A/N:This story was originally published in Skyline Review, Winter 2008.
"I know a way that leads from these caves to the World Above," Kali whispered to Paul as they swept up ashes from the great fireplaces. It was their first task since waking but she already felt tired. Her back and joints were still sore from the day before and the day before that and . . .
I was born down here, she thought. Why do I keep wishing for more? Was it because of those stories Mother used to tell me when I was little?
"Really?" Paul almost set down his dustpan but Kali motioned to him to keep working. His raspy breathing scratched at her ears. The fumes and soot from the constant fires was irritating his asthma. The overseer was watching them and wearing a nasty expression. "I remember that world, New Eden, but I was too little to recall much before I was Banished down here." His eyes grew distant, wistful. "I was Banished because of my illness. Only perfect people are allowed to remain in New Eden." His bitter voice broke on a cough. "Didn't you say your mother was from there?"
Kali nodded and forced herself to keep shoveling. She blinked back sudden tears. Her mother Joanna, who had run New Eden's library, had been Banished for her insistence in adding materials that were deemed by New Eden's Oracles to be inappropriate for the citizens. Joanna had become pregnant down here after her Banishment, something that never happened in New Eden since everyone was cloned. Kali never knew who her father was. Perhaps he had died along with her mother, in the epidemic that had swept through the caves a few years ago.
At least she taught me to read, Kali thought sadly, struggling to focus on her work. Among the forbidden materials she had managed to confiscate was a map displaying a possible exit from the caves. Maybe after everyone goes to sleep, Paul and I can search for it. If we're successful, we can return for others. I still don't know how we'll get past the guards though. And—
Her thoughts were shattered by Paul's coughing. He was doubled over, nearly kneeling in the ashes.
"That's enough of that," yelled the watchful overseer, a burly, bald man. He whacked Paul with his stick, sending the boy toppling into the ashes.
Kali could feel her face growing hot. She dropped the dustpan and rose to her feet, glaring up at the man through wisps of dark, tangled hair. She had been pushed around enough by these overseers, and beaten plenty of times, but still became enraged when she saw others, especially those younger than her, abused.
"Can't you see that he's sick?" she shouted, straightening her shoulders. She tensed instinctively, realizing she had overstepped her bounds.
"It don't matter," the overseer snapped, raising his stick. "There's always more being Banished. If some of you die, you'll be replaced."
Kali dodged as he swung his stick and ran. She could hear his cursing as he chased her past the cages where the animals were kept for slaughter, past the looms where the weavers were creating the colorful, silken garments that those living in the World Above would wear.
Go to the right, Kali's thoughts urged. According to Mother's map, that led to the way out.
The corridor, which wasn't lit with the dull oil lamps that filled most of the chambers down here, branched to the left. It grew narrower and the ceiling lower, forcing her to slow down, until she finally had to drop onto her hands and knees and crawl. The overseer's steps grew fainter, more distant.
"Aw, it don't matter," Kali heard him mutter. "She'll just get lost and die of starvation."
Concern for Paul squeezed at her as she continued to crawl forward through the tight corridor. Would he be all right? If this corridor did lead outside, would she be able to get help?
Sweat coated her skin and stung her eyes. She occasionally scraped against jagged rocks but ignored the jolts of pain. Her back ached.
Kali was tempted to turn back and face whatever punishment awaited her for her insolence when a scent wafted down the dark corridor.
It was an unfamiliar smell, but pleasant, so unlike the heavy fumes that smothered her world.
Light was trickling in. Not the dim yellow glow of the oil lamps but something much brighter; something that she heard her mother, among the others who had been Banished, whispering about. Something called the "sun."
Her heart racing with sudden nervousness, her body sore and exhausted, Kali forced herself to continue. Her muscles burned, her throat was dry. . . she couldn't remember when she had last eaten or drunk anything but still she continued, crawling through that cramped, dark space.
A light-headed sensation struck Kali when she saw a glow ahead, making her feel as if she were in the middle of a dream.
Struggling to ignore her aching limbs and burning throat, she pulled herself through the tiny hole, the place that had been indicated on her mother's map. "Thank you, mother," she whispered. "If it hadn't been for your map, I would have missed this entirely." Push, scrape, push, scrape. . . Kali was fleetingly grateful that she was so poorly fed: she barely fit through the tiny hole as it was.
