I am walking down a concrete path. I can feel the sun on my bare skin and the warmth of the rock rising through the material of my shoes, making my feet sweat. The Uncles advised us to wear something comfortable as the ceremony would be long. Today is the day we are to be paired with our “husbands”, if you can even call them that.
I cautiously lift my eyes from the ground, getting the best idea I can of where we are. Downtown. If I try hard enough, I can still remember the times my mother brought me here before the war. The soft sound of jazz, people dressed in suits compared to people dressed in casual clothes. I always liked watching people interact and seeing how happy they got around loved ones. Of course, that is all gone now. We live in fear and oppression among the dirty buildings, the barriers, and the houses we must live in. Guards, dressed in white like angels, are posted around the edges of the crowd. They hold electric tasers in their hands like cattle prods. I want nothing more than to reach out and touch the hand of the girl beside me, just to feel someone else’s flesh against mine, but it is too risky. If she is a believer, she will scream. If she is a Lover, she may hold my hand, maybe caress it with her thumb to comfort me. There aren’t many Lovers left. Most were shipped off to the Unholy land during the war. Many are dead, their bodies and bones sat up in store windows as a warning to others. The rest have gone into hiding.
The doors to the Holy Center open and we are forced inside. One of the women tries to run, and none of us turn our heads as we hear the crackling of the taser, the girl’s screams, and the thud of a baton against a skull. We continue through the halls, and they are eerily familiar. We are in the old opera house. Halls once filled with music and laughter are now filled with agonizing silence. They herd us into the auditorium like cattle to the slaughterhouse, and we take our seats.
When Uncle Matthieu takes the stage, there is no clapping, no murmur, no acknowledgement that the man has arrived. “Good afternoon, ladies. Let us recite the laws.”
Collectively, the auditorium speaks. “I am one with God, and He is one with me. I am married to God, and He is married to me. I will not forsake God, or He will forsake me. Amen.” My lips do not move.
The ceremony begins and women are called one by one to the stage. One by one, they are paired off. As my name is called, I timidly make my way to the stage. When I was little, I dreamed of singing up here.
This is not a time to reminisce. I stand the way we are meant to. Eyes down, hands crossed in front, feet together, and lips closed. It is the woman's submissive state, the way God envisioned us. I can hear shoes clacking away at the wooden stage. They are too broad to be heels, though heels are forbidden anyway. I make a point to look at the strange shoes on the stage. They are black, shiny, men's dress shoes. My heart falls through my stomach and onto the floor.
I was never treated well by the Holy. As the child of two lovers, I am deemed "unholy". "Unholy" children are treated as less than human by anyone with a head inflated enough to believe they are superior, and we are forced into extensive therapy methods that are meant to "cleanse our body of the poisonous love put there by the Devil himself". Apparently, as adults, this does not cease.
"Colonel, sir. Your wife." Uncle Matthieu bows, and for a moment, I can see his fat, red face. "Raise your eyes, child." I do as told, too much risk in rebelling. The Colonel is younger than I expected, but the war has drilled lines into his face. Lines of worry, of stress. The same stress is evident in his hair, brown becoming grey, a mixture that reminds me of sand. He bends at the waist and I curtsy in return. He is handsome, I think, with a strong jaw and a body to match. The voice of the Uncle speaks once more. "May the Lord guide you."
The Colonel nods curtly at him and walks past me. I follow like an obedient puppy follows its master. As we walk, he is several steps in front of me. "You shan't walk beside your husband, for if you touch, you will be damned."
The light of the sun is blinding as it hits my eyes. I allow those same eyes to wander, watching the guards pace along the barriers. My mother told me when the Holy first arrived that this war would not last long, that surely the President would do something. My father said the President was a moron, he was soft.
In the end, my father was right. The Holy stormed Washington D.C., and 15 hours later, the President turned over power. The Holy shot the Senate and the Court to eliminate resistance. Killing is a sin, unless you're doing "God's work", I guess.
The Colonel's loft is roomy. There are three bedrooms: one for him, one for our guests (should we have any), and the smallest is mine. He leads me to the den. The walls are painted red to match the furniture. The color makes me uncomfortable. It is the color of blood. He tells me to sit, and I do. The cushions on the armchair by the fireplace are soft, and I think of how many others have sat here.
I am not the Colonel's first wife, nor his second. No one knows what happened to the others. Here, that means you're either in the unholy land or dead. I'm not sure which is worse.
"Allow me to set some ground rules." His voice is sour, but my face does not flinch. "You will answer directly to me. You will not go into any room besides your own without my permission. If these rules are not followed, there will be consequences. Is that understood?"
The next three weeks in the house are long. I spend my days cooking and cleaning. Sometimes, I sit in the den and pretend I don't hear the Colonel on the phone with his superior. From my eavesdropping, I know how close the rebels have gotten to our borders, how many were shot down.
The Colonel and I have eaten, and I have returned to the armchair by the fireplace. The Colonel sits across from me, his nose buried in a Holy newspaper. I can hear a jazz record playing softly, one my mother used to play. I lift my eyes from my skirt to look at my husband, wondering if he can hear it too. I take care not to notice how every muscle looks wrapped in the fabric of his suit, how blue his eyes look in the orange light of the setting sun, how those same eyes stare into mine from over the top of the newspaper.
