From the author: Life behind the Wall is difficult to comprehend for most of the Lost. For the Sisters Penitent, control is the only thing that still makes sense-- and for the Marshal, control is the only thing that matters.
Behind the mask Marilyn’s eyes dart, scanning one side of the Garden and then the other, taking in the singing Sisters with their hidden hands and the girls bent over the vegetable beds. The voice of the bees hangs everywhere in the golden afternoon. So do the bees. They move in and out of their hives between the flowers and their queen, intent on their instinctive alchemy. A rare burst of sunlight glows through the translucent membranes of their veined wings. They dart around the many white-clad girls working in the Garden, settling on red blooms and star-shaped squash blossoms with equal enmity.
The Sisters Penitent all wear their voluminous white dresses, their gloves. Blank faces hide inside the deep wells of their cowls. Wilted sunflowers tilt against the high concrete wall where the shock of green grass meets stone. Above the garden wall skeletons of tall buildings and empty houses lean against each other, pitched roofs sagging with rot. A bird rides hidden currents above the ruins. A distant explosion echoes. No movement in the ruined city. The cold openings of windows and doors are cut from darkness. One plume of black smoke curling in the air.
The Sisters are anonymous even here, in their walled garden. Their faces tilt upwards in longing at the afternoon sun, and the thick plastic of their white masks hides the slope of noses and cheekbones. Most of them weed the raised garden beds full of tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, squashes. The plants are scrawny and weak, but alive. Growing. The girls sing as they work. Their hands dip down into the earth to mete out the justice of the gardener, removing encroaching grasses and offending beetles alike. Their movements are a coordinated dance.
One Sister holds a smudge stick made of dried pine needles, another a lighter. Together they smoke the bees into drowsing peace until they fly sleepy circles around the sunflowers. A third girl waits to extract the honey from the long, rectangular box the wild bees chose for a hive. Her knife slices long sections of honeycomb off the bar. A different Sister drops the comb into a cloth filter bag and hands it to the next and so it travels down the line, one by one, each set of white gloves smashing the fragile wax until the bag is heavy, golden with extracted honey. The last Sister hangs the dripping bag inside a tall glass jar and screws on the lid. Soon there are four jars trapping the sunlight. They harmonize as they work, singing St. Lucy’s Gramercy for the victory of a good harvest, and as the last lid turns on the last jar they line up in front of a steaming bucket of water and a bar of soap. One by one they plunge their hands into the water, washing the honey away. One by one they scrub their white gloves clean and leave them to drip dry over the top of the pea fence. They turn away from the flash of naked hands—their own, others’—secreting them inside wide sleeves with deft movements.
Last is the Sister with the knife. The blade glows a sticky amber. Sweetness drips from the tip, hangs and twists. The Sister watches honey slide along the length of the blade. Her hands tremble.
What are you waiting for? The closest girl hisses. She turns, billows out her dress, blocks others from view.
We gather all this, she says. We work the Garden for him. For what? We’re never worthy.
Marilyn, she says, low. It’s not worth it.
I haven’t tasted a sweet thing since before the fall, Marilyn says.
The price of safety. We’re alive.
Marilyn sits watching the honey in the light.
Are you trying to get cast out? the girl says, low and fast. Do you remember what it was like out there?
Marilyn flicks her own mask off. Where her friend's face should be there is only cold fabric and plastic. Marilyn licks the knife clean, her eyes fixed on the smooth, white void. Her pale, square face blinks in the afternoon light. A curl of red hair is stuck to her forehead and there is a shock of freckles across the bridge of her short nose. She closes her eyes for a long minute, savoring the honey on her tongue and the sensation of being revealed, however briefly, to the sky.
Don’t leave me like this, the other Sister says.
One by one the Sisters drop out of song until only the irritation of the bees sounds inside the garden.
The knife reflects the echo of her face as it falls. The girl drops it into the bucket, strips off her gloves, hums as she works the bar into lather up and down the shining metal before she realizes they are all watching her.
She pulls the mask back down over her face.
They stand watching her and not speaking. The weeding Sisters sense a new vibration threading through the Garden and leave the dirt, gathering in around her until she is surrounded. White sunlight gleams everywhere.
Marilyn finishes washing the knife clean and lays it on the green grass. Her head bowed, she scrubs her gloves in the tepid water. The others watch everything and say nothing. She hangs her gloves, sinking back down onto her knees next to the knife in the grass. Her hands twist into fists in her lap, naked and exposed.
I’m sorry, she says loudly. She challenges them. Her voice cracks the silence. Their voices are the dry rub of autumn leaves. Forgive me, Sisters. I forgot the meaning of our service.
