Bailey Bridgewater helps college students learn the conventions of grammar by day, but her passion is writing short stories. Her work has appeared in Crack the Spine, Nanoism, As You Were, The Molotov Cocktail, The Eunoia Review, SubTerranean, and FIction on the Web. She is a Max Ehrmann Poetry Award winner. She can often be found kayaking or hiking in another country while actively avoiding other human beings. When she's not on the road, she likes to hang out with her cat Gandalf in Terre Haute, Indiana.
The mother appraised the girl carefully, turning her around and around, wiping her skirt with her hands, pressing her black hair into place, pulling back her gums to examine her teeth. She looked at the girl’s feet skeptically.
“No. We will wear the other shoes.”
“But they pinch my toes when I walk.”
“But if they make your feet look small enough, perhaps you’ll never need to walk again” she chirped enthusiastically, drifting into the other room to fetch the shoes.
The girl turned to her father. “Why do my feet have to look small?” He laid a calloused silversmith’s hand gently on her head.
“It is one of the physical perfections of the Kumari. She should have dainty feet, just as she should have shining dark hair and a full set of teeth.” He looked at her feet, hesitating. “But I don’t think we should wear small shoes to make your feet appear petite. This is a trick. If you are Kumari, there should be no need for deception.”
Mother glided back into the room, one embroidered slipper in each hand. “What are you telling her? Of course she is the vessel of the goddess. You know our daughter. She has the goddess’ spirit and will, as well as all the physical perfections. She glanced back at the girl’s feet. “Well, enough of them anyway. The goddess will occupy our Adesha.”
Father looked past the mother’s unusual grey eyes, which seemed almost transparent when the light hit them as it did now. He focused on the family portrait hung over the kitchen table as he talked. “We should be going soon. The streets around Kathmandu will be murky with people. We do not want to rush.” Father’s deep, even voice seemed to take a minute to reach throughout the rest of the room, flowing like a thick honey. It soothed Adesha. Soon father was pulling shut the door, placing them in a long stream of cars headed out of the village and down the sloping road towards the city.
Adesha’s mother eyed every young girl she passed suspiciously, even if she was plainly dressed. When she saw the beautiful seven year old Mishti, in silk that made her look like a rare orchid, she clicked her tongue. Her daughter’s eyes went wide as she controlled the impulse to run towards her favorite friend.
“Mishti looks beautiful, doesn’t she?”
“I suppose it is a nice outfit. I wonder what they paid for it.”
“Do you think she will be the Kumari?” Adesha knew that her friend desired it more than anyone.
“But she’s smart and brave and calm. And everyone says she’s the prettiest girl.”
“Perhaps, but she does not have one of the most important perfections.”
“But her eyelashes are like cows and her mom says her thighs are just exactly like a deer! Her teeth are good, right?” Adesha had paid attention when the other girls quoted descriptions of what the Kumari should look like.
“It’s not that.” The girl looked at her mother inquisitively. Mother glanced down, then simply reaffirmed what she so adamantly believed. “Our Adesha is kumari.”
The girl looked down at the embroidered slippers, worried about their collecting street dust as they shuffled along with the crowds towards the city square.
The girl found it hard to focus on the colors, the smells, the bells and noises of the festivities. She knew that something difficult may await her after the parade if she was to be selected. Her mother had told her about the trials the Kumari had to endure to prove herself worthy. She knew that the Kumari had to live apart from her family in Kathmandu, where she gave advice to the people and was worshipped. While Mishti embraced the idea, Adesha didn’t like the thought of being away from her father and her village friends. She loved the feel of running the steep stone steps, plunging down the mountain until she reached the suspension bridge that led to her favorite bakery. She liked the quiet of the terraced fields and the way she felt immediately cold just glimpsing the peaks of the Himalayas, no matter how sweltering the day. Kathmandu was dusty and perpetually surrounded in a shroud of pollution. Her lungs hurt here, and her eyes stung.
As the parade ended, a man in formal clothing approached her family. He glanced at her for a long moment. “Adesha? You and your parents should come with me.” Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and moved briskly across the street to a small, square building. Adesha noticed other well-dressed girls of her age making the same journey with their families, all converging with the men leading them to the same door. The girls were escorted inside. Mother smiled broadly as she motioned Adesha forward, but father looked worried, even as he nodded for her to go ahead. She turned away from her parents and followed the other 8 girls. She came alongside Mishti and leaned into her lean and muscular arm. They locked eyes. Mishti’s mouth remained neutral, but the excitement was all over her face.
