hand for a moment, gauging its weight and size.
“Go ahead, Cora,” my father encourages me. “Open it.”
Cade nods in agreement and I flush. I am so unaccustomed to being the center of anyone’s attention that even with the small audience of my father and Cade I feel extremely self-conscious.
I undo the twine that holds the folds of cloth together and pull them aside to reveal a dark leather thong attached to an oblong pendant. The pendant shimmers with some kind of stone or jewel – I can’t quite tell, but its iridescence is mesmerizing. It is at the same time every color and not quite any color. It seems deep in a way … deeper and more real and alive than the carved patterns of my mother’s ring.
After I have the thought, I immediately feel guilty. My mother’s ring represents a connection between us, the only one that I can hold and touch. This pendant comes with a price, I fear, for my father – why else would Cade’s mother give me such a precious gift but to garner my father’s attention? And it is precious indeed – relics like this, leftover from the previous times, are few and far between in Strata, especially in the Village. Many of the Tower women still drip with them, but as generations go on, even there they are scarcer.
I look up and meet my father’s eyes, and then, carefully, Cade’s. My father looks exasperated and amused, but I can’t quite read the look on Cade’s face.
“Thank you, Cade. It’s beautiful.”
“Let me see, Cora,” my father studies the stone more closely. He looks up at Cade, “Is that Opal?”
“Yes,” Cade answers, looking abashed. “It was passed down in our family. My mother said that since she has no daughters that she wanted Cora to have it.”
“Cade, I understand that your mother is fond of … Cora,” he raises his eyebrows ironically, “but I don’t know if we can accept this gift. Doesn’t she want to save it for a daughter-in-law? She may have one sooner than she thinks.”
Cade shrugs indifferently. “Maybe. Maybe not. I have a family to take care of already. I don’t know if I need another.”
My father nods thoughtfully. “Well, it’s certainly exquisite. Cora, try it on so we can see how it looks on you.”
I obediently slip the leather thong over my head and the pendant settles at my throat. The pendant is heavier than it looks and the leather thong feels like noose around my neck. Inexplicably, I feel a sense of dread trickle down my spine. I brush the sensation off quickly. I must just leery of Cade’s mother’s intentions, I tell myself.
“Beautiful, my girl, beautiful,” my father smiles fondly.
“It suits you,” Cade says simply. I feel heat rise to my cheeks.
“Cade, why don’t you sit and eat with us,” my father offers quickly. Though he doesn’t look at me, I can tell he senses my embarrassment from across the room. If Cade notices, he gives no indication.
“No, no, I already had dinner. I should be going.”
“Come now! A cup of tea?” my father coaxes.
Cade hesitates. I can tell he is hovering between the chance to talk with my father and his duties at home with his family. Finally he lowers himself to the table with a gruff nod.
“Cora, would you mind putting on a pot of tea?” my father prompts me gently.
“Of course!” my voice sounds too loud and rough in our little dining room. I feel big and clumsy.
As I pass my father in my dash to the kitchen, he looks at me with amusement dancing in his eyes and I respond by shooting him the ferocious look that he always swears is my mother’s, every inch.
Once I am in the kitchen, I feel as if I can breathe again. Immediately I feel stupid for acting so foolishly in front of Cade. I have spent my whole life ill at ease around other people due to my secret but this is something new -- a sudden awareness that he is becoming a man. He looks so much taller and broader than the last time I saw him.
I put the thoughts out of my head and resolve not to act like such a fool again. I don’t have room for the silly games that girls my age are playing. It was already decided years back that it wasn’t likely I would take a spouse. The risks were too great; if I lived with someone other than my father I was sure to be discovered. And besides, is sounded like Cade felt the same way about marriage – not that he is the man I would choose anyway. Not with his mother fawning over my father. Not with the three younger brothers to protect and watch over. No, this was silly. I can’t see why I should behave this juvenilely around Cade. There is no need.
These thoughts steady me as I boil the water to make tea and take down my mother’s china set for our guest. I caress each piece lovingly as I arrange them on the counter. My mother’s things always comfort me, and her simple white china tea service with its border of intricate knots is no exception. Though pieces have been broken, cracked and chipped over the years, it remains a steady presence in our household. I felt more calm and sure now, as I lean against the counter girlishly to examine the types of tea we have. It was a luxury to have a choice other than the common black tea that most of the Village drinks, but since my father has a particular fondness for tea, we kept several varieties in our bungalow. I turn toward the dining room to offer our selections to my father and Cade, but as I reach the doorway, I see that their heads are together and they are talking low and urgently. I don’t know why, but I stop silently and tilted my head to try to catch a piece of their conversation. Never have I dreamed of attempting to overhear what they debate so frequently, but this time I will confess – I want to make sure that there are no marriage plans being concocted for either Cade or his mother. I fell sure this is what they must be talking about, so I am surprised to hear from my father, “But have you made any progress?”
“Some,” Cade answers carefully. “But only a very little. It’s slow going.”
“So long as you are going carefully, that’s all that matters. If you’re caught, you know it means death,” my father sighs wistfully. “It’s been so long. I used to go with Eva very often, as often as we could get away. We were newly wed back then, no one came looking for us very often. But after Cora was born—“
“Cora,” Cade says sharply. He looks straight at me and for a moment I can’t break my gaze from his, though I reflexively wanted to before he spots the dark blue that lies deep in my irises. This time I easily read his face – hostility, anger at my eavesdropping, and a tinge of fear. So this is not idle talk of marriage after all. It is something deeper and more dangerous – very dangerous. And whatever it is, my father is involved too. And here I am, frozen in place with my hand resting on the door frame and my body swinging forward to ask the most trivial of things.
My father shifts quickly in his chair and says calmly, “What is it Cora?” He doesn’t look worried or angry, but his eyes warn me.
“I came to see which tea you would like,” I say, shifting my gaze to the rough hardwood floor. “We have black tea, peppermint and citrus.”
“Black tea is fine,” father answers for Cade. “Run along now, Cora.”
With a jerky nod, I turn and fly into the kitchen. I lean my back up against the wall and slump down a little. I do not know why I should feel like crying. I am not even sure what I have overheard – but it is the secrecy that feels like a betrayal that makes hot tears prickle at my eye lids. I want my mother!
I think fiercely and out of nowhere. She was a part of this too – if she were here, she wouldn’t keep me in the dark. I take off her ring and grip it tightly, as if I could feel her somehow. The pale silver of the ring warms in my hand and calms me. I manage straighten up again just as the kettle starts to whistle from the stove. I close my eyes for a moment as I lift the kettle and picture the look on Cade’s face again. It frightened me a little, but also made me want to reassure him that whatever secret he has with my father is safe with me.
Resolving to put the thoughts from my head until I can question father later, I pour the hot water into the patient china cups and carry them into the living room as if nothing has happened. I see Cade is already standing to leave. I want to tell him that he doesn’t have to go, that he shouldn’t be mad at me. Instead I halfheartedly place the hot cup of seeping tea at the place where he was sitting. I stand beside my father, eyes trained on the ground as they say their goodbyes. It isn’t until Cade turns to walk away that I notice that there is something crumbly and a rich brown caked to the bottom of his boots.