On the Sabbath Day Be Ye Cleansed
The temple opened for Purge, but Purge did not begin.
We knelt, arching our faces to the temple like flowers strain toward the sun. We remembered the week, the loves gained and friends won. Those lost. Our conflicts. Our sins. We remembered.
We remembered far too long.
“What is going on?” murmured Riia, my weeks-wife, in my ear. How like Riia, to speak in the silence. Her breath made my skin tingle. New love. “Tagon, has this happened before?”
Of course I knew no more than she did.
At last the temple’s bright steel clenched like a grim mouth. From below the priestess emerged. She had grease up the sleeves of her sacred robes, and smears of oil and dust at her knees. The priestess raised her hands. Her palms were chapped and bloody.
“I have spoken to the gods,” she said. Her voice, ever heavy with our cumulative guilt, weighed heavier than ever. “There will be no Purge this week. Go and live as if your sin was taken from you.”
I felt filthy. Some stared at her, but many turned back to the temple, expectant, baby birds gaping at a wormless mother. Others around me began to stand, avoiding the eyes of the ones they had grown close to that week. I stayed on my knees. Perhaps the temple would open. Perhaps the priestess was wrong.
She was not. Even the most pious among us could not wait forever. When Riia stood and tugged me after her, I followed–dutiful as a lamb, and just as lost.
* * *
We had never before left the temple knowing where to go.
Instead of escorting us to new barracks and house-rows, the priests stood with their croziers over their shoulders and shrugged: “Go back where you came from. Wherever you came from.”
Back: to the week before, to the things we had expected to leave behind. It was then we realized that our sins were not undone, and what that meant.
I saw a man turn to his weeks-wife with eyes growing wide, and she–the smaller by far, bruised in the face–raised her eyes to his, so that the week of memories passed invisibly between them. She grabbed a rock from the ground. I flinched when she threw it at her week-husband’s head.
“No! No! Not another week with this sinner! Purge me, I must be Purged!”
Two of the priests restrained her and two of them held her husband back: there would have been retaliation, I was sure.
“Another week,” said Riia to me. She had been holding my hand since I left the temple, but I only now realized it. “Another week?”
We had all left our stains on a bed that week, and who would leave their own mess in favor of someone else’s? Without the Purge, we had nowhere else to go.
“Another week,” I said.
Riia clutched my hand tighter. It felt strangely, eerily familiar.
* * *
The houses had not been Purged either.
People returned to their doors only to recoil and back away, confronted with the accumulation of sin. Garbage sat where it sat. Our receptacles were still full. Nothing was clean. Our accidents had not been fixed, our errors had not been repaired. A man came out and sat on his litter-strewn porch, weeping openly.
Riia went to the kitchen bin. “We should…put it somewhere.”
“Where?” I said. “There’s nowhere to put it.”
“Well, where does it go during the Purge?”
I didn’t know. “The same place our sins go,” I said, making a joke that wasn’t funny and didn’t sound joking. “Maybe we should ask the priests to take it somewhere.”
“Maybe we should,” she said. She took a wrapper from the counter and put it in the bin: the memento of breakfast we hadn’t expected to remember. “We could put it outside.”
“It would just stay there.”
“Better than in here.”
Was it? The bin smelled a little. Outside everyone could smell it. Was it better to keep our sins to ourselves and bear the worst of their stench?
“I don’t know,” I said. “What’s everyone else doing?”
We peeked out the window. We weren’t the first on our square to have the idea. Some of our neighbors had eschewed bins altogether. No priests had stopped them. It must be all right. We put all the trash bins outside, open at the tops, in case we needed them again. After that we closed the windows to block the smell, and the curtains to block the sight…but it bothered me to know they were there.
* * *
Riia and I pretended it was Saturday. We talked about how nice it would feel to be clean, gossiped about which neighbors would likely worship far from their weeks-partners so that they could have new ones. We ate from the leftovers in the refrigerator as if we knew it would be restocked tomorrow. They tasted old. We smiled as we ate anyway.
After dinner we went next door to invite the neighbors, who we had met three days ago, to come over and play a board game before bed.
