The Bible teaches us that the heavens and earth were made by the one true God. I have heard these things all of my life but I dare not ask the questions that the lessons have created in my mind. I am certain I know quite a bit about the earth, as I spend most of my waking moments within its clanking iron bowels. The heavens, however, are a mystery to me as my world is hollow and my sky is made of glass. As I lie on my back and stare up at the thick dome that covers my world, I still cannot help but wonder why?
Our history is taught in two stages. There is the before time, when man lived on the surface and roamed at will. He built great cities and sailed the oceans and conquered kingdoms. Then there is the after time, when man created the great glass dome to protect all he knew from the mighty comet that came in 1878 and burned up the sky. It is the one hundred and ninety-eighth year since the world became the dome, and I spend all of my waking moments trying to find a way to leave it.
Staring at the dome will not give me a way out. I do it to justify my wanting to escape. I am desperately seeking a sign that the earth has returned to what it was before the comet came. I need to know for certain that I will not be burned to a crisp if and when I do find a way out. Occasionally, in the morning light, I see a shadow cross over, but the glass is too thick for it to be defined. I never see the flames that are rumored to be out there, and I often wonder if the flames are just an excuse, given by the royals, who run our society, to keep us within.
“Hey now, get on wit ya.” I recognize the voice and know that it holds no threat, even though his words are harsh. “If the filchers find the likes of you up here they’ll be throwing you in the fires for certain.”
I am not supposed to be on the rooftops, and to be caught would be costly. Max is okay though. It is his job to clean this part of the dome from the constant buildup of ash and smoke. The rooftops, many stories above the smoke-shrouded streets below, are home to the gardens that supply the vegetables we need to survive. The gardens are placed there so they can soak up the meager light that shines through the thick glass, and also benefit from the condensation that builds up beneath the dome and falls back down like the rain that was said to fall upon the earth from the sky.
I’m in no hurry to go. Instead, I stand, stretch, and walk to the edge of the building. Below me, in all directions, the city lies, just now coming awake with the morning light. To my left is where the royals live, and as usual my eyes go there first. From my vantage point above, their tall and skinny houses look like miniature palaces with their small, neatly manicured lawns and fences along the sidewalks that are even now being scrubbed clean. I’ve never been in their part of the city. It is forbidden for workers like me to go to that side of the dome.
Lucy, who is a shiner like me, has been there many times. She works for a laundry and is often sent to pick up bundles and make deliveries. She’s told us about it, me and my friend Peggy, about the lawns painted a bright green so they will look like grass and the trees made of copper. They are too far beneath the light to grow real trees and grass so they pretend it’s as it was in the before time. I’ve never seen grass but I know the trees on top of the building. I’ve felt the bark and touched the leaves. I can’t imagine one made of metal. It has to be cold and rigid. It can’t sigh and sway with the wind from the fans.
To the right is the industry. The foundry and the stockyards, the butchers and tanners, all lie under a haze of smoke. Cattle, pigs, and sheep live their entire lives in small pens. Every bit of breeding is controlled and every part of the creature is used when their lives are done. Linking the two sides are the smaller businesses. The weavers, cobblers, laundries, and bakeries, all small businesses run by descendants of those who were chosen to serve the royals. We all work to preserve the bloodlines and way of life for the royals, so that only the best of humanity will continue. The best as was chosen all those years ago by people who have long since been gone.
The small businesses are housed on the street level, and above them are the homes of the workers, all living in as little space as possible so that the royals may continue on with their way of life as if nothing for them has ever changed. They walk their dogs on their pristine sidewalks and have their parties and the finest our world has to offer, while the rest of us survive on what’s left.
One long thoroughfare, called the promenade, goes from the royals’ side to the other. In the center of the dome the promenade splits around a huge fountain with statues around it, a tribute to the creators of our world. This is where we go for news and the representatives of each union meet with the city officials. The tallest buildings look over the fountain and the small businesses. They house the government of our world along with the great library and the museum, all places I’m not allowed to go but am expected to work my entire life to preserve. These are the rooftops I haunt every morning to watch the light come and wonder why.
