(continued from part 3)
The act of running was now no different than any other action she had ever undertaken in her whole life. There was no longer any thought or purpose to it. Some instinct had caused her legs to start to carry her into the forest, up the hill, toward the light of a campfire. The direction of that instinct was all that would drive her now to one sole purpose — to reach the light and whatever it might hold.
The fact she had never run before, no less run in a dark forest, did not matter. The branches lashing her clothing and skin, logs and rocks unbalancing her forward motion, the cuts and bruises she gained as she continued on were but minor distractions and ultimately insignificant compared to the momentum that drove her forward. A momentum born from survival instinct itself.
She ran until she could run no further. As another branch caught and tore at her gown, another rock slipped beneath her feet and her body gave way to the exhaustion from the exertion. She fell to the ground face first into a pile of leaves and branches. The pain now came to her attention from the multiple scratches and lashings, from the sore, strained muscles and in her chest from her now labored attempts even to breath.
Had her body not succumbed under the combination of it all, her will would have kept her moving but her entire reserve of bodily energy was now sapped. She rolled over onto her back and lay flat as stars in her eyes mixed with the stars visible in the sky through a small opening in the trees above her. All her attentions now focused on simply getting her breath and she found that by concentrating on maintaining deep, consistent breaths that it distracted from the other miseries her body had endured from her impromptu flight.
She continued in this way for some time as her breathing slowly returned to a more manageable cadence and the roaring of the blood in her ears subsided to a lesser hum of white noise. As she came more to her senses, her attention was brought back to her current situation when she heard the voice of a man.
It was crystal clear above the muted sounds of the forest and the now subsiding sound of her own breathing even though it was discernible as still coming from some distance away. The voice was animated and spoke in cadences and with manner of emphasis that she had never heard before.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
As she listened to the voice she turned herself back on her stomach and through aching muscles managed to bring herself up onto all fours. The roaring in her head began again as a result of even this minor effort and drowned out the distant voice of the man. But lifting her head she could now see the light from the fire clearly on the limbs of a group of trees encircling what appeared to be a small clearing some 200 yards further up near the top of the slope.
She could neither see the fire itself nor the man due to a small outcropping that intervened between her and the source of the sound of his voice. Her movement, the distance and the renewed activity from her own bodily travails prevented her from hearing any further words. But, even though she didn’t recognize that many of the words, the manner of it’s being spoken drew her curiosity to move closer. She managed with some struggle to move forward, taking great care to both coddle her own sore bones and muscles and to minimize her own sound upon doing so. If there was a chance that her prior manic flight had not drawn the man’s attentions, she did not want to add to it before she could get a better comprehension of just what it was she had run into.
Her curiosity was now just as much to whatever assistance this stranger could provide her in her ‘escape’ from whatever awaited her down below as it was to the words he was speaking. As she came in view of the fire, she could see the figure of a man sitting on a rock behind just a small pile of flickering embers.
Although she was still some distance away, she could make out that the man seemed to be reading from a book. The combination of the image of a man stooped over the book and the albeit smaller fire reminded her again of the orators in the village and the fire of the Declaration from less than an hour before. It seemed now like a long time ago.
But this man was not reading from any Book of Council, at least none she had ever heard and he seemed to express himself with the phrases. As though he were not reading it for the benefit of others — for the good of the People — but for the benefit of himself or of someone specific.
She ducked down a moment as he paused to look around briefly into the darkness. Then he stood up and flipped the pages of the book until he found something he was seeking. Turning his back to her so he could get the light of the fire to illuminate the words, he read again but louder and with even more expression, pausing between key words as though to somehow give them more emphasis.
To be ….. or not to be ….. that …. is the question:
He cleared his throat a moment then continued with greater purpose
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d….. To die…., to sleep;
With that he turned to look straight at where she lay atop the small outcropping and she could see his face for the first time clearly. It was the strange escort who had led her to the Declaration. But she now noticed in the dim light of the fire that his clothing was not that of a Council member. His clothing was not that of anything she had ever seen anyone wearing before. He wore some kind of blue pants and a red shirt with black lines making square patterns upon it.
