THE AIR IS DIFFERENT TODAY. AM I THE ONLY ONE who feels the weight of
it? ITcrawls on my skin like some creepy thing that I can neither see
nor touch, and it reeks of fear and unrest, like something bad,
something really bad, is going to happen soon.
Images fromthe dream which I had the night before continues to flash in
my mind. I can’t seem to escape them, no matter how hard I try. They
are strong, very strong, holding on to every neuron in my brain, causing
feelings of panic to surge through me, and pain to hammer on the inside
of my skull.
I try to lose my thoughts by concentrating on thedress in the display
window of Mrs. Ems Dress Shop, but, instead, my eyes are drawn to the
figure across the train tracks in the middle of Main Street. I don’t
want to see what my eyes are seeing. As if I have a choice. Still, I
pretend not to notice the Shiller coming towards us out of the wavering
fog−a ghost lost in Manorville, wandering aimlessly in search for
something lost long ago.
My heart feels like it has stopped for a moment, just a brief moment−a
blip that has just reset my familiar reality. It hits me hard and fast,
unexpectedly, knocking all the air out of me. And then, my heart starts
again, this time pulsating to an unfamiliar rhythm, a new reality, and a
new truth, which has just emerged before my eyes, like it has not always
Now I see her, as if for the first time. Strange, because she, a
Shiller, and the rest of the Underkind, are otherwise invisible to us.
Not because we−the Purest and Purestkind−can’t see them, but
because we choose not to recognize their humanity, which is unequal to
any Purest or Purestkind on any level.
They are forbidden to make solid eye contact with any of us, taught only
to obey our voices. But something...something undeniably
strong...something intangible is drawing me to her. I see her. And
it’s not because I have chosen to, or even want to; it’s because I
have to. I have to see her. You know what it’s like when you feel you
shouldn’t look at something or someone for whatever reason, but yet,
you just can’t seem to control what your eyes decide to do; in the
end, curiosity always wins. Doesn’t it?
My hands are balled inside my coat pockets, fingernails pressing into
palms—indignant resistance on my part. The hammering in my head
intensifies. The Maggot had better not come near me! Damn it, damn it!
But of course she is coming...straight towards us! I did it to myself; I
know, trying so hard to avoid her noticing me, but all I have done is
manage to draw more attention to myself. Fool, fool; just call me a
lightning rod waiting for a strike—strike me down now, damn it, and
get it over with.
She bends her head towards the red cobbled road, dejected, perhaps
wailing. She seems not to care about the vehicles traveling swiftly
towards her on either side, horns honking loudly, tinged with rage and
malice from their Purestkind drivers; one man even sticks his head out,
white hair flopping in the wind, a flag of dominance, and then he sticks
out his arm and waves his middle finger, and yells, “Get out the way,
you, yellow maggot!” She pays him no attention though. And it’s
probably because she has been fully inoculated against generations of
abuse from us. She feels nothing anymore, just a stiff cold corpse
lumbering through life, purposelessly, except to serve us. She’ll
never have the chance to fulfill her own dreams, if she has any, never
have the chance to be anything more than a maggot feeding off our
She doesn’t even stop to check for the incoming train that would not
cease, especially for a Shiller. She must be an idiot. Must be! I’m
sure of it. Either that or she has a death wish. But who would care
anyway? Who would care if she is suddenly splattered all over the
tracks: a leg there, a piece of liver here, her eyeless head, what’s
left of it, rolling down Main Street, towards Prosperity Circle in the
Square? No one, at least, none among us.
She inches closer. I look at her with discerning eyes, to intimidate her
in some way, trying to remind her of her place in our small country,
Kākus. They say: I am Purestkind, and you. . .well, you are
Underkind—you are beneath my feet, just slightly above vermin and
worms. And when I feel like it...I can squash you without fear of
punishment. And maybe, maybe, I won’t even feel the smallest amount of
guilt because your life is worthless. It is worthless to me and others
who look like me.
I want to direct her the other way. But. . .instead, it is I whom feel
intimidated. Somehow, she is able to redirect my harsh feelings,
feelings I’ve been taught since birth; she is able to appeal to my
kinder self, reminding me that I actually do have a kinder self, a soft
spot, or something like that. I can’t run away from it; I can’t run
away from my own conscience. I feel pity for her. I try not to. Don’t
want to. But I do. Maybe I’m wired the wrong way, or maybe I’m just
weird. I don’t know the reason. It could be the dress she wears, or
lack of it in the middle of February, the coldest month of the year; it
is washed of all its colors, weathered by destitution and neglect,
soiled and torn in various places, exposing the fold underneath her
breast to the cold winter temperatures. I’m compelled to stare at
it—such a trivial thing, I know—because it... it not only exposes
her in a way, that had she been sane, she, I’m sure, would not have
chosen to wander the streets, especially among us who would not waste
any time in making obscene, jeering comments. The dress is almost
invisible—naked— against her pale skin, like a sea of dying fronds,
yellowed from the sun’s light, high upon a hill in the death of
winter. It says something about her, her life... her people. Am I being
made aware for the first time? Or, has this truth always been before my
eyes, a truth I have only refused to acknowledge? Is it possible that
I’m alone in this, in this awakening of sorts? I look around for
clues. I see many Purestkind walking with their heads held high, some
peering into shop windows, eyeing their next purchase, some with their
Underkind just a few steps behind, weighted down with shopping bags,
with their heads held low in submission, waiting to receive their next
Looking at her now, I can’t deny the reality of our society, harsh and
merciless, the haves and have not’s, the free and bounded. But these
are feelings that I must keep close to my heart, for I betray my own
kind. And that alone is punishable by death. Besides, why am I
concerned? I’m Purestkind, and I have nothing to fear. Right?
