I am not a man that women look at twice.
Yet she did, the woman I loved. Caitlyn. The name I would give to you in honour of her memory.
She was a dark-haired beauty. She saw beyond my shy conversations, and saw something in my eyes perhaps, a loneliness of soul that touched her. At first, our eyes held contact longer than necessary. On my later visits, we exchanged smiles, our first tentative conversations. A touch of fingertip to fingertip.
Our love grew, until we pledged to seek a life beyond the prison that held her. She was six months pregnant when we escaped, became man and wife, pledging together to be parted by nothing short of death.
Our pledge lasted until the end of her pregnancy, when you were thrust into this world among the echoes of your mother’s death. You did not kill her, Caitlyn. By taking her away from any medical help, I was responsible.
And although I knew then that someday I would have to pay the price for my love for you, it has arrived far, far too soon...
With late sun spreading an orange glow, wind carried the chorus of baying bloodhounds to Jordan and Caitlyn. They had climbed to the top of the mountain and reached the barren and stunted scrub pines, which grew at awkward angles from crevices in the rock.
Jordan consulted his vidpod, and assured himself that the GPS coordinates were correct. He glanced around.
Below, on one side, was the valley where the bounty hunters followed their dogs. The trail that Jordan and Caitlyn had taken up the mountain from that valley was a snake of betrayal, with the bloodhounds roaming free, picking up their scent on bushes and across the long grasses.
Jordan had seen Appalachian bear hunts and knew this would be the same, the noise of hounds galvanizing the killing lust of the Rottweilers straining against leashes, waiting for the bounty hunters to release them once the prey had been sighted. To the Rottweilers, there was no difference between bear or human. Nor, probably, any difference for the bounty hunters.
The other side of the pinnacle was a drop of hundreds of feet where a waterfall fed an ancient rift of stone that widened into a valley, with the occasional bounce of sunlight off curves of the stream far below and a panoramic view of other mountain tops.
They were trapped.
Jordan put his arms around Caitlyn, as if protecting her from the noise of the hounds. He was a tall man in his fifties, thin and muscled from years of repetitive labour. The wind plucked at his untrimmed, greying hair.
“Papa,” Caitlyn said, leaning into his chest, the wind rocking them slightly.
Papa. One gentle word.
It had been three days since they had fled the collective, with bounty hunters in pursuit. Jordan had taken them half the length of Appalachia, and was exhausted. He knew he could contain the exhaustion enough to hide it from Caitlyn, and hold it off long enough to do what was needed. His sorrow, however, was so overwhelming that he didn’t know if he could trust his voice.
He stepped back and took her face in his hands, desperate for time to stop. Through the years, it had been too dangerous for the luxury of photographs. Jordan’s scrapbook of Caitlyn’s childhood was a series of different moments committed to memory, moments where he was far too aware that it would all be taken from him someday.
Without her coat, lying on the ground beside them, Caitlyn’s slenderness was striking. To Jordan, the beauty in her face gave her a dignity much greater than her lack of size. The pupils in her eyes were eerily large, her fingers like long claws. He had learned to love those fingers and hands, the unnatural thin delicacy of her legs and arms and torso. He’d long stopped noticing the coarse hair on the hunch centered between her shoulders.
Caitlyn smiled back at Jordan. A small, hesitant smile that betrayed the fear she tried to hide from him.
“This is my fault, Papa,” she said. “I am so sorry for what I’ve done to us. Whatever it is, I didn’t mean to do it. Tell them that. You don’t need to be punished. You’ve done enough, never leaving someone like me.”
Her words almost broke the last of his strength and composure. But Jordan knew what she meant. She wondered if she had inadvertently broken a law. If she had triggered something that the Elders needed to punish? Had she been seen without her coat, or said something that was reported?
“No,” Jordan told Caitlyn. “You did nothing wrong.”
He wanted to hold her again. But it would be a comfort of deception and shame. His shame. He should tell her that they were paying for his sins, not hers.
Hiding during the day, traveling the dangerous paths through the valleys at night, he’d been snatching moments to write the letter that would explain. Because she would despise him later, he wanted his final memories of her to be untainted by the horror of comprehension that would come with truth.
It was not the time to confess his sins. It was time instead to send her into the abyss.
Jordan could not hope for a sacrificial ram to appear, but understood what it must have been like for Abraham to climb Moriah to the place of sacrifice with trembling mixture of faith and hope and sadness that was a far heavier burden than any physical weight. Caitlyn, like Isaac, in her trust had been totally unaware of the purpose of their climb. Isaac’s ignorance could have only deepened Abraham’s sorrow, as Caitlyn’s did for Jordan.
Yet Abraham wouldn’t have seen in Isaac’s eyes what Jordan saw now in his daughter.
The wind and the height, as it always did, awakened an instinct in Caitlyn. On other days like this all through her childhood, Jordan had taken Caitlyn to places where they could be alone and quiet, often at the edge of a cliff to give them a view, with Jordan hiding from Caitlyn how badly he was trying to suck the marrow out of each second together.
That sweet poignancy of those picnics had always intensified as he observed little Caitlyn marvel at the hawks soaring below them, their shadows flashing across the tops of the pines of the valley. Caitlyn had watched with unknowing longing, the way God’s touch makes human souls instinctively yearn for a place unseen.
Despite the baying of hounds, a constant reminder of the danger, Jordan hoped that this same longing had returned to her.