He reached out his hand in her direction and smiled. “I know you’re out there. Come, come. I will not hurt you. I’ve been expecting you. You are why I am here.” He paused to squint into the darkness and it seemed that he had not seen her, but he obviously knew she was there somewhere. “Oh come on, I am not your enemy. I’m sure you have questions, I am here to answer them.” And with that he backed up a few steps to put the book down and put his hands in his pockets, shifting his weight onto one leg.
She stayed in her hiding spot behind the rise a moment but, being too used to following the directions of others and realizing that she didn’t really seem to have anywhere else to go, she slowly climbed up onto all fours and struggled to stand where she could be seen in the light of the fire.
The man saw the movement and seemed to squint again and his expression changed to sympathetic shock at her appearance. “Oh my oh my,” he said coming toward her in urgency, grabbing some things from his place by the fire as he came. “Some of you do go overboard,” he said to himself but continued to offer her words of re-assurance as he approached her.
She quickly realized that it took a great deal of her energy just to stand and then, she noticed what he had seen as she looked down at herself in the light of the fire. Her gown was in tatters from the waist down and both her arms and legs were covered in scratches and bruises from her rush through the branches and limbs of the dark forest. By the time she looked up again, he had already reached her and offered her an extended arm to help her up the hill.
“Are you alright? Can you walk?” he asked.
She didn’t speak but simply nodded and accepted his extended arm placing her own around his shoulders as he helped her the rest of the way up the hill. He assisted her to a place near the fire and rather immediately pulled his pack from his shoulders, taking a towel and warm water to clean her various cuts and scrapes.
She was too sore and spent to resist and after her long ordeal, she frankly enjoyed the almost motherly attention. The man just looked up at her occasionally and smiled and even stroked her hair once as she lay her head on the arm that he still held around her back after settling her down to tend to her wounds.
“Well, it seems you didn’t do yourself too terrible there with that dash into the woods. It appears to be nothing but a few scrapes and bruises, but no doubt you’ll feel some of them for a while. Does anything hurt particularly bad? As in more than anything else?” he asked.
She continued to look forward and only shook her head in response. “OK fine, don’t want to talk yet. Well maybe you’ll eat. They generally don’t like to feed the ones they select,” he said reaching around behind her to a small kettle settled into some rocks next to the fire. As he pulled it up onto the stone beside him and removed the lid, she could smell whatever it was and was struck with just how famished she had been. He was right, they had not allowed her to eat since the morning meal.
When the man handed her a bowl full of some kind of stew, even though she was reluctant to doing much of anything she couldn’t resist the urge to eat. It was only luke warm, ‘but very good‘ she thought looking up at the man as the first mouthful seemed to explode with flavors she had never experienced.
“Eat, eat! They never feed you folks enough anyway. I have plenty more with me. Eat!” Seeing the look on her face as she experienced the flavors of his food, he added. “Mom’s secret recipe. Yeah it’s a bit spicy, but it’s one of my favorites and I figured if one of you was to come up the hill tonight, it might be a good thing to have something a little more ‘interesting’ to eat than the bland gruel they serve every day.”
She was only half listening as she finished the bowl and he offered her another. She took it. She could only half understand him anyway as he used many words she had never heard before. Once he was confident that she was doing well on her own, he left her to finish the stew and moved off a bit to allow her room to eat and regain her senses. His behavior as well as some of his comments made her think this wasn’t the first time he’d been in this position of assisting someone such as herself.
As she finished the second bowl he reached back again into his pack to pull something out. “I guess we should begin. If you have no questions for me yet, I can take the initiative.” He handed her what he had pulled from her pack, a pair of gloves.
The shock showed on her face, and he laughed. “Sorry,” he began, “I don’t mean to bring back bad memories but they told me this all started over a pair of gloves so it seemed like a good enough place to begin.” He pulled at a small spot on one of the gloves to show a small tear in one of the fingers. “You have skills with sewing, yes? It is suggested we remain consistent from the beginning, and since I am to assist you, we will begin with you assisting me in exchange. It is important for you to learn that I do not do this solely out of charity.”
He handed her the gloves and she accepted them, then he pulled out a small kerchief containing a small spool of thread and some sewing needles that she also took. “That will help pay for the stew,” he said simply. She knew not what the words ‘charity’ or ‘pay’ had meant but understood enough about the word ‘exchange’ to assume the words were related.
