May the oppressed and the oppressor
not become imprisoned by the trepidation
that so painfully and so evilly bind them.
I lie still.
The wooden bench-bed I sleep on presses unyieldingly against my bony back and hips. Looking at the formerly white ceiling, I close one eye and pretend to outline the brown water stains and dot the black, rotten corners with my finger. Anything to distract myself from thinking about what’s coming.
I sleep on the bottom bunk, my younger twin brother, Samuel, on the top. His emaciated, ash-white arm hangs over the railing like a wilted plant and he’s snoring so loud I think the walls are actually shaking.
It rained last night and water entered through the hole where the ceiling meets the wall, spraying my feet and ankles. The cement floor has little brown ponds on it and a rancid smell of mold mixed with urine rises from the ground. It never fails to make me nauseous.
I’d give up a week’s worth of rations to not have to get out of bed today, but I know there’s no use because here we only have two options: we obey or we die.
Sitting at the edge of my bed, trying to ignore the churning devil in my gut, I stretch my thin legs out in front of me, the soles of my feet touching the wall—the room is so small. I’m glad to see that the wound from last week’s whipping is healing, though I’m still amazed at the mild punishment I received for having looked directly at a watcher. I know I shouldn’t have, but the watcher had just punched Sage, a witch my age, in the stomach, sending her to her knees, gasping for air. It was my way of rebelling and I’m glad I did it despite the pain from the seven lashes I received.
Careful not to wake Samuel, I slide out of my bench-bed, my feet meeting the cool, wet concrete below, look out the hole and the sizzling Arizona sun greets me. From my room, I can see the towering concrete barrier that encases our camp and notice that there are twice as many watchers patrolling the Great Wall—the watchers I have come to fear and hate equally with every morsel of my soul. Camp Salem was built twenty years ago to house the last remaining eight thousand witches. But our numbers have dropped dramatically due to malnutrition, senseless executions, and the lack of newborns, and are teetering on a mere two thousand. The blue sky against the colorless Great Wall is the same as always, and there’s the constant low humming sound of the force field above our camp—reminding me that I’ll be locked up here, prevented from performing magick, until the day I take my last breath.
My dad’s squeaky wheelchair moves in the other room. He must have gotten up early so he could see us off this morning. Every day I remind myself how very fortunate I am to still have him. Most witches who become handicapped are put to death immediately. However, since my father helps Governor Peterson from time to time with his written communications to the government and other outside agencies—he used to work for the government as one of their communication experts—Governor Peterson has seen it fit to keep him around. I hope my father never outlives his usefulness.
Every day is the same around here. I get up at five a.m., go to work in the canteen by six, have a fifteen minute break at two, and head home at nine p.m. I’m one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to work in the waste recycling plant, sorting humans’ trash. Samuel’s not so lucky.
Today we will be two out of seven witches representing the citizens of Camp Salem and I’ve come to figure that our mandatory participation has something to do with the fact that we still have our youth and our health, a rare commodity among our kind. I don’t exactly know what’s expected of me, but I’ve heard that on previous demonstration days, there have been presentations of how witches are punished when they don’t obey the rules of the camp. There have also been demonstrations of executions, but I don’t let my mind linger on that.
Descending the plank railing to the outside, I avoid the part that has collapsed. My father asked Samuel to try and fix it, but in reality, Samuel knows nothing about fixing stairs, having no training in carpentry and even if he did, we don’t have the necessary tools. The hole drives me crazy, but I know a little thing like that shouldn’t bother me. My father once told me that instead of being an annoyance, the damaged railing could remind me that nothing’s perfect and that to get ahead in life, I need to ignore what’s wrong and move beyond the insignificant hurdles. I think he’s full of it sometimes, trying to make our situation better than it is. But I go along with it, for if he weren’t to have his optimism to cling on to, what else would he have?
As the warm air envelopes my thin frame, I peer down the dull cement roads. There’s so much history in these roads and though they’re quiet and peaceful now, the echoing screams of battered men, women and children haunt me every time I step outside. The barracks we live in stretch in rows to the left and right and a fence with barbed wire separates the barracks from the Great Wall and the human watchers who guard them.
I head for the community bathroom—a separate structure with doorless stalls and holes in the ground. Of course I hate the bathroom, as does everyone else, but we would never consider complaining, afraid if we did, watchers would come in the night, drag us into the streets and beat us. That’s what Governor Peterson orders his watchers do to those who indicate displeasure about how Camp Salem is run. I’ve never admitted it to anyone, but I’d certainly kill any of the watchers if I had the chance.
