Today is the last day of the school week, and they’re doing DNA tests. After lunch, we’re herded into the auditorium. The principal is at the front of the room, mentally rehearsing the speech he’s about to give. Behind him teams of technicians are setting up equipment. They are being directed by six elderly clerics in the light grey robes of the Inner Circle. I think they make him nervous.
A chime sounds, and we all quiet. The principal coughs. “Before we begin, we should give proper thanks for our fortune in living in such an amazing time,” he forces a smile, “Let us all say the third prayer of eternity.”
“We give thanks in the name of Quami-Sarol…” we drone. Any meaning has long been drained from the words. We’re reciting the sounds. “…he who brought us to the light, who taught us the value of freedom and honesty, justice and courage. Quami-Sarol, to you we give our eternal gratitude.”
The principal glances behind him at the clerics. He’s hoping to impress them with our devotion. They’re focused on their work and don’t seem to notice. “Thank you, students. Your command of scripture is enviable.” He looks down at his computer pad, clears his throat, and starts reading from it. “Throughout the history of humanity, there have been prophets. The ancient world was full of these people—Yessua, Halabi, Guinevere, and others—men and women who have, through their personal struggle and the lessons they taught, brought us a little closer to divinity. It was 613 years ago that the prophet of this age, Quami-Sarol, gave us his Book of Sayings, the sacred document which has shaped every facet of our society. We owe to him our government, our legal system, our churches and celebrations, and, in some fashion, nearly every aspect of our daily life.”
I don’t know why he’s saying this. It’s nothing we didn’t all have memorized by the time we were seven. I hate it when people talk just to feel comfortable. If you have nothing to communicate, you should be quiet.
“The last of Quami’s sayings promised the coming of a new prophet some centuries later that would, as he says in Saying 602, ‘usher in a new age of humankind.’ “The esteemed Clerics of the Inner Circle,” he gestures behind him, “after interpreting complex mathematical formulae hidden within the Book, have announced that the new prophet is among us now.”
He pauses and looks around the room dramatically. “Indeed, that he or she is living here in Quamrán.”
A murmur picks up. There’d been rumors to that effect, but up to now the Clerics had refused any kind of official statement. “Our guests will now be subjecting you to a few tests, both physical and mental, to determine your likelihood of being the next prophet. Best of luck, children, and may the Wisdom of Quami guide you, wherever your destiny may lie.”
The technicians step into the crowd and divide us into groups by age, and by gender. Next to me in line is Jaril-tu, a boy I know from math class. He spent most of it flirting with whatever girl happened to be closest to him, and then begging to copy my work. Jaril is dressed in the robes of a Quamráni curate and is reciting the Sayings. I’m not sure how this is supposed to help. Were we supposed to dress up? The bulletin didn’t say anything about it. Jaril is one of the least reflective people I know. Seeing him like this, trying depersately to appear pious, is kind of funny. He trips over the pronunciation of “Tetrán”, and I laugh. He pretends not to notice.
It’s a half hour before I get to the front of the line. I spend it trying to catch up on schoolwork, but the noise of the crowd is too much. “Let’s see…” says the technician, “…Nei-Ly?”
I look up.
“The Honorable Cleric requests your presence.”
Jaril puts his hand on my shoulder. “May Quami’s light guide you, brother.”
I mumble a thanks. Maybe his mom’s watching, or something.
I push aside the thin gray curtain and step in to the makeshift booth. Another technician is at a computer, typing in short bursts and chewing absentmindedly on his finger. “That last one was 43% probability, Cleric. That’s better than most, but nothing to sing hosannas about.”
“He spoke well,” the cleric says, “And it is best to reserve judgment until all candidates have been evaluated. ‘If equity we seek, in equity we must act’, Alken—Saying 118.”
The technician coughs awkwardly and gestures at me.
The cleric smiles. “Excuse me…Nei-Ly. I’m Dana-Min, Cleric of the Inner Circle.” We shake. Her hands are rough and calloused. I wonder if she worked on one of the Communes before joining the Circle. She gestures at a chair parallel to hers. “Please, have a seat.”
I sit, and the technician comes over and grabs my hand. He takes a syringe out of a vacuum-sealed package and inserts it in just below my wrist, extracting a notable quantity of blood. “This is all I need for the actual DNA test.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out two small electronic pads. He puts one on my other wrist, and one on my temple. “And these are to monitor your reactions to what the Cleric says.”
He sits back at his computer and keys in a command. “Ready when you are, Cleric Dana.”
She looks me straight in the eye. “Nei-Ly, do you see yourself as a prophet?”
Isn’t that your job? “I don’t…You know, when you’re little, and you’re first trying to make sense of the world, and your parents have a lot to do with your understanding of the world. Some parents would tell their kids that they must be ‘the prophet of this age’ and everything. I’m guess that’s comforting to them. But mine never did anything like that. They were good to me, but…I just didn’t grow up thinking that way.”
