“Fennel,” Mama called up from the kitchen. “Breakfast’s near ready.”
“Coming, Mama,” I yelled back as I pulled a simple, blue dress over my head. I tied my hair back tight, laced up my shoes and then ran down the stairs to the kitchen.
Mama was heavily pregnant again. She was stirring a large pot that bubbled away on the stove, filling the air with the aroma of milk and oats. Sage, Lentil, and Chilli were crawling around Mama’s ankles, squealing. Strawberry, Colander, Rosemary, and Tommy sat at the table, spoons in hands, waiting for their porridge.
Mama had the birthing disease. “When you have the birthing disease,” Mama would say, “you don’t have time to dilly dally picking out the perfect name for your little uns. I like to look at what’s nearby when the baby comes and pick a name that way.” Mama had been cooking just before I was born on the kitchen floor. Mama had been cooking before most of our births.
Pa sat at the head of the table, stiff backed. His raw, cracked hands rested in bowls of ice and his stone-grey eyes watched the children. I gave his hard shoulder a squeeze as I walked past him and made my way to the opposite end of the table.
Pa had laid-to-waste disease. He worked in demolition, destroying buildings with his rock-hard hands. When he was young, those hands had been harder than diamonds. But not anymore. As he grew older, it was like the hardness in his hands had begun to leak from where he needed it and, instead, it was spreading slowly but surely up his arms and across his chest and face. The money was too good to stop working, so Pa persisted, despite the toll on his body, despite the stiffness in his joints and the limited movement. I guess it made me sad, though Mama said it shouldn’t. We all have to bear our diseases, the good and the bad.
Pa directed his grey gaze at me and cleared his throat. He didn’t speak much normally — the hardness in his jaw made talking difficult. But he would speak today, I knew. He would give me the same speech he had given to my older brothers and sisters. The one he reserved for all of our sixteenth name days.
His jaw cracked loudly as he forced his mouth open. His lips were brittle and dry and hard flakes of grey skin fell as he spoke.
“Happy … name day … Fennel,” he forced out. “I don’t know … how much longer … I can earn … for the family,” he rasped. I craned forward to listen. “So now … it’s time for you … to give back.” A dry red tongue darted out and flicked at his lips, but it barely wet the surface. “Take this money … and invest it … in a disease … that will allow you … to earn for the family.” He removed a wet hand from the ice and reached into his pocket. He withdrew five one hundred dollar notes and pushed them roughly towards the middle of the table. “Invest it wisely, Fennel … like your brothers … like your sisters.” He dipped his hand back into the ice, grimacing as the cold bit into his wounds.
I reached for the money on the table. More money than I had ever seen. Enough to buy any disease I wanted.
“What are you going to contract, Fennel?” Rosemary asked as she stared at her reflection in her spoon.
“Yeah, Fennel. What are you gonna get?” chimed in Tommy. “A taking disease like Knife?”
My brother Knife was only a year older than me. We’d always been close, even sharing a room up until he’d contracted the taking disease and moved out on his own. Now, people paid him to bear diseases they had contracted that just didn’t work out like they thought they should. He’d done well for the family, but I couldn’t see him lasting more than another year or two. It was a wealthy, but short life for him. I’d miss him, I knew. I’d miss him most of all.
“I don’t know what I’ll contract,” I said, turning the hundred dollar notes in my hands. “I think I’ll take my time, listen to the pitches, decide what’s best for me and the family.”
Mama removed the pot from the stove and waddled to the table. She began to ladle hot porridge into the bowls, starting with Pa’s. “You’ll do what’s best for the family first, young lady. If it works out for you too, then good, but family first,” she said, as she plopped a large portion of porridge in my bowl.
I said nothing. I dipped my spoon into the thick, creamy oats and began to swirl them absently.
“What disease do the people in the Compound have, Mama?” Strawberry asked. “I’d like that disease.”
“That ain’t no disease. Those people are just born rich and lucky. They live up in their nice houses in Eastern Heights, looking down on us carriers, but they need us. We provide their food, and build their fancy houses and make their fancy clothes.”
“I heard some of them used to be like us, but they managed to buy their way into the Compound. Not with money, but with deeds,” I said quickly.
Mama ladled porridge into Tommy’s bowl and then pointed the ladle at me.
“Where did you hear that rubbish?”
“Jillian told me. She heard that —”
“She heard wrong is what she heard. There’s no buying your way into the Compound. That’s wishful thinking right there. They have the money, we have the diseases. They get our deeds just fine with coin. So get any wishful thinking of buying your way into the Compound out of that head. You just focus on contracting the right disease for this family, missy.”
“Yes, Mama,” I replied hastily, lowering my eyes to my food.
I’d been watching the Compound from the outside for years. I knew when the Compound gates would open briefly to accept deliveries. I knew all of the spots around Central where you could peek over the Compound walls. Eastern Heights was beautiful. Neat white homes, green parks and gardens, happy people. If there was a way in, I reckoned I’d have as good a chance as any of finding it. And I wouldn’t forget my family. Oh no. I’d look after them, but from inside, not out.
But I knew there was no point telling Mama any of that.
I could have walked directly down Main Street to the Harbourside Disease Markets, but I turned right on Lincoln Street and headed towards the Compound wall. It still took my breath away. It was made of red brick, stood at least a hundred feet tall, and ran as far as you could see — north towards the Harbour and south to the Yarran Ranges. It provided a striking contrast to the mud brick houses of Central.
As I approached the wall, I saw a young man hunched over a pothole, retching up hot tar. It hissed and spat as he coughed the last of it onto the road. Then he picked up his trowel and began to smooth his work.
“Morning,” I called out to the retcher as I passed. He wiped some of the tar away from his mouth with the back of his hand and gave me a stained smile.
When I reached the wall, I ran my fingers lightly across the rough bricks, wondering what it would be like to feel the wall from the other side. I smiled, then turned north, keeping to the shadow of the wall.
The morning was quiet. I only passed one person on my way to the quay — a disfigured mutant with tusks, a thick neck and powerful, stumpy legs. It carried bricks in a sling across its hairy back. I gave it a wave and it grunted in return.
I heard the markets before I saw them — a buzz of excited activity. Then the blue expanse of the Harbour opened out before me, seagulls flocking overhead, a couple of small boats bobbing in the water. Running west, along the docks, snaked a multitude of canvas tents and marquees.
I waded into the crowd and it wasn’t long before my interest was piqued by the mouth-watering scents of barbecue. I approached the source of the aroma, a marquee manned by five people with the tumours. One of the infected was standing over a BBQ, roasting a large steak cut freshly from a football sized lump on his thigh. God it smelt good, I thought.
“What about you, miss?” a red headed woman with a fist sized tumour growing from the top of her head asked me. “Are you interested in cooking? Grow what you eat, eat what you grow is our motto. We have a franchise opening up in Southwell.”
None of my family had ever contracted the tumours. I was curious.
“How much?” I asked, as I looked first at the redhead, then at the meat. I was hoping they’d offer me a free sample.
“Business is booming at the moment, miss. But we could probably do you a deal for four hundred and fifty dollars.”
“Hmm, seems a bit steep,” I said, as Mama had instructed.
“A high price for a high earner,” the redhead replied. “But, tell you what, you have a nice face and I’m in a good mood. So for you, miss, four hundred and twenty five dollars.”
Tumour steaks seemed to be more popular than ever. I’d heard orders from the Compound, in particular, had gone crazy, so I believed you could earn plenty. And yet, it was also one of the most physically repugnant diseases. And Jillian had been telling me recently about rumours of kidnappings and a black market trade in organs. Was it worth the risk?
“I’ll think on it,” I replied, before moving on.
I next passed three people selling the birthing disease from a domed tent. But I wasn’t interested in that, thanks. Mama was doing plenty of birthing for the whole family and we needed money now, not more investments.
I passed the laid-to-waste vendor, but that was no good either. Seeing Pa’s deterioration up close had helped me make up my mind. No amount of earnings was worth a disease that ruined your latter years like that.
Next to the laid-to-waste stall was a neat tent selling the mutations.
“Hard to say what your specialty will be before the mutation occurs,” said a lean man with elongated, muscular legs, “but we guarantee you’ll become something of use — all of us mutants do.” He pulled out several black and white sketches. “Here we have our farmers,” he said, handing me a picture. I took it and looked down at three lovingly rendered mutants. Each had long tusks that they were using to plough the earth. “Labourers,” he said, handing me a second picture that showed a powerfully built creature, short and hunched, hauling timber across its shoulders. “And messengers.” The next sketch was of a bunch of creatures like the salesman, each with long, muscular legs that looked like they could run all day.
“Do any of these earn well?” I asked.
