No weather penetrated the barriers of the Community, but Ravan felt a storm of terror. It threatened to engulf her as she pedaled her bicycle down the river path, hurrying towards the House of the Old. No one would have guessed, with her serene expression, orderly clothing, and hair neatly brushed - but then, no one but Ravan could know of true terror in the first place. For reasons she still could not understand, the Community had no true emotion, no creativity, no weather, no hills - No love. No life. And soon -in five days, to be exact - she was to become a full member of it, at her Ceremony of Twelve. It was this causing her terror - after what she had seen, what she had discovered, she simply could not do this…… She took a breath to steady herself, wheeling her bike into its port outside the House of the Old, then looking around surreptitiously. To any Elders that might be observing her, it would hopefully look as though she was preparing to spend her last Volunteer Hours there; she had come often. Then she tensed her legs, tightened her shoulders, preparing to make the exhilarating dash -
“Hello, Ravan!” She spun around. It was Jonas, coming out of the House of the Old was another of their fellow Elevens, Fiona. She smiled, then headed for her bicycle, and with a goodbye, sped off. Jonas lingered for a moment. His odd, light eyes met Ravan’s equally strange ones - one light, like his, and one dark, like the majority of their Community. Jonas was one of the few people who ever seemed to notice Ravan, much to her annoyance.
“Hello, Jonas.” Ravan replied, her voice as though it could be blown away in a breeze - if there had been a breeze in the Community. “Have you completed your Volunteer hours?”
“I have.” Ravan found herself suddenly seized by a sudden longing to speak freely, as if to a friend, without thinking about her words and being bound by Community rules. But no, she reminded herself - her secret was her companionship. She needed nothing more.
“Well, I must be going. Goodbye, Jonas.”
“Goodbye!” And she hurried towards the House Of The Old as he hopped onto his bicycle and rolled away. As soon as he was out of sight, she stopped, scanned her surroundings once more, then, unable to hold off any longer, raced off.
Around the House Of The Old, across pavement, towards the small building next to it - and then she slowed. The door was open, as it always was this time of day, and the Old man was talking to his Attendant in the lobby, about to go on his daily walk. Now, she had to be careful. Ravan hunched down, crept forwards as quietly as she could, and snuck into the building. Past the twosome, still oblivious, as she had done for so many years….then, as the man headed for the outside, the door to his room still unlocked as the Attendant watched him leave, she lunged and tumbled inside - just as the Attendant turned and hit a button. The door closed with a muffled click - and Ravan was trapped inside. Which was exactly what she wanted.
… … …
Ravan exhaled for a long moment, then closed and opened her eyes, waiting. When she opened them again - it was as if everything had instantly come to vibrant, beautiful life. She could truly see - the rich burgundy of the bedcover, the fine umber wood of the furniture, the royal blue of the chair, even the light cream of her clothing, and the jet-black of her hair. Once, she had found a small mirror lying abandoned by the river and had brought it in here with her to see her eyes - and had discovered that one was a piercing blue, the other a rich, mocha brown. But the only thing that really mattered to her in the room were the books - tomes lining the walls, so many, filled with so much…..
Ravan had been an Eight when she had discovered the room. She had attempted a ride on her father’s bicycle one day, riding away from the Community, and had crashed near the House Of The Old. But even then she had been shy - too shy to enter, admit what she had done, and ask for precise directions back to her dwelling. So when she had spotted the smaller building behind it, with only two people…. She had approached. The Old man had suddenly seemed aggrieved; he bent over, holding his face as though it gave him great pain and sorrow. The Attendant beside him had fluttered about anxiously, inquiring about relief-of-pain and training…..and Ravan had spotted, behind them, a slightly open door.
Members of the Community did not lie, did not misbehave - but something had called out to Ravan that day, the first of what she would later call feelings. There was something great behind that door. So, her heart beating so loudly in her chest that she thought they must hear all the way at the Department of Bicycle Repair, she had crept inside, and, as the voices outside subsided and the sound of footsteps was heard, she shut the door behind her. Looking around, she had discovered that it was almost an ordinary room, with the desk, chair, table, and bed standard of the Community. However, each seemed slightly….softer, or fancier, as if the man who surely lived here had great, great honor. However, the most startling difference about the space were the books - they lined all walls, except for the door she had come through. Ravan had only read her assigned texts for school and the Book of Rules, of course the Book of Rules - all other books were taboo, and she had no idea that so many even existed. So she had no idea what the books could mean - or what they were. But she had known, without a doubt, that they were calling to her.
