She Could See
The Last Window To The Outside World
The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room. At least she thought she could. Yes, she was certain she’d be able to if she could just get in there. But he was a stubborn man, at least in her imagination, and he’d never deem someone like her worthy of access. The truth was, in all her twenty-eight years, Cassie had only seen The Savior once, passing stoically through the mess hall as she and her sister rambled down the pathways already late for class. She’d frozen when she saw him. The crimson robes hanging like pendants from his broad shoulders were in such stark contrast to the burlap brown of everyone else’s garb; his gray eyes were vacant and trained on something it seemed he had lost ages ago, like no matter how gone it was, he still couldn’t take his eyes off it. It wasn’t until her sister Katarina ran back and grabbed her arm that Cassie broke from her trance. The Savior was gone as if he had never been there to begin with. She was barely a teenager then, and though it was over half her lifetime ago, she could still sometimes see the sharp line of his cheek when she closed her eyes.
That same night, once class had ended and chores were done well enough to pass until the morrow, Cassie asked her mother what she knew of The Savior.
“He’s The Savior,” she smirked, her eyes glazing over with that same look she’d seen on his face. Like there was something recalled, but just out of reach. “What else is there to know?”
“I know he’s The Savior, but…” She winced a little as she recalled the whine in her voice. “How did he know to save us? How did he know what was coming?”
She could still see the tremble in her mother’s lip as she put down the sock she was darning and motioned Cassie into her lap. Her mother’s arm felt tight and warm around her shoulder and the soft touch of her hand against her long blond hair held the same comfort it had for as long as she could remember.
“My dear, dear Cassiopeia,” her mother cooed. “The times before we were saved were dark. We all knew something was coming. I think even you could tell something was very wrong, and you were all but four when we were saved. It was a different world then, the outside was. Frightening and unsafe and no place to raise two young girls. But now we are here. We were part of the chosen to live in the New World. And we show our gratitude by not asking questions. It’s usually better not to know.”
“I know all about the wars and the violence and the viruses spreading on the air like plagues, Momma. And I know that he saw the light and built this place and invited us into harmony. They teach us all of that in school. But I want to know about him. About who he really is.”
“Well,” her mother shrugged but did not relinquish her grip. “I suppose he’s a kind man. And a smart man. And a benevolent man. And I imagine he’s a very handsome man as well.”
She chuckled as she said the last part, and Cassie reeled back to look her in the face.
“You’ve never seen him?”
“I’m sure I did. Years ago. When we were all invited to enter. But he never sought credit or acclaim. And since the doors to the outer world were sealed, he has kept mostly to himself. He’s charged himself with the window. So it is only he who knows what’s become of the outside world. He carries that weight so we don’t have to. And he watches to know when it is safe for us to return.”
“I saw him today.”
“You did?” The shock in her mother’s voice caused Cassie to jump a little in her chair. “You should consider yourself lucky then. You know it’s considered a good omen to catch sight of The Savior.”
Life in the New World wasn’t bad, at least as far as she could see—she’d never known any other way of living—but Cassie wasn’t sure she’d experienced anything particularly good in the fourteen years since her “good omen.” For the next four years, she went to school where she learned the horrors of human history—unruly unrest mixed with disease and death—alongside the glories of the New World. Once she’d graduated and her vocation was selected for her, she spent her days roasting and grinding the chickpeas for flour to be used in the adjacent mess hall. If anything, her twin sister, Katarina, had been the lucky one. Selected for service on the upper floor, her visits on the Holy Days were filled with tales of songwriting and music making and near misses with The Savior himself.
“I almost saw him again,” she said. “Just last week. We were working through the bridge of a new hymn, trying to sort out a particularly difficult rhyme, when Elibelle caught glimpse of the flapping red of his robes through the doorway!”
Her face, flushed with excitement, was nearly the same color as Cassie remembered the robes to be. She poured another cup of tea from the kettle and settled next to her sister with a smile.
“I didn’t see him myself,” Katarina admitted, “but he was so close by I could have. And I could feel his energy.”
“It must be remarkable,” Cassie said, “to be so close to The Savior every day.”
“It truly is! ‘Remarkable’ is the perfect word!”
