The Balancing of New Century
A story of about 4,500 words – about 22 minutes to read.
The baby cries as the sun sets, filling the room with an uneasy combination of joy and fear. A new life has arrived in the village of New Century. As with everything, there is a cost.
Ethan gazed out the window at the dead fields surrounding the village. He pushed away thoughts of death yet to come.
In the corner of the room, Anna picked up their new addition and rocked his cries away, her face relaxed, gentle and soft with love as she sang the words her own mother once sang to her.
Cry no more, my little child
Summer is warm and the winter’s mild
The rains’ll come soon and we’ll all be fed
No more tears will then be shed
Cry no more, dear little one
The clouds in the sky will break the sun
The rains’ll come soon and we’ll all be fed
No more sick and no more dead
Ethan waited while she sang, then said, “He’s a handsome boy. Hard to believe it’s been a month already. We’ve been blessed more than I could have dreamed.”
“The Council doesn’t see it as a blessing,” Anna whispered as she eased the sleeping baby into his bassinet. “They only see another mouth to feed.”
She ran her hand across the baby’s cheek. Anna and Ethan walked out, leaving the baby to sleep in peace.
“I hate this drought,” she said when they are halfway down the stairs. “And I hate the Council.”
“They do their best with what little we have, Anna. The drought—there’s just no end to it. Everyone has to make sacrifices so our supplies can last.”
“But this is just too much,” she said, the glistening stream of tears now visible along her cheeks.
Ethan blinked back tears of his own. “I know it’s hard. God knows it’s hard for me, too. But it has to be done. It’s the way we’ve done it since the beginning. It’s all that keeps New Century on the map while other villages fade away, their people starved to death.”
“It just isn’t right. Other villages have stopped the old ways. I once heard Fortune City decided to take their chances and it worked out fine. I’ve heard the same about Evergreen.”
“Merchant rumors,” said Ethan. “And where are those merchants now? Dead. Dead like the villagers they bragged about.”
“Who would you choose, then, if it’s so easy?” Anna asked, challenging his convictions.
“It’s not for me to decide.”
“Can’t choose, can you?”
“If it were my choice—I don’t know.” Ethan rubbed at the scar on his cheek, the last evidence of a rebellious youth he’d buried beneath adult obedience. “I’d have to pick Corbin.”
“You’d choose your own father?”
“He’s lived a good life. Seems the best choice.”
“If only…” Anna trailed off. She stared out the window into the dying forest just past the sun-burned fields. “Forget it,” she said, breaking the brief silence. “Let’s just eat. After tomorrow, I’ll be too sick to eat, even if I can.”
“Fine,” said Ethan. Talking wouldn’t change anything anyway. He’d recite the infallible traditions of the village; she’d argue against them. But right or wrong, tradition was the only thing as dependable as the drought.
Anna left the room.
Ethan sat in silence.
The fading sun came through the window and cast a long shadow past the lone candle on a cracked, wooden table. He watched his wife through the doorway, wondering whom the Council would select. The intoxicating aroma of baking bread soon drew him into the kitchen.
“I wondered what was hiding in that bowl,” he said.
“I know. It’s a waste. I just wanted to celebrate.”
“It should be a celebration.”
Anna’s face cracked into a wan smile, then she cried. Ethan held her like he might never hold her again.
She held him just as tight.
The slammed door interrupted their embrace with a thunderous boom. Ethan didn’t have to look to know it was his father. The old man was crooked from a life of grave digging, and his hunched limp drummed an unsteady, distinct beat across the oak floors.
“Haven’t you all done enough?” asked Corbin, glaring at the couple. “We can hardly handle another mistake. This little one is too much already.”
“Easy, Father,” said Ethan. “This is an act of God, nothing less. We took the mandated precautions and it happened anyway.”
“It’s a demon, that’s what it is.” The old man sounded more irate with every word. “A demon, come to tear this family apart. And now we’re choosing? I hope it’s one of you.”
Corbin threw his shovel to the floor. Chunks of grave-dirt exploded from its blade. He left the room in a wake of slammed doors, shaking the house with his anger.
“Does he have to bring that thing inside?” Anna asked. “I don’t want it in here.”
“It’s a necessary job,” Ethan said. “He doesn’t like it either, but it has to be done.”
“Well he doesn’t need to track death-tainted dirt in here. He carries that thing like a source of pride, like he gets a thrill from putting bodies in the ground. We should be celebrating life tonight, not death.”
“I know, dear.” Ethan caressed her hand. “How’s the bread?”
