7 December 2012

Hope Rose by Stacey Malacari

Hope Rose by Stacey Malacari (22)

From the sky, they looked like two phantom snakes, fossilised and phallic, silently sliding across the earth. At ground level they were a set of solemn marching girls, smoke blurring their faces and covering their hoods with ash. Laced with the aftertaste of pornographic slaughter, the air was enough to make the bird of Hope flee the scene. The dying sun sent sickly, sallow shadows stretching from each pair of feet to the door of the hall. Hazel pushed her hood back as she entered the hall and didn’t wipe her muddy boots. The Dolyhog wiped her own overgrown feet twice.

The boys were already inside, sitting to the left, cloaks flowing over their florid shoulders. The girls took their place to the right and folded their hands in their laps. High ceilings disappeared into the fading light. Hazel tried not to imagine the eyes hiding in those shadowed beams. She kept her focus forward, nose parallel with the girls beside her.

The Dolyhog took her place next to the Sisters and Brothers of the Order, at the front of the room. The students all sat in silence, their voices banned from being heard. The slow hand of the clock crept its way between numbers, but time rarely passed here.

The Brothers smirked. The Sisters scowled.

Holes were poked in the blanket of silence by the low drone of the Wailers. Hazel strum-strummed inside her head, anything to distract her from the noises of the Outside until the sermon began. She didn’t know any songs. So she strum-strummed, in time with the beat of blood in her throat.

As the Wailers’ cries were replaced by the humdrum voice of the Dolyhog, Hazel turned her attention to the scrawling on the desk before her. Small marks, some red, some blue, some black. Lines and circles. Sharp edges and dotted ends. She tried to make sense of them all, to read something, anything. The Dolyhog’s lecture went on and on, thick in Hazel’s ears like porridge, but the shapes on the desk had all her attention.

A lash on the wrist by Brother Three’s whip. Eyes forward, eyes forward.

Hazel’s fingers retreated from their mission of tracing the lettering. She could sense the boys watching her, their faces disfigured by their emotions. She would be picked last for reproduction training that day. This small scrap of learned knowledge, and not Brother Three’s whip, kept her fingers from the lettering for now.

Willow, with her everything as it should be, was picked first for training. The Dolyhog lurked nearby, watching, watching. Every so often she would nod. Yes, good. Hazel never understood why it was good. They did the same thing every day. If this was good, what was bad?

Hazel was picked last. In and out, in and out. Legs wider please, Hazel.  Yes, good.

As Hazel sat up from the bench, remembering to force a smile, she noticed she wasn’t last after all. A new star had appeared in the sky. Hazel liked to watch the stars, the real stars, that is. The Dolyhog wouldn’t teach them the stars’ names, but she couldn’t stop Hazel inventing her own. She tried to remember all the names when she was on the bench each day. Distractions, always. This girl, this new star, was unlike the others that Hazel floated with.

The girl’s hair flowed in hazy wisps, hard for the eye to focus on, curls rising from her shoulders like the blue smoke from Brother Three’s cigarettes. Her eyes were lights, searching the room, alert and quick. Her lips were stained a dark purple, like the plums rotting at the base of the trees outside, juice flowing over virgin ground. No one here looked like her. She looked like an Outsider, though she was wearing the same black uniform as Hazel.

Hazel forgot to fix her skirt. Sister Eight slapped her thighs with her switch. Rose, on the bench. Hazel, leave now. The scent of guiltless gratification rising from the Dolyhog’s pores.

Rose watched Hazel go, then lay on the bench. Sister Eight whipped Rose’s already bruised thighs. Brother Ten lectured as he trained her. In and out, in and out. This will fix you. Yes, great, the Dolyhog said.

The stars that night were clouded in smog. The burnings were getting worse. The sticky heat made it easy to begin a Cleanse, but hard to stop it. The Dolyhog liked this; relished the thought of striking a sizzling match. Hazel didn’t like that she couldn’t see her stars. Hazel found Rose was watching her.

The cardinal-coloured night sliced through Rose’s hair, splashing blood-soaked apparitions onto the wooden walls behind her. Hazel faltered, the Dolyhogs lectures on Hell making her lungs deflate, but she didn’t look away.

Rose reached out a hand toward Hazel. Hazel didn’t know how to respond. Touching only occurred one way here. In and out. With the boys who smelt of cold metal fences.

The hand hung in the air, like frost clinging to the rafters. Lazy moonlight stuttered through the smog, interrupting the scene. Hazel blinked and the hand was down again, Rose’s eyes rolled to the floor. The space where her hand had been became an abyss, cold celestial fingers tugging the moment into oblivion.

Hazel’s image of Rose became distorted, as though she were lying on the ocean floor, looking up through the water column at the sun. Hazel had never seen the ocean before, but she had learned about it, once. It’s wet and cold and not for any of you, the Dolyhog had told them. Salmon though, she said to nobody in particular, salmon are fine examples of His work. They do as they should, no exceptions. Hazel often wondered what salmon did.

