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FORMLESS: Chapter 4: Before the Dawn

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All is darkness around me. The One is here, floating above a mass of souls. I am not one of them - yet.


“Do you see these lost ones?” It asks. “If so, then ask yourself a question: What is Despair?”


“Great sadness.”


“Yes, but in an ultimate sense, what is it?”


Suspended in everlasting space, I’m caught between damnation and salvation. “The utter loss of Hope.”


“Yes. These souls lack all capacities except to feel PAIN, eternal pain and punishment. It must be so.”



Our wakehorn sounds, its deep metallic throat rumbling an order twice: Vuu-uum! Vuu-uum! Arise!


I’m paralyzed with fright, my whole body unable to move. I’ve turned to stone beneath my bedclothes, but my mind is still trapped and trembling within. I can’t even open my eyes. I might as well be in the Void.


One more time I hear Vuu-uum, a final warning for all our field hands. If they don’t get moving, they won’t have enough time to wash up and eat their breakfasts, however meager, before the overseers come. Even with the Selection looming at dawn, no one would dare to leave them unsupervised. We slaves have the best chance to slip away unnoticed in a large, unorganized crowd. However, trying to escape our plantation today would be rather pointless. Why run for it when you could be Selected and set free by the Unumites? Besides, our overseers always have their hounds with them, ready to hunt and track.


My bedchamber door suddenly creaks open, and I jump awake. “Emmy?” asks a raspy female voice.


“Young Miss? What are you doing up so early? You scared the living innards out of me!”


She raises a lit candle and smiles sheepishly. “I’m sorry. I would like a bath, especially before sunrise.”


I sit up, but don‘t push my covers off right away. “You’re going to watch the Selection, then. Still worried?”


“You’re going to be chosen by the most devout followers of the One. I had a dream.”


“So did I.” Mine was a nightmare, as a matter of fact, but I don’t believe that joining the Unumites will be.


“It shall happen this time, Emmy. I’m never going to see you again.”


“Only the One knows.” Still, I climb out of bed and put on a long white robe in the near-blackness. Maybe I’ll bathe after finishing with Young Miss, because her leftover water is often scented with perfume. After I follow her to the slightly chilly tub room, I ask her to wait while I draw some hot water from the kettle in our kitchen. I can do that, at least, but the scullion Opal has to help me haul the full buckets up the stairs. She doesn’t mind, or at least she kindly spares my feelings and doesn’t complain out loud. This morning she’s in a particularly joyful mood, humming and smiling as if she were already free.


Maybe we’ll both be Selected. The chances of that are very slim, but I wonder: Is it really due to chance?


“No more of this for me after today,” Opal says with a wink. “I like helping you, but these things are heavy.” I nod and continue up the stairs, holding on tightly to the iron handrail. It curves toward the top like a snake. Opal follows, being careful not to spill a drop, and then we head down to the tub room. After she and I fetch a few more bucketfuls, I help Young Miss. She lowers herself into the steaming bath and sighs.


“Ahh…Please wash away all of my apprehension!” She leans back in the tub and closes her eyes.


I fetch a rag and bar of scented soap, replacing the last sliver of the old one. As I begin to wet and lather her torso, I’m struck by how tense she is. Young Miss has slabs of marble for shoulders, and I do my best to give her a massage. With firm, slow strokes, I attempt to loosen them up, but they do not relax.


“I don’t understand, Emmy,” she murmurs in the candlelight. “I never have. The Unumites give and take away, but for what purpose?” I stay silent as she continues. “They were the very first people to come to this island, guided by the One in ancient days. Therefore they own it, and may do as they please, but why do they have so little consideration for us - or the slaves?” Young Miss speaks fast. “I mean, you - ”


“Would it be so terrible if I went with them and were freed, Miss?” Horrified at myself, I turn my head and lower my right cheek for a slap. It’s an instinctive reaction, borne of thousands of days under the tutelage of Diamond and Madame. I expect Young Miss to do as they have done. I squint my eyes shut tight, waiting for pain. However, instead of stinging agony, I feel a caress. She has turned my face toward hers.


