There are few other memories of note that I have of the nursery. Certainly few that are particularly distinct. But in the days leading up to my seventh birthday there was one memory that stayed with me indelibly. I recall feeling terrified and sad for my leaving the state nursery soon. One of the nursemaids noticed and she asked me what was wrong. I told her than I didn’t want to leave, that I was afraid of being thorned. This nursemaid was called Agatha and she had been thorned in her right cheek. The thorn was not a small spot or blemish on the skin. Where the thorn was inserted into the flesh a large black welt appeared. From this black protrusion of the flesh emanated a network of black veins so that Agatha’s entire right cheek was covered in black lines. If I had only had the experience of the other children who were free from such blemishes, I would have thought the sight of a thorn to be disturbing, however, as all the adults had at least one thorn somewhere on their head and so I was accustomed to the sight of them.
Agatha looked anxious for a moment, looking over her shoulder before smiling kindly at me. “This place has become your home hasn’t it?”
“What’s a home?” I asked innocently.
“It’s an old word, long ago people used to live in just one place to grow up in. It was a really small place, nowhere near as big as this nursery. But children would stay with their parents.”
“What are parents?”
“Parents were two people, a man and a woman, dedicated to raising children by themselves.”
I was perplexed by this, “A man? What was a man doing raising children? And why would one child get two people all to themselves?” After I asked I recall laughing at this thinking it was a joke.
“Those were dark times, before the Kelites saved us Delforians from our wicked and selfish existence. It was very wasteful to have parents, it is much more efficient if all children are raised together in one big place, and much safer too if only women are allowed near them.”
“What will happen to me after I am thorned?”
“Well, you’re a boy, Elwin, so you will go to live with the men in school who will teach you how to do useful things.”
“I’m scared, Agatha. I don’t like men. I want to stay here with the women.”
Agatha’s expression was inscrutable to me at almost seven years of age, however, in retrospect it was one of fear and pity wrapped into one. I have often wondered just how much Agatha knew back then.
“Why are you afraid of men?” she asked quietly.
I recounted to her the story of what had happened to nursemaid Mariam years before. The memory had obviously made a deep impression on me.
“I see,” she said, “and do you think those guards who came, hit her, and took her away were men?”
“O Elwin,” she cooed tenderly as she spoke, “those were men, and they were mean men that’s for sure, but you won’t grow up into one of those men. You’re a Delforian, those men were Groods. They were bad men who have been changed. Look at their heads, they have funny helmets on. If you look closely you will see they’re not like us at all.”
She reached out to pick up a bottle from the shelf nearby. She carefully unscrewed the top and presented the bottle to me to sniff. I inhaled some, it was a nasty smell.
“This is called anti-septic, if you smell this coming from someone, then don’t trust them. When you meet the Groods, look at their heads, and take a deep breath and see if you can smell this.”
I nodded obediently. She replaced the anti-septic.
“The Groods aren’t people like we are. Their bad behaviour forced the Kelites to do things to them so they wouldn’t misbehave like they used to. After you are thorned, you will be taken to a school. The school will have lots of boys like yourself, and it will have men who look just like you do, but bigger and they will have hair on their face. These men won’t hurt you.”
“Will there be any women or girls there?”
She shook her head.
“Will I ever see you again, nursemaid Agatha?”
She smiled sadly and shook her head again, “Maybe one day, when you’re fourteen you will get your second thorn and it will be safe for you to go out into the city. If I am still living here, I might see you in the queues.”
I would only see Agatha a few more times before my thorning. I don’t recall ever speaking to her again after this conversation. I certainly never saw her again, even though I often thought about her and what happened to her. At the time though, I remembered thinking that her talk about a home might be something I ought to report her for, but that I didn’t want to report her because I didn’t want her to be beaten by the Groods like Mariam had been.
