Jan 20 • 15M

You Cannot Spell Paradise Without Lies

Enter the realm of The Punished

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You Cannot Spell Paradise without Lies

Testament VII: You cannot clean the corners of the Pale without a pick. You cannot let the corners get dirty. That’s how the Rot sets in. If the Rot sets in, you will be shot.


Drops a body. It lies in the corner. I pretend not to know him. It’s easier that way. I don’t get why they read the Testament out every time, the failed know they have failed. It must be for the rest of us. This is the only break we get in the work, to watch the failed receive their punishment. The ones with eyes leave once we turn back to our corners, picks in arm. 

The pick is as long as my body and unwieldy. I think it could be better suited to my small, three-fingered hands and long, triple-jointed arms. To hold it, one must prop the rough wood against the shoulder and lean into it. I have a thin layer of animal skin strapped to one shoulder to keep it from rubbing raw. Somehow the calluses never hold on. Must be the frail skin I wear.

I scrape the pick in the corner, removing errant growths of the Rot. I am very good so they give me too many corners to watch. It is delicate to only scrape the Rot and not the Pale underneath. The Pale is essential. To carve away too much, revealing what’s beneath, means Bang!

Today the shift feels longer than it already is. Some days it feels fast, my mind full of purpose and focus and gut-clenching terror of reaching too deep. Yet here I stand with my dead friend beside me, someone who spoke entire words to me. I did not have a friend, before.

Friends mean distractions which means The Rot which means less productivity. The ones with eyes love the p-word. I admit that with my friend, I worked harder. I admit this only to myself.

The signal canaries twitter their end-song through the tunnels, announcing the shift is over. Everyone wraps up their picks, takes their trowel and paste, and applies the paste over their scraped corners. The paste is supposed to protect our work stations, but I think they actually inspire the Rot. My friend and I discussed such things. One night he even left a corner un-pasted and there was no Rot, but the ones with eyes caught his unpasted corner and then they shot him. Maybe pasting should be in the Testaments, then. So many Testaments unspoken and unmentioned. 

Before leaving, I close my friend’s eyes and pat his pockets for anything he left behind, as is the custom. I find a folded-up bit of skin paper. A ring. A trilobite snack. I take my friend’s belongings and his pick. The pick goes to the new recruit tomorrow. The Pale will eat my friend and the new recruit will have to scrape the growth away, becoming the new shepherd of his corners.

Carrying two picks to my den, I feel a darkness. It is growing on its own. It is growing in my chest. How to describe this feeling? Like I stand beneath a black sphere the size of the moon, trying to hold it up alone. Wetness on my face appears, unbidden. On my bed of stone, I munch on the trilobite snack, don the ring, and turn over to catch the moon’s light and read my dead friend’s letter: There is no eternal reward. The ones with eyes lie. 

So that is why he let himself die. He did not believe anymore in the promise of paradise. How could he not? The Testament is eternal. The Testament is…The Testament! My friend was smart. He was brave. He did not believe things without reasons. I am not like him at all. But now he is gone, I want to become like him, to feel that he is with me. My life was different with him. Without him I want it to remain different. But I will sleep and decide tomorrow what to do.

I lie on the stone and close my eyes, imagining what it would be like not to go into the tunnels, into the places winding deep beneath the Island surrounded by the toxic waters of the Brine. What would it be to do as I like and not as the ones with eyes like

My friend said many things like this that broke the unspoken Testaments. Somehow, he infected me with his mind seeds. Ideas must be another form of the Rot. The ones with eyes always find the ones who don’t follow the Testaments. Bang!

Testament X: When The Contract is fulfilled, The Worker will go to The Station. The Worker will board the train and never return. The Worker will receive eternal rewards.

When the canaries blow, I have only just found mind stillness. I have even less clarity than before. No peace, only the pain of disdain. My friend did this to me, leaving me the note, talking of hope and a life without contracts. 

Getting up, I molt out of my day-old skin, tearing it like wet paper, and don a new one recently constituted by the mouth in my wall. The mouth also provides my allotment of wetness and a tube of nutrients. It is enough. Only enough. Every day I ache for more. My friend talked of days without this ache. Paradise is supposed to be these things fulfilled. When I asked where he got his ideas, he said he found them in the back of his head, writhing like biting eels. Did it all start with that paper he passed on to me?

I remember I once went to the station to see off a fellow worker who was not a friend, but just someone who worked beside me. The ones with eyes let all of us go to the train to Paradise sometimes. To hope for it. To crave it. A lure, my friend called it, to keep us diligent and focused on the Pale. I look at my hands. They are not the same as when I was young. Wrinkled, tough as raw bones beneath my skin. My contract is not over for ten thousand and four cycles more. And now I have all these ideas burbling. I cannot leave them in my head that long. I’ll go crazy. I’ll let myself get shot. Like my friend. 

