I used to wonder what I would do when I grew up if I grew up at all. The end of the world solved that for me, when everyone who survived was seen as an adult as long as you were too big to be carried by another. I still couldn’t decide if being free of that worry was a good thing, though being with these people, I didn’t have to worry about the struggles others faced.
The sermon today is longer than usual. That's bad. Is it going to be Judgment Day in Purgatory? It was bad both because it makes me bored until I have something to do but also because the long sermons mean that there is a long, drawn out ceremony later that can wear me out. Everyone gets tired though they aren't allowed to sleep during service. That would bring the Proctors down upon them and the discipline they "mete". No one wants a “meting” with a punishment stick. The world outside ended, but the strength of the Proctors' discipline keeps the chaos out there from getting here. Standing with the Proctors, I dare not look more than attentive as the words roll on and on. We're fallen, all fallen, the speech drones, though we stand strong in the world as a testament. We march on as soldiers in faith, and thus, might find redemption.
I'm not a Proctor yet, only their servant. I'm not old enough, not faithful enough, for the higher position and better life. Yet this life is better. I have fought with my demons. I've been taught how to control it, control them. My only fear is that one day, I'll slip. Only the Proctors' discipline and purpose keeps me under control, as well as gives me an outlet for my passions. Praise the Lord, I remind myself.
The preacher and messiahs began to ramp up the volume. People started to wake up inside, whether they’d been tired or simply numb inside. The reminders of faith become refrains of glory, a reason to sing. It also indicates the end of the lecture and transition to action.
God rained down a water flood to wash the evil away the first time. Now we're living through the fire, a final test for those still here. God is giving us a chance, in mercy, to prove ourselves worthy before we ourselves are consumed. This isn't Hell - that's worse. This is Purgatory, the grey in-between. After we die, we go to Heaven if good and Hell if bad. And someone has been found guilty, and all in the audience know it is not them for they are still part of the crowd. How many singing praise do so because it isn’t them to be judged this day?
Everyone filed outside the tabernacle obediently. Some are excited but try not to show it. Life is grueling, and often all we get is gruel to eat; I don’t complain of the food since I get the bigger portion to keep up my strength and was fed worse or not at all by my dead mother’s boyfriend. The Proctors said my treatment of him when he raped my mother one last time when the bombs fell was proof I understood justice, but needed to do so per higher laws. And since she was dead, I wasn’t going to complain about promises of protection and sustenance beyond what I’d never had.
I look forward to the Judgment Day ceremonies. Someone found to have broken a big rule or broken too many little ones means more food for the rest of us. Names are called to send people to their positions, those to act as guards, those to mete out severe discipline, those to clean up the mess. I stare at a spot of ground in the distance, slightly uneasy because there are women among the guilty. I listen to the lists of their offenses and the actions to be taken, so I know when I need to act.
One of the girls had been found trying on clothes only meant for married women with husbands. She defiled them, and in her imaginary lust, she, too, is defiled. The Proctor sentences her to depravation while tied to a post outside for two days. If the elements or thirst don’t kill her, she'll be considered forgiven. She’s young, healthy and fertile. But the chemical burns and scars of exposure will strip the lust and desirability from her to all but the faithful who will not care. And if she’s dead, that’s divine judgement and a lesson to us as to what diseases are still airborne.
One man sought to leave the community without permission. I know that the punishment will be harsh. If we let someone leave, they may lead other hungry and desperate here, threatening us all. If he simply died outside in his escape, all the items he’d steal to aid in his journey are lost to us, making our lives more difficult. If he’d repented and said he could not live this life anymore, the problem would have been solved by a ceremony, but evidently that was not to his satisfaction. To ensure he could not run away before Judgement Day, he has already been blinded. I wonder which Proctor did it. The execution for his crime is later, after more preaching. Finally, one of the full Proctors does his duty with a level of dispassion I seek to emulate. He even avoids getting blood on himself as the dead man falls to the earth.
The next case is before us, and I am told it is my turn. One woman was found to have killed the child of another in greed for her child that wasn't saved. I sighed in fatigue, a weariness beyond that of the mere body. The lead Proctor beside me gives me a hard tap with his taser in warning, kindly leaving it off, as he gives me a probing stare.
"For the crime of the death of this potential innocent, the punishment is death!" It was a little of a relief for announcer to call the little kid a potential innocent. She'd been the littlest here, the last baby born since the Fires four years ago, hiding in her Momma's belly when it started. No one is completely innocent anymore; they all went to Heaven with the bombs or died in the plagues and radiation right after. And nearly all the children under 10 had died of various plagues and chemicals, ending the debate on age of responsibility.
