Fiction Paul Hoffman The Left Hand of God

ISBN 13: 9780718155186

The Left Hand of God

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9780718155186: The Left Hand of God

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Paul Hoffman's novel of astonishing scope and imagination, featuring a darkly gifted teenage boy at the center of a brutal holy war, grabs the reader from its incredible opening lines and refuses to let go.

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About the Author:

Paul Hoffman studied English at New College, Oxford before becoming a senior film censor at the British Board of Film Classification. He lives in the United Kingdom. The Left Hand of God is the first in trilogy following Cale.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1Listen. The Sanctuary of the Redeemers on Shotover Scarp isnamed after a damned lie, for there is no redemption that goes on thereand less sanctuary. The country around it is full of scrub and spindlyweeds and you can barely tell the difference between summer andwinter — which is to say that it is always bloody freezing no matter whatthe time of year. The Sanctuary itself is visible for miles when there isno filthy smog obscuring it, which is rare, and is made of flint, concreteand rice flour. The flour makes the concrete harder than rock and thisis one of the reasons that the prison, for this is what it truly is, has resistedthe many attempts to take it by siege, attempts now consideredso futile that no one has tried to take Shotover Sanctuary for hundredsof years.

It is a stinking, foul place and no one except the Lord Redeemersgo there willingly. Who are their prisoners, then? This is the wrongword for those who are taken to Shotover, because “prisoners” suggestsa crime and they, none of them, have offended any law made by man orGod. Nor do they look like any prisoner you will ever have seen: thosewho are brought here are all boys under the age of ten. Depending ontheir age when they enter, it may be more than fifteen years before theyleave and then only half will do so. The other half will have left in ashroud of blue sacking and been buried in Ginky’s Field, a graveyardthat begins under the walls. This graveyard is vast, spreading as far asyou can see, so you will have some idea of the size of Shotover and howvery hard it is even to stay alive there. No one knows his way round allof it and it is as easy to get lost within its endless corridors that twistand turn, high and low, as in any wilderness. There is no change in theway it looks — every part of it looks much the same as every other part:brown, dark, grim and smelling of something old and rancid.

Standing in one of these corridors is a boy looking out of a windowand holding a large, dark blue sack. He is perhaps fourteen or fifteenyears old. He is not sure and neither is anyone else. He has forgottenhis real name because everyone who comes here is rebaptized with thename of one of the martyrs of the Lord Redeemers — and there aremany of them on account of the fact that, time out of mind, everyonethey have failed to convert has hated their guts. The boy staring outof the window is called Thomas Cale, although no one ever uses hisfirst name, and he is committing a most grievous sin by doing so.

What drew him to the window was the sound of the NorthwestGate groaning as it always did on one of its rare openings, like somegiant with appallingly painful knees. He watched as two Lords in theirblack cassocks stepped over the threshold and ushered in a small boy ofabout eight, followed by another slightly younger and then another.Cale counted twenty in all before another brace of Redeemers broughtup the rear and slowly and arthritically the gate began to close.

Cale’s expression changed as he leaned forward to see out of theclosing gate and into the Scablands beyond. He had been outsidethe walls on only six occasions since he had come here more than adecade before — it was said, the youngest child ever brought to theSanctuary. On these six occasions he was watched as if the lives of hisguards depended on it (which they did). Had he failed any of these sixtests, for that was what they were, he would have been killed on thespot. Of his former life he could remember nothing.

As the gate shut, he turned his attention to the boys again. Noneof them was plump, but they had the round faces of young children.All were wide-eyed at the sight of the keep, its immense size, its hugewalls, but, though bewildered and scared simply by the strangenessof their surroundings, they were not afraid. Cale’s chest filled withdeep and strange emotions that he could not have given a name to. But,lost in them as he was, his talent for keeping one ear alive to whateverwas going on around him saved him, as it had so many times in thepast.

He moved away from the window and walked on down thecorridor.

“You! Wait!”

Cale stopped and turned round. One of the Redeemers, hugelyfat with folds of skin hanging over the edge of his collar, was standingin one of the doorways off the passage, steam and odd sounds emergingfrom the room behind him. Cale looked at him, his expressionunchanged.

“Come here and let me see you.”

The boy walked toward him.

“Oh, it’s you,” said the fat Redeemer. “What are you doing here?”

“The Lord of Discipline sent me to take this to the drum.” He heldup the blue sack he was carrying.

“What did you say? Speak up!”

Cale knew, of course, that the fat Redeemer was deaf in one ear,and he had deliberately spoken quietly.