“It’s time I told you the whole truth.” Her voice is barely above a whisper. “Year after year, I have asked Father about the Selection. In turn, year after year, Father has asked them. However, the Unumites have never revealed anything of substance. They claim that we are ‘still of the world,’ meaning that we haven’t forsaken it and turned to their ascetic ways. We continue to run plantations, harvest crops, and increase our wealth. That’s what Father keeps bringing up in his arguments, or so he tells me: ‘From an economic standpoint, you’re killing us through your Selections. You‘re taking good slaves away from our family‘.”


“What do the Unumites say?”


“According to Father, the Exarch, or High Priest of the Masked Ones, always answers: ‘Are we not Firstfruits? Are we not the best of the One’s harvest, the finest seeds grown to maturity? Did not the One lead us to this island long before your people discovered it? You hoped for a place of warmth and plenty, to escape the cold, sparse lands you once called home. However, you did not suspect we were here. In our mountainside city, we watched you from on high, and were tempted to conquer you in the name of the One. Yet It stayed our hand. Our ancestors made a pact with yours: Nourish our bodies, and we shall nourish your souls‘.” Young Miss snorts. “That is, give us food, and we’ll feed you promises of heaven.”


“Which will all be fulfilled, if we’re obedient.” Speaking of which, I continue to soap her body downward.


“We’ve been obedient. We have greatly sacrificed to the Unumites and the One, but how come we haven’t been blessed in kind for the past five years? Shouldn’t we be prospering instead of perishing?”


After thinking for a bit, I quote scripture: “Labor not with thought of reward. The One is sufficient for thee.”


Young Miss’s shoulders slump at last. “I know. Still, we need to keep what we have instead of letting all of it slip through our fingers! In our fields alone, we’ve gone from having 144 hands, to 136, to 128, to 120, to 112. We haven’t been able to afford to replace those we’ve lost, either…” She hangs her head to cry. To camouflage her tears, I gently pour water on her head from a pitcher and wash her hair.


As I work fragrant extracts of flowers into it, so that white foam nestles among her chestnut tresses, I tell her: “You still have your freedom. You are the Second-fruits, after all, instead of being slaves yourselves.”


“Aye, but what do you think I’ll be in a loveless marriage, or in debtors’ prison if worse comes to worst?”


Words begin vomiting forth out of my mouth like poisoned morsels: “No matter what, you’ll never be examined like a horse and sent to market. You’ll never be presented nude to strangers, which I was when your father once thought of selling me. Do you recall that? Most of all, you will never bear the cunning stares of merchants and rich fops, calculating what you’re worth inside their tall and greedy heads - ”


All of a sudden, she slaps me hard, when I’m completely unprepared. “How dare you? Know your place!”


“I’m sorry…” I catch my breath. She’s knocked the wind out of me, and then I start to weep as well.


“Emmy?” She clutches me to her, still wet and soapy. I can feel her sorrow in the trembling of her frame.


“What’s all that racket?” calls a sharp voice from down the hall. “Emerald? Berezina?” We both freeze. “Diamond? Where are you, you lazy wench? I hope that I won’t have to go to your room and wake you.”


It’s HER. If she does have to come down and get Diamond up, it will be with her favorite belt buckle.


“Right away, Madame, right away…” I hear my mentor and superior’s weary voice grow closer. She opens the tub-room door and sees us: one naked, one nearly so. “You! Hurry up with your work. Do you hear?”