Katarina scribbled it down in the notebook she always kept at hand to offer it up to the next hymn when they began writing it. Cassie enjoyed seeing the spark of creativity flash across her sister’s face. It reminded her of their father. In the years before he’d been selected for the lower levels, called on order of The Savior himself to join the praised team of souls responsible for filtering the air and water, maintaining the power grid, and all the other intricacies of keeping life viable within the New World, he’d shared that same burst of light in his eyes. Katarina was particularly ecstatic when they were challenged to work on a song singing the praises of those below. It was as if she were singing directly to their father.
“Tell me,” Cassie leaned forward conspiratorially, “have you ever seen the window?”
“The one in The Savior’s room. The last window to the outside world.”
Katarina’s face went slack and her eyes blurred into the distance just beyond her sister’s shoulder.
“There is no outside world,” she said. “Only the New World matters. There is no window to what was. Only our constant vision of the future.”
Cassie frowned as Katarina whetted her eyes with three sharp blinks. Her shoulders eased and the smile returned to her face.
“You should come up to the upper floor and visit me sometime,” she said. “I bet, if this new song goes well like we all think it will, I’ll be able to finagle a pass for you.”
“That’d be nice.” Cassie placed her tea cup into the saucer and forced her lips to curve at the clinking sound it made. “I’d love to see where you live now.”
Katarina shrugged, looking around the room they had shared since childhood.
“It’s not so different than here,” she said. “But there are paintings and song there. All the things we’ll need to preserve our history and prepare for the future. I think you’d like it.”
“I’m sure I would.”
“Just remember not to ask any questions when you come,” Katarina sighed. “That’s how we show our gratitude. And it’s usually better not to know.”
Months passed before Cassie heard from Katarina again. When she thought about it, that wasn’t abnormal, but the hopes of getting a pass to explore the upper floor left each day longer than the one that came before. As she lay in her bunk each night, staring into the darkness of light’s out, she convinced herself her sister was avoiding her: that her questions—the very thing they had been taught not to do since grade school—had create a rift so cavernous the sister may never meet again. Or else she would turn her thoughts to the window—the window that, though time passed had turned to myth, she was certain was there.
She longed to catch a glimpse of the outside world for herself. She needed, down to her core, to see, once and for all, what was truly there. Sure, the paintings she had been shown in school—artists renderings of what they remembered of the outside world, and then, years later, artists interpretations of what those before them had remembered—did a glorious job of capturing the vivid colors and sweeping cities of the land that was. There were bright stone monoliths which stretched high into blue skies, haloed in the golden flames of the missiles dropping behind them. There were trees and vines, lush and greener than any of the crops grown in the hydroponic farm they kept, adorned with thorns and thistles that promised danger if one got too close. And too, the creatures unlike anything she had ever seen—birds and cattle and something called a dog—grown emaciated and thin from the pox and the respiratory illnesses which coasted through their oranges and yellows and reds and blacks unseen by the naked eye. They did not try to hide the brightness of what had been. Instead, they used its contrast to the white halls, the simple clothing, the minimalist nature of the New World to prove that now was better. Now was known, and kind, and unsurprising. Cassie wished she could see the calm those around her seemed to relish in. But there was something inside her, some defect she did her best to hide, which made her long to see what had been.
That ache inside of her had been there for as long as she could remember. Her mother had tried to drown it out of her in schoolwork and chores, but she had simply gotten better at hiding it. It was as much a part of her as the golden sheen to her hair, the raised callouses on her fingers from her days at the mortar and pestle. It had only grown stronger with time. And now, with merely two years remaining until she was partnered and expected to conceive and rear the next generation of the New World, she saw an ending to the hope of ever fulfilling her fantasy. There was so little time left. If she were ever to see the window, she would have to act soon.
Three days before her twenty-ninth birthday, Cassie received an invitation from Katarina. A beautiful, hand-painted image of the twin girls joined at the hair by a magnificent braid sat waiting on her cot when she returned from her work. On the back of the card, Katarina’s hand scrawled a message that the song had indeed been well-received and that, in honor of her contribution of a key phrase in the bridge, Cassie had been invited to the upper floors to spend her birthday with her sister in song and dance. It was an honor, Katarina warned, and one that should not be taken lightly or with foolishness.
