24 | All of the Promises

All of the Promises

Matton had managed to shove his upper body under the washer, legs trailing out from it, the inner workings inches from his nose. It was like performing surgery on the underside of some mechanical beast, ponderous, heavy, and stupid, guts open to expose metal intestines.

If he could just reach the bolt, he could slide the rubber washer he had repaired over it and if he was correct, it would stop both the horrible tinny noise and the small but steady leak. Neither of which bothered him anymore, but which made Nandi yell and slam things—adding to the noise. 

But his fingers were just short of the metal protrusion, even when he jammed them painfully up into the cold, moist gap. He shoved harder, felt the skin of his knuckles tear, and swore quietly but savagely. He did not want to come out from under the machine without fixing it, felt he would rather stay there all night than slide out and tell Nandi he could not do it.

If he was unable to fix it, it would just go on leaking and whining; they could not afford a new one, had one even been available. They would have to put themselves on the building list, and it would be years before it was their turn.

There was a sudden knock on the front door, and he flinched, knowing as he did that he was going to collide with the underside of the machine. He did, red flowers blossomed against the back of his eyelids; he swore again, louder this time, and blood ran down the back of his throat. 

Short, fast footsteps pounded down the hall and stopped. He swallowed a mouthful of snot and blood and felt perversely annoyed that one of the kids had found him. Of course they had; his fucking legs were sticking out.

“Papa, Papa. A minder is here. He wants to talk to you.”

A minder. An image of Carina Bensway standing in the corner of the elevator looking down into a frothy head of kale sprouting from her bag of groceries flashed into his mind. He tried to tell himself he did not know why.

“Papa!” It was his daughter’s voice but followed closely by Nandi’s.

“Matton. A minder.”

“I heard.” His own voice slapped back at him. “I’m coming.” He began to wriggle out, felt his shirt catch on the edge of the washer and ride up to expose his stomach. He pictured a pallid, lumpy island sticking out of the ocean.

Something grabbed his foot and pulled.

“I’m helping, Daddy!”

He yanked his ankle back and heard his daughter whine. “Daddy, that hurt me.”

“Shhhh,” Nandi hissed. “Not now. It was not on purpose.”

Grunting with the effort, he slid free from the washer and blinked against the light. From the floor, his wife and daughter loomed above him.

“But it hurt,” his daughter said.

“Be quiet.” Nandi knelt down. “Be quiet until after the minder leaves, and then I’ll get you a cookie.” She had her hands on the girl’s shoulders, and Matton could see how close she was to shaking her.

Nandi glanced down. “Do you know why he’s here?”

Again, the image of Carina. He shook his head. “No.”

She looked at him without blinking. “Should you?”

He sat up, pulled his shirt down, touched the strip of skin under his nose to see if there was any blood. “How the hell should I know?” he said. “It could be anything.”

“And you should know anything,” his wife said. “Hurry up, he’s waiting.”

He shoved himself up from the floor, like a building collapse in reverse—when had he become so massive—and walked down the hall. 

“Watch what you say,” Nandi hissed from behind.

The front door was open, and Matton felt a twist of relief when he saw that it was Nat Bergin standing in the doorframe. Nat was OK—gave the impression that his role in the minders was not entirely square with him, that he was doing it because he had to, not because he was fanatical like some of them.

“Nat,” Matton said as he reached him.

“Buddy,” Nat said, and looked him up and down. “You OK? You’re bleeding.”

Matton brought his hand to his nose, noticed his torn knuckles.

“Nandi,” Nat started. “Is she . . . ”

“I was under the washer,” Matton cut in quickly. “Trying to fix it. Hit my head. Fucking thing won’t stop leaking.”

He saw Nat’s eyes widen slightly. 

“Not a big deal,” Matton said and took a gulp of air. “Everything’s fine. Nandi . . . you saw her, right? She opened the door.”

Nat nodded slowly. “You need to take a minute?”

Matton made himself laugh. “No, no. I’m fine. Everything’s copacetic. What’s going on? A minute before what?”

“A reckoning. In the common space.”