That child had been slow, probably not able to understand anything good or evil at all, so a potential innocent. Nice to think we aren't all completely damned. But that's why the Proctors said this world was Purgatory made real by humanity’s collective suicide attempt. And proof that it was only a temporary test, for God no longer let children be born among us ... only after we passed the test might the children be born again and the world begun again or we all die and go to heaven. If we failed, individually, we were sent on to the next world. If we failed collectively, God judged us individually. But we all were judged collectively while we were here.
It is my turn. I took my place beside her as her body shakes. Ghosts of memory of my mother slow me. I remind myself that my killing has purpose here, making it and the world purer. The act sates my demons and lifts me up to the higher ethical realm. I try not to think of the baby she killed. I end up seeing her baby instead, dead from lack of medicine because it was given to the potentially innocent one instead. The one that would grow up and might be evil versus the one the preacher said should be saved. And the mother thus begat more evil ... I feel the watching Proctor's shadow beside me. I am supposed to be a clear instrument of Judgment, to bring death to those who defile the law without hesitation or guilt myself. And I have not carried out the clear purpose I have been given as I stood before the judged woman. Hence I am failing and may sin ... and I am failing them all by seemingly doubting, before them all, in this very moment.
The shame is painful as the Proctor seizes my hand and makes me do what I was called to do. I complete the actions under the Proctor’s guidance. Does my failure reflect back on him and suggest his efforts to save me are a failure? Her punishment is called complete and I am allowed to step back. He deftly takes my knife and puts it somewhere I cannot reach. A different Proctor is called to take the judged girl outside the walls and tied where she’s at the full mercy of the elements.
I expect to hear a Judgment upon myself for such a public failure. Yet the conclave is called complete. Others go home to rest, for this is Sunday.
The lead Proctor takes my arm and leads me to the Council chambers as if he is afraid I will fail yet again. Is my punishment to be private? I feel worry. What is not fit for public viewing is worse than what goes on outside. The Proctors had said they had once seen great potentials in me. What then is my punishment or penance?
The chamber doors closed with a resounding thud. No one could get in or out without a battering ram from here, a final sanctuary. There is no escape from their judgement here, only the decision of whether or not to fight or not. I wouldn’t have fought them even if I had wanted to flee, for I know my life will never be better than it is right now.
The Proctors take their places, the dozen men who guard the souls and lead the physical defense of the community surrounding around me. We are down to 2000 faithful, but the vicious carnage like what I survived when they sought to round up survivors and guide them does not occur here because of them.
"You hesitated," the lead Proctor says. It isn't a question. "You were found to have a hunger for death and pain. You have been given this task to put those passions to proper purpose, to give them greater meaning than animal pleasure and protect us all from sin so that no one had to take a life who did not have the will to do so. Yet … you hesitated."
The shame burns me, an emotion whose name is dredged up from the edge of memory. "I thought of the babies that died, sir."
"Do you feel guilt for this lapse?" the lead Proctor asked me.
"Good. Then there is hope for you, yet."
"My life in service," I say. I think that I am receiving forgiveness.
"Yes," the lead Proctor replied. "Your life in service."
"Your task was to bring Judgment through death to others, both to spare us more killing than our consciences could bear and to bring you to find the possibility of redemption. Now you have found the latter and can no longer be trusted to do the former as required, and it is time for your delayed Judgment to be delivered." I see their condemnation of my body in their eyes, and I sense the emotional release of any connection to me the few who even cared in any way are engaging in. I am surprised to feel emotional pain for myself, the only time it ever struck me was seeing my mother’s dead body. Seeing their faces hurts. And the faces of the hundreds I helped dispatch, Fallen Faithful and outsider alike, flash before my eyes, including their pain. Why had I never thought about how it hurt before? Why are they watching me suffer now instead of killing me as quickly as possible?
The Lead Proctor approaches with my old knife. It is clear my duty as the hand of justice is over. He then pushes it into my gut, the flash in his eyes as eager and gleeful as I had once been with my victims, before these people sought to reform me and give me a purpose for the killing, removing the pleasure from it in the process.
"Why wait until I feel like this before killing me?" I asked as the blood begins to pour out. I’m on my knees, more from the pain and weakness than ritual. I want to believe there is more to the ritual. I don’t want to know if those I dispatched had done the same.
"To give you the opportunity to prove you have a soul, and to determine if further trials were necessary, though clearly it is not," the Proctor answered joyfully. "And now we must ensure that it cannot fall from grace once revealed. Tis’ a blessing for one so cursed to be saved!"
Then the Proctors began singing the Hosannas in hope that this conflicted soul will go to Heaven and that they will go there too even if I do not. I feel the darkness closing in. Justice is done for everyone, and the world becomes better for it. I closed my eyes with the final prayer.
Yes, this is just another Judgment Day in Purgatory.