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Winnowing


by Lorna Garano


On the morning of the Winnowing the smog-smudged sun made everything look so washed away and grimy that it felt like Mom and I were walking through a dirty watercolor painting.

            Echo Ridge houses had begun mostly the same: two floors with two-car garages that jutted out and made the rest of the house seem like an afterthought. Maybe one had a tiled roof or another double doors, but that was only variation. “It's like a mother house gave birth to a neighborhood—all the same,” I said to Mom when she  showed me an old picture. “I know. It was beautiful, once,” she answered, as if that's what I'd meant.

Today, 50 years after the Inevitability, it was different. People graffitied their own homes or let garbage mounds form in front of them. “Hideous,” Mom muttered as we passed the house with a front patch of dirt spray-painted green. At this hour no one was out and all was still. I was glad for that. Had anyone seen Mom and I making our way out of Echo Ridge to the Sorrell Complex they would have compared me to what Valley had looked like on this day three years ago. Mom followed behind me holding the pair of heels Valley had worn when she was Winnowed and that she had painted with white pearl nail polish and taped gauze into so that they would fit my smaller feet. I was in the taffeta gown that Valley had donned and that Mom had refashioned with chiffon skirting and dyed the color of a cabbage to look new.

             “Watch, watch, watch,” Mom shrieked as I approached one of the oily puddles that dappled the path out to the main road.

“I'm not blind. I can see what's in front of me,” I shouted back.

I stopped short so that she bumped into me and nearly fell backward. I started walking before she had fully steadied herself and she had to speed up to reach me. After that the only sound I heard was the rustle of my chiffon skirt and the occasional cough, which Mom still had despite having both Valley and me teach her the lessons our coach gave us on how to suppress the hacking that was common among anyone living in Echo Ridge. In the years since Valley's victory Mom had convinced herself that she would be the first woman ever to have two daughters Winnowed and today was the culmination of the sacrifice and worry and work that had made her so thin that even her skin was too big for her. 

By the time we reached the main road I was tired and when I touched my chin to my chest I could see the half-moons of sweat that had formed under my arms. As we waited at the shuttle stop Mom had me hold my arms up so she could fan out the sweat stains with the folder that contained our bus passes and my letter of acceptance. When she was done she unlaced my sneakers and slid my foot into the white pumps, inserting her finger between my foot and the inner rim of the shoe. She looked up at me with a question in her face. “Yes, they're fine,” I answered.

Someone had spray painted an “S” on the side of the road to mark the shuttle stop and Mom stood on its lower curve and told me to stand back so I didn't get dirty. Few cars were out at this hour, but Mom still worried that I would be splattered with mud. Her love required protecting me from phantoms.

The shuttle came toward us. It was one of the buses that transported kids to school before the Inevitability. It had been painted white and “Sorrell” was written above the windshield. It hit a pothole and the heads of the girls and mothers, my competitors, bobbed up and down as if they were offering a collective “yes.”

Mom got on first and showed the driver our passes. The shuttle was almost full with girls who wore satin and chiffon and taffeta gowns and had mothers who sat thermometer-straight and didn't smile sitting next to them. Mom looked over the rows of seats and, when her eyes fell on one girl who wore silk gloves she pulled at a section of her hair. This was a nervous habit from the days when Mom's hair was so curly that it nearly doubled in length when she stretched a lock of it downward. In the last few years her hair grown straighter, as if even it was tired. “It's not going to matter,” I whispered to her. We sat in the back and didn't talk again.

The shuttle rolled into the circular driveway that dipped down in front of the east wing of the Sorrell Complex. Above the doors hung a banner that read “Work Crushes the Obstacle. Excellence Makes You One.” It was a Sorrellism, one that if you had a private coach you heard often.

The doors opened and two girls who were around twelve stepped out to greet us. They were pre-Winnowing volunteers. “I'm Here to Help,” read the tags that hung around their necks.  They lead us into the complex, where we joined the girls who had been dropped off by another shuttle. We were 100 altogether, from which fourteen would be chosen to go to Sorrell University. An education from Sorrell U meant a job in finance, or insurance or, if you were particularly creative, content. Why it was fourteen and not ten or twenty-two or some other number was a matter of speculation. Some said it was because Khensa Sorrell, the founder of the Winnowing, had faced a life-threatening illness at fourteen and had committed herself not just to beating it, but to a lifetime of excellence then. Of course, others preferred a mystical explanation, claiming that in numerology the number fourteen signified prosperity and good fortune.

