Chapter One: Sissy
A young woman stood in her kitchen, little knowing that the stone that would start an avalanche sat at her dining room table. She set a tray down with a light clatter of polymer cups and turned her attention to the food printer in the corner of the kitchen counter. Normally she would only need two servings of synthesized milk protein, or SMP, one for herself and one for Beatrice, the next oldest in the family. However, today they had a guest, so she calculated the additional amount and tapped in the correct sequence onto a brightly lit panel. The machine hummed as it printed off a rectangular white brick, which she then ground with a mortar and pestle and divided equally among three of the nine glasses on her tray before adding water.
“Don’t forget juice, Sissy!” One of her siblings chimed in from the table, calling her by her family nickname. The twins had been the first to call her that, but the nickname stuck and she hardly ever went by her full name, Astrid.
“Don’t worry, I won’t,” Sissy called back, idling over pouring the juice as she mulled over their guest.
The sudden and unexpected arrival of the Doma—whose presence intimated that this visit might require the spiritual reassurance and support that her class of men and women were known for providing—had been thrilling for the younger children. Doms and Domas were highly respected and valued for their wisdom, and as representatives of the spiritual core of the Garda Siochana, the Guardians of Peace, many believed that a visit from them was a sign of blessing. Their leaders, Athir (Father) and Mathir (Mother), would only send such spiritual guides to someone who deserved their counsel and attention.
Despite the obvious honor in having a Doma in their house, Sissy’s fingers shook as she set the last glass of juice on the tray and she grabbed the counter to steady herself. There’s no need to fear. All of us living here in Fois are a part of the Garda Siochana, but we have been singled out for something precious. Why would Father send a Doma to us if there was something to be afraid of? No, there is no need to fear. Fear does not bring peace.
“I want juice, Sissy!”
One of the older siblings, probably Beatrice, hushed the littler ones and Sissy took that as her cue that she had dallied long enough. Returning to the front room where everyone was seated around a long farmhouse style table with two sets of benches plus an extra chair pulled up for their visitor, she set the tray down on the table and settled herself with a glass of SMP before turning to the Doma.
“What brings you here today, Doma?” The cool white taste of the milk slid down her throat and formed a chill aura in her stomach that quieted her nerves. “Not that we aren’t honored by your coming, of course, but…”
“Hazel must come with me.”
The announcement hung in the air like incense, and in its cloying wake it seemed as though no one could speak or even breathe. Sissy choked on an exhale trying to force its way out. giant had seized hold of her and was slowly squeezing her out like an orange. When she finally breathed, the rest of the room did as well, a collective sigh whispering of confusion and fear. Four pairs of identical brown eyes and three pairs of dusky blue stared at her across the kitchen table. The stranger’s green eyes were momentarily fixed on her tablet. Sissy blinked and inhaled, gathering courage like a cloak about her shoulders.
Uncertain how to respond, she distracted herself by glancing out the window. The day was mild—it always was. A dusty wind kicked up a swirl of loess in the yard in a cyclonic tumble. Just to the left of the setting sun, one of the twin moons could be seen. It peeked in and out from behind a cloud, a voyeur titillated by the family’s distress.
The brown light of the late afternoon sun filtered duskily into their home in soft rays. Everything was brown. Beatrice’s eyes boring into hers with fierce determination, Brendan’s hair blowing gently in the wind from the open window, Doma Bridgid’s hands, the sky, the sun, Lavender’s silent tears trailing down her suntanned face.
My heart. Sissy shivered. Her hands were butterflies, dancing in the air and landing lightly on cheek, arms, chair, and knees before meeting midair and clasping each other in a crushing grip. Her eyes danced from one small face to the next of her seven younger siblings before returning to the placid face of the Doma seated across the room from her. The face coughed.
“Did you hear me, Eldest Astrid?” Doma Bridgid droned softly.