He sat watching as she began to thread the needles, smiling his infectious smile. He continued to sit patiently as she worked and in no time at all she had the tear sewn up and he seemed quite satisfied. “Good as new!” he said as she handed them back to him along with the needle and thread.
He put the gloves and the thread back into his pack and again turned to her expectantly. “Now you must have some questions. You’re free to stay here all night if you wish, but sooner or later we must get down to what to do with you.”
She considered in a rush of thought all the questions that had been running through her mind since she was first left in the room by herself. All she could seem to stutter out was the same recurring question that had kept coming back to her all day, “why…..?”
“Ah!” he exclaimed suddenly, “You do have a voice!” He chuckled, reassuring her upon seeing his sudden utterance had startled her. “That is the question of the ages isn’t it? Why??? But I’m afraid you’ll need to be a bit more specific than that! I assume you mean, the whole process of selection as one of the potential Chosen?”
She understood what he meant about specific, but the question had come to her lips because she had so many questions about so many things and they all boiled down in her mind to that one word, ‘why?’ But the subject of the selection was a good enough place to start so she nodded modestly in response.
“Well, well, well…” he said taking a deep breath. “To explain that I guess I’d better begin with a bit of history. They don’t teach you much of that down there, it wouldn’t be good for the People.” He paused a moment to consider the best way to begin explaining such a complex collection of information to someone from such a confined existence as her’s.
“You see, there’s a lot more to the world than just that Community down there.” he again paused as he arranged his thoughts. “And throughout that history — and this is a considerable over simplification mind you — there have basically been two classifications of people. Now, not all of them fit wholly onto one side or the other but the basic motivations for what they do stem from one way of thinking or another.”
He could sense that even his attempt to simplify the explanation were adding to her confusion so he attempted again. “You see, there are people who are independent, and people who tend to be dependent upon others. The one seeks to do for themselves and to fend for themselves while the other believes that for a man to do well, he needs to depend on others and vice versa — like your Community does.”
He waited to see if she understood that much before going on. “For thousands of years, these two different ways of thinking co-existed in various forms and various degrees. Sure, there were some groups more like your little town and others more like the place where I come from.”
This comment caused her to look up at him. It was the first she had considered that there was someplace ‘different’ than the community from which she came. Her flight from town had been from the terror of some unknown consequence. Her desire to seek the fire and whoever made it was in part to seek refuge from that consequence. But she now realized that, yes, something in her had sought something ‘else’. Something other than the ‘will of the People’ and the ‘good of the Community’. And now she had her first notion that there might be such a different place.
He noticed this interest and got a sense of what was running through her mind and responded. “Yes, the place where I come from is nothing like the Community,” he said pointing down to the darkened rooftops in the valley below. With that he continued his explanation.
“As I was saying, there were different societies that were founded on one way of thinking or another and there were often conflicts as the ideas of the opposite creed crept in and overtook the people in each who sought to live one way or the other. But as a general rule, the places where the ‘common good’ became the motivation for society, the society itself stagnated where those in which the men were allowed to seek their own motivations prospered.”
He again paused to let the ideas sink in before beginning again with more emphasis. “The place where I come from, well,” he again laughed, “is nothing like that place down there!” He again pointed down into the valley but this time in a more indignant fashion.
The manner in which he said this reminded her of the manner in which he had read from the book and she turned to look down at it. He noticed her glance and picked it up. “Yeah,” he said nodding. “Kind of like the difference between old Bill here and that tripe they read to you all the time.” Then he said half to himself, “I can’t imagine living without a good book!” as he stroked the leather bound cover of his volume of the Works of Shakespeare.
“What is it?” she asked in a way that almost implied the addition of the question, ‘is it your Book of Council?’
This caused him to laugh out loud in a manner that again startled her a little. “This?” he said holding the book up. “It’s my little form of poetic justice. A little irony to get the ball rolling!” He again laughed at some concept she did not understand. He placed a hand on her shoulder and added, “It got your attention didn’t it? Let’s just say it provides a little contrast to the monotony of ‘their’ book to help pique your curiosity. There’s PLENTY more where this came from,” he said patting the book before setting it back down next to his pack.