The scientists who designed the dome all those years ago were the greatest minds of the time. Unfortunately they are long gone and we have become victims of a sedentary government who will look no further than the dome that surrounds them. They are caught up in the here and now with no plans for our future. All they care about is the rules and law that they hand down to us, without any thought as to how it impacts our lives.
Max is right in his warning to me. I do not belong on the rooftop, and if I am caught I will be punished. The filchers do not care about rhyme or reason; they only care about the reward. They use any infraction, even those imagined, as a means to their end. Shiners, like me, are their favorite quarry.
“You going to stay up here all day?” Max asks.
“I’m going.” I stand on my tiptoes and kiss him on the cheek. He rolls his eyes at me before going to work with his long-handled mop. I hear the squeaking of gears and pulleys that are attached to the huge iron girders that crisscross the glass. Men, riding the baskets that will take them to the uppermost part of the dome, call out to one another in greeting. Day has come to my world and it is time for me to sleep.
“I reckon I’ll see you in the morning,” Max calls out.
“Be careful down there, gel.”
“I always am.” I put my goggles over my eyes to protect them from the tainted air below. I could take the myriad of staircases attached to the side of the building, but instead I head to the downspout. It is faster, and there is no chance of me running into a filcher on the way.
“Wren!” Max comes to where I’m propped against the building, my hands on the downspout and my feet braced. An angry sparrow swoops around my head and scolds me for being so close to its nest. “The filchers are hungry. People have been disappearing, most of them young and pretty like you. There’s plenty of rumors afoot. All of them bad. Stay below where it’s safe.”
My heart pounds at his words. No one wants to mess with the filchers. They roam about the underside of the dome, a law within themselves. The bluecoats, our word for the security force in our society, turn a blind eye to their activities because they are useful to them. They do their dirty work for reward, and act as bounty hunters when someone is wanted for an infraction.
There are two sets of laws within our society. Laws for the royals, who because of their pure blood are held in the highest esteem, and laws for the rest of us, those who were chosen to serve. The laws are not the same, as we are not considered the same.
Max looks at me, his eyes expectant. He cannot see mine through the goggles I wear. I have no choice but to lie. “I will.” I descend into the smoke-filled air and hope that no one is waiting below to take me in for trespassing.
The penalty for trespassing is service. My grandfather has warned me against it many times. My mother was caught when she wasn’t much older than me. He does not want me to suffer the same fate as her and lose what little bit of freedom I have as a shiner. I only dare go as far as the middle of the dome, where the buildings are the tallest.
The streets, like the city, have come to life since I came above. I take the same path to the lift that I take every day. I pass the same people on the way to their tasks and the same vendors pushing their carts onto the street. Nothing has changed for the royals since the world became a dome, so nothing has changed for those of us chosen to serve. There is no way to aspire to anything above what you’ve been born to. Occasionally some escape it, especially a girl, if she’s pretty enough and smart enough to catch the eye of someone who can offer her more without catching the attention of the filchers.
As I have.
I see a filcher as I turn in to the alley that will lead me to the coal tippler. I duck under one of the heavy fans that keep the air circulating beneath the dome. The noise is deafening, but luckily for me, my senses are keen from the years spent living underground, and I turn to see him come out of the deep shadows cast by the tall buildings. He wears the leather mask that disguises his face yet identifies him as one to fear. It gives him the look of a monster without features while his eyes remain hidden beneath small goggles.
What does the mask hide? I never want to be close enough to find out. I run and he takes off after me. My mind races with my feet as I dash onto a busy street. How long have they been following me? Why are they chasing me? Max’s warning echoes the pounding of my feet. People scatter as I charge down the street. No one wants to challenge the filchers. Ahead, I see another one, waiting at the corner beneath the fan. Does he think I will stop?
I don’t. I put my arms out and shove him away as I run by. He crashes into a stack of wooden crates. The fan is so loud that there is no noise, yet I know he is screaming at me to stop. A cat dashes ahead of me, scared at the sudden loss of his shelter. His ears are laid back as he races ahead and jumps into a window well.