The girls formed us into four lines and we waited to step on the slate that would activate the holoscreen. When it was my turn, the holoscreen adjusted to my height, and I tapped the list of names, chose “H” and scrolled to my name, “Howling, Hillstaria.” I checked in and got my chute receipt. Mom looked at me, and I mouthed “B34.” She smiled that kind of self-satisfied grin she got when one of her superstitions had been confirmed. Valley had been “B33” and this augured well. She had framed Valley's receipt and put it up on our bedroom wall, and now she could be sure it had paid off. When I told Samine, who is something like my best friend, about Mom's rituals she always said the same thing: “Superstitions are born as quickly as they die in the Post-Inevitability world. People are desperate.” I don't know how she could have known this given that like me, she hadn't been alive pre-Inevitability.

Mom and I got on the moving walkway and glided toward the chutes. “B34,” Mom said, grabbing my arm, as soon as the side of the chute's gaping mouth came into view. The walkway stopped and the lights in the chute went on, illuminating our way down its throat that twisted a few times before ending at the massive arena. The space was empty of any decoration or embellishment and the walls were a slate gray. “It's like being in a vacuum,” Coach had warned. She also speculated that this was to prompt us to fill the space with our creativity and enthusiasm.

            The noise surprised me. I had expected a solemn environment, every voice crushed by the weight of the event before us, but all around was chatter, the clicking of holocams, and even an occasional giggle from one of the girls, which made me think of a bottle being uncorked. The media circled the arena with their holocams and sound captures.

“Tell us what it's like….er…Havern...” a reporter said as he glanced at the name tag of the girl in B33. “What's it like to finally be here?”

The girl smiled and her mother said, “Incredible. Incredible after all this hard work to finally be here.” “Let's get a holo of this. It's a beautiful dress, Havern. Did you pick it out yourself or did Mom have a hand in it?” He winked at Havern's mother. “Her choice. All her choice,” the mother said.

            When he stopped at my chute, Mom said, “We're doing a little last minute prep here. When she wins you get the first interview!” “Deal,” the reporter answered and moved a few chutes down. “No need to bother with that now. Valley didn't talk to the media until after she won,” Mom said.

            Our eyes locked.

            “Until she was Winnowed, I meant.”

            We weren't supposed to talk about the Winnowing as an ordinary competition. A girl didn't “win;” she was Winnowed. The judges looked for a level of excellence that only they could define and how they identified it was murky, even for those of us whose mothers worked for Coach Cavellette to ensure that they would be prepared. It was a quest for excellence, in which the best would emerge through a process of careful, but mysterious reduction. The least excellent would be shaved away. I thought of the cartoon Samine had furtively let me glimpse of the gigantic girl with “Most Excellent” stamped on her forehead and all around her feet shavings in the shape of girls. A caricature of a beaming Khensa floated above her. Samine looked me in the eyes when she showed it to me as if expecting some reaction, some silent moment of understanding between us, which I failed to give her. 

            Other girls arrived and the noise multiplied. Our chutes formed a perfect arc around the judges' table so that no one was closer than ten feet from the five people who would decide our fate. Coach Cavellette had trained my voice to be clear and authoritative from a distance by standing a couple of yards across from me and having me read from one of Khensa's books to her.

            The judges approached the dais and the room stilled for a second before breaking into a frantic, desperate applause. When the last one took her seat a holo of Khensa's head appeared above the judges, like a collective dream.  The applause became so face paced that there seemed no break between the waves of claps. The lights dimmed so her outline and every ridge and wrinkle on her face became sharper.  Khensa had aged and she made no effort to hide it. Her face was puffy and when she smiled her skin rippled out around her mouth. As always, she looked exhausted. Many considered that one of her most endearing qualities.

