Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: short story

Ariel’s Story #10 – Attack

     The army proved easy to acquire.
     The first to join me was a young man with a fire in his eyes. He called himself Barnaby and told me he had often wondered about the Man pushing the Bride down.
     “But whenever I thought to bring it up,” he told me, “the elders and teachers would push me down.”
     “Why would they do that?” I asked.
     “They didn’t believe me. They said I was being rebellious to even suggest such a thing.”
     “But did you not point to the Man? Could they not, even from shore, see clearly that the Bride is being abused and the Man is not who they think he is?”
     Barnaby shook his head. “They said that perhaps the Man was disciplining the Bride for some sin. And they would allow no further conversation on the point. They brought it to an end and have since watched me with dark eyes.”
     And those dark eyes began to rest upon me as well as I tried spreading my suspicions that the Bride had been taken by someone who was not the Husband. More than once I was taken aside and rebuked by one of the elders. Gently at first, but firmly. After a time I was forced to carry on my recruiting under cover of darkness.
     The atmosphere seemed ripe, though. For I encountered many who had wondered about the Man as I had. I even took a chance and stole into other sections of the cistern to recruit brothers who lived beyond the other gates. We began meeting with one another at night and in any gate that seemed empty at the time. Emotions ran high as our numbers swelled. Each new addition brought stories similar to the one Barnaby told. We were united despite our different backgrounds. We grew into a formidable force. We became ready.
     We planned to attack at midday. Each of us from the section we associated with would, in unison, stride into the cistern and lay hold of the Man by force. And, by force, we would tear him from the Bride and drag him from the cistern and cast him without. And, should he not be cast, we would drown him in the end.
     The day was bright and hot. The sky was cloudless and dry. It was the perfect day for the attack. We rose early, said our prayers, and took to the water.
     It was a glorious sight, I think. All of us from our different traditions and following the Bride under different signs. United in the goal to bring down the Man and his oppression. Those who stayed behind got to their feet to watch, looks of uncertainty upon their faces.
     “Ho there!” called an elder from my group. I did not turn back.
     “Wait!” called a leader from another.
     “Where in the bloody hell do you think you’re going?”
     The voices grew agitated and angry as we approached the Man with murder in our eyes. They were spiced with fear and anger.
     We arrived.
     The Bride was as I had seen her last. Eyes mostly closed. Barely breathing. In a pathetic state of near-death.
     The Man looked at us, bored.
     “You are not the first,” he whispered. His voice was like velvet, dark and soft.
     “You will leave this place,” I said, setting myself up as the leader of the army.
     “No,” he said.
     “We will make you leave.” Shouts of agreement rose around me.
     “You will not.”
     We attacked.
     As I lay hands upon him I could feel my strength ebb. It was like grasping an icy rock, so cold that it saps your power as it digs deep into your bones. From the looks on the faces of my army it seemed they felt something similar.
     But no matter! I thought. We are many and he is but one. “Together!” I cried out. And they yelled a battle call. And we pulled on the Man. We tugged at his arm and we tugged at his head. Some beat upon his face and some tried diving under the water to trip up his feet.
     It was like pulling on granite. Icy, rigid granite.
     “Your friends are coming,” the Man whispered to me as I tried to gouge out his eyes.
     I turned and my heart died within me. My brothers were coming. As were the faithful of every section of the cistern. They wore masks of anger, but their fury was not directed at the Man, evil and powerful. They were directed at us.
     They fell upon us with sticks and books and flesh. The Man shook and we fell from him. And, thus, we were driven out of the cistern. And they pursued us through the park and down the roads. Into the buildings and out of the gates. Up into trees and down into ditches. And we were scattered and alone.
     I found a place beside a dumpster behind one of the high-rises. I was alone. I was weakened. I wept.

