[Read Part One here.]
There was another door at the bottom. A few scattered lights, smaller than her palm, had illuminated the spiraled stairs. Down here there was even less light, just enough to see the second door. Also black.
The Free Widow twisted and squeezed around Jane in the tiny space at the bottom of the stairs. She reached out a hand, pressed her palm to the door, and traced those same symbols again. At least Jane thought they were the same symbols. Numbers. The Free Widow knew numbers.
“How many numbers are there?” she asked.
The Free Widow smiled. “More than there are words made of Letters.”
And then stared again when the numbers began to glow. It was a subtle, soft light, red.
Jane wondered if the first set of numbers had glowed, as well, but she had just not noticed. Perhaps there had been too much light upstairs, up there in the world, the world of Fathers and Husbands, for her to see the glow. Soft and red.
A click and the Free Widow turned the handle and pushed the door open. It swung in silently, gaping wide on its hinges.
Twelve females waited on the far side of the door. Different ages, different skin and eye colors. All bareheaded and barefooted. And, along the far wall, an unblooded Daughter, hair curling, a tray in her hands with a pot and a brush. Twelve dresses lay neatly folded along the wall beside her.
Which is when Jane realized that their clothes were wrong. Their clothing was … loose. Almost like a blanket thrown around their shoulders, to hang flowing almost to the floor, sweeping over their toes. Jane could not see their shapes. She could not see the forms of their bodies.
It was disturbing.
A third gentle touch to her shoulder. This time, Jane did not startle and squeak. This time, she recognized the gentleness of the touch, the intended comfort. So rare, so unusual. When had she last known such a touch? Father’s Second Wife, holding her hand as she led Jane through the park or through the Nutrition Hub? So long ago.
Jane stepped into the room.
The Free Widow followed, the door closing softly in their wake. From the corner of her eye, Jane saw the Free Widow trace symbols on the door again, and again they glowed a soft red. Then the Free Widow turned and pressed her hands to her heart.
“Sisters, may you offer greetings to Jane. She has come to us for transport and she is willing to render the necessary sacrifice.”
Sisters? What was this word? Jane did not know this word.
The twelve women studied her for a moment, some straight and still, others with tilted heads and narrowed eyes. Then, gradually, one by one, each pressed her hands to her heart and spoke.
“I offer you greetings, Jane, Sister. In honor of our Mothers and our Daughters, I welcome you and offer you transport and thank you for your sacrifice.”
Mothers? Jane did not know this word, either.
And our Daughters? Our? Daughters belonged to Fathers, and then to Husbands as Wives. And then to new a Husband if the first shed his physical form and ascended to join the Fathers in Heaven Above and they were sold in a new Rite of Ownership.
(Except the Free Widows. Robed in black, Rings of Ownership around their necks, so that all who looked upon them knew that the Husband who had owned them had freed them before he ascended to Heaven Above. How often had Jane dreamt of being a Free Widow, yet known that it would never be?)
One by one they spoke, hands pressed to their hearts, two, three, four, twelve.
One female moved closer to Jane, the blanket-thing swishing around her shoulders and over her toes.”You understand the purpose of this rite, of the mission of the Magdalene, and the role you play?”
Jane nodded. “Yes.” Her voice did not shake, and for that she was proud.
“Then speak the words aloud.”
Jane tilted her chin up. “I come to you, Magdalene, and I ask you for transport. Away from this place. Away from the world of the Fathers, to the world as it was before.”
“And what will you do to secure this transport?”
Jane drew a breath. “Sacrifice the seed Husband has planted in me.”
“And what will you do when you arrive in the world as it was before?”
“I will speak of what I have known here. I will write, I will share through my gift of Letters, and ensure that this world of the Fathers never comes to be.”
Silence. One by one, the other females nodded, and the unblooded Daughter smiled.
The female who stood before Jane held out her hand, palm steady. There was no Ring on this other female’s finger, only a mark that showed where it should be. “Remove your Ring.”
Jane bit the inside of her lip. Her muscles were too tense again and her arm began to shake. None of the females, Jane now noticed, wore Rings.
The other female waited. All of the other females waited. But there was no anger to it, no anxiety or frustration. It was patient and calm, comforting, like the touch of the Free Widow.
Jane drew a breath and slowly exhaled. She lifted her hand, stared down at the Ring of Ownership for a moment, then lifted her other hand. And pulled. She tugged and twisted and pulled again, yanked, gritted her teeth. Her flesh resisted. She pulled harder, tasted blood in her mouth. Her fingers were slick, and she realized that her hand was bleeding, too.
Flesh tore and the Ring of Ownership ripped free.
It clattered to the floor.
Wood, Jane realized dully. The floor was wood. So unexpected, when the few trees were reserved for the use of the Fathers.
She bent, picked up the Ring. The metal was still warm, and still slick, stained red. She held it up, stared at it, and only then realized that the females and the Free Widow were smiling and nodding in approval.
She dropped the Ring into the other female’s open palm. The other female closed her hand tight and waved her arm wide. The blanket-thing rippled, revealing that the other female was nude.
There were no bruises on her body.
At least, none that Jane could see.
What sort of Husband did not bruise his Wife?
A thought almost as disturbing as the clothing worn by these females.
“Please,” the other female was saying, arm still thrown wide, “remove your clothing and step into the circle.”
