They took her, kicking and screaming, behind the altar.
Elle clawed the ground, fingernails splintering as Fyla tried to drag her; as the masked priests opened up the dank stairway below, as Fyla rebalanced her on her hip - big girl that Elle was, even - screaming, unabashedly howling, down down down into the dark. She recalled screaming mother! even though she'd never had one, and then Roy! Roy! Roy!, as if he would do anything other than stand at the top of the staircase impassively - illuminated by the fire before she disappeared. There was no candle. It was dark.
For some reason, the monsters in the cave let them pass. If Elle squinted, gasping for breath, hauled over Fyla's rawboned shoulder, she could see the glimmer and hear the hot breath of the spiderbeasts as they pressed themselves up against the walls. Roy! Roy! Roy! - but he was gone. They took that winding tunnel in the dark, tentacles brushing over ancient old brick, over and up and over and over - Elle thought it would never end, that the trial would be Fyla taking her down forever through some dark corridor always and always. Fyla loved her; Fyla had told her she had loved her better than any sister by blood. Fyla was taking her into the dark. Fyla! Fyla! Fyla!
They rounded the innumerable corners of the dark tunnel. Elle could smell the faint stink of putrefaction, the hot and fetid breath of the monsters lurking sullenly in the corners, thousands of rotting bricks underneath the earth all carefully laid by her tribesmen hundreds of years before. Like a child dragged through the doorway, she arched herself out starfish-shaped to scrape past those walls - she could feel the breath of missed stone underneath her hands, grazed the skin off a knuckle until Fyla roughly tumbled her over the other shoulder and cramped her arms harshly into her chest. Fyla who loved her, Fyla who had loved her, Fyla who had stood dry-eyed when the priests had touched Elle's mouth and cheeks with ram's blood and said that she would become immortal. Roy, who had not bid her goodbye, had rather looked at her... looked through her, as if she had already been taken to the altar and taken away from him. Roy and Fyla, who loved her, -
There were animal-fat braziers casting guttering shadows as they came to the final chamber. She could feel Fyla's hands, rough ungentle warrior's hands, wrap around her - take her down - and she thought, now she'll say to me that we're going, we're leaving, that she wouldn't leave me , but all Elle's hands came away with were fistfuls of Fyla's bright tangerine hair as the taller woman pulled away. She looked around wildly: the room had a belled altar, thick with goblets, and six lamps, and there was nothing else.
"Fyla," she said, "Fyla, don't leave me here, don't leave me here don't leave me here don't leave me he - "
"Goodbye, Elle," she said, "for a year."
"Fyla, you don't think, nobody - Fyla, I love you, we can go away, we can get out of here, please, you and me and Roy we can go away and run away and get away from Astarica and nobody will ever find us - "
"Goodbye, Elle," she said, to the air above Elle's head, "for a year."
And she walked back into the dark with her sword swinging at her hip and
A day, she thought, a day, and then Fyla and Roy will come to save me.
Elle wept for what she thought was the better part of an hour and then dried her eyes with her full furze skirts, because Fyla and Roy had taught her to be practical, - or maybe not practical enough: as she stood unsteadily in the heavy doorless archway to the Dark she realised that the silence was not so thin as it had been when she had first entered. She put her hands over her eyes to block the dull lamplight, and she listened: after a few moments of her heavy heart beating far too quickly, she heard it, the dull click-clack slither-slack of the monsters moving about again in the tunnel. They never came anywhere near the pool of light from the room and the altar, and she knew she must never stir from the chamber-room unless she wanted to very quickly die.
But Roy and Fyla can fight, her hands told her, spreading smooth her wet hot face and patting down her heavy fringe, Roy and Fyla will fight.