Three Farmers

     Three farmers, hard and thorough and in love with their land. They lived close to each other, surrounding a crystal pond where fish splashed and frogs grunted. Theirs were the largest and most fruitful fields in the region, it was said. Farmer Bob grew all manner of vegetables. His carrots were as large as a man’s arm. His tomatoes nearly burst with juicy tenderness. And his potatoes were so perfect as to be meals in themselves. No one could ever complain about his vegetables.
     Farmer Joe, living in the field next door, grew grapes. And what grapes! Massive purple grapes that quivered with juice, so heavy on the vine that they nearly brought the fences down each year. Brilliant green grapes without a drop of sour. Shiny red grapes that made a man despair of eating any grapes but these. And the wine that was produced from all these grapes was responsible for most of the best parties in the region.
     Farmer Tom was the last farmer surrounding that crystal pond. His fields were full to the bursting with the most beautiful, yellow grain. The heads of his grain were massive and weighed the whole stalks down by the time harvest would come around. Every health-conscious mother in the region would only buy bread made from his grain and every serious-minded drinker would only buy beer made from his barley.
     Farmer Bob, of course, counted his own crops as the proper crops befitting a farmer. For without vegetables who could live in any kind of health? Farmer Joe, of course, counted his grapes as the most fitting crops for a true farmer to grow. Because without the sweetness of fruit and wine, what reason can there be to live? And, of course, Farmer Tom decided that grains were the kind of crop a farmer ought to cultivate. For bread and beer go together to make a circle of well-being. Being neighbours, they would often consult each other on these topics and visit each other to try and win the other to their side. They would go to Bob’s house to feast on his vegetables, which they all had to admit, were very fine. They would sup at Joe’s house and enjoy his merry-making wines. And they would eat at Tom’s house, having full measure of bread and beers. And so they continued, disagreeing, feasting and benefitting the village.
     In the course of time, things changed, as things are wont to do. And one of the farmers, I cannot remember which, realized a startling truth. Each farm drew, as the life-source of all its crops, from the crystal pond. The crystal pond that each farm touched. And a devilish thought crept in that first farmer’s head: “I have need only to reach out my hand and hinder the flow of water and their crops would begin to suffer! And then the ignorant townsfolk would see how frail the crops of my neighbour are and, in contrast, how hardy my own are!” And, walking with that thought, he hindered the flow into his neighbour’s field. And so the crop suffered.
     On the very same day another of the three farmers was walking through town and saw the townspeople buying wares. A rather large family was buying a great deal of a crop that was not grown in his field. He frowned and said unto himself, “If only they were not so ignorant as I, then they would see how very inferior the things they are buying truly are.” With that thought in his head he found for himself an empty box of soap and, standing upon it, raised his voice and, in language unbecoming of an honest farmer, began to deride and insult the crops of his neighbour. Thus his neighbour’s sales fell sharply.
     The third farmer, on that very same day, was out spraying for bugs along his crop. He looked over the fence to his neighbours yard and thought thus unto himself: “This chemical I spray is fine and good for my crop, but I imagine it would be lethal to these inferior plants of my neighbours. Here, if I were to simply cross the fence and spray a bit here and there, I would severely harm his growth.” And, with that violent thought, he did just so. And many of his neighbour’s plants died.
     A field lay without water. Another steeped in poison. Another becoming a byword in the village. Disagreement in horticultural procedures turned into malice. And not longer were there vegetable feasts at Bob’s house. No more wine was drunk in Joe’s house. No more bread and beer were consumed at Tom’s house. And the farms suffered, as the farmers only spoke to each other in derision. And the crops suffered from the constant attacks of the other tenders of crop. And the village suffered, for they were swayed this way and that. And the vegetables grew small and runty. The wine turned sour and stale. The bread and beer became common and base. And, lo, the fields turned fallow and the music left the town. For the good honest farmers, each toiling under the same sun, sought to tear their neighbour’s efforts down rather than build up their own.

