The forest depths are dark and cool, its mists shrouding it from outsider’s views. It remains still, but with your bare feet buried in the dirt and grass, one can feel its radiating pulse. And even though she grew up respecting the power of God, Eve knew all along that his power could not breech those resilient oaks. While she mere mortals crumbled under the weight of god’s fury, the trees thrived and grew taller as they soaked up the blood of men through their enormous roots.
This secret idea was something that could get eve into a lot of trouble, both with her father and the clergy. “God’s fury erupted and calmed over one hundred years ago but after the wind calmed, the earth ceased to shake, and the fires fizzed out, the survivors cried out for forgiveness for whatever awful sin they had committed. The weak starved, the pure prayed, and after many more years of struggle and death, men became one with God once more. They learned that their sin was that of Adam and Eve’s: we thirst for too much knowledge. We now have harmony in our little town, for God is happy with our ignorance once more. We realize there is much to be discovered, but if God wishes us not to discover it, we will not.”
This was a spiel that Eve had read time and time again, from one of the few books in existence. She was literate enough to read these words fluently, as well as the hymnal and Bible she owned. If a word did not exist in any of this material, she, nor anyone else she knew, would be able to recognize its letter written on paper. All the books and machines from a time Before were destroyed. Everything is well, now that the clergy take care of the people.
Eve sits, mesmerized by the forest, while they boy next door speak of politics and the church. He means well, but he’s only repeating the words of his father, the clergyman, which echo her father’s, the bishop. She brushes her fingers against his, forcing his words to cease tumbling from his lips. When she finally tears her lingering gaze from the forest, she sees a small smile lighting up Will’s grey green eyes. His soft hands wrap around hers, bringing them to press against his lips. The warmth pulls her from her reverie, and when she smiles back at him, she’s entirely forgotten her previous blasphemous thoughts. She can only see this forbidden moment.
After they eat, they walk back to their adjacent houses. Will automatically shadows her as she crosses through the grass, skirts along the vegetable gardens, and up only the winder decorated back porch. The path is travelled so frequently that grass no longer grows in their wake. They exchange routine goodbyes, but there is no more physical contact. Eve hasn’t so much as brushed Will since they were in sight of her house. The path cutting across Eve’s yard and through Will’s is less trampled, for he is the only one who takes it as he does now.
It is Sunday, otherwise they would usually go into town, window shop, see a few familiar faces. But no one was allowed to work on Sunday besides the clergy men, who ran the services for the rest of the town.
Eve stepped into the house, lifting her skirt a little higher to wipe the loose grass and dewy mud onto the mat. Sitting at the glass table are her parents – aging, their muted colors and loos skin contrasting vibrantly from Eve’s blushed cheeks and pink dress. They’re eating lunch, only a tad later because her father must have been finishing a lengthy service. He always leaves work to eat with his wife and daughter, even on Sundays when many bishops frown down upon that.
They smile up at her from where they sit. “How is Will, sweetie?” her mom asks kindly.
“Where did you kids run off to today?” Her dad responds, not waiting for an answer to the previous question.
“Just out back for a picnic,” she says without a thought, since that is their usual custom. “It was just such a nice day.” She looks curiously at the ceramic places that she used to eat on so frequently. She hasn't had lunch with her mom and dad for years now -- ever since it was announced that she and Will were to be wed, they ate every midday meal together. Their father's had made the announcement official when they were thirteen, even though nearly everyone knew it was going to happen since they were born. These plates caused a small twinge of nostalgia deep in her stomach, but she tried to forget about it. She still had a long time to live with her parents, and even when she married Will, they would probably build a house nearby. The two families combined had plenty of unused land.
The houses here were lumpy and peculiar ever since God's Fury. Eve knew this because there were still a few skeletons of houses from Before scattered out in the wilderness, but still on the outskirts of the forest. But in her town, they began small -- two or three rooms, gardens out front and back, and a place to sit outside. They grew slowly over time -- a room to store meat that they could hunt, an extra closet, a larger kitchen. Eventually as the wife and husband began to have children, larger lumps were added to the original rooms. Eve, as did many other girls her age, drew pictures of their dream homes, no two looking even remotely similar. To this day, though she is nearly an adult, she knows exactly how she and Will will create their home.
