The pond was blue. Genevieve stood on the marshy shore of the hidden pond as she had nearly every day since she started Sooth school and stared at the water. Yesterday it had been grey.
Ponds were supposed to be blue, of course. They used to be blue. They should be blue. But they hadn’t been blue in eight years. How could it be blue?
Genevieve scanned the surroundings for anything that might warrant the change in her pond. Willow trees dipping their tendrils into the water as usual? Check. Long-stalked cattails blowing their fluff into the shallows? Check. Algae waving below the water’s surface? Check. The fish did not seem to mind the new hue. She squelched along the muddy bank to the far side of the pond, but everything seemed identical to yesterday’s visit there, too.
Before the Grey Catastrophe, every ocean, lake, stream, and pond had been so dazzling that the original settlers had named the planet itself after the water’s shade. Now the water was grey, all of it, and neither the aquachemists and aquabiologists nor anyone else had been able to figure out why the color-causing microorganisms had disappeared.
Genevieve twisted her neck to view the sky through the treed canopy. Still grey. It too had once been blue, but as the oceans turned grey, the mirror overhead had changed as well.
She checked her chrono and jumped. She could not be tardy today. If she did not pass her exam, not only would she be unable to graduate as a Sooth, but her sister Juliette would not be allowed to practice either since her pairing with Genevieve would be broken. She tried not to think about what would happen to her father if they failed, but that was foolhardy and made her panic instead. She began to run.
When she finally dragged herself, panting from exertion, to the proving room in the center building of the Academie d’Chanson, the docienne was standing at the door, waiting.
“You are a lucky one,” she said as Genevieve tried to suck enough air into her body to quiet her furious lungs. “You have very nearly missed l’épreuve.” Her soft lilt was the accent of Monde d’Azur, the remnant of a language long melded with myriad others.
“Merci, Madame,” replied Genevieve as she nodded her head in respect. She let out a slow exhale and then stepped into the room while the docienne left to fetch and escort their test subject.
The proving room was small and painted bright white with a white glassy floor. The entire ceiling glowed with the diffused, full-spectrum light designed to mimic the summer sun. It did its job effectively. Genevieve wished, as she usually did, that they could afford this type of lighting at home instead of the few lamps screwed sparsely into the ceiling plus whatever sunlight made it through the clouds, trees, and finally their windows.
Juliette was seated already on her azure blue mat, still and waiting. Genevieve frowned. How did Juliette always look so glossy: every strand of blue hair pulled into a smooth bun; loose, white clothing carefully arranged; each muscle inhabited by calm?
Genevieve knew that her own shoulder-length blue hair was probably escaping in every direction or stuck to her skin by sweat, her identical clothing was completely disheveled, and not one of her muscles exuded calm. Even worse, Juliette had clearly noticed this disparity as well and was trying to stifle her errant grin before the docienne returned.
Genevieve unrolled her mat two metres from her sister, sat down facing her, and criss-crossed her legs. A blue ‘X’ was marked in tape between them. As she waited for the docienne to bring in their subject, Genevieve closed her eyes and began her breath cycle – deep breath in through the nose: fill the bottom third of the lungs, then the middle lobes, then all the way to the collarbone. Hold for three. Deflate in reverse order, exhaling through a slightly opened mouth.
The sprint from the pond and the attendant concerns melted away, and Genevieve began to feel the welcome focus that the breath cycle produced. She could feel her fingertips and her blue mat beneath her. The mats were the official color of Monde d’Azur, the royal blue of the ocean that had been, and Genevieve held this color in her mind. The ability to hold one clear thought in mind for an extended period was a precursor to the process of Soothing. Today the color in her mind did not remain uniform, however. It began to sink and was overlaid by ripples of glinting gray. Then the edges sprouted green.
“The test begins,” said the docienne, who then stepped back to the far corner to observe. Genevieve could feel her heart speed its pumping again in a flicker of panic. She had been so focused on trying to maintain the blue that she had heard neither the door open nor close, nor had she noticed the middle-aged man who was now seated on the X lined out on the floor.
As did many of the people born before the world was drained of blue, this man had Maladie d’Gris – Grey Disease – the same wasting, fatal disease as her father. The skin on his face and hands and presumably everywhere else was no longer the pinkish brown common to the general population but a drab grey that was flaking off in sheets.
Judging by the cloudy splotches working their way from the edges of his eyes to the pupils, Genevieve estimated that most of his peripheral vision was gone and probably half of his central line of sight. The tips of his right hand fingers and the palm of his left hand all displayed gaping sores tunneling into the flesh. He was near the end of the disease cycle.
