Author’s Note: You are about to read the first chapter in my novel, The Six Provinces of Debris. This is a working draft, so I would love it if you would leave constructive criticism in the comments! I hope you enjoy it!
Adelaide’s heart pounded. She was so nervous, every cell in her body was buzzing with anticipation. Only three students left before she would have to recite a random portion of the Edict of Debris from memory. Her hand flew down to her pocket and fingered the parchment that wasn’t supposed to be there. She wanted to look at it one last time before the assessment, but how could she without Diotima noticing? She released the parchment and pulled her hand out of her pocket.
“…and it was dictated that Debris would be divided into Six Provinces, each to be governed by two honest senators, immune to corruption and greed–” Diotima cut Erma off with a satisfied nod.
“David.” Diotima said crisply to the brooding warfare apprentice.
“…oh, uh, one senator is to rule the affairs of the state, and the other is to protect the people from violence and harm…”
As David struggled with his portion of the edict, Adelaide wondered if it was possible to die from nerves. She brushed her hair out of her eyes before thrusting her hand back in her pocket. She just needed a quick glance at the parchment. If only Diotima would look in the opposite direction for a few seconds.
“…and through care and hard work, the citizens of Debris will be nursed, nurtured, and nourished by the earth, creating village independence and sustainability…”
Adelaide slowly inched the parchment out of her pocket without looking away from Diotima, whose focus was on Paulina just a few feet to the left of Adelaide. She was too slow. The parchment was crumpled in her fist when Diotima stopped Paulina’s strained recitation with another curt nod.
Adelaide dropped the parchment back into her pocket and quickly brushed her hair away from her face again. Next to her, Ivy’s hazel eyes were squeezed shut as she recited the edict as quickly as possible. How does she cram so many words into one breath?
Adelaide wondered, her nerves momentarily forgotten.
Adelaide jumped at the sound of her name, and her cheeks grew red and hot. She took a deep breath before slowly reciting the last paragraph of the edict, surprised at how easily the words came to her. Once she reached the last sentence, however, her mind went blank. How does it end? How does it end? Adelaide fumbled with the parchment in her pocket, desperate to pull it out.
“And…um…the Six Provinces of Debris will prosper by rejecting dead discourse in favor of living speech, and…um…that’s it.” There was a silence as Diotima studied Adelaide with an intensity that made her skin crawl. She forgot the last line of the edict. She felt naked and exposed. Diotima’s eyes moved down to Adelaide’s pocket, bulging from her clenched fist.
Finally, Diotima’s gaze moved over the rest of the class. “Sit.” She commanded, gesturing to the grass at her feet. The students sat in the shade of the large, bearded statue that marked the center of the grassy hill. The statue was dirty, and Adelaide thought it was quite ugly. The nose was too wide with flaring nostrils, and the eyes were too far apart and seemed to pop out unnaturally.
Diotima continued to stand in its shade. She wore an expression similar to that of the crumbling statue: contemplative and grim. “You’ve memorized the edict, but memorization is not understanding. Some of you may still wonder why we shun the written word.” Diotima’s eyes settled on Adelaide again, who shifted her weight uncomfortably on the grass. She grabbed a few blades and pulled, satisfied with the ripping sound that followed.
Diotima continued, “Never forget the three reasons for rejecting dead discourse. Say it with me,”
Adelaide sighed as she pulled up another clump of grass, but she automatically recited the three reasons along with the rest of the class:
“Reason one: The permanence of dead discourse negates the dialogic process imperative to learning.”
She didn’t even have to think about what came next; the three reasons were burned into her memory. Adelaide ripped up another clump of grass and added it to the growing pile in front of her as she, and everyone else around her, took a breath in preparation for the second reason: “Reason two: Dead discourse implants forgetfulness into the souls of men, causing themto rely on that which is written rather than on that which is from within themselves.”
