Note: I wrote this for a class last year and would love to turn it into a novella so any feedback, good or bad, is greatly appreciated.

The People's Blessing

"Do you think this is the best choice?" she asked him. Kallie's long dark hair gleamed in the sunlight as she turned her head to meet his eyes.

"Zen thinks it's our best option. It's the only way other People will accept you," Gareth said.

"But is that what you think? Not what he thinks. You. Because if you think so, I'll do it."

He needed no time to ponder the question. He knew it was the right way, the only way. "Zen is smart, and he's tried to help us all along. If he says it'll help, we should do it."

"Alright."

Silence fell between them for a moment.

"Why do you ask? I thought you said yesterday you were okay with it," he eventually said. "And we agreed then that we wouldn't be able to get married here if you didn't."

Kallie shrugged. "I don't know. It's just…he did say it might be dangerous. The ceremony and all…"

"I've done it a dozen times. It's perfectly safe!"

"But I'm an Outsider and you're not. And everyone says that Outsiders are just… different."

He lay down on the grass and watched the clouds move quickly across the sky. "You and I both know that's a lie. So you weren't born one of the People. Why does it matter, if you're willing to live the same way we do?"

"If blood didn't matter, we wouldn't be in this situation." She lay down next to him and trailed her fingers down the buttons of his shirt. "You're probably right and it'll be okay. I just wish I knew exactly what will happen, is all."

"I'll tell you what'll happen," he said, watching her hand move lower. "You'll become one of us, the People will love you, and we'll be able to live the good life together. In peace."

She closed her eyes and smiled. "When you say it, I almost believe it."

------

She'd come to the People's lands the winter before, with a pretty face, and a past best left forgotten. Most of the People just saw Kallie as an Outsider; though they allowed her to live and work among them, she could not participate in their ceremonies or enter the Community Hall because she had not proven herself to be truly one of them.

The People had seen many Outsiders come and go over the years. They were attracted by the promise of the good life, of a world without pain or disease, a place without crime and sin. Most Outsiders were turned away before they even set foot on the People's lands. Some stayed a little while and left when they realized they would remain second-class citizens. But then there were those like her, motivated to stay and willing to accept the challenges the good life presented. For them, for her, there would only be one chance.

------

Zen knocked at Gareth's back door a little before sunset. "Is she ready yet? The ceremony starts in a few moments. We can't be late."

"She's ready, Zen, she's ready. Do you have the blindfold?" he asked, and the older man handed him a red cotton scarf.

Kallie stood in front of him as he placed the blindfold over her eyes, laughing nervously when he had trouble tying it. "Is this really necessary right now? I know I'm not supposed to see the inside of the Hall until after the ceremony but I do know where it is. Why can't I just walk there on my own and then have you blindfold me?"

"It's symbolic, or something," Gareth said as he smoothed her straight black hair. "Like you don't really see the world until you're one of us and then since the first thing you see is the Hall, it's the most important thing to you. And the People are the most important thing."

"And if I fall on my face on the way there? Is that necessary for the ceremony as well?" she teased.

"Maybe to show you're above the sin of Pride. Besides, I won't let you fall," Gareth replied, and led her from the room.

"I know."

------

The People had few requirements for membership. Nearly all of the People could trace their families to one woman, the Great Mother, who gave birth to eleven children in the Age of Darkness, creating a perfect family and a society to nurture it. To be born one of the People meant instant inclusion in their society, even if they never went to the Hall or participated in ceremonies.

It was rare for Outsiders to join the People, but it did happen. To become one of the People, an Outsider needed to prove their worth to the Great Mother in a purging ceremony to forgive their sins. Only if the Outsider's worth was greater than the weight of their sins would they be able to join the fold. If not, they left the People's lands forever.

------

Kallie stumbled on the dirt path and gripped his hand tightly to steady herself. He was surprised she made no remark on that, given her earlier comments about falling over.

"Are you nervous or angry with me?" Gareth asked, knowing her silence could only mean one of those things.

"A little bit of both, actually," she said matter-of-factly. "Are we almost there?"

"Halfway. We're about-"

"This is meant to be a silent procession," Zen reminded them. The older man gave him a stern look. He bowed his head meekly, ashamed to be so rude.

She smiled as if she knew he had done so, and her thumb surreptitiously caressed his skin as he held her hand in his.

He wished he could say a few words right then.