He cleared his throat.
“Good honest pay, for honest work,” he replied smiling. So no, I thought. “But,” he continued quickly, “our disease is one of the few that allows a rich, natural lifespan.”
Hmm, well I guess that was appealing. But what good was a long lifespan if you were mutated into a dim-witted cretin who carried mud bricks all of your days? So I thanked him, told him I’d consider it, and then moved on.
I walked past stalls selling the taking disease and nymphomaniacism. I listened to retchers, gas breathers, and leather skins, but none of them appealed. And then, sooner than I had expected, I found myself at the end of the markets. Had I missed something? Why didn’t any of the diseases stand out for me like they had for my siblings and parents?
Then, as I turned to wander back the way I had come, I spied an old lady sitting on a stool by herself. She didn’t have a stall, but next to her was a sign that read: “True sight infection.”
Curious, I approached. She appeared normal. No disfiguration, no obvious signs of illness. She was a tiny woman with thin, white hair; the only ailment she appeared to have was old age. But when she looked up at me, I saw her blue eyes were sharp and lively.
“I’ve never heard of the true sight infection before,” I said.
The old lady smiled, papery skin folding around her mouth.
“It’s a rare infection.”
“And what does it do?”
“It allows you to see into people and know their true self. It lets you see the things that make them who they are — the important memories, the key moments. It lets you see their fears and desires.”
“Ok,” I said, not fully understanding. “But how do you earn from that?”
The old crone’s grin stretched wider. “It’s difficult. Not everyone has the ability to use this disease to their advantage. But for the smart ones that do, they can do very well for themselves.”
“I’m sorry, but I need to contract something useful for my family. Unless I can be certain of earning from the infection, I’m not interested.” I turned to leave.
“It can get you into the Compound,” the old lady called after me. I halted mid-stride, and then turned slowly. “That is what you want, isn’t it? Your one true desire is to get into the Compound, to become one of the elite, to live as they do in a nice white house with clean children playing in a neat garden.”
How did she know that? I thought. But of course I knew. She had said it herself. She could see my desires and fears.
“How would your infection help me do that?” I asked, trying to hold onto my suspicions as Mama had taught me. There had to be a con here somewhere.
“There’s only one way to get into the Compound as an outsider and that’s to be vouched for by a resident. You find the right resident, you look into their heart, you understand what drives them and what they fear, and you use that knowledge to get your invite. At least that’s what I did.”
“You’ve been in the Compound?”
“I lived there for fifteen years, up until my James died. After that, I was forced to leave. But I wouldn’t trade those fifteen years for anything.”
“But how did you … I mean where … I didn’t think the residents ever left Eastern Heights.”
“They do, but not often. Enough get the itch to see how we live, just like we get the yearning for their life. Tourists. Some move in plain sight, others disguise themselves. But my infection can help you see them clear as day, whether they are disguised or not,” she said, tapping her temple softly.
I stared at the old lady for what seemed like an eternity. And the whole time, her perpetual smile never wavered. She had me and she knew it. I sighed.
“How much?” I asked, feeling nervous and giddy at once.
“For you, three hundred and fifty.”
I nodded, knowing Mama was going to be furious. But I reached into my pocket and withdrew my money.
The old lady accepted it with a hand that was missing its pinkie and ring finger. I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened, but I wasn’t allowed to muse for long. After she deposited my money into a small canvas bag, she took my hand in hers and raised it to her lips. She licked my hand from the wrist to the top of my middle finger, her tongue like sandpaper against my skin. I held still, resisting the urge to recoil. Then, suddenly, she placed her wrinkled lips around the tip of my finger and bit it.
I wrenched my hand back, shocked by the sharp pain. My finger was bleeding and there was a drop of blood on the crone’s lips. But then, just as quickly, the pain was gone. Whether it was shock or something else, I didn’t know. All I knew was that I saw the old woman differently.
She was a wretched creature. Cold, manipulative, despicable. I saw that she had told the truth about her years in the Compound and that she wanted desperately to return. But she knew she never would, which made her bitter and angry. The smile was for show. There was no mirth behind it, just a well‑practiced act. And there was something else about her. Something that had been important once. I’d catch a glimpse of it, but then it would recede from view. It was something precious that she had given up to make her deal to enter the Compound. I almost had it when she spoke.
“You’re a beautiful girl, with a beautiful, uncorrupted soul. But all things beautiful grow ugly given enough time.”
I choked back my disgust, thanked her like Mama had taught me, and then turned and began walking back through the markets.
They didn’t look the same anymore. I was shocked to find so many greedy, ugly, and hateful souls. It was overwhelming. As my pulse pounded in my ears, I dropped my eyes to the ground and rushed as quickly as I could through the throng.
Once home, I was relieved to find that the little uns had nice white souls filled with innocent desires about food, hugs and play. Seeing them calmed me a little which, in hindsight, helped me bear the confrontation to come.
“You contracted what?” roared Mama. Mama’s true self was a hideous, writhing beast, filled with greed. My heart raced to look at her.
Mama scooped up Lentil in her arms and put him to her breast. He closed his eyes and began to suck contentedly, his true self glowing with delight. Mama’s other breast oozed milk, staining her dress.
“The true sight infection,” I repeated.
“I never heard of the true sight infection. How do you earn from that?” she demanded.
I took a deep breath, already knowing Mama wouldn’t like what I had to say.
“The old lady said I can use it to find a resident of the Compound and get an invite inside. And once I do, I won’t forget you and Pa and the little uns. I’ll send money out, I swear.”
“Ha,” Mama said without mirth. “A resident of the Compound indeed. And here I was thinking you kids might listen to your Mama every once in a while. I told you to put such nonsense out of your head.”
“The old lady did it. She lived there for fifteen years. She said she used her true sight infection to —”
But Mama wasn’t listening. She cut me off.
“More like the waste of time infection. Your Pa gave you good money to contract a disease that would help you pay your way. And you wasted it on a parlour trick and the promise of a happily ever after. I’m just glad he’s at work right now so I don’t have to see a good man’s heart break. I can’t believe I gave birth to such a stupid girl,” Mama spat. She pulled Lentil off her breast, turned him around, and then pulled her dress down so he could get at the second.
“You know the rules in this family. You don’t earn, you look after yourself,” she said sharply, her eyes on the infant in her arms. I tried to swallow but couldn’t, my mouth was so dry. I could already see what Mama wanted, she wanted me to leave. She birthed us so we could grow up and then earn for the family. Sentimentality ended there for Mama. I blinked hard to force back my tears as Mama turned her icy gaze upon me.
“I want you gone by tomorrow.”
“What about Pa,” I said quietly, “what will —”
“Don’t you worry about Pa. He and I are one on this. You can stay here tonight, but on the morrow you find a way to look after yourself. We can’t afford to keep silly girls who waste our money on a worthless disease.”
I didn’t know how to say goodbye, and I definitely didn’t want to face Mama again, so I left before dawn while everyone was still asleep. I didn’t take much with me — the last of my money and a few changes of clothes.
Uncertain what to do next, I wandered, familiarising myself with the effects of my disease. As the sun rose above the horizon, more and more people emerged from their mud brick homes. I was still shocked by the ugly souls I saw, but less so then yesterday. I supposed I was becoming accustomed to the sight. And as I wandered from my house to the Compound wall, to the Harbour and then through Central, I began to see nuances that had not been immediately evident in the aftershock of my contraction.
Not everyone was greedy or angry or hateful. Most people were complex. They displayed a good side and a bad. And the souls themselves differed, I saw. Some were simple, some complex. Some writhed like snakes, some were layered like roses, some were pulsing lights.
I began to realise my sight offered more than just a snapshot of a person. I was soon deciphering the building blocks from which each true self was constructed — the key experiences that made someone who they were. Mistakes, success, love, violence, family, and devastation. I’d catch glimpses of all these things, some clear, others obscured. But each told part of the story of who someone was, and who they were becoming.
Around midday I took my gifts to the Southwell Markets, where the mutant toilers gathered to sell fresh produce and grain along with a few tumour sufferers selling marinated skewers of their flesh. I knew the Compound cart would be loaded in around an hour and I thought that I could talk to the mutant haulers and use my sight to dig out a little information about the residents.
As I strolled through the markets, mutant hawkers hollered in a variety of voices and guttural grunts. Most of the mutants were pleasant to be around. I saw they were generally simpler folk, content with their lives of hard, honest work.
The day was growing hotter, which accentuated the ripe smells of melons, apples, bananas, and pears. Those sweet smells set my empty belly to rumbling. So I bought a shiny red apple from a hunched man with a fulfilled soul and then continued west through the markets.
As I bit into the sweet apple, juice spilling down my chin, I felt like I was almost content in this place. And then, to top it off, I found my resident.
