In my box of evidence, I keep this battery I took from a grey plastic block I found in the closet of Cabin Six. Daddy says the Great White Owl told him that every time we use “idols” from the Electric Devolution, a piece of our soul dissolves into nothing. You can feel it, he says—a sharp prick of the heart, and then a devastating longing for some forgotten memory. This was well before he brought me to Antropolis to hang flyers for his monthly purgings, so I had little concept of what these “idols” might look like. I thought maybe they would glow with blue light and smell like Daddy’s shoes when he sets them too close to a fire.
Then one day when Daddy was out hunting in the woods, I found that grey block tucked into a dark, cobwebbed corner of the closet in Cabin Six. I was trespassing, as Daddy called it, since the cabins on the ridge were occupied by the Owl’s fledgling spirits. Daddy had just begun to teach me letters at that point, and I recognized “O” and “N” above a raised knob, though I didn’t know what they meant. I pushed that knob, and suddenly a man was screaming at me over a thumping rhythm. I thought maybe the Owl had pricked my heart and would wipe away all memories of my soul, so I threw the box onto a rock. Plastic splintered, the screaming stopped. It was my first experience with a radio, and soon my fear felt less important than my ache for more of the roused hot blood of that scream.
I took a black-and-golden cylinder from the pile of wreckage—my battery—and buried the rest in the woods. Daddy never mentioned a thing gone missing, but I suppose he didn’t like to trespass.
My evidence also includes a contact card from a bald man who wore a black t-shirt with DEATHBIRTH written over and over in red in a dizzying circle. This was several years after my radio discovery. Daddy had been gone for days at Tuckagroosie Lake when this strange man, a rare visitor, rapped on the door frame. I spoke to him through the screen. He asked me if I knew about something called the Ladybug Project, and I didn’t, so he told me about a guy named Simon Wallace whose company ran top-secret experiments to develop an explosive drone the size of a ladybug. I asked him what an explosive drone was and he said it was the end of human decency. He said Simon Wallace sold the technology to the US Military. When I said I wasn’t familiar with the US Military, he laughed and said, “You got that right,” then told me that he was trying to track down the test sites and take pictures of the craters to show the American public what would happen if the military released swarms of these Ladybugs. I told him our crater wasn’t one of these sites, that it was formed when the Great White Owl tore through the sky and joined Daddy in holy union.
“Simon Wallace is your granddaddy, sweetheart. You ever wonder where your father got the money to build these cabins? Give your pops my card and tell him I said the world deserves the truth.” I picked up the burgundy card he slid under the door:
DARRIN MAYWEATHER – PROFESSIONAL WATCHDOG
-NATIONAL ORGANIZATION OF CONCERNED CITIZENS-
Guardians of a Government for the People
“NOCCing down doors in the name of justice!”
I never mentioned the bald man to Daddy, but when I asked if Granddaddy was a Wallace he smacked the back of my head—the only time he’s ever hit me—and said I best respect the Houlihan family name if I wanted my soul to endure the filth of life on earth. He started crying as soon as I did, and he held my head to his chest and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Granddaddy was a bad man.”
My most recent bit of evidence is the drawing I found in a stack of flyer paper. It’s a sketch of Daddy, only he has a mustache and a smaller belly, and he’s smiling stiffly at a baby in the crook of his arm. His face says he’s uncomfortable, like his bowels are clogged, and I can’t help but think that this penciled Daddy almost looks more real than real-life Daddy. The backside of the paper is labeled “Sadie Mae, age 2 months, with Frank,” which is how I know what I looked like as a baby girl.
Daddy talks about Mom’s artistic ability sometimes, but he says she took all her work with her into the fire that returned her body to dust. “What fire?” I’d ask, and he’d say something vague about a hotel with faulty wiring. A few times, he claimed she died giving birth to me, and in those instances I asked nothing.
But I must remember that I am blind and dumb, that Daddy wears the eyes of the Great White Owl and so sees the true way. Each time he hears the call, always at night, he orders me to bed, then climbs to the roof of our cabin and vanishes. Tuckagroosie Lake is a three-day hike into deep woods, but Daddy can make it there and back by morning. If I run outside just after take-off and scramble up to the roof, I’ll find a white feather long as my arm and softer than mullein. If I’m slow, the feather’s gone. I’ve caught twenty-seven. They’re too big to fit inside my box, so I slide them between the boards of Cabin Fourteen’s walls.