------

The Great Mother was feared in her time as an almost mystical being. She possessed vitality and beauty never before seen by humans. For this she was banished by her family and fled to the wild places of the world.

She drank away her loneliness with wine she made on her own, and lived off the land. In time she made a life for herself away from normal people. But tales of her beauty drew many young suitors, who she willingly took to her bed.

But the Great Mother always outlived her lovers and carried only one child per suitor before she moved on to other prospects. Her children followed in her example, enjoying the fruits of the land and loving as many as they pleased. The Great Mother's tribe began to grow at an astonishing rate, aided by their beauty and the longevity they all had from the Great Mother's blood.

------

Zen led the way through the town, past the houses with their doors closed and the shutters pulled. Behind some of the shutters, Gareth thought he saw the flickering glow of lamplight, peeking out at them from between the slats.

No People watched them, though. The streets were cleared for the ceremony, allowing the three of them to make their way to the Hall as quickly as possible to start this new chapter of their lives.

Their small procession paused at the steps of the Community Hall. Zen stepped forward and knocked three times on the heavy wooden door, with three resounding thuds that made Kallie jump and her long black hair shiver with excitement.

The Keeper of the Hall, a tall woman whose name Gareth couldn't remember, opened the door and bowed to the older man. Zen bowed back and said, "I bring one of the Untested so the Great Mother may look upon her and judge whether she is worthy of joining the People."

"The Great Mother welcomes you, brother," the Keeper replied and stood aside to let them enter the Hall.

He led Kallie to the center of the room and helped her kneel on the red floor cushion. He took his place at her right side on a white floor cushion, Zen knelt on her left side, and the Keeper stood over them and said, "The ceremony of first fruit will now begin."

------

The ceremony of first fruit, the first time one of the blood drank the People's wine, was a rite of passage for full citizenship among the People. Successful completion at adulthood officially welcomed an individual into the community of kindred souls.

The People cultivated a wild vine that was largely unknown to Outsiders and the wine made from its berries was carefully guarded by the People. It was said that only those the Great Mother favored could enjoy the wine and all others felt her wrath. In truth, the first exposure to the berry wine made everyone ill, though the People rarely had more than a mild reaction and that vanished from then on. The first drink, or the first fruit, thus symbolized the purging of the person's sins. Those who were unfit to join the People, those with too many sins, would be cast out, to live the remainder of their lives outside of Paradise. They would leave town, packed up in the night as if the People had never known them, and they were never spoken of again.

No one got a second chance.

------

The Keeper set a large wine glass in front of each of them. Kallie breathed in as the sound of pouring wine filled the room.

"I'm definitely nervous now," she whispered to Gareth, and Zen nodded at him. It was okay to reply.

"I was nervous too," he said, and laid a hand on her knee. "Before my first ceremony, all the older boys told me horror stories about it and I was terrified. But aside from an awful stomachache for a few minutes, I did just fine."

"That's not very reassuring," she said. But she covered his hand with her own. "What if I fail?"

"How could you? You've lived just like us for months now. You've worked with us, eaten with us, made friends with us… You're practically one of us already."

The Keeper finished pouring the wine, watching the proceedings with a serene face.

"If it was that easy, more Outsiders would do this." Kallie frowned.

"Then if you fail, and I doubt you will, I'll leave with you." Zen and the Keeper looked at each other and then at Gareth. He stared defiantly back. "If we can't be together here, we'll find a place we can be."

Zen opened his mouth to speak but she spoke first. "Are you sure?"

"I'd follow you anywhere. I'd never want to go on living here without you."

"Even though it's Paradise?" She smiled.

"It'd be the darkest depth of the underworld if you left."

The Keeper cleared her throat and held up a wine glass. He helped her find her own wine glass and they all drank until their glasses were empty. Then they lounged on their cushions in solemn silence and waited to see what the judgment would be.

------

Much of the Great Mother's life was unknown to her children, and thus to the People. They knew her family had shunned her; they did not know she had been banished from her village because the people believed she was a witch. They knew she was healthy and long-lived, but they didn't know that was what started the witch accusations. They knew she liked her berry wine but very few realized that the berries were the source of her vitality and the perfect health of her descendents. They knew the berries could make people quite ill; only a handful knew they could kill.

The four of them spent the waiting time in reflection of the life Kallie was about to begin as one of the People.