Booan, the younger, met us at the door; his face lit up at our invitation. “It would be wonderful. We had a good time last Thursday.” He called over his shoulder, “Didn’t we, Sam?”
Sam shuffled into sight. He had a haggard look and the skin under his eyes sagged, reminding me how much older he looked than the rest of us. “We did,” he said. “I wish I did not know that.”
Booan’s face fell. “Please,” he said. It sounded like he was asking for more than a game.
“We’re pretending it’s Saturday,” Riia piped up.
Sam raised his tired eyes to meet hers. “Yes,” he said slowly. “Yes. We’ll pretend.”
We weren’t very good at pretending.
We played our game, but no one could keep their minds on the blocks or the pegs.
Sam said, “Do you remember how we got here?”
Our false fun dissipated. “Sam, we’ve always been here.”
“I don’t think so,” said Sam. “I think we were brought. I had dreams….”
“He had terrible dreams last night,” said Booan, apologetically.
“Dreams of…travel. Dreams–I’m afraid–of things that should have been Purged away.”
We didn’t know how to answer that.
Riia said, “What do you suppose we’ll eat when our pantries are empty?”
Another unanswerable question.
The edge of a playing card sliced my finger. A miniscule tear of blood welled up. The prick of pain and dot of red made me aware of my skin, what was happening to me, and I felt this: the foulness of skin-oils. The grease of my hair. The sick cottony sour-coating of my mouth.
I stumbled to my feet. “Be back,” I gasped, and lunged toward the bathroom.
This was wicked, it was intolerable. I tore myself out of my clothes. I wished I could tear away the skin under it. I imagined I saw the grime inches thick. I brushed my teeth, then did it again. A good start. I washed my face. Better. I ran water through my hair. That made it worse. Soon I stood in a puddle before the sink, shaking with the awful truth. This was nothing like the hot, dry, dizzying cleanliness of Purge. I could never simulate it on my own. Not even close.
Sam and Booan went home not long after. Riia had won the game, but no one cared.
* * *
There was a crowd outside the temple as early as midmorning. Riia and I scrubbed ourselves in the sink as best we could, making ourselves as Purgelessly clean as possible, before we joined them.
We weren’t there long before a pair of priests emerged from the temple. They put themselves between us and the door, waving their crosiers. “Go home!” shouted one. “Go home!”
The crowd drew in tighter.
The priest who had shouted lowered his crosier toward the crowd. The other held him back.
“No, Mike! There are consequences now! You’ll only make it worse!”
“We can still control them!” shouted the priest Mike. (I didn’t know the priests had names as we did.) “We can still salvage the colony!” He knocked the other one aside. Leaving him in the dirt, he strode deep into the group. He thrust his crosier toward us.
“Go home! Go home now!”
The crowd closed in. He was both our obstructer and our salvation. “Purge us! Please, Purge us!”
“Go home!” he screamed.
I saw Sam, the older neighbor, lunge forward with his hands out. I imagined him gripping the priest by the shirt, shaking him, begging him.
He did not make it so far.
A ball of blue light formed at the tip of the crosier. It leapt to Sam’s chest and enveloped him in brilliance. Sam burst into flame. He seemed to fly. Then he fell, and didn’t rise.
The crowd backed away.
“Get back in your homes,” screamed the priest, “or the wrath of God will strike you too!“
One moment of bright blue light, and a god we knew only as cleanser became a destroyer. The crowd fled – Riia, myself, even Booan – every one of us a coward before the wrath of God. Soon, the priests left too.
* * *
Riia woke up screaming.
She grabbed me and I, startled and woozy still, grabbed her back. She put her head on my chest.
“I was cold,” she said. “I was small. There were people everywhere. Arms and legs and–I’m not that small, Tagon! How could I be so small?”
“You’re not small,” I told her.
“It was before now. Weeks and weeks. Sam was right. We came here. Where were we before?”
“Don’t think about before,” I said.
Through her I felt the chill and the smallness of her dream. We clung to each other. In the dark I forgot how dirty we were, how rumpled the sheets, how gritty the floor, how oily our hair. Somehow, just then, we were clean in each other’s arms. But I longed to be clean for real.
* * *
The shouting began at dawn.