I wait my turn in the long line. No one speaks a word; we only exchange cautious glances as the watchers cling to their machine guns, staring at us with eyes of steel. The closer I get to the bathroom, the stronger the stench grows so I’ve learned to breath through my mouth—closing the airflow to my nose—to manage doing my business. When I’m done, I scurry back to the barrack, head down. I used to speak my mind when I was younger, before I understood the consequences of speaking up. Now, I just keep my thoughts to myself, disproving of the treatment of witches silently—the hatred of the watchers and humans growing every day.
Back home in my bedroom, I pull my long dark hair into a high ponytail, making sure not a single hair is out of place. I peer into the cracked, blurry mirror for a moment. My eyes have always been dark brown and energetic, but lately I’ve noticed they’ve started looking the way my mother’s did right before she died—sad and tired, with hopelessness bleeding from them. At the time, I thought there was something beautiful about her daytime reveries, her beautiful eyes, wandering out into thin air, dreaming of something mystical, maybe something outside of Camp Salem. But now that I’ve gotten older, I think her frequent trances was her way of escaping this realty and that she was a deeply troubled soul, longing for death, perhaps, or just an escape from this daily hell.
Peering down onto the inside of my wrist, I stroke the marking that all witches share. When a witch is born, a pentagram is branded onto the inside of their wrists. The red ink is pressed into the wound, causing it to stain the skin permanently. I know the humans want me to hate that red, bulging marking, but the symbol is part of who I am.
I dress in the uniform they gave me for this event—navy blue leggings with a long-sleeved matching tunic top. It’s silky against my skin and the material is much finer than anything I’ve ever worn. I suspect that Governor Peterson gave me this outfit to cover the markings on my body from the whippings and beatings I receive. Most witches have at least a few bruises or cuts from being disobedient.
Folding my regular ragged and filthy crimson uniform, I take care that the edges line up and that there are no wrinkles in the garment. I place the uniform in a plastic bag because I might need to return the navy blue uniforms immediately after the demonstration and change back into this one.
Samuel is awake now and heads for the bathroom. He’s grown quite a bit this last year, looking like a tall gangly boy the height of a man. He gets his blond hair from Mom and his hazel eyes from Dad. He used to be so happy, always laughing and a smile waiting to brighten up his face. But all that changed when Mom died. Now, he’s always deep in thought and hardly talks to anyone. I want to help him, but he’s closed off any dialog other than talking about work, chores and food. I love that boy so much; I’d pledge my life to save his, if it came down to it.
“Good morning,” he says.
I nod, despite the fact that there’s nothing good about this morning.
Smiling, my father rolls his wheelchair toward me, and I stoop to kiss him on his hallow, stubbly cheek. I’ve always wondered how he can smile when there’s so little to smile about and when I ask him about it, his answer is always the same.
“I smile because I can.”
When the witches from the waste recycling plant brought him back from the accident that took his legs, they told me that he’d saved another worker, but hadn’t been able to save my mom. Though we’ve never talked about it, I know he blames himself for her death—I see it in his eyes every day, the self-loathing mixed with sadness and the first two years after she died I’d hear his repressed sobs at nights. Now they’ve stopped. Oddly enough, I miss his sobs because they reminded me that I wasn’t the only one who missed mother. I wish he’d forgive himself, but whenever I bring anything up about that day, he withdraws into his shell, not speaking to me for weeks. I’d rather have a vacant conversation with him than none at all so I keep my thoughts and feelings stuffed away. He’s the calmest, and most selfless person I know, though from time to time, when he thinks no one’s watching, I see a brooding bitterness in his steel gray eyes. I’d prefer he not have to live this miserable life, going to bed starving every night, longing for his wife, my mom. But if I lost him, I don’t know what I’d do.
Samuel enters the main room, ready in his navy uniform, and my father tells us to come straight home so he can give us a special birthday breakfast before we leave for work. I wonder what kind of breakfast it could be, having only ever been rationed thinned out oatmeal since the day I was born.
“Welcome to Camp Salem,” Governor Peterson says to the people filing off the four blue and gray tour busses that just entered our camp. Dust from the dull concrete ground stirs into the air, causing a few of the visitors to cough. Someone will be severely punished, maybe even hanged, for not having done his or her job properly.
Governor Peterson has a permanent angry groove between his eyebrows and only today, at this demonstration, have I ever seen him smile. His smile is pasted on and I wonder if the guests notice the disdain behind his pale green eyes. He’s trying to impress the visitors—that’s obvious—and give the illusion that our kind is treated in a humane way, but nothing could be farther from the truth.
