Chapter 1: Forbidden Fruit of Knowledge
‘The Ring of Perfection: It is a story I’ve heard a thousand times; one I’ve told hundreds. Something like clay planted beneath our city, it shifts with the shifting views of those who keep it. It evolves from year to year, from retelling to retelling, but never strays far from its root.
Do I belong?
I used to think so.
Until I found out what I really was.
That first day was a lonely day indeed . . .’
On an afternoon stained with rainwater, I walked to class.
Half-heartedly, begrudgingly, I walked to the concrete schoolhouse at the center of a field. On days more vibrant, the walk was enjoyable, but amidst the slop of messy, clinging blades, even the scent of rain provided little enjoyment.
The previous night had been a celebration, and I was still tired from that. I’d come out of slumber undercooked, and I was paying the price.
If the walk were any indication, the day would surely drag.
There it was. A rigid building whose sign simply read: Schoolhouse.
‘It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d even come to realize how generic it was to call something ‘Schoolhouse,’ ‘Clinic,’ or ‘Market.’ Within our fairytale, we were children playing house. There was a lack of authenticity to anything and everything we were.
But all of that would change.
It was already beginning to change . . .’
There was no activity around Schoolhouse’s door. My classmates were already inside. It was my own fault. Because I’d woken up too early to go where I wasn’t supposed to, and stayed later than I should have.
But it was worth it!
So I sucked up whatever crankiness I had and pulled the door’s handle. I heard it immediately. That holy tale. That cherished story.
Teacher Dole had been at it for a while, it seemed. His voice had already transitioned from dry to croaky.
“Consider this, students,” he was saying. “Never has there been an economic or scientific need for assimilation. Assimilation is simply a phenomenon that happened on its own. If you think about in that respect, it is something quite astonishi–”
Reeeek! The classroom door’s noisy spring betrayed me.
Shoot! I’d been hoping to duck in unnoticed.
“AHEM. Nice of you to join us, Student Ashlin,” said Dole.
Those gritted teeth were for me? How sweet. I gave the young teacher a tip of the head; then shuffled to the backside of the classroom and settled into my chair, chin down and eyes betraying. Dole shook his head because he knew where I’d been. He didn’t reprimand me, though. He just carried on,
“Earlier generations pushed away from the inevitable; but with scientific advancement, came an opening of minds. At last, people came to an understanding: Everyone was equal.”
I searched through my pack for a notebook. It was pointless, though. I already knew this lecture.
Everyone was equal.
I was equal to the three other students in my class.
I was equal to all ninety people remaining in the world.
“Integration,” said Teacher Dole. “It is a holy path. Can anyone tell me why?”
Cat-faced Lale raised her hand. No surprise there. When it came to the classroom, the little snob was always first to speak and last to leave. The good teacher loved that most about her.
“Yes, Student Lale?” he said, and smiled – in my humble opinion – much wider than he should have.
Lale returned the smile. “Integration is holy because with integration, perfection was attained,” she recited. “From one race we came and to one race we became. The circle completes with us.” She drew a circle with her finger to prove her point. “In that way, history made the Ring of Perfection.”
I yawned and peered through the window that was still dripping with remnants of storm. I’d just gotten there, and I was already bored. That was because I’d heard this tale daily. Humans had once been different. Distinguishable. A multi-ethnic painting of flesh across the face of the earth. But that had been way back when, in a time that no longer mattered.
Now things were . . .
“Very good, Student Lale,” said Teacher Dole, pulling at his collar. Her know-it-all butt-ins always made him hot. “Every generation evolves closer and closer into one true race. The perfect race. That means that, as one of the youngest remaining generations, you are the holiest of humanity.”
Lale nodded hungrily. I rolled my eyes. Holiest, shmoliest. It was no fun being the holiest of the remaining humans if it meant there were only a handful of us left.
The ‘Ring of Perfection’ was a bunch of crap.
The truth was the world was dying, we were the only ones left, and that holiness spiel was just a lie to make us feel better.
But Teacher Dole didn’t think so. “It is true,” he continued, “that convergence into one perfect race is the natural flow of evolution. Any that argue are foolish.”