I turn my head to hide my reddened face. I should not allow my mind to wander to such dark, unholy places. "Do you hear the music, Sir? Someone has a record." Perhaps he will forgive my mistake, my sin. I could be severely punished for looking into the eyes of my husband.
He sets the paper in his lap and listens closely. "I can't hear anything." I swear I see him smile, but it is gone just as fast. I listen for the music again, and it is still there. The shark bites, with his teeth, dear. The song seems to get louder. The Colonel makes a noise, but covers it with a cough. I begin to believe he really cannot hear it. Surely he would have done something, as music is a forbidden thing.
I feel my eyes beginning to drift closed as the sun sinks lower in the sky, turning it shades of orange, then pink, then dark purple. The Colonel does not look at me as I stand, and I do not look at him. "Goodnight," I manage with a sigh. My brain aches, and my feet barely leave the wood floor as I walk to my room. The mattress and pillow are soft. They lead me into a dark, dreamless sleep. I wish it would last forever.
The next morning brings rain. I lay in bed, listening to the sound of the water hitting the glass, then running down the side of the house. For a moment, I imagine I am back in my own house, my dog keeping my legs warm with his head. It is a peaceful memory. I don't like to imagine what they did to my poor dog when my family was caught by the Holy.
When I open my bedroom door, I smell the familiar scent of bacon. The smell is stronger in the kitchen, but the sight of the Colonel leaning over the stove makes my stomach turn. Without looking at me, he speaks. "You're late."
I gulp, nodding helplessly. "Yes, sir. I'm sorry." He does not turn his head away from the pan on the stove. I nervously await a blow or a yell. There is nothing. I decide to start on my daily chores. It isn't until I begin to walk away that he speaks.
"Where are you going? Eat." There is no concern in his voice. I turn back to him, confusion written across my face. "I am not like the Uncles, I won't starve you because you made a mistake." I still do not take a seat, and I see he jaw clench under his skin. "Sit and eat before I change my mind." His voice is raised now. I sit quickly, my dress catching on the edge of the table.
The Colonel places a full plate of food in front of me and I thankfully begin eating. He sits and does the same, shoveling spoonful after spoonful into his mouth. I manage to tear my eyes away from his face, staring down at the eggs in front of me. Suddenly, I am not hungry. His gruff voice breaks me from my reverie as he speaks, his mouth full of food. "Is that the only dress you have?" He gestures with his fork to the tattered green rags I wear. I nod humbly, and he grunts in response.
"You'll buy a new one today. We have a dinner to go to tonight. Every guy in the army will be there with their wives. I won't have mine showing up in an over-sized garbage bag." His words are harsh, but his voice is so soft I can't tell the difference. He stands and picks up my plate before I am done eating. His hand grazes my wrist and I feel as though I have burst into flames. Strange, I kind of enjoy it. "Go, before the rain picks back up."
The dress shops is nearly empty when I arrive. An elderly woman comes to my aide. He face is sunken in, and the wrinkles in her forehead and around her puffy eyes are deep. A yellowing bruise is prominent under her eye, but she tries her best to hide it. I cannot help but notice her eyes nervously fluttering between me and the guards at the door. "Blessed day, miss. How may I help you?" Her voice is hoarse, but robotic.
"Blessed day. My husband has sent me for a dress for the night's military dinner." I speak softly, but at the mention of the military, the guards are at my side. I feel the hairs on my neck begin to stand as I glance down at their weapons. "Purple, if you can, please." I smile slightly, and the woman nods eagerly.
"You heard her. Move!" One of the guards yell, making both the woman and me jump out of our skins. She winces and disappears behind the racks. The guards make it hard for me to breathe, but I do my best not to act nervous. "You're the Colonel's wife, aren't you?"
"Yes, I am."
"Good man, the colonel."
My breath catches in my throat as I try to think of an acceptable answer. If by that, you mean he is quite possibly the most attractive man, yet the rudest, I have ever met, then yes. "He is... very in tune with the Lord."
I sigh in relief as the woman comes back with a dress. She leads me away from the guards and toward a fitting room. "Here you are, miss. Let me know when you've finished." I nod slightly and she hands me the dress, closing the door. I look at myself in the mirror. I can hardly recognize myself. Something seems... off. I shake the thought and undress. My ribs show through my skin and I think of my time in the School, how many meals I was deprived. I don't turn around. I'm not sure I would handle seeing the scars from the whips on my back. My eyes well with tears as I remember the pain.
I squeeze my eyes shut to purge the memory from my mind. I run my fingertips over the fabric of the dress, and a small smile comes to my face. I slip it on, and the smile grows. The top is form-fitting, but not suffocating. The sleeves reach my wrists, and the bottom reaches my feet and is flowy. I smooth out my hair, feeling just for a moment as though I am the prettiest woman in the world.
The woman knocks, then opens the door. Her eyes light up. "Oh, you look so lovely, dear." She whispers, barely audible. Then, louder, "Will you be buying it?"
I nod, handing her the money. "I'll wear it out. Thank you."
When I arrive at home, the Colonel is not there. There is a note on the dining room table that reads, "Dinner is at 8:00 sharp. Be ready at 7:30, or I will leave you here." I sigh and shake my head slightly, heading up to my room. I might as well freshen up before what I am assuming will be the night of my life.