“Shh,” Demet’s lips pressed against me. The face drew closer in the flamelight, and Alay was still sawing against the cutting board. The man’s eyes were sunken, his face painted with twin green stripes on each cheek—was that white paint too, covering forehead to forelegs smooth as skin, or was it simply skin?
The god of love! Demet’s breath steamed my cheek, shallow. “It’s a man dressed up. Isn’t it?”
We were jammed too close to the wall to see entirely. I leaned further towards the entranceway—let me not be seen, let me not be seen—scanned for the details. Furred loincloth. Alay’s cleaver descending, one more slice of bread. Muscles tensed in his chest. No hair—on his head two nubs, two newborn goat horns--this is not a man dressed up.
The idea of attack came as a shudder, and I thanked the supposed gods that my cousins weren't home. Ket and Sev were out playing stones by the river. I know the game well. I used to play with them sometimes, before I reached my fifteenth summer and Demet started coming round. More exciting things to do than throw rocks he said. Like spying.
The man’s fingers uncurled, flickered in light. I had to look away. Press my face to the wall and tell myself again the rules for stones.
This is how you play. My cousins dig and dig by the river until they’ve got a fat pile of small smooth rocks, two thirds dark and one third light. Sometimes they have to roll up their trousers and wade in, to the middle even, whatever it takes to get the right match. You can cheat a little, have a few more black or a few more pale, use a gray one for light or dark depending on the number, and it’s okay, because you won’t make it to the last round anyway. Always gather more than you need.
Demet shoved my shoulder. “Look!”
The god of love, sinews of arm reaching out, nearing Alay’s shoulder like Demet neared mine. Alay’s cleaver dropping, heavy clang. Hand connecting, sudden swivel of Alay’s neck, catch of breath, face away from me, Alay’s heavy black bun, my aunt facing the god of love, cheek stripes green as fungus, that bleached mask unblinking.
“Demet, will she tell him to go away?”
“You an idiot?”
“Shh! They might hear us.”
They stood still. If that thing had been looking at me I couldn’t have moved either. We couldn’t see Alay’s face, couldn’t see if she was scared. The thing’s hand started inching up her shoulder, lean hand leafed with veins, knobs for knuckles, if it hadn’t been so white--
Alay lunged—to kill?—her arms were on his body, rushed as mad animals, breathing loud enough to hear, grabbing. Hands flailing against his chest, face hurling at chalk shoulder, hands crawling, hands to fur loincloth--
Her look at last, more delight than terror--
God of love glancing past her shoulder, sudden dart of cold eyes into my eyes, pinned like cleaver to cutting board. Heart thrash, groin pulse. Gold-hacked eyes, twitch of mouth, nostrils dilating, pupils flaring, sensing everything. My breathing pausing, syncing to his. Weight in stomach leavening, nothing but that fragrant gaze grasping me. . .
When he stopped looking my stomach fell. Trees careened, knives skidded, belly became peat. He twined his hands across Alay’s backside. Leave her! Take me take me take me
“Eisa!” I had punched him. Demet. Hadn’t even known. Anything, anything in the way.
“Eisa, let’s get out of here!”
“You don’t know anything!”
“We’re getting out. Now.” His arm wrenched my waist. I kicked out as he lifted but only air was on my feet. He was dragging me away and my eyes stayed locked on the god of love, pinning Aunt Alay to the floor, until the wall swallowed them, and then locked on the wall, past trees and caves until I couldn’t see the wall anymore. My breath had been his, hadn’t it? His eyes in my scalp, surely hidden under the grime of mine?
Behind us, fading to transparency, sounds I’d never heard my parents make.
Demet carried me to the river and set me down roughly on the bank. “Stay there. Don’t move or I’ll hurt you. Promise?”
I felt faded already, and there were bruises on my ribcage from his hands. “OK, promise.”
“Now, tell me what happened back there.”
“Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it? The god of love came to Aunt Alay’s house while she was cutting bread and they started screwing on the floor. Apparently he exists. I thought they made up those things to scare citizens into submission.”
“You sure that was the god of love?” He cocked an eyebrow, made little horns on his head with his fingers, wiggled them around.
“Come on. You saw him. Those horns were real.”
“Does the god of love wear paint on his face?”
“OK, Eisa-who-knows-everything. What I really want to know is, what happened to you back there?”