She and Roy and Fyla had always been together, ever since Elle was a baby and her parents had died, when Fyla had been seven and Roy had been eight and they came together to play an odd sort of child's house game with her - mother, father, sister, brother, both about as maternal as a brick, two fathers who bound her to their backs as they foraged for food and would hardly let Elle's feet touch the ground in case she stubbed her toe. Passionate, romantic Roy, and intense, fierce Fyla, about as alike as night and day: Fyla wore her carrot-coloured hair long and straight, her fingers said to Elle as she retied her heavy overskirt, and Roy wore his sky-blue and cropped to his shoulders. Fyla loved sweet things; Roy reviled them. Roy could sew; Fyla could not, her fingers said, Roy and Fyla, Roy and Fyla, Roy and Fyla planning for Elle's sixteenth birthday... And Elle calmed down.
She walked around the room, measuring it with careful footfalls, around the yellow-brown bricks and the walls with great crumbly gouges taken out of the grouting. The altar was merely a wooden slab with an old linen sheet laid over the top: the goblets iron, and filled with something revolting and red. She recoiled from looking at them: she did not like to look at them, or think about them. They were carelessly ugly. - The lamps were clay pots like the rest of the tribe used, filled with fat and woven wick, but it wasn't as if anybody came down to light them: they burnt on and on forever, never eating up the wick nor melting the wax, though she could not see either unless she liked to thrust her hand inside the roaring flames to pull them out. The magic of the room, she thought, God, God lights these lamps. For another moment Elle wanted to irrationally reach behind them and try to push at the rusted bells in the wall-sconces to see if they could ring, but this seemed a bit immature. Her eyesight was drawn back, as you look at a dead thing, to the goblets.
She did not understand how someone was chosen to come in here every fifty years and drink one,
Elle had worshipped with the others, believed in the Higher Power, and believed in everything just as they all believed in everything, but she did not believe that she had been Chosen. She was not particularly devout or particularly lovely, even when Fyla painstakingly braided her hair when it was wet to try to make it curly, did not believe herself special, or beloved, or, or lucky - because it was just luck, wasn't it? They had said that God would guide her hand and let her draw the cup, the correct cup, and she would either live for ever or she would pick poison and she would die. Elle had come up with what she had thought a very canny way to overcome this problem: she would not drink.
A day, she thought, a day, and then Fyla and Roy will come to save me. And then I can drink water or wine or whatever I like and not have to bother. I can be thirsty for a day.
Her fingers said to her, as they brushed the cloth at the side of the altar: I wonder what the monsters eat?
Her feet said to her, in her thick cloth slippers: I wonder how long a person can go without eating?
And she said aloud, "I think I have bread in my pocket." And she did.
She had bread in her pocket. A day, and Fyla and Roy would come to save her, and she could even eat while she waited. And then they could go somewhere that wasn't Astarica and leave the tribe because to her the tribe was them, it was she and she and he, and they could live and die without ever having to stop each other up behind altars. And because she was a teenager, Elle thought: I wonder exactly how sorry Fyla will be for doing this, and, I wonder if it's worth bread-and-butter pudding every day for a year.
So she sat by the wall, and covered her mouth with her sleeve to block out the foul fecal stench from the dark tunnel, and Elle waited.
A day, she thought, a day, and then Fyla and Roy will come to save me.
She ate a little bit of the bread.
Just a few more hours, she thought, innocent of the dragging of time, blind to night and day in the altar-room.
She ate a little bit more of the bread.
Very soon, she thought.
She slept uneasily on the hard stone floor. The monsters went slithery-dithery through her brain, on the tiles, in the darkness.
They must be coming now, she thought, and - I wonder how long -
She ate most of the bread, and saved a little heel of the slice in her pocket, mostly crumbs and crust.
There were six goblets on the altar. Someone had carved them with irregular, ugly knobs around the flute, as some means of decoration. They shone with an old patina of lacquer, rubbed thin from years: unpretty things. They frightened her more than anything else in the whole world.
one, two three, four five, six
She shed her cloth slippers and walked over the chill of the floor, to put life back into her feet, and once dared close enough to the altar to hold her hand on top of the third goblet. The air above it was warm, as if the liquid was warm, and she hurriedly wiped her then-damp hand off on her skirt.
They will be coming, she thought, and, and, only my mouth is so terribly horribly dry.