Still, I stare. And I can’t deny what I’m feeling beneath my inured
heart; I’m being held hostage.
Her hair, yellow— thick as yarn— is knotted in strands, with each
strand seeming to go in every direction—a wild entanglement of self-
abandonment. I suppose that she doesn’t see the point in keeping
herself in good appearance when her inside is already dead.
She moves closer towards us, now she’s shrieking like a banshee,
“Devils, devils,” she is saying. A Cold chill runs through me. I
pull the collars of my coat closer to my ears. Yes. I’m afraid....And
now I know why. It’s like I’m in some type of day-mare, if there is
such a thing—dreaming but awake—reliving the nightmare which I had
just the night before. This is why I’m afraid. This is why I see her,
I think, because I saw her in my dreams, just before a Nighthawk, fiery
red with burning eyes, swooped down and sunk its massive talons deep
into my shoulders, and flew away, my body swinging in the wind like an
helpless animal, screaming at the anticipation of my death when it
finally decides to sink its hooked beak into my brains.
She raises her head unexpectedly as she passes by, like a possum
that’s been playing dead, and suddenly springs back to life. She looks
at me. Pointedly! Right in the eyes with her sunken, yellow, slivered
almond shaped eyes, glaring into my thoughts and fears as if she knows
me, as if she knows that I’m afraid. She is looking straight at me,
defiant, as if she is ready to die. How dare she? Who does she think she
is, exacting power over me? I am Purestkind, and she...well, is a
Shiller Underkind! Doesn’t she know her place in this world?
I feel my body tense, toes being squeezed by my leather boots, and my
trousers sucking all the blood from my legs and butt. What is she going
to do to me, to Anicey, and mother? My eyes are wide and fixed on her,
gaping at something dark and foreboding. But I will stand firm. I will
show her. I will not let her see me cower like a small child, although
it’s probably too late for that now.
Lines, deep and worn with age, traverses her soiled face, like earth
worms coiling themselves around each other in a dance of perpetual
mating, at the same time, tunneling and feeding voraciously, defecating
in their paths, lost to the pain and suffering of its victim, oblivious,
or..., maybe, just choosing to live in the dark, instead of in the light
because they are afraid of death.
“Devils, devils,” she says, grimacing, laced with hate. Who is she
calling, Devils? What does she mean?
Mother yells at me, “Fenesia!” I jump, startled by the tone in her
voice. “ Don’t stare at that woman.” She is forgetting that I’m
no longer a little girl. In fact, I’ll be eighteen soon. And I will
damn well stare at whomever I like. This is what I would like to say to
her, but I won’t out of respect. Nevertheless, I roll my eyes as I had
often done when I was a little girl.
Mother doesn’t understand. She doesn’t understand that I stare, not
only because a part of me loathes the Shiller, but because she is a
Shiller, and because another part of me pities her, and because I’ve
seen her, or someone like her in my real dreams, except that, it...it
was my face that I saw. I think this is why I fear her: I’m afraid of
being poor and invisible, uselessly living, searching, searching for the
freedom to find happiness and a purpose to life. And most of all, I’m
afraid of being a slave like the Underkind. And I’ll say it again:
although I hate to admit it, a part of me feels some kind of empathy for
the woman, at least as much empathy as my Purestkind heart will allow.
Mother is giving me the look; she notices the obvious grim look in my
eyes, “Don’t feel sorry for that woman.” Anicey’s eyes are now
fixed on the Shiller, too. I can tell that she’s afraid, too, as she
is always afraid of something. Everything. “She’s a victim of her
own doing, just like the others.” Mother’s eyes follow the Shiller
as she lumbers down the road like the walking dead, passing by other
Purestkind going about their daily lives, some of which stare at her in
a deprecating way, making not so well intended comments; some even spit
at her like she is a disease walking on two legs, while to others,
she’s virtually invisible—like I said before: a ghost lost in
Manorville. I wonder if they, if any of them feel any measure of empathy
for her or any other Underkind. Are we all so cold and lifeless? Or do
we just pretend to be? Am I the only traitor? Am I?