“I saw it. Your eyes went strange. Tell me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
His eyes looked sore at me. “Fine.”
I didn’t know what had happened. There had been a feeling, but one I couldn’t hold on to. All that was left was an uncomfortable tingle crawling along my skin. I tried to scratch it but that only made my arm itch. The tingle didn’t change.
“Let’s walk,” he said, his hand on my forearm.
I followed him past a cluster of saplings to where my cousins sat with two piles of stones between them. This is how you play. Each takes out a dark stone and places it in front of the other. Of course he picks the biggest one, hoping to win. Each takes out two light stones and after reciting the starting rhyme together, smashes them against the dark. The first round is finished when a stone breaks. The second round, the winner takes a new stone and the loser keeps hitting at the old. It is won when all one player’s black stones are broken (the breaker wins), or when all one player’s white stones are broken (the breaker loses). Stones are hard things to break, and few have the patience to end the game.
We sat down a few paces from where my cousins knelt in stone dust, smashing. “Ha, won!” called Sev.
“Let me see the crack.”
Sev passed the stone. “Horns!” Ket swore. “You clean burnt a chunk off!”
“Pass me another rock now.”
They took up the starting rhyme, droning in unison:
Count three stones to mark each phase.
Two to prosper, one to break.
One in pieces must forsake.
Count three stones to keep the faith.
“Are you alright?” asked Demet as rocks rang against each other.
“Sure,” I said, one palm to the sky in hope to call down the memory, one palm to the ground in hope to erase it. There had been a tingle, hadn’t there? Somewhere watching my cousins play, it had forgotten itself.
Mother was the one to tell me Aunt Alay was pregnant. “We’re really hoping it’s a girl this time. Two boys are nice, solid sons to do the heavy lifting, but we need a woman to carry on the family line.” She patted her belly, which was flat as a grinding stone, and laughed.
“Why did you never try for another kid?” I asked.
“I was lucky. I got a girl the first time!”
“Plenty of women try for both.”
“I never wanted another kid. Don’t see the point in splitting my energy in half again.”
“Aunt Alay keeps splitting her energy each time she churns one out. But three ways is the sacred number, of course. How many lovers has she had by now?”
“Shush that talk!”
“Her darkphases are long, I believe. And she doesn’t always leave the settlement right when they start, and she’ll return before they’ve ended.”
“You wonder why I only had one kid? Because you have enough long tongue in you for three!”
I was only stating what had been repeated many times. But no one would acknowledge it. So many truths people won’t admit, I thought as I did so often.
Like the lightphases and the darkphase not being as equal as they're said to be. As a child you're whole, an unformed circle in the hands of the god of protection. As you and your desires grow you're divided. First come the changes in body, the voice becoming someone else's, for girls the monthly blood—the second lightphase, a third of the month now in thrall to the god of knowledge. You grow keener, more inward. Finally, once the new man or woman is settling in to their bones and allowed to hold a spear, the last third arises. You never know when it's coming, the god of love's darkness. You might be tracking a rock snake or lounging by the river singing say-songs with your friends. Wherever, your vision crisps. Muscles spring. You might catch a fish in the river with bare hands, strip the nearest priest, turn on your friends with teeth. All control falls away in spite of your will. Best to breathe into it. They'll send you away soon enough.
Each phase is said to last a third of the month, but I've seen people stay in the village while acting wild for quite some time. And the settlement has a few lightstayers, we all know it—Kepi who raises cattle, Som who hacks at rock to fashion dwellings. Heavy-moving folks, few moods, few interests. In my mother's age they would have been branded and sent away, but they are useful. They just aren't something people talk about.
Like the gods being inventions to keep the peace.
Only one had turned out to be real, hadn’t he?
I was too young to be allowed to watch the birth, of course, but I was among the girls and men who waited on the boulders outside to see the newly come. I heard the groans and human earthquake noises. But something was wrong. No one came out with news or a blanket squalling.
Finally my cousin Kalamun, ten years older than me and in charge, appeared at the door of the cave and looked panicked around the crowd. I was the oldest female relative among them.
“Shh, Eisa, we need you in here.” There was blood on her clothes and none to be seen in her face.
“Shhh,” she hissed. “Come.” She grabbed my hand and pulled me through.