Her eyes watered against the fulgent light as her head emerged. Closing them momentarily, she forced herself the rest of the way through the opening and tumbled onto something soft and slightly moist.
Kali blinked furiously, trying to open her eyes but the blinding colors—shades that she never knew existed—hurt so badly that she had to shut her eyes and rub them in an effort to refocus.
She lay still for several moments, drawing in pleasant but unfamiliar scents. The sun overhead felt warm against her skin and made the insides of her lids glow a deep red. The only light she had ever known was the dull yellowish oil lamps that lit the caverns. Her mother's stories and the whispered descriptions of others who'd been Banished, had given Kali a picture of the sun as an enormous oil lamp. She'd certainly never expected it to be so warm or so bright.
She sat up slowly and at last opened her eyes. Burning tears spilled down her cheeks as her eyes strained to absorb the overwhelming colors. Trees contrasted the bright blue sky with rich green shades. Through them, Kali caught a glimpse of a lake that was an even deeper blue than the sky. The hills that surrounded the valley were coated with more colors than she ever could have imagined.
Kali froze as she caught sight of several people hurrying toward her. They were all, male and female, almost identical in appearance with skin and hair a medium dun shade. They looked similar to her mother and many of the other Banished. According to some of her mother's forbidden books, the World Before had been filled with people that came in all different colors, shapes, and sizes. However, this created an intolerable Chaos, something that had to be rectified if the human race was to survive. All races were eventually blended into a single one and it was from that one race that the clones had been developed. Any clone that showed a hint of Chaos, whose appearance favored a distinct race, was instantly Banished.
Kali's dread deepened as she studied the clones' clothes, which were made of fine silks, the workmanship of the underground weavers. She was sure to stand out in her coarse, soot-coated rags.
Her vision blurred and spun, her body grew limp. When did I last have anything to eat or drink? she wondered as her consciousness slipped away.
Whispered questions rasped in her ears. "Where did she come from?"
"How did she get so filthy?"
Her consciousness faded.
Kali came slowly awake. She was lying on something soft and was draped with silken sheets.
She opened her eyes and sat up. She was in a bed, objects that she had seen being made in the caverns but which she had never lay in. Everyone underground slept on coarse, straw pallets on the hard-packed earth. Since there were no coverings for the pallets, Kali was accustomed to waking up itchy and irritable.
The room was small and bright with the sunlight streaming in through an opening. Everything was brilliantly colored: the flowered sheets covering the bed, the gauzy curtains pulled back from the window, the pale gold walls. So different from the caverns with their endless gnarled walls and ceilings, blackened by smoke and soot.
As Kali slid from the bed, she noticed that she had been bathed and was garbed in a silken robe with billowy sleeves. Her bare feet sunk into the soft carpet. These unexpected pleasures filled her with a euphoria that was released in a giggle. So this was the World Above, New Eden! No wonder Mother and the other Banished had always looked so wistful whenever they spoke of it.
"You're awake. That's good," said a voice at the doorway.
Startled, Kali turned around. A woman entered, trailed by another who was carrying a platter of food. "You passed out from dehydration. You are fine now that we injected you with fluids but you really should eat and drink some fireberry juice. It was downright silly for you to go for so long without nourishing yourself. Is that how you became so thin? What were you thinking?"
Kali stared at both women in stunned silence. They resembled the other New Eden denizens with their medium dun skin and hair and eyes that seemed to be a muddy blend of all colors. And, had the one who'd spoken not been several years older than the other, they could have passed for identical twins.
Clones. . . Kali reminded herself.
"We're sorry," continued the older woman, motioning for the younger to set the tray upon a small round table that stood in the middle of the room. She took Kali's hand and led her to it. "It's just that we've never seen anyone quite like you." She brushed a wisp of hair from Kali's eyes and stared at the girl's face.
Kali swallowed. Her insides tensed. "Chaos" was what the Banished had called any differences in New Eden. "Chaos" was the reason many of them had been Banished. Did these clone women view her as "Chaos?"
"I've never seen such dark hair," the older woman said.
"And those eyes," the younger murmured in a slightly breathless voice. "They are such a pale gray they look almost silver and are specked with gold. How did you get such eyes?"
I wasn't cloned. These words died in Kali's throat. All she could do was shrug.
"You are in the House of Deborah, the Healer House," said the older woman. "Both of us are Deborah. This is my assistant, training to take my place when I reach the age of fifty. The age when I shall leave New Eden and retire to the House of Bliss."