Her parents continue their conversation without her, and Eve walks to her room to change into something more comfortable than her white sandals, even though they do make her feet seem petite. Hours later, dinner is served on china plates that do not resemble to ceramic lunch plates, and Eve's parents tell her that they are leaving early for an important clergy meeting. Even now, the stable boys are cleaning the carriage. She sleeps soundly in her large bed filled with the softest pillows her parents could find.
Eve sleeps easily until mid morning with no one to disturb her downstairs. She slips on her silk robe, and as she drifts down the carpeted steps into the kitchen she wonders what could possibly be taking her mother and father so long. These clergy meetings aren't far away, and they hardly speak for long. Her parents left before dawn broke, hours ago. She glances out the window, but the stable doors are still wide open and waiting for the return of its inhabitants.
Only when there is a rapping at the door does Eve think that she should be worried. She pulls a sweater and jeans on before opening the door, since she does not know what stranger could be standing in front of her. Her parents wouldn’t knock, they have their own keys. Only when she’s appropriately covered does she slid across the wood to the door, playing with the sticky lock and key, and finally opening the heavy door.
Well, it most certainly was not her parents – far from it, in fact. Technically, the two brutish men standing in her doorway were clergymen, but only in the loosest sense. They only worked for the clergy, doing their biding outside the churches. It was apparent by the stench of moonshine that they did not abide by the laws of God nor try to keep up any sort of appearance. These men wore faded blue uniforms and nickel badges to identify them as what the merchants called nicks – the current day police force.
“My father’s not home right now,” she says, resting her arm on the doorframe. “But he should be back soon. Can I get y’all anything to drink in the meantime?”
“Bishop Caldwell’s not coming home, sweetheart,” the larger man said, pushing his way past her anyway.
The lankier nick seemed a little more apologetic. “He doesn’t mean to be so brash, ma’am. He’s been doing this job for a long time, and it’s not often that we come into a clergyman’s house.”
“S’not a clergyman’s house anymore. The church’s is hereby repossessing it for His uses, whatever they may be.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Eve supports herself against the railing of the staircase. “Where are my parents?”
“There was a riot in the merchant’s downtown. Lots of carriages were broken, lots of people were trampled.”
“Your parents are dead, miss,” the shorter Nick explains. “I’m sorry.”
Eve swallows, and blinks harshly. She had just seen her parents the night before, just hours ago. They ate on china plates around the table, just like they always did. And they would tonight, too. They had to. They weren’t dead.
“You’re wrong,” she says softly, firmly. She knows they’re lying.
The nicks ignored her, and continued to read off the rolled parchment. “’This house has been repossessed’ already read that... hmm. Oh, here we go: ‘the remaining relative no longer receives benefits nor status as being related or married to a member of the clergy or church. The remaining relative will find work within the next ten days, or he or she will be placed in a work facility for the amount of time the church deems appropriate, up to but not exclusively the remainder of his or her days. The remaining relative will move out of his or her residence in thirty days or less, with all belongings removed from the premises. With recently unemployed status, the remaining relative will hence be on parole, and will be checked on biweekly by a member of the clergy. Do you have any questions?”
Eve stayed silent, and the nicks must have taken this as a no. They let themselves out the door, and she continue to stare at a fixed point, unable to blink or look away. The only thought crossing her mind was that these types of things did not happen to clergymen. Riots, murders, starvation, those were all things that happened in the merchant’s district, not the clergy’s. Never the clergy.
Nearly half an hour later, somebody was rapping on the door from the back porch. Eve’s immediate thought was that her parents had made it back, though when she peered around the corner she only saw Will, holding a handful of flowers he must have clipped from his mother’s garden on the way over. But Eve must wait for her parents to return, so she slips back around the corner and up the stairs to her bedroom, whose windows have a spacious view of the dirt driveway.
Night passes with hardly any food or rest, and when noon comes once more, she hears Will knocking on the door once again. This time he’s louder, more insistent, and even tries the door to see if it opens. Eve’s lip curls into a snarl. Would Priest Abner not have told his son what had occurred? Would he not have said that Eve was now undesirable, and their engagement now null? Her smooth features coil into those of ugly anger, and she trudges into her parents’ old bedroom. She shuffled through her father’s drawers, pulling out his causal trousers and a white shirt, something fit for her to work in. The pants are large, but tucked into her riding boots it is unnoticeable.