I looked for Aunt Alay among the white-robed bodies. There were many pressed around her, but they parted as Kalamun approached. My aunt was lying on a thick mat on top of the central stone. I knew this from her position although the mat was covered in blood and blankets. Her face was hidden by something else wrapped up in the blankets in her arms. It was out then, so what was wrong? Everyone’s skin was too pale for things to be fine.
Kalamun and I were right next to her now, and could see how alike her own face was to a mask of bone. Wordlessly she turned the blanket. The child wasn’t crying but its eyes were blinking so it must be alive, but its skin was chalk. Weren't babies supposed to be redder? I’d never seen a child that had just come out. I scanned the features. Eyes a strange clouded milk, faintly yellowed. No hair on its forehead. Two tiny knobs.
“This child is cursed,” said Kalamun at full voice. “Look what’s on its head, see. The mark of the warped.”
“The thing’s got horns,” said a woman in a corner too far for my sight. A shudder swayed the bodies from her bluntness.
“Where did they come from? The husband must be cursed.” Someone else.
“The other two sons are beautiful. Not a thing wrong with them that I could see, no?”
“I should say not!”
Aunt Alay looked faint, grimaced, but I could see how hard she held the blanket. The corner woman went on. “Horns on head, a birth to dread, he’d best be dead.” It was a say-song, like the old rhyme that went with playing stones, but one I’d never heard. The pattern of three marked it as a stronger commandment. Some of the women were shuffling, looking to the floor. Meaning to burn holes in it with their eyes and burrow into them.
“Who will do the deed?” called Kalamun.
“Who will do the deed?” echoed another. I couldn't see who in all the turned-away faces. The echo grew thicker as voices trickled in and clotted together. “Who will do the deed? Who will do the deed?”
Oldest virgin's task to ween, send away what can't be seen, like a river wash us clean.
No no no no no no can't can't can't can't can't
Kalamun whirled brusquely, a dervish in bloodied white robes, her head shaved like all priest-midwives' so no hair would stray into the blood and it was plain to all that there was nothing on her forehead. She stopped and pointed. I tried to follow her bone-like finger away, but there was no away to go. It followed her unaverted gaze and led to me.
“You will do the deed.”
“You will do the deed,” the echo rose. Women's faces snapped up from the ground and burrowed their eyes into me. I tried to look past to the mother, to see if my aunt had any tears, if she was clutching that horrid infant any tighter, but the wall of women blocked me off.
They ensured we all dressed in white. They placed the square black hat on my head, the one with the veil so I could see what I was doing but not entirely and blood would be kept from my face. “For being blind.” They placed the heavy scarf over my shoulders, the one with embroidered knives bordering each end. “For being wise.” I'd only seen it from a distance before, and it dragged my shoulders down although I had to throw my chest back and my head up for standing in public attention. I worked on calming my ragged breaths. The designs didn't look so much like knives, more like blobs with tails. Evil sperm, I thought.
Once years ago, before her phasing and her priesthood, Kalamun had performed this role, standing with feet apart and eyes straight although afterwards she'd told me, the younger cousin too little to laugh, that she was scared. It had been different—Salat's child had been born between male and female, cursed but human, and its cry was horrid. I tried to think of Kalamun's courage as I stood on the raised stone stage, in front of the platform where the child would go. The curious had come to watch, which was most everyone: hunters, crop tenders, animal minders, food stockers, healers, priests and altar minders with their shaved heads and their leader with his shaved body, the singer who wore the lightest of fabrics so her throat would not get coarse. Demet, who was trying not to look at me. All the children, little ones in arms and tall ones who played stones and medium ones hiding behind their parents' legs. Little Sev and Ket with my mother, twitching and grinning at each other. The child was not their brother but a strange horrid thing to laugh at, an adventure to watch. Their father wasn't there. Some said he was on darkphase, but I wondered if he'd been thrown out after Aunt Alay gave birth to that thing. She, of course, was home with the youngest priest-midwife tending her, probably pouring sleeping teas into her mouth whenever she woke so she wouldn't hurt so much, wouldn't scream for the child.
An altar minder approached with two hollowed horns in hand. He clapped them together and the thud shushed all the talking. Kalamun walked behind him in her tall furred priest's cap. Two white streaks on each cheek. In one hand a stick spat yellow fire. Behind her, a younger midwife with a white blanket carried like a sack, her face wrinkled in disgust.
“The child,” said the altar minder loudly.