Lale smiled to herself. I heaved a sigh and scribbled into my notebook. To an outsider, I looked obedient, like a student keeping good record of her studies. But an outsider would be fooled in the worst way. I wasn’t taking notes at all. I was writing a letter. To a secret person that was waiting for me on the outskirts of the commune. I’d meet him after class. Just as I always did. Just as I’d done before. I tried not to let my thoughts roam too freely, though, because knowing that he was waiting for me made the moist classroom even more unbearable.
“As you know, students, the last of you has passed their twelfth year. With Student Kinamo’s turning, the youngest of your class has reached adulthood. You are all aware of this, correct?” said Teacher Dole.
Aware? Of course we were aware! Not only had Kinamo been flaunting it for days, we’d been forced to attend a gaudy celebration complete with fireworks and sugared water the night before. My turning hadn’t been anything like that. It had been simple. But then, Kinamo was anything but simple. He was obnoxious. As flashy as the fireworks he’d demanded.
The boy in question was beaming because he was the center of attention again. Lale tried to catch my eye. She, too, was aware of Kinamo’s garish nature, and she wanted to exchange in some sort of camaraderie, I guess. But I was still angry with her for her actions the previous night – the actions that had exiled my secret person from the festivities – so I let her eyes linger and fall, uncaught. She hurried to find the eyes of the only other girl in our class: Bess. Bess would oblige. Bess was a girl hell-bent on people pleasing.
“Now then,” said the teacher. “With the turning of the last of you, the time has come for me to introduce you to . . .” He cleared his throat. “Something new.”
I looked up. That was different. Teacher Dole was ahead of schedule. Usually, the holiness pitch would’ve gone another ten minutes or more. Whatever. ‘New’ probably just meant an introduction to trigonometrics or something. I continued to scribble the secret note.
But there were others in the class that found the sermon at least a little interesting.
Lale had released Bess’ gaze, and was staring intently at Teacher Dole.
The wind outside sent a splatter of old raindrops against the window. Dole frowned at the interruption before picking up where he’d left off.
“Now, you’ve all been told time and again that the races, which were born as one, split during an era of separation before converging into one mixed race. You’ve also learned that we are of that remaining race. That we are the ‘Remnants’ of humanity.” Teacher Dole paused. “What I must tell you now is that you’ve been misled.”
“Misled?” mouthed Lale. The little snob was quickly losing the flush in her cheeks. Again she searched the room for a gaze of camaraderie. She wouldn’t find it in me, though. I was staring at Teacher Dole.
The way he was chewing his lip . . .
What the heck!?
“We will now watch a video,” he said. “And it will be,” – The stiff man stopped to think carefully about how he would deliver the next line – “hard to stomach, but I assure you, it is a video all of our people must watch at one point or another.”
Kinamo grabbed the front of his desk and used it to pull himself forward. “Truly?” he yelped. “Hard to stomach? What is it? Things that are dead?! Things that have rotted?!”
“Don’t look so excited, Student Kinamo.” Teacher Dole’s expression was foul, as it usually was when addressing the brassy boy.
Kinamo’s nose flared.
Dole walked to the wall and input something into the numbered pad there. “Upon watching this footage,” he said, “you shall become full adults.” He took another moment to fiddle with the command pad and then, “Students Lale, Bess, Kinamo, and Ashlin, it is with a lamenting heart that I now feed you the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Eat it and awaken!”
‘The forbidden fruit. A fruit forcibly eaten. A fruit that, once tasted, could never be forgotten.’
I hadn’t anticipated anything like this. I’d expected a brief retelling of the Ring of Perfection, followed by an hour of arithmetic, followed by tea. But today was special. Or better, it was cursed.
With wide eyes, I watched the projected image that appeared on the wall. The room let out a collective gasp.
The video! It was–!
I’d never seen anything like it, so it took a moment for me to react, and even when I did, I said nothing. I just shook and squinted and made a strange burping noise at the back of my throat.
“W-who?” stuttered Lale.
“Hell!” yelled Kinamo.
Bess, too, was muttering something. Hers, though, was more of a sob.
The others were the same. They couldn’t understand it either. For there, upon the wall, was the image of thousands and thousands of people. People that looked nothing like us. People that were different.