A reckoning. Matton made himself unclench his fists. “A reckoning. Now?”

“Now,” Nat said, and gave a small cough.

“Oh, OK, well, maybe I should just wash my face off. Give me a second.” Matton turned and walked carefully over to the sink. He ran the water and held a rag under it, then wiped it over his face. It would be about Carina. You don’t know that, he told himself, but he was pretty sure he did. He found a clean dish towel and dried his face, then dropped the towel on the floor.

“So,” he examined Nat as he turned around. “Something must have happened. To have a reckoning?”

Nat gave the same apologetic little cough. “Unfortunately, yes.”

“What happened? To whom?” Nandi was standing in the doorway.

“Carina Bensway.” Nat’s voice was like under-baked cake. “And I don’t know exactly what, of course.” He did not meet Nandi’s eye; he might be a minder, but she, of course, outranked him.

Nandi looked at Matton. Her eyes were intent and also furious. At him. A reckoning meant he had missed something. They all had, all the men in the building, but she was concerned with him, not the rest of them. He wondered if any of the other men had encountered Carina. Had seen what he had. 

“Minnie, Perrin!” She turned and yelled. “Get ready for bed, your dad has been summoned, he won’t be here to read to you.” She turned back to the two men in the kitchen. “Go,” she said. “Being late won’t help you.”

The common space was crowded with all the men of the building. All with the sloppy, after-dinner look about them, all glancing at each other sideways. They greeted one another cordially enough, but joining them was like stepping into an electricity-threaded lake. Tepid but dangerous.

He went to stand with Garin and Hendel, his two closest friends in the complex. Garin was wearing a worn, plaid bathrobe. When Matton raised his eyebrows at him, he shrugged. “Tuesday is sex night. Didn’t have time to get dressed.”

Matton tried to picture his friend, tall and underweight, in bed with his wife, Maneesa, tiny and round. He felt a stab of jealousy, although the image was absurd. He remembered wondering if Carina allowed her husband access when he had seen her around the building. Remembered the vision that had flashed through his mind as she had looked up from the grocery bag and had been sure that she did. Or rather, that it happened whether she allowed it or not.

He looked around the circle of men, from face to face. Brahn Bensway was not there. This did not surprise Matton. He wondered if Brahn had already been taken. There was a fairly good chance he was dead, although how he died would depend on what had happened.

Hendel went tense beside him. Hendel, slight and shaky, had undergone a proceeding once, years ago, only months after they had all been moved into the building. He had not been gone for very long but had been jumpy ever since.

Matton followed Hendel’s gaze and felt himself tense up as well. Crendall Grig had just entered the room.

“Oh shit,” Gary muttered, loud enough that Matton nudged him slightly. 

If Crendall Grig was there, then Brahn was almost certainly already dead, probably in a horrible way, and they were in serious shit as well. 

“It’s that dark-haired one, Carina, the new couple,” Hendel said out the side of his tight mouth. “It must be her. Brahn is not here.”

That dark-haired one. It was the first thing you noticed about her, after all. Not that dark hair was uncommon, of course. But hers was almost black—and glossy in a way that most women’s was not. “Salad oil,” Nandi had said, when she had first seen Carina. “Either that or motor grease.” Matton had looked at her questioningly. “Her hair . . . she uses something on it to make it that shiny.” Nandi’s mouth pursed. “Can’t say I blame her; she’s got gorgeous hair.” Nandi was like that, would say things that other people just thought. “Poor thing,” she continued. “She ought to just chop it off right now.” She tilted her head and looked at Matton, but this time kept her thoughts to herself.

“Did you notice anything?” Matton whispered.

“Of course not,” Hendel said. “God help me, I wish I had.”

“Maybe it’s not what we think,” Matton said. 

“It’s always what we think,” Garin said. “Why else would Granson be here?”

The door to the common room was closed loudly and deliberately. All the men from the building were there; it was time to begin. Matton felt his friends go still and attentive, and he mimicked them.

Granson made his way to the center of the circle. He was a trim man, younger than most of them, with a tired face. His voice, when he began to speak, was not tired. Matton felt his asshole clench at the sound. 