He was sitting on a table wearing a white robe. Behind him stood seven cleans in similar dress. He seemed to have dark hair. I thought he was young. But, to be honest, I found it hard to decipher his physical appearance because I was dazzled by the most beautiful, glowing true self that I had yet seen. It was hard to describe. He was perfect in almost every way. Kind, generous, and loving, with pure motives and matching deeds. And yet I also saw, which confused me greatly, that he was infected. And his key desire was to remain out of the Compound.
My feet took me into the small crowd of diseased that had congregated around the resident. He was speaking to them. To us, I guess.
“A society is not distinct from the people that live in it,” he said. “The systems in place, the rules imposed, the sense of community and our place in it are only powerful to the extent that we, the people, accept them.
“Have any of you ever been inside the Compound?” he asked. There were murmurs of no. “And why not?” he continued.
“It’s got a big friggin wall for starters,” a young, dark haired woman said, drawing laughter from the crowd. The resident smiled.
“But it also has a gate,” he said. “Have you ever tried knocking? Or just pushing it open? It’s not like it’s guarded, is it?”
I saw the woman open her mouth again as if she had thought of something else funny to say, but she stopped, closed it and then shook her head.
“No. You’ve never tried because you’ve been brought up with the idea that it is prohibited. But who says? What makes the people out here different to the people in there? Why shouldn’t you be allowed to visit the Compound as I am allowed to walk out into Central?”
“What’s it like?” I found myself asking.
The young man turned and looked at me, his true self shining brightly, and yet his brow furrowed in concentration and his glowing soul darkened for just a heartbeat. He didn’t speak for a time. He just stared, like he knew me. I felt my cheeks redden as he held my gaze. Finally, with an almost imperceptible shake of his head, he spoke again.
“It’s very pretty,” he answered. “And yet I hate it. Because it’s false.”
He spoke truly, I saw. He hated the Compound, but why? What did he know that I couldn’t see? Every time I’d peeked over the wall it’d looked perfect to me. Heaven next to Central.
The resident turned back to address the wider group.
“Your places as the diseased, mine as the resident, are neither set nor ordained unless we accept them to be so. The system is what we make it. You can survive without earnings. And you can survive without disease. If you wish to try, come with me and I’ll show you another way. It’s hard work. You’ll all labour and you’ll all farm and you’ll all build and you’ll all sew. But you can learn, like I have, and together we can produce enough to subsist happily.”
“You said survive without disease,” a stunted mutant said.
“Yes. Only one of us needs a disease. I’ll take your mutation.”
I hadn’t expected him to be a taker like Knife. That made even less sense, I thought. But now that he’d said it, I began to notice some of the signs. Elongated eye teeth, black stains around his lips, a bulge on his thigh that might have been a tumour.
“There’s always a catch,” the mutant said. “How much?”
“I only ask that you give my way a chance. Take the time to learn a skill and then pull your weight in our community. Nothing more.”
The crowd erupted into a roar. Some cursed, some laughed, most turned on their heels and wandered back through the markets. But not all of them. Not all of us. I stayed, as did two mutants.
The mutants spoke to the resident first. He talked to them in whispers and soon I saw them nodding. When they were done, two of the nearby cleans led them away from the markets.
Then it was my turn. I didn’t know what to say, or what to do, but I stepped closer, drinking in the pureness of his true self. He looked at me again with that uncertain gaze and my stomach fluttered.
“And what disease do you have that you wish me to take?” he asked.
I took a deep breath.
“Actually, I’m happy with my disease.”
“Yet curious,” the resident said, as he slid from his table onto his feet and took a step towards me, his head tilted slightly to the left. He smelled nice, I thought, like the streets do just after a thunderstorm. Clean and fresh.
“Why would you leave the Compound?” I asked, at which he chuckled. Feeling my cheeks redden, I lowered my gaze.
“No, don’t be embarrassed. A pertinent and direct question. I like it. But explaining why is harder than showing. Perhaps you would like to see my community. I think it is far more appealing than the Compound and this city.”
I raised my eyes once more and in the dazzling glow of his soul, I saw that he spoke truly. He believed that his community was wonderful. And yet, there was something else. He desperately wanted me to join him there, I saw. But why, I couldn’t quite see. I reminded him of someone, or of a particular time in his life, but the experience was from long ago, and was mostly hidden. I couldn’t quite untangle it from the rest of him, and that made me more curious if anything.
“No strings attached?” I asked.
“None. A visit only, then you can decide if it is for you or not.”
I paused, just like Mama had taught me when negotiating — make them wait. But who was I kidding? I was going to follow this man. Eventually, I bit my lip, nodded. Even if this went nowhere, I rationalized, I could at least use my time to find out a bit more about the Compound from him.
“My name is Lowen,” the resident said, holding out a hand to me.
“Fennel,” I replied, taking his warm hand in mine.
Lowen lived about an hour’s walk from the city — an hour further afield than I’d ever travelled in my life. To be honest, I’d never even contemplated the world existing beyond the city limits. I was surprised by what I found.
It was cooler. Gone was the hot tar, brown buildings and the stink of cohabitation. Instead, I found vast fields of yellowed wheat, rows of green vegetables, and mutants working their land.
It was quiet, and yet I was also assailed by constant noise. I didn’t understand how quiet and noise could coexist like that. Long silences were punctuated by insects whirring, birds singing, lizards and field mice scurrying through the plants, and the crunch of gravel under my feet.
After a time, the farms thinned, and then disappeared, replaced with meadows of green grass and yellow flowers, which ran towards the horizon before rising up into undulating hills.
Lowen pointed out his home when we were still a few miles away. It was the only building that marked the landscape for as far as I could see. It was a large, mud brick building, but it was poorly constructed. The western wall was already crumbling in the sun. The roof was thatch, and several spots looked in need of repair. Behind it ran a small creek.
As we turned off the gravel road and onto a dirt path that ran up to the building, I noticed several cleans working in the fields on my left. To my right was a fenced enclosure housing a number of strange, white animals that I had never seen before.
“They’re called sheep,” Lowen said as we passed them.
“And what do you do with them?” I asked.
“They provide us with wool for our garments, and milk and meat.”
“You eat animals,” I responded, part horrified, part bemused. The idea had never occurred to me. Lowen laughed.
There were about twenty people working and living in the community. Other than Lowen and the three of us diseased that had followed him home that day, they were all clean.
“This is Robin,” Lowen said, introducing me to a girl a few years older than myself. She was short, very slight of build, and she smiled broadly. “Robin joined us a few months ago and she’s currently learning how to weave and sew. We make our own clothes and blankets, and trade excess in town for the things we can’t yet grow ourselves.”
“Nice to meet you,” Robin said. Robin’s true self showed her as grateful, happy, hopeful, but there were also some scars there, past experiences that had hardened her, and that she was working to forget.
“What if you don’t like it?” I blurted out. Lowen chuckled, but urged me to continue. “What if it’s too hard, or you miss home or … I don’t know, you just get sick of sewing and want to leave?”
“Then I can go,” Robin said, looking to Lowen.
“This isn’t a prison, Fennel,” he said. “Robin has the same deal as everyone else. I took her disease, and she tries to live clean while she learns the skills needed to survive out here. But no one is keeping her here. Anyone who wants to return to the city, can.”
“And has anyone ever left?”
“I’m sure there’ve been times when people have thought about it. But so far, no one has actually left. They’re sticking it out, giving the work a go.”
I must have looked doubtful, because Lowen quickly continued.
“It’s hard to understand unless you experience it, Fennel,” he said. “How about you let Robin show you around tomorrow? She can take you to her classes so you can try things first hand. What do you say?”
I hesitated, looking from Robin, to Lowen, then back again.
“It’s not so hard learning to sew,” Robin said, smiling. “It just takes a little practice.”
I took a breath.
“Great. I’ll meet you first thing tomorrow,” she said, and soon after she was walking back to the building.
“So, I guess this means you’re staying with us,” Lowen said.
When I glanced across at him, I saw his heart radiated gold light. At that moment, as a smile danced on his lips and in his eyes, there was nothing more I wanted to do than please him by saying I would stay for good. But that wouldn’t be the truth, I knew. I rubbed my fingertips together. They could still feel the rough brick wall of the Compound. I wasn’t certain Lowen could or would help me and yet…
“I’ll stay for a little while,” I said.
The following morning, I sat in the main hall on a mat on the floor, Robin beside me. The trestle tables that were used for meals had been pushed against the walls, the chairs stacked neatly beside them.
Other cleans sat in groups around the hall, like Robin and I. Some sewed, others were peeling vegetables for lunch. Still others were twisting white wool into yarn. Wool that was apparently cut straight from the backs of the sheep out in the paddocks.
