They were so lucky to have drawn a ticket. So beyond lucky. For Lorraine it had been fifteen years and none of the younger children were even aware of what things had been like then. Of course she hadn’t taken Mari with her back then—poor poor Mari. At least Mari could come along this time. She was old enough now and besides what damage could she do? Poor Mari. And the boys—well, they were always welcome.
A day of soft breezes, the lingering scent of greenery. Someone had made the right calculations. Last year there’d been too much humidity, so much that the highest dome let down torrents of water upon the participants. This year—only the flickerings of moisture on skin. A certain dewiness.
The twins, September and October, were avoiding too much mischief. Thank goodness for that. True, they’d disappeared for a while down one of the foliage-lined paths and squeezed out some liquid from the ferns but you could expect as much. They’d minded their language, that was the main thing. Besides, it really was easier than she expected to get them undressed and ready for the day.
“I don’t quite know what to do with my hands at functions like this,” Oswald muttered.
She nudged him. “Why? Everyone feels the same way. You’re not alone.”
“Well I don’t like it,” Oswald said.
“You can be heard,” Lorraine warned.
“You’re right. I can be heard.”
She hoped his face didn’t register resentment. A camera was tucked among the ferns. She lifted the corners of her mouth. Immediately Oswald did the same. Together they stepped toward a night blooming cactus.
“Eggs,” he whispered.
She elbowed him, and then clasped him close, pinching the nape of his neck. “No,” she whispered.
“Eggs eggs eggs,” he mouthed against her neck, so low that even she couldn’t hear him.
The word—eggs—had been jettisoned. Why? It was confusing. You could say a word that was absolutely okay one week and by the next week the word was forbidden. So many words: dossier, regurgitation, acid, Columbia. Even phrases were banned. Last week it was “passed away.” “What the living daylights is the problem with ‘passed away’?” Oswald demanded to know once they were in the pup tent inside their bedroom. The tent was advertised as guaranteed to repel all attempts at surveillance, although who could know for certain?
With some pride, Lorraine had informed Oswald that “passed away” was a euphemism. “It keeps us from acknowledging death itself. We have to face death as death. Look it in the eye.”
“I thought the powers that be liked euphemisms.”
“Efficiency. They like efficiency.” She understood the way things worked more than Oswald did and certainly more than Mari ever would.
As for Mari—now where was she? And then, out from behind an enormous fern, her breasts glittering with what might be imitation pollen, stepped Mari. Her wide face never failed to surprise her mother—as if there was something alien about Mari.
“The wrong egg,” a friend once told her, back when you could say the word “egg” without getting into trouble. “You culled the others and what did you do? You picked Mari.” She never spoke to the woman again although the same thought hadn’t escaped her.
September tugged at his mother’s hand. He and October had a way of appearing at the same time as Mari, as if they demanded attention that Mari might take from them.
“Hi, stupid,” September said to Mari, and Mari—although she’d heard herself addressed as stupid many times—managed to look ready to cry. She was nearly seventeen years old and she still had these regular bouts of sad-face. But she had to learn. A mother can’t protect her child forever.
“Here’s stupid stupider stupidest,” October said, anxious to triple up on his brother’s words.
“We don’t use words like stupid,” Lorraine said.
“It’s not forbidden, is it?” someone said—an eavesdropping tall man with long hairs that dangled from his nipples.
“I don’t think so,” Mari said with a teary half-smile.
“It depends on who’s saying it,” Mari’s father said. “And to whom.”
“So I guess it’s okay,” the man said, brushing past them, his buttocks narrowly escaping a cactus quill.
Mari watched him leave and struggled not to say a forbidden word. It was very hard, for instance, not to say the word “egg.” Like her father she loved the word and sometimes heard him whispering the word. It was a word she would miss. “Eggs are pre-citizens,” she’d been told at school. “Eggs have rights.” Another word was now used for eggs, but Mari kept forgetting the word. So many new words and bad words. “Don’t say rights,” someone told her just yesterday. A little old woman with hair like pretzels told her that. “Say responsibilities,” the woman told her. “That’s the proper word.”
I am very slippery, Mari thought. Sweat-slippery. All her parts were slippery. She knew better than to say much aloud, although the pressure was growing to say something. Sometimes at night she’d put blankets over her mouth and say all the awful words. Could she say “slippery” aloud? She wasn’t sure.
Not having any clothes on, that’s what made her slippery. Everyone looked so slippery. From the moisture on so much skin. Skin can be very ugly. Even on young people. Fuzzy little things on skin and spots and bulging parts and the very old with their rumples. Skin like costumes they’d grown out of so that their skin hung on them sadly, like off a bent hanger.
You can’t complain though about being required to show up naked. Everyone was equal that way. Plus, security, everyone said. No clothes, no weapons. The scanning was even easier, right? And it was a big event. The Prime Parishioner was parading. Everyone without clothes, especially the Prime Parishioner. Transparency, that was a noble goal. And everyone was protected from their worst instincts. You couldn’t pretend you were anything you weren’t.
That’s why the problem with words was solved and kept being re-solved. Because of the way words cut and cling, because of the wounding way of words, and the imprecision. Each word with its ugly halo.
“Ugly,” Mari said aloud. She hadn’t meant to talk but her mouth went on without her.
A minute later, after conferring, September and October said in unison to Mari: “You are an ugly side dish of bitch meat.” It was obvious that they had practiced. “You’re stupid too,” October said.
“I know, and thank you very much,” Mari said.
They were babies. What did they know? They were nine years old. But of course they were smart and she was stupid. She kind of hated them though. Hate was not an allowed word. She almost said I hate you before she swallowed her words.
