"I want to live," said Florus. A moment of silence ensued as the entire class of 16-year-old boys stared at Florus from behind his seat in the front row. Florus' cheeks suddenly burned red and he felt hot beneath his collar. It was the truth though, and he didn't care that he might suffer for it. If God were to ask him what he wanted most, that's what he would say.
"Florus, that answer is nonsense," replied Mrs. Vex, chuckling at first. She then slapped her wooden ruler against her desk, causing Florus to jump. His classmates snickered. "I'm asking what you would want most in all the world, just like God asked King Solomon. I, you, and everyone in this classroom are already alive. Now, rethink your answer and next time I call on you I want to hear something realistic." Mrs. Vex then pointed to Malachi who promptly replied with, "The wisdom of the Lord." Florus discreetly rolled his eyes as Mrs. Vex gave Malachi her most endearing look. "Excellent, Malachi. Excellent answer." Malachi always kissed ass. They all did. It made Florus sick.
After school was let out, the boys and girls of Mt. Eden were sent to their respective cabins and bunks. Boys and girls were kept separate at Mt. Eden, as were all males and females throughout New Jericho, a union of religious communities founded after the Great Divide. Children were raised by the Church of New Jericho, taken to educational communities like Mt. Eden until they turned sixteen.
The Great Divide was referred to as an "Act of God" by the Priesthood of New Jericho. They said it was a cosmic event that had resulted in them being isolated from the rest of the world and that they were the only survivors. The Priesthood were the ones who determined how life would proceed following this catastrophic event. The story goes that God had finally unleashed his judgement upon the world after secular society had completely distorted the concept of love. After all, love has many rules, according to the Priesthood, and those rules had all been broken by the lustful heathens of the past. The people of New Jericho had thus been given the task of repopulating the Earth, with the proper ideas of love, of course. There was no greater task than this, taught the Priesthood.
First and foremost, love is to occur only at pre-scheduled times and only between an adult male and an adult female, stated the Priesthood. Second, any and all crude symbols of love were forbidden, which included anything heart-shaped, pink, rose-shaped (including roses themselves), and anything with aphrodisiac properties like chocolate or perfumes. These were all "distortions" of the past generations, said the Priesthood. The rules were neverending.
As Florus lied in his bunk that evening before bedtime, memories of one of the many times he suffered punishment for being "unorthodox" came floating up.
"Give me that!" shouted Mrs. Vex. Florus was thirteen, sitting at his desk in the schoolhouse during recess, drawing. In an instant, Mrs. Vex had torn the drawing out from under Florus' hands and was tearing it into pieces like a frenzied wolf to its prey. Once she had finished completely destroying the artwork, she just stood there glaring at Florus. Pieces of paper fluttered down around her. Her face was locked in a crazed grimace, red, and with a few hairs hanging out of place. Florus stared at her in shock, his pencil still between his fingers.
"Where did you learn that symbol?" asked Mrs. Vex after she had finally regained her breath. Florus stammered.
"I'm...not sure. I just thought of it," he said.
"Lies!" shouted his teacher. She grabbed Florus by the arm and yanked him out of his seat. Her grip hurt. Her anger felt like a red-hot iron against his chest. She dragged Florus out of the schoolhouse and across the road to the Prefect's office. The Prefect served as mayor of the community.
"Teacher, please! I won't draw it anymore!" cried Florus. Mrs. Vex did not relent and soon Florus was sitting across from the Prefect, a middle-aged white-haired man with a heart of stone, at least, in Florus' estimation. He hated the Prefect. Hated his stony energy, his coldness.
"Where did you learn about this symbol?" asked the Prefect. Florus felt trapped, but he knew he couldn't tell the Prefect the truth. The truth was never safe in a place like Mt. Eden. He had to think of something fast.
"I...saw some leaves in the woods that looked like that. I just wanted to draw something and I remembered those leaves," he said, his eyes kept down and away from the Prefect's.
"Are you lying, Florus?" he asked. Florus' heart pounded. "You know I don't want to punish you, but I will if I have to."
"I'm not lying, sir! I like to go out into the woods and I saw some leaves with that shape. That's all! I promise!"
"All right," said the Prefect. For a second Florus thought he'd gotten off easy. But the Prefect never made anything easy.
"To discourage you from going out into the woods and finding strange shapes, you will spend the next ten days in the shed. You are a man, Florus, are you not? Men don't draw or even think of such shapes. Men use their hands and bodies to build, not to feel. Life is simple, Florus. Just listen and obey. So, while you're in that shed, I want you to think about how you can be the best young man for New Jericho you can possibly be, by listening to your authorities and following God's rules. Forget that shape. Your life will be so much better without it."
The shed was a place of solitary confinement for deviants. Those sent there were given millet and water once a day and kept in absolute darkness and isolation until their sentence was complete.