Robin was watching intently as I pushed my needle once more through the piece of cloth.
“Good,” she said. “Now pull the thread until the stitch is tight.”
I did as instructed, the thread making a whisk sound. I flipped the material over and looked down at my work. The stitches weren’t as neat or as evenly spaced as Robin’s, and there was a dot of red in the middle where I’d pricked my finger, but I felt a smile forcing its way to my lips.
“You’re a natural, Fennel,” Robin said.
When I looked up, I saw her true self filling with pride, in me, her student.
“How did you end up here, Robin?” I asked.
“Same as most people, I guess,” she said, turning her attention back to her own sewing. But she wanted to talk, I saw.
“What did you give up?”
“Nymphomaniacism. Before I met Lowen I sold myself in Collins Street.”
I looked away from her, embarrassed. I’d never been to the nympho district, but I knew of it. Everybody knew of it. It was good money, it was said.
“No need to be sorry. Lowen saved me,” she said. But I was sorry. Because I could see her essence darkening, stained by the memories of despair and dread that she had carried with her in that past life. That she carried still, deep down.
“After my sixteenth name day, I worked the street. It was hard and easy. Hard up here,” she said, stopping her work to point to her temple, “because the disease made it easy, made me want to do it, even when I didn’t like it, even when I … even when I began to not like me.” She swallowed, eyes down, leaving me to wonder just how bad it had got for her before Lowen came along. I suddenly didn’t want to look at her to find out, so I glanced away. She cleared her throat and continued.
“Anyway, I was there around six years before Lowen found me. He told me what he was doing and what he was offering. I didn’t think on it for long. I’d been dreaming of an out for a long time, and he brought me a better one than I’d ever contemplated. I came home with him and, well, here I still am.”
I looked back at her, her true self lightening as her thoughts turned to Lowen.
“He’s quite compelling, isn’t he?” I said.
She smiled, bashful, before looking up at me.
“Yes, he is.”
Just then, the main doors opened and Lowen entered the hall, all eyes turning towards him. He stood at the edge of the room, searching for a moment until he looked in our direction. Then he was smiling, and approaching quickly.
“We’ve got a master seamstress in the making here, Lowan,” Robin said. I felt my cheeks redden.
“I see,” he said, stopping next to us, looking down at my work. “May I?” He held out a hand and I gave him the material. He studied it carefully, as if admiring a work of great art. Then he nodded and handed it back.
“You have a real knack for sewing, Fennel.” Then he turned to Robin. “Do you mind if I borrow your student for a while?”
“Not at all,” Robin said. “We were due a break.”
The sun beat warmly on my back as Lowen led me away from the hall towards fields which emitted a sweet, loamy aroma. The air around me hummed with the drone of bees flying to and fro. A steady clack, clack, clack rang out from near the road where one of the cleans was using a large mallet to hammer a fence post into the ground.
Lowen stopped just shy of a bed of cabbages. Three cleans were hunched down in various spots, pulling weeds from the rows.
Lowen dropped to his haunches and pulled a weed from between two plants. He tossed it casually aside.
“It looks like hard work,” I said, just to fill the silence.
Lowen looked up at me and smiled.
“It is. Very hard. But until you’ve eaten something you’ve grown yourself, it’s difficult to explain how satisfying hard work can be.”
I nodded as if I understood. But I didn’t. I got that doing something yourself could give some brief satisfaction, like my sewing, but would that feeling last long enough to warrant giving up all of the conveniences of city life? I wasn’t so sure. Standing again, Lowen dusted his hands against each other.
“Tell me about your disease, Fennel,” he said.
“I’ve contracted the true sight infection.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard of that before. What are the effects?”
“It allows me to see people truly. Who they are and what they desire.”
“Hmm. And what do you see in me?”
I looked at him for a while before answering.
“You’re a very, very good man, Lowen,” I said.
“Thank you for saying so. What else?”
“I see that you believe in your community, that you consider that this is the true purpose of your life. And …”
I hesitated, looking again at his hatred of the Compound.
“Why don’t you want to return to the Compound?” I asked before I lost the nerve. And as I did, his brow furrowed and, just behind the whiteness of his true self, I saw something darker, something which almost revealed itself, but then slunk away, leaving gold and white.
“You seem to have a fascination with my old home,” Lowen said. I didn’t deny it. I didn’t say anything.
Lowen sighed. “Appearances can be deceiving, Fennel. Particularly when those appearances are manufactured to instil envy and separation.
“What do you know of the origin of diseases?” he asked.
“There’s always been disease, hasn’t there?”
“Yes and no. Yes, they’ve always existed. But their willing contraction and exploitation, that’s much more recent.”
Lowen looked off into the distance, hands twisting within each other as he gathered his thoughts. Finally, he continued.
“Once, those living in Central were not much different to those in Eastern Heights. This was before the wall.
“Eastern Heights always had nicer houses, but anyone could buy one if they had the money. And the way you earned money was to work hard, to be the most skilful builder or artisan or chef. And importantly, back then, anyone could learn those skills.
“After a while though, a group of proud, old families with money — like my own — decided that this ‘new money’ was not something they wanted to associate with. They didn’t like the constant expansion of the elite. And so they came up with an idea. The old families began convincing people in Central that the hardest workers were mutants. That the best clothing wasn’t sewn, it was harvested from a leather skin. That the best meat wasn’t from sheep, but from tumour sufferers. And as the old families paid for these services, the inhabitants of Central began to contract the diseases sought after by those with the money.”
“Only someone who grew up in the Compound, who’s never gone without food, would think that was a terrible trade,” I blurted out, seeing his true self anger as I spoke the words. I swallowed, watching him wrestle with his beliefs and the realisation that his upbringing might have left him devoid of the life experience of the people he was trying to save. Eventually, the anger dissipated, the white and gold returned. He nodded.
“Ok,” he said. “Perhaps I can understand why the poor bought into this system. Perhaps. But the residents could have shared their wealth in other ways. Instead, they created a new class of worker. Workers who would never be like them. Because old money was clean. New money was diseased. And that’s why you can only look into the Compound from afar. They created a system that makes you different. The wall just punctuated the declaration.”
I looked down at my feet, shuffling in the dirt, watching it form little brown waves that washed over the toes of my shoes.
“But you could change all of that,” I said quietly. “You could vouch for me, for all of us, to come back with you.”
He stared at me then, emotions chasing themselves across his face — shock, confusion, dismay.
“That wouldn’t be change, Fennel.”
“So you’ve never even thought of going home? Don’t you still have family there? Friends?”
I saw he was lying.
“So nothing could make you return?”
He hesitated, looking out over the workers.
“Right now, there’s nothing I can envisage that would make me go back. But I’d be naive to say things will never change. Sometimes life steers you towards doing something you don’t want to do.”
I wasn’t certain he was still talking about the future.
“You know, your disease,” he said, turning back to me, changing tack. “I don’t think you need it.”
“Oh really, why’s that?” I said, bemused.
“You don’t need a disease to see the true self of someone. You just get to know them. At least that’s what I do.”
The following day, Lowen left for the city with a cohort of cleans, including Robin. He entrusted me to a man called Thomas, the first person who’d agreed to give Lowen his disease.
Thomas’ true self was different to Lowen. To Robin as well for that matter. It wasn’t imbued with hope, it was just neutral. Neither good, nor bad. Resigned to the fact that this was his life now, and a realisation that this might be as good as it got for him.
We spent the day together weeding vegetable crops. It was monotonous, back breaking work. Down on our knees pulling weeds from rows, being careful not to crush the carrots, cabbages, or whatever other plant we were working between. Within an hour I was sweating, aching and ready to throw it in. But I didn’t. I made myself go on. Trying to understand why anyone would do this day in, day out.
“It’s better than the pain,” Thomas answered when I put the query to him. “Those hawkers in the disease markets never mention it when they’re selling the diseases, but most infections bring suffering at one point or another.”
“What did you have?”
“The tumours. They were uncomfortable to carry, and they hurt like a bastard when you sliced them. Not as bad as some diseases, but it built up on you. Got so I hated the idea of cooking, of someone approaching my BBQ. But then Lowen did, and he had a different proposal for me.”
I shuffled forward, grunting as I shifted position, yanking at another weed and tossing it behind me.
“But let me ask you this. How many hours a day would you have had to cook for to earn enough to survive back in the city? Compared to this, I mean?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, stopping to wipe his brow and squint up at the cloud mottled sky. “Probably a couple of hours a day and I’d earn enough to eat and pay the rent. Another hour and I could afford a few luxuries.”
“And two, three hours of that was worse than ten hours here doing this?”