I don’t want to work till the end. I don’t want to get shot. I want Paradise.

I carry both picks, mine and my friend’s. His smells like him: musty and sweet. I pass the catacombs stacked high up the cliff, where all workers rise and put on their new skins. I join a steady line of hunched workers. In the distance, beyond the old crumbling hives, and between the new, shining buildings is the station. Just before the maw to the mines, I break from the line and go to the station. No worker notices. They stare at their feet too much.

The train, the train, the train. No one can get on without their finished contract. The ones with eyes are watching. So many eyes everywhere. But the trains must come from somewhere. They must gather the trains together as they gather us. 

I go where I should not. Through doors that promise punishment but are not locked. We workers are too feeble to go where we are unbidden. Behind this door and that door are the train workers. They are different colors; blues and grays to my speckled beige skin; they have different arms and legs, many more than me. I am noticed, quickly. The ones with eyes pursue me in a roil of limbs and stalks and eyes and teeth. But I find what I am looking for: a big yawning place that covers many, many trains. 

I climb a fence. It’s hard while carrying two picks. Trains are coming and going with hissing steam and clattering metal, coming and going to and from paradise. There are dogs patrolling here, eye stalks turning at every sound. I haven’t seen dogs since the ones with eyes brought them into the mines looking for someone. Hiding in the pale yellow grass, a dog jumps me, grabs me with its teeth, and tears my skin. I have to stab it to stop it, its sorrowful cry bringing more dogs and eyes. I limp away, leaking fluid like when you get shot. It hurts to walk. I use my friend’s pick for help. Supporting me even in death. I go to where the trains leave the building and climb on top, leaking, breathing hard. 

Testament I: The Island is punishment for the people’s sins. The sins are forgotten, but the punishment remains. The punishment will go on until the people remember their sins.

I sleep atop the train with both arms wrapped around my picks. I sleep through dark tunnels, through stinging rain, through heat like soup. Upon waking, my skin is ruined. All of it. I do not have a spare. I remove it and throw it into the wind and watch it flutter and float. I am exposed, under threat of drying out. But it is also nice, to feel free. That was the first time I have ever slept un-regimented by the canaries. I feel like a new person. I am a new person. Out here, far from the Pale and the Catacombs and the Acropoli of the Punished, the air does not taste of ash. I make a sound in my chest that is unfamiliar. My face hurts from widening. The train is taking me to paradise, though I did not complete The Contract. This is what my friend wanted. This is what all people should want. 

I sleep again. When I wake, my body has its own skin, the same color as The Pale. The ones with eyes have lied about many things. 

The train steams and howls and then ceases. A station stands here, at the edge of a very dry place with gritty earth in mounds everywhere. Beyond is a cliff, a chasm, and another cliff with a bridge that connects them. Across the bridge is a building with a rainbow of grays from slate to wet obsidian. There’s nothing else here. No ones with eyes. No sign of paradise. Did I ever imagine what paradise was? What was said about it? For some reason, I imagined a thing not gray or black or brown. 

Doors slide open. Passengers carry themselves and their contracts off the train, heads high and hopeful. I wait for them to go to the building and enter before dropping down.

My leg doesn’t work right. The dog did something deep to me. I lean on my friend’s pick, having left mine behind. It’s like he’s with me as I go over the bridge to the building. The doors are etched with words, as if from picks: To Paradise. I push them open. There is a bright light that blinds, consisting of many colors I have only seen in my head. It shocks me so, I lift my arm to block the light and lose my balance on my bad leg. I fall. I curse myself, then I reach for my friend’s pick, but it is gone. Gone? Over the bridge’s side? No, the bridge has solid walls. Where did it get to?

I reach with a withered hand behind the light, but in reaching for my pick, there is only empty air. No. No, it cannot be. Then I listen. What I hear does not sound like paradise. There is groaning. There is slurping, like drinking wetness from a wall mouth. Crunching, too. I call out: is this paradise? There are groans. There is an answer: Help me. It’s almost to me. 

No. Please let this not be a lie. I have believed in Paradise my entire life. Perhaps what I heard is in my head. 

Help! Help it’s got me!

I cannot lie to myself about the terror I hear. And no matter what, I cannot see beyond the light. But whatever it hides is not paradise. There is only more pain, it seems. Only a hungry lie. 

The truth: There are no ways off the island besides Bang! or Crunch!

It is only me now. Me and my pick. My dead friend has saved me, again. Saved me from Paradise. I can’t go back and I don’t want to go forward. What else is there? What else could there be?

I have no choice but to find out. 

Before I set out, I make a new contract. This one is with the Truth. I take my pick and scrape it into the un-departed train, wherever there is space:

The New Testament: The ones with eyes lie. Paradise is a lie. You must find Paradise inside yourself.


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