Ivy glanced at Adelaide’s pile of grass and raised an eyebrow. Adelaide shrugged and added another clump to the pile. Another breath: “Reason three: Dead discourse is a pestilence that, once released, cannot be contained.”
Ivy added a few blades of grass to Adelaide’s pile with a small smile. Adelaide returned the smile, but wondered if Ivy even understood what she had just recited. They had been taught to recite the three reasons for rejecting dead discourse at a young age, and Adelaide remembered running home to tell her parents that she had finally memorized every single word a few weeks later. She didn’t fully understand the words she recited weekly until her fourteenth birthday, when she realized that she had been verbally condemning her passion for most of her life.
Diotima was speaking again, “I believe that the second reason is most pertinent to our class today.” Her eyes were on Adelaide again as she continued her lecture, “At first glance, dead discourse appears to be knowledge, but it is not. It is simply a reminder of what should be in your head, but isn’t. It is simply false wisdom.” Her eyes swept over the class with her final statement: “I warn you all, do not fall victim to false wisdom, to false knowledge. Only death and destruction will come of it. You’re dismissed.”
As they stretched their legs, Ivy said, “Wow. That was dramatic.”
Adelaide feigned a smile and said in a mocking tone, “Scratches on parchment will kill you!” She usually enjoyed making fun of Diotima with Ivy after class, but today she wasn’t in the mood. The assessment replayed itself over and over again in her head, each replay just as painful as the actual moment.
Ivy laughed and started to speak, but she was interrupted by Diotima. “Adelaide, come see me for a moment before you go, please?” The instructor called out, still standing in the shadow of the statue.
Adelaide’s stomach filled with lead as she slowly trudged up the hill to Diotima. When she was close, Diotima said, “You seemed nervous today, Adelaide.”
Adelaide nodded. “I remembered the first part of the edict much better than the end.”
“I see.” Diotima said. She narrowed her eyes and said, “I noticed you were fiddling with something in your pocket. May I see it?”
Adelaide’s blood ran cold and her heart stopped. She couldn’t show Diotima the parchment. She didn’t know the penalty for creating and interacting with dead discourse, but she knew it couldn’t be good.
Just as she was about to make a run for it, a man trudged up the hill behind Diotima. Adelaide’s heart instantly swelled. It was her father. “Dad!” She cried, running toward him. As he embraced her in a tight hug, she quickly slipped the crumpled parchment into his jacket pocket.
“Hey, Adie. I’m sorry to bother you at school, but I missed you too much to wait for you to get home,” Langston whispered in her ear.
“Don’t be.” Adelaide replied quickly.
Diotima walked up to them and said, “Langston, I’m glad to see that you’ve returned safely.”
“It is good to see you as well, Diotima,” Langston said politely.
“I’m sure you two are eager to catch up, but do you mind if I talk to your daughter for a couple of minutes, Langston? Your reunion interrupted an important lesson.”
Adelaide glared at Diotima. An important lesson? It felt more like a gotcha than a lesson.
“Certainly,” Langston said cheerily. “I’ll just wait by my friend here.” He gestured to the statue.
“Adelaide, please empty your pockets.” Diotima said without hesitation.
Adelaide sighed dramatically and pulled out a few strands of grass. “It’s grass. I was really nervous, and playing with the grass helped me calm down.” She lied easily.
Diotima sighed. She seemed disappointed, as if she wanted an excuse to punish Adelaide. “Very well. You may go.”
Adelaide walked back to her father. “Let’s go home.”
As they walked down the hill and into the village, Adelaide glanced nervously at her father. She wasn’t sure how he would react to the parchment in his pocket. She couldn’t suppress the reasonable voice inside of her head that chastised her for being careless. Seeing Langston again reminded her of the seriousness of her actions.
