In The Pale Light

[10.03.99] » by H.L.

         As soon as I turned fifteen years old, Bishop Stone told me I am old enough to join the rank of the Etone. But after thinking it through I decided to refuse his suggestion, or at least delay it for a while. I didn't feel I was ready for such a radical, final step into the services of the church. True, I was tempted before to make a move, to envelope myself with the Holy aura, to give myself up with a finality. After all, the last three years of my life had been linked to the church, and I served it faithfully; and an Etone was one of the highest and most important ranks that could be achieved by anyone. It was rather difficult to become an Etone too, especially at such a young age, and Bishop Stone threw this once in a lifetime opportunity my way with complete confidence. But I didn't take advantage of it.
         I tried to think over all the reasons why I should have refused this offer, but I couldn't settle on one unified cause in my mind. I think it was a confused mix of several factors, all entangled together. I didn't feel ready for this step, perhaps out of pride in my personal independence, one I cultivated after my father abandoned us. Or perhaps it was because I knew that this offer was feasible because of my superior gunmanship, taught to me by that damned bastard, Josiah my father, rather than any special virtue on my part. If I had to owe HIM this opportunity, it would just not feel as right, or taste as sweet. Or perhaps it was because that I felt that, deep within my soul, I was just not good enough to merit such honor. I was simply not ready.
         So I delayed an opportunity to make a lot of money and win respect from my superiors. It proved to be a bad move. The meager salary won to me by my services to the church was growing thinner due to some bad times; the low-level clerics were the ones whose salary was cut first. A saying rang inside my mind, something my father perhaps said: "Never be on the bottom rung of the ladder." At that time I could have gone to Bishop Stone and told him I changed my mind, but the making of an Etone was a ritualistic celebration that came only a few times a year and required a special grant. I had missed this opportunity for several more weeks.
         Things went from bad to worse for myself and Primera, my sister. We lived inside a little apartment cell not far from the church grounds, inside the city. Primera was mute. She couldn't go to school, and I placed her in a special child's care center, where, the women told me, she sat all day staring at some picture books. At night I took her home and gave her food from our quickly dwindling stores. I think that at those times I was grateful for the first time that she couldn't complain about the situation.
         I could have asked for Bishop Stone's help, but I didn't. It was pride again, a pride I probably inherited from my father. Everything that was dark and wrong in my life I attributed to him; everything wrong about me, everything for which I knew I could be blamed, I thought had stemmed from my resemblance to HIM. Pride is a sin, and I knew that it was. Pride is what prevented me from becoming an Etone, and now I was paying for that pride; and so was Primera. At the church they noticed and asked me questions. "Billy, you are so thin. Are you all right?" "Yes, thank you, I'm feeling fine." "Billy you are pale; are you sick?" "No, I'm all right. It's just a little fatigue." I worked harder to prove to them that nothing was wrong. That pride again. I was deep inside sin at that time, without realizing it.
         Proof of this came in my near downfall. Now that I think back to it, I don't feel the shame quite as much. I regard it as, simply, the final test, to open my eyes and clarify my vision to what I was, or had become. It illuminated the true path for me, but because of my pride, it came through my near degradation. A necessary test to break my soul into the true understanding.
         That night, the gnawing hunger inside me drove me outside my small cell of a house. I saw Primera safely into bed asleep, after giving her the last morsel of bread in our empty cabinet. It was not enough, but she only cried a little in hunger and then fell asleep. I had no food left to satisfy my own appetite. It was worst for me at that time, because, though I've never been tall, I was growing my last few inches, and my body demanded much more fuel than that with which it was supplied. I tried to say an evening prayer, but the words didn't sound right. All I could sense was my own hunger, gnawing me inside, my own physical need. I left the house and locked the door behind me, and descended into the gas-lit streets, wishing to move, get away from something; to occupy myself in order to forget myself. All the way down the street I made calculations for the next week, wondering where the money would come to sustain us.
         I ended up inside a bar. I don't think I even understood where I was at first, because I was too occupied with my own thoughts. I didn't even have enough money for a drink, so I just seated myself at a table, probably more out of sheer exhaustion than anything else; I usually rose at five o'clock every morning in order to attend my clerical duties and came home at seven every evening. Briefly, through the orange haze of the bar, I wondered how I'll have the strength to rise tomorrow. Primera would be all right; the women will give her food in the nursery. But clerks were expected to eat little and work hard.
         For the first time, thoughts of rebellion rose in me. I'll leave the church, do something else, employ my intelligence rather than my soul. I have a quick understanding and I could do something; learn a job that will earn me real money and won't depend on those skills learnt from my father or Stone. I'll be myself-- I'll--
         A man nearby asked me if I wanted a drink and I refused, barely paying attention to him. I continued to reel inside the haze of my thoughts, my plans and my rebelliousness, when someone leant over and whispered to me, "I'll give you one thousand for one night."