Slowly, she crept towards a shelf, already dismayed at what she was doing….. Then reached out and snatched up a book. It was heavier than she had expected, and she lowered herself to a crouch to hold it. The binding was thick, and soft, but the pages inside were brittle. Slowly, she read the first line:
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow…..”
And that was just the beginning. As Ravan read on, she grew more and more bewildered. What was, “weather?” “Color?” Truly, it was a mercy to the Community that books were not allowed if they were this strange. But then….. as she skimmed a page describing the “wind” at “night” - an image suddenly flashed through her mind. Darkness, intangible darkness, enveloping her….and in that darkness, a wave of air flooding over, whipping playfully around, her. Wind - Night - She suddenly, miraculously, knew. And in the distance, perhaps there was the glow of a light? Overcome with shock and wonder, she bent her head to the book once more. Then she heard it - the Attendant outside the door, and the sound of footsteps - the Old man was returning. Frantic, Ravan whipped her head up and scrambled out of the way as the door opened with a click. The Old man entered, not looking at her, and the Attendant had turned back to her desk. Ravan lunged through the closing door, then flung herself to the floor and crawled out, undiscovered. After she was out the door, she raced straight to her Father’s bicycle and rode in the direction she suspected was home, speeding along far too quickly to fall.
For the rest of the day, Ravan was quiet. Already, she knew what she would have to become if she was to get away with what she had done, and she practiced. But once her parents and sibling were asleep, she stayed awake in her room, hunched over and swiftly turning brittle pages and reveling in what she suddenly saw in her mind. Ravan had taken the book with her.
… … …
For years, Ravan continued to borrow tomes. She knew, deep down, that it was wrong - but, as time passed, she was unable to resist. As she grew in the Community, she began to assimilate very different knowledge- as she read, flashes of images would come to her, unimaginable phantasmagoria. She now knew what color was, and time, and emotions, true emotions, and magic, and love. She trained herself to see color only in the Old man’s room or in her mind, terrified that somehow, someone would know if she tried it in the Community. When her parents told her that she had had her first stirrings, she had taken the pill - then realized that, when she read, something was different. The words were just words - not the talismans of wonder they used to be. So she stopped taking it.
Ravan had always known that what she did was forbidden, that by all rules of the Community she should be released…..But she would not stop. She knew so much now, much more than anyone else in the Community would ever know - of color, and and science, and even math, and the world - the world before the Community, or outside it. In her few stolen minutes in the Old man’s room, or alone in her dwelling, she knew what it truly was to live - to laugh, to cry, to love. She had read so many first lines -
“It was a dark and stormy night…”
“Act 1, Scene 1 - Athens, and a nearby Wood…..”
“Marley was dead, to begin with…”
Once upon a midnight dreary…”
and she had relished them all.
But now, her Ceremony of Twelve was coming. She would no longer have the time to escape, to leave the horrid world of nothingness that she had used to be a part of. The books that were so intrinsic to her, that she stole and then returned, all the time knowing that her safety was at stake, were her true life - and she would have to let them go. No. She could not, would not - But she could see no other choice.
Her face wet with what she knew were salty tears, Ravan slipped two books into her tunic, then waited until the Old man returned, to slip out. They would surely the last two that she ever read. The Ceremony was coming. And, like a sparrow in the clutches of a raptor, there was nothing she could do to escape it.
The Ceremony of Twelve
The time had come, and now, Ravan could feel nothing but emptiness - at least it would be over. She sat stiffly in her row, between numbers Twenty-Six (Max) and number Twenty-Eight (Eva), arranged in the order in which they had been born. Lucy, number Twenty-Two and the only person she really counted as a friend, waved at her, and she smiled back. Throughout the other ceremonies, she had been glassy-eyed, smiling at the new Ones and stifling a yawn at the Fives, Sixes, and Sevens. She had clapped dutifully when her brother, now a Ten, had his longer hair chopped off, although she saw her Mother wince at the clumsily done job. It had occurred to her when she became and Eleven that this was not really her birthday - she had read about them in books, and they were really all different - and wondered when hers was. But now, as the Chief Elder took the stage and began her speech, Ravan stiffened even more, so much that her spine curved in. She could barely take in the Chief Elder’s speech, her mind humming, Please…..Don’t mention me….Let me get an Assignment with free time….Don’t let them have found out….. And then it began.