Jane saw it then, the circle embedded in the wooden floor. It was also wood, but darker, and was just wide enough that she could stretch out on her back and barely touch the far sides. There were other, smaller, circles that were evenly spaced around its edges. Thirteen, thirteen smaller circles. And more strange symbols written on the wood in chalk (or paint?), in a dizzying spiral that seemed to loop in and out simultaneously, streaks of meaningful gibberish that ran back and forth between the center of the large circle and the smaller circles and back and forth again.
It made her head hurt to look at it.
And her finger still hurt from ripping off the Ring of Ownership.
Yes. The Ring was gone.
Her Ownership was gone.
She could not go back now. Would not go back now.
She was not Owned. Husband did not Own her. Not now. Not ever again.
She smiled at the realization, at the epiphany racing through the body, from her bleeding finger and through her chest and her head and into her belly and down her legs. Her knees shook, and she laughed.
The other females seemed to understand. Even the unblooded Daughter, tray in her hands. They waited, patient, smiling. They waited and watched as Jane reached around and ripped at the laces holding her dress tight. She snarled and tore. She should not be able to remove it alone. The dresses were designed that way, with one female binding another.
But Jane was not Owned anymore. She would not be bound by the Fathers’ clothing.
She huffed and cried and twisted and tore and clawed, bloodying her own skin, until the dress was shreds scattered across the floor, bits of cloth. She stood among the ruins and rags, panting, sweat itching her bare scalp.
The Free Widow nodded. She, too, had abandoned her dress (folded neatly by the door) for a flowing blanket-thing. “Well done,” the Free Widow said. “You are ready.”
Jane stepped through the spirals of meaningful gibberish, over the circles, into the very center. Her legs moved, knees together at first, but spreading wider and wider with each step. Unbound. Small steps to larger steps, toes gripping the wood, feeling the breeze of her movement across her thighs. So strange, so wonderful.
She knelt, then, with a motion from the Free Widow, lowered herself to the floor. She stretched out on her back, legs straight, arms at her sides. For a moment, a brief and horrible moment, she was in Husband’s bed, waiting for him to mount her.
But no. This was not that place. And she would never be in that place ever again.
Twelve of the other females, including the Free Widow, moved into the smaller circles. They stood, hands over their hearts, breathing slowly in and out, in and out. Jane watched as the thirteenth female, a scar marring her right cheek, moved into the center circle.
“How will you know?” Jane’s voice was barely above a whisper. “How will you know that I have been transported to the world as it was before?”
The scarred female canted her head to the side. “We will not. That is the paradox of the rite, the mystery at the heart of the mathematics. We will never know how many times we tried and failed, or tried and succeeded. Because none of this will ever be.”
There was no sadness in her voice at this. Only determination and strength.
The unblooded Daughter appeared next to the scarred woman, tray in her hands.
Oh. No. Not a Daughter. The blanket moved, swinging, and Jane could see that this child was a Neither.
Father’s Second Wife had birthed a Neither, and then another. Both had Gone Away.
(The Fathers, in their Wisdom and Compassion and Love, had declared the Truth that there was only male and only female. And that to be both or neither was to be Nothing. And such Neithers who were Nothing had no place in the prosperous and peaceful creation the Fathers had created.)
(Jane could still remember the weeping and wailing of the Second Wife when the babes had Gone Away.)
(Father’s other Wives had ignored her cries, just as Husband’s other Wives had ignored Jane’s own cries when they had revealed the pregnancy.)
But this Neither had not Gone Away. This Neither stood with the females, a tray in their hands.
The scarred female seemed to see the question in Jane’s face. “We rescued them, and now we are teaching them. Though it means they can never leave this place.” The scarred female sat back, kneeling beside Jane. “Now lie still. You are the center of the equation, the focus of the working. The mathematics must be perfect.”
Paradox. Equation. Mathematics. More words Jane did not know, but she did as the female said. She laid still, angling her eyes to watch as the Neither set down the tray, then picked up the small pot and the brush. The Neither bent over Jane, brows drawn together in concentration, brush slowly stirring the pot. And then the Neither offered Jane a smile and began to draw. They slid the brush back and forth across Jane’s belly, down over her thighs, over her shaven mound, over her ribs and breasts and throat. The paint, white like the spirals of symbols on the wooden floor, was cool. As it dried, it pulled at Jane’s skin.
The Neither sat back and waited.
The scarred female studied the symbols — the mathematics — that had been drawn across Jane’s flesh. After long moments, she smiled. “Well done,” she said to the Neither who grinned, proud, and then gathered up the tray and pot and brush and moved back to the far side of the room.
“Close your eyes,” the scarred female said to Jane. “Breathe. The sacrifice should be enough. There should be enough energy for the working. But, if not, it will take something from you.”
Jane did not answer. As the scarred female moved away, stepping into her own circle, Jane cast one last glance up at the Free Widow. The Free Widow, in turn, smiled down at Jane, her eyes still closed, her hands slowly rising until her fingertips touched those of the females to either side of her.
Jane closed her eyes. She held still. So still, as she heard the females begin to move around her. The soft patting of their feet against the wood, the sound growing louder, stronger. The swishing of fabric as the blanket-things swirled, round and round. The females moved faster and faster, feet striking the wood, hands clapping, voices rising, rising, rising. They were singing, singing numbers that Jane did not know, and she was rising, too. Jane was rising, the wooden floor no longer beneath her back and legs. She rose, higher and higher. Air gusted around her, pulled at her flesh where the paint had dried.
There was a sudden tightness in her belly.
And then there was light and the wind was gone and she was spinning and falling and spinning and falling and she could no longer hear the voices of the other females, only her own screams as she fell —
[Read the conclusion here.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]