They entered a perfectly symmetrical room with no furniture or décor whatsoever. A woman stood in the center with a basket full of some sort of plant Adesha hadn’t seen before. She wore gloves and held the basket out from herself. The girls naturally spaced themselves in a circle around her. One of the formally dressed men joined the woman and began calling the girls’ names, one by one.
“Mishti.” Her friend approached the woman, who held out the plant to her. “Take it.”
Mishti obeyed, holding it against her mostly bare arms.
“Place it near your mouth and nose.”
Mishti held it in front of herself. She choked instinctively and Adesha wondered if the plant was the cause.
“Closer.” Mishti obeyed, though her face contorted as she did so. She turned pale and choked again, trying to conceal the noise. Her breath came in short wheezes. Soon she could no longer face the plant and turned her head to the side, her watering eyes smearing the make-up her mother had so carefully applied. The woman rushed forward and took the plant from her. “That’s enough”.
The man said another name and a girl Adesha didn’t recognize approached the woman, cautiously now that she had seen Mishti’s reaction. She flinched as she received the plant. The woman snatched it back. “No worry. You do not need to take it.” The girl looked confused and alarmed.
“No I will take it.” But her face naturally drew away from the plant.
“Please go back to your place, my child.”
“Adesha”. The girl paused upon hearing her name and mentally checked her body, making sure she wasn’t visibly shaking. She breathed through her nose deeply. The woman held out the plant to her. Without a word, she accepted, holding it close to her face as she had seen her friend do. She intentionally forced herself to take shallow, well-spaced breaths, but even so she could feel her chest constricting. It felt as if her throat was swelling. She felt sweat beads forming along her hairline. As long as it didn’t drip, the woman wouldn’t notice. Perhaps it was alright even if she did notice, as long as Adesha kept her composure. After what felt like ages, the woman retrieved the plant. She simply nodded when Adesha opened her eyes.
“Rosel”. The next girl approached with more confidence, having seen Adesha seemingly pass the test. But the girl’s reaction was stronger than Mishti’s had been, and when she opened her eyes wide, silently pleading with the woman, the woman quickly took the plant away. She did not need to tell her to go back to her spot.
After each girl had attempted to hold the plant, the man stepped back into the middle of the circle. “I will need the following girls to come with me. Saili, Safari, Mishti , Kali, and Adesha. The rest of you may return to your parents.” Adesha watched respectfully as the girls who had shown fear of the plant left the room. Mishti could barely contain her excitement. Adesha crossed the room to join her friend, and silently they followed the man with the other three girls. At the end of a low hallway they entered a small room with a blanket-covered table in the center. There was another woman, this one much older and wrinkled.
Her voice reminded Adesha of bullfrogs when she said “I will need you to come in one by one. You will remove your clothing for the inspection. I will touch you as little as possible, and I promise nothing will hurt. If you have ever had an injury or sickness, you must tell me. If your parents told you not to, please know that I will find out later anyway, and if you lied it would bring great shame to your family. First will be Saili.” A girl who appeared to be the oldest, possibly 9 or even 10, went to the woman.
Adesha wanted to chat with her friend, but instead she just squeezed her hand behind their backs. Mishti’s eyes crinkled up in a smile. She had thought she was done with the selection process, but here she was, just one of five girls who might be Kumari, and even more beautiful than the others. After about 15 minutes the door opened.
“Kali”. A girl who was tall for her 8 or so years entered the room almost at a run. Her inspection took longer.
“Mishti”. Adesha squeezed her hand one more time as she floated away in her silk.
She re-emerged just 4 minutes later, and her eyes were watering openly. Adesha drew her brows together as she caught her glance, but her friend looked down, her face red. She had no time to even consider what had happened as her own name was called.
The older woman smiled at her politely. “Please remove all your clothing. If you need any help, just let me know.” Adesha disrobed quickly.
“Now lay on the table, please. I will examine all of you. If you are ever uncomfortable, please just tell me so.” The girl already knew that she would say nothing.
