It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’d been working like a dog
It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleeping like a log
–From, A Hard Day’s Night, a heretical Song of the Raza Freebooters
Luz Salvado was not a normal boy. Like every other boy in the Castle of Rama Sagrada, he was an orphan and also like every other boy there, he was waiting to be assigned his vocation upon reaching the age of fifteen. With his birthday only a month away, he looked forward to the prospect of leaving the castle for good and never having to toil for the Brothers of La Semilla again, at least not directly. He would be assigned as an apprentice to a man in the city of Los Angeles perhaps as a baker, motorist or fisherman or if he was lucky, a draper or tailor. He prayed for the latter because he loved clothing but anything would do as long as he could finally escape the tyranny of his mortal enemy, Father Gonzalgo, a man who seemed to have made it his personal mission to keep him as downtrodden as possible.
Despite being in the same position as the hundreds of other boys waiting for the day of Vocation when they would be given their occupation and membership in one of the Trade Unions, he was not like them at all. He had a number of subtle differences all rolled into one huge, nameless state of difference that made him an outcaste. He wanted friends more than anything but no matter how hard he tried, he could never really relate to the boys in the castle nor they to him.
His appearance was one of his problems. He was what some defined as pretty, a designation spoken not with admiration but derision. With soft, fine features, caramel skin, big golden brown eyes and dark brown, shoulder-length hair, he was often accused of being an Infiltrator. This was said jokingly but it was no laughing matter to get mistaken for a girl on the Isla de Los Angeles for women were forbidden from entering it. On a couple of occasions, he had been grabbed by a new guard or brother of the Order that hadn’t met him yet and was vigorously searched in a most embarrassing manner to insure that a woman had not entered their sanctum and exposed them all to the Sin of Familiarity, one of the sins for which the Goddess Ecos had destroyed the Nations centuries ago.
If he had just looked a little girlish, it would have been simply a joke passed around amongst the novices but the other boys said that he acted like a girl too. This was an unfair observation as none of them had ever actually met a woman, not even their own mothers. No one had in centuries. He guessed that what they meant was that he was sensitive and didn’t like to do rough things or hurt people’s feelings. He was fastidious about his appearance, emotionally expressive and had a delicacy in his gestures that often attracted abuse which he avoided mostly by ignoring the other novices and trying to be as invisible as possible. For this reason, he had only one friend, Sammy, the apprentice cook, who also was an outcast.
Besides late night games with Sammy in the Underquarters in the bowels of the castle where they lived and worked, Luz’s life had few perks. He worked several stories underground and only got to actually see the sky once a week if he was lucky. He toiled day after day in a stone scullery filled with deep metal sinks full of scalding, soapy water, cleaning pans and dishes from dawn until past dusk until his fingers got pale and puffy and the heat made him lightheaded. At night, he would join the other novices for catechism classes with Father Gonzalgo, who was not afraid to use a cane if they did not learn. Then for a short sliver of time late at night, he was free to lie on the straw mattress in the tiny room he shared with eleven other boys and escape into his fantasies until sleep claimed him.
He daydreamed often of escaping the castle and going….where exactly?
He knew where he wanted to go, where he longed desperately to go, but he did not understand this yearning, especially since to go there would mean certain death. His life was not his own. He was hemmed in by forces more powerful than himself so making even the tiniest decision about his own life was impossible. All he could do was pray that the monks chose a suitable life for him that would make him happy.
Sammy was an outcaste for an entirely different reason than Luz. He was rather short and fat and he had one eye partially closed under a puffy scar by one of the common mutations that still affected so many on the Blessed Isles. The Fall had brought down the last of the Nations on the mainland over five centuries ago had left the human genome polluted with mutations so anyone that had one was considered impure and shunned.
Since Luz worked in the kitchen’s scullery washing dishes all day, he saw Sammy often and if it weren’t for Sammy, Luz would have been utterly alone. The previous night, Sammy had come to his room in Quad Four and beckoned him to follow him. Luz had looked around at the other boys; brawny porters who assiduously avoided the “weird boy.” Seeing that they were sitting on their sleeping mats chatting about some new oddity the Cleaners had discovered and paying no attention to him, he quietly tucked his threadbare blanket in over his futon mat and left.