Daddy’s new Gloryland flyers take all night. My sleepy head throbs under morning sun on our ride to Antropolis. A cold snap has struck the air outside the crater’s warmth, but the protection of my deerskin coat pillows me into half-dream. Daddy pedals faster than normal along the interstate, but still my body is a pile of warm stone, and I nearly slip off my handlebar seat when my eyes don’t open after a blink. For the first time since Daddy began inviting me on these trips, I wish I’d stayed at home.
When I began to bleed a few years ago and Daddy ordained me a woman, I asked if that meant I could go to a Purging. “They’re too dangerous for someone clean as you,” he said. Still, he agreed to let me peek into the world beyond our crater—he brought me to Antropolis to post flyers. It’s on these trips that I learned about stoplights and pharmacies and sewer systems and pigeons. I’ve witnessed nuns, whores, bus drivers, guitar players, bankers, students, and cops. I’ve seen the million shapes and colors of people, and nearly all of them wear the blank eyes of living dead. They do not scare me.
I’m not supposed to speak to anyone except Daddy in Antropolis, but one time a boy with a gap-toothed grin asked if he could kiss my hand. He was young and wore these lucent brown eyes. I looked to Daddy and expected him to lash out as he always does when strangers address me, but that time, he crouched down to meet the boy at his level. They studied each other for a long stretch, and though the boy’s grin slacked with concentration, his brown eyes never broke away. Finally, Daddy turned back to me. “It’s up to you, Sadie.”
And thus, with a kiss, my first love came and went.
But even though great things happen in the city, Antropolis rattles me every time I come. I lurch awake with furious energy as Daddy pedals onto the streets where skyscrapers stab into smog-gloomed skies and bloated shopping centers swallow and vomit streams of people. We make stops to post flyers under windows upon windows, too many to count, too many to hide from, and trapped and suffocating behind are the stranded souls of the electric world, all a breath away from eternal numb. I imagine these people carry hammers in their pockets, and when they finally decide they want fresh air, they’ll send down a hail of tiny glass sickles to brain me and Daddy to a gruesome death.
Our walls at home are all screen. Most nights, as Daddy sleeps under sheets and Mom rests in her jar, I press my face into the flexible mesh of the screen wall and pull back slowly until I find that sweet spot where the wire comes into focus, where the purple blur of crater wall under moon is divided neatly into tiny squares, and for hours I count our crater square by square, over and over, two-thousand-and-forty-nine, until the damp mud breeze sneaks into the room and Daddy begs from his sleep for Mom to come to bed.
On the ride back from Antropolis, Daddy tells me the preacher from Gloryland offered to send a driver to the road nearest our crater. He wants Daddy to arrive in “a noble manner.” I don’t ask Daddy if he’ll feel the heart prick of Devolution when that driver flips the switch to automatically unlock the car door, or again when he climbs onto his lighted stage and speaks to the crowd though a voice made electric-loud. Instead, I tell him how grateful I am that the eyes of the Great White Owl have shown him this path. I know I’m blind. I know Gloryland will be spectacular.
The night before the Purging, Daddy asks me if I’ve ever seen the Owl. “I’ve been close,” I say, not admitting that I haven’t felt on the verge of anything holy for years.
“Not even in prayer?”
He nods sadly, yet with certainty, and then kisses my cheek and climbs into bed.
“Maybe if I go to the Purging tomorrow,” I suggest.
“I’m sorry my love, but no. Please—don’t sigh like that.”
Then he settles into the mattress and promptly closes his eyes. I lie awake and think of Gloryland long after he drifts into open-mouthed snore. I think of the shadowed space between my eyes and his, and about the bike locked to the iron rail outside.
I sneak across the room to Daddy’s bed. I gently lift the covers and slip a feline hand into his pocket. He slurs some plea from dream as I remove the key to the bike’s lock.
I silently close the screen door behind me. At the wall, I scale the grooved footholds up to Cabin Fourteen, and then I lay the key in my box of evidence to be safely stored until tomorrow night.
Daddy doesn’t notice the missing key in all his excitement the next day. He heads out mid-morning to meet his driver, and soon after, I put on my winter coat, grab Mom from her shelf, and pedal off to Antropolis. I make it to Gloryland long before dark, and I find my hiding spot by climbing up the fire escape, through a window in the attic, and into the darkness of the hollow ceiling. As I stretch my weight evenly as possible across the soft tile and thin metal framing, I listen to the murmur and bustle of the soon-to-be converts filing into Gloryland’s pews. When the preacher begins to introduce Daddy, I slide a tile back a few inches and set Mom’s jar near our slim window.