The woman moved her hands over the girl’s arms, then lingered on her chest, checking her heart rate. They moved around her neck, measuring its length, and through her hair. She checked her earlobes, then instructed her to open her mouth. She shone a light in and pulled on her teeth. She looked into her eyes, rubbed and pressed on her stomach, and then stopped, addressing her again.
“I must look at the parts of you that make you a woman. This is probably something only your mother has done, and I’m sorry if it is uncomfortable. It is necessary.”
It was over in only a few seconds and without much discomfort. The woman nodded and moved onto squeezing her thighs, then calves. Eventually she arrived at the girl’s feet. Adesha held her breath. The woman noticed and made a light chuckling noise.
“They are strong feet, and calloused. You are outside without shoes a lot.”
“I like to walk barefoot in the river and run down the path to school without my shoes.” As soon as she said it, she wondered if she shouldn’t have. Surprisingly, the woman smiled.
“It is good to want to explore and to be in nature. Running is healthy.”
She prompted Adesha to turn over so she could examine her spine. Finally, she urged her to sit up.
“Have you ever been very sick?”
Adesha thought carefully.
“Once I ate a stew my friend’s mother had made, and for the whole night I threw up. Then there was once that I was walking in the forest through some plants that I didn’t know were poisonous, and I had red spots all over my legs for….3 days?”
“Ah yes. Are there any other times you want to tell me about?”
“No, but I don’t remember when I was a baby. You could ask my mom.”
“Yes indeed. Have you had any injuries that caused you to go to the doctor? Have you broken a bone or had any bad cuts? I did not see any scars on you.”
“Is there anything very bad that has ever happened to you that you want to tell me about?”
“Excellent. You are free to go out into the hall.” Adesha breathed a sigh of relief, but when she re-emerged, Mishti still looked distraught. They all waited while the last girl was examined. The man moved down the hall with the old woman, and they conversed briefly with their heads close together. The man came back to them.
“Adesha, Safari, and Saila, I would like you to come with me. Mishti and Kali, you may follow the nurse back outside.” Mishti gasped. She started to speak, but then stopped herself. She looked at Adesha with small tears in her eyes. She turned to the nurse.
“But…. Wh….can we ask why?”
The nurse gazed at her sympathetically. “I’m afraid most girls simply don’t have all 32 perfections. It is an honor that you have most of them.”
“But which one don’t…?” Her voice trailed off. She knew that woman had sent her away after examining her reproductive places. “It’s ok.” She hung her head and started to follow the woman, but then quickly spun on her heel and returned to Adesha’s side, grabbing her hand, squeezing it, and releasing it in one quick motion.
As they walked down the hall, Adesha could see through the windows that dusk had fallen. The sky was navy blue and the few scrawny trees outside the building stood stark black against it. The man stopped in front of a closed door that the girl guessed led outside. “All three of you will walk through the door into the courtyard. If you need to come back, you may knock on this door. I will be here.”
It took Adesha’s eyes several seconds to adjust to the low light. But before she could even see, she noticed the smell of wet fur and meat with which she’d become so familiar at her aunt’s farm. She was comforted by the thought of animals in the courtyard. She thought she could make out the shape of a sheep facing her. She approached it. The sheep’s eyes were level with her and they did not move. She was only several feet away when she realized the sheep lacked a body. It was affixed to a wooden stake in the ground. The girl breathed in, but made sure not to gasp, for she felt sure she was being watched. She stood still in front of the sheep while flies buzzed in its tear ducts, forcing herself to hold its gaze. In her head, she apologized to it and thanked it for the meals it had provided, as she suspected this sheep had been consumed during the feast. She bowed her head slightly, then went on to see what else awaited her in the courtyard. Several yards away from her, she heard another girl bump into something. A pause followed, then a quick scream that was quickly muffled by the girl’s own hand.
There must have been 100 animals here, many piled up together. Insects buzzed all around her, some of them landing and biting Adesha’s exposed arms. She could feel the other girl following behind her at a distance. She looked back to see her covering her nose with one hand while she shooed away the bugs with the other. The other girl moved on quickly, without pausing. Adesha resumed her inventory, taking note of the others only when the gasping girl brushed past her and took up a spot in an empty corner, from which she didn’t move until after the other two had finished their rounds with the deceased animals.