Juliette began to sing fa centre, and Genevieve snapped her eyelids shut. She was not ready. Her mind was still preoccupied with blue water and the man’s face peeling off in front of her. What could Juliette possibly thinking, starting with fa centre when she knew that neither of them sang particularly well in that range?
Genevieve focused on the sound of her sister’s voice and quickly restarted her breathing cycle despite the fact that by nature it could not be done swiftly if one wished it to also be done effectively. Juliette was especially clear and melodious today, the notes of her unplanned, wordless song soaring near the top of her range and then diving, dove-like to hover warmly just above the bottom of her register.
After a few minutes, Juliette subtly shifted into fa centre le minore, which was Genevieve’s cue to begin the harmonic. The final remnants of concern that had been refusing to leave their enclave in the pit of Genevieve’s stomach finally unwound and dissipated. Juliette had seen Genevieve’s discomposure and drawn out her prelude so Genevieve could complete her breathing cycle and regain her focus.
At the start of the next measure, Genevieve added her voice to her sister’s, and together they wove a lovely dream, a tangled web, a soothing aria that melted into lullaby and drifted into hymn.
From her corner, the docienne observed all, moving only her eyes, missing nothing. This pairing was strong, one of the best she had seen in years. She had noticed how the older one, the Melodic, had stretched out her prelude to give the Harmonic time to prepare herself. The younger one had used this time well and by the key change, she had composed herself.
Then, too, the song itself was meticulously adapted to the situation. Fa centre was a notoriously difficult key to sing in, and most noviciats and even many of le compagnon avoided it entirely. However, due to the severity of the subject’s d’Gris, fa centre was the optimum choice. The docienne marveled at the strength of their voices and the complexity of their impromptu song, both very unusual this early in a Soothing career. The Harmonic, the more difficult part, was especially good, weaving in and out of the melody line with an intricacy and inventiveness she had rarely encountered.
After several minutes watching the girls, verifying their cross-legged, straight-backed, closed-eyed posture and searching unsuccessfully for signs of stifled fidgeting or eye fluttering that might indicate a loss of focus, the docienne began to watch the subject. He was under no such strictures of movement and swiveled his head back and forth from one girl to the other, watching and listening, while scratching at his peeling skin and pressing the wounds on his hands. By the time the Harmonic had woven in, he had settled into a limp calm, eyes closed, quieted by the beauty of the song.
Since the only other people in the room all had closed eyes, the docienne was the only one who saw the man’s peeling skin slough off completely, revealing rosy, brownish, supple skin beneath. She noticed, too, although he did not, that the fidgeting and pressure he had been applying to his hands had ceased as well, and she stood up straighter to get a better view of his sores. They also were nearly gone.
She allowed herself a hint of a smile. These were the days she loved, the reason she became a docienne. She remembered her own exhilaration when her illness had been healed from nothing more than intertwined notes in an empty room. Her Soothing had occurred many years ago, but that same feeling returned during every successful Sooth-song she witnessed, which had not been very many. Usually by the time noviciats reached their final proof test, their skills were sufficient to heal their subject; but most of the time it did not occur as immediately nor as dramatically as this had been. In fact, the only other one she had seen work so effectively had been her own.
The final notes of the proof song died off, and the noviciats were ushered out of the room. To have achieved this level of attunement at fourteen and sixteen years old from their two years of initial training implied an unusually high level of motivation. They would be powerful indeed by the time their apprenticeship was complete.
“You will receive your marks in two days. Your options will be explained to you at that time,” said the docienne as she saw them off. She gave no indication of their success on her face.
When she returned to the room, the man was standing on the X, surrounded by a pile of dead skin. He was shaking and staring at his hands. At the sound of the door closing, he looked at the woman.
“I saw you in side of eye!” he said. “I see! You are beauty!”
The docienne smiled and wondered how a native had received permission to leave the reserve to be a test subject. She knew she was not a beauty. He had just been blind for a long time.
“My grateful heart is to you. May Manioke comfort your mothers.”
She smiled and touched the man’s elbow and extended her other arm toward the door.
“Come, Monsieur. Let us get you to the shower. You brought the change of clothes as requested, did you not?” As he shuffled to the door, peelings of dead skin fluttered from the bottom of his pant legs and out the cuffs of his sleeves. The Sooth-song had succeeded. The test subject was a new man.