“The command ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ was promulgated, according to our authorities, when the population of the world consisted of two people.”
– William Ralph Inge
Sitting in the back row of pews, Mr. Prado clasps his thin hands together, whispering fiercely towards the man seated to his left. “Good lord, Smith,” Prado says. “So you’re telling me you’ve never wondered for just a second if what we’re doing here is right?”
Mr. Smith places a hand on Mr. Prado’s shoulder. Sitting on either side of the men are Mr. Prado’s fiancée and Mr. Smith’s wife, both women silently staring at each other and throwing occasional glances towards the front of the church, at the couple seated by the altar.
“Prado,” Mr. Smith says, gently squeezing the younger man’s bony collar. “Everything’s wrong to somebody.”
The wooden door at the front of the church near the altar opens suddenly and Mr. Marquise steps in, the door thudding closed behind him. The idle chatter coursing through the church ceases abruptly as Mr. Marquise makes his way to the far back corner of the church, the metal soles on his shoes clicking loudly against the wooden floor. Dozens of pairs of eyes watch Mr. Marquise with a tense, collective need, none as much as Uriel and Gloria Lancaster, the couple seated with their baby at the table to the right of the altar. Uriel Lancaster sits with his arms crossed tightly beneath his sternum, a stance that would typically project strength. Yet, as he raises his chin stoically and studies the tired-looking man walking past them to his corner perch, Uriel’s elbow vibrates beneath his arm, a nervous convulsion. Uriel looks down at his shuddering elbow, frowns and squeezes his biceps tighter into his rib-cage. Gloria, Uriel’s wife, sits next to him tugging at her blue garments—standard issue—and fiddling with Uriel Jr.’s outfit.
Seated at the table with the couple and child is a man named Cassius (nobody’s ever really known Cassius’s last name, nor really cared; the last few years have made his position within the community more a formality than anything else). Cassius chews on his lip and grumbles to himself as he studies a stack of papers lying on top of an open folder on the table in front of him.
To the left of this trio is another table, where Mr. Newman sits alone with his hands folded neatly in front of him, a grin set smugly beneath his bushy gray mustache. There’s an open briefcase lying on the chair next to him. Inside the briefcase sits a carefully organized stack of legal-length papers.
A faint knock at the door behind the altar—the one Mr. Marquise just entered from—enlivens the crowd, whispers purring through the pews. Mr. Marquise slowly walks over to the center of the room, right in front of the altar, and faces the audience .
“All rise,” he bellows. Mr. Marquise’s voice has a commanding quality and most of the attendants are on their feet before they even realize what he’s said. Mr. Marquise waits until the very last person is standing before continuing.
“This court in and of Richmond County is now in session. Honorable Mr. Paul R. Swift presiding.”
Behind him, the door opens and a short, crouched old man draped in a black cloak enters. Mr. Swift climbs the steps of the altar up front and rounds a chair sitting behind a large desk that faces the crowd. Behind him, a larger-than-life crucifix hangs on the wall, depicting a bronze Christ solemnly hanging his head. A steel pole sits in a base on the ground next to the crucifix, a faded American flag mounted on it with tattered pieces of wire.
“Seated,” Mr. Swift says curtly.
There is a collective sigh as the crowd sits and Mr. Swift pulls a pair of bifocals out from a hidden pocket in his cloak, flipping through a notebook on his desk. He clears his throat loudly and Uriel Lancaster flinches, re-tightening his crossed arms over his chest. Mr. Swift reads quietly to himself for a moment before closing his notebook and slowly removing his glasses, peering at the three individuals and baby seated at the table directly in front of him: the lip-chewing Cassius next to Uriel and Gloria with Uriel Jr. in tow.
Mr. Swift glances at his watch then turns to Mr. Marquise.
“Bring them in,” he says.
At the command, Mr. Marquise saddles over to the door behind the altar, opens it and pokes his head in. There’s a faint bit of chatter, then Mr. Marquise moves quickly back to the center of the room.
“All rise,” he yells again.
The crowd rises from their seats in quick succession as the door opens and twelve people enter—five women and seven men. The men and women make their way to two rows of chairs lined up against the wall to the right of the altar. The crowd remains standing until the twelve are in front of their chairs, then Mr. Swift raises a hand and lowers it slowly. There’s another exhale of mass seating, a puff of air ruffling the edges of the judge’s cloak.
Mr. Swift focuses on the group of twelve, motioning to the seat closest to him, where an elderly gentleman named Mr. Wang sits.
“Mr. Wang,” Mr. Swift says tiredly. “Has your committee come to a decision?”
Mr. Wang nods and Mr. Swift turns back to the tables in front of him, facing Uriel and Gloria. The couple perk up at the attention, baby gurgling in Gloria’s lap.
“Alright,” Mr. swift says. “At your convenience, please relay that decision to the public.”
