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Authors: Anne Bishop

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The Voice

BOOK: The Voice
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The Voice

An Ephemera Novella

Anne Bishop


Published by New American Library, a division of

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto,

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Published by New American Library,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

First E-Book Printing, February 2012

Copyright © Anne Bishop, 2012

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.


NEW AMERICAN LIBRARY and logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

ISBN: 978-1-101-56771-5

Printed in the United States of America


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.



Dear Readers,

Some stories haunt you until you write them. That’s what happened to me a few years ago when the first sentence of this story wouldn’t let me go until I wrote the rest of it. “The Voice” was my introduction to the city of Vision, one of the landscapes of Ephemera. I’m pleased to be able to share it with you now.

Travel lightly,

Anne Bishop



They called her The Voice because she had none. Fat, mute, and dimwitted, she was an orphan the village supported, providing her with a house and caretakers. And she was always included in village life. Oh, she wasn’t invited into people’s homes—everyone went to The Voice’s house when a visit was required—but every time someone had a “moody day,” as my mother had called them, every time something happened that was less than pleasant, a special little cake was made. The “moody” person took the treat to The Voice’s house, waited until she took her special seat in the visitors’ room, then handed her the food.

She never refused a moody cake. Never. She would smile at the children when they handed her the treats, and sometimes she smiled at the adults. She never smiled at the village Elders, but she also never refused their offerings when they came to visit. You always knew that she didn’t refuse because that was part of the ritual—you stayed and watched her eat what you had brought, and when you left, you felt better. The moody day was gone and you went back to your ordinary life.

I never considered the oddity of an orphan having a visitors’ room that bore a resemblance to the audience chamber in the Elders’ Hall. I never wondered why having a moody day required making a treat that was given away. And I never wondered why an adult provided escort and oversaw the visit until a child was considered trustworthy enough to take the treat to The Voice and not eat it herself. I never felt anything but a smug pity for the girl—and being just ten years older than me, she was barely more than a girl at the time—who always wore these strange hoods that covered her head and neck and was provided with simple smocks and trousers as covering for her body because, despite being young, there was no need for her to dress in pretty clothes that would attract a male eye, as the other girls were doing.

So I lived quite happily—and innocently—in the village that supported The Voice until the summer I turned ten years old. That was when I had my first glimpse of the truth.

It had been a hot summer, and there had been little rain. Men were wearing their summer garb—sleeveless tunics and lightweight pants that were hemmed above the knee. Some of the younger men—the bachelors in the village who were looking for a wife—were even bold enough to cut off their trousers to midthigh length, which delighted the older women; mortified the older, knobby-kneed men; and scandalized the village Elders. It wasn’t until women began fainting on a daily basis while doing housework in the heat that the Elders were forced to revise their strict dress code for our female population and permit short sleeves on the tunics and trousers that were hemmed just below the knee. The Elders reasoned that it was simply too hot for strenuous activity, so the sight of female limbs would not excite male flesh.

The number of women who became pregnant during that summer—and the number of bachelors who were required to make a hasty contract of marriage—showed everyone how embarrassingly incorrect the Elders’ reasoning had been. And, according to the whispers of a few sharp tongues, it also proved how old the Elders really were.

But those were insignificant things to a ten-year-old girl who was relishing the feel of air on her arms and legs when she was outside playing with friends.

That’s where we were when I had the first glimpse of the truth—outside in the shade of a big tree, lazily tossing a ball between the three of us: Kobbi (who was Named Kobrah), Tahnee, and me, Nalah. Then The Voice plodded by, her tunic sleeves and trousers full length, of course, since the sight of her fat limbs would offend the eye. And then the boys came, with a glint in their eyes that made the three of us huddle together like sheep scenting a pack of wild dogs and instinctively knowing that separation from the flock meant death.

The boys weren’t interested in teasing us that day, not when The Voice, looking back and recognizing danger, began lumbering toward the nearest house, no doubt hoping to be rescued.

They moved too fast, surrounded her too quickly.