Will Abner is long gone by the time Eve pulls the key out of the front door, locks in behind her, and heads to the stables. The stable boys had headed home, apparently already knowing that they would no longer be paid at the home they were in. She roughly tosses a saddle onto the only horse left to her name, and after a lot of trial and error, is sitting pretty on its back. From here, her travel is easy – the road only leads to two places, and if she avoids the town square where the clergy and their families mingle, Eve is trotting towards the merchant’s sector. If she is to find work, this is where it would be.
Eve vaguely remembers going through the merchant’s sector before, seeing it through the dusty windows of her parents’ carriage. No grass grew here – not near the wooden buildings nor in the wide street filled with people who parted for the Caldwell family. They shielded the sun from their tanned faces to scowl up at them. But Eve remembers clearly being more interested in the dolls inside the carriage than those outside.
Now, nobody parts for her except to not be trampled by the horse. The dirt gets in her lungs, and she’s daydreaming about something cold to drink with all these workmen’s layers stifling her. She notices that very few women here wear skirts or dresses, and the ones that do are plastered in white powder that fills the natural crevices of their faces. Eve tries to avoid looking at these women.
The largest wooden building is the first Eve passes. It needs no sign: it is the busiest place in town, those walking in look drained and those stumbling out are flushed from the neck up. It only reinforces everything her father had ever told Eve about the merchants: they are naturally filled with more sin than the Caldwells, or the Abners, or Cardinal Ayers.
Not knowing where to begin, Eve starts small – she finds the stables, slips the stable boy a coin or two, and heads back into the square.
Nobody pays her any notice here. In Eve’s side of town, seeing a woman alone could only have meant trouble. However here many women are alone, wearing trousers, some with short hair, some with locks longer than Eve’s brown curls. Some slouch, some hold themselves with confidence Eve had only ever seen in the clergy.
There were signs in the window of every shop telling the passerby if they were hiring or not. Seldom did Bishop Caldwell speak of the work camps, but Eve knew that it was where all her food was grown and where all her fabric was woven before it ever reached the boutique. She had always thought that criminals went there, and perhaps they did, but being a remaining relative does not feel like a crime to her, nor does being unemployed. But there is the distinct feeling of desperation surrounding these window signs that causes Eve to realize that joblessness for anyone means a life in the work camps. There is so little here to sustain the merchant masses... instead of trying the first store with a ‘jobs available’ sign, Eve heads straight to the largest building in the square.
Just as she reaches the door, a mass of around twenty people are herded out of the bar and through the swinging doors. Eve slips through them, and they are far too intoxicated to notice her. Finally, they’re gone, and only a few people besides Eve remain in the dark bar. Two wear aprons around their waists, with rags thrown over their shoulders – they must work here. The only other is a lanky man, rather clean cut for someone from the merchant’s section, but that was only from Eve’s sight – the shadows enunciate some but blur most everything else.
“We just had some trouble, we don’t need any newcomers,” the larger man with the dish rag says, watching Eve warily.
“Please, I only need something to drink,” she says softly. The lanky man sitting at the bar (she can tell now that he’s reading a newspaper) turns away in disinterest. The waitress goes back to wiping down tables.
“Doesn’t everybody come here for a drink?” the bartender asks condescendingly, but a smile tells Eve that he’s joking. However, it’s difficult to distinguish his dark features with such little light.
“Just water, really.”
Now his condescension seems genuine. “Alright then.” She can see the whites of his brown eyes roll.
“Well if you’re going to be like that, give me something stronger.” She doesn’t care if she’s being indignant and if that’s not ladylike. Here, they didn’t seem to care about those things anyway.
The dark skinned bartender smiled, tricking one more customer into more revenue. “What I can get you?”
“Martini. Up, not on the rocks.”
He doesn’t respond, but pushes past the bar to pull the gin off the wall and fill the aluminum cup with ice. He raises it over his head, about the shake the alcohol into a chill, but Eve interrupts him.
“Stirred, not shaken please.”