What was wrong with them?!
I was fair-skinned. Blonde. Blue-eyed. So, too, were the others in the class. The last ninety humans were that way. But the people on the video? That massive, massive group of people? They were . . . abnormal. Their hair was dark; their skin bronzed.
“Who?” Lale said again, now white as a ghoul. “Who are they?”
“What you see before you,” said Dole, gesturing to the wall, “is the TRUE integrated race of humanity.”
Not knowing what else to do, I stared at the screen and rubbed my temple. If these golden people were ‘true,’ then what were we? False?
But never once had our teacher jested. Never once had he played. “This is true integrated race,” he said once more.
Kinamo was first to show his disquiet.
“True race?!” He jumped to his feet. “Impossible! There are so many! And WE are the only ones left! WE are the end of the circle! And . . . how did they get that way?! Look at their skin! And their hair!”
Dole held up his hands. “Breathe, students. Breathe.”
It was too much. So I did as he said. I took in a breath. And then another. And it felt good. Gradually, my racing heartbeat slowed to an acceptable pace. Gradually, Kinamo returned to his seat.
“What is this?” I held my chest and inhaled the air that felt thicker than normal.
“It is not your imagination,” said Dole. “The room has been infused with tranquilizer to help you cope. These reveals have been known to be . . . shocking.”
“Breathe, remain calm, and listen,” said Dole.
That sort of thing was getting easier the more breaths I took.
There was silence until, “I get it,” squeaked Bess. “This video is from the time of separation! This is from the twentieth century or something!”
Oh. That made sense. Good one, Bess! Of course it was ancient documentation of the time before true integration.
My thirteen-year-old worldview was restored!
But only until–
“This footage was taken last year.”
–Teacher Dole forcibly pushed more fruit into our mouths.
“W-what!?” cried Lale. Her head was wobbly upon her thin, lanky neck. She brought it into her hands before it could fall on its own.
Meanwhile, Kinamo landed a lazy fist on the table. He probably would have stood, had it not been for the infused air of the classroom.
“We are not the circle of assimilation’s end,” said Teacher Dole. “They are. They are evolution’s endpoint. Not us.”
He meant to tell us that the people in the video were the ultimate mixed race? But that made no sense! What about US?
It didn’t matter ‘about us,’ apparently.
“A very long time ago,” he said, “when the races first started to cross, some believed that the nations would grow to be more and more different, genetically; that only a small portion of the population would blend, and that humanity as a whole would evolve apart. However, that wasn’t the case.” He motioned to the video of strangers. “As technology advanced, and travel and integration became easier and easier, the opposite was true. Over centuries, the races converged. And it was an awesome thing. The pinnacle of equality. An erasing of hatred. The road to unity and understanding.”
I squeezed the edges of my desk. We knew all of this. We KNEW that humanity had converged and died until all that remained was us. We knew it. WE were the Remnants, so why was Teacher Dole still rambling? And why did I feel like falling over?
“The powers that be were fearful,” he went on. “Fearful of losing the roots of humanity. So from all corners of the world, small portions of the population were removed and put into small communities, segregated into family lines that would breed only with one another. Gray-eyed people here, deep-skinned people there, all manner of nationalities were plucked and sequestered away to their own communes.”
“Hold up!” Kinamo’s eyes bulged. “You do not mean–!”
Teacher Dole nodded. “All to preserve the ancient races. And what is more . . .” He paused and locked eyes with each of us before continuing: “You and I belong to one of those sects.”
The forbidden fruit made its way down my gullet and into my belly.
Kinamo tried to reject it: “But Teach–”
Dole cut him off. “For countless generations our ancestors have been secluded from the rest of the world as an act of preservation. In that sense we are NOT Remnants. To the rest of the world, we are Purités.”
“Purités?!” yelped Kinamo.
Whatever that meant.
Dole nodded again. “I understand that this is painful and unfathomable, but it is time for you to grow up. Consider this the last step to your coming of age.”
“But there are so many of them! How can that many people exist?!” Kinamo was gaping at the tan-skinned mass. The tranquilizer was wearing from him, judging by his gusto.
