|janecarnall (janecarnall) wrote,|
@ 2008-11-02 20:44:00
I linked to this story by darkrose, My Sight Grows Stronger, in the introductory notes to The Games. Partly because this really impressed me, and partly because I felt it was a good introductory stand-alone piece to read about how the Keptverse works. This story is my effort to do something similiar, and was inspired by a discussion that I had with darkrose here.
In summary: the Keptverse is set in an America in which debt slavery exists. In the real Keptverse (which is mostly on livejournal), the stories are all RPF. What I am writing here is fanfic on the Keptverse: fictional characters living in the universe of poisontaster's creation.
If anyone had been looking in the window, which no one was, it might have looked too formal to be a meeting of friends: two people on the couch at one side the room, three people on chairs at the other side. A coffee pot on the table, and cups, and a plate of tidily-arranged cookies: no one was eating or drinking.
The two on the couch were a married couple. Matching rings, and the kind of shared speech patterns that come from living with another person for years, for decades.
"…you see, it's all so difficult. The bills… we don't have much, but we manage what we have. We try. We have a son, he's in Florida now, he's doing well, but he has a family of his own…"
"Then we heard of you people. Your organisation. We hoped we could join."
The three people on the chairs looked at each other. "We don't have an organisation," the younger woman said slowly. "I think the simplest thing we can do now is to explain who we are, and how we live, and… shall I start?" She glanced at the other two, and across the room at the couple.
"My name is Melissa. I don't own slaves. I don't pay fines, either, because I make sure that each year what I earn is just underneath the threshold income. My parents never owned slaves, either: nor do either of my brothers.
"My mother brought me up to believe that owning people is wrong. That there is no good way to be someone who buys or sells other human beings. But that's not something we ever hear in the media or we see on TV or we learn about in school. Our system is justified as a means of everyone providing what they can – people too poor to support themselves provide their labour, their bodies, as slaves, and people wealthy enough to support others are required to buy slaves and take care of them.
“But even when I was a kid that didn't seem to make any sense – a person can be a slave because they were born to slave parents, or because they were sold into slavery as a child – and everyone knows that most slaves get bought by the corporations for factory labour, that the ones we see and hear about who are owned by individuals are a minority. There isn’t any way for one person, for any of us, to change this system. We can’t even opt out of it completely – what we wear, things we use every day, they’re made in factories using slave labour. Everyone knows if they think about it that a slave in a factory can be worked till they die.
"We don't advocate changing the system – there's no 'we' to advocate that. Most of us probably do as individuals support the legislation that will make individual slaves live better, though there’s no requirement to do that, and some of us are abolitionists – if you've read my blog, you know I am - but we're not an abolitionist group.
“We're not a group. We're just people who know each other who don't want to be slaves and who don't want to own slaves. We're a network of friends, not an organisation that you can join. There's no membership list, there's no rules – beyond the commonsense one, that if you own a slave you're no longer a part of our network. We’ve all become part of this network for different reasons – for me, it’s a family tradition I feel I’m carrying forward.” She glanced at the other woman “Mary Beth, do you want to tell your story?"
The older woman had been sitting quite still: she nodded and smiled briefly. "Hello. I've been friends with Melissa for nine years now. My name is Mary Beth. I’ve never bought a slave, but I have sold one. My son. His name was Michael, and he was five years old.”
“I expect you wonder – how could a mother sell her child? I wondered that myself. For eight years I never talked about him – I never told anyone, not even his brother, what we’d done. We got into financial trouble, you see – just one bill after another. Harvey had been out of work for a while with a back injury – he lost his job just before Michael was born – and we just never managed to catch up on the payments, even after Harvey could work again. The interest kept building. Finally the finance company told us, they didn’t see any other option – either they foreclosed on us for debt, sold us and had our children become wards of the state, or we’d have to sell one of our boys.”
“They told me I’d be valuable enough to almost cover the debt. But I was the only one bringing in a steady wage. They told Harvey, because of his back injury, he’d only be valuable if he was sold to a Final destination – you know what that means?” Mary Beth looked at the couple, her voice rising in a slight intonation, as if she were asking them if they remembered a name. “They explained it to us. A ‘Final’ destination is one where the slave is intended to be killed – medical experimentation, or the arena. That would have paid off a large part of the debt, down to something manageable, so long as I could keep working. But they wanted us to sell them Michael or Harvey Junior – they were more valuable. Either of them would cover the whole of our debts. They kept telling us, one of your sons, just one.
“So we sold them Michael. We told Harvey Junior his brother had been killed. He was eleven, he seemed to forget about Michael completely very soon. We paid off all our debts, we put the rest of the money aside to send Harvey Junior to college, and Harvey and I never talked about Michael again. Harvey Junior joined the Marines when he was 17, and we didn’t see him for a couple of years. Come to that, I guess Harvey and I never talked about anything much at all after that.
“I used to go over our choices, even though it was too late, trying to figure out if we’d had any other way out. I couldn’t have let them have Harvey Junior. He was such a good looking kid – I know all mothers say this, but Harvey really was – and he was already eleven. It seemed like it was Michael or me, and they kept saying I wouldn’t fetch enough to pay off all the debt, that Harvey and the boys would be in financial trouble again soon. Michael was a cute kid, they said some well-off couple would buy him to be a playmate for their son. But I kept thinking – as the years went by, as Michael got older – ” Mary Beth’s voice had been calm and even: without losing control, she sounded high and wavery “ – what happens to those playmates when they stop being cute little kids?”
Mary Beth paused. When she started to speak again, her voice was back to calm and level. “Maybe Harvey was making the same calculations in his head. We never talked about it. But when Harvey Junior came home on leave for the first time, he told us he remembered Michael, he wanted to know what really happened to his baby brother. Harvey walked out. I never saw him again.