            The arena quieted again as Khensa's head panned around the crescent of chutes, pausing slightly at each girl as if taking one final measure of our worthiness.

            “I'd say our girls this year are a distinguished bunch,” she finally declared.

            Mom squeezed my arm and whispered “You have nothing to worry about.”

“Girls and Mothers,” Khensa began, “I want to welcome you to the 41st Winnowing.

            The remaining reporters headed out to the ring of seats around the arena, where they joined the crowd who were lucky enough to get tickets to the yearly event—many of whom were mothers who hoped to have their daughters Winnowed as soon as they were of age.

 “First, let's thank all of the girls and moms. We all know how much work, how much sacrifice, how much dedication it takes to make it to the Winnowing. Let's begin by giving all of our contestants a hearty round of applause.”

Khensa's fingertips came into view just under her chin and a wave of clapping penetrated through the glass that separated the audience and the arena.

“As you all know the Winnowing came about after the Inevitability left our education system in—well—let's be honest, shambles. When the government finally fell under its own bloated weight and incompetence and could no longer fund the public schools our state universities became merely collections of buildings barreling toward decay.”

A holo of the university campus that had once stood in the town next to Echo Ridge but had been imploded before I was born flashed behind Khensa. Leafy pathways cut through the spired buildings and it sprawled out so widely that its ends were trimmed to fit the holo frame.  

“Your grandmother went there,” Mom whispered to me.

“And you would have gone if the whole thing hadn't gone belly up,” I whispered back. I'd heard it all before.

Khensa continued: “So we were left with the task to rebuild. Rebuild with our own resources, which at the time were only our creativity, our vision, our strength, our willingness to work hard. It's those qualities we look for in our girls.”

She paused and the audience and arena began applauding.

“The Inevitability was a rupture—a break with the old, stale ways of doing things and ultimately, like many ruptures it was a gift, although one that came disguised in destruction. We're looking for each of you here to rupture, to shake us into a new level of excellence, of creativity, to make us rethink.”

Rethink what, I wondered.

“You are the future. The future in which what is inevitable is excellence, abundance, growth; not want and collapse. So I welcome you, but more so I commend you. I commend you for putting the work into yourselves, for wringing your best self out of your being. It's a struggle, sometimes a vicious one, to not settle for ordinary, to demand excellence. You have valiantly embarked on that struggle.”

Khensa paused.

“Today, we see who has waged it the best.”

            The audience cheered and a chant of My best self! My best self! began. I heard Mom's voice from behind me. She was shouting and clapping her hands. I lacked the courage to remain silent, so I struck one of those barely perceptible deals with myself and silently mouthed the words “My best self.”

            Khensa held up her hands with her palms facing out toward us. “This really is an exceptional crowd!” The chanting died down, except for the girl in chute 18. She continued to shriek “My best self.” We stayed silent for a few seconds, hoping that she had simply not realized that the mantra had faded. My best self; My best self, she continued. Her mother took her by the arm and pulled her deeper into the chute, but that only made her scream louder. MY BEST SELF; MY. BEST SELF she shouted into the heavy quiet that now blanketed the arena. An elbow shot out from the semi-darkness of the inner chute; then a leg kicked. In an instant her feet were on the floor, the soles facing outward. MY BEST SELF; MY BEST SELF. The feet began to disappear into the chute and the chanting grew fainter. From above, a door slowly dropped down over the opening of her chute, like an eyelid giving way to sleep, and a soft click followed.

            “Oh, dear. The competition hasn't even begun and one girl has already Winnowed herself,” Khensa said.

            The audience cheered again and, again, Khensa allowed it for a minute and then held up her hands to signal us to be quiet.

“Now let me introduce our judges—who have a tough job ahead of them, indeed,” Khensa said.

“Razzela Taprisson,” Khensa announced. Razzela stood up. Her hair was the color of wheat and she wore a red suit with a metallic sheen.  

