It was the hour of waking on Winter Solstice and yet a radiant sun was rising on the already bustling borough of Colony. From the first glimmer of sunlight on the shortest day of the year, the citizens of Colony would take the Choice, till the World were momentarily plunged under the cover of darkness. Once the sun rose on the new season, a new Commandant would be named.
At the strike of the waking hour, the Girl rose for the Choice, the very first one she would take. She slipped into the clothes left on her chair, all the while feeling for the 10 magnetic ink digits on her wrist to make sure it was really happening. Her clothes felt odd on her form, ill-fitting like she was missing a limb or part of one.
But that was surely just the cold. On some days in Winter, she felt like she had no fingerprints because it was so cold. It was one of those days.
Save for the occasional babel of happy citizens returning from the ballots, the empty roads lay dumb and deaf, denuded of traffic. It made for an easy enough journey by foot for the Girl, but the more blocks she crossed, the quainter and more unfamiliar the streets seemed to get. Squinting for street signs, she found none and headed whichever way memory served best. “Colony was a small enough borough,” she figured, “One does not get lost.”
The Girl entered the School and was instructed by a Smile, an agent of the Choice, to follow the floor markings to the booth. Manned by a disinterested Camouflage with brutish features and an electric bayonet, the booth looked like a platform out of an Iron-Age Dance Revolution. Another Smile asked her to press her wrist on the reader. The Girl waited for the Choice.
Instead, a screen blared out: “No citizen found with given form no: 7779010994 and dob: 1994-09-03.”
“There must be a mistake. Why don't you try the School Down the Lane,” advised the Smile, his lips curling into a smug, knowing sort of expression.
This certainly cannot be IT for me. The Smiles knew how things worked. I must surely have a School.
Coming off the platform, she felt something like an insect land on her face. She swatted it away with one hand, but no sooner had she done that than she felt a gnawing sensation on her cheeks and temples. She rubbed at her face all the way to the School Down the Lane.
As she crossed a store, she looked into a window with a reflective surface, she saw a lump of a face looking back at her—no mouth, no nose, two smudges where her eyes would be happening. “The glass must be dirty or I'm seeing things,” she told herself and walked into the School.
“No citizen found with given form no: 7779010994 and dob: 1994-09-03,” the screen blared out again, and the Girl was advised a second time that day to try another School, the Next School Down the Lane.
She looked down at her feet as she descended the steps of the School and saw her ankles had disappeared. She looked at the sky and the black sun was at its highest point. Noon. She didn't have time—it would soon be the hour of darkness.
“No citizen found with given form no: 7779010994 and dob: 1994-09-03.”
“If you are not of this School, how can we find you?” pronounced the Smile, his lips strangely bent, like a black curse.
“Where did you come from?” said the last Smile in the last School in Colony, “You must go back to where you came from and only there will you be found.”
But by now the Girl could not remember where she had come from or who she was. She could only see the Camouflage, more an evil, amorphous shape with a bayonet than a man, and the Smile with his cruel, thick lips uttering her sentence.
By now, she could not feel the sides of her head. With her hands, whose thumbs she felt evaporating, she felt for her temples, but found only an empty space.
“Limbic materials,” she thought for a second, because she could still think, but at once, the idea dissolved into the air like a smolder. A cool breeze blew away the thread of smoke out of the gaping remnants of her head.
She felt like things were slipping through her hands, but then she had no hands to begin with.
She could not go home. She could not go back looking like this—no eyes, no ankles, no thumbs, a cracked shell of a head. Her Mother would reprimand. “What have you done with your face?” she would demand, but the Girl would have no explanation to give.
Pacing the streets of Colony, now coming alive in the imminent darkness with motorised vehicles and throngs of people, her stomach felt light. She felt cold vapour in place of her guts, her entrails—it gave her no pain, but she sensed that yet another hole had been ripped into her, leaving a deep, immeasurable abyss.
Now the megascreens on the main roads zapped on: “The votes are in, ladies and gentlemen! Your Choice for the new Commandant is…”
The Girl lifted her head to the screen, violently bright, and saw the glowing face of the new Commandant, her features stark and triumphant, her cheekbones matronly, her chin confident. She had ten full fingers and two wrists and two hands. She probably had two ankles too. But so did the men and women who flocked around her, showering her with praise. They each had a nose, a mouth, two eyes—an identity.
In the lurid light of the celebrations, the Girl once again felt for a face on her head, but she found nobody.
Amiya Halder works in communication and advocacy