Page 7

 Ally Condie

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But I realize that told me nothing.
In the Society, we don’t call out beyond our own bodies, the walls of our rooms. When we scream it is only in the world of our own dreams, and I have never been sure who hears.
I glanced over to make sure that no one was watching, and then I bent down and in the snow near the wall I wrote an E for Eli’s name.
When I finished, I wanted more.
These branches will be my bones, I thought, and the paper will be my heart and skin, the places that feel everything. I broke more branches into pieces: a shinbone, a thighbone, arm bones. They had to be in segments so they would move when I did. I slid them up into the legs of my plainclothes and down into my sleeves.
Then I stood up to move.
It’s a strange feeling, I thought, like my bones are walking along with me on the outside of my body.
“Cassia Reyes,” someone said behind me.
I turned around in surprise. A woman looked back at me, her features unremarkable. She wore a standard-issue gray coat, like mine, and her hair and eyes were brown or gray; it was hard to say. She looked cold. I couldn’t tell how long she’d been watching me.
“I have something that belongs to you,” she said. “It was sent in from the Outer Provinces.”
I didn’t answer. Ky had taught me that sometimes silence was best.
“I cannot guarantee your safety,” the woman said. “I can only guarantee the authenticity of the items. But if you come with me, I’ll take you to them.”
She stood up and began walking. In moments she’d be out of sight.
So I followed her. When she heard me coming, she slowed down and let me catch up. We walked, not speaking, along streets and past buildings, beyond the edges of the pools of light from the streetlamps and then to a snarled wire fence enclosing an enormous grassy field, pitted with rubble. Ghostly white plastic coverings on the ground billowed and breathed in and out with the passing breeze.
She ducked through a gap in the fence and I did, too.
“Stay close,” she said. “This field is an old Restoration site. There are holes everywhere.”
As I followed her, I realized with excitement where I must be going. To the Archivists’ real hiding place, not the Museum where they did superficial, surface trading. I was going to the place where the Archivists must store things, where they themselves went to exchange poems and papers and information and who knew what else. As I skirted the holes in the ground and listened to the wind rustle the plastic coverings, I knew that I should be afraid, and somewhere deep inside, I was.
“You’re going to have to wear this,” the woman said, once we were in the middle of the field. She pulled out a dark piece of fabric. “I need to tie it over your eyes.”
I cannot guarantee your safety.
“All right,” I said, and turned my back to her.
When she was finished tying the cloth, she held me by the shoulders. “I’m going to spin you around,” she said.
A little laugh escaped me. I couldn’t help it. “Like a game from First School,” I said, remembering when we covered our eyes with our hands and played children’s games on the lawns of the Borough during leisure hours.
“A little bit like that,” she agreed, and then she spun me, and the world whirled around me dark and chill and whispering. I thought of Ky’s compass then, with its arrow that could always tell you where north was no matter how often you turned, and I felt the familiar sharp pain that I always had when I thought of the compass, and how I traded his gift away.
“You’re very trusting,” she said.
I didn’t answer. Back in Oria, Ky had told me that Archivists were no better or worse than anyone else, so I wasn’t certain I could trust her, but I felt that I had to take the risk. She held my arm and I walked with her, lifting my feet awkwardly, trying not to step on anything. The ground felt cold and hard under my feet but every now and then I felt the give of grass, something that had once been growing.
She stopped and I heard the rasp of her pulling something away. Plastic, I thought, that white sheeting covering the remains of the buildings. “It’s underground,” she said. “We’ll go down a set of stairs, and then we’ll reach a long hallway. Go very slowly.”
I waited but she didn’t move.
“You first,” she said.
I put my hands up to the walls, which were close and tight, and felt old bricks covered in moss. I scuffed my foot forward and took one step down.
“How will I know when I’ve reached the end?” I asked her, and the words and the way I used them made me think of the poem from the Carving, the one I loved the best of those I found in the farmers’ library cave, the one that always seemed to speak of my journey to Ky:
I did not reach Thee
But my feet slip nearer every day
Three Rivers and a Hill to cross
One Desert and a Sea
I shall not count the journey one
When I am telling thee.
When I reached the last step, my foot slipped, just like in the poem.
“Keep going,” she said from behind me. “Use the wall to guide you.”
I dragged my right hand along the bricks while dirt crumbled among my fingers, and after a time I felt the walls open up into the space of a large room beyond. My feet echoed along the ground and I heard different sounds; feet shifting, people breathing. I knew we were not alone.
“This way,” the woman said, and she took my arm to guide me. We moved away from the sounds of others.