Ariel’s Story #9 – Fisticuffs

     I was dumbfounded. Have you ever considered the depth of that word? Dumb and confounded. That was me. Fully. I stood there in the increasingly cold, nasty water and stared. Something fell apart in my mind, but I could not think of what it was. It was like my entire understanding of how everything good worked turned out to be broken. For here was the Husband and here was the Bride. Combined they were the foundation of everything right and good and happy. And something was horribly wrong.
     I could not hold her mouth above water for long, and the Man’s strength overcame me and she sunk back into the water. Her eyelids began to sink again, like the look of a girl fighting sleep. Sleep won and she closed them. The Man looked at me without turning his head. Just barely a glance. As if only to let me know he saw me there, but was still choosing to ignore me.
     “Ho, there, Man,” I said. “What is the meaning of all this?”
     He did not look at me.
     “I say, what means all this? Why are you treating your bride so? I had heard you freed her, but now it seems she is your captive!”
     He spared me not a glance. I realized speaking with him was useless. It almost seemed that there was no life in him at all. And an ill realization took hold on me.
     This is not the husband of Sume el Raj. An impostor. A kidnapper.
     My heart sank into a hasty sort of anger. The anger felt pure. And maybe it was. I balled my hands into fists and set myself to fight against the man.
     I lunged forward and struck him in the jaw. My fist crumpled against him and I heard a crack as one of the bones in my hand broke. I yelled and fell to my knees in the pain, getting dirty up to my neck.
     I was so angry. Burning, red and black anger. So angry at this false husband of a man and the pain he had inflicted on me and Sume that I hardly noticed him place another hand on my head and push me lower into the water. I struggled and sputtered against him as the water entered my mouth and nose. I was able to get out, but not before swallowing more than a few mouthfuls of the grime.
     I stood a few paces off, wary of the insidious man who had so fully captured Sume and nearly me with her. I looked into his eyes and saw nothing. I looked into Sume’s eyes and saw that sleepy pleading. But I was not the one to save her.
     I came back to the shore, covered in grime. And there was, of course, no water to wash it off. My brethren were waking and doing their morning ablutions. It suddenly sickened me to watch them bath and drink that filth, though I myself was covered in it. I took my place among them, and starting following them in the morning wash, for it was the tradition of our group to do it. But something was wrong in the back of my head. Something that wondered why I was doing these things, while Sume was stuck out there in the dirt.
     Something must be done.
     But the man was so strong. So very, very strong. I looked down at my hand. It was purple and swelling. Throbbing in that way the cartoon cat’s hand throbs when the mouse whacks it with a mallet. But it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t funny at all.
     Can’t do it alone. I’d need help. I’d need …
     I looked at the people around me. Blessed lovers of the bride and husband. Blessed brothers and sisters who had devoted themselves to truth, yet washing themselves in lies.
     … an army.

Ariel’s Story #8 – Captive

     I did not understand him at first. And once I understood, I refused to believe. But his words forced me to look closer and I saw that it was no small object the man held in the water. It was a head. I strained my eyes and could see that Sume (yes, I recognized her) was submerged in the fetid pool up to her nostrils. Her eyes were barely open, seeming to collapse on themselves with fatigue.
     “What the fu-”
     “Would you like to be a part of her?” the man was asking. “Would you like to join with the Husband and be a part of the blessed Bride, lovely and free? I can show you how.”
     “Show me how? But, she’s trapped, can’t you see?”
     “Whatever do you mean?”
     “Why, I mean that man there. He’s holding her head under the water!”
     The man smiled. It was a smile without mirth and as full of condescension as the pool was full of filth. “I suppose to your eyes it may seem that way. But that is how the Husband shows his love to Sume. What do you think it would be like if the Bride just ran about, galavanting around like some harlot? He controls and restrains her because of the love he has for her.”
     “But why does he need to do that? I thought … I mean. I was at the dinner. I saw her cleaned!”
     “Indeed, she is clean. Would you like to join her?”
     I looked out over the filthy pool. Sorrow pierced me. For Sume was far from clean. Only the crown of her head was unsullied from the water. I was sad because I had once seen her so clean and happy. I was sad because I had once seen her so free. I was sad because I had never thought the Husband would restrain her in such an unnatural way. I was sad because the pool was a dirty as ever. I was sad, finally, because it looked as though Sume offered nothing new. Just the same filth that this pool had always offered.
     I knelt, at the bidding of the man with me, as he led me in a prayer tethering myself to the Husband out there in the water. I could not think of anything else to do.

     I did not sleep that night. The moon was bright and high in the sky. It illumined everything but cast no reflection on the pool, as it was too dirty to relfect anything. All it did was consume, it seemed. It consumed the light from the moon and turned it into filth.
     I gazed out from my place by the water. I stared at the Man and his Wife. I think I wept a little. There he stood, staring at nothing, it seemed, holding that beautiful woman under the water. Why? What had she done? I felt a burning urge inside of me. I had to know.
     As silently as I could, I slipped into the water. It’s oily coldness made me shiver and a few of my companions stirred. I slowly strode out toward the center of the pool, the water reaching up to my waist. I was afraid that the ripples I was making would alert the Man of my approach (I did not wish to talk to him) but he paid me no mind. As I came close I found myself wondering if he were blind or deaf, as he never shifted his gaze.
     I was close enough to touch, now. I bent down and spoke to Sume.
     “Ho, can you hear me?”
     Her eyes flitted open and she turned them on me. Those blessed green eyes. I remembered seeing them so full of love and wildness and passion. Now they were nearly asleep.
     “What happened to you?” I asked her. She struggled. I thought she was trying to say something. I placed my hand on the hand that was holding her in the water. It was ice cold and strong. I tried to lift it. It was like moving a rock. But together I was able to give her another inch and her mouth, filthy as it was, rose above the surface. She was able to utter two words before the Man’s strength pushed her back into the pool.
     “Save me.”