“Ah, yes,” said Dole. “Another thing. As you can see, the population today is not ninety, and it is even more than the crowd in this video. It is, in fact, ten billion or so.”
“TEN BILL–” started Kinamo.
“SILENCE, STUDENT KINAMO!” Teacher Dole had had enough. He threw an open palm at the wall of projected bodies. “You must move past a childhood of fairytales and become aware of the real world! You’ve had your turn to be sheltered! Many of you will be married soon, so it is imperative that you understand! It is up to YOU to keep our race alive!”
“Why?” blubbed Lale. “If we aren’t holy, if we aren’t the circle’s end, then why?! What’s our purpose?!”
“Why?” repeated Dole. He tapped his chin. “Because we are a living archive of what once was. We are rare. We are special.”
But as I watched the masses of same-skinned, same-haired people mingling on the screen before me, I realized:
More than anything, we were caged.
‘I wasn’t a Remnant. I was a Purité. I was alone. But at the same time, not alone. I belonged, but I also didn’t belong. I was apart from humanity. But I was a part of something intimate. I was a paradox.
At that time, I didn’t know anything. And to be honest, I still don’t know much of anything. I didn’t know what to do, so I did then what I do now. I went to him. To the one person I could count on.’
The fields at the back of the schoolhouse were wet. The air still misted, though the largest of the drops no longer fell. The shorts I wore went down only to my knees, so the lower parts of my legs were instantly wet from the blades of grass that sopped and clung.
Olté’s place was away from the rest of the village. That was fine. I had to get away. The walls of my worldview were crumbling, so I had to get far, far away. As far as I could. Miles of wilderness surrounded us. I could’ve kept running forever, it seemed. But I had to stop. I had to grab Olté on the way. I had to whisk him along.
There was his home. Brick. Stout. With a lovely bed of lilacs beneath the front window. Olté was one for green things. He always had been. But because he wasn’t allowed in the main market, his planting tendencies were fueled by seeds I’d smuggled for him or ones he’d gathered in the forest.
I didn’t knock. I barged right through. Olté didn’t offer any sort of welcome.
“Criminy, Ashlin! I’m indecent!”
“Ack! You are!?” I prepared to turn away, but let my eyes linger because I was curious. Olté was clad in jeans and a garden-stained t-shirt. He wasn’t indecent at all!
“You are not,” I said. “And besides, it doesn’t matter. I have something incredible to tell you!”
“Calm down, spazoid!” He pointed to his closed right eye. “I AM indecent! So just hold on a sec and let me get my patch!”
“Oh.” That was what he’d meant. I fanned at him. “Go on. But hurry, would you?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said.
I continued to watch, hoping for a glimpse of the iris behind his right lid, but he turned his back to me, so I studied that instead. His hair matched mine. So did his skin. Maybe after seeing the shocking true state of the world, staring at his similarity would bring me comfort. But it didn’t. Yes, I was comforted, but it wasn’t the similarity of our features that did it. It was his presence. It was him. My secret person. My charming outcast.
“There.” He finished knotting the patch’s belt at the back of his head and turned to me, right eye now decently covered. “What’s the big deal, Ash?” He rubbed his forehead and scowled. “I COULD have been naked, you know.”
“Psh. Naked schmaked. That doesn’t matter at all,” I said.
“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?! Of course it matt–”
“Nope! Me seeing you naked would be a small shock in comparison to what Teacher Dole told us today!” I threw out my hands. “Just wait ‘til you hear!”
“Hold on, hold on. Have a seat.” He gestured to the only chair in the cottage. “Let me get my notebook.”
I blinked at him. Notebook? Oh, right! He thought I was going to show him arithmetic or something. Well, I couldn’t really blame him for that. It was our daily routine after all; me sneaking over to pass along what I’d learned at school. For years I’d been stealing knowledge from the classroom, and for years I’d been secretly giving it to the one person that wasn’t allowed in. To the boy that didn’t count.
I said his name quietly because I needed to feel it on my lips – to reaffirm that he existed.
He heard it anyway. “Hm?” He was shuffling through the stand at the side of his bed.
Nothing. “It’s nothing.”
But it was something.
I was thinking about IT again – the tally.