         This caught me attention, though my first feeling was merely that of surprise. I don't think I truly comprehended the offer at first; I was too caught up in the haze of my fevered hunger. So, I simply turned to him and refused the offer. He was a man of middle age, and I could barely catch his features in the darkness. I rose to go, the full significance of what he had said slowly seeping into my brain-- and with it, an urge to escape.
         "The offer still stands," his voice, muffled in the noise of the bar, came through. "One thousand. Come back if you agree." He scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. "Come in a week's time in the evening, if you agree to the offer. Around nine o'clock my wife goes out. One thousand, remember."
         I don't know how I reached my house, but when I arrived I still clutched the piece of paper. I seated myself on my bed and a wave of nauseous revulsion swept over me. I tossed the thing away and crumpled into bed. I was asleep before I knew it.
         I don't know how I passed the next week. Primera, thanks God, was fed by her nurses. I had almost nothing but some thin gruel I extracted from a ready-to-boil oat container I had in my cabinet. It was growing empty as the days passed. Everything else I had left was consumed by my hunger, faster than I expected. After six days, I was too weak to go. I rose at six in the morning and fell asleep again before I could move. Primera came crawling from the corner in which her bed was placed, seeming to cry a little. She seated herself at the foot of my bed like a forlorn puppy seeking attention. I paid no heed to her.
         After a while I turned, and my eyes fell on something small and white on the floor. I  bent and picked it up, and there it was-- that piece of paper with the address scrawled on it. The cursed thing came back to haunt me. I recalled the offer-- One Thousand. Enough to maintain myself and Primera for several months, before I could pass the tests to become an Etone--
         I wasn't even thinking of the incongruent irony of it. I was too tired, too spent, to care. Weeks of near-starvation took their toll. At six o'clock in the evening I left Primera in the house and locked it, paying no heed to her feeble cries of protest as she banged on the door weakly with her fist. I went out into the street.
         It was only a matter of finding the house. It was at the other part of town, and took some walking, but I found it at last. I knocked on the door.
         It was opened, unexpectedly, by a female, a woman in a dressing-gown. She peered at me with an expression of puzzlement which turned into a smile. She asked me what I want.
         I was taken aback, and I didn't know what to say. I now recalled the man's words, "At nine o'clock when my wife is out..." I made a mistake. I was about to turn and walk away, wanting to flee, when her gaze fell on the accursed paper still in my hand.
         "What's this?" she asked. She took it from me, perhaps seeing and recognizing the handwriting. Below the address there was a scrawl, in large letters, "One Thousand."
         "Did my husband give this to you?" she asked.
         I didn't know what to say, but she persisted, catching a hold of my arm, "did he make you... an offer?"
         Again, I remained dumb, paralyzed, and she said, "No wonder he did. You're a good-looking boy."
         I said nothing. Slowly, she drew me towards the door. The smile re-appeared, drawing the corners of her mouth upwards. She must have been in her late thirties to judge by the lines in the corners of her eyes; nevertheless, she was a very good-looking woman, with very dark eyes and nut-brown hair, that fell free and loose to her shoulders in waves. "Don't think I don't know about it," she said, calmly, in a low tone. "He's been that way for a long while now. But he has money. As you can tell. Come in, please. He won't be in until eight."
         I let her draw me inside into the dimly-lit room. She made me sit on the sofa and looked me over speculatively. "Do you have these tendencies?" she asked. "Or is this just out of need? You look like you need the money." She smiled again, tentatively. "Thin as straw. Do you want to eat something?"
         I don't know if I answered her, but she brought me something, which I ended up eating, though it had no taste, and I was more ready to throw up than anything. There was a pain in my stomach. After I finished eating I told her, "I need the money."
         "So you don't have these tendencies?" she asked.
         "I don't know."
         She laughed. "Very interesting. One thousand, he offered you? The pig. I can make you a better offer."
         I made no answer but tried to rise from the sofa. "I'm sorry," I said, slowly. "I think I made a mistake. I was only thinking of the money. I don't think I can go through with it."
         "With a man, you mean?" she asked, the smile returning, reflected in her dark eyes.
         "But with a woman, would you be willing to?"
         My head was cleared a little. The food had its effects. She had her hand on my arm, her fingers beginning to caress it a little, an inviting gesture. "I don't know", I said, steadily.
         "You're so polite."
         "Am I?"
         "I'll offer you more than he did," she said, seeming amused again.
         My head seemed clearer than ever. "Is this your revenge on him?" I asked.
         She laughed at this. "Maybe. I have my little quirks too."
         They're both so perverted, I thought. But I am too, to agree to all this. If I had any moral strength left I would have left then and there. But I sunk to their level, and had no remorse left in me. I thought of Primera, crying in the dark house. The food pacified my body a little, and some strength was returning to it. But it only set an edge to my hunger-- the real hunger, the craving for more, that these weeks of near-starvation had dulled. "I'll take your offer," I told her. The inviting fingers on my arm seemed to wheedle me into a resolve.