“Stop,” the woman said. “When I take off the blindfold,” she told me, “you’ll see the items that someone arranged to be delivered to you. You may notice that several are missing. They were the payment for delivery, agreed upon by the sender.”
“All right,” I said.
“Take your time to look things over,” she said. “Someone will come back to escort you out.”
It took me a moment—I was disoriented and the place underground was dim—to understand what I was seeing. After a moment, I realized that I was walled-in by two rows of long, empty metal shelves. They looked slick and clean, as if someone cared for them and smoothed away their dust, but even so they reminded me of the crypt of a tomb we saw once in one of the Hundred History Lessons, where there were little caves full of bones and people carved in stone on top of boxes. So much death, the Society told us, with no chance of life afterward. There was no tissue preservation then.
In the middle of the shelf in front of me, I saw a large packet wrapped in thick plastic. When I pulled back the top edge of the plastic, I found paper. The pages I brought out of the Carving. The smell of water and dust, sandstone, seemed to come up from the paper.
Ky. He managed to send them to me.
I put my hands flat on the papers, breathing in, holding on. He touched these too.
In my mind, a stream ran and snow fell, and we said good-bye on the bank, and I took to the water and he ran alongside it, bringing these words the length of the river.
I turned through the papers, looking at each page. And in that cold metal aisle, alone, I wanted him. I wanted his hands at my back and his lips speaking poems on mine and our journey to each other to be completed, the miles between us consumed and all distance closed.
A figure appeared at the end of the shelves. I held the papers against my chest and backed up a few steps.
“Is everything all right?” someone asked, and I realized it was the same woman who had brought me. She came closer, the yellow-white circle of her flashlight directed down at my feet and not at my face to blind me. “Have you had enough time to look?”
“Everything appears to be here,” I said. “Except for three poems, which I assume are the price you mentioned for the trade.”
“Yes,” she said. “If that’s all you need, then you can go. Come out of the shelves and cross the room. There’s only one door. Take the stairs back out.”
No blindfold this time? “But then I’ll know where we are,” I said. “I’ll know how to come back.”
She smiled. “Exactly.” Her gaze lingered on the papers. “You can trade here, if you like. No need to go to the Museum with a cache like that.”
“Would I be an Archivist then?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “You’d be a trader.”
For a moment, I thought she said traitor, which of course I was, to the Society. But then she went on. “Archivists work with traders. But Archivists are different. We’ve had specific training, and we can recognize forgeries that the average trader would never notice.” She paused and I nodded to show I understood the importance of what she was saying. “If you bargain with a trader alone, you have no guarantee of authenticity. Archivists are the only ones with adequate knowledge and resources to ascertain whether or not information or articles are genuine. Some say the faction of Archivists is older than the Society.”
She glanced down at the pages in my hands and then back up at me. “Sometimes a trade comes through with items worth noting,” she says. “Your papers, for example. You can trade them one at a time, if you like. But they will have more value as a group. The larger the collection, the higher the price you can get. And if we see potential in you, you may be allowed to broker others’ trades on our behalf and collect part of the fee.”
“Thank you,” I said. Then, thinking of the words of the Thomas poem, which Ky always thought I might be able to trade, I asked, “What about poems that are remembered?”
“You mean, poems with no paper document to back them up?” she asked.
“There was a time when we would accept those, though the value was less,” she said. “That is no longer the case.”
I should have assumed as much, from the way the Archivist in Tana reacted when I tried to trade with the Tennyson poem. But I thought that the Thomas poem, unknown to anyone except Ky and me, might have been an exception. Still, I had a wealth of possibility, thanks to Ky.
“You can store your items here,” the Archivist said. “The fee is minimal.”
Instinctively, I drew back. “No,” I told her. “I’ll find somewhere else.”
She raised her eyebrows at me. “Are you certain you have a secure place?” she asked, and I thought of the cave where the pages had been safe for so long, and the compact where Grandfather kept the first poems hidden for years. And I knew where I’d hide my papers.
I’ve burned words and buried them, I thought, but I haven’t tried the water yet.
In a way, I think it was Indie who gave me the idea of where to hide the papers. She always talked about the ocean. And even more than that, it might have been her odd, oblique manner of thinking—the way she looked at things sideways, upside down, instead of straight on, seeing truth from unexpected and awkward angles.
“I want to trade for something right away, tonight,” I told the Archivist, and she looked disappointed. As though I were a child who was about to spend all these fragile beautiful words on something shiny and false.
“What do you need?” she asked.
“A box,” I said. “One that fire can’t burn, and that won’t let in water or air or earth. Can you find something like that?”