The back of my neck feels as if someone is waiting above me with an ax, ready to swing and chop off my head. Fear grips at my heart and gives it a vicious squeeze. It is hard to run through the heavy, smoke-filled air. My lungs labor as I try to suck in my breath beneath the kerchief that covers my mouth and nose. I duck into an alleyway that I know will lead me to safety if I am fast enough, and lucky enough, to reach the shiners who work the coal lift.
I can hear the filchers now, calling out to me, and cursing me, as if that will make me stop. Is this what befell the other girls that Max said had disappeared? Were they foolish enough to stop or had they run into a trap? Will another filcher or even two of them be waiting at the end of the alley to take me down?
I force myself to run harder and faster. I will not stop until I am safe. I burst from the alley into a street that is wide enough for the coal wagons to pass. I hear the clank of a steam engine and the blast of a horn. I just miss being hit by the big cart that hauls the coal to the furnaces as I dash across the street and to the safety of the lift. I stop before it and bend over with my hands on my knees, trying to suck in air.
“What happened to you?”
I look up and see Alex, a shiner who is just a few years older than me. I look back at the alley. No one is there, no one has followed. Could I have just imagined it? I don’t want to say anything to Alex because I don’t want to have to stay below. I want to see the light come to the dome. I think I would die without it.
“Just trying to get back before Grandfather misses me,” I say when I finally catch my breath. “What are you doing above?”
“Walked Lucy to work.” We step into the lift and both of us push our goggles up on our heads. My forehead is damp with sweat so I take off my kerchief and wipe it away. Alex drops his around his neck and I can’t help but admire the lean look of his handsome jaw. He has no idea what kind of effect he has on me, I hope. As soon as we descend, the sweet damp smell of earth surrounds us and the burning in my lungs disappears. “There’ve been stories about filchers taking girls. I worry about her,” Alex says. “You should be careful too,” he adds.
I study Alex as we drop into the earth. A lantern hangs above our heads and sways back and forth as we descend. I can clearly see the details of his face without it as our eyes have adapted over time to the constant darkness that surrounds us. Even though we don’t need the light, I would truly miss the warmth of the lantern glow if it were gone. There’s nothing lonelier, or more frightening, than being below, in the mines, without a light.
I have to admit that I’ve always had a thing for Alex. It started when I was young. When I was little I was treated as an outsider in our village by the other children, as my father came from above. Children can be cruel, especially when they are mimicking the things they hear their parents say when they think they are asleep.
Thankfully, Alex recognized my solitude and made an effort to include me. He was the one who taught me how to swim when I was little, and later how to catch the glowfish that live in the underground pools. Even though I longed for him, I always sensed that for Alex, there is only Lucy. I know it is right that they are together, as he is the handsomest of the young men of my generation, with his thick, golden brown hair and piercing blue eyes, while Lucy has lovely alabaster skin and black hair, and eyes that are as dark as the mines.
I think I am much plainer than Lucy, with regular brown hair that refuses to be tamed and my ordinary brown eyes behind the shine. I am often told by those who knew her that I look like my mother. They even say how beautiful she was and how tragic that she came to such an end. I would not know, as she died when I was born and there are no images of her for me to see. My grandfather says I looked like a little brown bird when I was born, and thus my name, Wren, after the tiny birds that live below with us.
“You love Lucy,” I say. “It’s right that you worry.”
“I would die if anything happened to her,” Alex says. It doesn’t surprise me that he admits it. Alex has always been passionate about everything, from making sure I wasn’t lonely when I was a child to saving the weakest baby bird that falls from its nest. Everything he does, he does completely, including loving Lucy. Sometimes I watch him look at her and it is as if he could not breathe without her.
What would it be like to feel that way? To love someone more than your own life? I don’t think I will ever know, as there are only so many young men to choose from and none beyond Alex have stirred any feelings in me, and he was nothing more than a foolish young girl’s dream.
“It must be hard to find time together,” I say. “Since your shifts are opposite.”
“That’s why I walk her to work and walk her home. It’s the only time we can really talk.” Alex grins, a flash of white in the ever-deepening darkness around us. “We’re second in line for marriage. After Peggy and Adam.”
