We’d known it was coming for a long time. I was worried father wasn’t giving her enough tincture, that he was underdosing her. He said he’d been following the formula to the letter, it would just take time; he was right, I shouldn’t have doubted him.
My grandmother, Edna, was a strong and wilful woman, the matriarch of our family. Her flame-like hair had turned silver in her later years, but now was brittle and lifeless as the tincture took effect. Her skin a once rosy-red, now lifeless and gaunt. You could see in her sunken eyes that there was a recognition of what was happening. She didn’t beg, she didn’t cry, she didn’t resist.
I knew what was expected of me. I’d spent the past few weeks learning the ritual. To be honest, I’d been reading up on it since I was a child, just in case I was chosen. I knew that it was to be my time when I heard the thrice knock on the front door, the sun had set, and that meant only one thing. It was my knock, what distinguished me from my sister. It was as familiar to be as a name. The Herald was waiting for me in the street. He took my arm and led me into the field. I’d seen this ceremony from afar many times. Large torches burned like stars against the night sky. Up close, it was awe inspiring. I felt the heat and smelled the smoking sage.
I knelt in front of the headstone and waited. To an outsider the elk antlers would look a little strange placed on the head of my father, but to me it was a part of him. It gave him an aura that radiated majesty. The flames flickered on his face, turning his expression from one of humility to sinister and back again.
He recited the words he had so many times before, while the others punctuated the ritual with thrice claps, signifying these words for me and me alone. I held out my hand, I could see my fingers shake. My heart raced, knowing what was coming next, exhilaration and anxiety twixt together. I pinched my eyes shut as I felt the sharp blade puncture my veins. I needed to calm myself, as this was as much for me as it was for my grandmother. With each thump of my heart, I felt the blood gush forth, spraying the metal urn that sat below it. It reminded me of when I was younger and milked the cows.
The claps continued times three, counting down my blood-letting. For if I were worthy, and seen fit, the donation of my blood would be taken and I’d survive. Sparkles appeared in my vision; my mind turned hazy. I was too excited, it almost killed me. I saw the concern on my father’s face, though he didn’t intervene, he couldn’t. As the count rose to ten, my vision tunnelled. I was caught, as my body gave way. I could barely muster a scream, as my wound was cauterised with fire, it was only a whimper.
Still conscious, I was carried back to the house, and laid to bed. Grandmother tended to me, the best she could. She brought me food, and bathed me. And in return, she knelt next to the bed. Still too weak to do my duties, she helped me. She opened the small bottle of tincture, placed it in my hand. She held out her tongue and, while still grasping my hand, turned the bottle to let three drips soak into her tongue. She thanked me, replaced the bottle on the table, and left me to sleep.
As the days went on, I became stronger, and she became weaker. By the time I was able to get out of bed, she was in hers. My sister helped me pick her up and move her to the chair that sat in front of her sewing table. We brought in the leather hides and placed them in front of her. She was already rasping for breath; I was concerned it had taken me too long to recover and she’d not be able to finish her part of the ritual. I needn’t have been. The strength she showed leading our family for decades was still in there, as her body crumbled around her.
She cut the hides from memory, large and small patches, all elegantly shaped for one purpose and one purpose only. By hand she stitched the pieces together with a bone needle. Her fingertips bled from the work. She daubed her hands with cloth, the use of which became more frequent. After a week, by the time she finished, she had the appearance of a living corpse. I smiled at her, hoping to get one back, but whatever cheer she had left had long since gone.
It was five days before Valeday, when she was placed in the casket still breathing; they were shallow breaths, but they were there. It was now my time and mine alone. The door was locked, and it was my purpose to see her through, and to make sure she was prepared.
I consulted my list, and for the first time shuddered. I took my time to choose which thread I was going to use. I didn’t have a choice, there was only black. Even though I’d prepared myself for this, now the time had come, I didn’t want to be here. I wished I was with my family eating dinner, and my sister was in my place. Does that make me a bad person?