She spent a long time holding her saliva in her mouth, pooling it carefully until it dripped under her palate. Elle swallowed greedily.
She didn't think that all she had done in her life should have come to that: a room and an altar and six last drinks, and the dark, and dusty silence. Elle ran her hands over the uneven brickwork at the sides of the chamber and thought about all the things that she loved: weaving and sunshine and water, Roy and his whetstone sharpening his and Fyla's swords, Fyla boiling bones in a pit of hot stones and prodding inefficiently at the burning dirt with a stick. Water. Cold milk. Water. Hot tea, raspberry leaf and rosehip. Water.
In one of the langorous and intermittent hours she scraped her finger to bleeding on one of the long irregular ridges on the wall. Mistakenly, she sucked it off, tried to let it drip on her cracked lips. Then she was thirstier than ever.
She did not start to believe that they wouldn't come.
She just started to stare at the goblets. Elle didn't think about God, or about the choice, or about hands guiding her hands, about luck or living for ever. She thought about the six goblets, and about how maybe poison didn't work if you spat it out immediately but let it wet your tongue. Sometimes she forgot about Roy and Fyla, forgot about thinking as hard as she could about how long it had been - counting out the minutes too fast, trying to scratch tally-marks on the unforgiving stone bricks - forgot about anything but her dry mouth, sitting and letting her spit trickle into the pool under her tongue and right by her teeth and pulling a bead off her necklace to suck it. She sucked the sour dye off and that lasted her an hour, an hour and an hour, another fitful nap where she pillowed her head on her gritty hair and listened to something creep up and down the passage. I could kill a monster, she thought one day, cut it open and drink it, only the first time she set her foot outside the dim circle of light in the cup-chamber she heard some hot breathless rattle in the darkness and fled back in.
Roy and Fyla love me. They love me more than God.
one, two three, four five, six
I know they love me more than God - I love them more than God, I think, I love them more than this ritual, I love them more than anger, or fear, or not drinking. They are my family. They will come to get me. I know they're lying in their beds and talking, very softly, about me, about how they know I'm waiting for them to come, about how we're never going to see this place again as long as we all three live. And we're going to celebrate my sixteenth birthday, we're going to pick peas all day and have a feast. I love Roy and Fyla.
I can see Roy sharpening his sword, one lock of hair falling over his eye, sharpening it over and over and over again, coming for me, coming to get me.
Elle's fingers traced over the lines of her throat, over the sweat-stained sleeves of her shirt, and they said, I wonder why God does this?
A day, she thought, a day, and then Fyla and Roy will come to save me.
And then Elle wakes up from one of her restless, dreamless sleeps, and stumbles over to the altar to take up one of the goblets in both hands: tilts it to her lips and pours it down her throat, each drop like a knife down her tongue, hardly swallowing as she drinks, drinks, drinks, drinks, drinks. It is hot and red and suffocatingly sticky, it carries the thin metallic taste of urine and she drinks it all, she drinks it dry.
And then the wooden cup falls from her nerveless fingers and Elle drops down stone dead.
Elle woke up.
She got to her feet without fuss and without strain: turned around to see the altar as it was, the cup full and steaming, and wondered for a moment if she had drank it at all or if it was a hazy daydream. She was no longer thirsty, and wondered at herself, and thought she must be hungry: she took the heel of bread out of her crumby pocket and crammed it in her mouth. It was ashes on her tongue. She carefully extracted the crumbling, smoky slivers from her tasteless tastebuds, the charred cremains of the slice, rolled it blackly between her fingers and wondered at that too. Then she wiped her hand on her dress and put her shoes back on.
She went down the altar and tipped out all the cups on the floor, watching the liquid smoke and sizzle on the yellow brick, throwing the goblets as hard as she could through the doorway to hear them rattle down the corridor. They rolled away into silence, into nothing, the echo devoid of even the oily snail-slide crackle-ricket of the monsters who lived in the darkness. She cupped her hands in the poison and smeared it all over the walls.
When Elle looked out into the corridor, just for a second, and looked back, - the goblets were all back in place, and the stain was gone.