I watched out the window, because I couldn’t bear to go outside and be seen in this state. The crowd had returned to the temple. There were no priests in sight. Many of our neighbors had their faces raised as if shouting at the ceiling of the Purge itself. I could barely believe the dirty robes, the dirty faces. My memory, then, was nine days old: as far as I knew, longer than it had ever been.
Riia squeezed in beside me. I cringed a little as skin met skin.
“Where are the priests?” said Riia. “Why aren’t they stopping them?”
I hadn’t seen a priest all day. Sam still lay where the wrath of God had struck him down. I hadn’t seen Booan all day either.
“We have to find them,” said Riia. “The priests are the only ones who know anything.”
“They won’t tell us,” I said.
“We’ll make them tell! We just have to talk to them.”
“Like Sam did?” I said. “They have the wrath of God.”
“We’ve tried to stay clean!” said Riia. “We would be Purged if we could! I don’t fear the wrath of God.”
“I do,” I said.
But I watched my neighbors clamor at the closed door to the temple and realized I feared something more: to live another unpurged day with no direction, not knowing why we had been abandoned, or where to get food, or what to wear, or where to put the trash we were still generating and leaving in overflowing bins by the door. We couldn’t play games and pretend it was Saturday forever. We had no Purge, but we must still have priests. They could lead us. If they would.
I said, “Is there another door that only the priests use?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll go left along the wall,” I said, “and you go right, and we’ll come back here when it’s dark or we’ve found a priest to help us.”
It took us a long time to decide what to take with us. In the end, we didn’t take anything. The priests–if and when we found them–would have everything we needed.
Riia went first. She didn’t look back.
My path took me around the mob at the temple. I circled them warily. No one paid me any attention. I wasn’t a priest; I’d know no more than they did. I wondered, for the first time (so many first times, piled on one another!) who chose them for that caste, how they filled a role so different from ours that they might as well be another creature entirely. Had they gotten too dirty to Purge? Had they seen its true face without forgetting? Was that why they took no weeks-wives?
Not too far down the wall I found a long indent, the hint of a door. I gave it a push. It held firm. Another small indent was beside it, at level to my eye. I pressed that.
“Speak,” said the indent.
I leapt back, looked around. There was no one. I waited, but no other voice came. I pushed it again.
I licked my lips. “I want to see the priests.”
“Priest,” said the indent.
The door slid open. I went inside. The door slid shut behind me.
The interior of the wall had a dingy look compared to our homes; the lighting was lower, the floors sandier. I touched a wall. It had grime on the long looping chunks of exposed wiring. Dust hung in lacy arcs from the ceiling. So the priests that bore our filth had filth of their own to bear.
I walked until I found a staircase, and climbed. At the top of the stairs was a room with a huge window overlooking the town. I saw the temple and its crowd, the rows of housing, the other wall, and – just beyond that – bare rocky ground, where there were no houses or temples at all. I’d never seen beyond the wall. It turned out there wasn’t much to see.
There was a priestess at the window with her back to me. She was speaking into a box, with a clear and deliberate diction.
“…is a disaster. We expect irreparable colony collapse within three weeks. The maintenance staff has voted unanimously to pull out and reconvene at the nearest Terling Corp. holdings…” She read off a long list of numbers. “We expect to arrive in seven months. We’ll be bringing as many warm bodies as we can fit. If you send another team to reclaim the area, I can’t promise what you’ll find. Even under the provisions for political turmoil it’ll be hard to claim the colony as functional; we’re likely to lose the turf claim in universal court. The staff recommends that we write it off as a swarm, take the loss, and reestablish elsewhere on the planet, preferably more than 300km from the original, to prevent cross-colony tainting. Please advise. Over.”
She settled the box into an indentation that fit it on the table in front of her. Then she sat heavily and put her head in her hands. I imagined she was praying on our behalf.
I said, “Priestess?”
Her head snapped up. She took a crosier from beneath her robes and pointed it at me. I stared back. The wrath of God, I thought, heart beating fast. I wonder how it feels. Then her shoulders fell and she put it on a table. She sat again.
“God, what’s the point?” she said. “It’ll all get out soon enough. What do you want? Passage? Answers?”
I didn’t understand what she meant by “passage.” I said, “What is happening to us?”