The Cleaners worked in the Underwardens, a series of catacombs and caverns that stretched for miles beneath the castle, connecting it to the subterranean ruins of Old Los Angeles and amidst the ruin and decay of that ancient city, they would sometimes find little treasures. Anything of importance was sent directly to the Brothers for cataloguing, to be studied to determine if it was in harmony with the Edicts of Ecos. If it was found heretical it was incinerated in the Eastern Tower and if it was deemed sacred or of historical value, it was sent to the Scriptorum to be preserved by the historians. Anything the cleaners deemed unimportant they usually stole for their own amusement and Sammy had traded a plate of dinner rolls with a cleaner in Quad Nine for an old board game found in a hermetically sealed room of some kind that had kept it mostly intact over the long centuries it had been there. He had wrapped it in a canvas bag which he carried gingerly to avoid damaging the game further. Most things from the old world that were made of fragile materials had decayed long ago but just occasionally, something was found that hadn’t so they were particularly excited about this game.
Luz and Sammy were soon in their hideout, an old closet at the far eastern end of the Underquarters in an area so ancient, choked with dust and crumbling back into the earth that hardly anyone went there. They slid the old, half-fallen iron door forward and crept inside and Sammy pulled a bioluminescent light cube from his bag and shook it until it sparked to life, casting them both in its clean, white luminescence.
The tiny room was filled with their many purloined treasures, any of which would get them caned severely if discovered. In the center of the room was a canvas mat to keep the dust off of them and against the walls were old toy cars of an advanced design that awed them, a few dolls in graying, parchment-brittle dresses which Luz liked and a number of oddities like dice, a couple of bowling pins (which they used to cudgel fight) and their greatest treasure, a mostly intact laminated map of the world from the time of the Nations. It had names on it like Canada, the Czech Republic and South Korea in the ancient language of the Usans and they liked to speculate about each place, trying to pronounce the names and making up stories about these long-lost Nations. They had little knowledge about the Time of the Nations since much of its history was considered heretical and known only by the monks and much of what they knew came from the scriptures and that information was scant at best.
The game was in a cardboard box so fragile that part of it crumbled in Sammy’s hand just removing it from the bag but the faded red letters said Chess in the Old Usan Script. Their language of Americano was written in the same characters as Usan so they could read the box but they didn’t understand what the word Chess actually denoted.
The plastic board of black and white squares was yellowed but intact so they followed the picture on the box to put the little plastic pieces in order.
“How do you play this,” Luz asked.
“Dunno,” Sammy said, pushing his mop of auburn hair away from his one good hazel eye, “there were no instructions.”
They spent the next half an hour making up rules that pleased them both and renamed the game Federalis. Soon they were deep into their game and Luz was winning as usual. He had a head for strategy that Sammy lacked though he was sure that sometimes Sammy let him win and he wasn’t sure why. Sammy was always doing little kind things for him like giving him extra food and he had been the one to save the dolls for Luz, just because the dolls had prety dresses and he knew Luz loved clothing.
“Remember, we decided that the tower has to move along the sides,” Luz said, “so you can’t move there.”
“Okay,” Sammy said, moving his rook back, “then I will take your nun with my caballero.”
“That’s fair,” Luz said but it had been an intentional move to get at his caballero with Luz’s general for one could not win Federalis without arresting all of the enemy’s pieces.
“Say,” Sammy said while trying to figure out his next move, “I heard Troy talking to that half-brain, Hector, and they were saying something about you. I tried to listen but the wood oven was making too much noise. All I heard was that they were trying to get you alone. Be careful and watch out. They have it in for you.”
Luz had spent the better part of the five years he had lived in the Castle of Rama Sagrada avoiding Troy and his gang so this news disturbed him. They had beaten him up at least a dozen times and had tried several dozen more but usually contented themselves with teasing him about his looks and mannerisms.