A sudden chill iced Kali's stomach. She had heard that term among the Banished, those who had been sent away from New Eden because they were too old. She knew of the bitterness and disappointment they carried; instead of ending up in the lovely, restful place they had expected, they spent the rest of their lives slaving away with the other Banished in the caverns.
Should I warn the older Deborah of her fate? Kali wondered, briefly studying the fine wrinkles that delicately webbed her eyes. It most likely wouldn't be long. . . .
"What is your name, girl?" asked the younger Deborah, interrupting her thoughts.
"Kali." Her own whisper scraped against her ears. It was the first word she had been able to release.
"Kali?" Younger Deborah gasped. "I've never heard of such a name. What House do you belong to?"
Oh, no! Kali bit her lip. She remembered what her mother and others had told her, that each set of clones was in charge of a different House, or occupation. The Deborah clones ran the House of Healing. Their features differed slightly from those of other Houses to avoid confusion but all citizens looked remarkably similar. Younger Deborah was the clone of the elder and training to be her replacement. Eventually she, too, would be replaced by a newer clone.
Kali stared up at the young woman, trying to think of an answer. She wasn't a clone, developed in a test tube and then placed into a Birthing Mother. Instead, she had been born naturally, from a real mother.
"That's enough questions for now," chided Elder Deborah. "The poor girl has had a rough day. Eat Kali. Your food is getting cold and you desperately need the nourishment."
Kali stared down at the food: fine strips of meat in a delicate sauce, crisp vegetables, and a glass of bright red fireberry juice. The mingled scents made Kali's mouth water. How often had she worked at helping to prepare such feasts but never allowed to taste? She felt hesitant now, half expecting to get whacked for even thinking of sneaking a bite.
"Is it all right for me to eat this?" she asked timidly. "I've helped prepare these meals but I've never—"
"Y-you're an angel?" Younger Deborah stammered.
"That explains why she looks so different," gasped Elder Deborah. She bowed to Kali. "Please accept our apologies for any rudeness or discomfort we may have caused you," she whispered. "We've never met an angel before, we didn't know. . .
An angel! They think I'm an angel? Kali had learned from the Banished that the denizens of New Eden were taught that angels from heaven provided them with all of their comforts: food, clothes. . . things that seemingly just appeared on a daily basis.
She felt herself grinning. Perhaps, in that respect, I am an angel!
"Please eat," Elder Deborah continued. "When you are feeling strong enough, we'd like to introduce you to the others. We've never had an actual angel visit us before."
Kali eagerly focused on her food as the women turned to leave.
The meat was tender, cut into slender strips and covered with a flavorful sauce. The vegetables were crisp and coated with melted butter. The fireberry juice was sweet yet tangy and left her feeling oddly calm.
Kali devoured her meal, never having tasted anything so delicious. She was used to tough, gristly meat and limp, tasteless vegetables.
Over the next few days, the Deborahs introduced Kali to many of New Eden's denizens: Jacob of the House of Cloning, Mary the Nurturer who took care of the young clones in the Community Playpen until they were old enough to join their Houses, and Joanna the Librarian.
A twinge of melancholy jolted through Kali as she met the latter woman, a woman whose face was not unique among the other denizens but that she still knew so well. But this Joanna was merely a replacement, a duplicate of the mother she had once known and so, of course, showed no hint of recognition.
Kali did recognize all the New Edeners as younger or perfected versions of those who made up the Banished. They in turn marveled at her differences and bowed before her, one of the angels who had floated down from heaven to visit.
"Is that how she became so filthy?" whispered those who had seen her shortly after she had emerged from the caverns. They didn't ask her this directly for fear of offending her but she did catch their whispers.
An unexpected fear clutched Kali as the Deborahs led her into the House of Oracles.
"You must have met them before," Elder Deborah whispered, holding Kali's suddenly sweaty hand. "They are the mediators between the Creator and His angels. It is they who see off those who reach fifty to the House of Bliss and who take away those who threaten 'Chaos.'"
Kali's apprehension turned to nausea as they entered a vast chamber of white marble. The sun trickling in through the skylight in the high ceiling shimmered against this brightness, making it painful for Kali to look at.
A group of white robed people were sitting at a table in the middle of the room, speaking in low voices that echoed in a subdued murmur through the chamber.