She stole a sidewise glance at Langston, trying to gauge his emotions, but he just whistled a tune and threw an arm over her shoulder, squeezing her close to his body. They walked in silence, maneuvering the poor sections of the village quickly. The buildings were still damaged from the last raid. Two boys sat on the opposite side of the street, watching them pass. They wore filthy rags for clothing, and Adelaide wondered what they thought of the upper class families wealthy enough to send their children to school.
As they entered the poorer section of the city, the damage from the recent raid was still evident. The acrid smell of smoke lingered in the air as they passed an unlucky house; the roof had collapsed inward leaving the blackened and crumbling walls a lonely monument to the unfortunate owners.
Adelaide pulled her father forward a little faster. It’s not that she felt unsafe exactly, in the daytime the government garrisons outside of the village kept a careful eye out for raiders. Everyone knew that. It was only at night that raiders would dare enter the town. Besides, in the village nearly every face was a familiar one.
Perhaps it was just their eyes.
Two boys sat nearby and she could feel their eyes on her, red-rimmed with exhaustion, defeated. It seemed like the raids always seemed hit hardest to those who already had so little. They were field hands, like most everyone in town. They were nearly her age, she new, but they seemed so much older. It’s as if the constant toil in the field tanned and wrinkled up their skin, soaking up their youth. It was hard to tell what they were wearing; their rags were stained with mud and dung and filth. She felt embarrassed for them, sad for them. She wondered what they carried behind those eyes, what they thought of the upper class families wealthy enough to send their children to school.
The boys were driven out of her mind as they approached the main square of the village. Maybe he hasn’t found the parchment, Adelaide thought to herself, studying Langston’s complacent expression.
“So,” she said, filling the silence, “did you find anything exciting while you were gone?”
Langston winked, and said, “I did. I’ll tell you about it when I get home.”
He found one! Adelaide thought excitedly, momentarily forgetting her guilt. But then, her heart sunk again. Had she gotten caught today, she wouldn’t be the only one in trouble. Their house would be searched, things would be found…
Adelaide smiled in spite of her inner turmoil. She looked around the square and noticed people waving cheerily at Langston, glad to see he’d returned safely. They were being watched, and Adelaide couldn’t afford to compromise their carefully constructed façade by looking guilty on the day of her father’s return.
Langston and his wife, Emmeline, were the village readers. As the only legally literate citizens in town, they made their living mostly by composing and delivering messages from their village to other villages in Fourth Province. They provided other dead discourse services as well, but they wouldn’t be able to afford three meals a day without correspondence between the villages. Their status as readers made them public figures of the community, constantly under public scrutiny.
People both admired and feared Langston and Emmeline since they were from the prestigious Senator Sector, the affluent neighborhood of political leaders, lawyers, doctors, officers, and all other professions that required the ability to read. It was rare for those born in the Sector to leave voluntarily since there were sharp differences between quality of life in the Sector and quality of life in the villages. Village readers were usually assigned to their posts against their wills, and only after being deemed unfit for a profession in the Sector. They earned just enough money to ensure a lifestyle slightly more comfortable than that of the illiterate villagers, but they were also audited frequently and required to pay an annual tax to the Sector on behalf of the village. Langston and Emmeline wouldn’t tell Adelaide why they left, only that they were “happy to leave the Sector to live in a village filled with kind souls who value compassion and community.”
Their house was in the middle of the village square. It was small and tired looking, but had two floors, making it one of the larger houses in the village. The entire bottom floor was dedicated to her parents’ shop, and the top floor to living space. The sign above the front door swayed gently in the breeze. It was imprinted with the silhouette of a feather quill and piece of parchment, the symbol identifying a reader’s shop. Langston and Emmeline had the same symbol tattooed on their right wrists, protecting them from prosecution in case their identities as certified readers were ever called into question.
Emmeline had the front door to the shop propped open to let in the light and air from outside. As soon as she walked in, Adelaide caught a strong whiff of body odor. Two grungy looking men stood at the wooden counter opposite the door. They seemed to be in the middle of a heated discussion regarding the amount of sheep one man would trade for a section of land owned by the other.