“Aye, ma’am.” Diamond shuts the door, and I quickly finish giving Young Miss her bath. After I rinse and dry her off, I ask, “May I wash now? The Selection is - ” She smiles and nods in double-time, meaning Quickly! I don‘t need to be told twice. I hop into the tub and start scrubbing with all my might, not caring that the water’s lukewarm and used. It’s chock-full of suds, and that’s more than enough for me. I have no time to luxuriate, however. I must help Young Miss to dress. When I’m finally dried off, Madame bursts in:


“What are you doing? Did you take a bath as well? Fetch more water, then, Emerald. I won’t use yours.” There’s a slight sneer in her voice, but mostly frustration. I put my robe back on and call for Opal from the hallway. As quickly as I can, I want to get away from Madame. Her daughter isn’t the only one who’s on edge today, and might snap. I’m terrible at receiving blows. I haven’t gotten many, but every time it seems to hurt more. If I do or say one more thing wrong, I’m going to earn more than a strike upon the cheek.


“Emmy, I’m sorry…” Young Miss tries to hug me again, but I slip a chemise over her head before she can.


Am I a chair or a table? Do you think I feel no pain? I’m sorry for what I said, but I couldn’t help myself!


After a long pause, I kneel at her bare feet. “For my impudence, I beg your pardon, Young Miss.”


She kneels down beside me, and I feel my eyes widen in surprise. “Nay. It is I who should beg yours.” With both of our bodies safely clothed, we embrace once more. The despair in her dark eyes speaks volumes: No matter how much I try not to be, I’m just like my mother. Father, too. You’re more than just a slave to me, and I don’t want to lose you. The Selection may set you free today, but I’ll still be a prisoner.


“Come on,” I try and tell her with a smile. “Even though the sky is not yet light, dawn will be here soon.”


“Don’t remind me.” Young Miss smiles back, and I pull out the chair at her vanity table. “I’d wear mourning, but do you remember the one time I did?” We laugh. “Don’t be melodramatic, dear,” she says, imitating Madame’s refined voice. “They are only slaves, but for some reason, every year the Unumites want eight of them. Go upstairs and change, and take Emerald with you. How about your amber velvet gown?” She shakes her head. “That’s their color, and it’s hideous. I like blues and violets, hues of the sea and sky.”


“Then that’s what you’ll wear, after I get out of this damp tub robe.” Hastily, I put on a semi-formal cotton dress. It’s appropriate for housemaids at our weekly outdoor chapel services, and is the fanciest garment I have. As for Young Miss? I select a periwinkle satin gown with complementary ribbon roses on the bodice. As I’m dressing and lacing her up, I glance at our reflections. Her face is full and glowing. Mine is a skull.


I gasp, teeter and almost fall down. Luckily, I’m able to grab onto Young Miss’ chair to steady myself.


“Are you all right?”


“Yes. I just lost my balance.” Now, should I tell her…? “Miss? How much do you know about the Void?”




“The Void.” I swallow hard. “ ‘Tis what I saw last night. My dream scared me so much I couldn’t move.”


“Oh, no.” She sits down. “That means one of three things. Before I tell you what they are, I must ask you a question: Have you ever read the whole of our scriptures, cover to cover?” I shake my head. “Most likely, you haven’t had time. The part I’m talking about is near the end, within our eight Path of Holiness epistles.”


“I’ve heard Master read those letters in our chapel services, so how come I can’t remember that part?”


Young Miss smirks. “He never reads it. He shouldn’t, not if he doesn’t want to frighten the hands’ children.” As I brush and style her hair, she continues: “You might think it strange that the only verses about the Void are nestled within a series of comforting passages about what we must do to become united with our god. Only the Unumites understand the hidden meanings behind all of the letters’ metaphors, especially about Epistle Seven, The Everlasting Body of the One. In the middle of that enigma, however, the Void suddenly appears. It makes no sense, except perhaps to show what happens to those who refuse the One outright.”


“So, what happens?”


She lowers her voice. “Do you know where we all go after we die, Emerald, whether slaves or free men?”


I nod. “Before our deity, in a realm between this earth and the Void itself. It is the color of early sunset.”


