Ariel’s Story #4 – A Wedding and a Funeral

by MW Cook

    You wouldn’t be able to notice unless someone pointed them out to you.  Everything seemed vague in the burnt-out penthouse.  Nothing was fully recognizable.  Most furniture had been reduced to piles of ash; the bodies, made of much softer stuff, just blended away amid the debris.  The layers of fat that Domos had been storing all her years had added to the fire consuming her.  You’d never think that the pile of ash in the southern corner was once her; that it once had life and even a small spark of God within it.
    The blazing fire had reduced Domos to what she really was, in and of herself.  Without the spark of life she disintegrated into the inanimate pile of ash and shadow.  Nothing good.  Nothing original.  Nothing fundamentally different from a burnt chair or table.
    Something stirred, though nothing moved.  A shadow.  A flicker.  You’d never notice if it hadn’t been pointed out to you.  A darkness lifted off the pile.  A shadow.  A tinge of black that seemed to seep out like tea seeping from a bag.  It grew and spread, faint and hardly noticeable.  Searching.  Reaching.  Almost yearning, but never truly desiring.
    It spread across the penthouse, brushing the charred remains of the lives it had consumed.  It grew as is spread, sucking shadow from every body it floated by, taking back what it had given to the daughters of Domos.  Taking back the taint, the curse.  Leaving empty shells behind.
    Under a large pile of ash it found what it was looking for; a body.
    Somewhat protected by the ashes of its sisters, the headless corpse lay burnt but intact on the floor.  The Shadow centered on it, gathered its tendrils and poured itself in.
    The arm moved.

    I woke on the third day of my time in the village.  The smoke from the top of Domos’ building still rose.  I supposed it always would.
    I got up quickly.  Shaking my limbs awake as I walked, I went toward the cistern in the middle of the park to wash and drink.  It was already hot.  The air glistened above the paved paths that connected the street to the cistern in the center of the park.  Villagers and children wandered around, mopping their brows with dirty rags.
    The cistern was crowded, like always.  But it was also massive, so the crowd didn’t matter so much.  Countless archways opened the way to the cistern, each doorless and tall.  Each painted a different color but fundamentally the same.  The arches were not separated, and you could easily access the cistern from any side once in any arch.  The matte, dark water rippled thickly.  It looked lower today than the day before.  I didn’t think that mattered, what with the many selfless souls arriving daily to pour their own water in.
    I walked through one of the arches, a red one, I think, and went down the stairs to get to the water.  It was crowded, but not overtly.  At the water a few people bathed.  Some washed clothes.  Others drank.  I crouched and cupped my hands.  The water was warm to the touch.  Translucent.  The first morning I had been bothered by its filth.  But since the entire village seemed to rely on it for their drinking and washing I assumed there was nothing fundamentally wrong with it.
    I drank.  It was salty and a little fetid.  I had been told that I’d get used to it.  At least it didn’t kill me.  I took another handful and drank again, while the man beside me stripped and lowered himself in for a bath.  I myself had not bathed in it.  And I didn’t plan on it until my own bodily stench was at least equal to the smell coming from the cistern.
    A commotion to my right caught my attention.  A girl.  She looked homeless, wearing nothing but a single canvas rag.  Young; maybe in her teens.  She was crouched beside the pool in the same way I was, her empty hands cupped to take some of the water.  An old woman was yelling at her.
    “Oi!  Back up!  Out of here!” the old woman had raised her hand to strike.
    “Thirsty…” the girl whispered, touching her throat, eyes down.
    “Not here!  Not here!  You quench your illegitimate gullet somewhere else!  Not through this arch!  Scat!”  She slapped the girl’s face to punctuate her words.
    The girl stood, not fully upright, clutched at her rag and ran up the stairs, getting out of the same arch she had come in.  She tried to enter through the next one, only to be stopped by a strong man who acted as a guard.  She was able to get through the next, but the thick crowds on that side prevented her from getting to the water.  And on she went, from arch to arch, trying to get to the murky water.
    “Who is that?”
    “Sume.”  A voice to my left said.  I turned and saw Digue, another homeless man who had befriended me.  “Sume the illegitimate.  Sume the unloved.”
    “She looks familiar,” I said, still watching her.
    “Yes, you’ve seen her before.  She lives in the building between Marasia and Domos, may she rest in peace.  Sister to both.”
    “Oh!  Yes, I have seen here.  I believe I saw her when she was born.”
    “Aye, that you did.”  Digue crouched down beside the water but did not touch it.  “A hard start and a hard life.”  He stared at her with me, run off from every arch.  Alone.  Thirsty.  After a time she gave up and left.

    Sume stumbled in the streets, the soles of her feet burning on the pavement.  Her throat ached.  How long had it been since she had a drink?  A bath?  A piece of cloth with which to cover herself?
    She came to the building she had inherited.  Falling apart, empty.  The front door were missing.  Dry grass grew in the lobby.  She came inside.  Fell on the floor.  Lay still.
    She couldn’t cry – no water for tears.  She could hardly move; even when she heard the heavy footsteps behind her.  Drawing near.  More neighbors come to abuse her?
    “Sume,” a deep voice said.  A familiar voice.  “Sume, it’s time.”
    She tried to move.  Tried to will herself to look up at whoever was speaking.  But she couldn’t.
    She felt a hand on her back.  Soft.  Firm.  “I take you now.”
    Strong arms lifted her.  She was pressed against a warm body.  The man smelled of musk and myrrh.  She tried to look up into his face, but couldn’t.
    The man walked toward the elevators, which had never worked, and pressed the button.  The middle doors opened immediately, but not to an elevator.  An open park was spread out, green and lush.  Trees and flowers and birds lived and rejoiced in the cool, bright garden.  A fountain stood in the center, crystal water bubbling and dancing in the sunlight.  The man walked in.
    He took Sume’s rag away and threw it to the wind.  She saw it no more.  Gently he laid her in the fountain, under the water.  The waters surrounded her, pulled at her.  The blood and dirt was ripped off her body, leaving her skin pale and lush.  It tickled her and warmed and cooled her all at once.  from beneath the water she saw the face of the one who had carried her.  A man with a simple face and eyes as deep as eternity.  He wore a white robe that seemed to move against the wind.  His smile spoke of love, desire and joy.
    “Come out,” he commanded, holding out his hand for her.  She took it.
    He dried and dressed her.  Rich embroidered clothes.  The finest leather sandals.  Rings for her ears and for her nose.  A jewel for her forehead.  Bracelets and necklaces.  All beautiful.
    A crown appeared in his hand.  He spoke as he placed it on her head.
    “I make my covenant with you, Sume.  Your mother and your father abandoned you.  Your neighbors hated you.  From the day you were born you were cast off and unloved.  But I have loved you.
    “From before you were conceived I have loved you and decided to make you my wife.  Today I make my covenant with you.  You are mine and I will have no other.  You are mine and I will be always faithful to you.  I am strong and I am wise and no one will take you from my hand.  You are my wife, my beloved.  I give you this crown as a symbol and this fountain as a surety.  Drink deeply from it.  Bathe daily in it.
    “And from this day forth you are no longer Sume the illegitimate.  You are Sume el Raj, my wife.”
    The crown sparkled on her head.  A glorious smile transformed her face.  She clung to her husband and wept tears of joy.  And the Man sang over her a glad wedding song.

    In the bushes outside the lobby a headless corpse watched, perceived, waited.

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