We’re right above the stage. I can’t risk poking my head through the gap to see how many people showed up, but the blast of a whooping mob greets Daddy as he steps into a white circle of light below Mom and me. His black hair, usually loose and sprung with waves, is pasted stiff to his scalp like burnt glass. More than anything I want to see his smile.
The crowd calms as Daddy rolls into prayer. “Consider your televisions,” he says, “and your computers, and then your food processors and hair dryers. Consider what these machines have stolen from you, my brothers and my sisters. Can you admit you love these electric demons more than you love the wind or the trees? More than your family? More than the Holy Ghost? For you must first admit the devil to cast him from your soul.”
All I’d ever heard of God and the devil is when Daddy warned against the dangers of Christian infection. I press the cool ceramic of Mom’s jar against my hot cheek.
“Let me tell you about my bedtime prayers,” he continues. “Each night, I fall to my knees and ask the Good Lord to break your chains, to release you from the slobbering vanity that gnaws on your soul. And I ask Him to spare you from that unholy day of reckoning, when you look to your companions and find not a breathing body among them. You say aloud, ‘I want more,’ and ‘more’ bounces between the hollows of your metals and high-density plastics and returns to you with a sharp smack on the mouth. You will, of course, have forgotten the meaning of more, and so the devil steps in to fill your want.”
Daddy bows his head. His bare neck glistens under the heat of lamps. “But after each ‘Amen,’ the Good Lord reminds me that only a seeker finds treasure. So tell me then, my brothers and sisters: who here seeks salvation?”
A rabid chorus swells and swells as Daddy delivers them a half-step from holy, but they don’t pull me under. I watch the crowd wail together, the world’s true vagrants, their bodies aching and fevered, and though I don’t feel it directly, I know that if they writhe and hold tight to the burn then soon will come the Great White Owl to float them inches beyond our flesh.
But Daddy holds them at the edge. He stops his prayer and raises one hand for silence. With the other, he motions to someone at the wing of the stage. A black-haired boy I’ve never seen appears under the light, struggling to push a cart stacked with four large boxes. These packages look about as wide as the boy and half as tall. When Daddy introduces him as an apprentice, a sickening knot winds tight in my stomach.
Daddy rests his palm on top of a box. “On this momentous evening, four of my brothers and sisters, the chosen four, will have the chance to destroy their shackles.” He pauses as people murmur. “But I have not deserted the rest of you,” he says. “Tonight, let’s witness a sacred ritual and take from it the power to save ourselves. I call on you, my brothers and sisters, soldiers of God’s will, to accept your destiny and march forth from Gloryland with the devil’s rump beneath your heel.”
His open palm holds the congregation silent. “Now tell me,” he cries, “who wants to know what’s in these boxes?”
They’re all sweet belly moans and tindered limbs. They claw at their boiling hearts and beg Daddy to show them the thing in the box.
The boy heads down into the pews to make his selection. Without thinking, I reach my hand through the gap and try to pull this child back to me, but of course I won’t be chosen, and soon he returns with two men and two women, all trembling, all wailing thanks for their good fortune. Daddy kneels down and whispers something to the boy, who nods at their secret. The boy arranges the chosen four into a circle around the boxes.
They hush again to the all-powerful hand. Daddy’s voice is calm and solemn. “Before we undergo this sacred ritual known as Purging, I want to warn you of the demon within this box.”
He turns his back to the crowd and faces the ring of people on stage. The room goes dark. A beam of light streams across my line of vision, but its projection is too far down the stage for me to see. Sound crackles into the speakers. The low, melodic voice of a woman tells us to put down our mops and start using our imaginations.
“Imagine: A friend who scrubs your Thanksgiving dishes while you watch football.
“Imagine: A friend who dusts every nook and cranny of your house, even the space behind the books.
“Imagine: A friend who pulls the clumps of hair from your drain after every shower.
“Imagine: A friend who takes care of all the dirty work so you never have to.
“With Pristina, fantasy becomes reality. These intelligent cleaning devices continually update to meet the unique demands of your household. From daily chores to special tasks, Pristina will handle the cleaning while you take care of more important matters. Say hello to your new friend.”
“Hello, friend,” I whisper.
When the lights return to full bright, Daddy enters the circle and slices open the first box with a knife from his pocket. He yanks out Pristina by its domed head and presses something at the bottom of its torso. Two blinking green eyes within a white band of light appear. The head swivels to face Daddy.