"Pardon me, your Grace," said Elder Deborah in a quavering voice. They all turned, first with annoyance, then interest as they focused on Kali. Kali longed to bolt from the room but fear turned her legs to liquid. "But we found this angel yesterday. We are honored that she has chosen to visit us and felt you should meet her."
One of the Oracles, a woman, rose from her chair and came toward them. Kali backed up a pace and stared up at the woman. She resembled the other New Edeners in coloring and facial features but was much taller.
"An angel, you say?" she said in a liquid voice as she placed her hand beneath Kali's chin. "Yes, she most certainly is. She shouldn't be down here with us. We must send her back to her proper home."
The woman reached into her robe for something.
"No!" Kali shouted as she twisted out of Elder Deborah's grasp. "I'm not an angel. My mother. . . My mother had been Banished. We—"
"Mother?" both Deborahs exclaimed.
"That's not possible," continued Elder Deborah. "The only mothers are the
Birthing Mothers in the House of Renee who carry the fetus clones to term. We know. We help with the deliveries. Unless the realm of the angels is different, you cannot have a natural mother. No one has for years, centuries. That would mean—"
"Chaos." The Head Oracle produced a large, needle-tipped syringe. Kali swallowed. So that was why none of the Banished knew the way back to New Eden. They were rendered unconscious and carried down into the caves.
Kali was vaguely aware of whispering behind her. Not just the Deborahs but also the other New Edeners. Had they followed them here out of curiosity?
Still, she couldn't focus on them. Only on her fiercely throbbing heart, the sharp needle, and the Head Oracle's chill, nondescript eyes.
The woman grabbed her arm with an iron grip. Kali drew back, twisting, struggling to release herself from the Oracle's grasp. Years of evading the overseer's swinging rods had served her well.
She slipped away and darted to the chamber's entrance where the crowd of New Eden citizens had gathered.
"The Oracles have lied to you," she called. "They do not speak to angels. Those who are called angels are among the Banished. I know. I live among them."
Gasps rose from the crowd.
"Don't listen to her," yelled the Head Oracle, her voice vibrating in sharp staccatos against the walls. "She's no angel but a demon, one who has caused 'Chaos.'"
The New Edeners were not listening. "Where do the Banished go?" someone asked. "The Oracles always refused to tell us."
"And where exactly is the House of Bliss?" another wondered. "I am scheduled go there in less than a year, on my fiftieth birthday."
"I can show you," said Kali, feeling her confidence rising. "Follow me."
She led them through the trees, past the lake to the base of the hill where she had emerged.
A few of the New Edeners stayed behind, heeding the Oracles' threats that if they followed they would be Banished. But most were too curious to care.
Kali and a few of the younger clones were small enough to fit into the opening. They followed close behind, gasping at the narrow space and the darkness they were not used to.
Kali forced herself to keep moving, keep leading. She could smell the choking smoke, see the dull, yellowish glows of the oil lamps. Nausea filled her.
After a few days above ground, the caverns were stifling. She breathed deeply, feeling as if her lungs were tightening. The air was noisome, dense.
"This is where the Banished go?" gasped one of her companions in a near-tearful voice.
"Yes, this is also what is called 'the House of Bliss,'" Kali whispered, feeling her own eyes grow moist.
"You must follow me," she shouted at the workers who stopped what they were doing to stare. "I have found a way out, a way back to New Eden."
Looks of wistful longing rippled over the faces of the Banished, gasps of curiosity from those who had been too young or, like Kali, had been born in the caverns. The young New Edeners who had managed to follow Kali, raced into the arms of their older clones.
Kali saw Paul smile at her. He dropped his dustpan and rushed to her side.
As a group, including the overseers, they followed Kali through the maze. The larger ones used shovels and axes to widen the path.
Hours later, they emerged, filthy, hot, and sweaty, into the brilliant twilight.
The New Edeners who had remained behind were still standing in a large group around the opening. Their eyes widened as they studied the grubby newcomers.
Kali looked around, her eyes hot with unshed tears, a queer warmth in her chest. There was a mixture of emotions amongst both parties. She gazed into the faces of both Deborahs. Even the Oracles had joined them.
Her eyes briefly met those of the Head Oracle. They were blank with fear.
There was joy here but Kali knew what the Head Oracle was thinking.
The "Chaos" had returned.