He stood on a thick woven mat made of long, sharp edged reeds dyed in a complex pattern of blue, black, and the natural tan color of the plant's fibers. The interlacing lines and angles held meaning, tried to speak, to send an impulse, an idea, from the floor, crawling up his tattooed legs like tiny iridescent beetles, but he couldn't quite remember now what they were trying to say. He leaned over and coughed hard, spitting at the dirt floor, then stood and looked at the averted eyes of his advocate. They were black and hard above a jaw set firm. The advocate must have caught the pleading stare, because his head jerked away like a snarl, or maybe he did snarl, and he went back to mixing the mash under a heavy pestle.
He doesn't want to grow attached, the man thought, so he turned away and let his advocate be. He wasn't sure why, but he wanted to make this easier for his advuka. They both had a job to do, and they may as well do it without complaint.
He closed his eyes and listened to the mush, mush, mush sound of stone on stone, feeling the gentle sting of salt burn the corners of his eyes. It wouldn't be long now, and this would all be over. He would rest then. He would rest.
“Habuchi,” said the advuka. “Open your mouth. You need not open your eyes.”
He let his jaw drop and parted his lips, and felt the warm mash pressed onto his tongue. It was surprisingly sweet, almost good, like taro and fig, but not. He swallowed and felt a rushing tingle in his throat and a warmth filled his belly. Then the young apprentice priest pushed another wad of the mix past his lips and he swallowed again. The warmth spread.
Within moments his muscles began to numb, first his forearms, then his calves and legs. He took another mouthful, gratefully this time, and felt the letting go; the parting, it's called. He remembered that. That's odd, I should be forgetting by now. The parting should make me forget. At least he had been certain it would, it was meant to ease the way. But his mind was clear, it was his body that swayed in forgetfulness.
Eagerly he groped for another bite, and the advuka gave it, reluctantly this time, without looking up, then put the bowl down and stepped away as though he were ashamed of something. What, mercy? Was that his shame?
Before the thought had time to form fully, rough hands grabbed him about the shoulders and began wrestling him forward. He stumbled as though drunken, without control, and he fought to bring his body around, but it stubbornly ignored his commands. His painted guards were passive though, their bright red tattoo swirls masking blank stares as they dumbly pushed him toward a low opening in the stone wall, toward a maw of darkened fate. He tried to shake his head to clear the blasphemous thought, but found he'd been denied even that bit of merciful control, yet his mind remained stubbornly fresh. Fate, fate and doom. Chosen.
He didn't feel chosen. He felt cold, he felt betrayed. But mostly he felt fear, like a spirit tickle in a magic place, when the hands of past and future press in, grabbing at the present with greedy, grubby fingers. That kind of fear. He knew what lay ahead. His hope lay only in the parting, and he stumbled forward on ignorant feet, waiting for the blessed release. When would it kick in?
He wanted to ask, but his tongue was thick with pride, and dignity held sway under calloused hands that chafed his naked skin. They didn't have to grab so roughly, he thought as he tripped over the stone lip of the threshold and fell into the dark. Pulled upright by grimacing guards, he began to shiver lightly as an invisible wall of bracing night air raised the thin mat of fine hairs across his back in tiny waves. A warm glow from the ready chamber fell about his feet as his toes sunk into the luxuriously thick grass carpeting the meadow ahead. Odd, he thought, that clambering feet haven't worn smooth a lifeless path. That life thrives at all in this place, where so many have lost theirs.
Two lines of white stones gleamed in the moonlight on either side like dim eyes, buried in the grass at intervals marking the way ahead, and, half dragged, half of his own, he tottered along between them. His limbs were growing heavy and thick, and he stumped along dragging useless branches where his arms should be, though he could feel the prickling cold in them clearly.
High above hung the Grand Tapestry of stars in a glittering stripe across the night sky, spinning The People's tale from time outside of time, punctuated by the first full moon of autumn that burned a frigid blue. He could see it intermittently as he was jerked forward again and again, and his head lolled back on its useless neck, sending slivers of pain shooting down his shoulders and spine. Where was the promised parting? He shouldn't be feeling anything by now. That was the promise made, a thousand years past, that the chosen would go in peace, without fear, without distress, free of the world's cares.