“I just can’t wait until Vocation so I can get out of this hell pit,” Luz said, pouting his lips, “but Father Gonzalgo doesn’t like me so he may not let me go.”
“Yeah,” Sammy said, looking at him sadly, “but Father Kanye does so I’m sure he will speak on your behalf in front of the Vocation Council. He’s a scholar of Ancient Usan and can write in Binomial and everything, so what he says matters.”
“I hope so,” Luz said, still looking sulky.
“I’m the one who’s stuck here,” Sammy said, his good eye getting wet with tears and his voice breaking a little, “No one wants a mutey as an apprentice outside the castle so I will just be a cook in this smelly dungeon until I die.”
“Don’t say that,” Luz said, rubbing Sammy’s left hand consolingly and looking reassuringly into his eyes, “Any man in the Culinary Union would be lucky to have you as their apprentice. You are a fine cook and very hard-working. You just have to make the Council see that.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Sammy said, though both of them knew that his chances of ever leaving were slim at best.
It broke Luz’s heart to see Sammy so forlorn. Sammy’s Vocation Day came in three months and it weighed heavily on his mind so Luz was trying to think of something to cheer him up when they heard voices coming their way. Sammy shook the light cube until it went dark and they sat in tense silence, listening.
“Yeah,” one of them was saying, “Clocked him right in the eye.”
There was laughter and then another boy said, “He was sweet, that one. We’ll have to take him again tomorrow night, make sure he knows we can do it whenever we want. He needs to learn not to fight.”
“That little squint won’t talk if he knows what’s good for him,” another said and they all laughed.
Luz and Sammy sat in the darkness until the laughter had died away and then Sammy shook the light cube awake again. Neither of them had to say what they knew about those boys. They were Chasers, boys who banded together in the quads to terrorize the younger boys, extort some of their food rations from them and sometimes do other acts forbidden by the Holy Edicts of Ecos to them.
“That was that bruto Martin from Quad Seven with them,” Sammy said, “Watch out, Luz. I don’t want that Chaser, Troy, getting his hands on you.”
It was a bright day in late summer of his fourteenth year when everything in Luz’s life changed. The sweltering summer with its constant Haz Warnings for bio-contaminant from the Coast were over along with the chemical-laden yellow dust that settled on everything during that season and the air had a faint hint of autumn crispness to it. Luz loved autumn; it made him feel renewed and invigorated and this was a particularly lovely day so he was in exceedingly high spirits.
Just maybe I will get lucky, he thought, Vocation is only one month away.
All week he had been dreaming up various scenarios in which Father Kanye got him an apprenticeship as a draper or tailor’s assistant and he was living happily in the city of Los Angeles making fine clothing for the other Children of Eden with the castle just a bad memory. He thought he would be happy spending his life making beautiful clothing for the men of the isle but his desires didn’t matter since the monks placed the boys wherever they saw fit. All he could do was pray fervently to Mother Ecos that she would intercede on his behalf.
Luz found himself with an unscheduled couple of hours that morning and headed for the battlements. Normally he would be working by five while the cooks prepared breakfast for the castle workers but this morning they were fixing some corroded piping in the scullery, meaning that he could not go back in until shortly before lunch. Thanking his good fortune, he climbed up the worn stone stairs that led from the servant’s quarters below the earth, past the plain, business-like Halls of Officiates on the lower floors above ground, where the scribes, attorneys and inquisitors worked then further past the Halls of Office where the high officials conducted their duties.
Since the spiral staircase was on a small side-tower used only by servants, he never ran into a single soul on it which was good since he was not supposed to be there without permission. He skipped up the stairs, humming to himself and thought that this could just become a perfect day. The weather was going to be gorgeous so he could lie in the sun and best of all, he could escape the stares and derision of the novices for a whole morning. The perfection of his morning was marred only by the angry, red welt on his left forearm. He had gotten the conjugation of an Usan verb wrong during a translation exercise in his Catechism class the day before and Brother Gonzalgo had drug him in front of the class and whipped his arm with a scourge until it was bloody.
