You understand you’ve got to destroy this once you’ve read it. There are words here that I’m not supposed to know, words that I pretended in court not to know. And, in fact, as you will see, there could be as much danger in your reading it as there is in my having written it .
On the day of my hearing, the courtroom was cavernous and nearly empty except for the bailiff and three judges, two men and one woman, seated at one end, behind a long table. They were identifiable as Scribes only by the pins they wore in their collars, small gold pins in the shape of lap-top computers.
My footsteps padded softly across the ceramic floor as I approached the lectern. I tried to act purposeful and self-assured, but, of course, I was nervous. The lectern was bathed in bright full-spectrum light. The judges sat in relative shadow.
I looked up at them. Their table perched atop risers. The woman in the middle was dressed in a navy blue suit with a light pink blouse and a single strand of pearls. She looked businesslike but surprisingly benign given the power these people had and the viciousness with which they had been known to wield it.
“Mr. Spellman?” she asked perfunctorily as if my case would be only one of many adjudicated that day and with which she was already bored.
“Yes, M’am,” I answered, and against my will, my voice broke. My counselor had advised me to address the judges as sir and ma’m, to dress simply and neatly, and, above all to be guarded about the level of literacy I displayed.
“Where do you live, Spellman?”
“Here in town, M’am. On Plain Street.”
“Do you have a counselor?”
“Is he or she here?”
“No, M’am. He said I should come alone.”
“What’s his name?”
“I don’t know, M’am,” I said as plainly as I could.
One of the male judges leaned forward, raised his eyebrow and smiled across at the other. Maybe I had already overdone it.
“Just as well,” the woman said without looking up from her papers.
Counselors were viewed with suspicion. To function in society as they were assigned, it was necessary to provide them with a higher level of literacy than usual, and during the years since the Scribes had taken over, a number of Counselors had been convicted of attempting to go beyond statutory limitations. Such behavior violated the code of ethics promulgated for counselors, and that was usually the basis of cases against them. They would lose their licenses and be sentenced to a term in the deeducation system, forced to look all day at picture books and to listen to music. In one case, where an ethics charge wouldn’t stick, Scribes had brought a more serious charge: Conspiracy to help others to increase literacy.
Some Counselors by repeated exchanges with Scribes in court had, by a sort of osmosis, acquired vocabularies that put them into a gray area as far as the law was concerned. This aberration was grudgingly tolerated by Scribes as an unavoidable evil. My inquisitors, then, did not view the absence of my Counselor as any great loss.
“You are charged with littering, Spellman. How do you plead?
“Not guilty, M’am.”
“Do you know what littering means?”
In cases like mine, I had been instructed, it was best to keep one’s answers as brief as possible. Once you started to explain anything, you could easily be lured into revealing things that could be used against you.
“Yes,” I responded.
The man on the woman’s left jotted notes on a pad. Pretty ostentatious, I thought. Mastery of the old-fashioned skill of writing by hand was a kind of parlor trick some Scribes still used to show off.
“We must be sure you understand the charges,” the woman said. “Tell us what littering is.”
“It’s dropping paper on the ground.”
“Other stuff, too.”
The man to her right joined in. “What sorts of other stuff?” he asked gruffly. Some Scribes were careful when they spoke to non-Scribes, echoing only what we said rather than using synonyms that they thought we might remember and start to use among ourselves.
“Any stuff that doesn’t belong there.”
“Is there any other way to litter?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. He was driving at something, but I didn’t know what.
“You don’t know about picking up?”
“Oh… Yes,” I said. He meant that even if you didn’t drop the litter on the ground yourself, if you were observed leaving someone else’s litter there, you could be charged with littering. That is what happened to me. Some busybody saw me walking away from a piece of paper and turned me in. The only reason it’s important for you to read this account is so you won’t make the same mistake.
“Did you walk by the gray stone building on Matthew Street last fourth day in the early morning?”
“In fact, you go that way every day, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. As you can see, they knew more about me than I realized.
“And you usually pick up litter whenever you see it, don’t you? In fact, that was once your job, wasn’t it?”