Cassie’s eyes glazed as she read the warning. Her mind was already flickering with thoughts of the window. She was certain, once she was above, she could steal away to The Savior’s room to see for herself what was left of the world that had been.
In two days’ time, Cassie read, a member of the Guard will come to escort you up. I can’t wait to see you, dear sister. All my love, Katarina.
The upper floor was not so different than those below. The same white passageways lead to the same white cubes. Walls were dotted with paintings denoting the glories of the New World and the failures of what had been. The citizens wore the same burlap brown from their shoulders to their ankles. Yet somehow, the air felt lighter, cleaner, like it could fill her lungs with so much joy she could float away.
Katarina had organized a birthday party with some of the other Hymn Writers. They sang, and they danced, and there was even a small pea flour cake sweetened with the delicate sugar reserves which so rarely were used. Cassie did her best to be present, but her mind found its way down the hallways to The Savior’s quarters. It maneuvered through the door to the window. It longed to peer through the glass.
“Can you believe this place?” Katarina smiled as she through her arms around her sister’s shoulders. Her legs never stopped moving to the rhythmic beat of the hand drums played by her compatriots. “I almost never want to leave. Though I’m sure, in one year’s time, motherhood will be just as rewarding.”
Cassie smiled. “It will definitely be a step up from grinding flour.”
Katarina bit her lip and squinted her eyes into her sister’s.
“You should have paid more attention to the arts in school,” she said. “You could have been here with me. But you were always daydreaming and staring off into nothingness when the teachers called on you.”
“I would argue that daydreaming in and of itself is a focus on the arts,” Cassie quipped back. “Isn’t so much of it conjuring something from nothing?”
Katarina smirked, this time her face looking like their mother’s instead of their father’s.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” she said. “Art isn’t about fantasy. We don’t create visions out of thin air. We conjoin and produce that which already is. We write the praises of The Savior, of the New World, from what is true, not what we imagine them to be.”
Cassie caught the frown that was beginning to form over her lips and reached out to touch the freckle on her sister’s cheek. They stood for a moment, searching their own likeness in one another, marveling at their differences, until Katarina dropped her hands from Cassie’s shoulders and bared her teeth wide.
“Speaking of creating something wonderful from what already is, how about some cake? I’m almost certain it’s thanks to you we had the flour to make it.”
This is it, Cassie thought. This is my chance.
She met her sister’s smile and raised her eyebrows at the prospect of their seldom-earned sweets.
“I can’t wait,” Cassie said, her voice attempting to meet the joy in her sister’s. “But I do need to use the restroom first. Can you escort me down the hall? Or am I allowed to go on my own?”
Katarina eyed the cake her friends were circling like the vultures and other carrion birds depicted in the paintings all around them and groaned.
“I am supposed to take you,” she said. “But if we both leave, that whole thing will be gone, and we won’t ever get a slice. Just go quickly and come straight back, okay? Promise?”
Cassie made an X over her heart with her finger, but her sister was already moving toward the cake and tsk-ing people away.
“We have to wait for both birthday girls to get a slice first!” Cassie heard her saying as she slipped from the room and padded softly down the hall. “You all know the tradition!”
It was eerily silent as Cassie made her way through the corridors. Or maybe the banging thud of her heartbeat made it difficult to hear. She wasn’t sure where The Savior’s room would be, but something inside told her she’d know it when she saw it. That ache, that fantasy within her which would not subside, had taken over, and it would guide her to her destination. She knew it. She could see from its light, telling her to turn left and then right, to walk with purpose through the maze of hallways and end, triumphantly, at The Savior’s door.
As she moved, she could feel herself getting closer, as if the window itself were calling to her, beckoning for her and her alone to see what was waiting beyond its tempered glass. She could feel her excitement churning in her gut as she thought about what she would see. Even tarnished by the atrocities of the world that had been, she was certain it would be beautiful. Great skyscrapers tonguing the sky with their peaks as if they could reach all the way into Heaven itself. And the wildlife that had survived, grown stronger through their resilience, flapping wings and pounding hooves and ready to share with her the secrets of the natural world. And color! So much color, swirling around in brilliant bursts made sweeter by the natural light of the sun shining its caressing warmth upon the land. It would be glorious and horrible, beautiful but with all the dangers she had been told of lurking in its shadows. She needed it to be. She needed to know what the New World meant for them, what they were surviving to return to once it was safe. Her heart, heavy and throbbing, lurched forward in her chest, guiding her feet along the smooth concrete floor, refusing to let her even consider turning back.