Anna pulled a pan from the oven, wafting the warm scent of yeast through the kitchen. Meager rations turned everything into a treat, but leavened bread was among Ethan’s favorite indulgences. As Anna cut the loaf, the door opened to the laughter of children.
“Bread!” Phillip ran into the house, right into the stone wall that was his mother. He craned his neck around her. The sun shone a spotlight on the freshly baked treasure.
“Clean your hands first,” she said.
“Just a bite, Ma? Please?”
“Clean.” Her face was frozen.
Phillip conceded defeat and grabbed a rag from the counter.
“I thought I could smell it from the road,” said Phillip, rubbing the dry cloth between his fingers, “but Sarah said I imagined it. Is this because of the baby?”
“It is. We’re celebrating.” Anna waited for him to hang the rag before offering him a taste. “Let’s see those hands.”
Phillip displayed his hands dutifully. “See. All clean.” He sounded like he was bragging.
“Alright, then. Have a piece of bread.”
“It’s a wonderful time for our family,” said Ethan. In his mind, the dark cloud of the Balancing cast a shadow over even this small celebration, but he had always managed to keep the harshest of village laws from his children, hoping ignorance would keep them blissful as long as possible.
Sarah walked in, already clean, and grabbed a chunk of bread. “It smells wonderful, Mommy,” she said. “We should have a new baby every day.”
Ethan hid his concern with an uneasy laugh. “We’d probably just run out of food.” The kids laughed, too.
“So,” Phillip said between bites, “has anyone chosen a name for the baby?”
Ethan nearly choked on his bread. Anna turned her head away and hurried from the room in a vain attempt to hide her tears.
“What’s wrong?” Phillip asked.
“She’s probably just tired,” said Ethan. “She hasn’t been getting much sleep since the baby came.” He grabbed another slice of bread. “How was school today?”
“One of the guys said it was gonna rain soon,” Phillip said, the words escaping just as he crammed in another mouthful of bread. “Said he saw some clouds on the horizon.”
“Probably nothing but dust,” said Ethan. “I’ve heard those rumors plenty of times. Best not to get your hopes up.”
“Nobody thought a family could have three kids, either, but here we are,” Phillip said. “Grandma said I’d never get a sister, but I did. Just wish she would have been alive to see her.”
“Me, too, Son.”
Ethan sat by the fire as night settled in. The light of the flames danced along worn, wooden walls. He tried to lose himself in a book, to escape the troubles the morning threatens to bring, but Anna allowed him no such relief.
“You have to do something,” she said. “The Council respects you.”
“There’s nothing I can do. You know the law. The reserves provide for one hundred people. That’s it. Someone must be chosen to balance the numbers. It’s for the good of the village, for the survival of the village.”
“It doesn’t have to be like this. It just doesn’t. The other villages—”
“Those villages will fail!” Ethan slammed his book shut. “They probably already have. When was the last time you heard anything about them? When was the last time anyone else passed through town?”
“I don’t care. I want to leave. I want to find somewhere else to live. We have to try.”
“There’s no leaving. There is only death out there. You have to understand.”
“I don’t understand. And I don’t want to.” Anna looked out the window. Night or day, there was always a darkness that never seemed to leave. “What about the children?”
“The children will be fine. They have a new brother to cheer them up.”
“What if the Council chooses one of them for the Balancing?”
Ethan shifted in his chair. “They wouldn’t.”
“They could.” Anna’s voice cracked.
“They haven’t chosen a child in twenty years.” The words dried his mouth.
“But they have done it, and there’s nothing stopping them from doing it again. We have three children, Ethan. The law allows one. People were already jealous we had Sarah. Imagine what they’re saying now.”
“They wouldn’t do it, Anna.” He was trying to convince himself, too.
Ethan hid his shaking hands in the folds of his crossed arms. Anna was right. Some of the women had long been complaining, accusing Anna of flaunting her fertility. Choosing one of the children would be a sure fire way to appease them.
Anna twisted the knife, jerked it up through his heart. “What about me? Even if they spare the children, they could still choose me. You know they hate me, the Council and their jealous wives. I can feel the way they look at me. It’s not my fault God gave us these children, not my fault they have none.”
“And they could choose me,” he said, trying to shift her focus. “You know I don’t want this, but it’s law.”
“Laws should allow people to live, not condemn them to death.” Her voice echoed against bare walls.
Ethan tried to quiet her. “I’m sure it will be Corbin. He’s an old man. He’ll probably die soon anyway. That’s why they chose my mother when Sarah was born. It only makes sense.”