“But last fourth day, you stopped, stood looking at a piece of litter for a long time, and then you walked away and left it there. True?”
The woman took over again. A hard edge came into her voice. “You admit to leaving litter by the side of the walkway?”
“I remind you that you’ve pleaded ‘not guilty’ to this court. Unless you have an unusual reason for what you did, you will be called guilty and sentenced to hard labor.” This judge was experienced. She had substituted the word “called” for the old word “declared” without an instant’s hesitation.
By now you’re probably wondering why I pleaded not guilty if I was just going to admit to everything anyway. It’s because I thought I had a good excuse to explain why I had left the paper there, a reason they would have to accept.
The third judge broke in. “I am interested in something else before we proceed,” he said, taking off his glasses and laying down his pen. The other two sat back in their seats. “Your name, Spellman. Do you know what it means?”
“No, Sir. It was just my family’s name.”
“It has no special meaning for you?”
“Are you proud of the name, Mr. Spellman?”
“Well, records show that the name Spellman comes from Spelman which, in turn, comes from Spielman. It is a name with a history. Do you know that history?”
“No, I don’t,” I said. I had a pretty good idea the “Spiel” part meant something in German, but since I wasn’t supposed to know any history, let alone the origin of my own name, I certainly couldn’t tell him. Here was a judge who believed, evidently, that he could pick up some hint of guilt from my genetic heritage.
The woman continued. “Why did you leave the paper on the ground?”
“I thought someone might come back to look for it,” I said.
They shifted in their seats. The third judge, adjusted his glasses and took up his pen. The other two sat forward and looked at me more intently. I waited.
“… Why?” asked the woman.
Suddenly, …now, I sensed that my confidence may have been unfounded. But I had opened the door a crack and there was no way to close it again. “Because it looked important,” I said. “I thought a Scribe might be coming back to pick it up.”
“Witnesses said you looked at the paper on the ground for a long time. Several minutes. Why was that?”
“I was trying to decide what to do.”
“What made you think that a piece of litter might be important enough for a Scribe to come back for it?”
I took a deep breath. These were not managers, or supervisors, but judges. I could only hope that they had retained a measure of reasonableness.
“On the top …of the paper,” I ventured haltingly, “it said ‘Scribes Only – Application for Personnel Directorship of non-Scribe Rehabilitation Center’.”
“How did you know that?” she asked, but I didn’t answer.
“I ask you again, how did you know what was printed on that paper?”
I couldn’t come right out and say it. I realized I had just admitted to comprehending words that were way beyond my approved level. I could only let them draw their own conclusions and then pray that my concern for one of their own would weigh in my favor.
They paused. Then the woman signaled, and the bailiff came up behind me and slid heavy earphones over my head. A loud musical selection jangled in my ears to keep me from hearing what the three judges were saying to one another. They looked agitated. The first man waved his arms and gestured toward me. The note taker pointed repeatedly at his pad. The woman seemed to be trying to placate them. At least that’s what I hoped she was trying to do. At one point she looked something up in a thick book and showed it to them.
After ten minutes of going back and forth like that, they settled down. The catch on the woman’s string of pearls had slid around to the front of her neck, and she slid it back as the earphones were lifted from my head.
“Mr. Spellman,” the woman said , “you are a lucky man. You are in this court because you were seen littering, and that is all we can punished you for. That will cost you two weeks at hard labor.” She paused, apparently to let this sink in. Then she continued, “You and this court both know, however, that there are signs here of crimes far more serious than littering. You will be watched, and if you are caught reading, you will be called before us again, and I assure you things will not go as pleasantly as they have here today. My advice to you is to obey the law. Leave reading and writing to Scribes. When your labor term ends, go home, watch TV, listen to music, and stay out of trouble.”
My two weeks shoveling books at the laser incinerator were tough, but, from what I heard there, nothing like a term in the deeducation system. So, please, destroy this, or, if you pass it on to someone else, be absolutely certain you know who you’re giving it to. Scribes don’t always wear their collar pins, and sometimes you can’t tell them from us.