Ariel’s Story #7 – The Pool

     I came to the park. I was surprised to see how much had changed. And doubly surprised to feel how much had remained the same.
     The grass around the pool was cleaner by far. There were uniformed men and women with bags going around and collecting the garbage. Other uniformed men and women carried sticks, which they used to encourage the homeless to move along and not make trouble (or a mess). Because of their efforts the area had a crisp, clean look to it. The people were well dressed, if a little subdued. It made it more comfortable, truth be told. It’s hard to engage in meaningful spiritual duties while unfortunates are distracting you with their temporal problems.
     But while the park had certainly changed, the pool itself, at first look, seemed the same. The gates still surrounded the stairs down to the water. Though above the archways, new symbols had been carved in. I found the one of bread and descended.
     I was not alone. The gate of bread seemed to be the entrance for many devotees. As I went down and saw the pool clearly I became confused. The water, for one, seemed just as dirty as it had the last time I was there. The smell, even, was nearly the same. And in the centre of the pool stood a man, holding something in the water with his right hand. He moved and shook the water with his left, and it seemed he sent different types of ripples to each section of shore.
     I drew close to the water. It was the water that was important for me. I touched it and, alas, it was the exact same oily, useless stuff of before. I looked out to the man holding that thing in the water and wondered.
     I tried cleaning my hand off, on the ground and walked back up the stairs to the park. I found a tree and sat beneath it.
     A man passed by who had the look of a fellow with wisdom.
     “Sir,” I called out to him, “please, where is the fountain?”
     “Why, it’s right here my son.” He pointed back to the cistern.
     “But I was just there, and the water is as foul as it has ever been.” I held up my hand to show him the oil stain. “I was told that Sume and her husband had done away with its filth and built a clean fountain. Why is it still here? But even that is not the most important thing in my mind in this moment. I only want to see Sume. And, if at all possible, her husband. Can you help me?”
     He cocked his head to the side. “Dear son. You can most certainly meet the bride and husband. But you must be part of one before you can meet the other. The fountain is fresh and clear, in truth. But you must approach it from the right direction.”
     “All this I was told by a man in town. And I entered the way he bid. The way of bread.”
     He had a look of utmost sorrow and pity. “My son, I fear that man was a deceiver sent by the enemy. That is not the right gate. Enter with me by the way of the Fish. The fish, you see, is the oldest symbol of the bride and her husband. From that direction the water will be clear and crystal to you. And you shall clearly see both the bride and husband.”
     I was about to object at this point, for it made no sense that approaching a place from the south rather than the west would have any impact on the nature of the place itself. But then I recalled that this dream was very much like an allegorical fantasy story. And in fanstasy stories strange things may happen. So I took his outstretched (oily) hand and walked with him to the fish gate.
     For a moment, as we descended, the sun reflected on the surface of the water in a way that made it seem clear. But it was only a moment. And the stench washed over me again and the pool was as dirty as ever. The man who held my hand did not seem to notice this. And he smiled as if showing me something difference from what I had seen through the Bread gate.
     “Not only is the water clear and holy,” he said, “but also you can clearly see the bride and husband there in the centre of it all.” He pointed to the man, still stirring the pool and holding something in the water with his right hand.
     “That man there is the husband?”
     “Of course.”
     “But I see only him. Where is Sume? Where is the bride?”
     His eyes judged me as I asked. I thought he wouldn’t answer. But he did, eventually. “Can you not see her? He lovingly holds her in his right hand.”