He looked across at me and just shrugged. But his true self wasn’t quite as nonchalant. He’d had similar thoughts, I saw. Memories of pain faded over time, and he’d sometimes wondered if it had all been as bad as he liked to say.
“I’m not going to lie. I’ve wanted to go back at times, but I never have.”
“Lowen, mainly. Maybe the pain back there isn’t that much worse than the hard life here. Maybe. But I’ve never known anyone in the city willing to give me as much as Lowen has. And it’s not just him taking my disease. It’s the time he gives to me, his interest in me as a person. God, sometimes I think he even likes me. No one before Lowen ever made me feel like I might be a better person than I was. Not my Mama, not my ex-wife. No one. I stay for that feeling as much as anything. For a little of Lowen’s glow to rub off on me from time to time.”
He turned his back on me and hopped over a row of plants, plucking at the ground again.
“Why do you think he did it? Leaving the Compound to begin taking diseases that is?”
For a long time there was silence.
“Don’t know,” Thomas eventually said without turning back to look at me.
“Aren’t you curious?”
“Yep. But Lowen doesn’t want to talk about it, so I don’t push him. Whatever the reasons, I expect they’re personal and none of my damn business.”
Which wasn’t a good enough answer for me.
“Do you miss it?” I asked Lowen as we walked beside the creek that burbled quietly, whispering to itself.
Friday was a day of rest for the community. I’d been preparing to spend mine in bed, give my aching muscles and raw fingers a chance to recover. But Lowen wouldn’t have any of that and so, instead, here I was, forcing movement into my sore body.
“Miss what?” Lowen asked, his true self growing opaque.
The Compound, I wanted to say. Your neat house, your family.
“Being clean,” I tried instead. I watched him relax again, his essence becoming white, slightly translucent, flowing like the creek.
“Yes, I miss that. Sometimes. But then I remind myself what my disease is achieving.”
“Hmm,” I said, trying to fight the smirk forming at the corners of my mouth. I didn’t succeed, not completely. Lowen saw me smile.
“It’s just you’ve been trying to convince me to give up this disease of mine and join the community and, well, here you are spruiking the benefits of your own affliction.”
Lowen chuckled, a light throaty guffaw.
“I see. Well, we’re all allowed our contradictions, aren’t we?”
“I guess,” I said, continuing to walk. A breeze erupted from across the stream, poking at the water and blitzing my hair. I brushed my fringe out of my eyes and turned to see Lowen glancing at me, but he turned away quickly as I caught him.
“What about you?” Lowen asked, staring ahead, like he was intentionally avoiding my gaze. “Do you miss being clean?”
I walked for a while, thinking, not exactly sure of my answer until my mouth opened and the words began to spill out.
“Yes and no. Meeting you, meeting Robin, it’s nice seeing just how good people can be. On the other hand, it didn’t bring me much joy to see how many truly greedy, sad and evil people there were in the city. But if I gave it up, it’d feel like I was just putting my head in the sand and pretending everything was right with the world. I don’t know. Part of me wishes I didn’t know people could be so bad. Part knows that this disease has opened my eyes to the real world.”
“Hmm, the real world,” Lowen muttered.
“Nothing. It’s just the way you talk of the Compound … You haven’t actually seen any residents since contracting your disease, have you?”
“I’ve seen you.”
But I knew that wasn’t what he was getting at. I sighed.
“You really believe the residents are despicable, don’t you?” I said.
“I know they are. It was better to start again than try and change the lives in there.”
“You seem ok,” I said, shrugging, smiling.
It was meant to be light hearted but, behind his white soul, I saw a flicker of something black responding to my words. Then Lowen was turning from me and walking ahead, quickly. What had I said? I hurried to catch up with him and then I fell in step alongside. We walked in silence for a while.
“Can I ask you,” Lowen said after a time, “how you were intending to survive with your disease? How would you earn?”
From tricking a resident into taking me back, I thought. Someone like you.
“I was told if you could discover what someone wants then you could be rewarded for helping them achieve their desire.”
Lowen stopped suddenly, his true self lightening again, and then he bent over and splashed some of the creek water into his face. He stood again and turned to look at me.
“What do I want? Right now?” he asked.
I looked at him. I could see his desire to swim, to splash, to cool down in the shallows of the stream.
“You want to bathe.”
“And why would I need your gift to help me achieve that?”
I frowned. That wasn’t what the old lady meant. Nor was it what I meant.
“I … I guess …”
But then he reached down and splashed me with water. And I squealed and frowned and smiled. It felt so cold, and yet good, like I was alive. And soon I was rushing into the stream and kicking water at him. Like a kid. Like we were both kids. Who didn’t care what our Mama’s would say when we came back cold and wet and dripping.
Walking back to the community, our gowns soaked, smiles still on our faces, I looked at Lowen again and saw his true self buzzing. He was happy. And part of that happiness, I saw, was being with me.
My days continued like that for a while. Sewing garments, pulling weeds, peeling vegetables. My fingers grew calloused, my body began slowly to adjust. I was still bone tired when I’d lay my head down each night, but the aches were less.
Lowen would often seek me out at meal times. And on Fridays we’d go walking for half an hour here, an hour there, whatever he could spare away from his responsibilities.
When I was with him, the community was nice. I could almost forget the drudgery of the work, the repetition, the boredom. I liked our walks. I liked our discussions. Most of all, I enjoyed our arguments about the city and our debates on how life should be lived. What that said about me, I wasn’t quite sure.
But then, they’d be over. And I’d go back to sewing, or weeding, or digging. And Lowen would go to town to recruit. Sometimes for a day. Sometimes for a few. And when that happened, my mind would wander. I mean, what else could I do? The work was hardly intellectually stimulating. And by the end of those days I’d have grown tired of it all. I’d despise the place and what I had to do to contribute to the community. And in those moments I’d find myself thinking about my family, and the city, and the wall, and what was waiting for me on the other side of it.
Eventually, I began to realise that nothing had changed inside me, really, despite Lowen’s best efforts. I didn’t see myself in need of saving like the others did. And I didn’t see the same kind of beauty out here that Lowen saw. Or if I did, it was fleeting, and I also saw the hard work as just hard work. And my desire to live more easily back in the city, in the Compound, remained.
I needed to go home, I realised. The surprise in that thought was the sadness that accompanied it.
“What do you want in life, Fennel?” Lowen asked me. I sat across from him at the long table, a bowl of potato soup before me, its earthy scent making my mouth water. I’d miss the food, I knew. It was one thing the community did really well.
I looked up from my bowl and spied something new in his true self. I didn’t understand it at first.
“I don’t know,” I said absently. I dipped my spoon into the soup and then raised it to my mouth. It was warm and creamy with just a hint of smokiness. Delicious.
“You’ve seen what we can offer here, now. I feel like a choice is nearly upon you. Have you had any thoughts on what you will do? Is this life something you could buy into?”
I looked back at him and, yes, there was something new. Concern? Maybe. Warmness? Yes. And, oh, I thought. It was affection. For me. I felt myself blushing and looked away.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked, glancing back at him, my heart racing.
I watched him mull the question over. I watched his affection grow. But there was a nervousness there. This was very important to him, I saw.
“I want you to give me your disease and then stay here with us. With me.”
But I didn’t want that. What I wanted was for Lowen to take me back home. Back to his real home.
And then I recalled some of his past words. He’d once said that he could never rule out something cropping up in life that would lead him back to the Compound. Could that something be me?
Maybe this was the opportunity the old lady had been talking about. Find a resident, determine his desires and use them. I was Lowen’s desire. Rescuing me was something he needed to do. So what if I gave him what he wanted? Gave him my gift to see truly? Wouldn’t he then see me like I’d seen him? And once he saw how much I needed the Compound, that it wasn’t just fantasies and words, that it was something deeper, in the core of me, well, how could he refuse to take me then if he truly cared?
“Ok,” I replied, watching the shock etch his features.
It was gentler than the giving of the true sight.
Lowen led me to the sleeping quarters, which we had to ourselves while the others ate. We sat amongst the bedrolls and faced each other. A crude wall hid us from the common room.
Lowen gave me a gentle kiss and then, with an exchange of breath, I saw him. Not his true self, his physical self. To my shame, my impulse was revulsion.
The golden glow of his beautiful soul no longer obfuscated the tumours that riddled the right side of his face. Nor the black tar that slid unwanted from his mouth. Nor the tusk that poked through his left cheek. Nor the hair on his arms, nor the hunch of his back, nor the rancid smell of his rotting feet. I fought against my urge to retch and forced a smile to my face hoping it didn’t look like a grimace. With rheumy eyes, he looked me up and down.
“I see you truly, Fennel,” he said.