Sissy paused at the title. No one ever called her Eldest. Although that was her official position in the family, everyone just called her Sissy. Titles weren’t used much in the Martin family, not since Amos, their older brother and former Eldest, had called them silly and unimportant. “Family is all about loving, caring for, and protecting each other,” he’d said. “There’s no need for titles in a place like that.” That was before he’d left them.
Sissy brought herself back to the present. “Yes,…uh, Doma. I think so? Y-you said…”
“My dear child,” she interrupted, sitting up straight and setting her shoulders firmly. “I said, ‘Hazel must come with me.’”
“Yes, yes, I heard. But…I don’t understand.” Sissy pressed her butterfly hands against the tops of her legs and took a calming breath. She heard her older brother Amos’ voice in her head, admonishing her: Stay strong. Don’t cry in front of the children.
“Sissy?” The small, tanned girl with nut-brown ponytails sitting on Sissy’s left piped up. “Sissy, what’s wrong?”
Sissy relaxed her hands. “Hush, Lavender, my love, nothing’s wrong,” Sissy replied, reaching out a hand to cup the girl’s chin. Tearing her eyes from Doma Bridgid’s calm placidity, Sissy turned to her seven year old sister with affection and comfort. She knelt down next to her and brought her face close.
“Nothing’s wrong, darling. Doma Bridgid says that Hazel has to leave again for a while, but I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.” She glanced sharply upward at the other woman’s face, but there was no hint of whether or not Sissy’s reassurance rang true or false.
“Will she be coming back?” 8 year old Brendan—old beyond his years—chimed across the table. Sometimes Sissy wondered if the Centre would take him sooner than she was ready for. Don’t hurry to grow up, little man. Stay here with me before you leave like Amos did… And now they’re taking Hazel away too. How long before everyone is grown and assigned their tasks and the entire family is broken up into pieces? Bits of flotsam scattered across the city of Fois never to be united as a whole again... Oh Amos! If only you hadn’t left us. You would be able to keep us all together!
She rose shakily and faced the table of eyes looking to her for courage and explanations, glancing up at Doma Bridgid with an eyebrow raised.
“Well,” she began matter-of-factly. “We don’t know exactly how long she will be with us. There were some anomalies with Hazel’s test results and we’d like to conduct further—”
“Anomalies?” Sissy gasped. “What do you mean? Is she okay?”
She looked over at her littlest sibling who was sitting at the far end of the table holding tightly to a well-worn and well-loved lop-eared bunny Ivory had made for her last year. Four year old Hazel, torn between confusion and fear, began to cry. Sissy rushed to her side and Doma Bridgid’s calm mask dissolved into compassion.
“Oh, she’s physically healthy,” she assured them. “So there is no need for concern on that score. However, there were anomalies with her results that require further investigation. I’m not sure of all the details yet, but rest assured that this is all nothing to worry about.” She reached out and patted Hazel’s knee. “You’ll be okay, honey. Father has a plan, right? Father knows best.”
Through a haze of sniffles, Hazel turned red-rimmed eyes to glance up at her sister’s before turning back and giving the Doma a reluctant nod.
The Doma sat back in her chair. She folded her hands lightly in her lap and beamed a benevolent smile to the entire room with an air of finality. The wind whistled through the open window. Outside, the rhythmic thud of a child throwing a ball against a wall echoed the drumbeat of Sissy’s heart. Then, the relative calm shattered and a chorus of questions, shouts, and crying erupted from around the table.
Sissy clenched her hands tightly against the fluttering muscles in her palms and fingers. She looked everywhere and nowhere at once. Her legs screamed for her to move, and her throat was raw with unvoiced screams, but her mind was locked away in a cage, unable to process the urgent signals with which her neurons were relentlessly bombarding her.
If only Amos were here. He would know what to do, what to say. But it was useless wishing her older brother were home. He had leftalmost two years previously to enter the CORE, and while they received communiqués every week regarding his progress and a visit every 6 months, he was no longer the head of the household, Sissy was. As Eldest, all seven children were her responsibility, and her shoulders sagged with the weight of it all. She was only sixteen herself—almost seventeen—and yet she was sister and mother to a clan of children all looking to her for guidance. Their voices beckoned to be answered, their tears wiped away.
