The same violet colors that bruised the sky swirled on the reflective surfaces of the hot-air balloons. Lavender-tinged sand met the blue of the sea, and the splendor of the dawn stretched to the horizon.
I crammed shoulder to shoulder with the others, behind the laser fence. No one jostled too closely, respectful of the deadly nature of the boundary between us and them. We were not allowed to stand on that pristine beach they floated so easily above; we could only look at it. We were not allowed to touch the gentle waves rolling up the beach. That was reserved for them.
The message they wanted us to believe was that nothing that beautiful could be evil.
“Cheer,” the sergeant-at-arms ordered. “Cheer for the lords and the council.”
I wanted to refuse, but it would have just earned me another beating. My voice raised with the others around me.
We increased the volume enough to satisfy the armed soldiers, but not enough to show honest enthusiasm.
It was all part of their annual Rising Up Ceremony. Once a year, the lords and their puppet council members took to the sky, while we stood barefoot in mud and the detritus of our designated section. For an hour, they drifted over clean sand and clear ocean that we could admire only on this day, from our side of the laser fence. Hundreds of well-fed, well-armed soldiers guarded that fence, from the other side, of course. Most of us stared at the soldiers and the balloons with hunger in our bellies and resignation in our eyes.
I watched with determination.
My child lay ill at home.
I’d petitioned the council three times for the correct medicine. Each time, the message came back rejected. A child that young was not important enough to receive medicine. Children did not yet work, they did not earn their keep, and plenty more children were born every week. Children were disposable.
I was not the only parent with a child who could be cured with the contents of their dispensary, nor was I the only one desperate enough to decide to fight for life, for love.
Nearly their entire garrison of soldiers lined the fence before us, both to witness the celebration and provide a show of force to keep us cowed. They weren’t worried about how few soldiers remained behind in their side of the city during this one hour each year, but they should have been. The power station stood mostly unguarded. When the power failed, the fence would go down. All we needed was a distraction, for the soldiers to look away at the right moment.
“Wave,” the sergeant-at-arms commanded. “Wave to the lords and the council.”
It was the agreed-upon moment. We threw up our arms and waved at the sky, counting silently.
Their hot-air burners hissed on and off, and the colored balloons flew higher. The lords and the council had the power of life and death over us. They flew to remind us that they were always there, looking down, protecting us from ourselves. They controlled our food, our wages, where we lived, what we could own, our medicine. We were not wise enough to have a say in such matters, they told us. We were nothing but faceless workers, and they did not fear us.
But those hot-air balloons required regular maintenance. The burners’ tanks needed to be filled with the right mixture of gases. All equipment needed to be checked and double-checked before flight. That was work for us menials, not them. I doubted the thought of sabotage ever occurred to them.
The love of a mother for her daughter was inconsequential to them.
It was everything to me.
I waited for the explosion.
Learn more about @dkoren-cimharas.com (Deborah Koren)
The idea for “Rising Up” originated from my admiration of the beauty of the prompt picture. Light is balanced by dark, and so I wondered what was just out of sight of that pretty view, what weren’t we being shown. The story tumbled out from there.
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