My mother once said that only the Beautiful Ones survive. This is because, in the Great South, beauty is a currency, and to have it means that you will never have to worry about a thing. You will never be alone. You will never go hungry. You will never have to worry about being homeless. The people will love you—and most importantly: you will never have to worry about being persecuted for being less than.
“Remember,” my mother says on the day that my life may truly begin. “Chin up. Back straight. Eyes forward. Never look back.”
I look at her in the reflection of the mirror and nod regardless of the nerves fluttering about my stomach.
“All right, then,” she says. “Let’s go.”
She takes my hand and leads me from the small bedroom of our simple dwelling and into the kitchenette. There, she gathers up everything that will be necessary to lead me through town and, eventually, into the square. The first item is a hood, which will cover my head to shield my face from the sun, the next a pair of tinted glasses that will protect my eyes from the bright light and the blowing sand. Finally, she retrieves a simple handbag, which I already know contains within it a tin of fat, to keep my lips moist; a locket, to remind me of the family I may soon be leaving behind; and finally: currency, which are simply dirty bills stained with sweat and tears. My mother has slaved for hours in the sweatshops for this money—all to ensure that, should I happen to pass the Gentlewoman’s test, I will be able to eat on the train that will take me to the Glittering City.
If I pass.
The idea is daunting, the reality even more so. My red-and-yellow sun dress feels heavy upon my shoulders—not only from the weight of the fabric, but also its importance as a family heirloom. It has always been meant for me—always—yet at the same time, it feels wrong to wear it, especially in front of my mother, who is dressed in old clothes of her own.
“Mom,” I say, looking toward the clock. “It’s time to go.”
“Kelendra,” she says, taking a step toward me. I see myself in her features at this moment—her slender nose, her high cheekbones, her plump lips, her green eyes—and realize now how lucky I am to have had her as my mother. Her genetics, and those of my father who is off at war, will hopefully carry me beyond the life of poverty I have always known.
“Yes, Mom?” I ask when finally the reality of the situation begins to settle in.
She doesn’t say anything. Instead, she leans forward, takes hold of my arms, and squeezes. The whole while she is careful not to wrinkle the sun dress. “Good luck,” she says.
We both know this is an empty statement. Luck only plays a small role in what happens once we arrive at the annual Procession. The rest comes down to my appearance and how well I’ve taken care of myself for the past sixteen years.
With that in mind, I reach up to brush my mother’s hands away from my shirt and turn toward the doorway.
It isn’t long before we’re stepping outside. I immediately pull the hood over my head and push the tinted glasses over my eyes to prevent my hair from parting and my meticulously-curled eyelashes from being disturbed by the slight wind that skirts along the streets. Nervous, now more than ever, about the dangers the outside world holds for me, I cross my arms over my chest and wait for my mother to secure our modest dwelling behind us before starting down the street.
“Are you nervous?” she asks.
“Why should I be?” I reply, determined not to let my emotions get the best of me, lest I start crying and risk ruining what little homemade makeup I have on my face. “It’s not like anything will change if I don’t get accepted.”
My mother doesn’t say anything. Rather, she reaches down, takes hold of my hand, and squeezes it for a moment before relinquishing her hold.
As we make our way up the street, careful to make sure that we don’t stray toward the mounds of sand that the neighboring women have swept from the cobblestones, I try not to look at the houses of those neighbors who live alongside us and wonder just what it is they might be thinking. Already I can imagine their thoughts at hand—their doubts, their worries, their insecurities. My mother’s oldest friend, Mrs. Garret, waves at me as we pass, and I wave back to ensure that she is noticed. She is an elderly woman, crippled beyond compare from what Witch Doctor Emery describes as arthritis of the back, and was the one kind enough to supply the spices that my mother used to create the makeup I now wear on my face.
“Let’s stop for a moment,” my mother says.
“But,” I start.
“Her blessings will do you good, Kelendra.”
I am anxious beyond compare to get to the town square before the rest of the girls arrive, but know that I can’t refuse my mother this luxury. Mrs. Garret has always been one for prayer, and it would be wrong to deny her the chance to offer some spiritual guidance for me on this monumental day.
With that in mind, we turn and approach the woman’s front door.
“Well hello dear,” Mrs. Garret says, centering her old eyes on me. “Aren’t you looking beautiful today.”
“You can’t even see my eyes,” I say.
“It doesn’t matter. I can tell from your posture. The way you hold yourself is very regal.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Garret.”