The bartender looks up at her slowly, bewildered. She watches him evenly until her lowers her drink. There’s just a touch of confidence that she did not have in her dresses.
“Who are you?” He’s not wary, just confused.
“My name’s Eve.”
“Yeah.” The informal slang had never slipped through her lips in front of an adult before, but it seemed more appropriate that ‘yes’ would have been.
“You are the Caldwell girl.”
Eve wasn’t expecting the newspaper man to speak. She had already lost his interest long ago.
“Who are you?” she accuses. People in the merchant’s sect don’t pay attention to what happens with the clergy.
“My name is James.” His tone is flat, but eve gets the distinct sense that he’s mocking her.
“James Ayers,” she says, not having to think hard to recognize the name, or figure out why he does not look like anyone else here. “The Cardinal’s son.”
“Youngest of seven, actually,” he corrects dryly.
The bartender slides the tall glass in Eve’s direction. She does not think to catch it right up until it’s about to drop onto the ground below her perched feet.
*“And is it the latest gossip, my plight?” she sneers. His blank expression was pushing her, and now with her hair pulled back and her waist not in a corset she feels free to express it.
“Of course it is. The entire community hears about it when someone utters the phrase ‘My God!’ ...Don’t look at me like that. I certainly don’t care that your parents are dead.”
“Oh, well I thank you for your kindness,” she snaps, taking a large gulp of her martini. Alcohol wasn’t allowed in her home, as she suspected was the same with the other clergy’s homes. However, who hadn’t snuck out at some point or another with a bottle of liquor from the merchant’s sect? The heat flooding her throat was familiar, and instead of feeling separated from her parents, she felt fifteen again in the woods with the other kids from her neighborhood. Will hadn’t been there, he would have told someone.
“Your parents are dead?” the bartender asks.
“Yes, they died in a riot several days ago. Around here, I suspect.”
“There was no riot around here,” James says. Now she holds his full attention, and he stares her full in the eye. “You shouldn’t believe everything the clergy tells you.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
The bartender shakes his head. “There really wasn’t a riot, miss. I don’t know why they’d tell you that, but it’s pretty peaceful around here. These people are too desperate to start fights.”
Eve’s overwhelmed, and unable to argue against them. They were here, or at least the bartender was, who knows what James is doing. She eyes him one more time, and notices that he has his long hair pulled back in a small ponytail and out of his eyes. He had stubble, like he hadn’t shaved in a couple days. There are bags under his eyes, but the ones that come from lack of sleep not from stress. All in all, he does not fit into the clergy’s society or the merchant’s sect. But Eve feels that privacy is just as important here, if not more so, and she does not badger him about it.
“How old are you?” the bartender asks, leaning over the counter towards Eve.
“Seventeen.” He exhales, shaking his head.
“My name’s Bill Gifford, and I own this place,” she notices that he doesn’t stick out his hand for her to shake. It must only be a clergy mannerism. “We’ve got plenty of customers, so I don’t see it as a problem for you to work here, even if you find another job real quick.”
She stares at him for a long time, thinking that perhaps she should decline it since he only offered her the job out of pity, and since she’d be more of a burden than a help to his business. But she clamps her mouth shut, because she needs to start thinking of herself first since no one else is going to for her.
“Thank you,” she manages, trying to pull on the polite mask that she had so quickly tossed off when she met James. “When should I start?”
“Tomorrow night will be best. You’ll need to find a place to live before they repossess your parent’s house.” Seeing her bewildered look, his eyes soften. “There are apartments and houses down the road, to the right. You’ll need some money to give them at first, but besides that it’s pretty cheap to live there. I live above the bar,” (he motions to the ceiling) “if you ever need anything.”
Eve’s standing up at this point, a lump forming in her throat. She can’t seem to take the last sip of her martini to force it away, either. “Thank you,” she says instead, pretending there aren’t tears misting in her eyes. “I’ll be here tomorrow night then.”
