Sunday, November 7, 2010

A selection from "A Heart is Judged" by Kevin G. Summers

A Heart is Judged
by Kevin G. Summers

n the Land of Oz, in the country of the Munchkins, there is an abandoned town
along the old Yellow Brick Road. It was once called Munchkinville in the time
before outworld historians began chronicling the histories of that strange fairyland. Farmers and merchants once thrived in the tiny hamlet, selling their wares and minding their business. Children were born. Grandparents died. Families huddled together in the night, fearful of dark magic in the world outside. But if you visited Munchkinville today, you would find only ruined buildings, the streets littered with debris, and not a soul in sight. Munchkinville is a ghost town.

It was ten years before Dorothy Gale dropped a house on the Wicked Witch of the East. Munchkinville was still a thriving community at that time, and on that spring day the people the entire town had gathered together for an annual event called the Festival of the Covenant. It was much the same in villages all over Munchkinland. The people were commemorating the decades-old bargain they’d struck with Orpah, the Wicked Witch of the East.
Only one man in all of Munchkinville wasn’t participating. Robin Plumly sat on a wooden bench in the only prison cell in town. He sat in near perfect darkness; the only light, slipping through the cell’s single iron-barred window, formed a slow-moving square on the floor. Before long the sun would reach its zenith, and life as Robin knew it would be over.
Robin was tall for a Munchkin–as tall as a human adolescent. He had black hair and striking blue eyes. Robin broke the hearts of most of the girls in town when he married, but those other girls were fools. He’d only ever had eyes for Cordelia Snow, the love of his youth.
They’d been married happily now for almost two years, and over the winter they’d been blessed with a baby girl. It broke Robin’s heart when he thought of her–the child he would never again cradle in his arms. He shifted uncomfortably on the wooden bench. The lighted square on the floor moved another fraction of an inch.
Sheriff Rozzco had been using the cell as a corncrib and he wasn’t happy when the Mayor of Munchkinville ordered him to clean it out. Rozzco made his feelings perfectly evident when he arrived at Robin’s house the previous afternoon.
“Gonna spoil the whole crop,” Rozzco complained as he bound Robin’s hands behind his back with a pair of iron shackles. “Been drying all winter. Now tell me, how’m I gonna feed my animals when...”
“How can you do this?” Robin demanded. “They’re taking my little girl, giving her over to that witch. You’re the sheriff, how can you stand by and just let that happen?”
Cordelia stood in the doorway of their little house the whole time, weeping. She was a beautiful creature–porcelain skin and hair like creamed corn. Robin wasn’t exaggerating when he called her the loveliest woman in Munchkinland. Cordelia held a baby in her arms, wrapped in a blue blanket. Dot, the child, whimpered as her mother’s tears fell upon her face.
“You know why we have to do it,” Rozzco said. “Ain’t nothing personal. Your name was drawed in the lottery, that’s all. It could have been me or Nimmie Amee or anyone.” The sheriff gave the end of his curled mustache a twist. “Besides, you threatened to burn down Mayor Torin’s house.”
Sitting in his lonely cell, Robin couldn’t comprehend how his people could willingly surrender their children to the Wicked Witch of the East.
The tradition, it was said, began in the distant past, when the witch Orpah first enslaved the Munchkins. It was, in fact, the reason for the season. The covenant between the Munchkinlanders and the Wicked Witch of the East guaranteed that every year on the first day of Spring, each Munchkin settlement would deliver to Orpah a girl-child under the age of two. It had been going on as long as anyone could remember, and none that had been given over to the witch had ever been seen again. Each winter, the names of all the new parents in Munchkinland were written on scraps of paper and placed in a hat. Whoever’s name was drawn was forced to give up their child for the good of the country. Before he was a father, Robin found the practice revolting. Now, when he thought of little Dot and her dark curls, the idea made him absolutely murderous.
“I won’t let this happen,” Robin whispered. Across the cell, a rat squeaked at him furiously and then scurried through a tiny crack in the wall.
Before long, the sun blazed directly overhead. There was a commotion outside. Not wanting to watch but unable to help himself, Robin rushed to the cell’s single window and pressed his face to the bars. His heart breaking, his vision blurred by tears, he watched the horror unfold. He could not look away.