Mr. Wang is up out of his seat before Mr. Swift is done speaking, holding a folded sheet of paper in his hands which he opens and studies intently. Time seems to slow down in that moment for Uriel Lancaster. He feels the tension in his wife’s arm, pressed against his own, and notices other things all in the same moment: slivers of light peeking through the shattered stained glass window near the ceiling, gleaming off the drying tears dotting Gloria’s cheeks. The floor work in the church stands out too, the only part of the building that looks even slightly recovered. Uriel thinks about how nicely the new boards have held up, though a thick layer of ash makes it all seem older than it actually is. The walls aren’t as impressively redone, the cheap paint used to cover the scorch marks already beginning to fade. Uriel helped lay those boards and roll that paint, along with nearly all the men sitting in the pews behind him.
The sun shifts behind something outside and the church dims a little. Mr. Wang clears his throat and folds the sheet of paper in his hands, slipping it in his pocket and eyeing Uriel and Gloria with thinly-veiled disdain.
“We, the committee, find Uriel Lancaster Senior and Gloria Lancaster…” Mr. Wang pauses cruelly, a humorless sneer touching the corner of his lips. “…Guilty on both counts of first degree negligence and unlicensed conception.”
The church erupts with loud whispers as Mr. Wang takes his seat again. Below the clatter of voices, a soft sob lingers near the alter, where husband and wife hold each other and their baby. The bang of Mr. Swift’s gavel reverberates through the church and Uriel Junior lets out a soft whine, his mother’s desperate whispers calming him back into a cooing reverie. The chatter dies off and the judge drops the gavel, peering at the couple in front of him.
“Mr. and Mrs. Lancaster.” Mr. Swift pauses, thoughtfully. “Before I hand down sentencing, do you have any statements you would like to make?”
Uriel clutches his wife and son to his chest, his eyes displaying his fear, his regret, his sorrow. And his anger.
Uriel suddenly lets go of his family and stands quickly, straightening his gray (standard issue) garments before raising his chin defiantly.
“Yeah,” he says, puffing his chest out. “Yeah, I have a statement.” He motions towards his wife and child, raising his voice. “This is a fucking outrage.”
Another buzz sweeps through the crowd, a few people shaking their heads and staring at Uriel scornfully.
“How so, Mr. Lancaster?” the judge continues. “And may I warn you, I will not overlook such outbursts in my deliberation.”
“‘How so?’” Uriel repeats, his mouth hanging open. “‘Deliberation?’ We’re being condemned here! Banished for— for what? For loving each other? For wanting each other? For wanting to leave something behind?”
The judge stares at them with no expression, the murmurs from the pews fading to silence as Uriel draws the room’s attention.
“This is archaic,” Uriel says, slamming a fist into his palm. “There’s no other way to say it. My son—bless his soul, he didn’t ask for any of this—but our son cannot be given precedent over a pair of grown adults. Over an already established marriage, over a union under God.” Gloria throws her husband a heated stare and he holds his hands up in protest. “And—and, neither should we be given precedence over him. Rules are rules, I know. But this wasn’t a premeditated move on our part. We didn’t plan this. We didn’t plan any of this, it just happened. We’re sorry, but it happened, and it should be our responsibility to raise our child. It’s unfair, I tell you. And it’s—it’s plain fucking bullshit.”
The crowd gasps and Uriel glares at Mr. Swift defiantly.
Mr. Swift stays quiet for a moment, rubbing his temples. Finally he sighs and looks up at the couple.
“Is that all Mr. Lancaster?”
“No,” Gloria says. Uriel faces his wife as she stands slowly, her eyes puffy and bright with rage.
“How dare you,” she says softly. She turns to the crowd behind her, her voice rising. “How dare all of you. To punish us for doing what’s natural? Who are you to say what’s God’s plan? Just who the fuck do you think you are?! My husband and I have done nothing wrong here today, or any day, nothing more than what is natural to us, to you, to all mankind, to every living thing on this goddamn planet because no manmade law can take away the fact that we were built to—”
“Mrs. Lancaster,” Mr. Swift roars and Gloria stops immediately, facing the altar. Mr. Swift’s face is a ghastly shade of bright pink, and he takes a moment to collect himself before speaking in a much lowered voice.
“We, the state, make laws for a reason. And we as a community have agreed to uphold these laws, also for a reason. There is a problem—we have a problem—and we have taken measures to counteract that problem. And in this case, the penalty is non-negotiable.” He shrugs, raising his gavel and elevating his voice. “For the crime of first degree negligence towards the United Cause to Re-advance the State of New York, and for Unlicensed Conception of a Child in violation of Amendment 123 of the New York State Constitution, Uriel Lancaster Sr. and Gloria Lancaster are hereby sentenced to death by consumption, ruling effective immediately.” Mr. Swift brings the gavel down, the sound echoing up to the ceiling as he motions towards Mr. Marquise. “The child is to be placed in county custody immediately. This court is adjourned.”