“I almost skipped this introduction, because is there anyone who doesn't know who Razzela is? Well, if you're out there, this is for you.” She paused for a beat and looked up with stony eyes. “You can explain where you've been later.” The room froze. Then Khensa smiled, and the pall was ruffled with laughter. “Razzela was Winnowed in 23 AI. She graduated from the University in two years…yes, two…and before she was even finished she had launched Skillucate. Can every Echo Ridge girl or mother of a girl who got a skillucation because of it give her a big hand?”

The audience cheered and clapped until Khensa said “Shhhh” and pressed her hands downward

 “Our next judge is less of a familiar face, but his influence is felt every time you need a break from the stresses and strains of daily life and slip into an AlterCation. Ladies…and ladies…I give you Davin Etterson, the CEO of Future Walk, Inc., the makers of AlterCation and other proven stress relief technologies.”

“Let's move on to Brantha Sedley. Brantha is President of the entire Sorrell University system. I always say that without her the whole outfit would still be one school and a lot of dreams. Since Brantha came on board Sorrell has become the leader in higher education, and where all the brightest go when it's time to move beyond Skillucate.” Brantha held up her hand and said, “Hi girls and moms.”

 “Now, let me introduce Emilon Blass. As Editor-in-Chief for the Constant Content Network Emilon follows in a proud family tradition. Her grandmother was the renowned Hedda Bell-Grant, who embedded with the some of the first troops responsible for restructuring after the Inevitability. At CCN, Emilon is responsible for nearly all of the programming that crosses our holodesks daily. Recently, she won the prestigious Halper Prize for her coverage of the Sledgeville Pacification.” Emilon nodded.

I knew Emilon would be here, but I still winced. She was the sole dissenting judge at Valley's Winnowing. She had called Valley “sadly not up to the opportunity presented to her.” I reminded myself that this was a competition based on merit, but I still worried that she would see me as Valley.

“And our fifth judge is a new face. Rened Craffing is Chief Architect and CEO of Craffing Homes, which makes securitized, yet luxurious homes for the most discerning—and deserving—consumers.”

Rened stood, smiled, and then took a presumptuous bow. He had mistaken the supplication in our cheering for admiration.  He wore a bow tie and his double chin spilled slightly over it. There was something about his clownishness that made me angry.

“Okay Moms. It's time for you to step away and let us begin,” Khensa said.

“If Valley can do it, you can do it,” Mom whispered.

After the chatter of well wishes, the chute lights went on and the mothers retreated to the gallery.

            The black glass doors were silently lowered in front of the chutes. We would not be judged numerically, but in a random order generated by holodesk. It was the second randomization of the day. Our initial chute placements were chosen blindly. This would weed out any remaining possibility of advantage. No girl would unfairly have the burden of having a longer anxiety-producing wait than any other. If she were first or last it would all be a matter of chance, not of favoritism. What would the elimination of the girl in chute 18 mean? It was one less competitor so the competition would be easier for us than it had been in previous years. The Winnowing was already beginning to be tainted with unfairness, and if it our chances weren't equal how could any victory be taken seriously? It would be unfair, illegitimate, a reason to forever doubt the status that would be bestowed upon the Winnowed.

            My chute was so dark I had to make noise to reassure myself I hadn't gone unconscious. I shook the skirt of my gown to hear the hissing sound that the chiffon emitted and stamped my heels on the floor. Despite my training, I had already begun to panic. In the last month, Coach Cavellette had had me stand in an unlit closet to prepare for the waiting that got to so many girls and undermined their chances at success no matter how well they scored on the H-TAPs or how much coaching they had.

            I took a series of deep breaths and imagined the dark air swirling through me, extinguishing the fear. “Think of your body as just a set of springs, only muscles and tissue in various degrees of contraction. You control the tension. Make yourself loose.” Coach Cavellette had said. 

            I lay on my back and took more deep breaths.

            The chute door suddenly flew up so fast that I didn't have time to stand.

            “Sorry to disturb your nap,” Khensa said. The holo of her head magnified a few times so that I could see the deep tranches under eyes. It shimmered against the dimness of the arena.

            “Should we come back later?” Razzela asked.

            “I was mentally preparing, not napping,” I answered.

            “Kinda late, doncha think?” Davin asked.

            “It was a medit—” I started to explain, but Khensa held up her hand to silence me.