She leaves the bar, Bill, and James with the intent on going home. It’s been a long day and the dust and people here tire her more than the dust and people at home do. But it was such a long trip there, such a hassle to get out her door, pass by the Abner’s without notice, and pay the stable boy to keep her horse. She had to watch that money now, because the job at the bar certainly is not going to sustain her to these frivolous expenditures. So she heads back into the dirty road and to the right, where she finds a circle twice the size of the church of little stacked houses with dark dusty windows and nothing growing in the sills or gardens. A wooden sign swings above one of the door, it’s white paint chipping. The chips blow out into the surrounding forest or are pressed deep in the dust where nothing can grow. Nebulas of dirt explode in Eve’s wake as she steps tentatively towards the door, for it reads “Rentals” and it is the only direction she can find in the abandoned square.
The door swings shut behind her, closing her into the dark and rusty office. The woman who sits behind the counter is haggish, and she blends so well into the holey and coffee stained cushioned chair that she sits on, she must have not moved from that spot for twenty years. Her beady eyes land on Eve's before Eve's vision has adjusted to the sudden darkness.
"And you'll be here for a place to live, hmm?"
"Yes, that would be right." The dark protects Eve's face, and she squints in distaste at the woman. Never before had she seen dirt cling to the wrinkles of a person before, and she wonders vaguely if baths do not exist in the merchant's sect. But worrying or not, this is her only option for livelihood, so she pushes the thought away.
"Are you unemployed?" The lady is now shuffling through stiff brown papers, no longer studying Eve.
"No. I start tomorrow at the bar downtown."
There is a gap in the conversation as the hag looks through the papers carefully, with the precision of a seamstress cutting, sewing, and intertwining her threads.
"The down payment is twenty, and each week is five. The stables are an extra five a month, and... ohh." Eve hands the twenty dollar bill over without blinking, and the woman's beady eyes widen. "You must have had a very nice life before now, hmm?" It is not a question that she expects to be answered, and Eve certainly does not want to discuss her story with this lady.
"Here is your key, child. It's an extra two to get it replaced, you know."
"I'll keep it safe," Eve promises halfheartedly.
"You're fourteen down from my left, dear. See you soon, hmm?"
"Yeah, see you soon." The door slams behind Eve, but she doesn't look up. She counts fourteen doorways, and when the number doesn't match the '23' inscribed crudely by hand and knife on her key, she finds a wobbly stack of stairs taking her to the second story, where her new apartment is. She does not bother to actually look inside, but rather checks that the key works, twists the handle around, and heads back into town to collect her horse. The ride home is worse than the one there, because the dirt has now seeped into the cracks of her skin and the whites of her eyes, and she knows that she does not need to avoid the Abner's house because none of them would recognize her even if they laid eyes on her.
Seven days to go. Seven days to pick the entire place up, move into the merchant's sect, and every single one of those days she can see nicks like vultures hanging around the house, possibly hoping to get first pillaging rights. And while she does not want to hold onto anything from her previous life as a clergy's daughter, she doesn't want them to get their ravaging hands on it either.
Work is a difficult adjustment. Bill is kind, but he runs a business that he needs to survive, and Eve's small smooth hands are prone to slipping and shaking and growing weak. But he is patient, even when the customer's aren't. They are more forgiving once Bill recommends that she smile at them once in a while, teasing them just the slightest bit. In the back of her mind, she remembers a time when this was seen as sinful, but here with her red lipstick and dark pencil around her eyes, she figures God has already stopped caring about what happens to her, so what does she care that he sees?
Sunday comes, and Eve stays home rather than facing her new co-workers and old friends. In the merchant’s sect there are clergy and nicks to enforce the mandatory services, but none of them stop by the old Caldwell house to make sure the merchant girl living there attends. Perhaps they’d like to forget her existence before facing her.
However, at exactly noon thirty, the very same time the Caldwells and Abners would return to their respective homes after the service, there is an insistent knocking at the door. Every day Will has arrived at some point in the early afternoon, and each day he has spent a quarter of an hour on her back porch trying to draw her out. This morning, Eve sits in front of her mirror with a warm cloth trying to erase the smudged black eye pencil that had run down her face. Her red lipstick is only a little faded, and remains on her thin lips. This morning, however, from her room she can hear Will’s voice for the first time. She can’t make out exactly what he is saying, but he’s voice is soft, cooing, and not holding the pity that she would expect him to. With one last swipe under her eyes, she creeps downstairs to the back door, with its blinds drawn up. She stands behind it, her ear pressed to the blinds to hear him.
