As soon as we hear the State Truck, we prostrate ourselves in the dirt. We listen to the Soldiers disembark and open the hatch and remove the large Tank of Water. When the Truck is gone, Gorrin does the high whistle, we brush ourselves off and watch Tippum and Flurt lever the Tank onto the rollers and into the Holding Pen. Our community can do what it pleases with our allotment.
I don’t know what your people do with your Water, but here’s what we do with ours: two half-cups per day per adult; one half-cup per child. A cup and a half per day per person for the Generator, a cup per day per cow, a half-cup per sheep, a half-cup per two chickens. This accounts for a third of the Tank if the State has been honest and filled it to the line. Another third goes for the crops.
The final third is set aside for the bathing and maintenance of the Cleansed One, our Beauty, our Pride, who is named Clara. Clara is not the first Cleansed One, but she is the only one I’ve ever seen. And I see her everyday. I’m one of her Floor Sweeps, as well as a Morning Attendant when Ront is hungover or ill.
Not all of the water gets poured over her body. Some is used for the hands of those who wash her, and of those who weave and scrub her clothing, and once a week I use a half-cup for a wet sweep. It’s our task to ensure that the Cleansed One never comes into contact with a granule of dust. This requires more water than you’d think. She is also given a double ration to drink, to cleanse her insides and to keep her healthy, to safeguard the investment we’ve made in her.
Clara is not so beautiful. She’s bony, with skin the color of burnt grass. Black hair and black eyes. She looks like we would look if we ever bathed. But we don’t. Our hair is a solid mass. Our eyes are gritty and glaucous. Our teeth are more trouble than they’re worth.
It is Clara’s job to walk around and get looked at. Freema and Dortha hold her dress, so it doesn’t trail in the dirt. When Clara nods at us, we nod back. We prefer that she not speak; this ruins the effect. But I happen to know that she does speak, in whispers to her closest attendants. I know that she does stitch-work in her empty hours, and that she sleeps with her mouth open, and drools. I know that the drool spot smells like newborn lambs. She sometimes laughs for no reason. She can’t be ten moons older than I am.
For my work as Floor Sweep, I am paid a half-cup a week, which comes out to three drops per day. So I supplement my income by telling stories about the Cleansed One. Let me say up top that the stories are not true. Everyone knows this. And yet they pay to hear them, again and again. It’s all about knowing your audience and giving them what they didn’t know they wanted.
In the first versions of the stories, the Cleansed One just dallied herself. The mere concept of the Cleansed One naked—washing and drying her fingers before maneuvering them, carefully, carefully—was enough to earn me two cups in one night. But then they wanted more. So your poor servant has had to tax the old imagination.
You want to hear one? You want to hear one.
A thing to know: all the best stories star the Slave.
There has only been one Slave, for all the tens and hundreds of Cleansed Ones we have maintained across the years. He lives in her closet, in a small wooden box, where he crouches, gnaws on gizzards and drinks the Cleansed One’s runoff bath water. He is, as you might imagine, aged. He’s got prune-flesh, sagging and hairy where the Cleansed One is rubbery and taught. To maintain tumidity, he chaws all day on bitter Ashroot. So much blood is relegated to his cock that the rest of him is sallow and dough-colored.
You can picture him, can’t you? As Clara helps him out of his box? His knees moaning, his breath labored, his shivering white body doing its best to cart around his heavy, red pippin? Clara is kind with him. She gives him an arm while he settles onto her pristine sheets. He turns his head away when she removes her white undergarments, top and bottom. From the bedside table, she takes a towel from it’s tureen of soap water, uses this to wipe her already-pristine labial folds. Only when she straddles his head does the Slave look up, and sees between those shining pink lips a few soapy suds. She parts herself, and bathes his face with her vagina. “Keep your mouth shut,” she instructs. He smells soap and her own natural, cat’s tongue scent. Balanced on his face, she arches back, until her silk hair touches the angry tip of his halberd. She sways back and forth, slowly, slowly, her folds quelching on his closed lips, her hair grazing up and down his saltpeter, tickling, pooling in the dry pubic wheat. She smushes herself purposefully on his bulbous nose, until she has to squeeze her eyes. She says “geeeer” fiercely, then a begrudging “aaach,” then slows her hips to a lazy back-and-forth. The Slave has learned to grunt before he erupts, the signal for her to grab the small bronze cup and place it over him. His slime goes thrin, thrin, thrin against the metal.