It had always been so. He knew, for he'd stood at the window in his family's clöchet each autumn evening, as a small boy, at the designated hour, though his father forbade it, listening for the scream he feared would come, until the silence soothed his trembling heart and he crawled back under his bearskin and fell asleep. The parting eased the passing.
He thought of those nights again, with each stabbing pain, and with each shiver of cold, and took comfort in the memory. Relief would come. Relief would come.
In the middle of the meadow, his guards heaved him onto a low stone dais and shoved him forward, his knees almost buckling with the push. The stone beneath his feet was laced with inlaid silver in intricate glyphs radiating outward in great arcs to spill over into the night. The cold metal glinted in the moonlight as he toppled forward, barely catching himself bent double over the naked priest in his ornate chair at the center. The priest grunted and glared, his eyes like obsidian, reflecting nothing but the malevolent night. There was no pity there.
He steadied himself against the chair, his chest and belly heaving in and out with the strain, but he couldn't calm. His heart raced, and the dark pools of the priest's empty eyes sent gnawing fear through his brain. Still he felt all, still he remembered, still he knew.
The priest reached up with a filthy heavily tattooed hand and grabbed him around the jaw, digging ragged, dirty nails into the flesh of his cheeks as sweat burst like desperation from his forehead. He wrenched his head from one side to the other, looking him over like a hog in market, in what? Disgust? Finally the priest shoved his face to the side and scoffed, a quiet burst of air from the back of the throat, and he gasped with the pain. He tried to raise his head in pride, to own the moment, though it was chosen for him, but his body wouldn't respond. He wanted to look again into the old man's eyes, to say, I am here, I am real, I am me. He didn't understand this pain, the growing pressure in his body and in his mind. And each moment brought agony anew.
Glittering in dewy diamonds, he looked under heavy brows at the priest, willing some connection, but the priest only stared into the darkness of the thick pine forest beyond the grass, not meeting his frantic gaze. His back throbbed with bent strain, and the cold air began biting in earnest, as he gulped for breath, terrified and confused.
Then just a flutter, a quick glance from the priest whose lips curved into a brief, twisted smile – unmasked and unmitigated pleasure – and suddenly he knew. Like falling through the lake's ice, plunging into the frigid, dead waters below, he knew. The parting is not for the chosen. It's not meant to ease the passing, to numb the body and inure the mind.
The parting is for the priest, to ease his way, to make the chosen passive, unable to struggle against the will of Ăku, and Ăpi, and Ăvet, the holy ones who call. He will find no aid here. He will feel all. He will know it as it's done.
The realization made him gasp sharply, and the priest chuckled, turning to face him at last.
Panic seized his shattered mind, and hot tears burst from the corner of his eyes, spilling onto the priest's painted chest. The priest grabbed him by his braided black hair and pulled his head upright, looking him in the eyes.
“Speak!” the priest roared.
“Am...” he gasped, trying to find footing in his turbulent thoughts, to make sense of a broken world. “Am... I not valued? My sacrifice?” He paused, tasting the saline slipping between his cracking lips. “Am I not wanted?” he said.
A deep, rumbling, slow laugh echoed from the priest across the clearing, and a hundred tiny bone charms rattled at his chest, like chattering yellow scarabs, like a warning come too late. When he fell quiet, the priest stared past him again, leering, his lips parted in a sneer, and his mind suddenly broke like a wave against the immutable shore as the priest let go of his hair and his chin hit his chest. So this is terror, he thought.
“Tell me,” he begged. “Tell me that I'm wanted!”
His whole body shook in desperation. What is all this? Does the sacrifice mean nothing? But there was no hope in the priest, only salacious amusement that one low as he dared look for meaning, dared to desire worth. His burning eyes flitted to the guards standing behind, but there was nothing there for him, only stayed power and control awaiting the gods' command.
Like a cornered animal, he tried to pull away, to run, to hide, to escape this unreal madness. But his limbs would not respond, and he stood rooted to the stone at his feet. His eyes darted back and forth, and his heart pounded in his chest so loudly he could hear it like a drumbeat, like the circle of prayer. Everything spun, and nothing made sense, but somewhere in the rage he noticed with surreal clarity a small glyph below his bulging belly, a wave pattern indicating water beneath a tiny oblong ovoid, topped by a bird; a raven perhaps. Somehow this detail calmed him, said to him, it's okay to give up, and he did, slumping forward. He liked ravens.