I won’t let him ruin my morning, Luz thought, skipping over the narrow ledge that ran before the crenellated outer wall. He felt the full blast of chilly sea air hit him in the face and after the musty dankness of the Underquarters, the sensation was delicious.
He ran to the edge and peered over, relishing the view that lay spread out before him. The castle was on the eastern side of the island so below him, he could see the sprawling mass of low adobe houses, shops, warehouses and stone union halls in Los Angeles, their red tile roofs and silver solar panels bright under a clear sky. Beyond them lay the Bay of Figueroa where boat motors spumed foam on the dark blue water as the fishermen set off for the morning’s haul. The waters of the archipelago were one of the few places on earth where there was still sea life, a fact they owed to the secret arts of the monks and nuns. He had always wondered how they brought life out of the dead earth but that was their role, ordained by Mother Ecos after the Fall, and the Children of Eden, the last of the human race in poisoned and ruined America, relied upon their secret arts to survive.
The castle snaked along a series of grassy, moss covered hills with steep ravines choked with jacaranda, bougainvillea and spiny nests of wild citrus and olive trees. Directly before him, on the shore of the Bay of Venice, stood a one-hundred foot statue of Farther Sol, one of the two Founders, his hands extended in welcome or warning (Luz could never tell which) toward the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. All Luz had ever seen of him was the white marble of his robed back and his flowing hair because he had only left the castle once and had never been to the bay. To the east, extending from the inner wall of the castle across the harbor to Coronado Island was a long suspension bridge gilded in burnished gold. The morning sunlight glowed off the Golden Gate, making it gleam as if it was made of light. Luz had always thought of it as a gate to heaven—a forbidden heaven that he dreamed of every night.
He looked across the bridge longing to reach the other side but Coronado Island might as well be ten thousand miles away. He could see the shadowy forms of the Federalis, the elite police of the Order of Soluna, the order that the Brothers of la Semilla that ran the castle were the male half of. They patrolled the bridge in columns with their stun sticks, pistols and machetes. To get to Coronado, one had to transverse razor wire barricades and also elude trained pit bulls and Federalis beyond counting. He had even heard that they had zip guns, those ancient weapons that could fire many bullets at once and tear a person in half. Though killing was generally forbidden in the Edicts of Ecos by which all of the Children of Eden on the Blessed Isles lived, it was allowed under extreme circumstances and trying to enter the palace of the nuns on the other side was considered a sacrilege great enough to merit such a fate.
Luz didn’t know why he wanted to go to Coronado so badly. It was ruled by the nuns of the Order of La Luna and only women could live there. The Edict of Separation stated that men and women had to live separate lives to avoid lust, one of the many sins for which the Nations had fallen so each island in the Blessed Isles was gender specific and Coronado was the main women’s island. Luz’s desire to go there would be considered a temptation to heresy. Even knowing this, he had always felt that among women, he might find a place his nature might fit in better but he was a boy so there was no chance to find out. He often wondered if he wanted to go so badly only because he didn’t fit on the Isla de Los Angeles but there also seemed to be another, deeper reason that he didn’t quite understand. This yearning arose from someplace deep within the recesses of his young heart and carried with it all of the inexplicable urgency of the things we cannot yet see about ourselves.
He hated his life in the castle and ever since he had heard of the Garden of Matiz as a child in his catechism classes, he had found the idea of it irresistible. The garden lay in the very center of the palace of the nuns and could supposedly grant wishes. It was from that garden that the Brothers of La Semilla and the Sisters of La Luna brought forth untainted crops that could be grown to feed the Children of Eden so maybe it could also grant his wish and help him get away from the Brotherhood. The pull to the garden grew stronger with each passing year, sometimes with a force that frightened him and he wondered if there was a reason for it beyond having his wishes granted that made him want to go there so badly.