"I see," she said to her hands and her feet. Momentarily she looked for the ashes that should have scattered on the floor from the bread, but they were gone too. And she looked at the gashes in the walls, and she understood: that Roy and Fyla would never come for her.
Then, from his place of ambush, God leapt out.
She thinks about the Red Star.
Elle sifts the choking dust from the dark-passage through her fingers, wipes it on her cheekbones, and wonders why people ever bothered sleeping. Out of habit she lay down and attempted it, and passed the time by counting every crack in the inexpertly-crafted ceiling. Why sleep? Maybe, she thinks, it's practice for dying, something that people did every day, in such numbers that obviously practice was needed to get good at it. It never worked, she thinks, it happens so inelegantly.
She thinks about the Red Star. She has started to become aware of it, aware of the sky, aware of the uncaring expanse of cold dark space - the cold, white, burning stars, the callous make-up of the moon and the sun. The Red Star, however, moves with a purpose, a consciousness rolling past the dim inanimate balls of dust that call themselves planets and looking for something. It is a star; it is a comet. It is not quite either. Elle has no idea what a comet is, or what a star is apart from a twinkling light during the dark times, - except now she does: and the comet thinks.
It is now she realises that the priests count their trials by the Red Star's appearance in the sky, as some kind of omen. She realises that they have lied. She realises they cannot count. She also realises that they have not been counting by the Red Star, but that the Red Star has been counting by them. Maybe, she thinks, the Red Star is God, but that's not quite right either.
Red light is different to white-light. White-light is thoughtless. The Red Star does not burn, but creates: it sees and it changes whatever wanders into its light. People come into the red light and then they are different: they see the Comet, and then they change, inexorably, exquisitely, for ever. They are reborn.
Elle waits quite patiently to die. It is easy now, to mete out the hours, the slow tick, tick, tick of time passing by. She strips naked and rubs her clothes off her body, reeking of shed hair and shed skin and blood and the hideous waste that one single person creates. She pities herself: pities the fact that, - maybe it was yesterday, - she smelled hot, wet monster-shit and drooled for it, would have forced her face into clumped clotting feces and rejoiced at the oily, bloodied stench. She can hear the heartbeats, now, of the monsters outside, can hear the fluid pumping through their veins and the breath sucking into their skin. They are wet sacs of chemicals, delicate and transient as orchids. If you took one of the Pupils outside and pushed your finger very very very gently into its huge, lidless cornea it would
- and that would be the end of it.
Out of habit Elle tries to piss in a corner. Nothing comes out. She's disgusted with herself.
Every hour is a long, dreary, intolerable century. She waits.
Does the Red Star help people die? From far away, revolving around the planet, she supposes that every single living thing is hideously ugly. Or maybe it makes them ugly. Or maybe they're ugly anyway, and it draws that from them like a poultice, all the mean little petty day-to-day weals of life and makes gaping sores out of the human race.
(Elle drinks every goblet all over again, just to see. The moment the liquid touches her lips it sifts down into dry, dusty powder. She drops the wooden cup into the brazier, then sticks her face into the fire. Nothing happens. She feels a detached sort of curdly disappointment.)
And then there's God - God, who gave her the cup, who has maybe given her a few seconds' worth of gracious lucidity. Elle thinks more clearly than she has ever done in her life. The ears of her ears are open, and the eyes of her eyes are wide awake, and if she listens carefully
she can hear the world
The world chokes on its own pustulent mucus. Flowers open and wilt, all in a single sacred sort of pointlessness, babies are born and plants slowly expire in a hurried rush of chlorophyll and reaction. - God didn't give her the cup, Elle thinks, God wanted her to die. Because now she can see like God. Perhaps she was always meant to see like God. Once she thought that God saw nodding roses and talking animals, maybe, could hear the single song of joy and life and living and being alive and breeding and giving and sustaining la la la la LAA~AA, but Elle is coming to the conclusion that this is horseshit. Man's only satisfaction in life is to pass on misery to his squealing, snot-nosed progeny. Her parents must have been bitterly disappointed that the climax of their existence was to orphan her, which by all rights was a great deal kinder than what every other child got.