There was a giant stone abacus beneath the steel clock in the courtyard behind city hall. Reachable only by the town’s tallest ladder, the mechanical thing was a tally to show how many of us remained. A symbol to show just how small and ‘sanctified’ we were. Cracked and wind-worn, the abacus counted ninety, just as it had said since the death of Grandpa Archer and the birth of Baby Archilade. We had an uncanny way of compensating for death with new life. Thus, the number never long fluctuated from ninety. Ninety remnants – or rather, ninety Purités – were all that remained within our commune.
At least, according to that stupid tally.
But even before the forbidden fruit, I’d known for some time now that the tally was a lie. The count, held so precious to us ‘sanctified’ Purités, was a deceit. Nothing more. Nothing less. There weren’t ninety of us remaining, at all.
There were ninety-ONE.
But number ninety-one didn’t exist. Not really. Olté was only three years my senior, so he should’ve been included in my generation. He should’ve been among us that were holy. But he wasn’t. He was taboo.
“What? Why aren’t you sitting?” asked the uncounted one, notebook prepped and ready in his hand.
“Oh.” I shook my head to clear my thoughts. “I was thinking about you.”
“Eh?” He raised a suggestive brow.
“You’re being weird today,” he said. “Then again, I guess you’re a little weird every day.”
I shook my head to shake it away. There were more important things right now: Namely, the reason I’d come sprinting over here in the first place! “Oh right!” I spurted. “Listen to this! So today in class we watched a video, and you’ll never BELIEVE what was . . .” But I stopped because he’d cracked a smile. “Uh, Olté?”
“So that’s what this is about?” he said quietly. “A video?” He laughed.
I stared at him dumbly and said, “Yeah, a video, but why are you grinning at me like that?”
“Finally.” He threw his head backward and let out another laugh, this one more animated than the first.
I gaped at him. “Finally?”
“Yup,” said Olté. “Finally.”
The way he was just standing there, all grinning like an idiot . . .
It set me off.
“WHAT THE HECK DO YOU MEAN FINALLY!?” I narrowed my eyes and waited for an answer, positive that none he could give would be sufficient enough to calm my coming wrath.
Olté didn’t fear the wrath at all. He tossed the notebook to the bed, came to me, and set a hand atop my head. “Ash,” he said, grinning. “I’ve been waiting for you to grow up for a long time. You know that?”
I pushed him away. “What? You don’t mean to tell me . . .”
“You KNEW? About the video? About all of those golden people?”
He nodded again.
“Unbelievable!” After everything I’d shared with him! After all of the rules I’d broken for him! After–
“Cool it, Ashy,” he said. He placed the hand I’d refused onto my shoulder and squeezed. “Didn’t you guys go over the ‘Melojim’ dealie?”
“Meloheeem?” That sounded vaguely familiar. Yes, Teacher Dole had said something about that at one point today, but I couldn’t exactly remember . . .
“Let me guess,” said Olté. “You were off in your own little world after seeing that video.” He tipped his head in consideration. “No, on second thought, you were probably panicking, right?”
Not that I’d admit it.
“Let me see your notes from today,” he said with an amused sigh.
He folded his arms. “Why not?”
Because I was pretty sure there was at least one doodle of him in there.
He cracked another smile. “Fine. If you won’t show me, at least flip through there yourself. Even when you space out in class, your notes are always spot on, right? So check there. Look for something called the Melojim.”
I narrowed my eyes at him suspiciously.
“Grrr. Fine. But I’m still mad at you,” I said.
“I know. I know.”
I was mad. I was very, very mad.
Until I wasn’t. It didn’t take long for me to locate the term he was talking about. He was right. I frequently zoned out, yet my notes were always perfect. Guess my brain was good at autopilot.
I read aloud the first bullet under the word ‘Melojim’:
“If any from the non-turned generations learn the true nature of the Purités, bla bla bla, they shall be put to death at public execution for acts of treason against the . . . WHAT?!”
“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” I scanned the paper again, just to be sure.
Olté shrugged. “Not when you consider how important it is for them to maintain the structure of things. The state of your people is so fragile. The whole thing could so easily break . . .” He stared absently, like he very much would have liked to be the catalyst for something like that.
“OUR people, Olté. They’re yours too, you know.”