“Shut your pie hole, Mari,” one of the boys said.
The other boy said, “You look like you got two smashed pies on your chest.”
“Remember where we are and who we are,” their mother said.
“Mari has explosives in her rectum,” October said to a camera between a cactus and a fern. He pronounced “rectum” as “wrecked tomb.” He pointed at Mari. “She has them right in her rectum.”
“No I don’t,” Mari said, heat traveling up her spine. “I really don’t.”
When an alarm didn’t sound she thought she might have been believed. Or maybe no one was listening anyway. That was a strange thought to think: no one is listening. Could that be true, ever? What would that be like—to have nobody listening?
She stepped away from her parents and twin brothers, settling near a giant fern, and worked on calming herself. She’d learned how to do that by pinching the fleshiest part of her thighs. There there. Soon the parade would begin and she’d get to see the Prime Parishioner. All her life she’d waited for this, to be with everyone else, all free and all the same, all undressed and thus all without pretenses, all humbled, all shining with moisture and ready to witness the parade of the marvelous grand officers in their own nakedness and then the Prime Parishioner who would be undressed in a way that was noble—showing that he too was just like them. A servant of the people who made spectacularly important judgments.
Sometimes your body takes you on its own journey. That happened to her a lot. She’d be in the kitchen and the next thing she knew she was out on the highway, walking with the wind at her back and vans rushing by at such speed that plenty of times she nearly toppled forward. Eventually she would turn around and head back home. Once the parish officers picked her up and that didn’t end well. She never told her parents about that. She didn’t have any unforbidden words to describe that.
Something dropped on her eyelashes. She blinked and looked up. Pollen?
“Confetti, stupid,” September said as he ran up behind her.
She pushed his hand away and ran ahead. The parade was going to be beautiful, wasn’t it? The greenery and the flying papery substances like snow and somewhere giant fans must be turning and making everything fly around her, and so many people, naked bodies glistening and glistening and the lights were lowered a bit and there they were, the tip of the sword it was called, the women and men of the cabinet marching first, their naked bodies not gleaming but dry as if powdered and their skin looking firm and somehow combed into place as if they wore enormous body stockings but that couldn’t be, could it? Would that be fair to the rest of them, to Mari’s mom and dad with their saggy bodies with their strange knotty parts like something from diseased trees and even her little brothers, the twins, with their sway backs and round stomachs that made them look like badly made half melted dolls.
Confetti was sticking to her chest. She tried to brush some off and it stuck to her hands.
The banners were nice, banners in the breeze—yellow and gold with words on them. Mari couldn’t read the words but felt her pulse quickening. If words were taken away maybe these were replacement words, and they’d once again have just as many words as they used to. She could make out an “s” and a “u,” but the wind under the dome was making it impossible to be certain about any of the letters as the banners were whipping and twisting in the breeze.
And then—and then—it was him. She knew. In all the newspapers and on all their screens: that very large head with the very white teeth and the hair that wasn’t any one color but almost striped like the hair you see on a cat. But that wasn’t the striking thing. She’d expected the face and the teeth. No, that wasn’t the surprise.
“He’s wearing clothes!”
Her voice must have rung out because people shushed her. A young woman put her fingers to her lips and tapped Mari’s arm and said, “Please, be quiet.”
How could Mari be quiet? The skin under her arms and under her breasts was slippery with sweat, with naked sweat, and even her lips felt slippery, and it was astonishing that the Prime Parishioner was not sweating and came to his own parade clothed.
“He’s wearing a vest!” she shouted “And trousers! I bet he has underpants on!”
She was running now, running along the margin of the parade.
The noise around her grew louder—a new sort of music full of trumpets.
“He’s got pockets!” she shouted.
And then hands were under her armpits, struggling to get a grip.
“He’s got socks!” she shouted.
Lorraine rested her head on the table, sobbing. The twins had been put to bed in their pajamas. Despite what happened at the parade, everyone was glad not to have to be naked anymore. Oswald had been allowed to return home—at last—after a thorough debriefing. He was in the living room checking the news accounts. They’d been fortunate. The entire family could have been taken into custody, not just Mari.
The word “arrest” wasn’t exactly the right word for what happened, but maybe the right word would turn into the wrong word in a week or so. Which meant maybe you didn’t have to learn every single replacement word. Maybe some words you should learn but others you could wait on, until another word settled into the right word slot.
“We’ll never see her again,” Mari’s mother whimpered.
“She’s stupid!” one of the twins shouted from the bedroom he shared with his brother. “She’s the stupidest stupid girl in the parish!” the other twin shouted.
Later that night, under the pup tent, Oswald said, “He was naked. I mean…What did Mari really see? Was it—maybe his nakedness gave off so much light that she thought she saw what wasn’t there?”
“Didn’t you see? He was wearing a business suit, Oswald. I saw, just like Mari. He even had on a vest.”
“No he was naked,” Oswald said. “Remember: you didn’t see what you thought you saw. You were hallucinating if you saw clothes on him. He was naked. Entirely. You saw his package. His—whatever you want to call it. His sizeable—”
“Is that what we have to keep telling ourselves?”
“Yes. He was naked. Not a stitch on him. Right?”
“How hairy was he?”
“Hairy as a bear.”
“Poor Mari,” Lorraine said.
Lorraine sobbed again.
“I’m sorry to say it,” Oswald admitted. “But it has to be said. She was the wrong ovoid.”
© Lee Upton
[This piece was selected by Dan Malakin. Read Lee’s interview]