After what seemed like hours, the sun long since disappeared entirely and the stars attempting weakly to shine through the smog, the door creaked open.
“You may come back in now.” Adesha moved slowly towards him. When she reached him she turned and saw a shadow emerging from the corner where Saila hid. Eventually all four of them were back in the lit hallway.
“Adesha and Safari, I would like you to remain here. Saila, I will escort you back outside to your parents.”
Adesha and her remaining companion watched them disappear around a corner, then the girl Safari turned to her. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“No. My aunt has animals and sometimes I’m around when they’re killing them. I didn’t like it, but it wasn’t that bad.”
“I wonder what’s next.”
Before they could continue the conversation, the man was back.
“We will go somewhere new now. But one at a time. Safari, please wait while I escort Adesha.” Adesha nodded at the other girl, then down a twisting passage that eventually led to rough and uneven stone stairs.. She descended in darkness.
The man stopped so suddenly that Adesha almost collided with him. He reached beside him and turned a knob, pushing open a door that emitted a moan like lonely ghosts. “This is your room for the night. You will sleep here alone. There are no lights and no windows, but there is a candle. If you are too afraid, you may bang on the door and a guard will let you out. Rest well.”
She stepped into the room and felt the cold draft as he swung the door behind her, bolting it from the outside. She listened to him until his footsteps could no longer be heard in the corridor. There was a candle on the other side of the large room, and she moved towards it cautiously, for all she could see were vague outlines of strange shapes. The animal smell was here too, but more rancid this time. She picked up the candle, examining the small table on which it sat. The posts of a bed made themselves visible in front of her, but as she approached she noticed 3 large masses on either side. She stepped towards one. It was a slaughtered pig, its throat slit. It had been propped up so that it overlooked the bed. Next to it was a goat. There were many such animals arranged around the room. The girl closed her eyes. This would be ok. Dead animals were nothing to fear. She carried the candle around the room and did a full inspection of her surroundings. After all, if she knew exactly what was there, how could she be afraid? It was only the unknown that might scare her. In her head, she assigned gentle personalities to the animals, then she crawled into the bed, careful not to bump the pig’s head, and pulled the covers to her armpits. She extinguished the candle and tried to sleep.
There was a light knock on the door the next morning. The man was there again, alone. “The night is over. It’s time.” She wasn’t sure what he meant, and she wondered where the other girl was. This question was soon answered as they climbed back up the stairs and into the light of a spacious, well appointed room. Safari was there with her family, and Adesha’s family was there too. The other girl was smiling, looking pleased with herself. The man led Adesha to her parents, her mother looking unabashedly delighted and her father looking concerned. He placed his hand on his daughter’s hair.
The man moved to the center of the room and addressed them all. “Both of your girls have performed very well. Both are strong-willed and brave, with many physical perfections. Both are from good families and make fine examples of what a young lady should be. But the goddess needs only one vessel. That vessel is Adesha.” Adesha’s mother squealed and grabbed her hair. Her father’s hand went stiff on top of her head. There was no sound from the other family. Safari met Adesha’s eyes. They conveyed her disappointment. Her parents thanked the man, then the family left of their own volition. As they did, the parents forced smiles upon Adesha. “It is an honor to be in the presence of Kumari.” She did not yet know he proper answer, and so she smiled as they turned their backs.
“We must now present you to the people, and after that we will clean you and bring you to Kumari Ghar, which will be your home. The goddess will take control of you there, and your parents will return to their village. This is the last time you will be alone with them for many years, so I will give you some moments, but I will be here, just outside the door, when you are ready.
Adesha nodded, and her parents followed suit. As soon as the man had disappeared just out of earshot, her mother grabbed her into a firm hug. “I am so delighted! I knew you were kumari all along! Now the goddess will possess you and you will be divine!”
Adesha pulled herself away from her mother’s smothering and turned to her father, whose expression was not nearly so enthusiastic. He looked worried. He did not speak for a moment, and when he did, each word weighed 1000 pounds.
“You are Kumari now. You must remember to always respect and love your people. We have raised you to be good and to be humble.” She continued to look at him, for it was obvious there was something else he wanted to say.
“We will miss you, Desha.”
She sighed. The thought of being kumari had been exciting, but she had barely thought through the part about leaving her parents.