I wetted the end of the thread and poked it through the eye of the needle, feeling my anxiety grow. My hands shook again, but not from the impending pain I’d be experiencing, but from the pain I was about to put my grandmother through. I had to start with the mouth, that’s what the ritual said.
I stood over the casket, and waited to see if grandmother was still breathing. I wished that father had over done the formula on the tincture, I really wished for it. I saw her breaths, shallow and slow. I felt a sickness wash over me. My empty stomach prepared for such, there was nothing to purge.
“Please…” Grandmother said quietly.
My heart skipped a beat as she raised her hand to grasp my arm. With a strength I didn’t know she had left, she pulled me close. Her eyes opened slightly.
“Please… be… quick… be… precise.”
With that her grip relented.
I held her lips together with one hand. They didn’t feel like skin anymore, but the consistency of leather, like that she’d sewn. I peered at the needle in my right hand, the point wobbled from side to side frantically.
Precise. I heard my grandmother’s voice in my head reply.
I could see in her sunken eyes that there was a recognition of what was happening. She didn’t beg, she didn’t cry, she didn’t resist.
The first stitch was the worst. I’d not used a bone needle before, and I didn’t press as hard as I needed to, it resisted against her dehydrated flesh. After a forceful push, her lips relented. The bone needle came out the other side coated in blood.
The second stitch was easier. The thread pulled taught, covering the opening of her mouth. One by one I continued, the next stitch slightly behind the last, giving way to a cross-like pattern. When I finished, her mouth was bound. My sweaty fingers could feel the coldness of her breath from her nose.
I picked up the thinner needle, and threaded it quickly, not wanting to prolong this any more than necessary. I closed the eyelids on her left eye and didn’t hesitate, holding the skin up to ensure I didn’t puncture her eye beneath. The stitches here were smaller and closer together. As I finished her right eyelids, I stopped and took a step back. She had the appearance of a patchwork doll.
“I love you, grandma,” I said, and then held her nose shut.
I recited the lines of my ritual over and over again. They were a mantra for me, something to concentrate on, to take my mind elsewhere. For the first time, I understood their significance.
Her left hand began to twitch. My lips began to quiver. I tried my best to stay silent, for her sake. But I couldn’t stop the tears that began to tumble down my face. When her hand stilled, I staggered back and sat down on the bed, holding my hands to my eyes and sobbed.
I didn’t have time for self-indulgence. Through the open window, I could see the sun beginning to set. I had to finish before the light was gone. I returned to the casket, and picked up the leather coat she had made for herself. I pushed her upright, she was so light and skinny now, a ghost of her former self. I slipped her left hand in, and then her right, lying her back down in the casket.
On the table was a small silken bag, the ends of which were threadbare, after many years of use. I slipped this over her head. Then I tied the silken rope around her neck, making sure to pull it tight, as the ritual demanded. There were stitches on the front to mirror those which I’d already performed. Cross-like patterns across the eyes and mouth. I placed the wooden lid on top. I picked up the nails and drove them in, two in the east, two in the west, two in the south and two in the north. It was this that would signal to the others in the house that I was done.
I was to stay there for the night, to sleep in her bed, in her night clothes. And if she didn’t awaken, I’d done my job.
When I awoke, my mouth was parched. I’d not eaten or drunk in a day. I felt a hunger I’d never had before. I heard the knocks times three on the door, got up and unlocked it.
Father, the Herald and the heads of the other families were waiting. I let them in and watched as they carried the casket away. I followed them out into the street and to the field. In the early morning sun, I saw the grave dug next to the headstone. They lowered grandmother in using flax ropes. Behind them people with silken bags on their heads, tied to their necks, clapped their hands thrice.
Soil was thrown into the grave, and the claps continued. The ritual ended when my sister carried a metal urn and poured blood on top to seal it. She had been stirring it constantly for days to stop it coagulating.
We ate heartily that day. I was at the head of the table. I wore my father’s elk antlers and read from the ritual by heart. When a tear rolled down his cheek, I knew he was proud of me.
