Those black marks that one day began appearing on people’s skin, the first symptom of the plague, took a far greater toll on those they spared than on those they killed. They blackened our minds and left us crazed victims of some divine punishment, trying to wipe away all stains with frenzied thoroughness.
When I look back on it now, it must have been during this dark winter that the first inklings of these realizations began dawning in my mind. The following year was one long preoccupation with such thoughts, and a slow and systematic organizing of them. I’ve come to believe that the early inceptions and growths of our ideas lie far anterior to the time when they first show above ground, so to speak, in our conscious mind.
I remember that it was during one of those long, dreary evenings, sitting on a cold, stone floor with buckets of nails in front of me, scraping the rust off each one with my teeth and licking it white, that an idea sprouted in my head that was to radically alter my life. If I could understand the underlying psychology which directed this religion, and the sick, upside-down logic it employed to manipulate its people, then I’d have a handle and become something a little better than either a victim or an escapee.
I became quite a philosopher when I was made to shut up these several years. But this practice saved my life and rendered me whatever I am today.
I was still without hope and continually sickly but survived the first year and on through the following winter and spring. Not a few of my sullen comrades died during that period. There was no such thing as a sick leave for us, or even a doctor, and we crept to work whatever our condition, supported by our fellows if we were too weak to walk. We died at our posts while our fellows rang their pathetic bells to signalize it.
It was apparent to me that our order was fast dying out. There were never any replacements or new recruits. Almost all of us suffered from gastrointestinal disorders and malnutrition. The paint that I was constantly swallowing was slowly poisoning my own system. It was supposed to be non-toxic but my joints began to ache and I sometimes fainted, like all my companions.
The only good thing that came out of their deaths was my own promotion; first, after a year of hard service to canister-filler, then, after the unlucky fall of our group leader from a ceiling beam to staff-wielder.
There was one general supervisor who managed all the squads and whose job it was to inform the group leaders of their assignments. He sometimes watched us when we worked and so I made it a point to look smart when he was nearby. When our leader fell to his death I was chosen to succeed. The others resented this at first, as I was in a way the youngest of the group.
But I quickly changed their opinion of me by never using my staff, except in a sort of showy way when the supervisor was nearby. He also grew to like me as I was quick to understand his meaning and prove it by my gestures and nods. He was short-tempered, probably from dealing with mutes most of the time and was glad to have one underling who could faithfully and quickly carry out his orders.
Even though I gained no privileges from this promotion and continued to share the same poor diet with my men, my health slowly improved. I was now free from drinking paint and could stand and watch while others worked. I again began thinking of escape, but I put it off. It was still winter and I was waiting for spring, when the forests would brim with edible life, which I knew very well how to pluck.
But other things conspired to alter these plans. As spring came my alacrity gained me yet another advancement. It happened one day that my friendly supervisor was reading to me a list of the places we were to purify that week. One of the symbols on his wax tablet had smeared and he paused over it a minute. But he noticed that I myself bent over the wax to see if I could unriddle it. He looked at me in amazement and then handed me the tablet and I silently read it, moving my lips. Then he handed me his stylus and bid me write on the opposing leaf two simple names which he spoke. I did this and showed him my knowledge of the language I had long ago deciphered.
The language was a simple one. It was another one of those strange compromises which the new order was forced to make when its leaders condemned all old style print. But I must admit that their shifts were sometimes ingenious.
Besides burning all the books they could lay their hands on, they wanted to destroy the alphabet and all possibility of reading the old stuff. As they only worked in white they adopted the Roman practice of writing and keeping records on wax tablets. These were thick films of wax which were spread on two wooden boards which could be closed and protected like a book, and used and erased many times.
For their meaning they employed a series of symbols, somewhat like Egyptian hieroglyphs, pictographs that stood in place of our own syllables and phonemes. From my own identity card I was able to decipher three of these symbols and I was often handed letters with the addresses distinctly placed, the names of which told me what the other fifty symbols meant.
Numbers were even more simply coded by different patterns of dots. Our identity cards held several of these configurations, denoting the districts and streets to which we were assigned, for work and sleep, along with our meal tickets. All this information was encoded by numbers which officials could check in the streets with a quick feel. For the dots were embossed on our white, plastic cards so that a blind man could read them, so great was the state's fear of even the appearance of reading.
From these identification cards and tablets came a whole, huge bureaucracy, with its many agencies and departments, trying to keep track of its people and wares and works, a thing inconceivable without written records. And ancillary to these developments came the messenger service to which I once belonged.
We couriers were never taught the codes but being in daily possession of so many examples of it, and given my philological background, my voracious appetite for reading, and the total lack of any other material, it wasn’t long before I was an adept in this language, and an avid reader. The letters they handed me were never sealed because they thought their code was secret enough.
The code of this city, White Van, was the same as the one I remembered and gave me no pause. All the cities must have made a concerted effort to standardize their records long ago, or perhaps the whole idea originated and spread from a single source. When my superior realized that I knew it, he was baffled and amazed. But I continued writing on the tablet, since I dare not speak, that I had once been a special envoy for the city of White Oak and entrusted with these secrets.
The next day I was taken away for a few hours from my troop to the temple and shown to several priests as if I were a spectacle, and drilled again in my knowledge of the language. I passed the test but nothing seemed to come of it, since I was sent back to my post and continued in my daily routine for the next few weeks.
Then one late afternoon I was called aside by my supervisor and handed a blank tablet. He said he had need of a scribe and would borrow me for the next few hours. My lickers could manage well enough on their own.
I took down a letter about a clique of priests in the temple who somehow intercepted and meddled with my boss’ correspondence. He directed me to the office of a certain priest in the temple and told me to wait there and make sure the message was not only read but erased, and then to bring back any reply.
From that day on I was borrowed many times and began to be used not only by my superior but by two other managers and the priests in frequent correspondence with them. I still ate and lodged with my fellows but spent hours each day on errands.
Apparently there was a rift between some city officials and a set of priests in the temple. The priests pulled the strings of government and it was forbidden for working managers, like my own, to have direct communications with them. They had to go through channels and offices, where all sorts of chicanery sprouted up.
My own status was too low to ever be questioned at the temple gates. I became a sort of secret liaison between one set of managers and priests, and because I was mute they thought me trustworthy.
Most of their letters were complaints against their enemies. But one of the notes informed me of a rumor just arrived, of a big project brewing, soon to be announced, and sure to spell the promotion and fortunes of a lucky few.
Spring was here with its milder weather. My duties were light and varied, my health returned and I enjoyed a pleasant renaissance of intellectual life. My curiosity revived. Around the huge, shadowy problems that haunted me, whole schools of flashing, minnow-like questions swam about in the ocean of my thoughts. I had the health to escape again and the time was ripe, but I stayed on, intrigued by this strange society before me. It was bristling with life and energy. Yet it was entirely built and finished. I was fascinated by the mystery of where it would turn next.
I was being seduced, or else evolving, out of my own tiny shell of concerns, of my own personal survival. I began to view my flight to the woods as an escape from by far the largest portion of humanity. My first years in the city were spent in shock and almost total numbness. It was in the wilderness that I came to life again. I regained my self-confidence and the will to live. But now I was back among the whole family of man, watching this odd evolution. Each day I stayed on I felt more strongly that my years as a sort of noble savage in the woods were hardly more than an interlude.
I didn't forget my old friends, but now I felt like a player in the game, with choices at hand. I was eager to learn how this system worked. I wanted to know more about the temples and the real forces that ruled the state. If the doors were closed and I found myself excluded from such knowledge, I could withdraw at any time, and forever, to my sylvan retreat.