Before the tour busses came today, we were instructed to appear happy, pleasant and humble. And to keep our eyes down if we wanted to opt out of a thorough flogging. Once before my father’s accident, they made me watch when they flogged him. And then they flogged me because I had cried and said something about it. Whippings and beatings are common methods the watchers use on us for minor trespasses. Floggings, however, are reserved for severe disobediences and are one of the most feared punishments. Showing open disproval of their more-than-fair methods has painful consequences. At the time I was only nine and I still carry the scars on my back, but I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to have chunks of my flesh torn off by a whip with sharp metal pieces built-in into it. Needless to say, anytime anyone mentions flogging, I follow the rules perfectly.
These visitors are what people outside of Camp Salem call statesmen and they represent the International Peace Alliance. Ever since the reorganization of the world government, all other office-bearers across the world answer to the alliance. Even so, I don’t care to impress the statesmen because even if I do, nothing will ever change.
The statesmen exit the busses and I steal a glance. The visitors are dressed in fine clothes and they all look clean and healthy—every single one of them. I quickly lower my eyes to the aluminum deck below my feet and wonder again, like I have so many times before, what life’s like on the outside of the Great Wall.
Governor Peterson handpicked the representatives he wanted to take part in the annual Camp Salem demonstration, and I was right, we’re all young and healthy-looking. We’re absolutely not the norm, but I bet Governor Peterson will present us as if we are.
All seven witches wear the same exquisite, navy blue uniform as Samuel and me and Governor Peterson even had someone apply make-up to the four girls’ faces right before they lined us up. It’s the first time I’ve worn make-up and I probably look silly. The only reason I can think he put make-up on us is to make us look healthier than we are, maybe a little happier, too, like we have time and the resources for luxuries.
Governor Peterson lines the visitors up in front of us, and turns to face them. He pulls a silk handkerchief out of his gray dress pant pocket, wipes the sweat off his balding head, and puts it back.
“Camp Salem is a holding compound for the most radically undesirable race of all.” He pauses for a long time for effect and says loud and clear, “Witches! As you all know, they’re the most dangerous of any creature to mankind.”
The visitors study us. Some of them smile; some of them frown, while others carry blank expressions on their faces, but one thing they all have in common, one thing they can’t hide, is the trepidation in their eyes.
“As you all remember, the Magical War started because the witches wanted to take away humans’ inalienable rights, naming themselves rulers and masters over men.” Governor Peterson’s voice is every bit as dramatic as it’s authoritative. “Twenty years ago today, these blood-hungry beings were finally defeated and were given a merciful choice to either lose their lives or to live the rest of their days in safety within the walls of this fully equipped habitat.” He gestures to the dearth camp, his golden rings catching the sunlight.
I don’t know exactly what happened in the Magical War since we’ve been forbidden to talk about it, though my father has mentioned that it wasn’t the witches, but the warlocks who wanted absolute power. I’m not a warlock; I’m a witch, born to protect humanity, my father has told me repeatedly, but that doesn’t stop people from lumping us together with the warlocks. We have one thing in common with the warlocks, and that’s this; we practice magick. Even though we’re no threat to them, humans see us as such, and our supernatural powers are a peril to be eradicated from society. I’ve yet to meet a warlock in Camp Salem and I’ve met just about every single witch in here.
I look over at Tomas, one of the witches I consider my friend, standing at the end of the row and he glances discreetly in my direction. Friendship isn’t forbidden in Camp Salem, but it’s definitely not encouraged either. And it’s not like we have time to develop relationships here. They keep us so busy there’s no time to really socialize. His intense azure eyes can be seen even at this distance and his flaxen hair catches the sunlight. We’ve known each other ever since he stood up for me when Damien beat me up when I was six and since then I’ve known that I can trust him to have my back. Damien is the meanest boy in Camp Salem, but oddly enough, the watchers don’t ever punish him for bullying others. They rather seem to enjoy how he treats us.
“Has anyone ever escaped this godforsaken place?” a man with a cowboy hat and boots asks. His accent is different than ours; it has a long draw to it.
“I’m glad you asked that question.” Governor Peterson smiles and clasps his hands behind his back, pacing back and forth in front of the podium. “A few of them tried to escape, and as a matter of fact, last year a whole family of them escaped.”
Nervous glances move between the statesmen, like they’re wondering if the family might be roaming free on the outside, a danger to humanity. I didn’t know the family personally, but I knew who they were: a mother and a father with a teenage boy a little older than me.