“And?” I asked.
He hesitated, and then tears budded in his eyes. He cleared his throat, blinking hard.
“There’s nothing for you here. Not now, anyway,” he croaked, looking away, like he was ashamed of me. Like I’d failed him somehow. Or he’d failed me.
“But, but,” I stammered, “but you care for me.”
“I do,” he said, eyes still averted. A tear rolled down his cheek. “Too much to give you what you want. I can’t take you to the Compound.”
“But it’s your home —”
“This is my home,” he cut me off.
I sat there stunned. I wanted to scream. I wanted to demand that he give me what I wanted. But who was I kidding? My plan, if you could even call it that, involved little more than the fancy of a young girl deluding herself that she could be clever. I’d gambled and lost. Lowan would never help me achieve my true desire. And I hated him for that. I hated this place and these crazy people.
Without a word, my rage simmering under a stony exterior, I rose to my feet and left.
It wasn’t long before I was back in amongst the heat and noise of the city. It was familiar and yet strange. Like I had immersed myself within a distorted reflection of the place I’d grown up in.
The stench of civilisation assaulted me wherever I went. And people. Everywhere. The sick and diseased jostling, bumping, crowding me. To escape them, at least temporarily, I sought out Western Park. I’d frequented it often when I was younger. It held peace, a little green, and, most importantly, a small hill from which I could just see over a low section of the Compound wall.
I arrived on dusk. It was as I remembered — the copse of elms and oaks, the wide lawns smattered with leaves, a central pond. And dominating the scenery was the red Compound wall. I felt a little gladder to see it. And yet it seemed more distant than ever before now that I’d given up my disease. How had I been so stupid?
I scaled the hill at the far end of the park, reaching the top just as the last of the sun sank below the horizon. I stood, looking over the wall at the tops of the white houses, watching the gas lamps come on like blinking stars as daylight leaked from the world. Finally, when the last of the sunlight was gone and I was left in darkness, when I could see no more of paradise, I sat down on the grass to take stock, removing the last of my money from my pack.
One hundred and forty-nine dollars. I counted it again to be sure. It wasn’t enough, I knew. I couldn’t start again with that. It wouldn’t even be enough to afford the mutations. I sighed, realising I only had one option left. One chance at making something of the mess I’d created for myself.
I stuffed my money back in my pack, and I left the park. I headed south towards the foot of the Yarran ranges, to the edge of Southwell, where the wealthy diseased lived in new homes neatly rendered with dark mud. This was where the takers plied their trade.
I’d only visited once before, but I found the house easily enough. It was at the end of Rosen Street, small for this area, but neat.
I took a deep breath as I approached the front door, and then knocked, suddenly nervous that he wouldn’t answer, or that he would and he’d turn me away. I realised I was holding my breath. I exhaled. And then there were the sounds of soft footsteps approaching the door from the inside. And before I could think of what I would say, the door clicked, and was opening. I was met with a look of suspicion, which quickly dissolved into surprise.
“Fennel?” my brother said. I noticed he had a hint of fur poking out from under his collar, and slightly elongated front teeth.
After I’d told him everything, I waited for Knife to respond. He sat across the wooden table from me, his brow furrowed, his mouth a silent frown.
I took a sip of my tea, grimacing as I realised it had long grown cold. I placed the cup back on the table with a soft clink, and then looked around Knife’s kitchen.
The stove was new and clean. It looked like it had rarely been lit. The crockery on the shelves appeared to be for decoration only. I doubt he ate here very often, but I guess he could afford not to. The kitchen opened into a lounge room. A couple of leather couches faced an empty, blackened fireplace.
“So, you want my help, I suppose,” Knife said, drawing my attention again.
“No … I mean, I guess.”
“And why should I help you, Fennel? You got yourself into this mess. You picked a disease I’ve never heard of and then you gave it up. Why? What did Mama teach you?”
I swallowed, trying to force back the lump in my throat.
“I’m sorry, okay? I just … I just don’t know what to do.”
He sighed again.
“How much money have you got left?”
“One hundred and forty-nine dollars.”
He shook his head.
“I’m such a soft touch,” he mumbled to himself, pushing his chair back and rising from the table. I watched him walk into the kitchen and reach under the bench where he withdrew a ceramic jar.
“I’ll spot you the cost of a disease,” he said, removing the lid from the jar and reaching inside.
“I want to get my true sight infection back. It only cost —”
“A useful disease,” he said, cutting me off. “You wasted money once. You aren’t wasting mine, okay?”
He stared at me until I looked away. And then I felt my head nodding as I blinked back the tears.
“A friend of mine, Majoris, she trades in leather skins and she’s after a new recruit. I’ll talk to her tomorrow about a contraction. You can work for her for a while, earn enough to pay me back and then find a place of your own.”
I hesitated, swallowing. Of all the diseased, leather skins were the most hideous. More so than mutants, worse than tumour sufferers. I wanted to refuse, I wanted to argue for something better. But I didn’t. What choice did I really have? I turned back to Knife and nodded again. He thrust some bills at me, which I accepted, tentatively. I felt the tears then, hot on my cheeks and salty at the corners of my mouth.
Knife’s hand was suddenly under my chin, lifting my face to look at him. He wasn’t angry anymore, he was just my brother.
“You’re really obsessed with this Compound thing, aren’t you? Always have been, I guess.”
I shrugged. What could I say?
He sighed again.
“Majoris, well, there’s something else about her. She sells to the Compound. Her girls get to visit for the harvesting.”
A smile must have broken out across my face then, because he smiled too.
“Now don’t start getting silly ideas. It isn’t what you wanted. You won’t get to stay long. But it’s the best I can do for you.”
When I threw my arms around him and squeezed he stiffened at first, but then he relaxed and returned my embrace. After a while, he pulled back from me, holding me gently at arm’s length.
“You can stay here till you find your feet. But it’s time to grow up now, Fennel. Time to be responsible. Time to make your own way in the world like the rest of us.”
Majoris was a woman in her fifties with brown hair, flecked with grey. Her neck and arms were covered in scars. I presumed they continued under her black tunic, across her chest and back.
She’d been a leather skin most of her life, she told me, but she was clean now. One of my brother’s clients. Contracts with the Compound can change a fortune like that. She’d done her time, sold her skin and now, well, others worked for her.
She gave me a good deal, at least that’s what Knife said. It was four hundred and fifty dollars for the contraction, and Majoris agreed that any future profits would be split between us sixty, forty — my share being the forty. As I paid the upfront fee, encouraged by Knife, I couldn’t help but feel that I was handing over a part of myself to this stranger.
When the transaction was done, Majoris brought one of her girls in from outside. She was short and frumpy, her face tan and rough. Beneath her tunic were misshapen bulges where the excess skin was forming. I tried not to see me in that girl. I tried not to shudder as she pricked my finger and mixed her blood with mine.
“Four weeks,” Majoris said, when the girl was done. “I’ll be back then to inspect the harvest.” She tossed me a small jar containing a pearl coloured, translucent gel. “Rub that into your back, belly and legs when the disease takes hold. It’ll keep your skin soft.”
I nodded, but couldn’t find any words.
“Thank you, Majoris,” Knife said on my behalf. “I’ll make sure she’s ready when you return.”
The skin on my belly began to change first. It darkened in colour, and hardened until it didn’t feel like me, until it was puckered, and foreign. I applied the gel Majoris had given me to keep the skin supple.
My back followed next. And then my arms, legs, my neck and face. And once the constitution of my epidermis had altered, it began growing.
I watched in horrid fascination as the skin of my belly loosened, bunched, then sagged. It was separating from the fat and muscles beneath, becoming a flesh blanket that folded back on itself. And still it grew bigger, longer, until the skin hung to my waist, then my thighs, my knees. My back followed trend, loosening, expanding, sagging.
I continued to apply the gel, but it became more difficult and time consuming as I had to work my way between folds of the hardened skin.
It was still me under it all, I told myself. But I didn’t feel the same. I stopped going outside because, when I did, all I got was stares from passers-by. But even staying locked up in Knife’s house didn’t protect me from the realisation of what I’d become. Knife tried hard, but he couldn’t completely hide the flickers of disgust that flashed across his face when he saw me.
So I kept to myself, I grew, I applied my cream. And as my skin expanded, so did an emptiness inside of me. Would I adjust eventually? I wondered. Would I learn to cope with my new life, my new self? I expected I had too. Everyone else did. And the Compound. I was going to get inside the Compound. It was that thought that kept me going.
Finally, my body having changed, my skin ready, I stood with Majoris outside the Compound gates waiting to be admitted. My stomach roiled and twisted, excited to go inside, nervous about what was to come.