Florus obviously hadn't come across the heart shape from spotting leaves in the woods, but it had come from the woods. The students were often discouraged from exploring outside the community. Stories of children getting lost or killed by wild animals were commonplace, but Florus had never been convinced by those stories. They rang empty, like so many other things taught by the likes of Mrs. Vex and the Church. During designated study times Florus would slip away as quiet as a fox and wander the surrounding woods. He felt something call to him every time. It resonated deeply. Searching for that voice, that call, far outweighed the risk of a paddling by Mrs. Vex, or even time in the shed. Some things are just too beautiful.
Anything from the Old World was forbidden in New Jericho, but it wasn't uncommon for people to happen upon things from the past. Like books. Florus was eleven when he came across his own discovery. Halfway buried in the dirt near a clearing was an old tin box. He dug it out and opened it to find a paperback novel, a story about love and passion and a woman with immense power. It was titled, "Femme Fatale."
This wasn't just any old find; this was like striking rare earth minerals. A book about love of any kind was worth its weight in gold in New Jericho. A book about romantic love was akin to the Holy Grail. It was everything the Priesthood despised, sanctioned, and dictated.
Florus hid the book well, outside his cabin, within the trunk of a tree that concealed it perfectly. This book became Florus' sole fixation. He memorized every page, re-reading it countless times, never tiring of the images that played in his mind, or the images illustrated among the pages. One such illustration was of the main character, Morgana, wearing a heart-shaped locket around her neck. Nearby, a rose bush.
Florus knew instantly that this heart-shaped locket was one of the forbidden symbols of love, as well as the roses. A shape so sensual with its curves coming together like that had to be forbidden. It was unlike any of the hyper-masculine shapes and corners that composed Mt. Eden, or the drab colors of the buildings or their plain, colorless clothing. Even the hair of Morgana would've been sacrilege in New Jericho. Flowing. Shimmering. Beautiful in the most feminine of ways.
The Prefect used the darkness and isolation of the shed to try to kill any kind of deviancy. But what he didn't know was that good things, powerful things, grow in the dark. In that darkness, the beauty of Morgana, the sensual shapes and symbols of love, the femininity she exuded, all came to life for Florus. He saw her, this Divine Feminine, appear to him wearing her heart-shaped locket, and watched as she opened it to reveal a diamond, the light of which was powerful enough to keep the howling darkness at bay.
The book was why Florus had answered Mrs. Vex with, "I want to live." At one point in the story, during a particularly passionate moment in which Morgana's lover asks her what she wants most in all the world, Morgana tells him, "I want to live." It struck Florus in that moment that this was an entirely different kind of living, one that's not supposed to exist. Yet it did exist. If it didn't exist, it wouldn't have been written about. Not in such visceral detail. It was the antithesis of New Jericho, and it gave Florus life.
Florus had also never quit drawing. Like his book, he kept his drawings in a place well hidden. He had dozens of pencil drawings of hearts, roses, and faces of beautiful women with long flowing hair, so long it would've been called "obscene" by the Priesthood. Drawing these symbols of love and femininity gave him the most satisfaction he'd ever felt. It was like magic, his pencil a magical wand casting a spell of divine femininity.
And so, with the help of Morgana, Florus survived both his schooling at Mt. Eden and the attempts to quash his spirit.
It was the last day of secondary school. His life after graduation was slated for the usual procreation and some kind of nondescript manual labor job. The Priesthood had no dream other than expansion. But Florus had many dreams. He had dreams that stretched far beyond the walls of New Jericho, up and over the mountains they called "impenetrable". He had dreams of living.
"Florus," said Mrs. Vex. All of his classmates had exited the schoolhouse. He could hear them shouting and laughing outside with the excitement of graduation and the start of a new phase of their lives. "Yes?" asked Florus. Mrs. Vex folded her hands and looked sternly down at Florus.
"I do hope you've learned your lessons here at Mt. Eden. All those days and nights spent in that shed. All those paddlings and whippings. I hope they taught you something." said Mrs. Vex. "The world outside this community has no pity or tolerance for whimsy, and it is a cold and hard place for those who refuse to live the life God demands of us."
Florus stood there, looking down, and smiled ever so slightly as he recalled a note left in the margins of "Femme Fatale" by a previous owner centuries ago. This was at a point in the book where Morgana was asserting herself against her foes. This Old World reader had paraphrased the passage using a slang term that Florus innately understood, just like he understood the meaning of the heart-shaped locket.
Maybe it was a moment of pure insanity, but Florus finally looked up at Mrs. Vex and said simply, "She's here. She's queer..."
Mrs. Vex's eyes widened as Florus came in for the kill.
"Get used to it."
And the walls came tumbling down.