“Such is why I hate the hue of amber, I suppose. Anyway, we are each tried according to our good works and obedience. The most righteous are given trial first, and offered Blessed Union right away. The more sinful and disobedient that you have been, the longer you have to wait before your own judgment day.”


“Aye. If I remember correctly, there’s a verse that says: Even in lingering after death, ye may still repent.”


“The One is merciful and holds forth Its guiding hand, even unto the very end. However, that end will and must come. The Void is the final abode of the vilest men, even worse than murderers. Over time that has stretched out almost eternally, like the horizon, they have come to hate the One with all of their being. Not only have they refused Blessed Union, but they know absolutely everything about what it entails. Such people are very few and far between. I suspect that not even all of the One’s most devout followers have this level of knowledge of holy mysteries. There is another factor that gets one sent to the Void as well.”


Dead silence. “What is it?” I hold up a comb for Young Miss’ hair, but am alarmed by her blank stare.


She recites a verse as if in a trance: “They must have nearly become as I am, and also as the Dragon.”




Young Miss shakes her head rapidly to clear it. “I don’t know what came over me. Pay me no mind.”


How can you say that? In just a few minutes, you’ve taught me more than all I’ve learned in sixteen years!


After clearing my throat, I ask her, “You said that my dream meant one of three things. What are they?”


We both hear a call from below - my Master’s voice: “Berezina? Emerald? Where are you?”


“We’re coming, right away!” Young Miss jumps up and rushes downstairs quickly. I follow her and find that he and Madame are already standing in the foyer. So are Diamond, Equus, and stooped old Crow.


“Now, are we all assembled?” Master asks. “This might be the very last time we see some of you.”


“Wait! Wait for me!” Pad, pad, pad, pad, pad come the footfalls of someone who’s supposed to be asleep.


“It is not even six o’clock in the morning, young man,” his father says firmly. “Back to bed at once, Tib.”


“But Emmy and Equus could get sleck - I mean, picked by the tall, bald people who follow the One!”


“I know. However, you need your rest. Bear or Opal will fix you a hot water bottle. Come on, now.”


“NO!” He stomps. “Who will give me any horse rides if Equus is gone, or tell me stories if Emmy is?”


“I’ll make you a bargain,” says our butler with a warm smile.


“What bargain?” He raises an eyebrow. “Is that like a deal? Why can’t I watch the Slecktion, Equus?”


“That’s exactly what it is, and you might make too much noise. You have much of the Dragon in you yet.”


“I do not!” Tib pouts. “That mean old Dragon is bad and eats people up. I’m good. Now, what’s the deal?”


“I’ll give you one ride, with lots of bucking and neighing. Then you must return to bed, my lad.”


“Aye!” Equus kneels down on all fours, like his animal namesake, and Tib clambers up on his back.


“One moment,” says his father, motioning for him to dismount Equus. “We must say our morning prayer.” Reluctantly Tib climbs down, and then we all sink to our knees. Equus, being strong, helps me to mine. Master starts, as he always does: “Mighty One, the Lord and Maker of all, we bow down before you. In you alone lies safety and peace. In you alone lies the plan of bliss and salvation in the everlasting eternities. We are naught but wretched sinners, yet you have provided a way for us to repent and be united in you.”

Madame continues: “Your path is narrow and your way difficult to find, yet we have found it. Through your most devoted servants, the Firstfruits of your creation, we have been taught Eight Vows which we’ll recite.”


In unison we chant the tenets of our faith, the promises we make in return for the One’s greatest promise:


“I shall always fear and serve you, the only One.

I shall never worship idols.

I shall never take your holy name in vain.

I shall never commit murder.

I shall never commit adultery.

I shall never steal.

I shall never lie.

I shall always obey all of your commandments,

That I may be united with you in the everlasting eternities.

So let it be;

So must it be.”


Almost immediately afterward, as if on cue, we hear the Unumites‘ chanting. The dawn is about to break.

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