As he fell, guards raced forward, locking his arms at his back and pulling him up, and the priest slipped his grimy fingers into his braids, pulling his head upright again. For a moment they just looked at one another, each as empty as the next. Then, without warning, the priest snarled, yanking his head back hard and sinking jagged yellow teeth deep into the flesh of his neck. Blood, black in the moonlight, oozed violently around the priest's open mouth, like living rage.
His eyes screamed into the night as the priest bit deeper, tearing through his flesh, and an agony like none he'd known burned his brain with terror and pain. Then, in one quick motion, the priest twisted hard, ripping out his throat, his arteries and windpipe hanging in chunks from the priest's bloody lips.
Hot steaming life sprayed the stone, the chair, and the priest, and the world spun out of control. The priest spit his warm flesh at the ground, then let go of his hair, and he slumped against the priest's gleaming shoulder, slipping down the priest's chest and belly, his head finally coming to rest in the priest's rancid lap. As his life pulsed from his limp body he saw the dark streak it painted like battle grease down the priest's right side, a wide, black swath holding everything he'd known, a memory in every drop.
Then the world went dark, and he opened his eyes.
He wakes panting against sheets damp with sweat, and he twists violently against them before his eyes clear and he can see the room. Early morning light filters through the open door and he can smell coffee brewing, so he knows it must be nearly seven a.m. Ugh. It was just a dream. Just a dream.
He forces his body to calm, slowing his breathing, feeling the pounding of his heart lessen against the bed. He closes his eyes and shakes the cobwebs from his mind, then opens them again and looks at the ceiling.
My name is Walter. It's 2025. I did not die.
He repeats it like a mantra, several times, My name is Walter, It's 2025, I did not die, until his conscious mind begins to believe. Then he takes a deep breath, letting it out in a shallow sigh as he swings his legs over the edge of the bed and sits. That was one helluva nightmare!
He buries his toes in the deep carpeting of his bedroom and pulls his feet back sharply, remembering the feel of the thick grass so strongly he can almost smell it. But, no, it's only the coffee, so he forces himself out of bed with a long stretch and a yawn.
“Lights,” he says, and the room slowly fills with a soft cool light, reflected from panels in the ceiling overhead.
“Alarm off,” he says, then walks stiffly through the bathroom door. The bathroom floods with the same cool light, brightening slowly as his eyes adjust to the day, and he aimlessly picks up a thin tablet on the counter and taps the screen, bringing the interface to life. Then he taps several icons, setting his day in motion. The shower comes on as he rinses his mouth with a swig of dental cleanser, then he taps the sink faucet and says, “cool,” and a stream of cool water spills into the basin. He fills his hands and splashes the liquid on his feverish face several times, rubbing his cheeks as though he might physically rub out the dream, then he grabs blindly at a hand towel hanging on the wall and wipes himself dry.
A soft but insistent beeping fills the room, followed by a female voice that says, “The office.”
“Phone,” he says, then after a pause, “Yes?”
“Good morning.” The voice of a coworker just louder than the shower comes from everywhere at once.
“Morning, Gerald, it's a bit early for phone calls, isn't it?”
“A bit, yes,” Gerald laughs. “But Hammond wanted me to call you and see if you could come in a half hour early today to meet with the rep from HydraCell. What should I tell him?”
After a heavy sigh, he says, “Sure, you know I'll be there.”
“No problem,” he says. “End call.”
He strips off his shorts and steps through the shower door into the warm stream. Fifteen minutes later he's dressed and standing in his living room, sipping a cup of rejuvenating coffee, looking out his 25th floor wall of glass over the Seattle skyline at a dense blanket of fog hanging among the taller buildings as the sun begins to burn the night away.
He stands there quietly for a long moment, then drains the last sip from his mug and sets it in the kitchen sink.