The day of my thorning arrived. My crib was unlocked and I climbed out for the last time. Other children had said that they wouldn’t miss their cribs because of how small they were, and it was true that when we were seven years old we were far too big for them. I had had to curl up inside mine for years in order to fit, but all the same I felt sad to leave it knowing it would be allocated to a new baby soon and no longer my own. I wondered if this feeling was the feeling one has when thinking of home.
My clothes were taken away and I put on new clothes. There was a tan cotton shirt and a pair of blue overalls that were a little too big, but I was assured that I would grow into them. They were already faded and had the signs of being previously allocated to someone else before. We hold that it is self evident that all things are held in common. That was the second line of the constitution. My old clothes did not belong to me, they would be washed and allocated to another child. Likewise, these new clothes, school clothes, were allocated to me also. The boys were given work overalls, and the girls were given work frocks.
The thorning took place in the entrance to the state nursery. This was an area that was always locked. Escape from the nursery was unheard of, I would later hear it said that whenever a fire started inside a nursery the Groods would just lock everyone inside and let them burn to death. It was said that the pain caused by the plague was so harsh that it was better the children had died in the fire. This was more compassionate they said.
As soon as I moved into the entrance hall, for the second and last time in my life, the doors to the nursery were locked behind me. There were at least eight Groods there. As I went past one I remembered to sniff as Agatha had encouraged me to do. Sure enough, there was that smell of anti-septic. Were the Groods bathed in it? I looked up at their heads and looked at their helmets. At first I didn’t see anything wrong. Then my eye caught the pertinent detail: the helmets had wires that ran under the skin of the Grood. Possibly into his brain. Anti-septic was probably needed to be applied there several times a day to keep it from getting infected. The Grood was surgically wired into his helmet. He might not be able to actually take it off. I couldn’t understand what any of this meant at the time, but my stomach I grasped the full horror of it. I felt it twist and turn inside me.
Besides the Groods there were a few of the nursemaids, but also three men. Three Delforian men who did indeed look like me, whereas the Groods had not. Their faces were weathered, creased, and tanned, but definitely people just like myself. One of the men had a beard and I couldn’t stop staring at it. Would I one day grow a beard like that?
However, there was one more person there in that room. A Kelite priestess. She wore long flowing robes that were much finer and softer than anything we Delforians ever wore. She had earrings, a necklace, and a tiara. I had never seen such decorations on a person before, I was captivated by her appearance. I could tell from her face that she also wasn’t Delforian. Her eyes were cold and she hadn’t smiled at all.
She inspected me, asked me a few questions, and busied herself checking something on a device I had never seen before: a computer. She pulled out a small wooden box and set it open on the table next to me. I glanced over and saw the thorn. It was broad at the base and tapered into a long slightly hooked point. I had no idea it would be so large. She ordered the Groods to hold me and a moment later I was held down forcefully against the table. The priestess took the thorn in her hands and moved in close to my head.
The first thorn is always somewhere on the head. Where it goes is different for each person. Only the Kelite clerics know the correct place to insert the thorn. The priestess decided that this thorn needed to go into my cheek below my left ear. Despite my best attempts not to embarrass myself crying I burst into tears before I even felt the thorn pierce my flesh. When the tip cut through the soft meat of my cheek the pain was excruciating. I felt the priestess push the thorn deeper and deeper into my cheek. Whenever she met resistance she just pushed harder and jiggled it a little more forcefully. I had closed my eyes but felt streams of blood flowing over my cheeks.
Eventually it was in deep enough. The priestess moved away and washed her hands. I was still being held down onto the table, but I was able to watch her from the corners of my eyes. Her hands were covered in my blood. She was also grinning. She definitely enjoyed her work. I told myself what I imagined the other Delforians in the room were telling themselves: she was happy because she was saving a poor Delforian child from the plague.
I was released at last and lead to the three men. The nursemaids waved their goodbyes. I was in too much pain to say anything and half-heartedly waved back as the three men lead me out of the only building that up until that time I had ever known. I don’t recall feeling any sorrow then; all I could think about was the searing pain in my cheek.