“So that’s when I told Harvey Junior about Michael. That he wasn’t dead, he was a slave somewhere. And I haven’t seen him – Harvey Junior – since. I hear from him sometimes – he’s still in the Marines, he’s still got me listed as his next of kin – but he doesn’t want to see me, and I can’t blame him. I sold his brother. I sold my son. Michael is twenty-two years old, and there isn’t a day of his life that I haven’t thought of him.
“I don’t have any one else to lose – Harvey Junior picked the Marines because they won’t let Commerce take one of their own. I don’t want any mother, any other person, ever to have to make the choice I did. To lose their child like that. These friendship networks – they existed before the Internet made it easier for us – but all they are, is an agreement: if someone needs help to keep themselves and their family together, we all do what we can. We don’t let our friends have to choose between selling themselves or selling their children.”
Mary Beth moved her hand to point at the man sitting next to her. “Francis, do you want to tell your story?” She brought her hand back against her mouth.
The man was noticeably older than either of the women. “Hello. My name is Francis, and I’m a Jesuit priest.”
From the careful looks, neither of the couple had ever knowingly met a priest before: Francis smiled, leaning forward a little, his hands clasped.
“I am here with permission, though not the encouragement, of my bishop. The Jesuit order doesn’t support Melissa’s network of friends. I am Melissa’s parish priest, and I help her friends in various ways that are compatible with my vocation as a priest.
”I’m not here to preach a sermon about slavery. I’m here, I suppose, partly to talk about what we do in my parish, and partly to talk about the changes I’ve seen in this country since I was a boy.
“I was an army chaplain in the Korean war, more than forty years ago. The law allowing people to be sold for debt existed then, but it wasn’t as much used. Melissa and even Mary Beth are too young to remember – ” He smiled at them, with indescribable sweetness “ – but I recall when a bank would do almost anything to prevent their customers from having to become debt slaves.”
“The USNA is a much whiter country now that it was. When the laws on debt slavery began to be imposed much more stringently, in the 1950s, coloured people were the first targets. Not because they were worse at managing their money – but because the banks were more willing to foreclose on them, less willing to offer them terms to work their way out. The owners of successful businesses were popular targets. I remember when there were entire districts in Chicago that were coloured or mostly coloured: they were called ‘bad neighbourhoods’, but we don’t hear that term any more. Most of those people have gone now – they were sold up, sold off, decades ago.”
“My parish is smaller than it was forty years ago, and far fewer people come to confession. I began to notice some time ago that if one of my parishioners started to do well, and became able to afford to buy a slave, they would stop coming to confession: in order to confess your sins and be forgiven, you see, a person must have a firm purpose of amendment: and I do believe that my people understood too well that however kindly they treated their property – and I don’t think they were deliberately cruel – they were constantly committing sins they could not repent because they could not stop without selling their slave, and selling their slave meant returning that person to a life even worse.
“I’m sorry, I’m being tedious, and I promised you I wouldn’t preach a sermon. This is how I came to be part of Melissa’s network of friends: I began to talk to my parishioners I saw beginning to do well financially, beginning to lift themselves into prosperity, about how they might help others – about how they might avoid the sin of treating another person as property.
“The difficulty is that people are so afraid of becoming slaves themselves. I heard a lot about that fear. Melissa’s family had stayed just below the benchmark with less fear than most, but they’re a large family – and they all would chip in to help each other, they weren’t afraid to ask for help when they didn’t need a great deal – sometimes that by itself can stop small problems from getting bigger.
“I run a soup kitchen three nights a week, and part of our agreement as friends is that everyone tries to eat there or volunteer there at least once a week. We have a freecycle network for clothes and furniture, we even have a little food co-op – we do try, mostly, just to keep each other on an even keel, so that no one goes into debt over the regular necessities of life. Not everyone who makes use of these parish services is one of our friends, of course – they’re open to anyone in the neighbourhood. So if you’d like to come along one evening and help us sort clothes, or make soup, you can do that without any commitment at all, just to help out.”
Francis stopped speaking. He looked at Melissa, and back at the couple who had listened to them for so long.
For a long moment, the couple stared back at them. They were holding hands.
“We’ve taken up enough of your time.” “Thank you so much.” “Are you sure you won’t have coffee?” “Well, good night.”
Outside, walking away in the darkness, Mary Beth said quietly “They were infiltrators, weren’t they?”
“Thank God the two of you followed my lead,” Melissa said, just as quietly. “If they weren’t wired by Commerce, they surely had a recorder switched on somewhere. None of us said anything actionable. Though you came close, Francis.”
“Oh, I just said what you would expect a moralizing old bore to say. No one minds a priest preaching religion, or an old man talking about how things were better when he was young.”
“It was more than that, wasn’t it?” Mary Beth asked. She didn’t look at Francis.
“I live in hope,” Francis said. “Even they may be redeemed.”
What I am envisioning is that in this America, the debt peonage common in the American South after the Civil War was enforced by legislation state by state across the country (poisontaster's Keptverse the US is USNA, comprising the whole North American continent) and became federal in the 1930s - this form of slavery is what USNA has instead of Social Security. So this is my talking-heads story.
When Francis says "the country is much whiter" I was partly thinking of debt peonage, but I also was making a joke on the USNA in the original Keptverse being inhabited entirely by actors from prime time TV series and films. Yeah, it would be whiter than the real world America, wouldn't it?
Also, Harvey killed himself, the night Harvey Junior came home on leave. That was why Mary Beth finally told Harvey Junior about Michael. I initially wrote that down, and then I thought no: Mary Beth wouldn't tell that part of the story to two strangers.