Besides, brother Matthias across the street was Eldest and he was sixteen as well, and sister Maeve just down the road was Eldest at only fifteen, as the former Eldest Ursula had been assigned to be a Doma earlier than they’d expected. She wasn’t the only one with a house full of young children that needing looking after, nor was she the youngest.
Sissy calmed herself with a deep, full inhale and on the exhale, let go of her anxiety. We all have to do our part, for the good of Fois, and to honor our Father and Mother. No one said being Eldest would be easy. The little ones need me, Hazel needs me. This is my purpose.
Quickly and quietly, she caught the attention of each of the children until they calmed down. Beatrice reached out and took weeping Lavender’s small frame into the circle of her arms, the latter burying her head in Beatrice’s just blossoming bosom so that all that could be seen of her was a tangle of hair. Brendan crossed his arms skeptically while the twins Fiona and Ivory clasped hands and little Liam’s lips quivered pitifully around the thumb tucked comfortingly into his mouth. Hazel stared at her feet, her hands clenched around the bunny in her lap and her mouth set in a firm line.
The air was tense, explosive, and Sissy could see that Hazel’s fear had turned to defiance. She recognized the telltale temper hiding beneath Hazel’s taut muscles and grew suddenly afraid. Her earlier calm forgotten.
The day Amos had left for CORE, he’d pulled Sissy aside. “Take care of Hazel, Sissy. She’s…different, like me.” Sissy had asked what he meant, but he’d remained vague. “She may not listen as well as the others, I didn’t when my Eldest raised me. He was kind and didn’t report me, though he probably should have. You have to protect her and be patient with her, so she can grow up normal, like the rest of you.” Sissy still hadn’t understood what he meant. Hazel had been barely two when he left and none of her proclivities had presented themselves yet, her defiance, her stubbornness, the time she’d broken a cup when she didn’t want to drink her juice…
Is that why they’re coming for Hazel? But…she’s still so young. Sure, she get’s frustrated and has a bit of a temper, but she’s four. She’ll grow out of it. I don’t care what Amos said, none of that means anything. No, it must be something else. Doma Bridgid said it was her tests. That there were…anomalies. But what could they be?
Sissy tried to recall the day that Hazel had come back from the four-year exams. She had seemed perfectly fine, exuberant actually. The Doma who had dropped her off had smiled and waved from the transport and Hazel had skipped (and tripped more than once) to the front door. How was she feeling? Happy. The toys had been fun to play with, different from her toys at home and therefore enthralling. The nice man with the gray jumpsuit had taken lots of notes on his tablet; wasn’t it funny that he wanted to watch her play? Why didn’t he play with her instead of just staring and writing? Grown ups could be so silly. Did Sissy want to play now?
They had all moved on after that. After all, it had been the same when each of the other children had their four year exams, so why would any of them think it would be different with Hazel? There had been nothing to indicate anything was different that day than any other day.
Sissy felt her back and shoulder’s relax. Everything was going to be okay. She gently reached out to take Hazel’s clenched fists in her own.
“Hazel?” A strand of the little girl’s dark brown hair had come out from her braid and Sissy tucked it softly behind her ear. “Sweet doll. I know you’re upset and scared, but you have to go with Doma Bridgid.”
Hazel looked up at Doma Bridgid. “No.”
The entire room gasped. Out of the corner of her eye, Sissy saw Doma Bridgid look nervously at her datascreen, cleverly avoiding the four year old’s fierce gaze across the table.
“I dun wanna go,” Hazel crossed her arms in front of her bunny and set her lips in a pout. “I wanna stay with Sissy.”