Ariel’s Story #6 – Return

     You cannot notice how foolish a smile looks when you first see it. But think, for a moment, and picture a smile in your mind’s eye. The lips are pulled tightly back and up, intruding on the cheeks. The eyes are wide. The teeth show forth in a manner not so dissimilar to a snarl. It is strange, when you dwell on it. Almost grotesque.
     But those are things you never notice. For when you see someone smile you find a similar smile is forced upon you. And with that smile comes those motions of joy that cry down your ever self-conscious reason and say “Hush now! I’ll not allow your base inhibitions and arbitrary judgements stand in the way of this joy I feel! You say I am silly? Foolish? Those words have no meaning to be now that I am in the throes of joy. So stand back while I pull tight these muscles in my face and show my teeth to the world. For I am happy and all is right.”
     And so at the feast I did not notice the sweaty, red-faced foolishness in the smiles of my peers. I did not notice the many chunks of food stuck in the mouths and beards of those who ate with me. For we were all happy. We rejoiced in the Bride and in her Husband and we felt, with a calm, violent certainty, that a new age of light and love was being ushered in. An age in which the fetid pool would be drained and done away with. An age in which all the buildings would be cleaned and opened for all to dwell together in peace and love and laughter. An age to end the ages. An age after which nothing could follow, for if things are ever truly and completely made right there can be nothing left in the cosmos to set them wrong.
     And so, with my head flung back in laughter at some happy jest I’ll never remember, I was pulled out from my dream and found myself alone and awake in bed.
     It hurt to be pulled from such a happy dream, I don’t mind telling you. And I tried, as we all do, to fall back asleep to pick up the dream where I left off. But that never works, as we all know. And so I rose and entered the grey world.

     It was many years before I slept again.

     I knew at once where I was. It was the air that gave it away. The air in that place is thinner than ours. But not thin in the same high altitudes are thin. More like the quality of being ethereal. But I cannot convey it rightly.
     I stood by the gate and nostalgia washed over me. There were the apartments. There was the road. There were the people walking to and fro, just as I recalled. Though, not quite as I recalled. There were many more people than before. Indeed, I was tempted to call the place a town, though the word seemed to die in my mind, as though it did not belong.
     But though I could not call it a town, it seemed to have grown many of the trappings that come with the success of urbanization. For one, there were police. Police are easy to spot no matter what culture you are in or what uniform they wear. It’s the way they look at the people around them. A look that searches. A look that tests to see where you are deviant and whether that deviancy is enough to make you delinquent.
     For another, there were ads pasted in every place ads could be pasted. Everywhere from large billboards up on the sides of the high-rises to the smaller posters pasted to the side of construction walls. And, wonder of wonders, each and every one of them was themed after that wonderful girl and amazing moment so long ago: Sume el Raj.
     I imagined that much more time had passed in Isht Drowl than it had in my world. This was not very surprising, really, because I had read many a fantasy novel and knew that sort of thing was to be expected. And since I had already adjusted to this idea I took as my next task the examination of what great blessings her crowning and ruling power had given to the town.
     I stopped a man working in the street. He greeted me with a smile so wild I thought it must be fake. But, of course, that was wrong of me. For this was the land of Sume, and there was no reason for me to doubt the sincerity of the good fellow.
     “Excuse me, sir,” I said, “but I’ve been away for a very long time and I am wondering where I could find Sume el Raj. And, perhaps, if he is still here, her husband.”
     “Both Sume and her beloved are still in town,” he said. “But you’ll need to meet the one before you can become part of the other. Do you know the fountain in the centre of the park?”
     “Fountain? No. I remember only a broken, fetid cistern there.”
     “Ah, but that was before the marriage, no? Today that cistern has been taken down and a glorious fountain has been erected in its place, kept pure for those who enter on Sume’s terms.”
     “A fountain?! How wonderful! Thank you, sir, I’ll go to it immediately. Will Sume be there?”
     “Aye, she’s there. But take care you enter by the right gate. The gate with the true symbol of Sume on it.”
     I paused. “What symbol is that?”
     “The bread, of course. Symbolic of the bread of life the beloved gave to Sume. And that she now gives to us. Godspeed to you!”
     And so I went.