“Aren’t you hot?” they taunted The Voice. “Aren’t you hot, hot, hot? We’ll help you cool off.”

They grabbed at her, pushed at her, and she kept turning, kept trying to move, no different from some poor, dumb beast. Until one of them grabbed her hood and pulled it off, exposing her neck for the first time in our young memories.

The boys scrambled away from her, silent and staring. Then she turned and looked at us girls. Looked into my eyes.

I didn’t see a poor, dumb beast. There was intelligence in those eyes, as maimed as her body. And there was anger in those eyes, now unsheathed for everyone to see.

Some adults finally noticed us and realized something was wrong. The murmur of concerned voices changed into a hornets’ buzz of anger when the adults realized what we had seen—and why. The Voice was solicitously returned to her house, the boys were marched to the Elders’ Hall to have their punishment decided, and we three girls were escorted to our homes, where our escorts held whispered conversations with our mothers.

I spent the rest of that afternoon in solitude, keeping my mind carefully blank while I watched the play of light and shadow on my bedroom wall. But my mind would not remain blank. Thoughts seeped up and got tangled in the shifting patterns of leaves on the white plaster wall.

The Voice had not been born mute. Had the injuries that had healed into those horrific scars happened at the same time she lost her parents? Was there a time when she had been called by another name? Even if her voice had been damaged and could not be repaired, the healers could sew better than the best seamstress and took pride in the health of the whole village. Why had they patched her up so badly?

The pattern on the wall changed, and another thought drifted through my mind as the words spoken by the teachers each school day seemed to swell until I could think of nothing else—until I could hear the threat under the words that were intended as thanksgiving:
Honor your parents. Give thanks for them every day. Without them you are orphaned, and an orphan’s life is one of sorrow.

The Voice was cared for by the whole village. She had a house.

But it’s one of the oldest houses in the village. Is she the first who lived there? If you ask your mother or grandmother, will they admit that another
mute orphan had lived there before?

Everyone brought her food and treats; even little children, helped by parents, presented her with treats.

Did she ever truly want them?

Why does she have those scars?

I didn’t have an answer. Didn’t want an answer. I hurt for myself, and I hurt for The Voice.

An hour before dinner, I emerged from my room. My mother studied my face carefully, then said, “I’ll make you a moody cake. You take it to The Voice. You’ll feel better.”

“No,” I said, my voice rough, as if something were eating away at my throat. “I’ll make it.”

Mother studied me a little longer, then nodded. “Very well. You’re old enough.”

So I made the little moody cake while Mother went into the garden and made no comment about her dinner preparations being delayed (it was considered bad luck to prepare other food while a moody cake was being made). And if a few tears fell into the mixture, I didn’t think it would spoil the taste.

As soon as it was cool enough to be placed on the little plate that was always—and only—used for food presented to The Voice, I left the house. The fact that neither of my parents commented or demanded that I wait until after our evening meal told me how concerned they were for me.

She was already in the visitors’ room, sitting in the oddly proportioned chair that looked as if it had been specially made for a much fatter person. Since she was there, I was not her first visitor. Probably Kobbi and Tahnee had already been there with their mothers. She was alone, which wasn’t unusual. There was always a caretaker in the house, but visitors usually meant the caretaker had a little time for herself.

I approached the chair until I was standing at the correct, polite distance. But I didn’t extend the plate. Even though she had been bathed and carefully dressed and a new hood covered her head and neck, I looked into her eyes and remembered those horrific scars.

Tears filled my eyes as I touched my own neck and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

To my amazement, since she never showed emotion beyond a simple smile, her eyes filled with tears too. Then she smiled—a true, warm, compassionate, loving smile—and reached out, took my little moody cake, and ate it.

Feeling so much better, I wiped the tears from my face and smiled in return. “I have to go now.”

She didn’t respond in any way when I turned to leave. She never did.

Before I reached the door, ready to skip home to my family and dinner, the boys who had taunted The Voice entered the room, followed by stern-looking fathers and nervous mothers. I jumped out of the way and pressed myself against the wall to avoid notice, but no one was going to notice me at that point.