“...and I know that you don’t want to see me, but I really just need to say goodbye before you go. I know you’ve only got a couple more days here... Eve, honestly. I can see you silhouette through the window.”
Her face burns red as her fingers fumble for the lock and handle. She pulls the door open, and Will stands before her in his Sunday best: a brown suit that thins at his waist and divides into two tails at his back. He’s had this for several years and wore it frequently, and when he desperately tugs her into a hug, the smell of it reminds her of the afternoons they sat drinking lemonade and speaking idly, simply because there was nothing else to do. The first time they kissed, he was actually wearing this suit. She remember so clearly because she had been so entirely shocked by his lips on hers that she had clung to his lapels instead of toppling back.
She pulls away from him, placing both her palms on his cheeks. Her hands are rough after the few days of work, and they match the blond stubble that barely grows on his face.
“Of course I wanted to see you,” Eve says, shaking her head sadly. “It’s just... it’s been so hard already.”
“I know. I know it has,” Will says, his eyes dancing across her face as if to memorize it completely. “Johnny Lewis was the one to tell me everything. If only we had wed sooner.”
Of course it was Johnny Lewis. Johnny Lewis was another clergy’s son, only a year or two older than Eve and Will. Johnny Lewis had always been just another boy down the road, and from the moment both boys could toddle they had been best of friends. Vaguely, she could remember a time that she had wondered which of the two she would be betrothed to.
“You know my father would never have allowed it,” she chides softly. He presses his cheek into her palms, closing his eyes.
“Still. I believe I will always regret that, now. I don’t think I’ll be able to love someone else like I love you.”
“Don’t be silly,” Eve reprimands. “We are young. You’ll marry some other clergy’s girl, and you’ll have a beautiful family in a beautiful house out near the forest. You’ll grow to love her, just as you grew to love me.” Even still, she cannot bring herself who to ask who it is. Will is nearing adulthood and the time that he will inherit his father’s title, so no time would have been wasted in finding him a new fiancée.
“No,” he replies stubbornly. He looks back up at her and his eyes are rimmed with pink. “There was never any growing to love you. I always knew I did, even before I understood what it meant. I knew I would marry you, it was a given. I could picture nothing else, even as a child.”
“You’re not making this any easier,” she says, but tries to smile.
“I know. I know. I’m sorry. I just wanted...”
“I know.” They’re now feet apart, their hands clasped together so tight that her fingers begin to prickle.
“Take care of yourself out there. Find someone to take care of you.” But the words aren’t sincere. It was supposed to be him, it was always meant to be Will.
“I will,” she promises, but he doesn’t look at her. Their tears are threatening to spill, and so he turns and walks away instead of seeing her cry. Though she has five more days in the clergy’s house, she knows that after all these years, this is the last time he will come knocking.
The day before she is finally evicted, Eve tells Bill that she won’t be able to come in, and she collects every valuable item that she did not already bring to her new room. The familiar china sits in the merchant’s sect, but the ceramic that Eve had not used in years is in a box, packed nicely with colorful lace blankets, needlepoint pillows, and velveteen slippers. All these things are of her parents that she knows she must dispose of. The only thing she wants more than to never see them again is to make sure the nicks don’t barter them off at some black market for a few extra dollars to go drinking.
The box is larger than Eve herself, but she manages to lock the door behind her and leave the keys sprawled on the mat on the back porch as she dutifully lugs it past the patio, past the gardens, and past the meadow that she and Will frequented. The Abner’s house fades from her view, but she pushes on. Only when she reaches the edge of the forest does she stop, and toss the box to the ground. Its contents rattle for a moment, before growing still and silent in the forest’s wake.
There is only one place in the world that the clergy can’t breach, and it is this forest. Apparently years before Eve was born, the sinful and desperate would run into the forest to try and escape God’s judgment. Eve's father always told her those stories to teach her that God was inescapable, that he was everywhere. Those people were never heard from again, and there was no chance that they survived in the forest. Eventually, the sinful and desperate learned that running could not be the answer -- now, they learned to take their own lives instead, while the rest of the town would continue pretending they did not exist. But Eve knew that God had not ended those lives in the forest. They were dead, that was for sure, because otherwise they could have come back. However, God could not breach those oaks, he could not disturb the mists that lie there quietly, waiting. Some other force had killed them, something stronger than God.