Ariel’s Story #5 – Seeping In

var addthis_pub=”4a0af351783743a8″;    Arrangements were made under the strictest security. Each sack of fine flour was thoroughly searched. The oil and honey was tasted. Even the gold and precious stones that made up Sume’s jewelry was tested, both for impurities and for anything of the Shadow. The Man spared no expense as he ensured that everything he lavished on his new bride was good.
    Sume el Raj stood in front of her building, no longer a vagrant. Her building stood firm and tall, full of tenants and overflowing with declarations of wealth. Not the gaudy golden-paint that Domos had favoured. But deep, vibrant colours; red and purple and blue. Colours that declared “Someone important lives here! Someone of consequence! Someone remarkable!”
    And as she stood there in front of all the people of the village she knew that it was true. There were none before her who would dare call her common. The week before they may have kicked at her and sent her away, but today they were all begging her to visit their buildings and huts. Encouraging her to come through their arch as she made her way to the cistern.
    Thick blankets were laid out on the lawn. Food was laid out. Not the decadent food of Domos and her daughters, for certain things were now forbidden to Sume. But rich food, nonetheless; honeycakes baked in oil and finest wine anyone had tasted. Everyone sat and ate. The village became Sume’s guests.
    Sume sat to eat with them, but she did not touch the wine. Though married for only a week, she could already feel the life growing within her. And the Man had warned about wine during pregnancy. He had given many warnings, actually.
    “Remember Domos, your sister,” the Man had said. “Remember what her sickness was. Her wealth did not corrupt her. It was her decadence. Beware prosperous ease. Share what you have. Be a friend to the nations and bless them.”
    “Yes, husband,” Sume had answered, gazing at the Man’s dark hair, lightly falling to his shoulders.
    “And take note of your older sister, Marasia,” he continued. “She plays the whore. And that is a dangerous game to play. The sickness can be horribly inflamed in that lifestyle.”
    “Yes, husband.” Sume was nearly lost in his voice, deep and smooth, playing off of the dancing rhythm of the fountain they sat beside.
    “And, Sume,” the Man took her chin gently in his large hand. “Stay away from the cistern.” His eyes seemed sad on this point. “Be vigilant and watch! Let nothing defile the food I give you. Be satisfied with my provision.”
    Sume laughed and embraced the Man. “Oh husband! Why would I ever go near that dirty cistern when you have given me this fountain? Why would I ever eat anything but the food from your hands? You have given me the moon in a jar! How cold I even imagine anything else?”
    The Man squeezed her tight. “Yes. How could you?” Sume did not see his eyes moisten.

    They were feasting. The Corpse perceived this, though it didn’t see or hear or smell. Neither could it touch or taste or think. But it perceived. It lay in the bushes just beyond the fence. It had tried to enter Sume’s property, but the Man’s guards were everywhere. The same ones that had destroyed Domos and her daughters.
    The Corpse lay still for hours, which should not have been too difficult for a corpse. But the lack of movement caused the borrowed body to decay quicker than expected. It had little movement left. But only a little was needed, when the time became right.
    And it would be right.

    In my dream I also received an invitation to the feast. In truth I was not looking forward to it. I had been in that village for a long time without a proper shower or change of clothes. And I still didn’t feel soiled enough to take a dip in the cistern. So I rubbed some pine leaves on myself and combed my hair with my fingers. I was actually thankful that there was no mirror available. The sight of myself might have been enough to stop me from going.
    “Don’t worry about how you look,” Digue said to me. He hadn’t bothered to even try grooming himself. “You wouldn’t have cared if you were meeting Sume a week ago.”
    “It’s different now,” I said.
    “She’s el Raj now. She’s special.”
    Digue shrugged. “In a way. In another way, though, she’s not special at all.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “Her specialness lies outside of herself. Its root is in the Man.”
    “Ah,” I said. “But surely there must be something inherently special about her. Otherwise, why would the Man have chosen her at all.”
    “Nope,” Digue shook his head. “There was nothing special in her. The Man’s love found its way to her arbitrarily.”
    “That doesn’t seem fair, then. There are many orphans in this village. Why her, if not because there was something special about her?”
    “Certain types of love are always arbitrary.” Digue stood up. “But it doesn’t matter. Let’s get going. I can smell the food from here.”
    We walked together toward Sume’s building. Even before we could see the massive picnic we could here it, smell it. Excitement rose. I was so excited that I didn’t even notice, as we passed a large bush and walked through the gate, the little splash of dark, red liquid that was spat at my foot. I didn’t notice it come from the bushes we walked by. I didn’t notice the dead body there, perceiving.
    I went and joined the feast.
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Ariel’s Story #4 – A Wedding and a Funeral

    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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Ariel’s Story #3 – Domos and her daughters