And considering what happened, no one even remembered I had been there.

The first boy stepped up to the chair and extended the plate with its little offering.

The Voice picked up the offering and threw it on the floor.

There were shocked gasps from all the adults in the room, and the boy’s father hurried to the doorway that led to the rest of the house, calling for the caretaker.

The second boy made his offering. She mashed it in her fist, then smeared it on her clothes. But the third boy, the one who had pulled off her hood, revealing a secret, exposing her pain . . . She moved so fast, no one could stop her. One moment she was sitting, just staring at the boy; the next she lunged at him, grabbing the cake in one hand and his head in the other. As he started to yell, she shoved the cake into his mouth, forcing him to swallow or choke. So he swallowed—and the look in her eyes haunted my thoughts for years afterward.

Shortly after that, the boy contracted Black Pustules. These were painful boils that developed deep beneath the skin. Sometimes it took weeks before they reached the point where they could be lanced. And a single lancing never cleaned out a pustule, no matter what the healers tried. The pain of healing was endured over and over while new eruptions developed and needed to be lanced. It took several sessions before the hard nugget that was the core of the pustule could be extracted and the body finally healed.

But no matter how carefully the healers dealt with their patients, the final extraction left scars.

It always left scars.

In the weeks that followed, I didn’t see The Voice walking around the village, but I’d heard my parents whispering to friends that The Voice had been refusing all offerings, and the Elders and healers had accepted the necessity of taking measures—for the health of the village.

My curiosity got the better of me and, pretending to have a moody day, I prepared a little cake and took it to The Voice.

No child should know so cruel a truth as what I saw that day.

She was no longer left unattended, and one of her caretakers was a burly young man. She was dressed in a robe with a matching hood. The design of the robe’s sleeves was clever but didn’t quite disguise that her arms were bound to the chair. The fact that she no longer had even the illusion of freedom was bad enough, but . . . They had done something to her so that the caretaker, applying pressure on a dowel of wood attached to something inside her mouth, could force her mouth open enough for the offering to be pushed inside. Then her mouth was forcibly closed so she couldn’t spit out the treat.

They had taken away all her choices. She would consume what the villagers wanted her to consume.

She looked at me, and I felt as if I had betrayed her by coming here and forcing her to take something she didn’t want. But I couldn’t tell her it wasn’t a real moody cake, not with the caretaker standing right there, listening. And I couldn’t say I had changed my mind and The Voice didn’t need to accept my offering. That wasn’t done, ever. So in the end, I watched the male caretaker force her mouth open, shove in my little cake, and seal her mouth shut again.

I didn’t cry until I was safely home. Then I hid in a sheltered spot in my mother’s garden and cried until I made myself sick.

I avoided The Voice’s house as much as I could. Oh, I still made the moody cakes when some telltale sign warned my mother that I was not in harmony with the world. I was still trusted to go by myself, so my parents didn’t know that once I was safely out of sight, I found a hiding place . . . and ate the moody cake.

There was nothing in the making of it, nothing in the ingredients that could explain the sour, gelatinous, grape-sized lump that I discovered was in the center of every moody cake. Break it open and you’d find nothing, but put it in your mouth and you could feel that lump growing in the center of the cake. And yet you couldn’t spit it out. You could spit out the cake, but then the lump remained with nothing to sweeten it.

The first time I ate the moody cake, I was sick for a day, but my mother concluded that I had eaten something that didn’t agree with me and, fortunately, didn’t press me to find out what it was.

The second time I ate a moody cake, a Black Pustule developed on my belly. It was painful and frightening, but I was more afraid to tell my parents and admit I hadn’t been taking my moody cakes to The Voice, so I dealt with it in silence, learning that a warm, wet cloth brought the pustule to a head quicker and a sewing needle was a sufficient lance. Extracting the core is something I do not care to describe, but the substance was a harder, thicker version of the gelatinous lump in the moody cake.

BOOK: The Voice
10.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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