The scent of smoke that came with the man who called himself Grayland was oddly familiar. It was more dense and pungent than the aroma of the natural flame to which I had become accustomed, having spent many peaceful moments sharing stories with my family in front of the fire during the cold nights of winter. But the richness of its fragrance infused me with the sensation of an opaque memory—a ghost of a life before the time of remembrance. I shuddered to even consider the possibility that my kinship, for whom I loved among all else, may not be my native home and that perhaps this man—the first man to have ever come from outside our land—was from a place before time. Then again, the thought of such a truth was intoxicating and left me pleasantly euphoric.
It was the year of the songbird, and my life had just entered its sixteenth annual. I had been out in the field as I was every morning since becoming of age, and the sun’s heat was just beginning to press against my brow. Miss Hannah would soon call us for our midday nourishment, and simply thinking about it caused my stomach to rumble, which made me ever the more eager to finish my morning’s work. Absorbing a soft lullaby from my sister, Cleo, I sat down and pulled together several stalks of wheat into a bundle, which Sir Jacob would come to collect once everyone was down by the river for our afternoon teachings. I adored Cleo’s voice as much as she enjoyed my stories, so it was quite disappointing when she suddenly stopped tying her bundles and stood quiet. Before I could query about her stillness, several others disregarded their own work and joined her.
“What is happening?” I asked. “Why have you ended your song?”
“Quiet,” Cleo whispered. Her voice wavered, leaving an ominous vibration across the wind.
I decided it best to comply and remained still with caution, allowing the sound of my heartbeat to relax me. That is when a set of heavy footsteps approached me with vigilance. I had never before heard those steps, and as they drew closer, a familiar yet foreign scent washed about me. Sweat beaded across my forehead as the footsteps crossed just in front of my crouched position. As they strayed back into the distance, the smell of them lingered refreshingly nearby. Its aroma soon grew heavy and caused the air to become extremely unbearable. I felt nauseous and wanted desperately to cough. Nonetheless, I searched the ground for remnants of the traveler’s step. It was far from long before I hissed with the sting on the tip of my pinkie and wedged my finger into my mouth to ease the lingering burn. Refusing to let the bite deter me from my curiosity, I slid my hand past the softened heat to find a part of the object I could touch freely and picked the soft stick from the ground. The taste of the air instantly became more retching, and I did cough, lowering the object to the ground yet continuing to hold it within my grip.
“Come in, children,” Miss Gretchen called out. “Hurry.”
Something felt odd; Miss Gretchen had never before called out for us to come in like this. But my mind remained so focused on the bent stick between the tips of my fingers that I was indifferent to my own perplexity. As I realized that the stick had suddenly cooled and that the pungency of the air had subsided, I heard Cleo’s light but quick steps approaching me.
“Get up, Madeline,” she said, taking hold of my warm hand and helping me to my feet. “We need to get inside.”
The two of us walked briskly toward the farm. The others strode through the fields alongside us with heavy, anxious breaths. But unlike any ordinary day, no one spoke a word.
“What is happening?” I finally said as the compacted mud at the rim of the field brushed my toes.
“It is time for midday nourishment,” Cleo said.
I accepted the answer, but it was clear that she, and soon thereafter all of my other brothers and sisters, was not speaking her truth.
Miss Jezebel was waiting for us at the community farmhouse and quickly instructed us to prepare our own nourishment. I wanted to inquire as to the whereabouts of Miss Gretchen and Miss Hannah, who usually helped prepare our food, but Cleo kept me quiet and led me to the kitchen. As everyone fixed their meals, Miss Jezebel presented us with new rules, which we were to follow immediately: “You may eat anywhere you please as always, but until further notice, you must stay away from the ecclesia. Acknowledge the request of your peré.”
The elder kin were first to agree, followed systematically by the younger. Miss Jezebel then helped me prepare my meal as the elder kin left the kitchen, whispering to one another in excitement.
“Why must we stay away from the ecclesia?” I said.
Miss Jezebel combed my hair back and handed me my meal. “In time, Madeline. You must first know patience to find the truth in all things…”
“And reap the rewards of what we seek,” I recited. “Yes, Miss Jezebel.”
“Come with me to the wood pile,” Cleo said, her mouth half full of food. She almost caused me to drop my meal as she pulled me outside.
We sat down against the wood stack where Cleo and I would always go to escape the rigors of the day. It was one of the very few places someone could go where the winds were cool and the sun was absent; a very quiet place, where an afternoon nap could be reaped without disturbance or a secret could be whispered without concern of finding a wandering ear.
“Tell me what is happening,” I said. Cleo was the closest of my kin, and she would tell me anything, as would I for her.
“There was a man,” she said.
“A man? Like Sir Jacob?”
“Yes. But someone I have never seen before.”
“Where did he come from?”
“I am not aware. Just as in the moment that he was not there, within the next, he was there.”
“He must have dropped this.” I showed Cleo the object. I could tell she was impassioned with it by her berated breath.
“What is it?”
“I am uncertain. But as was the man, this stick was at one moment hot and in the next, cool.”
Cleo coughed. “The odor is horrendous. I have never smelled anything like it.”
“The smell was most prominent for me,” I said, impassioned. “With many other flavors as well. Familiar… but nothing I could express in words.”
“Here,” Cleo said, returning the stick back to my hand. “You can keep that.”
“What happened with him?”
“I am unaware as to his current whereabouts. Just after he passed through the field, Miss Gretchen called out for us.”
“He must be in the ecclesia.”
“That makes the most sense.”
“Do you believe we will have our time to meet him?”
Cleo did not answer unless it was without voice. I did not press her, as the smell of my sandwich made my stomach growl. So we ate, without another word. All I could think of, while gripping the stick tightly within my hand, was this new man and what he may look like; what he may smell like and sound like. With the way Cleo ate her food—slow and meticulous—I knew she was thinking the same, and how could she not; it was far too captivating. After finishing her meal, Cleo took my hand and rested her head on my shoulder. She found sleep where I could not, as hundreds of questions leapt about. I was eager to find the answers to all of them and was quite confident I would, but it would take time and a tremendous amount of patience.