Or they were supposed to. Instead, Gareth spent that time studying the way her dark straight hair curled up slightly at the ends as if wishing to stroke her face. Or perhaps those were just his own desires, coloring his observations.

She held up well at first and showed no sign of discomfort for nearly half an hour while the wine took hold. Once or twice she idly reached up to scratch an itch caused by the red blindfold but she kept still for the most part.

He closed his eyes. If he listened hard enough, he could hear the sounds of night settling over the town. Families whispering behind their shutters, carried on the breeze with the sounds of crickets in the grass and a distant owl in the woods behind the hall…Gareth thought a soft skittering in the wall might even be a mouse.

Then he heard her sharp intake of breath and opened his eyes in time to see her clutch at her abdomen. And then she was screaming.

------

Before the Great Mother was banished, she ate a berry off a wild vine and did not die. The people of her village knew this must mean she had sold her soul to the devil and would soon destroy them all. They chased the witch away, afraid of her unnatural ability to survive a death sentence.

The Great Mother hated the people for hating what they did not understand. She did not understand well herself, but she became obsessed with finding others who were different like she was. When she took a lover, she slipped him wine from the poisonous berry, to test him. All her children lived but all her lovers died. The Great Mother did not weep for them. It was better that they were dead than living as just an average human.

Through her, a more perfect race would rise and soon the unknown would be the norm and the people who banished her would know what it felt like to be an Outsider.

Kallie vomited on the floor and he rushed to help and comfort her. She trembled violently in his arms.

"She will not become one of the People," Zen suddenly intoned. "It is time for her to leave the People's lands."

He stared at the older man, horrified. "But it's barely started. She just needs—"

"She has already failed the test," Zen interrupted. "The Great Mother is not pleased with her and now she-"

"She needs to stay here until this passes and then we can leave, but—"

"Enough!" Zen shouted and he realized that was the first time Gareth had ever heard Zen raise his voice. The older man put a hand on his shoulder. "Help her up."

"But I don't understand," he said as he reluctantly obeyed and she stumbled to her feet. The blindfold fell crooked on her face and he reached to pull it off, so she could see where to walk but the Keeper grabbed his arm.

"The Great Mother has decided she must pay for her sins in flesh," the woman said. "She cannot see the inside the Hall or look upon the faces of the People ever again."

"In flesh?" she asked, voice barely audible through her pain.

He looked to Zen and Zen pointed to the floor and for the first time he saw blood in the vomit. The People never bled from the wine…only Sinners received that type of punishment.

"I don't know what she's talking about," he told her. She couldn't be a Sinner; she was just like him! He didn't understand…

Zen pushed them forward, out of the Hall and down the steps and then the dirt road out of town. As the shadows changed from buildings to trees and the darkness of the forest surrounded them, she fell to her knees in the dirt, unable to continue.

He didn't care if the People called her a Sinner; he threw the blindfold into the darkness and met her eyes for the last time.

"Tell me…it'll all be okay," she demanded, looking past him at the few stars visible between the branches. "When you say it…I almost believe it."

He sobbed out his reply and she breathed out but never breathed in again.

Zen put a hand on his shoulder and he pulled away. "I thought you were my friend," he spat. He glared up at the older man, who was silvery blue in the moonlight. "You knew this would happen but you didn't tell me?"

"I knew it could happen," Zen said, voice quiet but unashamed. "But I couldn't tell you. She had to be tested. It wasn't my decision; it was the Great Mother's."

"And now she's dead. She's dead and I led her to her death." He fell apart again, pulling her close, stroking her hair. When he was coherent again, he was also angry. "And because of you." He lay her gently on the ground and stood up, meeting the old man's eyes. "And I'll tell them all, all of the People. They need to know what you do to Outsiders! You murder them and pretend to be perfect, without sin! You're the Sinner here, not her! I'll tell everyone-"

Zen and the Keeper both shook their heads, silencing him. "That can't be allowed, my child," the Keeper said. "It would bring chaos to Paradise. We won't allow it."

"What will you do? All I have to do is get one person to listen and-"

"You would be exiled if you did." Zen said.

"It is the law, criminals cannot stay in Paradise," the Keeper agreed.

He looked down at her body on the dirt path. "You're wrong," he said. "This isn't Paradise."

He left the People's lands that night, for the first and the last time.

Only three People knew what happened that night, and two of them wouldn't say anything about it.