“Someday I’ll die, and the Gods will tell me if what I did was good or bad. I will die, and all the memories of me will slowly fade. “
“I never wanted anything. I never wanted fortunes, fame, or eternal life. I just wanted a quiet one; the life that makes you happy through who you are and not through what you have.”
There was a time when the wide world, cities, wars and even death meant nothing to me. There was a time when I was as naïve as the butterfly hatching from its chrysalis, thinking that it has the world in its wings, oblivious to all the hungry mouths surrounding it.
I remember the air being crisp and the morning still creeping out of the night. I was holding this big bowl, wishing I were somewhere else, while two of my neighbors were cutting the throats of a few chickens.
I hated blood. Every sight of it was making me cringe as if each drop was my own. I used to hate death and never welcomed it, although my parents were always saying that death is just a part of this world, that for every passing there’s something else being born. I used to think that pain is unnatural. But then again…
“Wake up, Raveeka,” one of my neighbors yelled. “Stop dreaming and get your hands on this chicken!”
I stretched my arms and presented them with the bowl, trying to make them put the chicken in, without me touching it. And it worked. Sort of. Red. Blood was smearing the edges of the bowl, and that made me a bit dizzy. Quickly, two other chickens piled up, making the bowl heavier and forcing me to get it closer to my body, smelling death lingering in the air.
It was my wedding day, and I felt as if I could not focus on the joy ahead, but rather on the fear and the smell of blood.
I was born three miles away from the middle of nowhere, as my father liked to say, and more than ever I felt that beginning with that day my universe was due to change. We were not completely isolated, but the technology wasn’t a big part of our days. And for most of my life, my universes were the fields and the woods and the constant bustle of crickets and birds. The only thing that stretched the boundaries of that lifestyle was the every-so-often passing of a hovercraft, the sidewalk belt that was transporting you from one side of the village to the other, and the rarely-used holodevices connecting us to news from far and wide. The wall-patrol’s hovercraft was the worst one out, an old noisy model that always sounded as if it was about to explode. The same hovercraft brought in our village my soon to be husband.
The first time I saw him I remember thinking that he was the symbol of trouble in our existence; a stranger unsettling the comfort of what life used to be. And even though, later on, I found out that he was sharing most of our views, he was nothing but an annoying brat, winking at me every time our paths were crossing. He came to help a distant uncle, one of those wealthy farmers, barricaded behind long fences, in the middle of a vanilla plantation. First words he spoke to me were: “I’m going to marry you someday!” The nerve of that boy! Then again, I was exactly in that spot two years later. Only nineteen, but convinced that whatever I was expecting from life, he could help me achieve.
I left the next day after the wedding. I packed everything I had in two suitcases and took my share of pillows, blankets and all the knick-knacks my mom and I made over the years. There were no tears, no long stares, and no party of neighbors waving me goodbye. There was a “take care of you” from my father and a short hug from my mother. Maybe she cried after. Maybe in her room, alone, she shed some tears thinking about me. Or maybe she didn’t.
I never got too much affection from my parents. And I got used to it too. Deep down they might have loved me a lot, but if they did, they never showed it. I can’t remember the last time I heard praise or even a muttered: “I love you.” What love they showed was directed to the land. I should say “THE LAND” as it felt it was the only worry, the single element of deserving admiration and constant care. After the last millennial war, there wasn’t much of it left, at least not the type of land that could sustain life. All the deep impact bombing had turned the land sour. Not even the big artificial fertility fields could restore it completely. And even those worked only in a few patches on the great belt (a hundred miles wide line that was crossing the continent from east to west). We lived in one of those spots, a thirty by forty-five miles of green heaven, as it might have appeared from above. But down below, the weird concoction of enzymes produced by the underground fertility tubes was making the air hard to breathe. Rotten smells that were causing your eyes to tear up and turn your stomach inside out. Unless, of course, you got used to it. The vanilla fields were helping too.
My parents didn’t have a big lot, just enough to make you busy six days per week. They sold everything they had in the city, just before I was born, and moved in the middle of “nature.” With faith in Gods, they decided to leave the fake life, as they called it, behind. I never saw a city until I was 24, and I remember even now the terrifying encounter of constant hum of air purifiers and the people on top of people, piled up to the edges of the sky. I understood then why my parents wanted... no, why they had to leave.