Sissy tried to look stern, but struggled. Everything about the situation they were in screamed at her to cry, to shout, to hide in fear, but then there was Hazel. Little Hazel with her pouty lip and chubby fingers, trying her best to look defiant but succeeding only in looking petulant. It was tragically comedic. Our world may be shattering, but some things never change. Hazel will always be Hazel. She always wants to be the boss instead of the baby.
Sissy sat down next to her sister and pulled her into her lap, crossed arms and all. Placing a finger under Hazel’s jaw, Sissy turned the little girl’s face to hers and fixed her with a serious eye.
“Hazel,” she said softly. “Are you listening to me?”
Reluctantly, Hazel nodded, unclenching her fists and knotting her fingers together in her lap.
“I know you don’t want to go. I understand. It’s kind of scary when we have to leave home, huh? But you know what, sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to. That’s what being a big girl really is. Doing what we have to even if we don’t want to.” Sissy choked up, the enormity of what she was asking her sister to do suddenly hitting her. I’m telling her to leave us, to go with someone she’s never met and believe that it will be okay. Last time, she knew she was coming home; this time? She may never come back… I’m asking her to trust me like she’s never trusted me before. How can they ask that of someone so young? How can I? She pressed her forehead into Hazel’s, letting the heaviness exert itself fully.
“Why so sad, Sissy?” Hazel whispered.
“I’m not sad, sweet doll,” Sissy replied.
“Then why are you crying?” Sissy watched a bead of wetness form on her nose. It seemed to hover for an instant there, unsure if it would make the plunge into the nothingness underneath it. But it did, inexorably, fall, a dark spot on her sleeve its only legacy.
Hazel reached up to wipe her sister’s tears away and, slipping, poked her in the eye instead. Anxiety now spilling over into hilarity, Sissy laughed as the room looked on, wide-eyed. Hazel’s face filled with consternation.
“Are you okay, Sissy?” Beatrice whispered.
“I….I’m okay….whew,” Sissy breathed, wiping tears and spittle away. “I’m just fine. It was an accident; she didn’t hurt me.” Sissy pulled Hazel close. She nuzzled her face into Sissy’s neck and hummed a tuneless song of relief that wrapped around them both. Sissy buried her face in the little girl’s hair and relished the scent: smelled innocent, clean, and a bit like strawberry jam.
Just like she always does. Breathe. Don’t cry in front of the children. Breathe. Let’s get this over and done with now that the storm has passed. Sissy wiggled her fingers into Hazel’s side. She giggled, squirmed, and clutched her stuffed rabbit closely to her chest to protect herself. “No fair! No fair! No tickles!”
The rest of the children shifted uncomfortably in their seats, unwilling even to whisper their uncertainty under the watchful eye of the Doma. Sissy was Eldest and they took their cues from her. If she accepted the Doma’s edict, there was no need for concern. And if Sissy could get Hazel to calm down, then much of their own fear would be allayed in the process. The air felt thick in Sissy’s mouth and the giant began to squeeze.
Undaunted, Sissy tickled and Hazel wiggled.
When they were both breathless and the tension in the room had eased, Hazel snuggled into Sissy’s arms. “I love you, Sissy.” She whispered into her neck.
“I love you too, sweet doll,” Sissy mumbled into her forehead, lips pursed in a kiss. Hazel pushed away and planted a loud, wet kiss on her sister’s cheek, then pressed her bunny into it as well.
“Kisses!” She exclaimed jubilantly, then immediately sobered as she looked deeply into her older sister’s solemn eyes. “Do I hafta go?”
“Yes, yes, sweet doll, you do. I’m so sorry.”
They sat silently for a while, foreheads pressed together. Hazel picked at her bunny’s ears. Sissy listened to her breathing, not daring to break the moment for fear that the little girl would scream or burst into tears. She could hear Fiona and Ivory fidgeting and whispered voices as Liam and Brendan kicked at each other underneath the table. Beatrice was trying, unsuccessfully, to shush them all, to give the sisters a moment together.