She wonders why Roy and Fyla took her in. Maybe they wanted to fuck her, which is the main summation of the joy of man's desiring. There is no kindness without some kind of ugly, driven desire behind it, the flush of blind mad hormones. Humans are just animals with sophisticated nests.
Well, Roy and Fyla lost their chance. Elle is satisfied that a year will skeletonize her, and may Roy have every joy in teasing out the fine gobbets of flesh clinging to her pubis bones. What a chump.
that she does not feel
For instance, she brushes her finger over a forgotten corner of the linen runner. In its warp and weft she can feel the breath of the pounded plant, the separation of its screaming cells into threads, the torture of being woven and spun and weaved over acreage it was never supposed to spread. It lies taut and dead and tortured on the altar, underneath the delicate lines of her fingerprint. This she relishes.
The Comet teaches her that everything will change minutely according to its plan. She can see it burning, all these miles beneath the uncaring earth, never minding the cracked ceiling or the dirt or the worms: she lies down and watches it roil in red fire for hours and hours, days even, as the sun passes overhead and the world turns and things happen above her. She understands now the dichotomy of everything that is and was and will be.
She understands that life is a cheap illusion. She is beginning to think that God, in fact, tricked everybody, to try and tell them the lie that in life they could overcome death, and she admires momentarily his art. It is not just a lie. It is the lie. Death is the ultimate conclusion, the great still sea in which life is a little passing bubble - human civilisation a hot second of forgettable chemical reaction, sped up or slowed down by the Red Star as it likes. There is no cycle. There are just, ... blips;
there is something else,
the Red Star says.
"God," Elle says. "You mean God."
This unsettles her. She has already given up on God. She has given up on life. If life tries to fight back it is entirely and definitively its own fault. It has fought back before against the Red Star, and it will fight again, uselessly, hopelessly, expending its energy to die quicker. It never works. It is irrevocably, tastelessly, stupidly - human, she thinks, worse than a blasphemy.
Elle decides to give up on being human. It never got her anywhere. Her whole stupid existence consisted of making shirts and indicting herself freely into the slavery that people organise for themselves, unable to exist without being at the beck and call of someone to rape them into submission, as they wedge great lumps of protein and fat into their mouths. All she ever did was wait around, eager to be somebody's left-behind rags.
Death is really the only peace and quiet she is ever going to get.
There are no words for how much this annoys her.
She thinks about the ritual, the stupid, pointless ritual, the stupid six goblets and the stupid lamps and the stupid, stupid room locked underneath the earth. If they had wanted to do anything progressive they would have passed the poison cups around their fire, easing it into their babies' mouths with their fingertips, ending their messy gassy lives without further annoyance. But that's not big enough, she knows, it's a drop of water in an empty well, a handful of lung-and-heart organs, while other people toil on and on. Whoever thought up the ritual is long dead, which is more than he deserves, but ineffably what he gets. She is starting to be denied her due right as a sack of electric impulses and lymph. This is patently unfair.
Every day is twice as long as the one before it.
After a few months a maggot crawls into the chamber. Elle reaches down with her finger and wishes it out of existence, and is only mildly surprised when - in a momentarily nauseating whirl of blue - it goes, back into endlessness, as if it was never there. It is dead and, more importantly, gone, swallowed up by a vortex of her own making.
It is here she realises with not a little relief that there is no God. There are only the pathetic echoes, the something other, created as a self-defense mechanism from the planet's breathing, from Gaia's breathing, that she does not have to worry about. She can just make them go away. She can make everything go away.
says the Red Star.
The days drag themselves by like limping animals.
Elle decides she is
in a way, if she were able to feel grateful any more, she would be grateful. She is grateful that she has woken up from her stupor. She is grateful for patterns, and for the Red Star. She is grateful to Roy and Fyla for whatever silly human desires they had in keeping her, either fucking or eating, one or the other or both (hopefully they would work it out in a practical order lest they be forced to stick their fingers down their throats), so that instead of natural death she was allowed to see this. The Red Star has changed the synapses of her brain. She was blind and deaf and dumb, and the world has opened up, tactile and new. She was a child awaking to the sunrise of a new morning, to discover that the new morning was made out of caked shit and the corpses of unborn animals. It is beautiful. Now she understands beautiful, because there is no beautiful to understand, only the beautiful that was and now is not.