And now I was parting ways with the only universe I knew. Thirty by forty-five miles green dot surrounded by a sea of nothing. Two days of traveling to the next farmland, where another house was going to be called home.
I liked Vitor. He was kind, funny and constantly curious about life. I liked Vitor enough to marry him. But I didn’t love him. I saw in holomovies how love should feel. The butterflies and the crazy feeling that you and your man are one. I didn’t love Vitor. I didn’t know how. But I liked him enough to move with him. He made me smile... No, he made me laugh. And that was about the closest to being happy as I ever felt. I used to smile, as a kid; a weird, forced representation of what I knew a smile should look like. Every Sunday, at mass, the local priest used to tell me:
“Smile, Raveeka! Let those nice teeth see the light of the sun and show your love to the Gods above!”
Vitor was making me laugh. He told me my laughter sounded like a chipmunk eating a berry. I never saw a real chipmunk. I saw holograms of them but never saw a real one.
The hovercraft was packed. Most of it was filled with gifts from Vitor’s uncle. The latest generation of dust removers, bread makers and boxes of vanilla and other spices. Plus a long old shiny rifle, in a nice glass display, with 20 bullets. Antiquities from hundreds of years ago.
I stood in the front, next to Vitor, with two pillows on my lap and the air mask tightly fitted around my face. It felt weird wearing one, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. It was merely for protection against the dust.
We didn’t speak much for the first few hours. I saw him cooking his thoughts as if the first words he wanted to say needed to be perfect. He stared at me and smiled.
“I always liked the bare lands,” he said. “There’s something peaceful about them. I used to take the hovercraft at night and just drive aimlessly for hours. Then, once I found higher ground, I used to stop and look at the stars in silence. Someday I’ll go up there. Take one shuttle up above and see the world from there. Maybe even buy one and travel to the stars every time we feel like if you want to.”
“Yeah! But one can dream. Isn’t it?”
“You never wanted to go far, far away? To see other places?”
We remained quiet for a while. I saw him getting serious for a few seconds and then started smiling again.
“Someday you will. When the world opens up in front of you, you’ll feel the urge to know more. You’ll want to explore the world, or what’s left of it, through your own eyes and not through holograms! This earth still has a lot of secrets, you know?!”
At that time, I couldn’t care less. My mind was racing, thinking about the new home and the safety I left behind. I was a bit scared, and a shadow of regret was still present in my mind. What if I wouldn’t have married him? I would have been satisfied living on my parents’ land. Same days over and over again, without a worry for the future.
I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel. How is a new married woman supposed to act? Should I have been closer to him? Wrap my arm around him and smile, and nod at everything he said? I stood quietly. I looked at the bare lands stretching as far as the eyes could see and didn’t say a single word for the rest of the drive. He tried to talk to me a few times. I forced each time a smile and remained hidden in my thoughts.
We got to the next land patch early in the morning. This one was much bigger. It stretched for over ninety miles, and it had bigger woods and even some wildlife. He stopped at the main gate and went outside, talking to one of the guards. I saw him laughing and pointing at me. He then got quickly inside the hovercraft and as the gates opened, zoomed in, driving like a maniac to the middle of the village.
“I just have to pick up some bread and vegetables. Feel free to join me, or walk around a bit.”
I smiled again and remained in the hovercraft, looking around. I finally took my air mask out, and after breathing deeply in, I opened the window and let the outside air sneak in. Same rotten smell, but this time without the vanilla scent. The place looked vaguely familiar as if the whole village was a copy of the one I left behind. Nothing to be scared of, I told myself.
Life as you’re used to. The same type of people and the same type of air.
Even the store owner seemed to be a twin of the one we had in our village. Short, stocky, with a thick handlebar mustache, he stepped outside and stared at me from the door. Vitor walked by him, and, as he was getting close to the hovercraft, shouted:
“Yup. She is! She definitely is!” the mustache responded.
“Told you. You never saw someone as beautiful as she is in these parts. And she’s my wife.”
I buried my face in the pillows and started smiling. Nothing fake about this smile.
He’s crazy. Completely, entirely out of his minds. Who would shout a thing like that?