The gavel’s bang is superseded by a strident shriek. Gloria kicks her seat to the side and jumps up, the chair flying halfway down the center aisle between the rows of pews, where the crowd of onlookers are instantly on their feet. Clutching her child to her chest, Gloria bares her teeth, growling as Mr. Marquise comes at her from the left. Uriel jumps in front of her as Mr. Swift exits the church the same way he entered. The moment he opens the door behind the altar, a flurry of movement swallows him as over a dozen stone-faced men with batons flood the room. The men line up behind Mr. Marquise, moving in time with his approach. Gloria tilts her head back and cries out again, a guttural, primitive sound. She bends her knees, twisting her free hand into a claw as Uriel grabs one of the chairs and starts swinging it wildly in front of them.
Behind them the pews bounce with excitement, the crowd shouting and cajoling itself into a frenzy. At the table to the right of Uriel and Gloria, Mr. Newman remains seated next to his briefcase full of carefully organized legal-length papers, watching the scene unfold with the same smug grin on his face, his hands now folded on his lap as he leans back in his chair. At Uriel and Gloria’s table, the lip-chewing Cassius stands and shovels his folders into a tattered briefcase. Without even glancing at the unfolding scene, Cassius turns and walks briskly down the side aisle and out the front door of the church.
Uriel swings the chair in a wide arc, aiming to hit either Mr. Marquise or any of the other men raising their batons behind them. In the commotion though, Uriel fails to notice one of the baton-wielding men breaking off from the larger group, creeping around the altar and the giant crucifix to approach Uriel and Gloria from behind. Uriel swings the chair wide and away from the sneaking man, who uses the opportunity to toss his baton. The baton slams into the side of Uriel’s head and he lets out a gasp, dropping the chair. He touches his hand to his head and when he brings it down, shades of red streak across his palm.
Uriel stumbles, his vision blurring. He wills himself to stand and fight, but his arms suddenly feel so heavy.
In the momentary confusion, Mr. Marquise grabs Uriel and triumphantly kicks the chair from his outstretched hands. Blood runs down the side of Uriel’s head into his ear and down his neck, the coppery smell tingeing the air. Uriel struggles to escape Mr. Marquise’s grip, clawing at the ground and trying to scramble away. He kicks out of his hands and and for just a second sees the front door of the church open, freedom just beyond. When he tries to stand and run though, Uriel is promptly seized by three officers who slam him to the ground and slap something cold and metallic around his wrists, pulling it tight. The men strap cuffs around Uriel’s legs as well before lifting him above their heads, Uriel twisting and squirming, cursing and spitting violently.
Behind him, Gloria registers Uriel’s capture only peripherally, most of her attention occupied by the three men trying to take her baby from her arms. Her face painted with pain and rage, Gloria gnashes her teeth at the men, swiping her claws and gripping baby Uriel tightly to her side. She’s about to make a run for the front door when another one of the baton-wielding men manages to grab her hand, twisting it and shaking her violently until she can feel her grip on baby Uriel first loosen then falter altogether. Gloria cries out hoarsely as Uriel Jr. falls towards the church floor, her bloodshot eyes bulging in their sockets. And for a few long seconds it seems that little Uriel Lancaster Jr. will meet the floor in a brutal introduction, until Mr. Marquise jumps and slides across the wood panels, catching the infant six inches above the ground.
Mr. Marquise stands slowly, holding the baby to his chest. Uriel Jr. smiles up at him, reaching a pair of chubby hands towards Mr. Marquise’s cheeks.
Gloria hangs limp with relief at the sight of her son safe, pairs of hands binding her wrists and legs before lifting her above their heads like her husband. She stays rigid as they do, her arms stiff, her legs squeezed tightly together. Her sobs are barely audible above the excited chatter coursing through the church. Uriel continues to kick and flail as men carry him down the center aisle between the church pews, blood flowing freely from his head wound and down one of his captor’s arms. The steel-jawed man doesn’t seem to notice.
The men carry the couple towards the church entrance before disappearing out the door. Mr. Marquise follows in stride, bouncing the giggling baby in his arms. With the scene moving outside, most of the crowd clears out of the church. Some hop pews to get ahead in line; others follow at a slower pace, trying desperately to hide the ravenous glimmer in their eyes. In the back row, Mr. Smith plants a firm kiss on his wife’s cheek then turns to Mr. Prado and his fiancée.
“A good portion of thigh for the pantry?” he says, testing the waters.
Mr. Prado hangs his head, and for a second he seems at odds with himself, as if suffering through an internal argument. After a moment though, Mr. Prado looks back up at Mr. Smith, a sheepish grin on his face.
“I’ll take a breast, I guess,” Mr. Prado says, glancing at his fiancee. “For the pantry.”
Mr. Prado’s fiancée squints at him curiously but stays quiet. Mr. Smith, momentarily taken aback, recovers quickly and slings his arm around Mr. Prado’s neck.
“Breasts for the best, Prado,” he bellows, then ruffles Mr. Prado’s hair and lets out a hearty laugh. “Breasts for the best.”
A third man across the church yells that Mr. Prado will have to fight him for them, then whoops and hollers his way outside. Mr. Prado and Mr. Smith pat each other’s backs and laugh as they exit through the open church doors. In their wake, the scent of burning charcoal drifts inside, creeping up the aisle between the pews towards the altar to ruffle the faded fabric of the flag barely brushing against the crucifix’s feet.