“Lockdown,” he says as he steps out the door, smiling to himself when he hears the familiar click of the door locking and the apartment shutting down. It's a silly command, he knows, but he's fond of classic science fiction, and lockdown reminds him of his favorite show. Then he steps to the elevator and waits to drop into the city and walk into his day. It's gonna be a good one. Hopefully.
A squat stone temple stood at the edge of the forest, still deep in shadow, though the sky was already glowing with the pale blue light of dawn. The rough-cut stones of the eastern wall were just contemplating morning, giving the structure a thin frame, the depth of daylight.
Thick plank doors were drawn closed at the cardinal directions, one on each side, and a hulking, heavily tattooed guard stood with crossed arms before each of them, lest anyone think to disturb the filthy priest inside. A thin trail of white smoke rose from a hole in the roof at the northwest corner, rising straight for thirty feet, then cutting hard to the west in a light breeze coming off the mountain. Nothing else disturbed the peace. The village folk still slept, as they always did the morning after the culling of flesh.
Ostensibly, it was a festival. But no one ever felt like rubbing the loss in the noses of the chosen's family and friends. And really, weren't they all family and friends? There were only around six hundred people in the village, and everyone knew who everyone was climbing the mountain with, as the saying went.
Of course, there had been the final feasting before the chosen was taken to the ready chamber to prepare for the passing. Most usually put on a show of faith for the priest, and the visiting dükua, but that year no dükua had come, and the priest had noticed several families were missing members. A bad sign, and one the priest thought he should remedy soon. Lax observance of ritual almost always leads to loss of faith and backsliding, as he well knew. He'd survived one rebellion already in his unusually long life, and he didn't plan on being caught in another.
But that could wait, he thought, as the smell of roasting meat filled his flaring nostrils from the firehouse in the corner. He bent over the altar and scraped the last bits of flesh from the large strip of skin pinned to the surface. He wiped the skin down with a mixture of ash and saliva, then applied an herbal wash specially made for the occasion. Then he pulled the pins and flipped the whole thing over, re-pinning it at the corners.
He'd already removed the thin hair fibers with a harsh acid wash made from the bark of a local shrub, and now, singing lightly to himself as he worked, he washed the hairless surface with a bleaching solvent to clear the skin, leaving a perfectly tattooed, but otherwise bare, parchment.
While the skin dried, he pulled two ribs free from the meat over the coals and gnawed them clean, then wiped his greasy lips on his arm. A dark crimson streak caked the right side of his chest and abdomen, and his right thigh gleamed in the firelight, still damp. He took a long drink from a pot hanging on a hook against the wall, then turned back to his work. Gently, he rubbed the skin down with fox oil infused with rosemary, kneading the oil carefully into each section of the skin. When he finished, he stoppered the small clay oil-pot and set it back in its cubbyhole in the wall behind the altar. Then he turned to the readied parchment and waited.
Nothing happened for several minutes. But after nearly five hundred years of sacrifices, he had the timing down, and he waited patiently, knowing it would come. He closed his eyes, cleared his mind, and envisioned the Dark River flowing from the temple walls and down his arms, through his hands, held open, palms down, above the skin, until he could almost see it. Almost. He began chanting quietly, in the ancient tongue, a simple rhyme that laced in on itself, beginning slyly anew with every few lines, so that it might go on forever and never find its end.
And then it happened; part of the black tattoo began to shift, like milk in a hot cup, like smoke from a pipe. It strained beneath the porous surface, curling in and out, spreading across to engulf the skin, working its way down to the altar surface, pooling beneath until the tattoo had disappeared entirely and a thin puddle of ink wet the stone.
Then, slowly, an almost imperceptible thread of ink leaped up into the skin, like a thin lock of black hair whirled by the wind, and a light script began to fade across the parchment. In the ancient language, words formed sentences, until all the ink was gone, and dark black lettering cut the skin's surface in harsh relief.
The priest smiled, baring a mouth full of blackened, sickly, bloodstained teeth, and lowered his hands, letting the Dark River recede. Then he opened his eyes and read the first message:
My name is Walter. It's 2025. I did not die.
The priest laughed aloud, and took another rib from the fire, and began to eat.
____________________________________Walter, a short story by Gary Lee Parker - Copyright © 2012 All rights reserved