“I’m givin’ you six of my fattest ewes! Two of ‘em pregnant already!” One man said, pounding a weathered fist on the counter. “How kin you say that ain’t enough?”
“You want the piece by the river,” The other man responded calmly, “and that’ll cost ya more than six fat ewes. I want eight ewes an’ a ram. An’ if one o’those ewes don’t pop out a lil ram, I’ll want another one.”
Emmeline was leaning lazily over a piece of parchment laid out in front of her, the details of the contract scribbled across the page. She rolled her eyes as Adelaide walked in, half smiling at the men in front of her.
“They’ve been bickering in here all day,” Langston whispered to Adelaide as they inched past the men. As she passed the shelves behind the counter, Adelaide ran her finger across the bindings of the only three books allowed in a reader’s shop: a dictionary, a thesaurus, and the Reader’s Handbook. She climbed the stairs and walked straight to her room. Perhaps a story or two from Grimm’s Fairy Tales would help her feel better. She rarely got a chance to smuggle it out of its hiding place away from prying eyes, but it was always worth the risk.
When she walked into her room, however, she found Ivy brushing her hair on the bed. “Emmeline let me in.” Ivy said cheerily in greeting. Adelaide’s eyes nervously swept the room, making sure nothing else was out of place. If Ivy found her hairbrush, what else did she find? Adelaide casually walked over to the dresser and glanced in the open drawer where she kept her brush. The false bottom was still in place. Good.
Ivy continued, oblivious to Adelaide’s behavior. “So, what did Diotima want? Did she hear us making fun of her?”
Adelaide took a deep breath. She couldn’t tell Ivy the real reason Diotima had asked her to stay behind without raising Ivy’s suspicions too. “Yeah. She didn’t hear you though, just me.”
“Oh, good!” Ivy said, obviously relieved. She looked at Adelaide and quickly added, “I don’t mean ‘oh good, you got in trouble and not me,’ I just mean that I’m glad that’s all you got in trouble for. I mean, I’m not glad you got in trouble, just –” Ivy interrupted herself with a sigh and started fiddling with the hairbrush, “anyway, what did she say?”
Adelaide rolled her eyes. “She just gave me a long lecture about respect, taking my education seriously, appreciating how much my parents are paying, blah blah blah.”
“Ugh,” Ivy said, flopping back onto the bed. “She’s so dramatic! I mean, your parents are readers. Of course you’re going to take your education seriously! They’re like, the smartest people in the entire village!”
As Adelaide gave Ivy a small smile, she was overcome with a fresh wave of guilt, reminded again that she wouldn’t be the only person in trouble if Diotima had discovered the parchment in her pocket. When Langston and Emmeline left the Sector, they signed a contract agreeing not to teach their children how to read. Only children born and raised in the Sector were allowed to learn how to read and write in order to prepare them for the various Sector jobs. Very few children born and raised in the villages were formally educated at all, and those who could afford to go to school were expected to memorize all of their lessons. This both preserved their memories and protected them from the dangers of dead discourse. Adelaide didn’t know what the punishment was for breaking the contract, but she couldn’t believe she had almost caused trouble for her parents. All just to pass a test.
Adelaide was about to respond to Ivy when Langston knocked and poked his head in the door. “Hey Ivy, I need to talk to Adelaide alone for a while. Would you mind coming back tomorrow?”
“Sure, no problem.” Ivy said, hopping off the bed and grimacing at Adelaide. She opened the drawer with the false bottom and tossed the brush into it with a clatter before rushing out of the room.
When Adelaide was sure Ivy was gone, she looked down at her hands and said, “I know why you’re here, and I’m sorry. I messed up.”
Langston sighed and pulled the parchment out of his pocket. “What were you thinking?” He asked quietly, disappointment dripping off of every word.