            At that, the judges scribbled something on the cards in front of them.

            “Let's start with your H-TAP scores. Overall they were good, but you seem to have some trouble—er—actually quite a bit of trouble with computational organizing. Why?” asked Rened.

            “I do fine when I'm given a project that requires it. My ability is contextual. I mean in this area…in this one area.”

            The first holoknife dropped.

            Coach Cavellette had warned me about this. The judges would create distractions, throw us curves. They could come in the form of grating sounds or chute-specific earthquakes or visual challenges. A rain of knives made of light, with one real knife mixed in that the contestant had to dodge wasn't uncommon and Coach and I had worked up a strategy to combat it.

            The holoknives began to drop furiously, shards of light that illuminated my chute with a merciless glare. 

I closed my eyes and backed into a wall of my chute. I remembered Coach saying Lithe beats the scythe; slim saves the limb, and I pressed my body against the wall so that I was the wispiest target I could be for the real knife.

Lithe beats the scythe; slim saves the limb.

            “Excuse me, but did you say ‘context specific,'” Razzela asked.

            I opened my eyes a sliver and shielded them against the blazing light with my hand. 

            Confidence. Confidence. Confidence. You're going to feel like a specimen under a microscope—one that disgusts its lookers, Coach had said. Stay strong and unapologetic.

            “That's right. When I did my SimCorp training and had to create my hiring rotation I had no problem with computational organizing,” I answered.

            Another deluge of holoknives fell around me. When they landed on the floor they looked like dead fish in the seconds before they disappeared.

            “That may be all very well, but a Winnowed girl doesn't only perform when she's in the right circumstances; she's at her best no matter the setting she finds herself in,” Davin said.

            “I—” was all I got out before my voice was choked by pain. The knife stuck in the reinforced satin of my pump for a second, wobbled, and then fell over. I hadn't turned out my feet out—a blunder, an idiotic oversight a girl with no coaching might have made. I squeezed my eyes shut to lock away my tears.         

            I kicked the knife away and a bolt of pain shot up my leg.

            “Wrong context?” Khensa asked.

            The judges tittered.

Then they paused for a moment and Khensa began:

“As you know, creativity is critical for anyone hoping to be Winnowed. We've reviewed your creativity measures on your H-TAPs, and we see that you developed a strategy for selling a new module of Skillucate that teaches girls how to care for elderly family members.  It was well thought out, but really, not very creative. I mean anyone could have come up with it. Let's see you take another…er…stab…at showing us that you have some creativity to offer.”

            The judges smiled.

            A holoscreen dropped down in front of me. It had four pictorial options: water purifier, package holiday in the mountains, sport utility vehicle, and energy drink.

            “Well, what's it going to be?” Razzela asked.

            “Water purifier,” I answered.

            The pictures of the other three products faded away and the water purifier was blown up so that it was larger than me. It was a single translucent blue cylinder with five clear corkscrew filters at the top that the water flowed through. At the bottom was a console on which a report of all of the contaminants filtered out flashed after any water passed through the filters.   

            “I want a creative name for this product. There are tons of water filters on the market. How are you going to name this one so that it stands out?”

            A holotablet dropped down next to the holo of the water purifier.

            “Five minutes,” Khensa said.

            I began writing with my finger on the tablet. “Water, Agua, Crystalline, Clear, Fresh, Ocean, Artesian, Springs, Drink.”

            Then it came to me.

            “Drink Shrink. Let's call it Drink Shrink. We can tell potential buyers that their water is heavy… laden with contaminants and this will shrink it…Remove the pollution for water slim with purity.”

            The judges smiled and wrote something on their cards.

            I felt a ripple of delight. I didn't like that I got a thrill from pleasing authority, and I could imagine Samine rolling her eyes or laughing at me, but this uncomfortable pleasure still sat in me like a gallstone.   

            “Not bad,” Brantha said. “Now let's try building creative bridges. You know about them, right?”

            “Of course.”

            A holo of a pile of aquamarine capsules and a plastic bottle that had
“Zinchera” written on it appeared before me. Then the product summary materialized: Zinchera reduces urination by a third by converting excess urination into a electrolyte-stimulation fluid that makes the user more alert while slashing the time in the bathroom.