In his dreams, he would often find himself walking on damp, mossy soil under yellow moonlight with stars shining bright above him. The dream was almost always the same—he was surrounded by the tenebrous shadows of the trees and the moonlight shone pale and clear upon a stone path surrounded by marble statues of ancient heroes and gods. He had had the same dream so many times that he had begun identifying some of the figures. One particularly dignified looking man in a suit of antique design pointed at the earth with sorrowful eyes and he thought he must be Saint Gore the Unheard whose warnings of the coming end would go unheeded. Another was of a hunched woman in a long gown weeping over a cracked globe who he remembered was referred to simply as President in the Acts of the Ancestors, the last ruler of the Empire of Usa who had been unable to save her nation as the world turned barren and polluted and its people grew lawless and savage. For some reason her statue always struck a strong emotional cord, filling him with a sense of profound sorrow.
In the dream, he was always drawn by an invisible force in the center of the garden, following the shadow-dappled path by some secret instinct toward a destination he knew he had always been meant to arrive at. He could hear something in the center of the garden and it hummed inside of his head, whirring through his brain in a beautiful clockwork of pitches and tones that his body responded to by vibrating at their frequency. The humming vibration always seemed desperate and it filled him with a sense of urgency to reach the center of the garden. It was like a command that his whole body had to obey on a cellular level, seeming to arise from within him and from the center of the garden at the same time.
As always happened in the dream, he would be walking slowly toward the garden, following the call of the vibration and then halfway there, he would hear a voice whisper “Evalyn” from the shadowy grove at the center of the garden and he would awaken, gripped by a desperate sense of loss he could not fathom the source of. The dream as a whole made little sense to him but the longing just grew stronger and stronger each year as if he were being called by the garden itself.
What does the dream mean and why is it always the same, Luz wondered for the thousandth time but he had little time to ponder it further that morning.
The door of the tower suddenly swung open and out stepped a fat, red-haired boy with two thin, ratty looking boys behind him. They wore the same brown smocks, gray trousers and cheaply fashioned brown sneakers he did because they were also kitchen boys. The red-haired one was named Troy and as usual, he was with his two henchmen, Brandon and Hector. They were the fear of all of the younger boys in the Quads in the Western part of the Underquarters, bully’s that stole their lunches, their clothes and their dignity and they hated Luz with a special fury.
“Hey sissy boy,” Troy said, his broad face splitting into a wide, malicious grin that made him look like a particularly ill-tempered toad.
“Aren’t you supposed to be working, bendy,” Hector said, scratching at the puffy pustules that grew on the right side of his face from a slight mutation.
“Work hasn’t started yet,” Luz said, scanning in all directions for his best escape route.
“Work hasn’t started yet,” Brandon, a tall, blond boy with eyes the color of mud said in a mocking, high-pitched tone.
“Yeah, you sound like a girl,” Hector said looking to Troy eagerly to see if he was making fun of him the right way. Hector wasn’t very bright, probably because he was a mutey. He wasn’t genomically viable and with eyes at two different elevations of his head and hair that only covered the areas not covered by a puffy white mass of bulbs, he would never leave the Underquarters for no self-respecting Professional who was a part of a Union would take him. Luz actually felt sorry for him against his will.
Luz knew it wasn’t wise to anger them but he was getting tired of being beaten up by them in alleyways, ganged up on in the dorms and being made fun of non-stop. A reckless indignation stole over him so he went against his better judgment and taunted them back.
“You have no idea what a girl sounds like, you half-brain,” he said, putting his hands on his hips and looking down at them in pert disdain, “none of us do.”
“I too have seen girls,” Hector said defensively, “When they needed boys to help with a delivery of fruit at the Golden Gate, I saw at least ten of ‘em and Troy saw ‘em too. Pretty they was, kinda small and frail lookin’ with breasts and high voices an everfing.”
“Yeah, just like Luz,” Troy said and they all laughed.
“Whatever, I’m going down to breakfast,” Luz said.