“Hello, friend,” Pristina says in a voice similar to the one from the advertisement. “How may I help you today?”
The boy is swinging an iron pipe back and forth along his ankles. Daddy sets Pristina on the ground, and the boy approaches. The machine doesn’t respond to him at first, but after a heavy clonk to its stomach, it backs away from the boy and stumbles into Daddy’s shoes. Daddy lifts his foot and kicks Pristina at its base, sending it through the air and onto its face at the center of the ring. The machine rights itself just before a blonde teenager raises the iron for another blow. I look away. Glass shatters, metal caves. The rest of the room cheers as the first Pristina lies in ruin.
With its six arms extended, the second Pristina tries to break between the legs of a woman whose red hair seems frozen by an icy gust. The woman lifts the machine by two of the arms. A third arm with some blunt attachment at the tip strikes her in the face, perhaps by accident. The woman yelps and drops the machine, and the boy jumps in and beats it with the pipe again and again until nothing is left but a mess of metallic guts, until Daddy puts a hand on his shoulder. He looks to Daddy, to the others, then lowers his arm. His chest heaves up and down. Even from the ceiling, I can see his flushed cheeks and the swell against the fabric between his legs.
Daddy brings out another box.
After the riled crowd has gone, I shimmy back out of the ceiling and climb down to the fire escape to watch the assembly line of mangled Pristinas headed to the dumpster. The boy grabs a body from the pile and tosses it to Daddy, who tosses it to a woman—one who had been on the stage—and she sends it sailing into the dumpster with a clank. The boy grabs another one and prepares for the toss but stops short. He squints at the robot in hands. I can’t see anything but just barely catch a low buzz of electricity.
“This one’s eyes keep flashing.”
“And?” asked Daddy.
“I don’t know. It’s just weird.”
Daddy walks over to the boy and leans in for a look. He brings his hand to his chin for a moment as he considers some thought, then he lowers it the boy’s shoulder. “You know this thing is not really alive.” He lifts the Pristina from the boy, turns it over, and flips off its power switch. The buzzing stops. Daddy tosses the body to the woman, who chucks it into the trash with the others. They fall back into rhythm until the pile on the pavement is no more.
A silver van pulls around. The boy and the woman pile in, but Daddy walks around to the driver’s side and speaks to the man at the wheel. He glances up and takes a few steps towards my hiding spot. I push back from the edge and curled into my winter coat, trying to sink into the wall, Mama’s jar pressed against my lips to keep me quiet.
“Is that my Sadie Mae up there?” he asks.
I don’t look. I don’t say a thing.
I hear his footfall on the pavement, but when I realize he’s going and not coming I nearly lose my nerve and call out to him. A door slams shut and the rumble of the van’s engine fades down that long road back to the crater.
It’s only night, I tell myself. I know the night.
I carry Mom down the fire escape, and we stand together in front of the dumpster’s opening. Metal limbs of those ruined machines reflect flashes of Antropolitan light—sharp whites from passing cars, blinking reds from peaks of towers, woozy yellows from tired street lamps. My eyes blur from the glaring clutter, and before I know what I’m doing, I’ve climbed into the dumpster with the pile of dead machines.
I lie back and squint up into the stars, trying to recognize a constellation through the pollution, but no star over Antropolis burns as like those over Hoolihan crater, where we’re somehow closer to the sky. If I pedal home right now and show Daddy Cabin Fourteen and my hiding spot full of perfect white feathers, maybe he’ll forgive me and know I was faithful and good.
When I lift Mom’s jar above me to cast a pathetic prayer for her guidance, ash snows from a small chip in the bottom of the jar and lands softly on my lips. I quickly plug Mom’s wound with my shirt, but it’s already too late, I lose some of her forever. I lick my lips so as not to spit my own mother into a dumpster, and a familiar sweetness startles me. I dab my finger over the chipped hole for a better taste. It’s chocolate—hot chocolate powder. The same stuff Daddy keeps as a comfort against the crater’s rare chill.
I shatter the jar against the dumpster’s wall and lie back into the arms of a Pristina, sobbing and sending up final pleas to the Owl, or whoever might help, knowing full well that isn’t how prayers get answered. Just before I say Amen, a faint, labored clicking starts up behind me. A muffled voice breaks through the crackle and tick of a busted speaker: “Hello friend. How may I help you today?”