She smiles and looks at the technician. He gives a slight nod.
“Remember, Nei-Ly, that many prophets don’t at first see themselves as such. Halabi (may he be praised) hid for weeks after receiving revelation.”
“There is much about our fellow humans we refuse to understand. And much about ourselves as well.”
The technician’s computer chimes. “All finished, Cleric.”
“Thank you Alken.” She looks at me. “And thank you, Nei-Ly. May the word of Quami-Sarol guide you.” She reaches over and removes the pads from my temple and wrist.
I stand up. “And you, Cleric Dana.”
That’s it? On my way out, it occurs to me to stop and talk to the technician.
“How’d I do?”
He laughs nervously. “It’s…you have a six percent probability of relation. The average is nine to thirteen.”
As I step out from behind the curtain, I hear thunderous applause. For a second, I think it’s for me, and I’m really confused. Then I realize everyone’s starring at one of the other booths.
Jaril is standing next to one of the clerics, arm-in-arm. “My children,” the cleric says, “Today we are truly blessed. While I am not qualified on my own to identify the next prophet, this boy…Jaril-tu…is truly in touch with transcendence. With a remarkable 87 percent chance of relation to Quami-Sarol, he is truly an inspiration to us all.”
The principal goes up to congratulate him, or give another speech, or thank the clerics, or something. Amidst all the cheering I slip out the back.
* * *
I doubt anyone will notice that I’m gone. I don’t have any worthwhile classes in the afternoon, and it’s the end of the week anyway. It wouldn’t surprise me if they cancel class for the rest of the day anyway, and just stand around talking about how great Jaril is. So bizarre.
I decide to walk downtown.
Quamrán is a beautiful city. I’ve lived here my whole life, and I know people who talk about how boring it is to live here, but I don’t think so at all. Some will talk about the bigger cities near the border and how much better it is there. I had one friend who always used to talk about how he’d rather be living on one of the communes. “At least there I could be doing something to help people,” he’d say. I can respect that. But I love how eclectic Quamrán is. At any given time pilgrims flood the streets from all over (little of the modern city was around in Quami-Sarol’s day, but there are a number of well-promoted landmarks for the pious); parliamentary representatives and dignitaries from all over the world scurry about, being diplomatic. But then, politics and religion aren’t terribly fascinating to most 16-year-olds.
Now that everyone’s expecting a prophet, and most believe that he will be a young descendent of Quami’s still living within the city’s walls, every ambitious boy and girl is suddenly fascinated with the religious and political climate of the city. Now that it could potentially benefit them.
Jaril’s attitude isn’t not that different from anyone else’s, really.
When I care about something, I want it to be mine, and when other people seize on it and trivialize it…I do things like storm out of school for no good reason. Maybe I’m too judgmental.
I was going to get lunch, but I realize that all the stores have probably closed up for the afternoon. Everyone who has to work is there, and everyone who doesn’t is at home. They’ll be back for the evening rush, but right now it’s quiet. After walking for a few hours across half-deserted streets, I end up near the ocean. I must have been walking for over an hour, but I was hardly aware of the time passing. It’s overcast, but the water is strikingly blue against the monochrome sky. A few tired gulls cry pointlessly.
There’s a girl standing at the edge of the beach. She’s fully clothed, except for her bare feet, and the tide is drenching her pant legs. There is a carefully-arranged assortment of shells at her feet. She moves a couple with her toe and stares at them intently.
She’s facing the ocean. I step up behind her. I feel kind of bad about disturbing her, but curiosity gets the best of me. “Excuse me…what are you doing?”
“I was told once that one can divine the future by arranging shells on the shore in a certain way, and watching which the tide carries off.” She doesn’t look up.
“Do you believe you can do that?”
She stares intently for a second, then switches the placement of two shells.
“Well, I definitely believe some people can do it. It’s tricky, but I’m making progress.”
“What’s it telling you?”
“It says…nothing that’s important right now!” she kicks the sand abruptly, scattering the shells. The tide washes over our feet. “What’s your name?”
“You can call me…” she looks briefly at where the shells were, “Kri-Len.”
“Is that your name?”
She smiles. “It'll do.” Her hair is very dark and cut short. She’s very pale, and looks vaguely foreign, but I can’t say where from.
She turns away from the water and heads to dry sand. I follow.
“Are you a pilgrim?” I ask.
Does she not speak the language? She doesn’t really have an accent…
“Are you here to pay tribute to Quami-Sarol? Or to see the new prophet?”
She finds her shoes, two coarse rope sandals, and slips them on.
“You’re already trying to find another one?” she asks.
“Well..yeah. Quami-Sarol’s revelation was 613 years ago exactly.”
What is that supposed to mean? I’m suddenly reminded why I don’t usually talk to random people I meet on the beach.