“You tell me.”
“We’re having nightmares,” I said. “We’re disgusting.”
“You’re waking up,” she said. “Without the Purge, you’ll start to think for yourselves. You’ll remember things. You’re already remembering, aren’t you? You wouldn’t have made it up here if you weren’t.”
“I am,” I said. “So is Riia. So are others.”
She was silent for a moment. “I told them three weeks,” she said–not quite to me. “This place won’t last two.”
“I want to be clean,” I said.
The priestess gave me a long, tired look. “You’ll never be clean again,” she said. “I’m sorry. Even if we reinstated Purge it’s already been too long between sessions; it wouldn’t take. What have we done? We made you a god and then let him die.”
“I have to be clean!”
I raised my hands. I could barely stand to feel my own skin. “Then…what now? What do I do now? What do we do next?”
“What do you do now?” she said. “What do we do now? Do you have any idea how much you stupid Eloi cost us per capita? This compound is outfitted with supplies for the next five years and a state-of-the-art agricultural infrastructure already producing at half-capacity! You’ll just reduce your own population and then someone will get hungry enough to finally pick up a trowel or figure out how to get past the settlement walls. We have to take the loss. You’ll be fine. Barbarians, but fine. Terling Corp: inventors of the alien caveman!”
I had no idea what she was talking about. I felt nothing but the crawling filth that started on my skin and crept to the stubble on my face, the wax in my ears, the half-formed memories in my brain. Trowels? Terling? I wanted the priestess to guide me. “What do I do?”
She leapt from her chair and stormed toward me. I flinched away. She leaned right into my face and screamed, “Figure it out for yourself for once.“
I stood there, half-deafened, thinking about what she had said to me and to the box, what Riia had seen in her memories and what I had heard in mine. I was not used to this, the processing, the deciding. I had impressions of travel. Predictions…we had never needed to predict beyond days. I forced my imagination. I envisioned the decay of the past week and pushed it further, longer, into the second and third week…where would the garbage go? Where would the food come from? Would the priests continue to serve us? I realized, like a slap in the face, that they would not. We would be priestless. Purgeless. Godless.
I knew no other place. But this place would be a ruin.
“I…want to…to leave.”
The priestess let out her breath in a huge swoosh. “What do you know. We have a thinker after all.” She rolled over to the screen and made a few passes. “If you want to leave, we can make it happen. What’s your name?”
“Tagon.” My name rolled onto the screen, along with columns of text too small to see.
The priestess tapped the screen in a few places and then leaned in, squinting. “Would you like to bring Riia?”
“Riia?” I had momentarily forgotten that she was still my weeks-wife though the week was long past. “For…forever?”
“Well, you couldn’t purge her away,” said the priestess, “but I guess you could always get divorced. You could call it off,” she said, raising her voice in irritation that I didn’t know what a “divorce” was. “Just leave her. It happens. I only thought I’d offer because you chose each other,” She glanced again at the screen, “Twenty-one times this year. I thought you might want to have her around.”
“Oh,” I said. This wasn’t like choosing a weeks-partner.
“Never mind. Just thought I’d offer.”
“What, what if I don’t? Choose her?”
“She stays here with everyone else,” said the priestess. “God, you’re gonna be a nightmare to train. We’ll have to work through thirty years of stupid to get back to the smart.”
I had only the faintest concept, then, what a “year” was. Another decision to make, based on only the faintest abilities to remember and predict.
“Yes,” I said. “Bring Riia. I’ll get her.”
So I did.
I have seen incredible things since that day. I learned words I never knew. Entropy. Aging. Permanence. Self-reliance. Work. Expectation. Love. When Purge failed the universe opened itself to me. I expanded to fill as much of my little allotment of it as I could.
But I have never since felt clean.
Amanda is a combustion engineer working in Pennsylvania. “On the Sabbath Day Be Ye Cleansed” was inspired entirely by a line in her employer’s standard troubleshooting manual. Her work has appeared in Shock Totem, Daily Science Fiction, and others. She takes bread-baking, aphid-killing, and schlocky horror movies very, very seriously. You can read more of her work at http://www.amandacdavis.com or follow her on Twitter at @davisac1.