She is also starting to understand the something-other-else. She waits for it to come.
A year is over. It is the birthday of her existence. Elle has never been so unimpressed.
They are unchanged. The Red Star works on them slowly. Fyla is all orange dye and brassy hair and - what can you say for Roy? He looks like a walking blueberry. Elle wonders what would happen if you mashed them together. Possibly green would occur, though the various shades and tints of human insides might ruin the whole color scheme. They are fleshy humans. They all look the same.
They make talking-noises. She does not understand, until -
"... and you became super-human," Fyla is saying. She does not look as though this makes her happy. Her mouth-words sound sad.
"Yes," says Elle, "yes Yes yes Yes YeS YES yes," and: "This year was long."
Roy looks sad too. It must be terrible being alive.
"... when I became like this...
God god GOd goD GOD! god! GOD!
"I love you, Elle," says Fyla, only she doesn't. "I love you and I do not want to fuck you or eat your bones except maybe when you are not looking. I am sorry for putting you in a hole. I am so sorry I put you in a hole. I am so so so sorry I put you in a hole. I'll let you eat bread-or-butter pudding every night. Then I will very gently kill myself, very slowly, so you can watch."
"Me too," says Roy, only he doesn't. "Let's have your birthday party. Also I look like a blueberry."
"Humans are pathetic creatures," says Elle. "A ritual this stupid is only for gaining power over other tribes."
She watches their expressions change to shock as she reaches out to send them away, opens the gaping vortex beneath their feet, does the kind thing, the gentle thing, watches them cling to each other and make damp patches on the fronts of their clothes with their fear and piss and hold each other, hold each other, hold each other, hold each other, hold each other, hold each other, hold each other, die.
"I think there's something I've left out," she says to the Red Star, and makes Roy and Fyla go away with an unsatisfying
It was shorter than she expected. She should stop bother with expecting.
"Yes," says Elle.
The Something Else walks into the room. At first she does not see him correctly. She is so used to staring at the Comet, at the wheeling stars, that all she sees is a brown-haired human boy with very stupid baggy pants and a beating heart.
"You must have come for an immortal body," she says, "humans are all the same."
"For a moment your face looked like a demon's," says the White Christ, quite gently and frankly. "A person's said to have two faces. The external. The internal. Maybe that sacred goblet's water just awakens the internal soul..."
Now she understands. Now she understands him and who he is - her opposite, her touchstone, he who walks in permanent brain-death in the feeble puking existence of Life, of Gaia, of the Planet, of the Breath. He to her She, to elle, her Death, her Conclusion, her Ending, her Inevitability. For a moment she wants him to put down his bloodied spear and his goofy grin and hold her, hold her hold her hold her, take off her clothes, hold her, hold her. But only for a moment. Just a moment.
"Try it yourself," she says to him, and takes the goblet behind him in her hands, and offers it to him, her gift, her want, the remnants of human desire. "It's full."
"Thanks," says Ark, the White Christ, and she is so glad that it is nearly all over. "I guess I was getting a little thirsty."
one, two three, four five, six
He takes it from her and drinks it down neatly, - and immediately is violently sick, sick all over the yellowing bricks of the floor, sick in a long red bloodied wash of vomit and bile and stomach acid in a puddle that creeps up to her cloth shoes. And then the wooden cup falls from his fingers, and Ark drops down stone dead.
"The end of human life is trite," she tells him: and maybe one day he'll understand.
Elle runs down the corridors,
down down down
past the monsters pressing themselves up against the walls to avoid her,
down down down
through every corner to push herself up behind the altar and into the cool breathless air of Astarica,
and Elle becomes
All That Glitters Is Cold 3 Fanfic Competition
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