I gaze at an illuminated clock tower in the distance. “I should probably get home. My parents will be upset if I don’t meet them for dinner.”
For a moment she looks at me like this is the strangest thing she’s ever heard. Then she nods. “Alright. If you want to talk to me, I’m probably going to be around for quite awhile.”
I’m starting to get tired, so I take a tram home. It takes longer than usual. I guess it’s crowded in town, but I’m not really paying attention. The monitiors inside are showing a news report about the fiasco at school. Jaril is speaking to a crowd of students flanked by press. Some of the other passengers are talking excitedly. I pretend I’m asleep.
When I get to our flat, I’m surprised to find that no one is home.
There’s a note on the touchscreen in the kitchen.
Nei-Lye, Went to see the excitement! You have credit on your account if you want to buy something to eat. See you in the morning! --Mom
I flip on the news. A reporter is standing in downtown Quamrán, next to the Temple of Light. “The Clerics of the Inner Circle have convened an emergency meeting at the Central Temple to evaluate the claims to divinity of Quamrán native Jaril-Tu. Though no official decision has been made by the Clerics, many are already hailing as the 17-year-old as the Prophet of this Age.”
They cut to footage filmed earlier of Jaril climbing up the steps to the temple entrance. People are literally following him touching his robes.
A lot can happen in four hours. They play a voiceover of Jaril from earlier in the day saying, “I know not whether I am truly the Prophet. But all will be revealed in due time. ‘He who is patient is on the path of righteousness.’”
He says this like it’s a quote, but it’s not one of the Sayings. He’s making up his own.
This is ridiculous. Nightmarish. I want to talk to someone, but everyone’s going to be at or around the temple. I wish I had better friends…
I decide to go back to the beach. I’d been put off by Kri-Len’s eeriness, but spending time with her sounds a lot more appealing than sitting at home stewing in my resentment.
* * *
I’ve been pacing up and down the shoreline for a good twenty minutes when she finds me. “I’m glad you came,” she says, “It’s lonely out here.”
“I’m not surprised…everyone’s at that damn coronation.” I shiver, whether from actual coldness or disgust at the notion, I’m not sure.
“They’ve already picked a prophet? That seems sudden.”
“Not officially. But this idiot from my school scored high on their little DNA test, and now everyone’s looking at him like he’s Quami incarnate.”
The wind picks up. She turns right and begins walking. I match her pace.
“Who do you believe the next prophet is, Nei-Ly?”
“I don’t know. I…I don’t know that there should be one. The lessons that Quami taught have made our civilization all it is today. I don’t see why we should trust that any new ‘prophet’ is going to make things any better.”
She stops abruptly and stares at the moon. It’s barely visible through the thick fog.
“Quami-Sarol—who in his lifetime was called Carlos Samuel, believe it or not—was more of a political theorist than a religious figure, at least in the beginning. But people were looking for spiritual guidance, and he laced his theories with spiritual rhetoric, and people were hooked. Not that I fault the man—the flourishing of Quamrán certainly speaks well for his design. But…I’d be surprised to see any good come from this change.”
“How do you know these things?”
She sticks her hands into her coat pockets. “Where I come from, one of the oldest stories told is that of the first murder, and the first murderer. When he was caught, he was banished to ‘the land of Nod’. Many have thought that Nod was the name of a physical place. But in the language that story was first told in, Nod meant ‘wandering’.”
She looks me dead in the eye. “I’ve killed no one, Nei-Ly, though I’ve lived a very long time indeed. But I have watched many die, from war, famine, poverty, disease…I can do nothing but watch idly as the world dies.” When I first saw Kri-Len, I didn’t think she was much older than me. Now, she seems positively ancient.
She looks back to the sky. “Long ago, I rejected the good path. I flippantly made a deal for momentary gain, and watched my world collapse around me.” She takes my hand. “I don’t want to see that happen here, Nei-Ly.”
The clock tower gives an electronic chime. I squint to see the far away numbers. It’s midnight. I turn back, but Kri-Len is gone. She must still be near by, but I don’t feel the need to disturb her further.
The trams have probably stopped running by now (and even if not, they’re no doubt overcrowed with Jaril’s newfound worshippers), so I walk back home. When I get in, my mother is already asleep. The door slides silently shut behind me.
I get to my room, open my closet door. I dig through a pile of half-worn out school clothes and find the deep gray curate robe I’d been given too years earlier. My aunt wanted me to join a seminary. I didn’t see the point.
I can do nothing but watch idly as the world dies.
I slip the robe over my head. It fits remarkably well.
If equity we seek, in equity we must act.
I am no prophet, and I wasn’t meant to be.
But people need to see the truth. And Jaril must be stopped.
Story I wrote for my Creative Writing class. A friend of mind said it reminded him of "The Handmaid's Tale", which is a good (if flattering) comparison, because it's set it the future but it isn't science fiction in any meaningful sense.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.