“He’s untouchable and you know it,” Anna said. “‘No man should dig his own grave.’ Isn’t that what they say?”
“Sure, but it doesn’t mean they can’t choose him anyway. They’ve done it before, probably as many times as they’ve picked a child.”
“But you know they won’t.” She hugged herself and turned away.
Ethan poked at the fire, searching for an escape in its flames. He knew he couldn’t win this one.
“This is beyond us,” he finally said. “I’m going to try to sleep. It may be the last good rest I get.”
He walked away.
“Coward,” she spat.
Anna lay in silence until she heard the soft snoring of her husband. She slid out of bed and opened the door, turning the knob all the way to ensure its silence. She tiptoed through the hall, stepping lightly where she knew the wood may creak, and slipped through the door into the children’s room.
“Phillip,” she said, giving the boy a gentle shake. “Wake up, dear.”
“Ma? What’s wrong?” He yawned out the words.
“We’re just going for a little walk. The stars are so bright tonight, and I don’t want you kids to miss it. Put on your shoes while I get your sister.”
“What about my clothes?”
“We’ll go in our pajamas. It’ll be fun.” She forced a smile.
Anna gave Sarah the same gentle shake, then moved on to the bassinet. She swaddled the baby in his warmest blanket, though she knew she’d still have to hold him tight to keep him warm enough. Fall had come, and the bitter fingers of winter already grasped eagerly at the world.
Anna didn’t know how long their journey would be. She had only the vaguest idea where to find the nearest village, lost somewhere in a childhood memory, the memory itself being a second-hand story told by merchants who no longer came. And, Ethan could be right, was probably right, was usually right. The towns might be gone. But she had to try, even if he refused.
She pulled the coats from the hall closet and led her children down the stairs, hugging the wall so the steps wouldn’t groan under their weight.
Corbin sat, rocking, waiting, guarding the door like Cerberus guards the underworld. Ana froze, stopping the children behind her. The embers of the dying fire left just enough light to see his dirt-worn face. A shotgun lay comfortably in his lap. Madness danced in his eyes.
“Taking a walk?” he asked.
“The stars are out tonight, Corbin. Just wanted to show the children the beauty of the world outside the village.”
“They’ll have to do without.” He pulled back the slide on his shotgun with a threatening snap of metal. “Just head on back to bed.”
“We want to see the stars, Grandpa,” said Phillip.
“Sorry, boy. The dust’s rolled in, covered everything up. Guess you’ll have to wait.”
“Just let us see for ourselves,” said Anna, knowing Corbin saw her true intentions.
“It’s dangerous out there,” he said. “Can’t see much with the dust, and the wolves are just as hungry as we are.” He waved his gun toward the children. “Hate to see anything happen to the young’ns.”
She glared at him, wishing she could just reach the door. She wasn’t angry with him, though. She should have expected it from the demon of a man. She was angry with herself, angry for being unarmed, for not being able to defend her children.
As she turned and ushered the children back to their beds, she heard the taunting squeal of the wooden rocker. The old vulture would guard his traditions all night.
Ethan woke as the moon sank to the horizon. His wife lay in bed next to him, her breathing rushed.
“Are you awake?” He whispered the question. No response. He lay there in silence.
Corbin would be the sensible choice, but as much as he wanted to believe it, he knew they wouldn’t choose him. Anna was right. Forcing a man to dig his own grave was one step too far, even for the Council. But Anna was at risk. She’d given him three beautiful children in a world where most women struggled to have one. The drought had left more than the fields barren. He knew they might choose her, if only out of their dark jealousy.
Ethan slipped out of bed and walked to the window. The village slept under a blanket of dust and darkness.
He could volunteer. There was no law against it. Phillip had grown into a fine young man. He could help Anna care for the others, and maybe the loss would ease the village sentiment.
The morning church bells derailed his thoughts. For the first time he saw the irony in having a church in such a godless place as New Century.
Ethan was already on his way downstairs when he heard the shifting blankets and creaking beds of his family waking. Corbin was asleep in the rocker, propped back against the door. He wondered if Anna had tried to leave in the night. He wouldn’t have blamed her if she had.
Ethan woke the old man with a kick, just hard enough to make sure Corbin felt it. He looked down at the shotgun in his lap.
“Planning to kill us yourself and be done with it?”
