Expecting trouble, I turn off the car and wait. My hands grip the wheel, the knuckles white in the gathering dusk as my heart races.
Small eddies of people stream past me, some in groups, some alone, some laughing, some with their heads down. One man yawns as he passes, studying me. I tense, prepared for an attack, ready to kick the car back into life and run him down if I have to. But he breaks eye contact and walks on, unconcerned.
The car park is beginning to empty now as people drive away, the small shopping precinct beside it draining like a shallow pot as the stores pull down shutters and set alarms.
I’m starting to look conspicuous, but I can’t move. I know I’m starting to look like one of them...and it certainly doesn’t help that I actually am one of them. Every face walking past is the enemy, every friend and work colleague has to be scrutinised and analysed. Letting your guard down for a second only leads to destruction.
I have the power to change the lives of the people walking past, but I must hide it. That gets me thinking about Leaf. She hasn’t been seen or heard from in more than six weeks. Caught? Killed? Painted Over? None of us know, and it’s not as if we can ask.
Inwardly, I curse Branch. Why has he called the meeting so early, in such a public place? Doesn’t he know the risks like the rest of us? His over confidence could get us all Painted Over.
My hands reach into my coat pocket and caress the square of paper pushed into its corner. Wood dropped it into my coat pocket this morning as I waited on a subway platform and it had taken all my powers of concentration not to stiffen or react when he did.
I longed to hold the paper up to the crowds pushing against me and proclaim myself. It was just a piece of paper after all; it’s not as if there isn’t paper in the world…but what’s on the paper is what matters. It’s the reason we meet in shadows and back rooms, the reason I’m sitting here in an almost empty car park waiting for the day to bleed out and die from the sky.
We worship The Words, while the world worships The Images.
I long to hold up my Words and shout to everyone I know, my family, my friends: How can it be a crime? How can this be not right?
I’ve seen the power of The Words, so much more powerful than The Images. I’ve seen men and women weep over Them, seen them flogged in the streets and spat upon for admitting their love for It. And I’ve seen them die for Their Words. Like Leaf, blown away.
I’ve seen people laugh as they learned New Words, and I’ve felt their power in my hands as I commit the worst crime of all: I Write them, Write The Words rather than paint The Images.
In banned books full of Words and notebooks – some of them lined – I Write and I paint. But I paint with my Words, and the light from my fingers is as bright and powerful as any Image I’ve ever seen.
How can this be wrong? How can Words be so feared?
I long for the day when we can be free. I’m tired of the shadows, the constant fear, always looking over my shoulder for The Painters, expecting every knock on the door to be them.
I push open the car door and step into the gathering dusk, scanning the car park for Painters or any sign of followers. There’s nothing but the call of a lonely bird from a tree above me, the naked branches raking the sky with skeletal fingers.
The directions on my illicit paper already memorised, I hurry from the car park and through the deserted shopping precinct, dead eyed mannequins tracking my silent progress, my shadow dancing at my feet. Clutched in my pocket in a death-grip is a notebook full of The Words I’ve written this week.
I come to an anonymous store, no different from any other but for the light burning from the back. Fools! I think. Painters could be out here and wondering who’s working so late.
I go cold when the door opens…Wood actually has his notebook out on the table, and is Writing in it as I watch. I can practically see him doing it from the street. I hurry inside and Branch closes the door behind me.
“Branch, you’re insane. Get Wood to put that thing away, or we’re all done for.” I whisper, checking the sleeping street behind me for pursuers.
“Relax, Root. We’re safe here.”
“That’s what Leaf thought.”
Branch waves away my concern and heads for the back room, a tiny box filled with a table and surrounded by the four people who share my love for The Words. We settle quickly and turn to Branch, expectant.
“Thank you all for coming tonight to our Writing Group. As usual, I’d like to read from Chambers before we begin.” He opens the massive volume in front of him on a random page and begins to Read from The Book. “Meritocracy. An elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth. A system in which such persons are rewarded and advanced.”
He reads a few more entries from The Book, but I discover I’m not really listening. Instead, I think again of Leaf, wondering where she is tonight…or if she’s even alive. I half turn my head and stare into the darkness pushing up against the windows where we sit and Write.
There are others of us out there, somewhere. Gathered in places like this, among friends whose names we do not know – out there, our names are colours, but in here, I am Root. All of us very different, but brought here by the one thing we share, the love of Words.
Branch tells us that our numbers are growing. That the cult that we are will soon be too large to be ignored or Painted Over.
Our day will come when we step from the shadows, and men and women everywhere will know the power of The Words as we do.
Then they will know what we who Write already know: That The Words can change lives.
An Australian friend (Anna Hub) attends a writing club which calls itself The EWG Cult. Oh, I thought…there’s an idea. A world where a writing group is a cult!