“But they didn’t get far before they were…gunned down.” Governor Peterson says with false remorse. “Of course it was a sad day—for all of us. I take no pride in killing these witches. They are human-like, after all.” Some of the statesmen have a trace of sympathy in their eyes or maybe it’s just disgust for our race. “The family’s remains were dragged back into the plaza for all of the witches to see. Unfortunately it had to take such a brutal exhibition of bloodshed to teach these witches,” he gestures to us, “to stay where they belong.”
Governor Peterson thought the horrifying display would frighten the rest of us into submission, but it actually had the opposite effect. Several others tried to escape Camp Salem that very day and I think one or two might have succeeded, though Governor Peterson would never admit that to anyone.
Governor Peterson points to the watchers guarding the Great Wall. “One hundred heavily armed watchers patrol the tops of the thirteen-feet concrete wall at any one time. There are exactly four exits and they are the only passages in and out of this place. The Great Wall keeps the witches physically contained, but the invisible dome barrier that sits over the Great Wall is what keeps these creatures powerless. If you look carefully, you can see the invisible force field’s sheen in the sunlight.”
The statesmen lift their gazes and peer up toward the sky, their eyes squinting in the bright summer sun. Some of them point and a few faint voices say, “I see it.”
“It prevents the moon’s rays from reaching in, and if they have no contact with the moon, they can’t perform magick.”
Camp Salem is the absolute worst place a witch can be, my father always says. The detention camp also cuts us off from the four elements we need to perform magick—earth, air, fire and water. We only get rationed the minimum amount of water to stay alive and we are not allowed to light fires, and there is no soil in Camp Salem. All tools and herbs are illegal, and if we’re found in possession of any of these, our whole family will be burned at the stake or hung.
“As you know, most people, other than you and the authorities, think all the witches died in the Magical War. Though risky, it was a brilliant move by the International Peace Alliance to present an undercover plan to save the witches from extinction all the while preventing a civil war and further loss of human life.”
I wonder why there would be a civil war if humans found out witches still lived and that Camp Salem existed. Does that mean that there are some that are for our kind and would fight alongside us?
He continues. “The only reason witches’ were spared was that the IPA felt it unnecessarily inhumane to annihilate an entire race. Perhaps some of you who signed the document granting immunity to witches and warlocks are here today?”
The visitors nod their heads and mumble in agreement.
“At the time of the decision, I thought you’d all lost your minds. Yet presently, I’ve come to understand your decision. I suppose with age, comes compassion and now I see the value in preserving a race. Even a dangerous one.” Governor Peterson walks up onto the platform where we’re lined up.
I make sure to keep my eyes down because I don’t want to be punished later for disobeying instructions.
The man with the cowboy hat raises his hand and says, “What made you want to work here?”
Governor Peterson ponders for a moment. “My late wife was murdered by a witch while she was sleeping. My personal pledge and lifelong mission is to keep witches off the streets so humanity may sleep well at night.” The visitors applaud and he places his hand over his heart in gratitude.
Problem is, it was a warlock who killed his wife, my father told me. A true witch won’t kill, unless in self-defense.
“Why the name Camp Salem?” A young woman asks.
“Before Camp Salem was conceived, the Salem Witch Trials were considered a horrific crime against many innocent people, but when the witches started attacking humans, killing them off city by city, we believed the executions were justified, having learned about the true nature of witches.” Governor Peterson steps off the platform. “However, today is a new day, and things are about to change.”
Change? I look up, my heart plummeting to my stomach. This can’t be good. Not when the change comes from someone like him. He thrives on instilling fear in people and I’m certain that what he’s about to share with us today will be ominous.
“There have been severe tax cuts every year for the last three years and the IPA can no longer afford to maintain Camp Salem.” A gasp goes through the crowd and I sense the tension from the other witches on the podium with me. “In lieu of this new information, we have contacted a private benefactor who will be funding the continuation of this camp. However…he has his own ideas about how this camp should be run.”
“Who?” the man with the cowboy hat asks.
“He prefers to remain anonymous. But before I share with you the changes, I’d be willing to demonstrate an execution, if you’d like to witness one,” Governor Peterson says.
All the blood leaves my face. I notice the tension from the other witches standing with me, but none of us dare look up or protest. My nails dig onto my hands and I have to force myself to inhale and exhale. “A disobedient witch is a dead witch,” Governor Peterson always says, and right now, any of us could lose our lives, disobedient or not.
“Nah, we don’t want to kill any of ‘em,” the guy with the cowboy hat says and though the other statesmen stir, thankfully, no one refutes him.
“You guys are a bunch of pansies,” Governor Peterson says, throwing his hands toward the statesmen, causing them to laugh.
“Now for the grand reveal. Due to the limited resources and per the request of our generous, new benefactor, all witches, except for these seven healthy ones standing here, will be terminated.”