There is a custom. Those gathered for the tale, all the men and women and the few twisted children, chant “Thrin! Thrin! Thrin!” at each story’s end. I let them pay what they think I’ve earned, and I’ve never walked away without at least half a cup.
Myself, I’m not an inexperienced cocksman. I’m known around the community, and have been graced with a few back-alley slamfucks with some of the comelier sheepstresses. But there are slamfucks, and then there are slamfucks. And I’ve only felt the real thing with Grooda.
Grooda’s a haggish old wolf, a spitter and a howler, an upsetter of children. She hawks necklaces made from human teeth, and claims she hasn’t tasted water in more than ten cycles. But more than anything, she is a master of “The Talk,” as we call it. You see, the only way we can transcend the evilness of our neglected bodies is to nasty it up, speech-wise, during the act.
Grooda says: “Make me shit, make me shit, pound me till I shit on your thighs.”
She says: “I’ll gargle your cum like it’s baby blood.”
That sort of thing. It’s heart-melting. And exceptional. Other folks will get crass and swear, but with them it’s—how can I put this?—functional. They want to distract you from the grime. Not Groota. When she gets going, she’s gruff and serious and her bloodshot eyes look like embers.
“Smell me,” she commands. (Now, this is against all logic and good breeding. As children, we’re told, “For a Happy Rut, Keep the Nostrils Shut.” But with Grooda, all the rules fall away.) Her odor is like the inside of a snail’s shell, like a gut wound. But when I’m wedged in her, pitching and yawing, hers becomes the higher scent. Her body, with its muck and moss, becomes the original body. I see her and I see myself, the scabs on her nipples and the mud-crust on my feet. With her, my orgasms are starbursts of pride.
Afterwards, she asks for stories about the Cleansed One.
“Private ones,” she says, “ones just for me.”
So I dredge the sore imagination again, and craft ruck-tales that cannot be repeated.
But even these lose their edge, as ruck-tales always do. So one day Grooda fixes me with her rheumy eye and says: “Tell me a true one.”
“I don’t have true ones,” I say. “Fables only. The truth is that she’s busy most of the day, and would never speak to the likes of me.”
Then Grooda, the wily old crone, she says, “Go get me one, then. Fetch me a real story with the Squeaky Queenie. And no tricks. I know truth when I hear it.”
She does, too. Grooda has seen every terrible thing that can happen.
So brave bold me, I do it.
The Compound of the Cleansed One is thick with administrators, servants and organizers, and all day we like to check each other’s Identification Lapels. My Lapel’s got the two dots that mean Access to the Bedchamber, and the open circle that means I’m only allowed when scheduled. So when Burr stops me at the door, I have the tale ready that I’ve forgotten to dust behind the Wardrobe, which he knows is a tremendous issue.
The Bedchamber, when I go in, is under review; the Inspectors run their gloved fingers along every surface. It is the best room that’s ever been built; double-tall, the mud-walls inlaid with sweetgrass and crushed lavender. In the center is the brass Tub, gone green from all the water it’s held. I kneel by the Wardrobe, do a little swirl with the duster and open one of the wooden drawers. My fingers find a cloth of unimaginable softness, which I remove and swiftly pocket. The happy ending is when I turn around and all the inspectors are staring at your gormless and ill-fated narrator.
Dildad is the seniorest of them. He says, “What have you taken, Sweep,” like he doesn’t know my name, like we haven’t shared a bowl of mash two nights earlier. This is the effect water has on people. Before I can answer, I’m grabbed and throttled and held against the wall.
Executions are a big draw. The room fills with every two-dot employee in the Compound. I do a little squirming, because why not. There is some teasing, a little cajoling, a few noble souls grumble in my defense. Silence means that Clara had arrived. Her Cohort clears a path, until she stands before me, fresh as moonlight, head cocked in curiosity.
Now, I’ve always wanted a big death for myself, a spear bursting from my chest, vipers hanging from my limbs. I’d practiced steeling myself for death, which is mainly an action of the abdominal muscles. But in the presence of the Cleansed One, I go jellyish and slack. I try to bolster myself with thoughts of Grooda, and the fine sacrifice I’m making for her.
“He was grubbing for your underthings,” Dildad says, and shows her the slip of fabric.
