Oh, Christmas Tree
The tree stood before the window, the few working lights on the strand twinkling half-heartedly. Ornaments that had seen too many years and too much sorrow hung on wilting branches, and a sad angel, stained with age, perched on top. A second tree, twin to the first, stood on the other side of the room. Tattered skirts lay under the trees and caught the needles that fell with each sigh. There were no gifts.
She sat between them, her mind alternating between blank and rampaging. She wished they’d provided better trees, something to lift her spirits and make her last moments joyful ones, but that wasn’t the trees’ purpose. Their purpose was to remind her that her time had come, her usefulness over. A gift would’ve been nice, some gesture to show that she had lived her life well, but that, too, was forbidden. No need to waste on one who would soon cease to be. Even her food ration had been taken, and her only sustenance for this longest of nights was a pitcher of water that sat beside the sofa.
The remnants of a holiday lost to the passage of time. Forbidden now in the wake of the Wars, it was allowed on this night only, the night before Dissolution. A time to contemplate life and the contributions made to Society. A time to understand the penalty of failure. It wasn’t a celebration so much as a reminder of how far Society had come in ridding itself of the trappings of superstition, of mechanizing its people as well as its procedures.
She moved to the window to stare down at the City. Buildings blotted most of the sky, and their glass and metal facades gleamed in the twinkling lights. Lighted windows showed where those deemed useful worked late hours, and dark windows indicated those who had ceased to be and not yet been replaced. Cars zoomed below and ships raced through the sky. Sleek, streamlined, each identical, they served only one purpose—transportation. There were no status symbols, no traits of individuality. Just cold, hard practicality.
Even at this height, traffic was merciless, brutal as the younger ones hurried to get to their next destination. And who could blame them? Life was short. Those not making a definitive contribution by the age of forty were scheduled for Dissolution, who had not yet reached that magical year raced through their days to prove they were worth something to Society, something more than producing the next generation.
The next generation.
That was all she had done. She had brought them into the world and raised them until Society took them away at the age of twelve. That was years ago, and she had done little since. She had kept the machines running, day after day. She had remained in her place deep beneath the City…
She wasn’t the only one, she knew. She could hear the others, feel their breath, sense their heartbeats, but she never saw them, not once in all the years she had worked below. The machinery’s tone pulsed in her blood, crept up every nerve to settle in her bones, a small vibration she had long grown used to…
The absence of the vibration jarred her teeth, and her ears had not yet ceased to buzz. It was useful work, she knew. The machines were needed to keep Society going, but there were others who could do the work, those whose children had just reached the Age, so she became superfluous and had to step aside.
They had come for her that morning, just as she reached her box. They had spoken softly so as not to disturb the others. Not that the others would have cared. She had never spoken to them. It was forbidden.
Once her children had reached the Age, she had been removed from her home and placed in the machine. She didn’t know where their father had gone. To know was forbidden. As was contact with others once the age of Bearing was done. She didn’t question it, for it was all she knew, but she wondered at times if it truly served Society.
She turned from the window to survey her holding place. It was designed to look like Home, but not Home of Now. Home of Now was cold, streamlined, meant for utility rather than comfort. This was Home of Before. Before the Wars. Before the Resistance. Before the machines ran Society. At least…it was supposed to be.
Holes in the sofa let the stuffing show through, and the side tables had deep scratches on their surfaces. Battered shades covered light bulbs, and cracked, dusty knick-knacks sat in the same place they had rested for years. The ghosts of past tenants wandered the room, and she wondered if her spirit, too, would join them on the morrow.
Not that it mattered. Her time of usefulness was over, and her Dissolution loomed. She wanted to mourn, to miss her children, to relive the days of old, but she could not find it within herself to do so. Instead, she stood before the tree and gave each ornament her undivided attention.
A red ball with a crack across its surface caught her eye. She reached for it but stopped. Touching it was forbidden. She could only look.
Red was life’s blood. Red was passion. Red was anger. Things Society no longer allowed. She had felt passion once, she thought, back when she had first been assigned her Partner. The tingling that happened when he smiled at her, when he touched her, she thought that had been passion. Life’s blood she knew all about. It had poured from her with each birth, leaving her weaker and weaker until she was fit for nothing but the machine. Anger she wasn’t sure about. She thought she understood the concept, but she couldn’t know for certain.