She stands before it now, and through her thin shoes she can feel the vibrations of energy it emits. Never before had she stood this close, but she does not back away. Being this close, absorbing this energy, she feels herself stiffening into the oaks, her feet extending into the ground to absorb the power there. She too, is growing stronger. For what is a God to a nonbeliever?
"I want to hide these possessions from those in my town," she whispers to the swirling mist. "I want you to have them, as long as you won't give them back."
She takes a tentative step forward -- her feet are still covered by dewy grass, she is still feet away from the forest, but it's energy scares her. However, fear is only for those who value their safety, so she picks the box up once more and trudges into the depths of the trees. The mist parts, and then collects behind her once more.
Here, the sun does not breach the trees. The mist clears the further inward Eve travels, and everything besides her padding feet is unmoving. It's as if the wind has held its breath, waiting to see what will happen to the frail girl against the power of nature.
The ground is damp, and quickly the dirt seeps into her shoes and her toes squish in its warms. The cool leaves tickle her face as she ducks through the branches, which bend and spring as she continues. Eventually, her arms grow tired, and with the scenery all so monotonous, she figures this place is as good as the next. With a groan, she sets the box down at her muddy feet. The contents do not move, they do not make a sound.
"Thank you," she whispers, looking up into the layers of green pine needles and extending reds, oranges, yellows of soft oak leaves. They hum in return, and she smiles up at them before marching back into the clergy's neighborhood, passing both the Caldwell and Abner houses without a second glance.
Time in the merchant's sect passes differently than in that of the clergy. The same events pass every single day, but the shining faces change and so does their tastes in alcohol. Eve learns how to tell the fortunes of each customer -- beer or anything fruity means work has been easy, rent has been paid, and the women look particularly beautiful that day. However, whiskey, tequila, or moonshine means the harvest has been poor, taxes and tithes have risen once again, and the landlord is being a pain. Her eyes adjust the dark with ease, and the dust no longer bothers her as it used to. James Ayers becomes a regular, but even still he refrains from talking to most everyone besides Bill. Another skill her job as a bartender requires is learning not to be nosy. If a customer wants to talk, they will eventually become drunk enough to tell Eve the entire story, all the way back to when he was seven years old and his brother drowned. James Abner was not one of these people. On the contrary, when Bill ushered everyone out around one in the morning, James and a few others remained even after Eve had washed the last glass and headed back to her dingy flat.
In the months that come, Bill’s wife falls ill. Of course, with no medicine besides prayer and blessing, she continues to grow weaker. Eve can hear him and James murmuring about it when the thought no one was listening, their voices rising over the weeks as his wife’s time grew nearer and nearer. Eventually, there was a night that a clergyman arrived at the bar saying that Bill may want to spend the next few nights at the hospital, for her mental health was declining and she needed him near. He left the bar, hurriedly telling Eve that she was to lock up that night.
She leans over towards James, who as usual has his newspaper propped up. He would read it for hours at a time, sipping whatever drink he had ordered to be able to sit in the bar. She couldn’t possibly understand what he could be taking such time on: all it included was local engagements, deaths, sickness, how high tithes were for the month, and the occasional Bible study, all of which he couldn’t care less about or else he would not be in the merchant’s sect to begin with.
“I don’t know what you and those guys do after hours here, but I’m going to be in the kitchen cleaning dishes, and you can leave when I do,” she says, looking him straight into his dark blue eyes. He jumps back, surprised by how close she is, and pulls the newspaper close to his chest.
“Dammit Eve, I didn’t know who you were.” He relaxes, and pushes the paper forward again. She sneaks a peek and isn’t surprised at what she finds whatever it is behind the actual newspaper, it isn’t the obituary.
“Well I’m about to close up. Whatever it is you do, make sure it doesn’t get me in trouble the first time Bill gives me some responsibility.”
“Noted,” he says, but his nose is already buried back into his paper.