It was just on dusk, but I was still hot under the girdle Majoris had given me to wear beneath my tunic. It allowed me to walk without tripping, as she said it would.
The gates clicked, and then swung inward. My heart accelerated, the sound of it loud in my ears as I took in what I’d longed to see.
The Compound was stunning. The tarred roads of Central ended at the wall, fading into wide, cobbled streets. There were footpaths, and gas lamps creating small pools of illumination. There was grass, and gardens — red and white roses contrasting with dark green foliage. And of course the houses — immaculate, white buildings that lined the streets.
I tried to consume every detail so I could return here in my mind, over and over, after my visit was done. But Majoris didn’t allow me to dwell on the scenery for long.
“This is Miss Constrine, my most important client,” she said, guiding me inside the gate.
Miss Constrine was tall, with pale skin and a sharp, angular face. Her dark hair was pulled back so tight it looked painful. She wore black leather, I saw.
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am,” I said, remembering the manners Mama had taught me.
“Hmm,” Miss Constrine said, as if I hadn’t spoken. She began to circle me slowly. “Yes, it will do, I think. Very nice. The light colouring, good skin.” I stood still as she walked around me. She completed her loop and then stopped, staring at me as if appraising chattels. I suddenly felt self-conscious, unsure of how to hold myself. I felt inferior in this woman’s eyes and, unbidden, I recalled how Lowen had always looked at me and realised this resident was nothing like him.
“Come,” she demanded. She turned and walked up the cobbled street. Majoris took my arm in hand and led me after her. I wasn’t sure I would have voluntarily followed without Majoris’ cajoling.
Miss Constrine led us into the yard of a nearby house decorated with elaborate columns. Large, dark windows looked down on me, like the black eyes of some monster. I wondered why there were no lights burning, but I soon realised we weren’t heading inside.
I followed Miss Constrine around the back of the home, where there was a second building. It was rendered white like the main house, but the building was small and flat. Barely a room, really. It had no windows, which I thought odd, but a large door was wide open, warm light spilling out.
As I walked inside, my heart beat harder, and I began to feel nauseous. The floor was cement, sloping to a long grate at the back of the room. In the middle stood a large metal table with four cuffs for hands and legs. A smaller metal table, covered in implements, was close by. The room had the faint scent of ammonia.
“This way,” Majoris urged, guiding me to the table. My legs were stiff. They felt foreign as I moved. I’m in the Compound, I reminded myself. But it no longer seemed important.
Majoris helped me undress as Miss Constrine began inspecting the scalpels, scrapers, and other metal instruments. Eventually, she turned to survey me.
Her gaze across my naked flesh was piercing, appraising. I wondered what I would have seen of her if I still had my true sight. Not the beauty of the Compound gardens, I thought. Not the whiteness of the houses.
“It’s ok,” Majoris whispered to me. In her eyes I saw understanding. It’d been her on this table years before. “Miss Constrine is a professional. This will be done very quickly. Now, please, lay down on the table.”
I looked at it. It was immense. And reflected in its sterile surface was a distorted reflection of my face, frowning, eyes darting to and fro looking for someone to save me. But no one did.
I climbed onto the cold table and lay face down, trembling. Majoris clipped my wrists and ankles into the cuffs. I closed my eyes, willing this to be over as soon as possible.
Miss Constrine was near now, leaning over me. I felt her gaze boring into the back of my head, and then her cold touch in the folds of the skin of my back.
My breathing grew harsh. I could feel it bouncing back from the surface of the table, warm against my cheeks. My body was tense. I knew what was coming, and yet, I knew I didn’t really know.
And then it began.
There was an electric pinch high up towards my right shoulder blade, and then it was moving quickly to my left, followed by what felt like a burning hot coal being dragged across my back. I screamed. I couldn’t help it.
The skin on my back was wrenched, and I heard tearing, felt the warm blood rolling over my sides, and I screamed again as my back caught alight, fire flickering over the top half. The electric pinch of the scalpel was back, just above my buttocks. I bucked hard, but the restraints held me in place.
There was a clatter as the scalpel was dropped into a tray. I could hear Miss Constrine grabbing another instrument.
Something stabbed my right side then, like a punch in the ribs. I groaned, tears streaming down my face, pooling on the table in front of me.
And then something metal, foreign, was forced into me, under the skin, and worked back and forth, slicing at my nerve endings like someone prodding a rotten tooth. I bucked again, hard, trying to escape the pain. I was on fire, and I could taste copper in my mouth where I’d bitten my tongue. My own screams reverberated around the room.
I couldn’t stand this anymore. I wanted the agony to end, God I wanted it to stop. My flesh burned as I felt it all coming loose, being cut and pulled from me as I wailed and wailed and then, thankfully, the world faded, replaced with blackness.
I awoke back in my bed in Knife’s house, lying on my side. My body hummed with pain, throbbing. I tried to move, but my back and stomach screamed in protest and I inhaled sharply, my vision jolting as I settled back into the uncomfortable position I’d been left in. I swallowed, took a deep breath, cold sweat beading on my forehead. My throat was parched.
“Knife,” I croaked. “Knife.”
At first I wondered if he was even at home, the house being so quiet. But then he was standing in the doorway, a glass of water in his hands.
“Hey,” he said. He approached, dropped to his knees, and then he awkwardly held the glass to my lips so that I could sip a little coolness into my mouth.
“How did I get here?” I asked when I was done.
“A couple of residents helped Majoris get you back. She applied a poultice to your wounds. You’re to leave it on for the next couple of weeks.”
I adjusted my head to look at my belly and could see the padding under my tunic. It felt moist. A coolness dousing just the tip of the steady throb of pain that encased me.
“She left your money here. A pretty good haul, three hundred and fifty.”
I winced. “Take it. And take the other hundred I owe you from my pack.”
He looked at me for a while, then nodded.
“You did good, you know? And it’ll get easier. The diseases always do. I took a while to adjust to mine as well. But I learned, as you will. We all have to bear our diseases, the good and the bad,” Knife said, repeating Mama’s words.
“Do we?” I asked before thinking.
Knife inhaled. I thought he was going to say something reassuring. Something to make me appreciate my new life more. Something that would inspire me.
“Eight weeks, Majoris said. You’ll be healed and ready for another harvest then.”
My eyes felt hot, and I blinked hard, but a tear escaped anyway and began to roll down my cheek.
“Don’t worry, you can stay here till then. After that, you can look for your own place, hey?”
He rose back to his feet and went to the door.
“Why do we have to suffer to earn?” I asked, stopping him halfway out of the room. He turned slowly, looking over at me.
“It is what it is, Fennel. As it always has been. And always will be.”
But I wasn’t so sure anymore.
It was a week before I got out of bed, two before I could move freely around the house. The pain receded slowly, as Knife said it would. And as my wounds healed, I began to feel more like my old self. Because my skin wasn’t growing yet, and I was almost pain free.
If I was to operate on eight week cycles, this was the sweet spot, I realised. This was my window to be me.
The day I left the house, I headed first to the Compound wall, running my fingers lightly against its rough, red surface. I saw the white houses, in my mind, the cobble stoned streets, the gas lamps and gardens. And then I saw the table, Miss Constrine’s glare, my terrified reflection clouding with hot breath. I pulled my hand back sharply, shaking my head.
I wandered Central, re-familiarising myself with the town. I had lunch at the harbour, watching birds glide out over the sea.
At two o’clock, I staked out the Compound gates. I saw two mutants admitted to deliver a cart of grain. And as one wandered away from the cart, just slightly, he was quickly surrounded by three large residents, imposing themselves, pointing, cursing, herding the mutant back towards his cart and out the gate. And I felt strange watching the display, the ugly bravado. What did they think he was going to do? Suddenly disappear into the Compound never to be found again?
Afterwards, I found myself back at the entrance to the Southwell Markets. There was a risk of finding Lowen here, I knew. I didn’t know how I would feel about that, or what I would say. And yet a small part of me hoped I’d see him again. So I immersed myself in the crowd, inhaling the scents of fresh fruit, losing myself amongst the cries and pitches of the mutant hawkers. It was nice being back.
I made my way to the end of the markets, needing to see if the community were preaching today. And they were.
Robin, who I’d last seen holding needle and thread, sat on a table, some familiar people in white robes standing behind her. She was offering to take diseases from those that had gathered around her.
Where was Lowen, though? I didn’t understand what had happened.
I joined the crowd and listened to Robin’s spiel. She spoke kindly, she spoke well, but she was no Lowen.
After everyone had finished laughing and cursing and had wandered off, I approached her cautiously, nervously. The disease had darkened my skin, hardened my cheeks, but she recognised me and met me with a smile and a hug. I winced as she squeezed, my body still tender.