         She rose from the sofa, laying a hand on my shoulder. "This way," she told me.
         She led me to a bedroom, as dark as the rest of the house. A dark place, concealing ugliness and apathy. She left me standing near the bed and told me to take my clothes off. Then she left to the bathroom.
         I was alone in the darkness. I begun to undress, obeying her orders mechanically-- it was better not to think of anything. I took my shirt off, then I paused. I seated myself on the foot of the bed, my head lowered.
         A voice spoke, echoing against the voice of this woman. A clear, untainted, pure voice, that of my mother. "To see you-- this way--"
         I didn't know what to answer it, but I remained seated there, in the dark room, feeling nothing at all, petrified again in an uncertain indecision. "It's better to kill for the church-- than do this--"
         For a moment, a sensation filled me, but it was more despair and shame than a revelation. For the first time in many days, I could think clearly, and I could perceive the betrayal I was going to act upon. Perhaps it wasn't the voice of my mother, just of my awakened conscience. Whatever it was, it prompted me to rise to my feet, to put my shirt back on. The door of the bathroom opened and the woman came out again.
         For a moment I feared she would be undressed, but to my relief she still had her dressing gown on. She came towards me and a pleasant scent of perfume wafted past, enveloping me. "Why didn't you do as I told you?" she asked, seeming a little surprised, but not angry. I straightened myself, and the words came calmly and evenly. "I am sorry. I will not do this."
         Her surprise grew. She tilted her head to the side, watching me. She really was a very good-looking woman, probably a beauty in youth. "Are you sure?" she asked me.
         "Yes." I hoped my tone finalized my decision.
         Instead of arguing with me, she walked to a small table near the bed. Opening a drawer, she took something out. I could see after a moment that it was a roll of bills. She begun counting them. "Three thousand, for three visits," she said, turning to me. "I'll pay you beforehand, if that's what you wish."
         Three thousand was enough to get me through school, learn a new vocation, be free from the church forever. I could feel the allure of the bills surging faintly towards me, whispering of independence and comfort. I could keep Primera by my side, try to coax her into talking, be at leisure, do what I wish to do with my life. A life without duty, without work, without soul.
         "I am sorry," I said. "No."
         "And that is your final answer?" she asked.
         Slowly, she dropped her hand. I could see the money being put back into the drawer, and my eyes followed it despite myself. "Please," I said, "Please--"
         "Yes?" she asked, calmly.
         "I have a little sister, and we have nothing to eat. Please, can you give me something?"
         She turned her head towards me, her dark eyes smiling. Her fingers flipped through the bills. She withdrew one from the rest.
         "Here's a twenty," she said. "Now, get out of my sight."

         When I returned home, I found Primera sitting in a corner lit by a shaft of lamplight cast through the small, high window. The unnatural light was too sickly, too pale. She was whimpering softly to herself, her fingers twisted together in her lap, speaking to herself of her grievance in a language only she could understand. I called out to her and knelt at her side. "Prim," I said. "Here, Prim. I brought you some food." I shoved the bread I bought into her hand.
         She looked up at me with eyes vacant of expression. Slowly, she clenched her fingers around the bread-slice, and raised it to her mouth. Before she took a bite she paused, and looked up at me again, her look now seemingly inquiring.
         "Eat this, Primera," I urged her. I didn't understand why she needed the urging, with the obvious hunger in her eyes. Something cold crumpled inside me, wrapping up my insides. I felt too sick to eat; the hunger was merely a physical sensation, and nothing more. If I ate anything now, I knew I will throw up. "Prim," I said, again, "eat your food."
         Primera finally obeyed, taking tiny, careful bites, nipping at the bread like a small dog. I wanted to rise to my feet and leave, go to my bed, sleep my exhaustion and the memories out; but I couldn't. My body seemed locked into a kneeling position.
         I think I must have begun to tremble, because Primera paused and looked up at me again.
         "Come on, Prim," I said, trying to curb a sudden impatience with gentle words. "Eat. Eat your bread." When she was feeling unwell she sometimes needed several promptings to make her eat; but today I felt I had no energy left for it. Primera's hand remained suspended, her eyes still fixed upon me. Then, her hand slowly dropped down. She laid the bread at my feet and curled her fingers in her lap. She begun to whimper softly again.
         I struck her. It was not a hard blow, but it was the first time in my life that I did such a thing. Primera, however, seemed not to respond, and simply continued to whimper like a small dog who lost its master. Mentally I was adding this sin to my newly made list. I felt myself sinking-- down on my knees. Primera was sitting in the harsh light, whimpering.
         "Holy Mother," I said, "please forgive me. I will atone for this day. I promise I will..."
         In the pale light, a face formed before my eyes, the image of the saint, Sophia. Holy Mother Sophia, understanding, forgiving..."
         I begun to pray. The reparation of my soul had commenced. I had found my vocation. A set course, atoning for my degradation, my pride. The light turned and turned, blinding me; a calming, pale light.

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