Eve locks the doors after the last straggler exits and turns back to the four or five men scattered in the bar. As she begins to wipe down tables, they slowly put away whatever it was holding their attention, and convene in the center of the room where they push four tables together. It’s the same ritual every night they meet here, so Eve doesn’t pay much attention to it. One of them props the back door open, and over the course of the next half hour a diverse group of twenty walk briskly through the opening – men, women, clergy’s sons, and clergy’s daughters (though those are outweighed greatly by the merchants.) Among the cleanly dressed clergy’s relatives, she finds the blond head of Johnny Lewis. He joins the group regularly, but Eve hasn’t found the want or will to speak to him. Some carry bags that could easily weigh more than the carrier, while other only hold oddly colored Bibles. Eve slips into the kitchen to finish washing the dishes.
An hour after each mug and glass is hung on racks to dry, Eve wipes her hands down and grabs the key Bill gave her hours ago.
“Okay guys, I’m locking up,” she calls as she steps out of the kitchen. Looking up at the group, however, she is greeted with a sight that is not day to day as their presences are. There are books lying all about, but even a glance tells Eve that these aren’t Bibles. There are drawings that range from grotesque depictions of the human body to rows of circles, each labeled with words like “solar system” that Eve doesn’t understand. She pushes past the bar without unlocking her eyes from the books. Everyone who had previously been chatting and hunched over their works now are silent and stare at Eve. In the center of the table, there are strings of metal attached to metal boxes and glass balls that flicker with bright little suns ever so often. Eve swallows, backing away from the group. By now everyone is surprised, and a little fear lies deep in their eyes, even those of James Abner.
“What is that?” Eve asks shakily. “Are you... are you devil worshippers? Is that what you do here?” Her voice grows more frantic as she watches the glass balls flash violently, leaving spots on her vision that make her dizzy.
Johnny Lewis pushes his way through the stock still crowd towards her. “Eve, it’s okay. It’s not satanic, I promise.”
“How do you know?” she whispers, but she doesn’t back away from him. His familiarity calms her breathing, and looking at his smooth features block her view from the magical thing she faces.
“Because it’s science. We created it, not anything supernatural. I promise,” he coos, his hand reaching out for Eve’s shoulder, but she shoves him away.
“Science? Don’t you know that’s what fucked us over in the first place? Have you listening to nothing?”
He gives a humorless laugh. “Eve, don’t tell me you still believe in their God.”
She is without words. The thought had never crossed her mind, what she really believed or not. It was always what her father told her, and what the church told her and taught her. “Why wouldn’t I?” she says finally. Her voice is flat, the fear leaving her. She’s tired, tired of being dragged back into the world and doctrines of the clergy even when she’s been exiled miles from it.
“Will saw you go into the forest. Everyone knows you did, that’s why no one bothers you to come to church. They think your possessed or something. Are you possessed?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says, focusing on the brown irises of his eyes so she doesn’t have to look at the men and women behind him.
“Exactly. They always said that if you defied God, he would destroy you. Do you feel destroyed?”
“Depends on the day.”
From behind Johnny, James Ayers stifles a laugh.
Johnny smiles down at her. “And we’re not Satanists. We’re just trying to learn about the world, and that’s not a sin. Do you believe me?”
“Yes. Yeah, I do,” she says with an exhale. She leans to look around him, and everyone else quickly busies themselves with something to seem like they weren’t eavesdropping. “Can you tell Will I’m alright?” Her voice drops to a whisper. “You don’t have to tell him you were here, just that I ran into you somewhere on the road. Tell him I’m taking care of myself.”
He nods solemnly. “Of course I will. In the meantime, would you like me to show you everything?”
Eve glances around him again and swallows harshly. “Maybe some other time. Just not tonight. It still scares me a little.”
He chuckles to himself. “The girl who can brave the forest is scared of a light bulb. You know they had a dozen of these in every household Before, right?”
“Then they’re crazy, and I bet their sun filled houses caught on fire every other day.” She turns to James, who sits just behind where Johnny is standing. “You’ll lock up before you leave? And bring the keys back tomorrow morning?”
“Of course I will,” he says, scarcely looking up at Eve.
She turns to leave, and Johnny calls after her. “It’s electricity, for the record! Not little suns. Now that would be a trick.”