“Let’s begin by reciting the Third Promise,” he said, pale blue eyes skipping from one man to the next. He made a noise in his throat and began.

“When one of us becomes a perpetrator, so do we all. There are no individual men; rather, we are a single being. There are no individual choices; rather, our choices reflect the will of the collective man. His violence is our violence. His violation is our violation. His very words are our words.”

Matton recited along with the rest of the group. He modulated his tone, made sure he was not too loud or too quiet. 

He agreed with the Third Promise—and all the rest of the promises. When he had recited the First to Nandi at their Binding Ceremony, he had meant it: He was predisposed to aggression, both because of his genes and because of his history; Nandi was not altogether safe from him. He would examine his words, his actions, and he would turn himself in if he had to. 

So why had he not said anything after that moment in the elevator? Proof is not required. Instincts are admired. And yet he had left the encounter knowing something was wrong and had said nothing. Had it been the way she raised her gaze? The plumpness of her lower lip? He had wanted to bite it.

Garin poked him in the ribs. He had trailed off. Fuck. He found his place and continued.

“ . . . because of this, it is our job to watch one another, to keep each other from doing harm, because if one inflicts harm, we all do. And if one must be punished, so must we all.”

And he had watched Brahn after that. Had considered the quality of his knuckles, the breadth of his shoulders. He was a handsome man, well-matched to Carina. They stood out from the rest of the building’s residents. Were just slightly brighter, newer

The Third Promise was over. Granson paused, looked around the room again. “As you will have guessed, we called this meeting because the Third Promise has been broken. You have broken it. You have not filled your duty to each other or the women of the building.”

He had pictured Carina the night he encountered her in the elevator. Had imagined he was fucking her while he was fucking Nandi. Not so much that he was fucking her. More like he was Brahn fucking her. As if he had those broad shoulders and tight waist. Had shut his eyes so that he was not seeing Nandi beneath him—she always looked vaguely amused while they were having sex, as if she was enjoying a lecture she could not quite comprehend. Carina did not look amused in his fantasy; she looked . . .

Scared—admit it, you idiot, you wanted her scared while you plowed into her.

Granson’s voice rose, and Matton flinched, convinced for a moment that the lead minder had seen his own obscene fantasy and was broadcasting it out loud to the room. 

“Brahn Bensway did not act on his own,” Granson continued, his voice rising a notch. “He was assisted in his crime by each one of you in this room. His thoughts were your thoughts, his choices were your choices. You—all of you—doomed this man because you did not stop him.” Granson was sweating, lightly, his forehead glistening under the sulphur lights. “You might as well have walked him right up to the gallows.”

There was a minor shudder of understanding within the room. The gallows, then. Brahn had done something noteworthy to Carina; a quick gunshot to the head was the most common means of execution. Which meant their punishment would be worse than usual as well. 

There had been the weekly men’s meeting. That afternoon. After he had seen Carina in the elevator, but before he had fucked her under the guise of his wife. Why had he not said something then? 

Brahn Bensway had been there, of course. He would have to have been, and Matton had examined him for signs of guilt. If Matton had said something, if it had been investigated and confirmed, Brahn would have been taken away for a period. Maybe several months, maybe a year. Matton had seen men come back seemingly exactly the same, and he had seen men come back with metal plates screwed into the sides of their heads. All Hendel had said of his experience was that he was fine never touching his wife, or any other woman for that matter, if it meant he did not have to go back there. 

“Remember then, this pain is not so much a punishment, as a question. A tool to help you question yourselves. To look deeply into your souls. A path to being a better man and creating a better world for your children.” Granson’s eyes were distant, as if he were looking at a sunset. He was a true believer. Thought the pain he would dole out was a gift.

“A gift to help you examine why you did not notice, why you did not ask, why you did not keep each other safe . . . ”

Then Hendel said, “Because that hot little cunt deserved it.” His voice was no more than a whisper, but it seared Matton as if his intestines had been laid out on a hot barbeque.

He heard Gary inhale swiftly and move away from them.