“Now where was I?” he continued. “Ah yes! Suffice it to say, some years ago — long before you or I were born — the men who created the society in which we both live began to realize that the ‘public good’ was nothing of the sort. But they believed in the freedom of men to decide for themselves. As the ideas that they upheld grew and gained more acceptance, less and less people wished to live in a world where others such as the first members of the Council wished to live. The end result was that a firm line needed to be drawn in the sand between the two ideas.”
He again sensed that some of his figurative way of expressing things was confusing her some, so he repeated it simpler. “They needed to find a way in which people could decide for themselves the way they wanted to live. To live for themselves or to live for others. Thus Communities like yours were born, so that people who wished to live for the ‘common good’ could do so at their own choosing.”
The last word caught her attention. He stopped his explanation to allow her to think over the whole of what he had said and awaited her next question or response. The world he described was obviously foreign to her. All she ever knew was the Community, the Council, the People…. and the Chosen. “Choosing?” She hadn’t even realized she had said it aloud.
“Yes,” he said. “That ‘is’ why we are both here now isn’t it?” He again waited for her to take it all in.
He waited a considerable amount of time before he spoke again. “Each reservation, what you know as the ‘Community’, is in their own way unique. Most are founded on the same basic principle of public contribution, but the level of that contribution varies and the manner of maintaining it does as well. This is one of the more extreme examples. But to continue to exist, it is necessary for them to adhere to the law of the land which says that each of us must be free to ‘choose’ the way we wish to live.”
She was feeling more comfortable with the kindness and openness of the man at this point and was enjoying the ‘teachings’ even if there were many concepts and even words in his explanations that she couldn’t even begin to understand. She recognized one thing he said though and asked now openly about it. “The Law – you mentioned this earlier. What do you mean when you said that even the Council must obey the law?”
Something in his face lighted up at her new found confidence as well as to the intelligence behind the question. “Yes, the law. It is the manner in which men and women govern the interactions between them. Not much unlike the rules your Community puts in their book. Sure, they don’t call them rules or laws and they don’t phrase them as a ‘do this or else’, but they still comprise rules by which to live.”
“When people, as I mentioned, began to see more and more, the benefits of allowing men to decide their own destiny and in holding each responsible for their own welfare, some people still wanted to live with and for the benefit of others. Initially entire regions included policies of this sort,” he paused at the use of the word ‘policy’ realizing she would not understand it. “Rules such as that — on a local level. But as the ideas of independent men became more widely accepted, a compromise had to be reached. Anyone desiring to live in such a manner of public motive had to create their own sub-society within the greater society. But such societies are still bound by the same fundamental laws that govern all of us – freedom to decide one’s own fate.”
“It was realized that you cannot force men to exist for themselves if they do not wish to do so. It would be a betrayal of the very notion of self-determination. If men are allowed to decide for themselves what they wish to do with their lives, they must also be free to decide to turn their lives over for the public good. As I’ve alluded to, this led to local communities springing up where people seeking that way of life, that choice, could go. The ideas of independent men continued to grow and with them, the Communities such as yours grew smaller and also saw an increasing need to further isolate themselves from free society. Ones such as this one moved deep into the mountains. As time went by, those content with living for the public good remained and in their isolation, they began to forget any alternative way of living existed. As new generations started to be born, it raised a new problem — how to determine if anyone born within such a place actually wanted to remain there.”
“After many years of varied approaches, arguments from the leaders of collective communities as well as the leaders of the independent men, a compromise was finally reached. Any Community that wished to continue to exist needed to both identify and provide the opportunity for such a person — a person who might desire an alternative to living in the Community — to show their true desire and thereby to exercise their own free will.”
She thought of the other concept that had eluded her all day. She knew not how to ask of it, but decided to try. “While they allowed me to be alone — when I was left to ‘think’ as you say, I considered what the Community expected of us. There was some concept for which they gave us no word. What they expected of us — in regards to the words of the Book of Council. I tried to think of what it was but know of nothing to call it.”
He thought about it a moment. “I think the word you were looking for is to ‘believe’ it. To consider it to be good without questioning it, without thinking about it. Not to ask ‘why’ as you should, can and are doing of me, but simply to accept it.”
