The Ultimate Mystery
This cross-over tale stemmed from an idea that had nagged me for many years. It poses the question: What is a deity?
Published in World Enough and Crime, Carrick Publishing, 2014.
Finalist, Derringer Award, Long Short Story, 2015
In this excerpt, we see two parallel worlds: the underground kingdom where Lily exists and the isolated prairie farm where her earthly counterpart, Lucy, dwells.
Lily rarely saw diggers her size, since children fared poorly in the tunnels. Many died because they did not get enough to eat. During the frequent rock falls and tunnel collapses, children were more likely to lose their lives. Often, when she and Maria picked their way through the aftermath of a catastrophe, she’d see small limbs protruding from the debris.
More disturbingly, she’d heard stories about guards taking young ones to the Supreme Ruler. In the dark, the other diggers whispered that those children simply disappeared. The guards had their way with them. Then ate them.
She asked Maria if this was true.
“Of course not,” Maria replied. “If we uphold The Law, the Authorities take care of us. That is the social contract our ancestors made long ago. We work to support the Supreme Ruler and the Authorities – and they feed us and keep us safe.”
Which really means we dig and dig for nothing, Lily thought. Their food consisted of chunks of matter heavily processed at The Centre. On rare occasions it tasted sweet, but other times it tasted foul and bitter. Her fears multiplied.
“Is there meat in the food?” Children? she wanted to ask.
“No, not for diggers like us,” Maria replied. “Only the privileged eat meat. Meat keeps them strong so they can take care of us.”
In other words, the Authorities and the guards ate meat. But so did the hunters who left the citadel to forage for food. At the rare gatherings with other diggers, Lily heard exciting tales about the hunters’ exploits. Rumour had it they did not always bring back all the food they found, even the precious meat.
“That means the hunters are breaking The Law!” Lily whispered to Maria.
“The hunters must sample their takings,” Maria said, hiding a smile. “To make sure that the food is fit for the Authorities.”
“I want to be a hunter.”
“That is not your rank. You are a digger. The Authorities decided this for you when you were born.”
“Why? And don’t just say they obeyed The Law. Who made The Law anyway?”
“The Goddess made The Law and everything in our world.”
Lily thought this over. Every digger knew the Goddess made the world, and that She had created the Authorities in her own image. Of course, no one had any idea what the Goddess looked like, or the mechanism whereby She passed on Her word to The Authorities.
“What if the Goddess got it wrong?”
“Enough! No more questions.”
Not understanding the reasons for what happened in the world made Lily feel stupid. She longed to go to school, but education of diggers was forbidden. Learning was reserved for the privileged. Maria reminded her yet again that their low status was an advantage: to be overlooked meant to be safe.
“Are hunters allowed to learn?” Lily persisted.
“Only enough to navigate the Outer World, so they can bring food home to our citadel.”
Now, more than ever, Lily wanted to become a hunter.
Lucy fidgeted on her kitchen chair. Every day Mom made peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, to save money, so Dad could have steak for dinner. To keep his strength up, Mom said. Because he was the one who travelled to earn money for the family.
“Time for your lessons, dear.” Miriam gathered up their dirty dishes, clearing the way for Lucy’s textbooks.
“Why do I have to learn at home? Why can’t I go to school like other children? And don’t just say it’s God’s will.”
Miriam sighed. Lucy was always so full of questions. “Your father and I decided to home-school you the day you came into our lives. Public schools don’t follow God’s word, so the children there just learn about sex and drugs. I know you’re lonely, but out here we’re safe. And you’ll stay pure.”