Thank you for your honesty, little Sister. A deep voice, new to the Garden. The whispers grow and die to nothing.
The Marshal rests against the door wearing his thick soled combat boots, his black cargo pants. His lean shoulders slump under the weight of a wearying exhaustion. The pistol in its holster is as much a part of him as his hands or legs.
What an example, Sister, of why we are all here. Like these gloves-- he pulls her gloves off of the pea fence, showing them to all-- like these gloves, sometimes we look cleansed, suited for a true purpose, when we’re not.
The Marshal tosses the gloves, one by one, back into the bucket. They settle almost gently upon the water, a single ring floating outwards.
I’m sorry, she says again. She is rigid, the knife next to her hand flashing in the sun.
Don’t be, he says, and smiles.
It’s not for all of us to know where we belong in the new world, he says. He takes three long strides into the garden, his silver hair glowing in the sunlight.
The rules are in place for everyone’s safety, Sister.
She looks down at her feet.
In the days after when everything was chaos, the laws of our Garden were made to bring order. You joined us promising to serve a greater purpose. And what happened?
I stole food. A lot of food. From the storeroom.
She looks down at her reflection in the bucket.
Their Marshal grows stern as he looks out over the gathering. You have all had your moments of sin, he says. Who can tell your Sister why you wear the mask?
A Sister steps forward. For our redemption, Marshal.
For redemption, Sister?
Yes, Marshal. The mask reminds us that we are one of many. We are faceless so that we learn to strip away selfishness and rise above ourselves. The mask reminds us that we are less than our service and through our service we find redemption.
And your song?
The song links us, Marshal, so that we learn to move as one body and speak with one voice. We take nothing for ourselves.
What is your name, Sister?
Sisters have no names, Marshal.
Very good, the Marshal says. Do you find the loss of your identities to be a harsh punishment, Sisters?
No, Marshal, they say. We are proud to be Sisters, Marshal. To provide. They speak as one, each individual voice buzzing against the other. Together their voice rings against the Garden walls. Only the girl kneeling in front of the bucket is silent.
The Marshal extends a hand.
Marilyn’s hand brushes against the knife next to her. In one motion it is in her white hand, flashing sunlight at her side. She stares into his face. The suggestion of violence mingles with shame in her eyes.
Hand me that knife, he says, and his voice is so warm and confident in command that she finds herself pressing the wooden handle into his palm though the blade could go so easily into the flax nexus of his stomach. Her grip tightens.
Release, he says, and her hand drops.
He pulls away her hood and mask, her white robe, until she is unveiled and trembling nakedly before them all.
Stand, Marilyn, he says. Your place is elsewhere, beyond the walls of our Garden and our peace. The Sisters’ collective gasp drowns the sound of the bees. Their wide sleeves flutter like birds on the shore. The cutting sound of her name amputates her from their body.
It was just honey, she says.
He says nothing. His eyes trace the curves of her body. He is still smiling. Her fear is an animal stink in the air.
How am I supposed to live? she says. She moves from girl to girl, pushing at their linked hands. Her hair weaves a tangled crown around her head. She is a pale ghost to them. She is already gone.
Sisters, the Marshal says.
They step forward, singing, tightening the ring. One or two start to hesitate and are pulled, sharply, by those next in line. Inexorably they advance. Marilyn steps back, and back, and back, until suddenly the heavy iron door to the Outside chills the flesh of her back. Honey still on her lips.
Consider the dandelion, Sisters, he says. Consider that even beautiful weeds need to be removed from the Garden, lest they spread their seeds and grow.
Well done, the Marshal says into the new silence. And now, you good, just Sisters of Penitence-- you girls. For your sober duty and dedication to others, for knowing what is right and what is necessary, for your righteousness-- he pauses to drop a fatherly hand on the shoulder of the girl next to him--for all of that, you should be rewarded.
Go ahead, Sisters. Take off your masks. Feel the sun, he says.
The sisters look at each other uncertainly. Someone begins to cry.
Go, he says, a trace of irritation in his voice. His hand flips forward to urge them on. Enjoy yourselves. Reveal yourselves. Back to your tasks in one hour, little bees.
One by one the Sisters drop their cowls and free themselves, blinking into the afternoon sun. They sneak looks at each other’s faces and rub self-consciously at the spaces where their masks should sit. They retreat back inside their hoods, meet no one’s eyes. Their reflections have no names and they say none to each other. In small groups they huddle, nestling against the apple tree and the containers, stealing time.
This story originally appeared in Jam Tarts.