I expect fire when I returned to the crater—or more like broken plates, ripped fabric, maybe even a slap to my head like he did that one time. I expect words like traitor or heathen or maybe some word I’ve never even heard that will bring me to my knees. The cabin greets me with its usual soft, flickering warmth of dim candlelight, yet I just know that as soon as I open the screen door, all terror, pain, hell will strike me with a vengeful blow.
But inside is a snoring man. I gently closed the door behind me and pick up a candle to light my way into the kitchen area. As I sit down at the table, Daddy stirs, rolls over, and lifts his head from the pillow. He squints and understands the shape of me, that I am home and sitting in front of him. He smiles through swollen drowsiness.
“What did you think?”
This is my father who knows I cannot find the Owl, yet loves me best as he can. This is my father who lied to me for a lifetime as easily as he lied to a church full of people.
“You swung me way up high,” I say.
“That’s right! And all those people! I had to speak the language of their tin god to carry them past the fog, but the Owl received them all the same.”
I stare into the candle’s flame. Powdered chocolate has stained the dried cracks of my lips, and I fear the taste might never wash away. Has he noticed the jar missing from the mantle? Perhaps he doesn’t care. Why would he care about chocolate?
“I have something for you,” I tell him.
“Hm?” He sits up.
From the bag on the table, I unsheathe the handsome white feathers I’ve been collecting in the wake of his midnight flights. He rises from the bed and take the seat next to me. He carefully lifts one feather from the pile and caresses its milky barbs.
“You’re not lying,” he says.
“I never do.”
He solemnly closes his eyes. “Oh my girl. The Owl has blessed you. My girl, my dear very own heart.” His eyes are full of tears when he opens them. My blood burns with embarrassment. “So you’ve not grown sick of me yet,” he says before he chuckles at some joke I don’t get. He stands up to place the feathers on the mantle where the jar once sat. He doesn’t speak of what’s gone. He returns to bed and sits down.
“We’ll build a box for these feathers tomorrow. We’ll bike to town and buy a nice silver latch.” He searches my face for approval, but I can’t bring myself to fake a reaction just for his damn sake. When he tries to pin me down, I am nowhere and everywhere. I am everlasting sky. I catch a flash of terror in his eyes, but he quickly finds his way back to himself, then to the feather.
“This is really something,” he says.
He fluffs both pillows and folds down the blanket for me. “Sleep?”
“I think I’ll stay up for awhile.”
He pulls the covers over his shoulders and turns away from me. It’s not long before his ribs rise and fall in slow and even waves of sleep.
Maybe later I’ll remember the ways my father earned my respect, even my love. I will remember his honey, his magic, the length of his soul. And by the time I give him another chance, maybe I’ll be ready to tell him about the bald man who told me the truth. Or about the craft stand in the market that sold me the most beautiful white feathers I’d ever seen. But not now, when I have a different kind of courage to work up.
A drop of wax pools then hardens on the pillowcase, inches from my father’s face. I back away from the bed and blow out the candle I hadn’t realized I was holding.
The front door whispers shut behind me, and waiting patiently for me, her gooseneck arms wrapped around the bike’s rack, is that strange and limp little known as Pristina. Her busted, cock-eyed head makes me well up with the type of boundless sadness for a lover who dies before they have time to hurt you. I check her ties to make sure she won’t budge on the bumpy ride out of the woods, and then we ride off together into the creeping morning light.
In the crater, the sun takes ages to rise from behind the trees and mounds of dirt. It’s a lethargic, sepia-toned dawn that always makes me feel like the day ahead has already happened.
But today is happening now.
My father always mocked Antropolis for its flamboyance—the city that sparkles. The road is paved with so much Mica, and Pristina and I make it to the highway just as dawn blooms quick and brilliant, zinc to wine to blood to copper, the city skyline slicing into view. It’s a pompous, gorgeous city, and the type of place where I’ll find someone specialized enough to fix a robot, maybe even free her in some kind of way. But then. What then? Am I stupid to hope we might find a world beyond the skyscrapers?
I turn on the radio tied to my handlebars, and some woman is singing about buying time for ten-ninety-nine. I can’t tell if it’s a song or an ad, but it’s catchy either way so I start humming along. A click and whir starts up behind me. “Hello friend. Hell-o. Hell-o. Hell-o. Hell-o.”
Sarah Heying is currently working on a PhD in Oxford, MS. She received her MFA from McNeese State University, and her short stories have previously appeared in The Greensboro Review, Broken Pencil, Kestrel, and elsewhere.