The Smith and the Baker and all the People of the Village knew when the day of the Assignments came. They heard the soft march of our feet past the squat hutches and wooden fences, and everyone lined the road to watch us go by. Some of the men gave small smiles and encouraging nods while the Wives just stared with blank eyes or looked away. Our Mothers reminded us to keep our eyes down, tuck our hands behind us and not make a sound, but my cold fingers kept slipping and my eyes wandered. My hands shook, yes, but my heart also fluttered with a tight anticipation of what was next. I wanted to smirk and laugh but my Mother’s voice ran through my mind and I folded my clammy hands best I could and focused on the feet of the Girl ahead of me. The bare trees shivered and shook their spindly branches overhead as a stale breeze scuttled over us, and the pale curtains in the windows fluttered slow goodbyes. My exposed wrists prickled with gooseflesh. We plodded up the dirt path one step at a time and the Mothers followed after.
Finally, after countless steps, we reached the steps and even with my head bent firmly this time, I could see the hem of the Caretaker’s long white robes at the front doors of the House. Everyone fell hushed. Everyone could feel and just knew that today was special, but I knew this day was especially important for me above all others.
I could tell by the way that my Mother came in the dark before anyone else this morning, pushing my wispy hair out of my face and whispering frantically in the dark before the other Mothers came to wake their Girls. “Today you will get out of here,” she said. “Today you will be free.” She smiled at me there in the dark as she spoke. Then again, maybe she didn’t really. Maybe I just imagined that. The other Mothers soon trickled in to wake their Girls and so my Mother bent her head again and fussed quietly with my hair, not looking me in the eye, and I couldn’t see her face. But I still knew she was smiling for me today, because today was the day of the Assignments.
My Mother always did say I was special, always paid particular attention to me even when we both knew she shouldn’t pick favorites. I knew it made the other Girls jealous, but now all the suspicion and harsh looks I got from them would be worth it. I just knew it. My heart pounded but I kept my breathing calm and steady, repeating my Mother’s words in my head. Free. Free. Free.
I could feel my glossy braid sway and shake minutely with the trembling rhythm of my square shoulders as I knelt in the cool dirt and waited for my life to change forever with one simple touch of the Caretaker’s hand. I could hear the rustle of his robes and see just the bare hem of white dance along the stone step as he stood in front of me and then turned and walked along the row of us Girls and out sight. I knew he wouldn’t be able to single me out right away, no, that would look suspicious. Instead he would have to go along the whole row and put on an act for everyone. The Assignments only came sporadically, and everyone was expecting an event.
Today the Caretaker would pick me. Today I would get out from being a lowly Mother or Nursemaid. My hands would not wrinkle and chafe from years of endless work. I would not watch each of my beautiful little Children grow into Girls and feel the scorn of failure if my Girl was not picked to become a Wife and only became another Mother or Nursemaid herself. I would be better than that, better than all the rest of the other Girls. Today, I would become a Wife, but not just any Wife. Today I would become the Caretaker’s new Wife.
Every day before School, us Girls would meet each other’s eyes in the hall and nod to one another that today would be the day of the Assignments, and each of the us would straighten our chins, smooth our frocks a little more, and hope it really would be tomorrow. The Caretaker was always watching us, everyone was always watching us, and we always had to be on our best behavior and obey. Every day before School, we would brush and brush and brush my long shiny hair once, then twice, then three times again for good luck, and kiss the Mothers’ white cheeks, then shut the doors quietly behind us, and make our way to School. Our Mothers would watch at the doors as we left, then glance at each other with quiet eyes and go to their dishes, ironing, and chores.
In School, we didn’t fidget or fuss in their chairs but sat up straight and tall, and didn’t blurt out answers but raised our small hands. We kept polite eyes down on the wood grain of our desks until Teacher called on me, or her, or that one ahead at the front of the class, or the other one sitting in the back. We had been taught always to pay attention in School, never to miss a word from the teacher. The School would teach us everything we would need to know right now. We only had to obey. I made sure to try very hard and be the best student, even though the teacher never would tell us who was best, and we were told never to compete with one another. Everyone knew, though, that I was better than the other Girls were, and that was why the teacher made a point not to look at me sometimes, to ignore my hand as it raised time after time and call on the other quiet Girls as well. The teacher must never show favor even more than our Mothers were not supposed to, and so that was why how I knew that the teacher liked me best of all, because she tried so hard to deny it.
The Village was a peaceful place, with no room for violence or competition, or so they said.
The Assignments and the Caretakers would decide the rest for us, and we would become Mothers, the librarian, or the teacher for the next group of Girls who came after us or maybe a Wife to the Caretaker or the Smith or the Baker. The Girls all secretly hoped to become a Wife to the Caretaker. We would be taken care of that way, and birth Children for the Caretaker. The Wives would birth boys to run, play, grow strong and then become Caretakers or the Smith or the Baker and other People of the Village. The boys the Wives birthed would keep the order. They would watch the Girls every day as they marched to School, keep the sallow-skinned Mothers to their chores and cleaning, make more Children by the Wives until there were more Girls and Caretakers and Smiths and Bakers and People, and the boys and the Caretakers would keep the People safe.
The Caretakers always watched over them and kept the People safe, and so the Girls did not fear becoming even a Mother, the Girls of the future who faded away to become the Girls of the past. The Mothers spent endless days scrubbing, cleaning and attending to the next Girls, and the next after them and the next after them. The Mothers hovered at the bottom of the social-ladder as virtual slaves from the moment the next Children matured into Girls, and those Girls clasped the Mothers’ hands and so the Mothers would raise the Girls and yet never feel anything but repugnance for them, the next prettiest young things they too had once been. The Mothers secretly loathed the Girls with their shining braids of wispy hair and hands soft and pale as cream. But the Mothers took care of the Girls and on the day of the Assignments, no one hated anyone in the Village. All the People hoped and wished for the Girls to remain Girls and never to grow or birth Children or become the Caretakers’ Wife, or the Smith’s or the Baker’s. Because on the day of the Assignments, the Caretaker could hear the thoughts of the People as they stood and watched, and this would help to decide each Girls’ fate. The Girls might not be thought virtuous, fair, obedient, and if the Caretaker doubted any of the Girls, he would loose her braid and let her shiny hair fall to her shoulders, and the Caretaker would cut it off. As much as the Mothers despised their state and the Girls’ pretty faces and long hair, no one would wish them to become a Sister. Because even as the Caretaker kept the People safe, he did not do so for the Sisters or Brothers who lurked on the edge of the Village.
Now the future stood before them in white robes, and the Caretaker looked over the tops of the Girls heads and raised his wobbly hands. This Caretaker had seen these Girls grow from toddling Children, had placed their chubby fingers in the hands of their Mothers, had sat in his window above the School to watch every day as the Girls with their bright braids tiptoed into School and always had kept them safe. Those days of School and Mothers and leisure were over now. Today was the day of the Assignments and the Girls were no longer Girls anymore.
Each one raised her head in turn as the Caretaker stood before her, and rose to stand before him. Here at the Assignments, each would look deep into the eyes of the Caretaker and would see her own future reflected from her eyes into his and they would become one of the People today.
Paige Ferro is currently an undergraduate student studying Creative Writing, Literature and Spanish at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana. She has always had a great appreciation for fairy tales, fantasy worlds, and distopian environments, as well as magical realism, and she often employs similar themes and subject matter in her own works. She one day hopes to join other fantasy writers on the hallowed library shelves as well as in the hearts of her readers, but for now her biggest fan is her wonderful cat and greatest Oliver.