In the last few months, triggered by puberty occurring far later than most girls, changes had rapidly forced themselves on Caitlyn’s body. She’d became voraciously hungry, especially for milk and meats. The hunch between her shoulders had grown like a cancer, spreading down her back in slow ripples, shiny and swollen until near bursting. The coarse hair draping her shoulders and upper back and arms became thicker than straw, and the outer layers of what had once been hair became dull with a sheath of dead, flaky skin. Fear from a first menstrual cycle Jordan had been able to explain. As for the growing bulge, he did little except assure her that it was what her body was meant to do. Anything more would have meant revealing the horror that he was too cowardly to expose, except by letter.
Jordan wore a hip pack. He unbuckled it and squatted as he reached inside. When he stood again, he offered Caitlyn a piece of clothing.
“You need to wear this.”
She frowned. To her, it was obviously far too small. Jordan knew better.
“A microfabric,” he said. “It will stretch.”
She ran the shiny smooth black material across her face. “Microfabric?”
All her life, her clothing had been rough cotton. She’d never seen material like this. “From Outside,” Jordan explained, although this answer alone would raise a dozen more questions. Before she could ask, Jordan spoke again.
“You’ll need to shed all your other clothing. Step into it, and pull it up your body.”
He faced the other way to give her privacy, although her thin body had few curves to suggest womanhood. Perhaps the microfabric wasn’t needed, but he wasn’t going to send her into the abyss naked, like an animal.
“Papa,” she said, “at the back. I can’t reach.”
He turned to her.
The microfabric emphasized her sleekness. It was sleeveless and would not restrict her arms. She spun to show him her back. The shiny black suit was open in a long slit, and the monstrous bulge of her back protruded part way through.
Jordan was satisfied with the tailoring. The suit was worth the money and risk of getting it smuggled into Appalachia. “Leave me your blouse,” Jordan said. “Put the rest of your clothes on. The coat too.”
He didn’t have to tell her why she needed the coat. To hide the bulge.
“Remember everything I’ve taught you about Outside.” He’d always let her believe they would be escaping together.
He took a shoelace from his pocket that he’d kept in preparation, and tied it through a button hole of the blouse.
“Papa, what is happening?”
Through the years, he’d suffered her anguish at any reminder that she was so different. How much easier it would have been to show her a cocoon discarded by a butterfly, explaining the purpose of her hideous hump and what joy could be ahead of her? But it would have led to the other questions that he had never wanted to answer. So again and continuously, he’d been a coward. Not explaining.
He placed the vidpod in her hands. “Unregistered. Use it for navigation. I have one too.”
“Unregistered!” All Appalachians knew the sentence was five years in the factory for anyone caught in possession of an unregistered vidpod.
“That’s not important,” Jordan uncoiled a rope from the hip pack. Thin, nylon, lightweight. “Below us is stream. Follow it upstream to a cave behind a waterfall. Inside, you’ll find instructions. Hurry out of the valley. Travel tonight. I don’t know how long I can delay them. ”
She blinked hard. “No, Papa!”
“You have to make it Outside.” Jordan spoke as he tied one end of the rope to the trunk of a stunted tree.
“Nobody makes it Outside. Please, don’t leave me.”
“There is a man named Brij. Among the Clan. He’s waiting for you.”
“Caitlyn, you’ve been taught not to fear the legends.”
“I can’t go without you.”
“We can’t both make it.” Jordan threw the loose end of the rope over the edge of the cliff. He had full confidence she could climb down with ease. She was light-boned. Muscle and sinew. Unnaturally so, and unnaturally strong. “This will get you to a ledge below. You’ll find more rope to help you climb down.”
“Not without you.” She wept.
“Listen to the hounds,” he said. “We don’t have much time.”
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier this was your plan?”
He tested the rope again, looked over the edge and swallowed back the feeling of vertigo. He knew Caitlyn didn’t share that fear. “I can only ask that you trust me.”
“I won’t leave you.”
“You have no choice, he said, shaking off the spinning sensation. “You can’t be taken, dead or alive. You must not fall into their hands.”
“Who are they?” She reached for him. “Tell me what this means! Papa, I’m afraid.”
He stepped back. It hurt, not to reach for her. “Trust me, Caitlyn.”
“Papa!” He’d never rejected her before. But if he held her now, he would lose his resolve and keep her in his arms until the dogs arrived.
“Caitlyn. I love you as big and forever as the sky.” That had been their game.
Caitlyn, how much does Papa love you?
As big and forever as the sky, Papa.
He squatted and reached into the hip pack again. The letter. His confession. He walked around her again, and slid it between the microfabric and her body.
“Take the rope,” he said. He spoke in such a way that she wouldn’t fight him any longer. “Now.”
He helped her over the edge of the cliff.
“Papa,” she cried. “Papa!”
He steeled himself to ignore her, acutely aware at how little her delicate body weighed. He waited until her weight was no longer on the rope, then untied it and eased it down the cliff.
“Papa!” Wind brought her plaintive cry up to him.
Jordan leaned forward and whispered it again. “I love you as big and as forever as the sky.”
Then he took the lace that he’d tied to her blouse. He began to walk quickly, dragging the blouse behind him. The longer he could keep the hounds pursuing her scent, the better the chances that Caitlyn would make it Outside.
At best, he’d stay ahead of the hounds another half hour. Long enough to make it difficult, if not impossible, to backtrack and discover where Caitlyn had escaped.
The dark of night would be a mercy of sorts. He’d hear the hounds, but in the final moments, they’d only be a frenzy of shadows, throwing themselves upon him.
Then, finally, his guilt and grief would end.