I was anxious for the next couple of days, awaiting Valeday. It was the culmination of everything I’d worked towards. I was scared I’d done something wrong, and it would be all my fault. Nothing prepares you for life, you have to take it as it comes and hope you do what is expected of you. And my own level of expectation was sky high.
On Valeday morn, father walked me to the barn. He said I should choose, that it was my right. I wasn’t looking forward to this. They huddled in the corners of their stables, quivering, it was as if they knew. There were six of them in total. Each one more sorry for itself than the last. It had to be a female, so that left just two. I was kind of glad, it made the decision easier. One had blond hair and the other red like flames. It was as if it were fate. It wasn’t my choice to make after all. There was only one right answer. I pointed, and she screamed. I wanted to turn away and run, but I couldn’t.
“It’s okay,” I said, creeping into the stable, “you’ll be free soon.”
I put my hand on her hair and began to stroke.
“What’s your name?” I asked, “shhh, it’s alright.”
I caressed her hair, waiting for her to speak.
“Erica,” she said.
“That’s a nice name. Take my hand.”
With trepidation she did.
I walked past my father and walked her back to the village and into my house.
“I just need to take you upstairs, okay?” I said, “I have a wonderful meal waiting for you.”
I placed her in grandmother’s bed.
“You get some sleep, and I’ll get you some food.”
She’d been trained so well, she did as she was told. I’d guess she was in her early twenties, but by the condition of her skin, you’d think she was in her forties. I wondered if she was part of the normal cattle, or if she’d been sourced when grandmother had pneumonia ten years earlier.
I went downstairs and to the kitchen. The glass of milk and meat meal was already prepared for me. I returned to see she had fallen asleep. I wondered how long it had been since she had slept in a real bed. A part of me knew it was wrong, what we were doing. I didn’t want to believe it. So I compromised and left her sleep for a while.
A thrice knock on the door made my heart sink. I cracked the door.
“What’s going on?” my father asked, I could hear the ire in his voice.
“I’m sorry, I let her sleep.”
“The sun is setting; do I have to remind you?”
“I’ll get it done,” I promised, and closed the door behind me.
“Erica,” I said, and she stirred.
My stomach lurched.
“I have your food.”
Her eyes became wide, seeing something she could have only dreamed of. She rushed over to the table, her gait twisted from years of sleeping in a stable.
She gulped the milk, picked up the meat with her hands and ripped a piece off. I sat on the bed and waited. I didn’t know how long it would take, but I’d know when.
She slowed, drank more milk and ate more meat. Then slower still, chewing the same piece of meat over and over until she fell.
Her body began to convulse. I picked her up and compressed her stomach, pushing over and over until the half-chewed meat landed on the floor in front of her. My face was flushed and my heart raced. I wondered what would’ve happened if she choked. It was only a mild sedative, to make her more conducive to the final ritual.
I didn’t need to lock the door. I left her there, in a forced sleep, in bed. It was probably kinder that way. All we had to do was wait for the caretaker to arrive. I’d never seen him before. I’d heard him knocking on the doors of other houses, but was told to stay in bed, that little girls who didn’t stay in bed would be taken by the caretaker. That was a little ironic now.
I trekked up to the top of the hill behind the fields, with my father, my sister, the Herald and the heads of the other families. They left their children behind in bed. The elk antlers weighed heavily on my head. I enjoyed being the centre of attention, but my neck pained me.
I recited the last words of the ritual as the sun set. I peered down at the torches that surrounded my grandmother’s grave site, they had the appearance of stars that had wandered out of the night sky and had gathered on the ground.
A boom rang out times three.
“Where am I looking?” I asked my father anxiously.
He pointed to the headstone.
I didn’t see him appear. My father told me how important it was to be so far away, that the caretaker could smell the living, and if we were closer, he might choose us instead.
It wasn’t until the he appeared under the street lighting that I saw him. A tall man in a leather coat, his head covered. He prowled the streets. Stopping first in front of our neighbour’s house, and banging on the door thrice.