Cale repeated himself, this time shouting loudly.

“Are you trying to be funny, boy?”

“No, Redeemer.”

“What were you doing by the window?”

“The window?”

“Don’t play me for a fool. What were you doing?”

“I heard the Northwest Gate being opened.”

“Did you, by God?”

This seemed to distract him.

“They’re early.” He grunted with annoyance and then turned andlooked back into the kitchen, for that was who the fat man was: theLord of Vittles, overseer of the kitchen from which the Redeemerswere well fed and the boys hardly at all. “Twenty extra for dinner,” heshouted into the evil-smelling steam behind him. He turned back toCale.

“Were you thinking when you were by that window?”

“No, Redeemer.”

“Were you daydreaming?”

“No, Redeemer.”

“If I catch you loitering again, Cale, I’ll have the hide off you.Hear me?”

“Yes, Redeemer.”

The Lord of Vittles turned back into the room and began to closethe door. As he did so, Cale spoke softly but quite distinctly, so thatanyone not hard of hearing would have picked it up.

“I hope you choke on it, you lardy dritsek.”

The door slammed shut, and Cale headed off down the corridordragging the large sack behind him. It took nearly fifteen minutes, runningmost of the way, before he came to the drum located at the end ofits own short passageway. It was called the drum because that was whatit looked like, as long as you disregarded the fact that it was six feet talland embedded in a brick wall. On the other side of the drum was aplace sealed off from the rest of the Sanctuary where, it was rumored,there lived twelve nuns who cooked for the Redeemers only and washedtheir clothes. Cale did not know what a nun was and had never seenone, although from time to time he did talk to one of them through thedrum. He did not know what made nuns different from other women,who were spoken of rarely and only then with distaste. There were twoexceptions: the Hanged Redeemer’s Holy Sister and the Blessed ImeldaLambertini, who at the age of eleven had died of ecstasy during her firstcommunion. The Redeemers had not explained what ecstasy was, andno one was foolish enough to ask. Cale gave the drum a spin, and thenit turned on its axis, revealing a large opening. He dumped the bluesack inside and gave it another spin, then he banged on the side, causingit to emit a loud boom. He waited for thirty seconds, and then amuffled voice spoke from the other side of the drum wall:

“What is it?”

Cale put his head next to the drum so he could be heard, his lipsalmost touching the surface.

“Redeemer Bosco wants this back by tomorrow morning,” heshouted.

“Why didn’t it come with all the others?”

“How the hell would I know?”

There was a high-pitched cry of muffled rage from the other sideof the drum.

“What’s your name, you impious pup?”

“Dominic Savio,” lied Cale.

“Well, Dominic Savio, I’ll report you to the Lord of Discipline andhe’ll have the hide off you.”

“I couldn’t care less.”

Twenty minutes later Cale arrived back at the Lord Militant’s trainingburoo. It was empty except for the Lord himself, who did not look up orgive any sign that he had seen Cale. He continued to write in his ledgerfor another five minutes before speaking, still without looking up.

“What took you so long?”

“The Lord of Vittles stopped me in the corridor of the outerbanks.”

“Why?”

“He heard a noise outside, I think.”

“What noise?” Finally, the Lord Militant looked at Cale. His eyeswere a pale, almost watery blue, but sharp. They did not miss much.Or anything.

“They were opening the Northwest Gate to let in the freshboys.He wasn’t expecting them today. I’d say his nose was out of joint.”

“Hold your tongue,” said the Lord Militant, but mildly by hisunforgiving standards. Cale knew that he despised the Lord of Vittles,and hence he felt it less dangerous to speak in such a way of aRedeemer.

“I asked your friend about the rumor they’d arrived,” said theRedeemer.

“I have no friends, Redeemer,” replied Cale. “They’re forbidden.”

The Lord Militant laughed softly, not a pleasant sound.

“I have no worries about you on that score, Cale. But if we mustplod — the scrawny blond-haired one. What do you call him?”

“Henri.”

“I know his given name. You have a moniker for him.”

“We call him Vague Henri.”

The Lord Militant laughed, but this time there was the echo ofsome ordinary good humor.

“Very good,” he said appreciatively. “I asked him what time thefreshboys had arrived and he said he wasn’t sure, sometime betweeneight bells and nine. I then asked him how many there were and he saidfifteen or so, but it might have been more.” He looked Cale straight inthe eyes. “I thrashed him to teach him to be more specific in future.What do you think of that?”

“It’s all the same to me, Redeemer,” replied Cale flatly. “He deservedwhatever punishment you gave him.”