As each person received their Assignment, Ravan made a mental checklist in her head. That job was taken...And that one….. There was a brief torrent of laughter when Asher, number Four and Jonas’s friend, received his Assignment, and the Chief Elder recounted some of his past scruples. Ravan had never really liked Asher - he seemed too careless yet with no real idea what it really meant - but she was happy that he received an Assignment that would fit him so well. Then they continued, and gradually, as the Chief Elder worked her way up the teens, Ravan's eyes began to wander - until she nearly choked.
The Council of Elders sat at a table on the right side of the stage - and with them was the Old man, the man Ravan had robbed for years now. She quickly looked away, suddenly wondering just who he was, at the exact moment the Chief Elder proclaimed, “Twenty - Pierre.” Wait - What?? She had skipped Jonas! Ravan leaned forward to catch Jonas’s face, blank with shock, as Pierre rose and stumbled towards the stage. Surely there would be an explanation….. But nothing came. Ravan’s nerves became even tighter, and she attempted to pay even closer attention to the coming Assignments, but they all seemed to slip through her ears like butter, leaving her panicking to understand what was happening and what was to come -
“Twenty-Seven - Ravan.”
Slowly, Ravan rose. She walked up to the stage without any sudden movements or flairs - just being there, as she had done for so long. The crowd rustled - she was so inconspicuous that half of them most likely did not know who she was, and they were still focused on Jonas anyway. The Chief Elder gazed at her for a horribly long moment, then turned back to the audience.
Ravan has always been a polite, dedicated, conscientious citizen of the Community. Indeed, some of you may not have even noticed her, for she is always hard at work. During our observations, we knew that it would be difficult to find the perfect Assignment for Ravan. She has spread her Volunteer hours out so steadily that there was no obvious field of interest we could find for her.”
Ravan's stomach felt as though some of the fish she had eaten for dinner the night before had suddenly come to violent life again. She forced herself to look calm and unconcerned, instead of bolting straight out of the hall.
“However, we have observed that Ravan has an enormous amount of patience, precision, and intelligence. Therefore, she will spend her life teaching others to improve those very skills before their Ceremony of Twelve. Ravan, we have given you the Assignment of Instructor of Elevens.”
There was a quiet pause, in which Ravan could feel her very life being sucked away and leaving her a husk of order and law, like the rest of the mindless beings who sat before her. She would have no time to read, ever again….. She would teach Elevens to stamp out creativity, passion, love, like the embers of a flame. Slowly, as the audience clapped, Ravan allowed her eyelids to flicker - and then, for a fleeting second, the color appeared. The soft pink - caramel of flesh, the beige and blue of tunics, the shining reds, glossy blacks, and soft blondes of hair….It shimmered before her eyes like a mournful last reminder of what she had had. Then it faded into grey, and she took her thick folder from the Chief Elder.
“Ravan, thank you for your childhood.” She heard her say, but Ravan was already off the stage, impossible hopes and dreams fading away to nothing in her mind, all life gone.
The next morning, Ravan prepared for school. As she fussed with her bag and papers, she listened to the rest of her family tell their dreams. Mother, who worked in the Department of Bicycle Repair, had dreamed about being lost on a bicycle that had grown so large in size, she was miniature compared to it. The rest of the family agreed that it must have been the result of her feelings that previous night; of worry that no Twelve had been assigned a job there and that she would become the only one once her co-workers went to live with the Childless Adults. Father claimed that he had no dreams, and Ravan’s brother, Frederick, said that the only dream he had had was of him volunteering with his friends at the Food Distribution building - “But that might just have been expectation.”
“Ravan?” Mother inquired, raising her eyebrows quizzically. “Did you have any dreams?” Ravan shook her head.
