Before starting the story, I’d like to say a few words about Terra Obscura. It’s as much an experiment as it is a story, and I totally blame Ann Aguirre for it. Her novel Grimspace is written in first person present tense, which is rarely my cup of tea, but I really enjoyed it in Grimspace. A funny thing happened after I finished reading the book, and got back to writing my own stuff: it started coming out in present tense (rather like how my narrative voice came down with a bad case of the word “betimes” after I read Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart in the middle of writing Ember.).
To exorcise the first person present tense from my brain, I sat down and wrote a few paragraphs in it. Overall, it was a good exercise. It helped me make peace with the tense. And when I needed a short story for my short story class, it gave me a nice starting point. However, the ending is rather…open-ended. I happen to like the possibilities of it, but I thought I should warn you.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, part one of Terra Obscura is after the break. I hope you like it.
“Curiosity is a sin, and sinners burn in hell.” Elder Parson’s weak-voiced words are not a threat, or a promise, but a warning, wavering like notes from a reed flute on the winter wind.
I’ve been caught again, looking at the world beyond the wall. When I turn to face the old man, I press my back against the weathered, rough-hewn wood and use my body to hide the place where I scraped out the filling of frozen mud between the logs.
The peephole is no larger than the circumference of my smallest finger, but it opens another world to my eye. It is like something I saw, an ocean and some years ago, before the war and the plague and the resulting wave of religious fervor that swept my countrymen by the thousands to this foreign shore.
The king—the old one, the heretic whose name we have since blacked from our books—allowed a group of natural philosophers to build a windowless room at the university. The room was shut of all light, save for a pinhole on the southern wall. And where the light from that small hole shone against the opposite wall, an observer could behold an image the world outside—but it was pale and upside down, a phantom of the truth.
A camera obscura, they called it. The darkened room.
I remember the camera obscura as I hide my sorry little peephole behind the limp sweep of my faded skirts. It may seem a silly, petty thing to keep secret and thus risk the stocks, or worse, but the chink I’ve made in the wall reveals a wider world than the one in which I’ve spent my days and nights for nine long months.
For me, there has been only the settlement, muddy and cold, colored with weathered browns and blacks and grays. Beyond the settlement, the land is vast and wide, an endless stretch of uncharted wilderness, the mysteries of which most maps only dare imply with a dark wash of ink and the scrawled legend: Here be monsters.
Within our wall, we are small and weak and safe. Our faces are whitened by short days, and even shorter rations. Our cheeks and hands have been made rough and red by wind and work. We wear dingy white linens and faded black clothes. We have nothing healthy, crisp or pristine, save our immortal souls.
Or so the elders tell us, at each morning’s Meeting.
I do not know if I believe them now—or if I ever did. They say the world beyond the wall is wild, wicked and untamed. But their pronouncements seem as washed out and wrong-sided as an image wavering on a darkroom wall. Beyond our pale of weathered wood and dried mud stretch vast snow-covered fields, sparkling crystalline and perfect in the winter sun. At the fields’ end, the forest looms dark green on the horizon, with the red sunset blazing above. And beyond the forest lies the bright blue sea that stands between here and Home.
There is no freedom here, save the freedom to repent, to toil, and to die. At Home, our packed and teeming capital had long ago outgrown its walls. It stank of sin and sewage; of death and life. It sprawled across the land like an algae bloom in a stagnant pond, consuming the countryside with the insatiable appetite of progress.
There was money to be made and rent to be paid; there were so many bodies, few people worried for their souls. So long as a man professed his loyalty to both God and king, none would question the beliefs he held in his heart.
I know I am too young to wax wistful for the world that used to be, except that I have seen a king killed at the order of his people. I have seen plague, fire, and war. And I have been brought across an ocean for the dubious privilege of helping construct God’s kingdom on Earth.
“…God’s kingdom here on earth!” Elder Parsons is shouting. Little flecks of spittle hit my cheeks, they have turned cold from an instant’s travel through the chill, dry air.
“I pray one day you will find some measure of the penitence and peace your mother has found within these walls.
“You are but lately come to us.” Parson’s voice is fuller than the one he first used. He knows how little difference his lectures make to me, but he is speaking for the audience of black clad colonists who slow at their tasks to watch us from the corners of their eyes. “You do not know what hardships were suffered by those who built this wall to keep us safe within. You do not know what manner of beasts roam without.”
“Wolves,” I say, “I heard one howling a few nights past. It did not worry me. My father’s mother lives at the edge of the woods, back in the Old Country. She told me wolves are skittish and wary with people.”
“Wolves,” Parson proclaims, drawing the word out, letting his tongue linger over the “l” and pressing his teeth deep into his lower lip to pronounce the “v”. “They will hunt you in the night and pounce upon you when you tire of running. They will use their heavy paws to force you from your feet. They’ve sharp claws to rend your garments and bare your flesh for their hungry mouths.”
His beady eyes shine with a zealot’s relish. He spares no detail in his description of the indignities I will suffer as I am eaten alive. He’d the same happy look at Meeting yesterday when he described the agonies of witches on the pyre, and a week before that when he told us tales of sinners burning naked in the pits of hell.
Parson says his soul is bound for heaven, but I think he loves his tales of hell too much to leave them behind. In this heaven, Parson once told me, man shall know no suffering, nor appetites of any sort. He shall be cleansed of every imperfection; he shall shed every memory of his life on Earth.
I do not think Parson will enjoy his heaven when he gets there. It will seem cold, indeed, without his tales of Hell to keep him warm.
After some minutes he concludes his ecstatic diatribe. “You may now ask me for the Lord’s forgiveness, child.”
I recite the words I’m meant to say. I denounce myself for a sinner. I am prideful and iniquitous, headstrong and hell-bound. Oh, yes. I implore the Elder to devise some act of contrition that will punish my body and purify my soul.
“You must take up the dying,” he tells me. “Four weeks of work, from sunrise to sunset, pausing only for Meetings and meals. Begin immediately.”
Continued in part 2.