Luz put his chest out and chin up and made a little prissy “hmpfff” to show them how unaffected he was by their words and tried to walk past them to the stairwell. He didn’t feel as brave as he was trying to look though and was hoping they wouldn’t jump him.
“Where do you think you’re goin,’ pretty,” Troy said, stepping in front of the door.
The other two immediately grabbed Luz’s arms and then Troy pulled a greasy kitchen rag out of his pocket and shoved it in his mouth.
“Quick, take him to the gun nest,” Troy said, looking around with a sickeningly eager expression.
They took him behind a crease in the wall where a small stone enclosure stood behind an old iron door. It had once housed advanced artillery from the Usan Occupation four centuries ago but it was now used only as a storage cupboard since the secrets of such weapons had been lost.
“Mfuuuuu,” Luz tried to scream, thrashing and dragging his heels. He had heard about what Troy and boys like him did to the smaller boys and he was terrified because they were much bigger than him and he knew that he couldn’t fight all three of them off.
They pulled him inside and Luz wept hopelessly as the door slammed shut and the last sliver of light disappeared. He knew what would happen next.
An hour later, he lay balled up on the floor crying in the gunnery nest. He was in physical pain and half of his face was bruised from the pummeling he had gotten while they tried to subdue him. He thought that at least three of his ribs had been bruised and there was a horrible ripping pain deep inside of him that brought up a toxic mixture of shame and nausea.
He eventually managed to pull himself together enough to peer out the door to see if they were still there. Seeing no one around, he pulled his ripped smock back over his shoulder to conceal the naked flesh he suddenly found so shameful and gingerly limped toward the stairs. He hurt so badly that he could barely walk but he knew he could tell no one what they had done to him because any contact of that type was forbidden by The Edicts of Ecos and even the victim would be blamed and punished for it.
He wanted to cry but a numbness spread over his mind, making everything seem dreamlike and faraway. He made it half way down the stairs before he crumpled into a ball and started sobbing again. His mind raced over details but could settle on nothing, his thoughts scattered by a blind panic that made focus impossible. He remembered the greasy taste of the rag in his mouth, the sooty stink of the gunnery nest, a mop handle he could see from where they had bent him over a stool and for some reason, he fixated upon an old iron plaque on the wall that said ART. 357 Tango. His mind raced over increasingly smaller details as he hyperventilated—the acrid odor of Troy’s sweat, Hector grunting out a cheer, the sound of a belt buckle clanking against the stone.
As his mind ground back into gear, he felt dirty. His own flesh seemed disgusting and impure to him as if they had branded their violation upon it. A thousand frantic thoughts began racing through his mind again. He thought of how he had taunted them and wondered if it was his fault for doing so. He also wondered if he had somehow encouraged them, trying to find some part of himself to blame for the horrible self-loathing he felt. Was it the way he acted? Had he deserved it? His thoughts quickly began to spiral off in tormented and confusing directions but through his sheer desolation, one thought ground itself firmly into his head—they wouldn’t stop. They had derived pleasure from the fact that he had no choice and now they would continue to have their way with him if he couldn’t find a way out of the situation.
Luz stumbled past the dormitory he lived in to the public bath where stone benches lined a large chamber of steam-darkened sandstone blocks. In the center of the room were eight copper tubs, several buckets of water, a rack with fresh towels and yellow kegs of fresh soap. He threw off his ripped clothes and bathed with a determination to wipe every bit of their touch form his body. He scrubbed until his skin was red and raw and then had to duck under the water to avoid crying again. If someone heard him, they would call the brothers and if they found out that he was now impure any hope of a life above ground would be lost. He would be beaten, imprisoned and then cast into the mines to work in the worst conditions on the isles for the rest of his days. Worse than that, he might even by exiled to the Coast and that was a fate he could not face. As badly as he wanted to cry, as much as he needed to talk, he had to bury those feelings to survive so when he emerged, he took a deep breath, combed his hair, put back on his clothes and went to the scullery, outwardly withdrawn but inwardly falling apart.