But Hendel had seen straight into Matton’s soul. Voiced the words scrawled there.

He glanced sideways at the little man. His friend. Had he really said what Matton thought he had heard? His mouth was clenched closed, but Matton could feel the heat coming off his wiry body. The word cunt alone would have earned Hendel several months in the cooler.

She had held the grocery bag so close to her body, as if protecting herself, or hiding herself. Is that how he had known? Or was it something just behind her eyes as she looked up from the kale? 

He had offered to carry the bag for her, said something asinine about how it looked heavy, and she had looked at him like he had gone mad. There were so many reasons you could not ask a woman if you could carry her groceries. And that night he had fucked her through his wife in a fury known only to himself.

“Your words have failed you,” Granson barked. “They have failed not only you, but Carina and Brahn. And now the time for words is over. Line up! Outside.”

The courtyard was lacquered in a recent rain and smelled of the coming autumn. There was only one whip, and by the end of the reckoning it would be matted with fabric, flesh, and blood. There were fifty-nine men left in the complex. It was a simple process, really. The man at the front of the line knelt, Granson was in charge of the whip, each man stepped forward and gave three lashings. If they did not put enough effort into it, Granson told them to do it again. By the end of the line, the man’s shirt would be shredded and so would his back. Then the second man knelt, and so on.

Would he have said something if she had let him hold her groceries? Saved her, saved her husband, saved them all. He could not remember if they had children.

Nandi was sitting on a stool in the kitchen when he managed to unlock the door and stumble in. It was past midnight. He made a noise that he could not understand as a sob or a curse as he saw his own kitchen, smelled the family scents.

“Turn around.” She whirled her finger. 

She was not allowed to assist him at all. No helping him out of the flayed and bloody shirt, no anointing the broken skin. No giving him a painkiller. None of the women were allowed to help after a reckoning.

“And bloody stupid, it is too,” Nandi had said about the rule. “Just makes more work for us, doesn’t it? With all of you limping around and not even able to drive a fucking car.”

He obeyed her, showing the back of himself, and heard her inhale hard.

“For Christ’s sake,” she said. He did not turn back around, could hear her thinking—she had a limber mind. “I suppose it is a fitting punishment, but how are you going to fix that washer now?”

When he turned back, she was crying. Nothing showy, just tears sliding down her cheeks. She did nothing to stop them, and he began to cry, too. Not as elegantly as she, though. All at once he was bawling like a child.

“Help me,” he gasped.

She stood, holding out a hand. “The Final?” 

“Anything.” He stumbled toward her.

She took his hand and lowered them both to their knees on the kitchen floor. It was clean but stained and worn thin. They knelt side by side.

She began, and her voice was low, but steady. “For our job is not to punish men but to guide them to a place of peace. A place of peace and safety for all the creatures of this world: the animals, the plants, the children, and all the genders . . . ”

Matton began to recite along with her, reminded as he always was of a picture book he had as a small child that had shown the lions and the bears hand in hand with the lambs and the mice.

“And we mourn the pain that they may endure to come to this place, we cry out for every lash of the whip and burn of the brand, but we also glory in the pain because we know it pushes them forward . . . ”

Matton’s weeping slowed as he recited the Final Promise with his wife. The pain in his back seemed to lessen, or if not, to lessen to become meaningful, at least.

“Forward to a place where we will all be safe from the harm and anger that men have wrought upon this world.”

They knelt in silence for a moment. Matton heard the steady drip from under the washer, the only sound in their small apartment. 

“You heard what he did to her then?” Nandi’s voice was flat and clear, as was her gaze. 

He tried to hold it but could not. She thought he was crying for Carina, but as much as he wanted to be, he knew he was not.

Kathryn Lipari is a writer from Portland, Oregon. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Smokelong QuarterlyTypehouse InkMarathon Literary ReviewWomen’s Studies Quarterly, and The Puritan. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Oregonian and The Washington Post. A member of Full-Frontal Writers’ Collective and smallsalon.com, Kathryn is happiest outside, in the rain. More at kathrynlipari.com and on instagram @kathrynwriting.