            Then a holo of a group of middle-aged men and women dropped alongside it. Some were in workout gear, others wore business suits, and two women were in evening gowns. “Craffing Homes Residents,” read a banner beneath them.

            “Give us the bridge,” Brantha said.

A neon frame appeared around the holotablet to remind me that it was there and a row of question marks linked the holo of the product to its audience.

            The bridge came to me quickly.

            “Relief from relief. Less time in the bathroom more time in your life. Zinchera for those with full, active lives. Full life, not a full bladder.”

            Rened pulled his lips down in a frown, before smiling. Khensa looked down at the judges and they looked at each other. They wrote on their judge's cards at exactly the same time as if they knew instinctively when to pass judgment. Emilon took the longest and when she put down her pen the words “Holophone upgrade” appeared before me. The product description under it read: “Must-have holophone 10. This groundbreaking upgrade utilizes parametric technology to give users a setting that makes them the only ones who can hear the phone buzz and it automatically mutes anything they say into the phone to the people around them. Now you can have private conversations in the busiest rooms!”

            The holo of the target market spread out against the wall of my chute with hundreds of smiling men and women in business suits. The women's were the color of confections: bright pinks and purples, luxurious blues and sherbet-oranges. “Sorrell University Faculty” they were labeled.

            “Build us a bridge between product and target market,” Davin said.

            Why would Sorrell U faculty need this? Tough, tough, tough.

            “Sorrel U….Sorrell U faculty could use this for…for so many reasons. Suppose Professor A needed to talk to Professor B about a student. They could do it in private. And then, security. Security, for sure. If a predator was on campus and faculty needed to talk about him or her in secret. Quiet communication is essential for the university setting. Silent sound for those with the most to say. ”

            Another holo dropped halfway, but disappeared before I could make out what it depicted. The floor began heating up. I could feel the soles of my feet warming and the beginning of sweat under my arms. Then the heat started coming in scalding blasts from the walls and the ceiling, until I was in a cage of invisible fire.

            “That's all for now,” Khensa said.

            “Bon voyage. Looks like you're off to the tropics,” Davin said, getting a laugh from the judges.

            The heat on the floor dissipated as the heat from the ceiling came down in a more concentrated shaft above me. I moved to the left and the blast followed me. I lay down on the ground hoping that the heat would stay concentrated and the now-cool of the floor would balance out the burning, but then the floor began to warm.

Sweat collected around the cinched waste of my dress. I stood up and tried to take deep breaths, but the heat burned my nose and throat.

             Then the climate turned frigid, as cold air filled my chute. My ears began to throb. My nose ran and when I wiped it with my hand the wet streak it left nearly froze. I hugged myself tight, but the cold transformed into pain until I couldn't tell which actually froze me. I ripped off the top layer of chiffon from my skirt and wrapped it across my face and around my head. Then I tore off the second and third layers and wrapped them around my arms. I squatted down and squeezed my bare hands between my legs.

            Only a few strips of white at the heel remained on my now reddened shoe and I felt dizzy. My back started to ache, but I stayed like that until the back door or my chute lifted and Mom appeared in a whoosh of heat.

            She smiled and when I didn't smile back said, “You're not going take this personally are you? It's all part of the Winnowing, and I have the distinct feeling that I'm going to be looking at an empty house soon.” She put her arm around me and pulled me close to her.  My head fell on her shoulder and she tilted her head down so it lay on mine.

            Mom needed to help me walk, so I leaned into her and we made our way up the chute and back into the lobby.

            The shuttle was only a one-way ride, so Mom, me and about ten other girls and mothers made their way back to the main road. I wasn't the only one limping.  A few girls were covered in powder, one had part of her hair singed off, and two had bursts of paint on their gowns.

            As we left we saw the girl from Chute 18. She lay asleep on the concrete bib in front of the entrance. Her mother frantically checked her watch and paced in a small square around her. I could feel Mom's body straightening, her head lifting and her shoulder rising so that my head was forced up. She stayed like this until we were out of their view.

 

 

 

 

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