Only a small child was present in there. I could feel his anxious dad behind me silently urge his son not to answer the door. The caretaker waited for an answer. When he received none, he walked on. His movement was stuttered and broken. He then stopped in front of our house and thumped on the door thrice.
I prayed I hadn’t over sedated her. My father had prepared the formula. I didn’t expect her to eat the food and drink the milk. He thumped again, bringing his head back as if to smell the air. She didn’t answer. It didn’t matter. He turned the handle and entered. I heard a sigh of relief from behind me. I turned to see it was my father. And for the first time, saw genuine emotion on his face, relief.
“We must close this circle,” he said, and everyone gathered in formation.
I didn’t know where to stand. In all my effort to learn my lines and my ritual, I’d completely forgotten out this part. Father saw the confusion on my face and showed me to my place. A clap times three rained out from the participants. Father said what he was destined to. That was my cue, and I said mine.
I slept in my own bed that evening for the first time in a while. My purpose had been fulfilled.
We ate as normal for breakfast and lunch, and grandmother’s room was kept locked. As the sun set, father donned the elk antlers and ascended the stairs. I waited downstairs with my sister. It felt like an eternity until father emerged. He held the hand of a girl, Erica. Her flame-like hair was vibrant, her skin bright and healthy. She beamed, her eyes wide and full of life.
Confused I stood and waited for them to arrive. Erica withdrew her hand from father’s and approached me.
“You did beautifully, child,” she said.
Her eyes appeared different. You can tell a lot from eyes. They say they are the portals of the soul.
“Grandma?” I asked.
She smiled and hugged me.
“Beautiful child,” she said.
I left home when I was twenty-six. I met a man. He’d broken down in the village. That’s what he told my father. I was asked to keep an eye on him while he waited for the recovery vehicle to arrive. I chased after him as he walked into the field.
“I know what you do here,” he said, staring at the headstone.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I replied.
“It’s a cult. You practise human sacrifice.”
When I didn’t respond, he didn’t push me.
“You see that barn over there?”
“I grew up in there. I was held captive for ten years. There was this woman, Edna. She was always nice to me. She visited me one night, and told me she was going to leave the stable unlocked. She said to me, it was my chance. That I was to leave under darkness and to head in the opposite direction of the torches. She said, please be quick, please be precise.”
I felt a feeling of dread wash over me.
“She said, if I go free, to come back for her granddaughter. She never gave me the time and date, so I didn’t know how to help even if I could. To be honest, I wasn’t even going to come. Something happened to me last night. I heard a knock at the door. Three slow knocks. She said it’s her granddaughter’s name. Is that your name?”
I was speechless.
“There’s nothing wrong with the car. If you want to come, I’ll wait for you, by the lode stones.”
He then turned and walked away. I watched as he got in his car and turned around and drove off.
I returned to the house.
“Has he gone?” my father asked.
“Do you mind if I check on the livestock at the barn?” I asked.
“Sure, I didn’t think you liked it though?”
“I should be doing more around here now, don’t you think?”
He smiled, stood up and took my hand.
“That’s my girl.”
I left the house with only the clothes on my back. I made for the barn, and found myself following the road out of town. The large lode stones came into view. I thought I was being silly. Then I saw the car idle. I watched as the barn drifted out of view, opened the car door. I didn’t look back as we drove away.
That was one year ago today. It took a while for me to believe what he’d told me. Carl was his name. Not his given name, but the name he’d given himself. It meant freedom he said and that I should give myself my own name. I’ve never had a name. He said I should tell my story. That it would help me. I’m not sure it will. I doubt anyone will believe what I’ve been through.
I do like the idea of having a name. I think I’ll choose Erica. So that I will never forget. Carl said we should go back. I don’t think I’m ready for that yet. He said there are others like us. He said there are people who should protect us from people like them, but they won’t listen. He said we should go back before they find us. He’s been preparing for months. He said we need to do it soon, be quick, and be precise.