“When famine snared our bellies, when it addled our minds and made us monsters, Mother Goddess came and bargained for our salvation. How could we not agree? How could we measure one life equal to that of the village?”
That is what the sibyl tells us around flame-lit circles. Even though that is exactly what the Mother had done.
My sisters before me left us as girls after the harvest. The sibyl says they come back as women, each spring. But I’ve seen the pale cheeks, mouths the color of old blood, hands that flutter at their sides as if to ward off the sunlight. They are hollow vessels, stripped of name and family. And none of our men will have them. At night, when the candle burns low, I ask the Mother why, but she never answers.
I witnessed a Claiming once, two seasons past, from behind the mask of a stag. Counted my breaths until he appeared, casting day into shadow.
My sister before me shuddered. But our lord never looked at her. His eyes were only for the head priest who shoved her forward. “You know the price for your complicity in the Mother’s schemes.”
The priest fell to his knees as if struck down. Then my sister vanished with our lord, but not before his eyes found mine.
The desolation and anger I saw in his gaze that day is my only comfort as the priests hold me under. My skin smarts where they abraded it with soap, cloth, brisk hands. Where they sloughed away who I used to be. I’m only allowed to scream when I’m underwater—the sibyl told us that’s the only acceptable time to rid ourselves of the injustice that poisons us. When the fight leaks from my frame, when the last of my breath bubbles out, when I’m finally lifted from the pool, I am no longer me.
I’m declared ready. Incense burns the air. Pomegranate oil is massaged into my hair. Honey and cream, my skin. By hands gentler now with assurance I won’t run. Scented oil anoints my forehead, my neck, my breasts. The inside of my elbows and knees. I burn with life for one lonely moment before they drape my body with linen, extinguishing all sensation. It is time.
I keep my eyes lowered, as a demure maiden should. Then shadow falls, announcing our lord. Fingers burn along my chin as my head is forced up to face him. I thought there would only be coldness in the dark, but I was wrong.
He has no words for the priest this time. A hand at my elbow, one at my back, he is all courtesy as we descend. “Do you know why you are here?”
“No, my lord.”
A growl edges his voice. “It is always the same.”
Hours, days later he says to me, “The Mother loves too fiercely. Though not the ones she uses so poorly.” He reaches out, and the heat of his hand buffets my cheek as he fingers my hair. “Though you are not afraid.”
I blink back brightness, adze sharp.
Nettles burn my skin wherever the priest and the sibyl touch me as they lead me back to the convent. My sisters before me wait in welcome. I was lost for a long time, they tell me. I only know this harsh world requires too much of myself to navigate it. My sisters with their sad faces say it gets easier. I can only marvel at their lies.
Old sibyl gives me queer looks when she visits with me each afternoon. Asks me how I feel, if I need anything. But I don’t know what I need. That must be why I feel this way. An unperson. No longer a girl, but a woman neither.
I walk sometimes. Leave my sisters behind and wander. It’s the only time I can rid myself of the wrongness that whispers around me on the breath of the trees. I stay away from the herds of goats and sheep blanketing the hills, as they scream and bleat whenever they spy me or my sisters.
As the summer sun hangs overhead, I rest in a sweet-smelling field. White flowers cushion my body, one arm supporting my head, the other draped over my eyes. Then the sun vanishes, a warm hand cupping my cheek. I open my eyes and sit up, but there is only darkness. But it doesn’t hurt, not like the light does.
“You said you would not forget. You promised. You are the only one who can stop this.”
The voice tugs something loose in my chest. I reach out, but the sunlight returns. Along with the pain, crowding out all thought.
It takes me too long to learn nighttime is easier. My mind clears enough to remember I was different once. Heat still drenches the air when I leave my chambers and walk out under the moonlight. I sit along the fountain, star-kissed ripples radiating from my fingertips. But I am not alone.
“She’s remembering.” Old sibyl’s voice is harsh in the night. “Maybe he—”
“What would our lord want with her? She’s no different from her sisters and the Goddess before her,” says our priest, brandishing a candle against the dark. “Let us wait a while longer before—”
Bile collects in my throat. I am different. I—
The sibyl draws up to her full height. “I have been charged with this task by powers greater than you, priest. Prepare the draught. There can be no mistakes.”