“Fennel, it’s so amazing to see you. How are you?”
“Good, I’m good,” I lied, pulling back from her. “So you take diseases now too?”
Her face grew grave.
“Yes. I have to. Lowen’s no longer well enough to recruit, I’m afraid. He doesn’t have much time left. But we’re making sure his good work will continue.”
“Oh,” was all I could manage to say. I felt like someone had torn open my intestines and stirred. I hadn’t even thought of him dying. I could feel tears stinging the back of my eyes.
“Would you like to see him?” Robin asked. “You could come back with us, just for the night if you like?”
I desperately wanted to go with her and yet I shook my head fiercely.
“No. I can’t. I’ve …” but I couldn’t say anything further. Robin placed a hand on my shoulder, but I shrugged it away and then I turned and moved. She called after me, but I couldn’t respond.
I found myself running through the markets, chased by the startled and angry yells of a mutant whose apple cart I’d knocked over as I escaped.
I didn’t go out again after that. I locked myself in Knife’s house and grew. I applied my cream, and I thought on everything that had happened to me, and I wondered about Lowen and how he was faring. I wondered whether I should go back. I wondered why I couldn’t. But mostly, I waited. And waited. Until, eventually, the time for my second harvest was upon me.
Majoris walked quickly, but I forced my weak legs to keep up. It was the middle of the day and it was hot under the bulky girdle that squeezed my folded skin against my body. But that wasn’t going to slow me. I marched behind Majoris, determined. This is the only way, I repeated Knife’s words to myself. The only way. And I almost believed it until the Compound gates came into view.
The feeling of dread that had been building in the pit of my stomach over the last weeks consumed me then, and without consciously willing anything to change, I found myself at a halt, standing in the middle of the road.
Majoris continued to stride ahead for a few paces before she sensed I was no longer following. She pulled up, and then turned to look at me, her expression confused and slightly annoyed.
“We’re going to be late, Fennel,” she said.
I swallowed, thinking back to my last visit to the Compound. Thinking to the work I’d done in the community. Thinking of Lowen.
“If there’d been another way for you, a way to survive that didn’t hurt, that … that didn’t steal so much from you, would you have taken it?”
Majoris stared at me, into me, like she was trying to determine my state of mind.
“This isn’t really the time, Fennel. We need to get going.”
“Please,” I said.
She held my gaze a little longer, but then she glanced away and sighed.
“I had options, other diseases. But they all have costs. And rewards. I sold my skin, but now I’m clean. The same could happen for you if you do your time.”
I swallowed again. I didn’t believe her, not really.
“What if you could have lived clean from the beginning?”
A laugh escaped her, like something unpleasant she was spitting out.
“Like the residents, you mean? That’s not for me.”
“Because they wouldn’t accept you?” I replied.
“Because even if they did, that’s no way to live. They’ve locked themselves in a prison to keep away from people that they’ve imagined are beneath them. But we’re all the same, really. I prefer to live my life freely, amongst real people.”
“But how were you living freely when you sold your skin to them?”
“I’m free now. I’m clean.”
“And what about me?” I whispered.
“You do the best with what you’ve got.”
What did I have, I wondered? Leathered skin for selling, a brain for scheming, hands for sewing, legs to pull a plough. I shook my head.
“Come, we’re late.”
“No,” I stated, and as I did, relief washed over me. “I can’t. I’m done.”
“Fennel, please. They’re ready for us.”
“No,” I said again, more firmly. Majoris’ eyes narrowed in response, and her lips formed a thin, angry line.
“You do this, my door is shut to you. There’s no returning if you spurn me now.”
I stood at the foot of the dirt path looking up towards the ramshackle, mud brick building just shy of the creek. A few workers in white garments stopped to look at me, but they soon returned to their work as I began the trek up the hill.
Knife had tried to talk me out of my decision, but he hadn’t succeeded. I knew he’d never understand, but I left him details of where I was going anyway, just in case.
Word of my arrival must have spread for, by the time I reached the top of the path, Robin was waiting for me.
I stopped before her, aware of my rough skin, the mounds of flesh held in place by my girdle. After our last meeting in Southwell, I didn’t know what to say. Thankfully, she spoke first.
“I’m glad you came back, Fennel. And so is Lowen. He’d like to see you now if you’d like to see him?”
I nodded, grateful she’d made things easy for me.
I followed Robin into the hall and then through to the sleeping quarters. It was as I remembered, except one corner had been partitioned off with blankets hung from crude beams. It was to that corner that Robin guided me.
She gave me a gentle pat on the shoulder and then pulled the blankets aside.
The scent of rot hit me first and I stalled on the edge of the crude room. A tiny figure was huddled under a white blanket in the far corner, a wooden pail to the right, a jug of water on the left.
“Fennel, is that you?” Lowen croaked, and suddenly the figure moved, rolling onto his back. I took a couple of shallow breaths, then stepped inside and knelt down next to Lowen. Robin allowed the blanket to fall back into place, leaving the two of us alone.
He looked hideous. The top of the blanket was stained black from the tar leaking unbidden from his mouth and nose. His face was a mass of tumours. If he could still see through his yellow, weeping eyes, it couldn’t be much. His tusk had grown larger and hair was spreading down his neck. God only knew what his limbs looked like underneath the blankets.
“It’s me,” I said. “And I’m so sorry. I should have come to see you earlier.”
He shook his head.
“You have nothing to apologise for.”
“I do. I’ve been so naive. I thought there was an easier way. But nothing’s easy. Nothing.”
“No. It’s not. But some things are worth working for. A community. A home. Are you coming home now, Fennel?”
I cleared my throat.
“You’d have me back?”
“Of course,” he whispered.
I didn’t know why, but I burst into tears.
“How can you be so kind?” I blubbered. “How can you still want to help me after what I did, after what you saw of my true self?”
He just smiled again.
“We all make mistakes, Fennel.”
“You don’t. You were right,” I said. “I met another resident. She was nothing like you. Cold, aloof. She looked at me like … like I was nothing. Like I didn’t matter. Like I was just something to use and buy and sell.”
“Fennel, she was more like me than you know. At least, the boy I once was.”
I sniffed loudly and looked at him, confused. But he didn’t hold my gaze. Instead, he closed his eyes tight. I saw a tear escape and roll towards his nose.
“When we first met, you asked me why I left the Compound,” Lowen said, his eyes still firmly shut. “I left my home and contracted this disease for penance, Fennel. It was what I had to do to make amends.”
He took a deep breath, opened his eyes and looked at me. I could see his pain. His shame. His self‑hate.
“When I was young,” he began, “I used to tour Central with my friends. It’s what the residents did. We would egg each other on, take advantage, lord it over the diseased. But that’s no excuse for what we did. What I did.” He took a deep breath. “She was about your age, Fennel. And we lied to her. And then we hurt her. We hurt her so badly and —”
I leaned forward and put my finger to his hot, black lips, quietening him.
“I don’t need to know,” I whispered. “Whatever it was, however horrible, you’ve changed. You’ve paid your dues.”
More tears surfaced in his eyes and then ran down his cheeks.
“Nothing I have done can ever undo what I did. But I can keep trying. Will you let me keep trying, Fennel? Will you let me take your disease?”
He couldn’t forgive himself, I saw. Either that or he wouldn’t. But letting him take one last time, well that was something I could do. Something that I wanted to do, for him and me.
Lowen died three days later. The whole community was there to bury him.
Soon after, and I couldn’t tell you why, Robin asked me to accompany her into town to help her recruit. Maybe she had good instincts, because it turned out I had a knack for it. While Robin had a kind heart, her spruiking was never as compelling or as passionate as Lowen’s. Whereas I had something different to offer. I had the authenticity of an unbeliever. I was the first person ever to experience the community and then leave. And people wanted to know why I returned.
Sure, I still got the laughter and jeers, but a lot of people also listened to what I had to say — about my love of the Compound, my plan to get inside, my diseases, how I had tried the community, left, and then returned when I realised the true cost of participating in the society imposed upon us by the residents.
And each time I spoke, people came back with us.
Lowen started something decent out here. A new way for people to live as people. It’s hard work. Really hard. And it’s definitely not perfect. But nothing is, I realise now.
Great sacrifice is required, not least from Robin and the other takers who will eventually give up their lives so that we can live ours. But we have no shortage of new recruits. And the bigger we get, the stronger the community grows.
There are going to be struggles to come. The city has begun to take note of us. Just the other day, three cleans were beaten by an angry mob that accused them of taking their children and workers.
But I see that we need to press on. The community was possible because of Lowen’s dream and his sacrifice. But it will only live if we live it, and grow if we grow it, by bringing it to those people who don’t know this life is an option yet — people like I used to be.