Corbin fought a yawn, unsuccessfully. “Law’s the law,” he said. “You know as well as I. If your whore wife had known it better—”
Ethan swung the back of his hand across the old man’s face. Blood and spit flew from his wrinkled mouth. He stared at the old man, but said nothing.
Corbin rubbed at his jaw, eyes locked on his son.
Ethan broke the silence. “Don’t you have a grave to finish?” He nodded toward the door.
“I suppose you’re right.” Corbin grabbed his shovel and propped the shotgun in its place. His jaw ached and his lip bled. “I wonder how big of a hole I need. Child-size, perhaps?”
“How dare you. If mother were here—”
“You leave her out of it.” Corbin raised an arthritic fist. “She was a good woman. She didn’t deserve to die, not so you could have another kid.”
“She was already dying. If not for us, it would have been someone else. But she was a better person than you, that’s for sure.” Ethan reached for the gun. “Maybe I should just kill you and be done with the whole thing.”
“You’d sign your own death. Life for a life, any way you look at it. The law’s pretty simple. ‘Course, you’d make room for another baby, so at least someone would be happy to see us gone. I’m sure that fertile wife of yours would find a new suitor plenty fast.” Corbin’s face stretched into a rotted grin.
“Get out.” Ethan motioned at the door with the shotgun. “Now.”
The door slammed. Ethan heard the stairs creak behind him. Anna stepped down, then Phillip, then Sarah holding the baby tightly in her arms. His eyes watered, soaking in the beauty of the scene.
“Morning, Pa,” said Phillip. “Grandpa leaving already?”
“He is.” Ethan leaned the gun back against the wall. “He’s got some work to finish.”
“I’ll whip up some oatmeal,” said Anna, turning to the kitchen.
Sarah followed, bouncing the baby in her arms.
Ethan called Phillip aside. “Come give me a hand with the wagon before we eat,” he said. “One of the wheels is being stubborn again.”
Ethan walked with his son in the crisp morning air. The dust had cleared and there was an early chill on the wind, but nothing their coats couldn’t fend off. The songbirds had already moved on for the day, chased away by crows scavenging for breakfast.
“The wheel looks fine,” said Phillip, wrinkling his brow.
“It is. There’s something else. Something I need to tell you.” Ethan struggled for the right words. “There’s a law, a law about having children, and the balance that comes with it.”
“What do you mean, balance?”
“The village supplies can only support a hundred of us, no more. So, when a baby is born—” Ethan hesitated, trying to find the right words.
“You mean how whenever a baby is born, someone dies?”
Phillip had already made the connection. He’d always been a smart boy. He’d make a good leader for the family.
“Yes,” said Ethan. “Only it’s not just that someone dies, it’s how it happens. Most of the time, the Council chooses someone to die. It’s seldom just coincidence.”
“So they just kill someone? Wouldn’t that be wrong?”
“I never saw it until today, but yes. And this morning, the Council will choose someone to be killed to make room for our baby.”
Ethan saw the gears turning behind Phillip’s eyes.
“So, when Sarah was born and Grandma—”
“She was old and sick, but yes, the Council sped things up a bit.”
“And Johnny? Was it because his sister was born? He was my best friend, Pa. God… did they kill him because of his legs? They just got rid of him?”
“I’m sorry, Son. So, so sorry.”
“Who would do this?” Phillip asked, tears pooling in his eyes.
Ethan hung his head. “We all have. It’s how the village survives the drought. I’m sorry now any of us were born here.”
“Me, too,” Phillip said, wiping tears away with his sleeve. His face turned pale. “Who died for me?”
“We can talk about that later. We have other things to worry about for now. The Council is choosing someone for the Balancing today, someone from our family.”
“We can fight back.” Phillip kicked a rock against the wagon. The crash of its impact echoed through the still-silent village. “They can’t take any of us.”
“They’ll take someone,” said Ethan, “or they’ll take us all.”
“Then we’ll die together as a family.”
“You would have your mother dead? Your sister? The baby?”
“Of course not.”
“There’s a sacrifice to be made, yes, but I need your help.”
“Don’t go to school today. I want you to take your sister and brother into the forest instead. Follow the old road. It’s overgrown, but it’s there. You’ll see it. Your mom and I will be at the council meeting. Grandpa will be there, too. Wait in the forest until we come for you. There might be other villages, places where the people aren’t so quick to killing. We can start a new life somewhere far from New Century.” Ethan paused. “And take the shotgun. Just in case.”
“We’ll be there. I’ll protect them.”
“You’re a good boy,” said Ethan. “A good man.”