Mistake. Is that what I am? But then I remember the voice, the rightness I felt in that brief moment at the field. Rightness I have never felt behind the convent walls. I know that much.
Tears sting my cheeks at the thought of abandoning my sisters. I ask the Mother for guidance but she remains ever silent. When alarms ring out that I am no longer abed, I pad barefoot beyond the gates, down the road, to the forest.
I don’t look back.
A stick lodges in my side. I crawl out of my nest of leaves at the base of a tree and find an old woman staring down her cane at me. “What business do you have in these woods?”
I had traveled much of the night, searching for the field where I first heard him, hoping to learn more. But only silence and a chilled wind greeted me. So I returned to the forest, taking comfort in the shadows, and walked until I could go no further.
I hold out my hands. “I’m lost and I cannot return from where I came.”
“Cannot or will not? Come with me, child. Old granny will see to you. Then we shall talk.”
Her hut is not far, and soon a mug of tea warms my hands as we sit by her small fire.
“There, there, child. Now tell me why you cannot go home.”
“Another home, another life, waits for me underground.”
She cackles. “You’re too pretty to live with the moles.”
I shake my head. “No. I would live with our lord in the land below.” It was his voice calling to me—I know that now.
The old woman hisses. “You? When that impertinent brat already claimed the Goddess’s own?”
“But I must find a way to return. If I can, we…” It’s still hazy but I’m certain of one thing. “He would claim her no longer.”
The old woman throws down her cane, casts aside her bonnet, gray hair now golden in the firelight. “You consider yourself better than my daughter?”
My mug falls to the floor. I press my forehead to the packed dirt of her hearth. “Mother Goddess, I—”
“Silence. You have prayed at my alters, you took your place in the bargain I struck. And now you would destroy—”
I raise my head, but my voice is raw. “I would go back. For him. He needs me.”
The Mother is the one who hid her daughter away from the world, compelled our village to fulfill the bargain she made with our lord. She forced him to accept my sisters, so ill-suited to life underground, as substitutes for the one he could never have lest he see her destroyed. He has remained trapped in his realm ever since except for those moments when he returns my sisters to the world of the living, emptied of the life that once defined them. But somehow I am still me.
The Mother may have been the one who created the void in the land below. But I will fill it.
“He has corrupted you.” Cold hands lift me from the floor. The Mother Goddess’s all-seeing eye on me. But I am blinded as tears course down my cheeks. “I cast you aside. You are no daughter of mine. Do what you will.”
The hut melts away, the Mother with it. I’m left standing at the edge of a muddy lake, a forlorn place where no bird calls. My gaze is drawn to a rocky slope, a dark shadow cleaving it in two. The cave compels me forward.
I walk for millennia, down and down, the darkness my only companion. But I already feel more like myself.
I remember how man and beast alike answered my summons into death and darkness, a feat none of my sisters could manage. I remember the sorrow in my lord’s eyes when Spring came, my promise to find a way to return, unfettered by the Mother’s schemes. I remember the ache in my chest, the disorder of my mind, when his hands were replaced by old sibyl’s. She held back my hair as I drank her foul potions, told me I was safe, that I would forever be the Mother’s chosen. But she never told me what I had lost.
He is waiting for me when I cross the river. A disbelieving sort of joy on his face, so familiar I wonder how I could have forgotten it so long.
The Mother Goddess keeps the world in balance above even though no more of my sisters descend for their six months in hell. I take their time gladly, forever at my lord’s side in shade.
[Lauren C. Teffeau was born and raised on the East Coast, educated in the South, employed in the Midwest, and now lives and dreams in the Southwest. Her work can be found in Wily Writers, Eclectic Flash, Luna Station Quarterly, and the Fat Girl in a Strange Land anthology (Crossed Genres Publications, February 2012) as well as other venues. She’s a graduate of the 2012 Taos Toolbox writers workshop, and blogs about the writing life.]