In the agitation created by the events that surrounded the search for Mary the Circle almost forgot about the cursed poppy experiment, and was only reminded of it when the second generation of plants emerged and bloomed even bluer than the first. Mrs. Eberhart shrugged at the sight of the field donning the color of the sky, irritated that the Council had wasted her time again with superstitious nonsense.
“When are we going to be rid of this curse already?” Rosemary clamored, displeased that the plan she was contemplating in her mind, the one where even the memory of the Que’d was stripped from the Village record and life went on, with industry and righteousness, like it did for her generation, and her mother’s generation, and her grandmother’s, and her great-grandmother’s.
She had thrown herself enthusiastically into the belief system that everything she’d been taught as a child was proper and unchanging and for this reason she never questioned her actions or convictions; ironically for a person who had spent her entire life demonizing mirrors, Rosemary had become a mere reflection of a very carefully crafted communal thought.
The fact that Mary was still roaming loose somewhere out there in the desert weighed on her conscience, disturbing her sleep and making her restless. She didn’t understand how the girl could possibly have gotten away, but she had her theories, which she shared with willing members of the Circle on occasion, in order to vent her frustrations. What annoyed her most, however, was the cavalier way the younger generation was leading its life. If somebody were to ask her, she couldn’t pinpoint a specific behavior that she found offensive, or a character flaw that needed mending, but her misgivings had something to do with the poise in the girls’ demeanor and the unacceptable level of confidence in persons of their age, which simply unsettled her.
She remembered her own youth, all those secrets she kept from her family, those careless indiscretions that are the appanage of young age, and they all seemed like nothing compared to whatever lay hidden behind those girls’ calm eyes and their well behaved smiles. Whatever it was, it didn’t give them pause; there was no guilt, no shame, no fear associated with it, no burden of sin that she could sense in them, to her great chagrin. Rosemary couldn’t shake the feeling that life as she knew it, with its hierarchy of obedience and privileges of rank, her social standing, all of those things that she was always taught she deserved, was slipping away slowly, and those impudent girls surely had something to do with it. Their humble attitude grated on her nerves, because she could smell their defiance, even as it was now, carefully wrapped in the Council approved garb, and for this reason she became so easily rattled that even her closest associates had trouble dealing with her temper.
In order to keep the peace and get Rosemary off their back, the Council summarily approved her plans for a stake-out in the desert and gave her the resources she insisted she needed for the task, as well as a number of accommodating members of the Circle, whose patience and compliant nature was guaranteed to ensure the success of the mission. The team left early in the morning, after much pump and ceremony; Rosemary insisted it was the dignified thing to do considering they were going to sacrifice their comfort in order to save the Village from dissenting elements and restore propriety to a confused generation, which now seemed lost at sea with no compass.
The group advanced through the desert slowly, but with great determination, and the community watched them for a while, until their caravan melted in the distance and all that could be perceived about its presence was the cloud of powdery dust stirred by the wheels of the carts and the hooves of the beasts of burden. They arrived at the rock mound at noon and wasted no time setting up camp behind the dunes, to gain some relief from the unforgiving sun and have some shelter where they could rest and appease their parched throats. After a short reconnaissance mission that gave them precious little information about their surroundings, which looked more or less the same, they settled comfortably in their tents, in patient anticipation of a long wait.
After the departure of their group the Village returned to its habitual activity, with everyone quietly going about their tasks, somewhat ill at ease about whatever was lurking out there in the desert.
That evening Lucille decided to go to the cave early, excited to spend more time than usual with Mary and catch up on the latest news about school. She found the girl talking excitedly with the one in the mirror about some database detail they couldn’t agree on.
“I don’t think that’s correct, Caleb,” Mary insisted, “I believe he meant ‘aloud’ not ‘allowed’.”
“Why would he define ‘aloud’ as an option value?”
“It’s a public file,” Mary commented.
“I can see that!” Caleb replied, impatient. “The spelling is wrong,” he frowned.
“It doesn’t look wrong to me,” Mary replied. “That’s how we spell it here.”
“Even though I understand the consequences of complete isolation for your culture, I still find it surreal that you speak and write in a barely modified version of the ancient language!” He paused for a second, concerned that Mary might feel slighted. “I feel like I’m talking to a person from two centuries ago.”
“In a way, you are,” Lucille thought, and sat down quietly, not wanting to interrupt the conversation.
“How do you even know what ‘aloud’ means, we haven’t used that word in decades?” Caleb continued, mystified.
“Of course I know what ‘aloud’ means!” Mary replied, surprised. “It makes sense since it is associated with a file from the public repository. The Council uses this word all the time when it refers to proclamations intended for common knowledge.”
“What is a proclamation intended for common knowledge?” Caleb’s bewilderment amplified.
“You know, new edicts, event schedules, whole town meetings,” Mary explained.
“So, it is part of the public address system?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mary confirmed. “If the proclamation is not meant for the whole village, it will be ‘written’, otherwise it’s ‘aloud’.”
“You mean you yell it out in the streets?” Caleb couldn’t believe his ears. “Do you have a town crier?”
“Not officially,” Mary continued, unperturbed. “It’s usually one of the Council members, whoever happens to be free at the time.”
“Still doesn’t make sense to me,” Caleb disagreed. “Especially since the other option values are ‘burn’, ‘null’ and ‘chart’. What does that even mean?” he frowned again, and then remembered Lucille’s arrival and turned towards her. “Good evening, Lucille. Any good news from the village?”
“Define good,” Lucille hesitated. “Rosemary is out in the desert guarding a mound of rocks, whether that’s good news or bad news remains to be seen. We got lucky with the blue poppies, they came true from seed, but other than that, nothing new, really,” she smiled, and then got up to make some tea and then settled down in one of the cozy chairs to wait for the girls’ arrival.
They showed up together, as usual, so quiet that they startled Lucille when they brushed past her chair to get closer to the smart screen. It wasn’t time for class yet, so a few of them joined her for a cup of tea to chase away the chill of the desert night.
Blanche pulled up a chair and sat down next to Lucille, visibly preoccupied but hesitating to open the subject that haunted her. She gathered the courage to start eventually.
“Ma’am,” she said, so quietly that her voice was almost imperceptible.
“What is it, dear?” Lucille encouraged her.
“What good is it for us to learn all of this stuff if we can never use it?” she asked.
“But you’re already using it, aren’t you?” Lucille replied. “The plant hybrids, the spinning machine, the knowledge of your body, you’re already using it, aren’t you?”
“But it’s such a small part of what we learned, we could never speak of computers, or physics, or even literary works. Why can’t we just stay here? We have everything we need!” Blanche replied, encouraged.
“Beloved child, you can’t better your life by running away from it! You don’t change the Village by leaving it, you change the Village by persuading it to see a better future. What would you do, hide in this cave for the rest of your days? You have to live your life, build your family, make a contribution to society, grow!” Lucille answered her kindly. “You are here to learn and bring the knowledge back with you, so the Village can have better things too! Besides, what would I tell your parents?”
“But…” Blanche hesitated. “How come Mary gets to stay here?”
“That’s a different situation, you see. Mary is banished,” Lucille smiled.