Pride beamed across Phillip’s tear-stained face as the two walked back to the house. Ethan pat his son’s back. Breakfast would be short.
Ethan held his wife’s hand as they walked into the cemetery and took their places before the Council. Corbin cleared the last shovels of dirt from the new grave. Villagers gathered in a half-circle, torches burning behind them to aid the weak morning sun. The nine members of the Council sat at a stone table, already locked in debate.
The mumbled words of the crowd were impossible to understand, but Ethan knew what they’re saying. He’d been in their shoes too many times. Some sympathized, remembering the feeling of their own losses. Others took bets on the Council’s choice, maybe wagering an extra ration of wheat, but it was a bet nobody ever bragged about winning.
Ethan watched as the councilmen wrote their choices on paper that threatened to turn to dust. They passed their choices to the speaker, seated in the center, who tallied the votes that decided the fate of Ethan’s family.
Ethan scanned the faces of the crowd. His wife was already dead in their eyes. He could see it.
The Speaker’s lips mouthed the words—four, five—as he counted the last few votes. He cleared his throat, and rose from his chair.
“By the laws and traditions of New Century, it is the right of the Council to choose a citizen for this honorable sacrifice in the Balancing of our village. As man is born, so must man die. So has it been, so it will be.”
The crowd repeated the last line in unison.
The Speaker looked up from the paper, first at Ethan, then at Anna.
“Let’s get on with it already,” Corbin shouted. “We all know it should be—”
Ethan cut the old man’s words short with his fist. He knew his father would call out Anna, and he couldn’t hold back his festering hatred any longer. He let loose a decade of anger in one punch, the loss of his mother, the fights with his father. It was all packed in there.
Corbin stumbled back.
“Go,” Ethan said to Anna. “To the old road. Find the children.”
She disappeared into the stunned crowd.
Corbin gathered his footing and swung back, missed and stumbled toward the open grave. Ethan pushed him in.
“You ingrate,” Corbin said from the bottom of the grave. “You’d kill your own father?”
Ethan’s rage flared as he kicked dirt at the old man’s face. “You haven’t been a father to be since Mom died.”
Ethan reached for the shovel but was held back.
“Tie him up,” said the Speaker. “It’s not his right to choose. And get Corbin out of that grave.”
Ethan felt the burn of the rope as two men pulled it tight around his wrists.
“Nobody has to die,” Ethan said. “There are other ways.”
“The Council has made its decision.” The Speaker crushed the paper in his hand. “For the safety of our people, the Council has no choice but to select Ethan Graber for the Balancing of New Century.”
Ethan trembled as he fought to get away. The crowd screamed for his death. He pulled an arm free from the ropes and swung his fist at his captors. More came. He had no choice but to listen to the ruling. The world went black around him. Only the Council remained.
“Ethan Graber, New Century will live on because of your sacrifice.” The Speaker’s words were cold and monotonous from years of reciting the same script. “It is an honor for you to lay down your life for your village.”
“The killing has to stop!” Ethan shouted at the Council. “You’re nothing but murd—”
Ethan’s captors shoved a rag into his mouth. With his hands still bound, the men drug him to the open grave.
“This selfless act will be remembered through the generations,” said the Speaker.
The men lifted Ethan and cast him into the grave. He fell on his back, six feet down onto dirt that felt more like concrete. He screamed a muffled scream as his shoulder popped out of socket.
Ethan struggled to get up, but the knots pulled tighter.
Dirt rained down above him, the only thing New Century had in abundance. Each villager threw a handful, one by one, chanting the traditional words: “Life for a life. The village survives.”
Ethan knew how they felt, that relief it wasn’t one of their own in the grave. He felt the same way with every Balancing. Every fistful of dirt held their jealousy, their hunger, their sadness, all of it forced upon Ethan.
The weight of the dirt grew heavier. Ethan’s struggles grew weaker. He pushed the rag out with his tongue, tried to plead for his life, but crumbled earth filled his mouth before he could get a word out.
His breathing quickened as panic overcame him, each inhalation bringing in more dirt than air. The raining soil stung his eyes as he fought to keep them open. Above him, the Speaker stood at the grave’s edge.
“It didn’t have to be like this, you fool,” he said, glaring down at the dead man.
The Speaker opened his hand above the grave. It held paper, not dirt.
The crumpled, yellowed ball fell into the grave.
There, in the brief moment before the next handful of dirt buried the evidence, Ethan saw the Council’s decision. He could only see the first three letters, but it was enough: Cor—