The young midwife pulled the coverings back from the child's face and held it up, its back to me, thank the gods. The watchers rustled and gasped in shock they clearly enjoyed. Some of the older ones chanted say-songs and fingered the chains around their wrists, as if superstitions would help. I wondered how the baby stayed so quiet.
The altar minder signaled to set the child down, and the midwife placed it onto the smooth stone platform. People stamped and whispered, then hushed as the horns clapped again. Kalamun stepped forward, held the flaming stick towards the crowd. Those at the front shrank back. Her stance was so straight it would make a dog stand still.
“Any reason for this child to not be outcast?” she addressed them.
The watchers were very still. “No!” hollered some men who'd been drinking too much, and one slurred “Send the thing away!”
“This child, born of the warped, is to be outcast. Eisa will do the deed.” Everyone knew this already, from the hat and scarf. She held the stick in my direction and I stepped towards her, trying to keep my shoulders up, wary of the burning tip.
Kalamun placed the stick in my shaking hand. My mind ran its own say-song on the spot: Don't catch fire don't catch fire don't catch--
“You will be fine,” she whispered. Then, louder so the crowd could hear, “For being just.”
“For being just,” they echoed.
I turned towards the wriggling cloth, careful to hold the stick away from the child's face. Its sand white, yellow-eyed face. It started making upset childsounds—ah-ah-ahhh. “Shush,” I hissed, but it wouldn't.
“It's alive,” croaked someone towards the front.
The flame had eaten a finger's length off the tip of the stick, but I couldn't look at this pale animal. I couldn't touch the stick lower. Ah-ah-ahhh. The cry was annoying. This tiny thing had put shame upon my aunt, put fear upon her family, on mine. This thing had knobs protruding from its forehead and was the colour of bone, which the elders called a sign of appetite for the substance. If it grew teeth it would hunger for our skin and everything beneath it.
I couldn't touch it, and then I could.
Tip between horn-stubs. Lift. Flame looping up and a black mark burnt into the white. I blew on its forehead, dispersing the smoke. The thing let out a waaaaaaaaail.
Sudden dart of cold eyes into my eyes, pinned like cleaver to cutting board.
Kalamun, striding across the stage, set her hand on my scarf. It was easy to throw back my frame, to hold the stick aloft.
“You know what comes next,” Kalamun whispered across to me.
She said nothing. The altar minder walked behind us, raised the branded baby, held it to the crowd. “It is done.”
Gasps and intonations: “It is done.”
And I pressed the torch I held to my right inner wrist. It seared like I was being torn, a flash of blackness, screaming skin, burnt blood. I lifted and blew. On the child, a mark of shame. On me, of honour and misfortune. No one loves a brander Demet had said one day when we were curled under the broadest luvium tree, our bodies not quite but almost touching. They've tasted the darkphase in more than their third.
Heart thrash, groin pulse. Pupils flaring.
The altar minders would choose one among themselves to carry the outcast beyond the settlement, beyond the frightening dwellings where our own kind spent the third of their time in darkphase, to a place only the gods' people went. In fur hats they whispered among themselves, passing the branded bundle around while bored citizens dispersed. The best part was over.
Something gathered in my thighs and I slammed against the platform. My scarf was bleeding, my throat a rock. My throat a yellow glow, tense, my body streaked like chalk. A shriek came out.
Hands came like nets and wrangled my body down. I blinked up and the world had gone too bright. Sun poured from faces. Kalamun, her shaved scalp glowing. Her breasts pricked beneath the fabric. So her phasing was approaching too. Words spilled from her mouth. Sounds jangled.
I reached out my fingers and caught a squirming bundle. Phase. Away. Take her. Kalamun pushed me down. The child was still in my hands. Even then, hands flailing, mouth alive, I knew the story. I could hear it in my mother's chanting voice. I'd heard it since weaning.
Count three phases, mark the year.
When in darkphase, disappear.
Hunger opens, senses track.
Leave for one third, then come back.
Not only would I be taking the baby away, I realized with my last remaining flash of lucidity. I would also be spending my first darkphase in a place few of us went and no one spoke of. I was going with my cousin, the sad little yellow-eyed thing, to the place where light was forbidden. I was going to see what was to be seen of the god of love.
©November 2017 Melanie Bell
Melanie Bell is the coauthor of a nonfiction book, The Modern Enneagram. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Concordia University and has written for various publications including Autostraddle, xoJane, The Fiddlehead, Grain, and CV2.