   Even though my stomach churned I couldn’t pull my eyes away as the grubby, fat girl continued to spew the contents of her stomach over the table. She seemed to have an unnatural amount of vomit available. Every piece of food was tainted by the time she finished.
   With a harsh choking sound she took her soiled hand from her mouth, brushed her hair back and rubbed the tears from her eyes. She stared at the crowd, winked, farted and walked away, laughing.
   “Well,” I said to myself, “you don’t see something like that everyday.”
   “No,” said the man beside me. “But most days.”
   “Does she never share with the crowd?”
   “Never. Sometimes she calls young girls to come in and become her daughters. But they are never seen again.” He looked down to the ground, kicked at a stone, put his hands in his pockets and slowly turned to walk away. The others in the crowd followed suit.
   The sky darkened. Thunder crashed. Lightning followed after. It rained.
   The downpour was torrential. It made me think of gaudy words that always look ugly on a page or screen like copious, plenteous and superabundant. I was soaked to the bone in seconds.
   Lightening and thunder flashed together. I was about to run to shelter when I caught a glimpse of the lobby doors. The girl, Domos, was standing there, waving to me. Beckoning me to come in, out of the rain.
   I struggled past the razor-wire fence, slicing my leg a little, and came to her door. It was locked. The rain fell painfully hard.
   “You wanna come in?” Domos yelled, pressing her oily face against the glass. She grinned wildly, exposing sharp, elongated eyeteeth. “It’s raining. You might get wet.”
   “Yes, I suppose I might.” I was shivering. “I’d love to come in, if I may.”
   “And if you may not?”
   “If you may not. Would you still want to come in if you may not?”
   I blinked. “I’m not sure I understand.”
   She glared at me. Smiled. Frowned. Rubbed her face on the door, making a hefty streak. “Screw off.” She turned her back to me, tried to jump and click her heels and sauntered off.
   I walked from the door, knowing that no amount of running would make me any drier, and began searching for a dry place to stay.
   Night seemed to fall.

   The three figures in black cared little for the rain. It beaded and slid off their oiled jerkins, hoods and bare arms. Crouched beneath the shrub by the door they waited and watched. Silent. Angry. Armed.
The Stranger and Domos talked very briefly at the door. Domos, in her characteristic way, had enticed him and told him to push off. He wandered in the rain now. Domos was inside. Safe, she thought.
Without sound or signal the three moved in unison to the door. The leader took a vial with a dropper out of a pouch at his belt. He squeezed the liquid into the door-lock. A silent hiss and puff of smoke and the door was unlocked. They went in, crouched, hands on hilts.
   Ignoring the elevator they sped to the right, down the hall through a door at the end and up the stairwell.
   There was no need to talk as they raced silently up the stairs. Their legs pumped like well-oiled pistons. Their eyes, under their hoods, blazed brightly, full of life. Their hands stayed at the ready. Merciless. Hard. Uncompromising.
   They reached the penthouse. Out of his pouch the leader took a tiny mirror. Placing it near the bottom of the door he peered into the room. Satisfied, he put his mirror away, pulled something small and round from his pouch and put his hand on the doorknob. The other assassins crouched at the ready. Hands firm on their hilts. Positioned to burst through the door as soon as it was open.
   With the kind of speed only a predator could possess he pushed the door open and flung the flame-pellet to the ground. With a violent flash and burst of sound it exploded, scattering flaming particles to every part of the room.
   They worked fast.
   Domos was crouching over the corpse of a girl a little younger than herself, her teeth embedded in her throat. She didn’t even have time to turn before a blade removed her head from her body.
   Particles of flame began to settle and land, igniting the room.
   Bodies upon bodies were strewn around. The daughters of Domos. None decomposing. Quickly the assassins went to each and decapitated them.
   The flames crawled and began to lick at the stone walls, setting even them ablaze.
   Though there were hundreds of bodies the assassins worked fast. As the fire became an inferno they finished and sped out the door they can come in and down the stairs. Everything in the penthouse was reduced to ash and salt.

   The rain had already stopped when I noticed the fire. Like a lighthouse beacon it blazed in the clear night, sending heat from the very top of the building down to where I was standing. A crowd gathered around Domos’ building. Three men in black jerkins stood just outside the door. One was setting a sign up in front of the door. Another was clearing away the razor wire. I read the sign:

Behold, this was the guilt of Domos: She and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. So I removed them. For further details see paragraph 8 of section 16 of article 26 in the Code. Peace be upon you all.

The fire burned through the entire night. Its smoke never did cease.