Cassie gasped when she saw it. Solid, and heavy, and nestled all on its own at the end of a long hallway, the door was surrounded by ornately carved trim depicting a great orb at its crest with rays shooting outward in all directions, spearing through the chests of the beasts of mythology: deer with majestic hooked antlers raising back to meet the sun; fowl whose talons clenched at the stone as if it itself held life; and men with upturned, hopeful faces, legs akimbo, and hands prone at their sides. It was The Savior’s room, there was no doubt about it. And beyond that door, the window awaited her gaze.
Her breath caught in her throat as she started down the hall. In the stillness, she heard her mother and her sister’s voices: a chorus of warnings urging her to look away, to not ask questions. Reminding her it was often better not to know.
“But I must know,” Cassie whispered. It was a need as deep as her gut, as constant as her pulse.
The question consumed her in the huge maw of a beast that had stalked her since her birth. The voice was quiet and sincere and stern. She spun on her heels to face him.
The Savior’s face was serene. His eyes trained on her own, yet, just as before, seemed to look beyond what was there to something long forgotten, something just out of reach he needed to remember, to hold onto once more. He did not smile, but there was a gentleness within him which put Cassie immediately at ease, even as her body shook at being caught. He awaited her answer.
“I believe I must,” she whispered.
The crimson of his robes swirled around her as he lifted his arm and placed it on her shoulder. Warm and comforting, it felt like her father’s grip the last time she’d said goodbye before moving to the lower floors to fulfill his duties to the New World. There was an electricity in his touch that sent her heart into overdrive.
“If this is true,” The Savior said, “I will not be the one to stop you. But you must remember, child, it is often better not to know.”
Cassie stuttered as she found her resolve.
“I respectfully disagree, sir,” she said. “Knowledge… The knowing of truth… I think that’s what’s required for peace. For hope. For understanding. It is the unknown which claws at us from inside like the beasts depicted around your door. At least, it claws at me.”
“I do understand this sensation,” The Savior said, the timber in his voice never rising or falling. “I have felt it myself, many years ago. And that pursuit changed me. The knowing, it built this place. I built this place for all of you so that you would not have to know. So that you could live and not be changed in the way which I was.”
He moved past her toward the end of the hallway, his steps stilted yet constant, even as it seemed the door itself repelled him. He turned to face her as he reached the entrance.
“I will remind you, child, that once the unknown is seen, it may not be forgotten.” He pulled a key from within the folds of his crimson garb and held it toward the light. “So, I ask you once more: Must you know?”
Cassie closed her eyes and nodded. She breathed deeply as she stepped forward and took the key from The Savior’s hand. Her fingers found the doorknob; the key slipped the lock. This was it. Everything she had longed for, the ache that had pursued her all these years, the answer to the questions she was told not to ask: the beginning and the end of everything waited just beyond this threshold. All she needed to do was open the door and step inside. She would then be able to see the window, to glimpse beyond the glass to the world that was. She would know all that was lost and all that was left behind.
The Savior stood silent as Cassie turned the knob and pushed forward. There, on the far wall, was the window. The thin barrier of tempered glass between the New World and the Old. All that Cassie had dreamed of. She could see…. She could see…
“Have you ever seen him? The Savior?”
Cassie felt the corners of her lips lift slightly as she beckoned her daughter toward her lap.
“Yes,” she said, as the small girl slipped to her side and she wrapped her arm tightly across her shoulders. “Many, many years ago.”
“Is it true? That he has the last window to the outside world?”
Cassie felt her eyes glaze over, go distant as she peered past young Madelyn to something she had forgotten, something just out of reach.
“They say it is true,” Cassie nodded. “That he holds that burden of knowing so that we don’t have to.”
“What do you think is out there?” Madelyn asked, the wonder in her eyes reminding Cassie of something she could no longer touch.
“I think it’s better not to ask questions,” Cassie smiled. “Sometimes it is better not to know.”
About the Creator
Andrew Forrest Baker
he | him
Southern gothic storyteller.
My new novel, The House That Wasn't There, is out now from April Gloaming Publishing.
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