“I had no dreams.” That was not true. She had lied to her parents for years about this - because they would never understand her dreams. She had sailed across roiling seas, ridden magnificent horses, and tumbled off cliffs with no ground below them - but no one in the Community would know what that meant. The night before, she had dreamed that she was floating in the sky, and beautiful colors blazed around her - creamy shell-pink and fiery gold, and soft blue - and then she began to fall, too fast to even scream. And as she fell, the color began to leech away, until there was only blackness and despair before her…. She had felt that, somehow, she could rise up again - but she did not, and when she felt herself slam against stone, pain flaring through her - she awoke. She did not need her family unit to tell her what the dream meant.
… … … …
Ravan rode her bicycle to school, as she always did. Her training would be somewhat different than the other Twelves, as she would both need to train at and attend school. Now, she would attend shortened classes, then, in the afternoon, report to the current Instructor of Elevens. She had skimmed her new instructions the previous night - pages of rules and privileges and standard apologies and so many other things that she would never care about. But she must pretend - what other option was there?
At lunch, all the other twelves were eager to discuss their Assignments, babbling over each other and apologizing. As usual, none noticed Ravan, but she wasn't eager to discuss anyway. A knot of nerves had settled once again in her stomach, and when lunch was over, she swallowed hard and reported to her former classroom, to begin her new life.
… … … …
“Ah, welcome, Ravan!!” the Instructor proclaimed. The classroom looked like every one she had ever been in - the new Elevens all silent at their desks, the blackboard up front.
“Class, this is Ravan. She is training to become the next Instructor of Elevens, so please treat her with the respect required.” The class nodded.
“Please carry on with your science work.” Then, the man beckoned to Ravan, and spent the next few moments quietly quizzing her on her duties, Ravan apologizing whenever she got something wrong. Finally the Instructor showed her the next lesson planned, on language, and asked, “Would you try giving this? I will correct you if you make mistakes.”
“Already?” Ravan blurted, apprehensive. The Instructor nodded. Ravan took a deep breath, then stepped to the front of the classroom.
“Class, take out your assigned papers on the clarity of adjectives.” The Elevens looked up, mildly surprised, then shuffled papers. Ravan swallowed.
“Now, as Tens, you had been studying when an adjective is too strong or too weak to describe a noun. Er...For example: If a student is late for class, and I glare at them, I would not be giving them a furious stare. Furious is too strong a word for that occasion. I might give them an aggrieved stare, because I know that being late is not a serious offense. Can anyone else think of an example?” The Elevens appeared to be thinking. The Instructor smiled. Then a boy with curls and a slightly dazed look tentatively raised his hand.
“Well,” he remarked. “If the Elders made a Matching of spouses and got it wrong, it would not be bad - it would be disastrous!!” Several members of the class gasped, and some laughed. Ravan fought to keep a straight face, and the Instructor stepped forwards.
“That is enough, Forty-Nine!! The Elders do not make wrong matches! Apologize to your classmates!!” The boy now seemed close to tears, and murmured, “I apologize for insulting the Elders and my learning Community - I meant to my Community-I mean-”
“If you have not even learned the standard apologies,” the Instructor admonished coldly. “Then we really do have work to do. Also, insulting is not the correct word - you did not deliberately mean to sow discord among us, so…..”
Ravan boiled over. “What would happen if the Elders chose an imperfect match of spouses?” The Instructor shot her a surprised look.
“It has never happened. The Elders choose our Assignments, our spouses, our family units so carefully that there will never be an imperfection like that-”
“Why can’t we choose for ourselves?!” Several Elevens gasped, and that only infuriated Ravan even more.
“What happened to our individuality, our freedom - our lives??” The Instructor looked as though he was tempted to request relief-of-pain medication over the speaker, but he finally smiled tightly.
“Precision of language, Ravan! The Elders create peace in the Community-” He stopped short. Ravan was breathing so quickly, her expression so alien to him in its fury, that he was confused for a moment. And that moment was enough for her to twist away from him, wrench open the door, and race down the hall, footsteps echoing on the floor. By the time he notified the speaker, she was out of the building.
Ravan sped down the river path once again, not caring now who saw her tears. She wasn’t even sure why she had cracked, after so many years….But perhaps it was seeing all those Elevens, who had never known the true meaning of everything around them….Or the one small boy who had the audacity to show imagination, only to be chastised so severely by the Instructor...Or to know that she would be trapped there for the rest of her life, never to read again, until gradually, the spark that kept her going would extinguish and leave her as soulless as the rest….. By the time she reached her dwelling, she had made up her mind. She could not stay in the Community any longer.