“eks-sehpt,” she slurred out in response.
“Yes, accept,” he said half smiling, half laughing. “That is one of the problems you see. As the collective Communities became smaller and more isolated, their structures to uphold their way of life became more and more all inclusive. The people that remained did not simply choose not to be responsible for themselves, they actually chose not to choose at all. They chose not to even think for themselves. Thus the process of Identification was created and required to spot even the smallest deviation from the directions and rules — in your Community’s case, the Book of Council or the directions for the daily labors.”
“It is of no benefit for such a Community, where the people don’t even want the responsibility to think, to have someone who wishes to do so. So creating the process of selection for the potential Chosen was created. The communities Identify potential volitional minds, and provide them the opportunity to think on their own should they choose to do so. To think by themselves without the necessity to ‘do’ — a mental Review.” He saw the look on her face that was half confused, half realization. “Yes, the Review was more for your benefit than it is a part of any function of the Community. The Declaration is a necessity to let someone like me know that there might be a member of the Community interested in leaving. As it turns out, I was already in the area picking up a load of goods and bringing supplies in exchange. This is why I was able to attend the Declaration itself, normally my arrival would follow the ceremony.”
“So you are one of the ‘traders’?” she asked.
“I guess you could say that. My official title is a bit different. My responsibility is to monitor the Community and handle any necessary interactions, including primarily intercepting anyone who may want to leave. It’s a rather mundane job these days. As you well know, people are not selected every day. So I also serve as the liaison for goods and supplies. There is an interest in goods produced by such backwards societies among some collectors, in much the same way people used to collect goods from antiquated religious groups.” He realized she did not understand the last part. “It’s all Greek to you, but you can learn more of it soon enough if you decide to come with me.”
At this she showed astonishment. “Decide?” she asked confused.
“Yes, you must decide. I cannot force you to come with me. But with that said, I cannot mislead you either. Your society,” he paused and again pointed down the hill, “down there, still tends to a lot of your basic needs. While it is true that there are a great many people who will be more than willing to assist you toward the goal of becoming an active member of free society, it won’t be easy.” At this point he stood up and began to add emphasis to the words that reminded her of a Council foreman when one of the People needed an instruction repeated in a workshop.
“You will be expected ultimately to think and do for yourself, to take responsibility for yourself, and to be accountable for your own actions. For someone coming from a Community such as the one where you have lived your entire life, this is no easy task. The rules of the Council don’t even allow you time think, but if you choose to come with me, you will have to not only think, but learn to do it in such a way that will enable you to make decisions for yourself and your own livelihood. If you come with me, others will help you, but much like those gloves that I had you sew for your stew, they will expect you to earn the privilege. That is our way.”
“I don’t mean for it to sound so horrible, it isn’t. But for someone coming from your background, it may seem that way at times. I cannot possibly imagine living in a place like the one where you were raised. That to me is the horror. But I am not you and I cannot decide for you. As much as being responsible can be a lot of hard work, it also includes the right to enjoy the rewards of your achievements as much as it does suffering the consequences of the failures. And you will fail, many times. But that is the marrow of life.”
He looked down at her legs and arms. “The failures are like the scratches on your arms. They heal over in time and, if you learn from your experiences, you realize it is not wise to repeat the same mistakes. You improve and change your decisions based on what you have learned from both the successes and the failures. That is the glory of being alive.”
He again went quiet to let her think of all the things he had told her. He assured her that there was no hurry.
“But if you so choose, you can go back to the village and, if you can, turn off your mind again or at least feign that you have. Although I doubt with all you have heard you will, you can decide to live out the rest of your life with them. That is what this whole selection process means, either way. To think or not think. Or in the words of Shakespeare,” he patted the book on the ground behind him, “To be, or not be.”
He grabbed her hand and raised her chin so her eyes could see his. “The decision itself has to be yours to make. And I cannot emphasize this enough, it is your life, to do with as you please. Either way, to come with me or to go back there — what is written in the law of free men, the compromise of which I spoke: Even if someone seeks to live their life absent of all responsibility, if they ever demonstrate the slightest inclination to individual thought and a desire for self-determination — the path they follow from that moment forward, the life they seek to live, must be…. Chosen.”