Mother sighs. “I wish the Purest would exterminate every last one of
them. They’re like vermin, feeding off the rest of us,” she says
with sadness in her eyes. “They serve no other purpose than to
multiply and create mayhem,” she says it in a stage whisper, as though
no one else can hear her. But that seems to be her goal. It has to be:
for everyone to hear her profess her loyalty to the Purest, leaders of
Kakus, as we all must, if we are to survive.
She doesn’t mean that though. I think. I hope. The sadness in her eyes
gives her away. She has a talent for being over dramatic—theatrical
queen in a Kakusian opera. If she really believes this about the Shiller
Underkind, or any Underkind for that matter, she would have done
something like accuse Jules, our Besmirchian house maid−purple skin,
deep black eyes, and black wholly hair−of plotting against the Purest,
for which she would have been killed a time long ago, since Jules often
rages about the unfairness and treatment of the Underkind freely when
the mood hits her, especially after an Underkind execution in Prosperity
Circle. Instead, only at home though, she treats Jules almost as though
she is a part of our family: Jules, dear, will you take care of this for
me or that for me? Or Jules, dinner was wonderful. Although ,most
evenings, we eat at Wildgoosemulley, our restaurant in the Town
Square—the pretty part of Manorville. In fact, Jules may be the best
dressed Underkind in all of Kakus, with the exception of the Underkind
servants—the Rubrics, Besmirchians, and Shillers—working in the
Capital House, where the faction of one hundred Purest— acting as
overseers, protectors of Kakus—go about the business of running the
country the way they see fit. Complete Autocracy. Death to those who
dare to oppose them.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter what mother says. I’m still twisted.
Something in me still feels fear and empathy for the woman. Maybe it’s
guilt. After all, we, the Purestkind are the chosen. We enjoy the best
that life has to offer. While the Underkind? Well. They fight for
what’s left over or what we allow them to have. Meaning that, they
actually do fight to win favor with the Purest: Shillers against
Besmirchians, Besmirchians against Rubrics−red skin, black eyes, and
slick black hair−Shillers against Rubrics, and the other way around,
making false reports of treason in return for food and clothing,
fighting for the last scrap of bread or whatever is left in the bottom
of the bowl−figure of speech.
Under the watchful eyes of the Kakus Guards, the Underkind is not
permitted to grow their own food, although all the food is produced with
their own hands on land owned by the Purest Government; all land is
owned by the Purest Government. If an Underkind is found growing their
own food or taking the food which they have grown, they are immediately
taken out to the fields and shot; and this happens often.
In Validia, near the Hinterlands, where water is plentiful, since it is
near Lake Orion, and the Orion River, the Besmirchians produce the Hemp
grass used for making clothing, and baskets, and furniture...They also
plant and harvest our northern fruits like apples and pears....Foods
like corn and beans, and certain leafy greens are mostly produced by the
Rubrics in Manovic. While crops like wheat, cotton, and southern fruits
are produced by the Shillers. All food must be grown for the Purest, and
once they are harvested, they are shipped by train to the Capital Market
the day before Market day, where they are distributed through a
hierarchical system: Purest, Purestkind, then, the Underkind must
compete for the next distributions. This is where it gets interesting.
Market Day is usually festive, at least for us Purest and Purestkind.
This is the day that we almost always go with father to purchase food
for our restaurant and home. Since it is only four times a year, most of
our food such as fruits and vegetables are canned. Meat harvested only
by Purestkind farmers are also sold at the market, but father and Moe
usually like to go hunting for game.
The Underkind, however, well...they are forced to compete for their
pick: one half mile out on the train tracks, leading from Prosperity
Circle, large bins on metal wheels are filled with large rocks, a heavy
metal chain is attached to the bin. Each group of Underkind must choose
two of their strongest young men—once a Besmirchian woman was allowed,
only because, other than the obvious, she’d fit the look and build of
a man. Each group gets two chances: one chance from each competitor to
attach the chain around his waist and pull the bin—with sweat, tears,
and blood seeping from the raw mangled flesh caused by the chafing of
the chain against the skin— as far as he can, back towards Prosperity
Circle. People line the tracks on both sides: Underkind and Purestkind
alike, each cheering, yelling, “Go, go!” for their favorite to win.
We usually cheer for the Besmirchians, maybe because of Jules. Once they
have completely stopped, time and distance is recorded. In the end, the
group with the best distance and time becomes the victor. The Prize: a
stock of food for the next few months. But that can be a long time. And
often, on the return to their home towns, the victor is raided by the
losing groups, beaten, sometimes killed, and robbed of most of their
food. And so, they end up right back where they had begun—hungry and
filled with hate and malice, forced to serve Purest and Purestkind for
their daily bread.
Excerpted from "Code Human" by N. J. Paige. Copyright © 2016 by N. J. Paige. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.