“Now then,” the old woman says, turning her eyes on my mother. “Shall we pray?”
“We shall,” my mother says.
I reach out and take hold of my mother’s hand, then extend my palm to grace Mrs. Garret’s. I tremble as the hot sun beats down upon my shoulders and as the woman begins her prayer, calling upon a kind God who has ensured that we have always had food on the table and good health for both my mother and I.
“Hear me,” Mrs. Garret says, “as I pray for Wynnona Byron, and for her daughter, Kelendra—who, on this day, is to be tested by forces beyond her control, and her beauty witnessed by the masses.”
I raise my head from prayer to find both Mrs. Garret’s and my mother’s eyes closed and look toward the road, where other girls and their mothers are making their way down the road. I take note of Ashlynn, who is pretty but not exceptionally beautiful, then Sondra, who bears a disfiguring birthmark across her face, and nod at each of them—feeling, deep down, in the fibers of my being, that neither of them will make it regardless of their merits or characters. Most girls are picked based on what is traditionally beautiful—first being their eyes, clear and radiant in color; then their skin, smooth and clear as water. Their features must not be marred by scar or acne, blemish or disability, neither of which these girls are blessed with. I am, fortunately, and therefore have a better shot at being picked by one of the Gentlewomen during the Procession, but just because I am beautiful does not mean that will determine my fate.
There are rules that no one knows—boundaries that no Unfortunate Individual can understand—and for that reason, I will take all the blessings I can get.
Mrs. Garret says, “Amen” and lifts her head to look at me, a sad expression on her face as she realizes that I have dismissed the prayer in lieu of my own thoughts and feelings. “Kelendra,” she says.
“Yessum?” I ask.
“You will do well.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“I am fortunate to have known many fine young women throughout my life,” Mrs. Garret continues, “and though I realize that not all of you will make it through, those who do will do many great things. I know, if you are picked, you will do the same.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I say.
“Now—don’t stand around on account of me. Go, and know that I will be praying for you.”
With a nod, I turn, guide my mother back toward the street, and begin to mentally prepare myself for what is to come.
Above all, I understand three things:
I am kind.
I am smart.
And, without a doubt: I am beautiful.
I am not vain in this thinking, nor am I jaded from having heard this from my mother and Mrs. Garret time and time again. I have worked hard throughout my entire life to ensure that I may one day find myself chosen by a Gentlewoman on the date of the annual procession. I have eaten well. I have avoided most sugars. I have maintained an active lifestyle while trying my hardest not to allow my skin to burn within the South’s great heat. I have done this because it is the key to my future—and, ultimately, my salvation.
I think of these things as we continue to make our way through the excruciating heat, which beats down from the sun above with such an intensity I fear I may sweat. My mother guides me through the shaded areas as best as she can, but already I can feel beads of sweat making their way down the back of my neck, coursing down my body and potentially my dress. I inhale a deep breath to ensure I won’t pass out and nod with determination as before us the blossoming crowd of other potential Beauties and their mothers, grandmothers and younger siblings make their way toward the town square.
“Don’t be afraid,” my mother whispers.
I am, though. While I don’t show it, I am screaming inside, like a child trapped at the bottom of a well. My thoughts cycle over what might happen, over what might occur should I not be chosen. I will be trapped in the sweatshop, sewing clothes by hand until the day the war ends, if it ever does. It’s a fate my mother endures only because of me.
As we approach the town square, and come to stand side-by-side other sixteen-year-old girls and their mothers, I take note of the wall of heavily-armored women standing atop a recently-erected stage and realize now that we are being watched.
Remember the law, my mother used to say when I was a child.
Don’t speak out.
Don’t lash out.
And definitely don’t stick out.
The heavily-armored women—known to most as the SADs, or the Southern Allegiance of Dames—police us mercilessly. Armed with rifles, stun guns, shock batons, and other advanced forms of weaponry, they rule with an iron fist, and will spare no mercy if the crowd gets out of line. Though I hadn’t anticipated them being here, I suppose their presence is necessary. Tensions run high during annual Processions. The girls want a future, the mothers the best for their children. Most are only a declaration away from doing something drastic. And if that happens—
I shake my head.
I can’t think about this—not now, not ever.
“You’re holding your breath,” my mother says.
I exhale, giving my lungs the relief they so desperately crave, and wait for the Procession to begin.
It isn’t long before the Gentlewoman walks from a stark white tent and makes her way atop the stage. Garbed in a short white dress that falls to her knees and flares about at her neck, her supple white flesh is immaculate and contrasts beautifully against the red fabric that exists on its underside. Only her face is visible beneath her tight white hood. No hair spills from its surface.