“I was cleaning,” I say.
Clara points at me and touches her fingers to her lips.
Dildad squeezes my cheeks and pushes the cloth into my mouth. “She wants you to eat it.”
I shred the underwear with teeth and tongue, so that it won’t bunch up when I swallow it. The dye is bitter. Clara motions at Dildad, who bends to listen to her whispering.
He nods. He says: “Yes, that’s him.” She whispers again, then blows on his face to shoo him away.
Dildad raises his voice. “She says she knows about your stories.”
Clara makes an exaggerated expression of concern. Her face is not a child’s face—it’s already coarse from age and exposure—but she likes to make childish expressions, eyes wide, mouth pursed.
Dildad shuffles unhappily, then says, “ She wants you to tell her a story.” He turns to her. “They’re very crass, Your Cleanliness.” She gives this a mild, short nod.
I do my best to bow, then tell her a story about my sister.
When she was five, my sister caught the Hollow Gasp that was tearing through our community. I was eight years old at the time, and so uninterested in my sister that I do not now recall her name. (Saying this makes Clara wince, but sometimes you’ve got to mix the sour with the sweet, to give a story the tang of reality.)
My mother was terrified, and demanded I share my water. When she tipped the cup to my sister’s lips, I watched to ensure no more than half was given. We siblings shared a bed, of course, and at night I was kept awake by the awful sound of that disease, which seizes the windpipe so that you have to wrestle for every shred of air.
(At this point in the telling, many of the staff are shifty on their feet, bothered by their own memories of the illness. But only one listener matters, and she’s rapt.)
Soon, my sister died. One morning, I rolled over and saw the purple cheeks and the red marks on the wall where she scratched her final rage. I told my mother, who spent the morning walloping her own shoulder again and again.
(The Cleansed One motions for a chair. Seated, she pulls at her ear to comfort herself. Her face is stony, eyes unfocussed.)
“There’s a thing we do,” I tell her, “when someone dies. We don’t report the body until it stinks, to get their last few day’s rations. We call this The Parting Gift.” (A few smirks among the workers. They knew there is no such thing.) “So for the next three days, I shared a bed with the corpse.”
Clara falls back against her chair. An attendant squats to catch her hair before it brushes the floor. “Oh stop!” She says, in a plaintive voice. It is a child’s voice, but like milk going sour, it curdles at the end with an adult rasp. “Stop for a moment. It is too horrible. Five years old, you say? And was she tall?”
“No. Just a mouse.”
“Of course,” she says, mournfully. “Just a little purple thing. Thin, I’d imagine, and wearing rags. And you next to her.” She exhales mightily. “Tell me, did you weep?”
“At first I was too perplexed to weep. I ticked her, to see if she would wake.”
At this, one attendant has to cough to hide his laughter.
“A nightmare!” The Cleansed One cries. “You tickled her cold armpits. You must continue, though I cannot bear it.”
“In life,” I say, “we had been enemies, scrabbling over every grain of rice, but in death, I finally saw the rosiness, the bloom and purity of my darling sister. For the first time, I spoke to her. I sang her lullabies, and kissed a good morning on her dry cheek. I dressed her in my cleanest shirt and wove flowers around her fingers. When the Reclaimers finally arrived, I begged them not to take her!”
I pitch my voice high. “Oh please, sirs! Oh please let her stay! I will teach her to walk again, and to sing!”
Behind Clara’s head, the staff does not know how to react. Some are straining not to smile, others are sourly affronted. The Cleansed One, draped in her chair, looks exhausted. I speak the end to her alone.
“And now,” I say, “you’ll have to excuse my language, but now when I take a lover, I request that she lie as still as a corpse, and not say a word. And when we are done I weep, because I cannot remember my sister’s name.”
Clara considers this, then gives me a strange look: pitying, chiding and complicit all at once. After a time, she stands with some formality. She approaches the Inspectors that are holding me and blows at their faces to usher them away. She is close enough that her nose twitches at my odor.
“You’re fired,” she says.
So I leave, legs quaking, shoulders hot where they’d been held. It feels very good, getting yourself to where you’re going to die, then not dying on account of cleverness. But what feels better is knowing that Groota’s prize is squirming through my bowels, jumbled and mashed in my interior porridge, pushing by phases toward freedom.
Chris Arp is a writer from New York City.
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