The witch came from the east, traveling along the Yellow Brick Road in a palanquin carried by four hulking giants. The brutes moved with surprising grace considering their size. Their arms bulged with muscles as big around as Mayor Torin’s ample belly, and the shortest of the giants stood as tall as five Munchkins standing on one another’s shoulders. Their eyes were close set. Their foreheads formed into sharp brow ridges that made them appear both perpetually angry and perpetually stupid. They never spoke, but sounded out with an occasional throaty grunt. If the sounds meant anything, no one could say, but they seemed to comprehend when a frigid voice issued a command from inside the palanquin.
Halt. Set me down.
The giants complied, easing the litter to the bricks with amazing gentility. A door opened in the palanquin a moment later, and a pair of legs arrayed in red and white striped hose appeared. At the bottom of her shapely calves, the witch’s feet were shod with silver slippers. These were said to possess great magical power, and so long as she wore these shoes, the chances of overthrowing the Wicked Witch of the East were non-existent.
She stood before them as a being of seemingly limitless power. The Munchkins, trembling with terror, fell down upon their faces and worshipped her as a god.
Orpah was beautiful for a witch. For any woman for that matter. Her hair was bright red, and her skin as pale as the sands of the Deadly Desert that surrounded the Land of Oz.
No Munchkinlander knew the history of Orpah, and they rarely saw her except when she appeared to claim her annual sacrifice. But they feared her. Occasionally, a brave soul would defy the witch, and their death would be swift. The head of the last such agitator was still rotting upon a spike near the town’s western gate.
“Another year has passed,” said the witch. Her voice sent chills down the spines of everyone present. “Will you Munchkins fulfill your bargain, or shall I turn your entire people into jitterbugs?”
“We will honour our agreement,” came a familiar voice from deep within the throng. The crowd parted, and Mayor Torin stepped forward. He was a fat little man dressed in a suit of fine blue velvet. He motioned to Sheriff Rozzco, who led Cordelia and Dot through the crowd. When they reached the witch, Cordelia looked up through watery eyes at the woman who would take her child away.
Please,” Cordelia said. “Please don’t take my little girl.”
Orpah’s nostrils flared. Her green eyes, dyed in the finest spa in the Emerald City, narrowed.
“Silence your pleading,” she hissed, “it annoys me.”
Cordelia dropped to her knees. “I’ll do anything, mistress. Please, don’t take my...”
The witch bent down and grabbed hold of the child. Dot wailed in protest as Orpah wrenched her away from her mother. Cordelia lunged at the witch in a sudden fit of madness, but before she could land a blow, one of the giants grabbed her by the arm and lifted her high in the air.
“Kill her,” ordered the witch.
The giant reared back, and then hurled Cordelia as hard as he could to the ground. Her skull shattered as it smashed against the Yellow Brick Road. Blood poured from the open wound, staining the bricks.
Not far away, a wretched wail ripped across the village. It was Robin Plumly, watching in horror as his wife died in the street. The people of Munchkinville watched silently, too terrified to even utter a sound.
“Let us be gone,” said Orpah. She stepped casually over Cordelia’s body, and then slipped back into her palanquin with Dot tucked under her arms. The baby’s pitiful cries echoed back to the village as the giants carried them out of sight.
The next day Robin heard keys jangling in the cell door. A moment later, the door swung open and blinding light poured in. The light stung his eyes. Robin had cried all night, until his heart pounded and the tears simply wouldn’t come anymore. He slept on the hard floor, and remained there long past the breakfast hour. He simply didn’t care what happened next.
“Robin,” said an unexpected voice. “I hate to see you like this.”
The prisoner had been expecting Rozzco, and indeed the sheriff was standing right there in the doorway. But beside him, as round as a balloon, stood Mayor Torin.
Robin pushed up off the floor and rose quickly to his feet. His clenched his fists. He narrowed his eyes. He grated his teeth.
“What do you want?”
Torin smiled nervously.
“I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry about your wife and...”
Robin took a menacing step toward the Mayor, and was quickly intercepted by Rozzco.
“You don’t wanna do that,” said the sheriff. He placed a steadying hand on each of Robin’s shoulders. Robin didn’t resist, but his hate-filled eyes never waivered from the Mayor.
“You’re a coward,” said Robin. “Both of you. You’ve allowed that witch to terrorize our people for years.”
“What would you have me do?” The Mayor’s voice throbbed with sudden anger. “How could our people hope to fight those giants of hers? And what about her magic? She could kill us all with a word.”
“Better to die than to live like this,” Robin said.
The Mayor shook his head in frustration. How many times had they had this exact conversation? Ten? Twenty?
“There’s nothing I can do,” Torin said at last.
“Why are you here?” Robin demanded. He stepped back, and Rozzco relaxed his guard.
“I’ve decided to drop all charges against you,” Torin explained. “You’re free to go.”
“Why would you do this?” Robin knew very well that the punishment for threatening a government official was exile from Munchkinville.
“Because you’ve been punished enough already,” said the Mayor. “Please, I want you to know how sorry...”
Robin darted across the room, and before Rozzco could intervene, he punched Mayor Torin in the nose. The fat little man staggered back a few steps and slid down the wall. He sat upon the wooden floor, blinking his eyes furiously as he tried to regain his senses.
Rozzco rushed toward Robin, but stopped when the prisoner assumed a fighting stance. In truth, there was very little need of a sheriff in Munchkinville. The people were reasonably well behaved, and other than the times when the Wicked Witch of the East came to town, this was one of the easiest jobs in the country. Unaccustomed to violence, Rozzco covered his head with his hands and scurried toward the back of the room like a rat.
Robin knelt beside the stunned Mayor.
“I don’t want your apology,” he whispered. “I want my daughter back. And I want you to know that I’m going to get her, and if it costs the life of every soul in the Land of Oz then so be it.”
Robin stood, and without looking back stepped outside the jail. A few minutes later he was standing over the body of his beloved wife. No one bothered to bury Cordelia. They didn’t even cover her with a shroud. Crows had come in the night and eaten her eyes. She stared at him with two empty red holes in her face. A line of blood was dried upon her lips.
“How could you let this happen?” she seemed to be saying.
“I’m sorry.” Robin collapsed beside her broken form. “I promise to avenge your death,” he cried. “And I will hold our daughter again.” He wept uncontrollably.
Robin Plumly stood once his sorrow abated. He lifted Cordelia’s body in his arms, took a final look around at the village that had been home his entire life, and then started west along the Yellow Brick Road.