“Anyways, if it’s such a secret, how do you even know about it?” I asked.
“They told me. When I turned twelve. Don’t know why they didn’t do it sooner. I mean, they could’ve killed me for treason if they had.”
I hated when he talked that way. “Shut up.”
Stupid Olté. He wasn’t making things better. “Gah!” I said. “Even with that Melo-schmello thingy, you still could have told me! It’s not like they’d ever find out, right?”
“NO. WAY. You’d have let it slip for sure. AND gotten yourself killed. Like I’d risk that.” He shook his head. “I’m just glad you came here right away today. It would be so like you to do something irrational.”
“You know, like run to the children and blurt out everything. Then it would be ‘goodbye’ to the holiest of holy babes.” He drew his thumb along his throat. “Croak.”
I let out a crabby grumble. He wasn’t giving me much credit. After all, I’d kept our meetings secret for how long? Well . . . ‘secret’ was sort of an exaggeration. The two other people in the commune that knew just pretended not to notice because it made them uncomfortable.
I chewed my lip. He was studying me.
“So . . . you aren’t really mad at me, are you?” he said.
“Hmph!” I turned up my nose. I felt like being bratty. Mainly because I’d feel stupid and self-conscious otherwise.
“Come on, Ash,” coaxed Olté. “You know you’re in the wrong here.”
It was true. He’d done the right thing. But I wouldn’t let him know that.
“Fine,” I said, sulking. “Even though you’re awful, I’ll forgive you . . . IF you let me see it.”
“You know.” I pointed.
“Forget it!” He brought both hands to his eyepatch.
But those were my terms. His right eye – I wanted to see it more than anything. That was the reason for everything – his exile; why he wasn’t counted as one of us; the reason we had to sneak our friendship.
“Then I’m leaving and you won’t be seeing me again for at least a week!” I said.
“Okay,” he said, saluting. “See ya!”
I snarled and marched to the door. He said nothing until I put a hand on the knob. At that point, he let out a grumble. “Wait.”
I smiled to myself and turned slowly back to him. “Yes?”
“YES?” I said again.
I blinked. It had worked? Really? My face lit up. Awesome! I’d only gotten to see his forbidden eye once before, and that had been an accident. Another of my intrusive bargings.
“Wonderful,” I said, more than pleased with myself.
Olté groaned. “Why, Ash? Why that? It’s gross.”
“It’s NOT gross. It’s . . .”
But, sighing, he didn’t wait for me to find a word for the patched thing. He walked to the edge of his bed, took a seat, and patted the space next to him. I vehemently plopped down.
“I can’t help it.”
“You get worked up about the strangest things.”
He was stalling. I urged him along.
“Fine. Fine,” he said. And, slower than I’d have liked, he brought his hands to the back of his head and began to undo the tie. A moment later, the patch fell onto his lap, but his right eye remained closed.
“Open it,” I ordered.
He rolled his left eye, but he was only half-convincing. He was . . . nervous? That was stupid. He was stupid.
“Tch. It’s not like I’ll think less of you or anything,” I said.
“I know. But anyone else would. You’re broken.”
It hurt a little, though I tried not to let it show. “Or maybe the rest of them are broken,” I said. “Maybe we’re the only two that aren’t.”
“Heh.” He liked that. And, cautiously, he allowed his lid to rise.
It wasn’t a bad gasp, but Olté flinched anyway, so I brought my hand to his cheek and pulled his face closer so that I could take in all the secrets of his right eye. I bored mine deeply into his and reached for the forbidden tones hidden there. His left eye was blue. Like mine. Like everyone’s. But his right eye? His right eye was–
“An abomination,” he mumbled. He dropped it to the safety of the floor.
“No!” I seized his other cheek so that he’d look at me. The taboo iris was green. Bright green and flecked with pieces of amber. “No,” I said again. I shook my head. “It isn’t anything like that, Olté. It’s . . . so beautiful.”
The word hit him like energy and made both eyes widen. At that time, I didn’t understand why. I just continued to study the intricacy of his right eye more deeply than ever. But he was staring at me for a different reason.
“Ash?” He gulped.
“Hurry and grow up a little bit more, would you?” he whispered.
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