A cold numbness overtook Ravan as she slipped into her dwelling. It was empty, as school wasn’t over yet and both her parents were at work. She slipped some clothing into her bag, then prepared to leave. It was strange, to leave her family behind forever….But she knew that she had truly left them behind the moment she had slipped into the Old man’s room for the first time. The Ravan that the Community knew did not exist, and never would again.
Now, more quickly, for fear of being seen by anyone, or reported over the speakers, Ravan sped off, barely looking where she was going, for she knew the path so well. She arrived at the House of the Old a bit before the Old man’s walk, but to her surprise, he was already preparing to leave. She slipped in, and trapped herself in the room once again.
The color…...The books…..She would miss them so. So…. utter shame rising in her, she slowly scanned the shelves, then pulled two away. One was the first book she had ever read, and the other was a slim volume of what she now knew was poetry. She had encountered a poem in it when she read it, and it had never really left her head.
“Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.”
Now, she slipped both books in her bag. The Old man would not notice, not right away...And she needed them, to remind herself of where she had left and where she wanted to go.
When the Old man returned, she snuck out once again. She realized that she knew who he was now: the Receiver of Memory, who would train Jonas. She hoped that he would one day read the books, like she had, and experience what she was now able to. Really, she hoped that everyone in the Community would one day be able to. But now….. Ravan paused. Where was she to go?
Release seemed like the quickest way to get to Elsewhere, but something about the idea repulsed her - at the very least, it would mean going back into the Community, and they surely wouldn’t let her take the books with her. So she would have to find another way…. And then, as she rode along the river once again, it occurred to her. There was a bridge that spanned the river, a bridge that was forbidden to cross….A bridge that lead to where cargo planes landed, with supplies from Elsewhere. With a deep breath, Ravan rode towards it. At its edge, she dismounted from her bicycle, and pushed it into the crying river, letting it bob along until it sunk from sight. When her disappearance was noticed, they would search the river first - others had been lost there, a Four named Caleb being the last…. And when her bicycle was found, they would have no reason to search further.
Ravan raced across the bridge, then scanned the surrounding area. There….a long road stretched out in front of her, and at its end, she could see a squat cargo plane. Now, she would need to be careful - but she had been sneaking around since she was an Eight, and doubted that she would be caught. As she neared the plane, she saw that it was being loaded. Thick barrels and large crates were being carried aboard, and the pilot was already sitting in the cockpit up front. Ravan paused - to sneak aboard, she would need to get into the cargo hold, which was sure to be a bumpy ride. But the alternative….. She cast one last glance at the Community, the place she had known for her entire life. It lay behind, her in shades of black and white, along with Mother and Father and Frederick and Lucy and Jonas and everything she had ever known…. They had achieved peace, even if it was peace through control. And she knew from what she had read that the world outside was surely much more dangerous…. But there was so much that she loved - color, laughter, hills, imagination, adventure, love - that the Community would never know. Really, her decision had been made four years ago, from the first line her eyes fell upon. Tears running down her face, Ravan drew in a breath, then turned her back on the world she knew and ran for the plane. She slipped aboard just as the two Laborers were tromping off for the last time, and curled up between barrels of oats. There she sat for what was likely a half-hour but felt like several days…. And then the plane began to move. She was jolted back and forth, and then she felt a deep hum….it swelled….she was bumping up and down now, and the plane was moving faster and faster….. And then it lifted into the air.
Ravan felt the sudden weightlessness in her stomach, her ears plugged - and she laughed, as hard and as much as she could, until her voice cracked. She was free…..Truly free….. She would not hide, would not fall, this time, into the void…. She would rise up, up, up, into the crystal sky. She let all color flood back, and though the containers were all deep, dull umber, she imagined the sky beyond - a deep blue, with streaks of blush-orange towards the horizon - and she, the girl with mismatched eyes, was traveling in it. The journey ahead would be difficult….that she knew. But armed with her mind and her soul - her soul that knew what it truly was to live - she would be all right. The plane rose ever higher, and Ravan opened her bag and pulled out her books. Maybe one day she would write her own…. One day….. She closed her eyes, leaned back, and drifted into the world of shining dreams.