“I will miss you too!” With that, she abandoned the neutral façade she had forced on herself and practically jumped onto her father, who caught her in his muscular arms. He squeezed her tightly while her mother rubbed her back. She could hear mother starting to sniffle.
“We should go or we will become a sad and weeping mess, and that is not for a Kumari.” She said it through tears that were already forming.
Father hesitated, but then released his only daughter. “Yes, your mother is right I’m afraid.”
The girl tried to cling to him, but knew it was not the right behavior.
“When will I get to see you again?”
“We will be able to visit every month or so, but there will be a care-taker there as well. Our visits may not be long, as you will have many other people to see.” The girl could not hide her disappointment.
“But know that any time I am in Kathmandu to sell wares, I will stand outside the ghar and look at your window with the crowds.” Her father. “But now if I see a glimpse of you, I will be blessed.” He chuckled. “I suppose I should have realized this was true before today.” He blinked rapidly, and he and mother made their exit.
As soon as the last note of her mother’s perfume had followed her out the door, the man re-entered.
“You are ready?”
“You should know that this walk we will take to greet the people, it is the last time your feet will touch the ground for many years.” She knew it was so. From now on, any occasion to go outside would see her carried by her servants.
“May I…?” Her voice trailed off. She wanted to know if she could walk without her pinching, confining shoes to feel the ground beneath her feet for a last time. But the thought of a new Kumari walking to meet her people barefoot suddenly seemed foolish. “Nevermind. It’s alright.”
“Ok. But remember that you may always ask what you need of me. Or of anyone.”
As they wound back down the narrow passages, well-toned servants fell in on all sides of her. The sunlight as they opened the door was a shock after all that dark. A wall of noise hit her like a wave when the river was particularly rough as the people erupted into sound at the sight of her. She blinked and smiled demurely, nodding her head slightly. The man turned to her. “You may wave.”
As she waved, with much restraint, she scanned the crowd. Her parents were there to her right side, and not far from them was Mishti with her parents. The others were a mass of color and city smells.
“Now we will proceed to the Ghar.” Without touching her, he closed in near her elbow to lead the way. The crowds followed as a single entity, people pushing people to get as near to her as the guards would allow. She looked at as many as she could, unsure whether it would even bring them luck yet. She was glad to arrive at the square building that would now house her, though she made a special effort to pay attention as her left foot left the ground for the last time and landed inside the threshold.
She was told the goddess would possess her upon her taking residence at Kumari Ghar, but the girl felt painfully like herself for the first weeks. She missed her father and Mishti. She missed the freedom to run along the path to school, and even school itself. She had her own teachers now, and they introduced her to the internet and all the knowledge that she could find there, but even the hours spent looking at pictures of different countries and their people couldn’t stop her loneliness; in fact, they made her confinement feel worse
The first time she saw another child in the Ghar, she could barely hide her excitement, though she was expected to hide her own, Adesha’s, personal feelings at all times now. The entire country thought she was possessed by a goddess, and she felt obligated to act as if it were true. Still, the sight of the young boy and girl, maybe 5 and 8, filled her with joy. She wanted nothing more than to talk to them. She addressed the woman who was currently brushing her long hair.
“Jass, who were those children I passed in the hallway?”
“Kumari, those are the servant Kamal’s children. He sometimes brings them here to the ghar after they are finished with school. Does their presence disrupt you?”
“No no!” She realized she had shown too much excitement and regained her composure. “I just….am I allowed to speak with them?”
“Of course Kumari! You may speak with whomever you like.” Jass looked at her face closely. “Would you like a formal meeting with the children, or are you wishing to simply enjoy their company as other children?”
She sat upright with excitement. “Yes. That. I want to spend time with them outside my meeting room if I can.”
“Yes you may. I will go fetch them as soon as I’ve finished dressing you.”
The children looked nervous standing in front of Adesha in the large room that Jass led them into.
“Kumari, this is Aayusha and Bibek. They are brother and sister, and they live here in Kathmandu with their mother and father.”
“It is nice to meet you!”
The children blushed in unison at her greeting and simultaneously said “it is our pleasure to be in your presence, Kumari.” Then they looked at their feet, unsure of what to do next. Adesha did not know herself. She looked curiously at Jass, whose laugh only slightly broke the tension.