The distance between the girls began to stretch and blur. Rose faded into the black spaces behind the stars. Hazel reached out her own hand into the darkness. The welt on her wrist throbbed. The Wailers cries rose to a peak.

Finger tips connected in the frame of the window. Rose’s searching eyes connected with Hazel’s wanderlust own.

Hazel recognised a point in that touch. A moment where clock hands meant something and Hope stretched out her wings. A thirst for a life outside the window erupted on Hazel’s tongue. Rose became a star again, pulled back into the light by Hazel’s own tumble through space.

Sister Five locked the door shut. Hazel lay still in her bed, her fingertips pressed against her ears, riding the ebb and flow of evening existence.

Rose cracked her white knuckles beneath the white sheets.  The Outside glowed orange on the horizon brighter than the sunrise, confusing the few cicadas that still survived out there.

In the morning the smoke had burnt away. The grass had burnt away. The cicadas had burnt away. Despite this, Hazel saw blue in the sky and she tipped her head around and imagined it to be the sea.

Sister Five hit her across the cheek. One did not smile at the blue sky. Or the sea. Or the sky pretending to be the sea. Hazel’s cheek bled. Yes, good.

Rose did not march with the rest of the girls. The boys did not wear their cloaks. Hazel only noticed the first anomaly.

At breakfast, the tap-tapping of Hazel’s knife against the bowl earned her another flog on the wrist. The boys without cloaks on shook their heads at her. The Dolyhog filled the boys’ bowls with seconds. Hazel’s bowl was taken away. She did not mind that her knife was forgotten about.

Rose joined the others on the march to the hall. The sun was spilling tears of sulphur that day, so everyone had their goggles on. Hazel began to brace herself for a slap as she thought about wanting to see Rose’s eyes. Then she remembered the Dolyhog couldn’t read minds, another secret knowledge Hazel possessed. So she pictured Rose’s upturned eyes and let her own fingertips scrape against each other beneath her robes.

With goggles and hoods off, Hazel made sure she was sitting next to Rose. The lettering on the desk faded into the woodwork, her attention entirely on the in and out, in and out of Rose’s breathing. The hands of the clock reached a spot where they made a clunk-clunking noise and the wordless tune rose inside Hazel’s chest.

Rose’s face was covered in red marks. Hazel touched her own cheek and received a whack on the arm for it.  Brother Nine was using his barbed switch. Rose flinched as the barb tugged on Hazel’s pale skin. Brother Nine gave her two for flinching.

The Dolyhog’s words were not regular that day. Hazel found her ears paying attention for once. The Dolyhog was speaking of the Outside, of the Wailers, of the unnatural lives that must be Cleansed. Hazel wondered what unnatural things there were. She also wondered if Sister Two did something special to make her hair stand on end like that.

As Hazel absorbed the Dolyhog’s words, she thought that the Outside sounded better than switches and in and out, Sister Five and her lock and key. Just across the burning fields, maybe there was a real sea.

Rose was trembling beside Hazel.

Hazel slid her hand slowly along the bench, concealed by the folds of her cloak, like a snail creeping across the window pane in the night.

Rose did the same, a little faster, a liberty cashed-in.

Hazel wondered if Rose knew of the unnatural things. If she had her own secret knowledge, just like Hazel knew that the window in the bedroom could be opened with a butter knife.

Rose wondered if Hazel knew how to open locked windows.

As daylight was swallowed by the Wailers, Hazel and Rose sat in their beds, inhaling the sounds of the night. The other girls in the dorm were unaware of the heat of Hazel’s skin, but Rose could taste every spike in temperature, like salt on the lips.

Gentle sighs and the stretching of limbs signalled the time for sleep. For Hazel and Rose, these signalled the time to move.

The hum of nerves, the numbing of knees.

The thickness of the tongue at such moments as these.

Hazel almost dropped the knife imaging how Rose’s voice may sound.

Rose almost tripped out of the window as she watched Hazel’s breath became a visible spectre, trickling out over her teeth.

The sky was a mass of stars and satellites, space stations and meteors all whirling above them like a fireworks display. Hazel ran for the first time in her entire life, her bones snapping to attention. Hands gripped tightly together as they took flight. The fields of death loomed before them as they puffed along in time to the crunch-crunching of their shoes.

Behind them the window slammed shut.

Rose stopped running and pulled Hazel in toward her body.

Purple-stained lips connected with Hazel’s pale pink ones. Those letters swirling before Hazel’s eyes became legible; the cries of the Wailers became song.

Then, action. The Order storming the grounds.

Hazel and Rose, fingers still linked. Fire before them, gunshots behind.

Two pairs of feet running toward the sea.

Just like salmon, Rose said.