“That’s great,” I say. Because Alex always included me, the other children finally accepted me and I found a true friend in Peggy. I already knew Peggy and Adam were first in line as it’s all she’s talked about since Adam asked her to be his wife. The only problem is our people cannot start a new household until a place becomes available. Our city below the earth is small with limited places to live. When someone dies and frees up a home, only then can we marry. Since our life span is not that long because of the disease that eats our lungs, there is always the potential of a house opening up soon. But to Peggy every moment she has to wait to be with Adam seems like an eternity.
“Things would be so much better if we didn’t have to wait,” Alex goes on. “If we could marry when we choose instead of waiting for a house, or if we could live where we wanted to or work at the jobs we chose, instead of having those things chosen for us.”
“They would,” I agree, “but that’s not the way things are.”
“Don’t you wish things were different, Wren?”
I shrug. I could tell him that I do. That every morning when I leave my world and seek the rooftops I dream of the world outside, of things I’ve only heard about and never seen, but to tell him these things would be too personal, as if I went ahead and admitted to him that I’ve secretly loved him all these years. “This is our world,” I say. “It’s the only one we’ve got. It’s either this or the flames outside.”
Alex studies me carefully. His blue eyes search my face and I can’t help but wonder what it is he’s looking for.
“I heard that James wants to put your name on the list with his,” he finally says. There’s a spark in his eyes and I think he’s teasing me, and as his words sink in, I suddenly feel as I did when the filchers were chasing me. As if I’m about to stumble into a trap.
“That’s the first I’ve heard of it,” I manage to choke out. I look out of the lift, at the dark packed earth that forms the walls of the chute. We are almost done with our descent. I am glad, as this is a conversation I do not want to have.
Alex taps a finger on my forehead as the lift settles to a stop. “Then you must be blind,” he says with a quick grin. “To so many things.”
I shake my head, denying it, even though I fear it might be true. I follow Alex off the lift and walk right into my grandfather. He is with the leader of our council, Jasper, who walks past Alex and me as if we don’t exist. He doesn’t look happy, nor does my grandfather. I have a feeling that his unhappiness isn’t entirely my fault; still, I fear that my escape may have been short-lived after all.
“Where have you been, Wren?”
There is no sense in lying. I cannot deny where I’ve been. But it is not as if he’s told me not to go. I look into his face, wrinkled with time and the deep creases around his eyes colored with coal. My grandfather is the oldest of the shiners. Most of us die from black lung by the time we reach fifty years of age. There is no cure for it, and those who have it slowly and painfully suffocate because their lungs shrivel up and die inside of them. For some strange reason my grandfather has so far been spared this dreadful disease, for which I am most grateful. Without him I would be an orphan as my grandmother died when I was young and my mother never revealed my father’s name. Not that it matters who he is. If he had wanted me my mother would have stayed above with him.
“Above,” I say, sparing him the details, as he would not understand.
“Wishing for things that will never be.” He shakes his head. “Stay below, Wren. Where it’s safe.” He steps into the lift.
“Wait! Where are you going?”
“I’m going to tell them once again why we’re running out of coal.” His voice is weary and he pushes the button on the lift. The gears shift with a hiss of steam and I watch as he disappears from sight.
It is getting harder and harder for the fans to clear the air. Some days are better than others. I noticed when I was above that today was one of the worst. The government blames it on the quality of the coal, which means it is the shiners’ fault. How it is our fault that the coal is running out is a mystery to me. Exploratory tunnels have been dug, spreading out in all directions like a giant spiderweb. None have yielded anything so far. Without coal we cannot survive. Coal creates the steam that powers the engines that keep the fans going that circulate the air and keep us from boiling beneath the dome. An underground river serves as a source of water and a coolant for our air. The engines are constantly going, their noise strumming through the dome and reminding all of us of the precariousness of our world. If one thing fails, the rest will follow suit and the world within will end, toppled as easily as a strand of standing dominoes.
I believe with all my heart that it would be a good thing to happen. It would force us to move, to look elsewhere, and to hopefully leave the dome. But what I believe is not to be spoken out loud.
Copyright © 2012 by Cindy Holby