“Really? How very gratifying you should think so. What time didthey arrive?”

“Just before five.”

“How many were there?”

“Twenty.”

“What ages?”

“None younger than seven. None older than nine.”

“Of what kind?”

“Four Mezos, four Uitlanders, three Folders, five half-castes, threeMiamis and one I didn’t know.”

The Lord Militant grunted as if only barely satisfied that all hisquestions had been answered so precisely. “Go over to the board. I’veset a puzzle for you. Ten minutes.”

Cale walked over to a large table, twenty feet by twenty, on whichthe Lord Militant had rolled out a map, which fell slightly over theedges. It was easy to recognize some of the things drawn there — hills,rivers, woods — but on the remainder there were numerous small blocksof wood on which were written numbers and hieroglyphs, some of theblocks in order, some apparently chaotic. Cale stared at the map for hisallotted time and then looked up.

“Well?” said the Lord Militant.

Cale began to set out his solution.

Twenty minutes later he finished, his hands still held out in frontof him.

“Very ingenious. Impressive, even,” said the Lord Militant. Somethingin Cale’s eyes changed. Then with extraordinary speed the LordMilitant lashed the boy’s left hand with a leather belt studded with tinybut thick tacks.

Cale winced and his teeth ground together in pain. But quicklyhis face returned to the watchful coldness that was these days all thatthe Redeemer ever saw from him. The Lord Militant sat down andconsidered the boy as if he were an object both interesting and yetunsatisfactory.

“When will you learn that to do the clever thing, the original thing,is merely your pride controlling you? This solution may work, but it’sunreasonably risky. You know very well the tried solution to this problem.In war a dull success is always better than a brilliant one. You hadbetter learn to understand why.”

He banged the table furiously.

“Have you forgotten that a Redeemer has the right to kill instantlyany boy who does something unexpected?”

There was another crash as he hit the table again, stood up andglared at Cale. Blood, not a great amount, dripped from the four holesin Cale’s still-outstretched left hand. “No one else would have indulgedyou the way I have. The Lord of Discipline has his eye on you. Everyfew years he likes to set an example. Do you want to end up as an Actof Faith?”

Cale stared ahead and said nothing.

“Answer me!”

“No, Lord.”

“Do you think you are needful, you useless Zed?”

“No, Lord.”

“This is my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault,” said the LordMilitant, striking his breast with his hand three times. “You havetwenty-four hours to consider your sins and then you will debase yourselfbefore the Lord of Discipline.”

“Yes, Redeemer.”

“Now, get out.”

Dropping his hands to his side, Cale turned and walked to thedoor.

“Don’t bleed on the mat,” called out the Lord Militant.

Cale opened the door with his good hand and left.Alone in his cell the Lord Militant watched the door close. As itclicked shut, his expression changed from that of barely constrainedrage to one of thoughtful curiosity.

Outside in the corridor Cale stood for a moment in the horriblebrown light that infected everywhere in the Sanctuary and examinedhis left hand. The wounds were not deep, because the studs in thebelt had been designed to cause intense pain without taking long toheal. He made a fist and squeezed, his head shaking as if a small tremorwere taking place deep inside his skull as the blood from his handdripped heavily onto the floor. Then he relaxed his hand, and in thegrim light a look of horrible despair crept over his face. In a moment itwas gone, and Cale walked on down the corridor and out of sight.

None of the boys in the Sanctuary knew how many of them there were.Some claimed there were as many as ten thousand and growing morewith every month. It was the increase that occupied the conversationsmost. Even among those nearing twenty years old there was agreementthat, until the last five years, the number, whatever it was, had remainedsteady. But since then there had been a rise. The Redeemers were doingthings differently, itself an ominous and strange thing: habit and con-formity to the past were to them like air to those who breathe. Everyday should be like the next day, every month like the next month. Noyear should be different from another year. But now the great increasein numbers had required change. The dormitories had been alteredwith bunks of two and even three tiers to accommodate new arrivals.Divine service was held in staggered rosters so that all might pray andstore up every day the tokens against damnation. And now meals weretaken in relays. But as for the reasons behind this change, the boysknew nothing.

Cale, his left hand wrapped in a dirty piece of linen previouslythrown away by the washerserfs, walked through the huge refectoryfor the second sitting carrying a wooden tray. Late to arrive, thoughnot too late — for this he would have been beaten and excluded — hewalked toward the large table at the end of the room where he alwaysate. He stopped behind another boy, about the same age and heightbut so intent on eating ...

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