“I wasn’t.” Adelaide responded, looking at the small, crumpled parchment in his hands. “I was so nervous about the test, and…” She trailed off for a moment before continuing, a lump rising in her throat. “I’m not going to make excuses. I messed up, and I’m sorry.”
Langston nodded and said, “I know you’re sorry. But Adie, the penalty for a reader who teaches his child how to read and write is very severe –”
“I know!” Adelaide interrupted angrily. “We would lose our license, our shop, our house, and our freedom. We would be accused of being in violation of the Edict. You’ve told me this before.”
She was angry with Langston, but angrier with herself. Couldn’t he understand that she already felt guilty for bringing the parchment to school? Why was he trying to add to her guilt? She couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. They slipped out quietly, and Adelaide brushed them away impatiently, embarrassed for crying in front of her father. She was sixteen. Sixteen-year-olds don’t cry in front of their fathers.
Langston put a hand on Adelaide’s shoulder, “Adie, after your brother – we can’t lose you too.” Thinking about her brother just made her cry harder. Langston wrapped his arms around her and she found comfort in his familiar, musky smell: a combination of leather, ink, and his natural odor.
After a couple of minutes she pulled away, pushing the parchment and her dead brother out of her mind.
“You said you found something…” She said, changing the subject.
Langston smiled and reached into his jacket pocket. “It’s not very big,” he said, handing her a small, aged book, “It’s poetry.”
Adelaide rose from the bed and walked over to a small table next to the window with a small smile on her face, her curiosity growing stronger than her guilt. She set the book down carefully and studied the faded cover. The title read Cries for Freedom: Select Poems by Various Authors. They hadn’t found a new book in years, and never a book of poetry.
Langston sat at the table next to Adelaide. “I already marked my favorite,” He said, pointing to a cottonwood leaf poking out from between two pages.
Adelaide gently coaxed the cover open. It fell open easily, too easily. Adelaide was afraid it would fall apart. She turned the pages until she found the leaf. Langston had written a name on it: Willy. Adelaide set the leaf aside, ignoring the pain in her chest. She didn’t want to think about him.
“This one,” Langston said, pointing to a short poem. Adelaide read it aloud:
Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
To some people
Love is given,
Langston Hughes, 1959
“It was written by someone with your name!” Adelaide said, surprised.
Her father nodded, and said, “What do you think?”Adelaide reread the poem before answering. She knew it reminded her father of her brother, and she knew that’s why he was showing her the poem.
“It makes me sad.” She decided, “It reminds me of the boys we saw today. The ones in the rags,”
“Why?” Langston prompted, looking slightly disappointed.
“Well, it says here, ‘sometimes a crumb falls from the tables of joy, sometimes a bone is flung.’” She ran her finger along the lines as she read them aloud. “It’s just…I was so worried about the test today, but that was just a crumb. Those boys though…they looked miserable.” She tapped the word bone, “They’ve had a bone flung from the table of joy. Or maybe they are the bones –”
She was interrupted by a sharp knock at the door. Langston stood up quickly, standing in front of the table, blocking it from the door. At the same time, Adelaide snapped the cover shut, wincing slightly at the damage she may have caused in her haste.
Emmeline poked her head in the room, carefully keeping the door mostly closed. Her blue eyes were wide and frantic, her voice strained.
“Oh, good, Adie, you’re decent.” Her eyes darted around the room quickly, “Langston, there you are! I’ve been looking–”
Before Emmeline could finish her sentence, however, the door was pushed open all the way by a small, thin man in strange clothes. His eyes were black and beady behind a pair of narrow glasses, his thin hair slicked straight back on top of his pointy head. He pushed past Emmeline and walked up to Langston with an outstretched arm. Adelaide quickly stepped behind Langston and swept the book off of the table and into the waistband of her pants, not noticing the leaf floating gently to the floor to land under the table.
“Good evening, Mr. Anders,” He said in an oily voice. “My name is Josiah Remington, and you are being audited.”