But then again I couldn’t stop smiling, and he saw that as I turned my gaze to him. I saw his proud smirk as if he conquered some battle over my heart.
The new home was simple. Nothing was surprising. Plain. Just a house, as he described it, inherited from his parents. Two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, a bathroom, and a dry shower unit. Plenty of space and plenty of dust. Outside, the yard was stretching in front, for twenty-thirty yards, flanked by neighbors’ houses on each side, and in the back, a small garden was guarded by plum trees, and behind them a long stretch of woods.
Just a house. I felt like a guest, a crazy bird unable to spot a proper place to nest. He had... we had a bigger plot of land on the outskirts of the patch. Potatoes, corn and some spices. And animals. Cows and pigs. He was paying someone to take care of them while he was away. No chickens. He would show me the day after.
Just a house.
I wanted to leave everything there, on the floor and run away. He got out a chair for me, and I stood awkwardly on it, hugging my pillows tightly.
What should I do?
What should’ve I done? He looked at me, waiting for me to say something, then went outside and started unpacking. I saw him bringing our gifts in, one by one, and each time he stopped in front of me as if he wanted me to tell him where to put them. I smiled each time.
That first night was a long night. I couldn’t sleep and, laying next to him, I stared at the ceiling, counting and recounting imaginary dots. We didn’t even kiss. I couldn’t.
Next morning he prepared breakfast, and even put a flower on the table. I thanked him and then asked him what I should start working on. First, he was confused; then he decided we should visit the plot he owned and then, maybe, we could start cleaning out the house a bit. Since his mom died, a couple of years back, he didn’t do much to keep it clean. He used to have a neighbor pass by, once a month, and bring their portable dust removers. But it got too complicated when he started spending more time in my old village.
My old village.
That sounded weird. I left two days before, and I was already referring to it as if it was a distant memory. We took a quick ride to the plot, watched some of the crops and then spent the whole afternoon installing the dust remover from his uncle. We pushed a button and stepped outside for a few minutes, letting it absorb all the dust from the house.
It took me a week to start talking to him properly, and not feel like I needed to smile at everything he was saying, awkwardly. A week in which I grew accustomed to him being around, a week in which I counted and recounted invisible dots every night, before falling asleep. And then, one morning, a few weeks after, it happened. He was already up and making noises in the kitchen. I felt a weird sensation… goosebumps forming on my skin and the peculiar sensation that I needed him next to me, in bed. I wanted to hug him. And I found myself questioning if that was how love should have felt like. Those goosebumps stood as proof that something was off. “Yes!” I definitely liked him… loved him, or something close to that.
It took a few other weeks until we had sex for the first time. He asked me one night if it was OK for me if we could take our marriage a step further. And it wasn’t the first time he asked. But this time, instead of turning around and avoiding any type of answers, I just smiled and kissed him.
And it grew. Bit by bit my love (yes, my love!) for him grew. He really cared for me, and I really wanted to make him happy. I was finally at ease, and working side by side felt natural. And he taught me how to love and how to allow to be loved. And it felt good. That warm feeling that life is perfect and my smile can’t fade from my face. That smile that was never forced. Never again forced, with him by my side. That’s how I felt. Happy. Complete. Loved.
And then a new war. Distant frightening events for me, a horrible life that could knock on our doors at any moment, for him. I refused to watch the holonews. He was absorbing every word, and at night he used to tell me all about it. How the New Patriotic Front took over the government and fought against the old rulers and their loyal troops. How the southern and eastern neighbors seized the opportunity and attacked us from both sides. How our operators won important fights on the eastern front, with their superior tech-bots defeating the enemy. How… At one point, I lost track of all the fighting. The war never reached our parts, and even if it would have had, the land, the precious artificial-sustained-smelly-green land was too important to all of them to risk destroying it. Or at least that’s what I thought, and that’s what all my safety was relying on.
Five years. Five years of fighting and worrying, and news of civilian deaths and terrorist attacks in the cities. Eight million people dead. And then quiet. And then hope. Hope for peace and a brighter future. We felt excited and optimistic. There was some news about arrests among the former loyalists and the old ruling class. Traitors of our precious territory. And new ideals and a constant buzz that people mattered. Life was turning back to how it used to be. Happy. With Vitor by my side.