She’ll make a great Doma one day. Sissy thought. When she leaves home.
Grief plucked at her sleeve, asking to be let in. Some day all my brothers and sisters will leave. Maybe I’ll leave, too. We’ll all grow up and earn our places and make Father proud.
She shook grief off and felt a swell of pride. Doma Bridgid is right, Father knows best.
Across the ten-inch chasm between them, Sissy could hear Hazel thinking. Loudly. Her deep eyes were fixed on the dun-colored tile floor, brown hair slipping out from her braid to hang in a tangle around her head. Her still-baby chin was drooping, her lips parted in silent concentration.
My sweet sister, the darling and joy of our family–she’s leaving and she finally knows it. The truth was reflected in Hazel’s eyes like a betrayal. Hazel shut her eyes tight. One breath, two breaths, three. When Hazel turned back to her sister, there was only love. Love, and a question.
“You coming with me, Sissy?” Her voice was faint, as if speaking loudly would bring the truth directly to her side from where it sat placidly across the table.
“I don’t know Hazel, but I don’t think I’m allowed. Doma Bridgid is going to take you wherever you’re going.”
Doma Bridgid smiled reassuringly, “We’re going to a special place where you’ll be taken good care of, Hazel. I promise.”
Hazel pondered the information with all the seriousness that her four-year-old self could muster.
“Can I take Chester with me?” She looked down at the bunny in her tiny hands, its white fabric faded to brown with love and dust and the air.
“I don’t know, sweet doll, but we can ask.”
Woman and girl looked across the table; the Doma shook her head reluctantly. Another pause. Sissy could sense the anticipation in the room. Taut, drawn out, insistent. Finally, a small voice so faint Sissy barely heard it.
“Will I be home…after?”
Sissy reached out and drew her close when she answered. “I don’t know, little one, but no matter what happens, I love you. I’ll come see you as soon as I can.”
Hazel whimpered. “I dun wanna go, Sissy.”
“I know, sweet doll. I know. But…Father knows best.”
They sat together for a long moment as Sissy felt Hazel’s silent sobs subside into calm breathing. She felt the child nod once and then pull away, looking at her with fierce determination.
“Take care of Chester, Sissy,” she said, pushing the rabbit into Sissy’s arms as she wiggled to be put down. “He’s a scaredy bunny and needs hugs.”
Sissy’s eyes pricked and she blinked the threat away. She wouldn’t cry. Not now. Not today.
Doma Bridgid visibly relaxed. The hard part of her task now accomplished, she rose briskly from her chair and crossed the room, her hand extended to Hazel. Hazel looked up at her, then at Sissy, a question flung unspoken across the room.
“You’ll be okay, Hazel. I promise. Doma Bridgid will take care of you.”
“Of course I will!” Doma Brigid beamed. “It’s hard to understand now, but this really is the best thing for everyone.” She stood straight, Hazel’s tiny hand grasped firmly in her own, “The future is bright.”
“And peace is our shining light,” the entire room echoed in response. Sissy rose to open the door for Doma Bridgid and the entire Martin family followed the pair out into the yard. Unwilling to let their departure be in silence, Sissy burst out, “I love you, Hazel!” as Doma Bridgid marched the two of them away toward a shiny black transport.
Hazel turned, “I love you too, Sissy! Love you Bea and Ivory and Fi and Brendan and Liam and Lavy. Oh, and Chester!”
The family watched the woman and the girl walk across the dusty courtyard and out to the waiting transport. Head high, Hazel never looked back until her foot was in the door. She turned, waved, and hopped purposefully in as the door slid shut on her face and the family’s heart.
Brown. Brown. The world was brown. Brown dust at their feet and brown wind in their eyes. Brown like the aging sunlight and brown like the dirt-covered roofs of the homes lining their street. Brown like Brendan’s silent eyes and Lavender’s aching tears. Brown like Hazel’s eyes and brown like Sissy’s soul.
At that moment, brown was the loneliest color in the world.