“Mom,” I say, suddenly struck with terror unlike any I have ever felt before. “Mama.”
“Be calm,” my mother says. “Everything will be fine.”
I take her hand, she mine.
After stepping to the edge of the stage, the Gentlewoman taps a microphone, waits for its reverberation to echo from speakers poised beneath her, and nods before saying, “Welcome.”
No one replies. Everyone waits.
The Gentlewoman smiles and says, “Welcome,” again, following that with, “to Countess Aa’eesha Dane’s annual Procession.”
Again, no one says a word. The wind ruffles our dresses and stirs our hats and hoods, parts over our skin and brings with it the scent of the desert sands. To speak would mean to speak out, and to speak out could mean—
Crime. Punishment. Death.
I tighten my hold on my mother’s hand as I wait for the Gentlewoman to speak.
“My name is Mother Terra,” the Gentlewoman says, “and as you all already know, I am here to determine which of these young women are beautiful enough to enter the Glittering City.”
A murmur starts up within the crowd. Such mention of our capital city is enough to inspire hope within the eyes of many. A girl next to me opens her mouth in awe, while another mutters a prayer beneath her lips. Mothers cry. All are in awe. To even dream of living in the city seems impossible, but to actually have the chance to go there?
Mother Terra nods before she begins. “The Glittering City,” she says, “is the last bastion of The Great South. Home to our great people, and to our great Countess, it offers those deemed appropriate a chance of fortune, of happiness, and most of all, life. Our world is cruel. War divides us. There is never a guarantee for a better future.
“This is why the Processions exist: to ensure that those who survive within the Glittering City maintain a healthy, and most of all, a beautiful gene pool. I am here today, under the order of our great Countess, to determine which of you young women, aged sixteen, will join the ranks of our forefathers. I understand that this process will be difficult for some. But please, remember one thing: we choose only the best, and do it for the betterment of mankind.”
I swallow a lump in my throat.
“Will the first girl please step forward,” Mother Terra says.
The young woman that steps forward is not unlike me. Dressed in her family’s best clothing, she approaches the podium with fear in her eyes and in her step, forgetting that she is to maintain a graceful appearance in order to make herself appear strong. As she nears the ramp that leads onto the stage, she catches the Gentlewoman’s eyes and begins to cry. Her sobs cut through the air like knives, piercing my heart and my mind, and it isn’t long before she is within the official’s presence.
All it takes is one look for a declaration to be made—for life to be changed or broken.
The girl is only on stage for a few short moments before the Gentlewoman says, “I’m sorry. You are not beautiful enough to enter the Glittering City.”
Her cries are cancerous—spreading through the crowd like wildfire—and threaten to bring down the foundation that is the whole of this structure.
She is about to step toward the Gentlewoman when one of the SADs step forward. Brandishing a shock baton, the Dame snaps it open and clicks a button to spark the electricity upon its surface. “Leave,” the woman says.
“But,” the girl replied.
She is hit only once, but it is enough to send her reeling. She falls from the stage and lands the few short feet onto the ground, leaving her mother in hysterics and the rest of the crowd in anticipation.
“Will the next girl please come forward,” the Gentlewoman says.
And so begins the process: first with girls stepping forward, girls being examined, girls being told that they are not beautiful before they burst into tears. Most make their way from the stage without issue. Some are escorted by Dames. Others are threatened with bodily violence when they refuse to move. None dare approach the Gentlewoman, however. After the first girl’s fate, they know better than to do that.
This goes on for what feels like hours but in reality is only minutes. The whole while I bake in the sun, desperate for relief of shade and water but knowing I will not get it until my name is called.
“Mama,” I say. “Will she pick anyone?”
“She will,” my mother says. “Don’t worry. She has to.”
The Gentlewoman doesn’t have to do anything. There are many girls in many provinces. Just because she doesn’t pick one here doesn’t mean that there won’t be more elsewhere.
Though it is a long and arduous process, a girl is eventually deemed beautiful. Dark-skinned, with fine hair that wraps around and hangs from her head in dreads, a girl I have seen but know as Ceyonne Marsden is the first to be accepted into the fold, and is offered a hug and a kiss from the Gentlewoman before she is escorted to the massive white tent beside the stage by a Dame.
“Now,” the Gentlewoman says. “Will the next girl please step onto the stage?”