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Ariel’s Story #2 – Three Sisters

I fell asleep again, after a heavy dinner of spiced lentils and rice. I dreamed.
Again I was in Isht Drowl.
The desert was not so arid anymore. Sparse patches of grass had popped up in random places. The tumbleweed tumbled now, kicking up dust as they went. It was still a desert, but not such an unbearable one as it had been before.
I wandered. The dunes became smaller as the hours drained by. The loose sand gave way to hard-packed dirt. Sparse patches of grass and tumbleweed were replaced by harsh-looking thorny bushes and small trees. A bird sounded.
I turned to the right to see the bird, sitting on the lower of a young neem tree. An ugly, ragged thing with a longer tail than most. It looked at me with dark, dead-looking eyes. It opened its mouth sang to me; the most beautiful bird call I had ever heard. For a full five minutes I stared at it while it sang, an ugly creature with the voice of an angel.
Abruptly it stopped. It cocked its head to the side and took off in the direction I had been headed. Following it with my eyes, I suddenly saw a village where, I was sure, there had not been one before. Thoughts of the bird vanished. I needed water.
The village was large, but primitive. Its bramble walls were high. The wooden gate was ancient, but secure. And open. I walked in.
The paved street was the first thing to catch my attention. It seemed out of place, what with the peasants walking down it, struggling under bundles of laundry, wood and water pots. High-rise apartments (that I hadn’t noticed before) stood guard beside the street, every window bare. Every light off.
Traffic began to pick up. Donkey and ox carts lumbered up and down the street. They stopped at driveways, dropping things off. Picking things up. Junk, mostly. Insipid food. Bad art. Shaky furniture. Children ran in the street, dressed in heavy outfits, despite the hot sun.
I walked south down the street. Listened to the sounds. Screams. Action.
The high-rise on the right looked old. The owner sat outside the lobby, on the floor with her many daughters. She looked familiar.
“Marasia?” I called.
She jumped to her feet, showing herself to be almost naked, her oily body glistening in the sun. “Oi! Yes! Is that you, lover?”
I took a step toward her, noticing splotches of white on her dark skin. Vitiligo? Something else?. “Um, no. I think you are confusing me with someone else.”
She laughed. A single, moist chuckle. “I don’t think so.” She took two lazy steps forward. “I know a lover when I see one.” She bent down to brush a piece of straw off her bare foot, tilting her head back at the same time so as to give me a full view of what, I realized by now, she was offering. “Won’t you come in?” She said when she had straightened.
“Ah, well. Um, no. I don’t think so,” I stammered.
“Come, come,” she approached closer. “My rates are fair. Better than what you’d get with either of my sisters.”
I took a step back. “Honestly, I’m not in the market for…er…what you’re selling. Sorry.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Renting, honey,” she said, her voice sizzling. “Never for sale, only for rent.” She turned and walked away, her swaying hips calling out her offer one last time.
I continued south, leaving Marasia sitting with her scantily-clad children.
The next building on the right was dilapidated. I think I saw a homeless girl sitting in the lobby. Young. Alone. Clean, though. I past it by.
The third building was massive and more gaudy than any I had seen before. Golden flamingos stood still over the lawn, so many that the grass suffered for want of sunlight. The building was painted in rainbows, with gold and silver added to the mix of colours. A crowd huddled just off the property limits, kept back by a fence of razor-wire.
I could see a girl sitting in the lobby at a massive oak table, ruined by the gold paint splattered over it. The table was weighed down with every kind of food I could imagine.
A large bowl of saffron sat, turned over, at the corner of the table. Half of its contents were scattered on the filthy floor. Beside it a pile of Macadamia nuts was dispersed all over the table. The chubby girl would sometimes pick one up, suck on it for a moment, and then spit it out on the floor. A plate piled high with an odd mixture of almas caviar and white truffle sat close to her right hand. Her large arm would occasionally bump it and send some of the rich food flying. Piles and piles of wealthy food covered the table. Some I couldn’t identify. Some beginning to rot. None of them getting the attention they seemed to deserve.
The fat child wiped her chin with a dirty forearm and dug her teeth into some KFC.
“Who is this?” I asked out-loud.
“Domos,” a voice to my right said. “Youngest of the three sisters.”
“Is this her building?” I turned to the man who was speaking to me, a scruffy fellow with ragged clothes.
“Aye,” he said, “It’s all hers. Her rent is high and she cares little for the tenants.”
“Are you a tenant?”
He laughed, a wheezing dry laugh without mirth. “No, no. I could never afford it. No I live on these fair streets. I come by her doors only to wait for when she puts her garbage out.” He patted his belly, small as it was.
As if she had heard, Domos suddenly looked up. A malicious sneer twisted her pudgy mouth. After giving the hungry crowd an obscene gesture she stood, put her fingers down her throat, and force vomited over the entire table.

Part 1

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