Perhaps anger was what had fueled the Resistance, those who disagreed with Society and wanted to change it. It hadn’t done them any good. It hadn’t done anyone any good. Society had only changed assignments and made more forbidden. They had begun taking children at twelve instead of fifteen. The Resistance had cost her three years with each child and sent her to the machine. So, yes, anger she understood, though she wondered if she truly felt it. Did she truly feel anything?
A Father Christmas hung just below the red ball. Father Christmas, a symbol of giving and joy, of hope for tomorrow, a magical character for children all over the world. At least in times past. Back in the days of toys and childhood, before Society regulated each minute of every day. Back when mothers and fathers stayed with their children, back in the days of family.
Family. It was the dissolution of the family that led to the Wars. That’s what she had been taught. Parents had no love for each other, and children had no respect for their parents. There was once something called ‘grandparents’, parents of parents. These were involved in the lives of the children, but they were gone now, lost to Dissolution. Family, if that’s what it could be called, was assigned by Society, based on genetics and usefulness. Was this an improvement over the old way? She wasn’t sure.
She thought back to her own family, a time that had passed far too quickly. Had they known affection for each other? She had not reacted when her children had gone. She had simply accepted it as the way things were. Should she have done more? Should she have cried? Screamed? Fought? Would it have done her any good? She had heard of others resisting, but those were gone, taken away by Society and never heard from again. So, no. She had done what she was supposed to. Did that make it right? She didn’t know.
A silver star hung to the right of the Father Christmas. Star, a symbol of hope, a light in the darkness, a guide in the night. Hope. Uncertainty necessitated hope. Surety had no need of it. And surety was one thing Society provided. Each individual knew what was in store and when it would occur. There were no surprises, no crises, no God Above. Every moment was scripted, from birth until death, and Society endured.
Had she ever known hope? She didn’t know. Perhaps. As a child she had desired work in the Archives, the repository of all known knowledge. She had worked for it after she came of Age, but she’d been chosen to reproduce instead. Years of toil, all for nothing. She sought only knowledge, wisdom—qualities Society had no need of—and she’d been chosen to reproduce because of it. If she had known hope, it had died that day.
She turned from the tree and wiped a tear from her eye. It wouldn’t be long until sunrise, until they came for her. She had heard of those fighting the Dissolvers, of trying to flee to live longer lives, but she wouldn’t be one of those, she knew. She would go quietly to her Dissolution and let herself be freed from the bonds of Society. She would be free of the machines, of the buzzing, of the monotony of each day’s work.
Did this give her hope?
Perhaps. Perhaps freedom was what she most desired.
She returned to the tree. Freedom. Did one of the ornaments represent that?
She searched until the sun rose, its yellow glow piercing the window and softening the edges of the tree. For a moment it didn’t look as tired, as worn, as it had for most of the night. It shone in the light of the new day, the ornaments sparkling. They were all there before her, glorious and beautiful. Passion. Joy. Hope. Renewal. Happiness. Love.
But freedom was absent. The one thing she desired above all others.
The door lock clicked, and she turned away from the tree. He stood there dressed in black, his face covered. The representative of Society. Others stood behind him similarly attired, just in case she resisted. But she had no intention of doing so.
She waited until they entered, then she turned back to the tree. The other symbols were there, all the things that made life worth living, all but one. Freedom. The freedom to choose her life, to choose her love. Society no longer allowed that.
He reached for her then, shackles in his hands, and she sat on the sofa and held her legs where he could attach them. Her arms, too, were bound, and she didn’t resist.
They led her out of the Holding to the elevator. He held her arm with the others flanking him, sure she would try to escape, but her resolve held, her mind blank. She didn’t struggle as they lashed her to the chair, nor did she cry out when they covered her face. Instead, she pictured the ornaments on the tree, the symbols of a life she had never known. She pondered each of the icons as their voices buzzed in her ears, distant and meaningless, and it was only when she felt the needle prick her arm that she turned her attention to the one that was absent.