Most of the crowd of would-bes has been whittled down, to the point where no one stands before or beside me. It is only when I see the Gentlewoman lay eyes upon me that I realize it is my turn to join the Procession.
I turn, kiss my mother on the cheek, whisper, “Thank you,” then turn and begin to make my way toward the stage.
My breath is ragged as I approach, as I cross the valley over which many girls’ hopes and dreams have fallen, and my eyes are set more on my feet than they are on the Gentlewoman whose attention I am supposed to command. I rise, with urgency I find alarming considering I am completely and utterly terrified, onto the stage and before the official’s presence, only to realize that I may not be deemed as beautiful as the one who has come before me. I know I am beautiful, but does this woman before me? Would she, by Countess Aa’eesha Dane’s accord, see what it is my mother and the rest of my community sees in me? Yes? No? Maybe?
I wait in deliberation and raise my head to face Mother Terra’s eyes. As I stare into their beautiful, cosmetically-altered teal depths, I surrender to her submission, and hope—and pray, as Mrs. Garret had before me—that I will be found acceptable.
“Remove your glasses,” she says.
I do so.
“Remove your hood.”
I oblige, and allow my long blonde hair to spill down my neck and into the crest between my shoulder blades.
“Tilt your head up,” the Gentlewoman continues. “Then to the side. Now, your other side.”
She treats me as if I am stupid, not knowing left from right, but I do as she asks without question. When I turn to face her again, she comes forward to take hold of my chin. She looks into my eyes—examining their depths, my intent, my purpose, my person. It is as if she can see everything. My secrets have been laid bare, and with them the cruelty of the world as we know it.
“Turn,” she says as she steps back from me.
My sun dress billows about my ankles as I do what she asks.
“Relax,” the woman continues.
I struggle to do this, though I know it is because she wishes to see my regular posture—to decipher any irregularities within my person. It is not uncommon for girls to have attended Processions with corsets beneath their dresses, thereby disguising their figures or enhancing their bodies. Illegal as those objects happen to be during a Procession, I am surprised that she thinks that I may actually possess one, given the poverty that affects this area. But maybe, just maybe—
The Gentlewoman clears her throat, arresting my mind and body where it stands.
I wait for her declaration—to be deemed Unfortunate and sent back to the village.
Instead, I hear what I think is impossible.
“You are Beautiful,” the Gentlewoman says.
My whole world grounds to a halt.
There is no sound in my ears at this moment, as I stand before the official who has just declared me capable of walking among those of the highest regard, just as there is no clarity to what it is she has just said. My mind is blank, my mouth is open, my heart seems to have ceased to beat. My blood runs cold, then warms.
It isn’t long before a Dame comes forward to take hold of my arm.
“Did you,” I start, “just say—”
“Yes,” the Gentlewoman replies. “You are beautiful, dear. Tell me: what is your name?”
“Kelendra,” I say. “Kelendra Byron.”
“Your mother will be so proud,” she replies. She turns her attention to a Dame and says, “Take her to the tent with the other one.”
Then we are moving—swiftly, with speed I could never possibly imagine, off the stage and toward the tent where only the Beautiful can be seen.
I can’t believe it. I just can’t.
I’ve been declared Beautiful by one of the highest-ranking officials in all of the Great South.
My life is going to change forever.
I’ll never be poor again. I’ll never have to worry about where my next meal comes from. I’ll never have to worry about working, or being trapped in a sweatshop, or wondering when or if I will survive the next heatwave or sandstorm or even the war should it come knocking on our doorstep. I’ll be safe.
I scan the crowd in an effort to find her, and at first cannot see where she is. Then I see her—slowly making her way forward in an attempt to speak to me. I see her lips moving, but can’t make out what she’s saying.
Then I hear her. “Kelendra!” she cries.
“Mama!” I say, desperate to free myself from the Dame’s grip, but knowing that doing so may ruin my chance of progressing to the tent and, ultimately, my future. “I love you!”
“I love you too,” she says, now near enough to be heard without shouting but far enough away so that the SADs lining the edge of the tent won’t attack. “Just promise me one thing.”
“Remember where you came from.”
I tighten my grip on the small satchel in my hand.
There are tears in her eyes, on her face, coursing down her neck and into her own old dress. There is a dichotomy here, I realize, now more than ever. She is not Beautiful. I am.
The idea that I may never see her again leaves me breathless.
But I can’t think about that.
As I turn away from her to face the tent, I realize that I can’t let anything hold me back.
My future awaits me.