“You are all children, even kumari! You are free to play. I will be just in the adjoining room reading my book if you need anything. There are toys and games if you would like any of them. Just ask.” With that, she retrieved a paperback that Adesha had somehow never noticed from a mysterious fold in her dress. The girl caught a glimpse of a shirtless man on the front before Jass closed the door behind her.
The siblings continued to take a keen interest in their feet.
“What kinds of things do you like to play?” She felt it was her responsibility to take the initiative, but she certainly did not feel possessed by the assurance of the goddess now, faced with children who were clearly afraid of her.
The girl Aayusha cleared her throat. “Goddess, my brother likes to play with trucks and blocks, as he is still young. I like to play teacher and servant games.”
She paused before adding. “What does…. What….. do you play games, kumari?”
“I haven’t got to since I’ve lived here because there is no one to play with. The servants are always busy and usually I’m meeting with people who come to visit. But when I lived with my parents, I liked to play games outside and to have tree climbing contests.”
The boy chirped excitedly. “I also like to climb trees! Can we do that?”
Adesha looked at her own feet. “I can’t. I can’t leave the ghar without being carried. That might make climbing a tree kind of funny if Jass has to carry me up it.”
The boy looked embarrassed, and Adesha was quick to jump in with “But that’s ok! I like building things with blocks too, and playing teacher is my favorite. I think I might like to be a teacher when I’m not kumari anymore.”
The girl looked skeptical. “But how do you know? You don’t go to school.”
This hurt Adesha, but she couldn’t have explained why.
“I used to, before I became kumari. I liked school a lot. I miss it, and I miss sitting next to my friend Mishti.” And then, to her horror, she found her breath starting to heave as if she would cry. She breathed in sharply, trying to stop herself, but she could tell Aayusha had noticed.
“I…I’m sorry to have made kumari sad. I beg your forgiveness. I didn’t mean it.” But she looked more afraid that sorry.
“It’s alright. I just miss being home sometimes, though” she was quick to add “I love my life here in the palace, and I love the presence of the goddess.”
An awkward silence followed while the children remembered that they were in the presence of terrifying divinity, and while Adesha remembered that she was supposed to be filled with terrifying divinity.
Aayusha broke the silence. “Maybe Ms. Jass can bring us a chalkboard and some books. And maybe some blocks for my brother.”
“That sounds fun.” And Adesha went off to find her.
Later, talking to Jass, she recounted the awkward play that had followed for the next hour.
“Jass, can I ask you something?”
“You have helped other kumaris before, right?”
“Yes I have.” She smiled proudly. “Two others before you.”
“Did they….. were they….. do you think they were like, the goddess, like all the time? Or did they just feel like themselves sometimes?”
Jass smiled reassuringly, as if she knew the question would come eventually.
“You are worried, kumari, that the goddess has not possessed you as she should.” Adesha’s fearful eyes gave confirmation, and Jass was quick to reassure her.
“This is alright. The goddess possesses you when she feels the whim to. When you meet with the citizens she possesses you.” Adesha wished she was better at hiding her facial expressions. Jass just laughed. “Right now Adesha, you, are fighting with her a little when she tries to possess you. This is natural. You are not comfortable with her yet, but you will be. All kumari have this struggle in some way. This is because we choose humble kumari, and they sometimes feel they do not deserve the goddess. But the longer you are here and the more you hear the needs and troubles of the citizens, the more the goddess will assert herself within you.”
“Then will I eventually be just the goddess?”
“No no. The goddess is kind. She will only use you when she needs to. The rest of the time you are simply Adesha. It must be so. Otherwise you would not know who you were when the goddess leaves you and finds another child.”
Adesha breathed a sigh of relief. “But the other kids do not understand.”
“No.” Jass sighed herself. “This is true. They have been taught to respect and honor kumari, so it is a rare child who will make the kind of playmate you were used to before. “
“How can I make them less afraid?”
Jass thought carefully. “I’m not sure that you can, kumari. You may tell them to be comfortable, that they can fight with you or play rough with you, but everyone else will tell them this is not so. They may even be convinced that it is the goddess playing a trick.”
“Jass, could I see my friend from before?”
Jass smiled. “I was going to suggest it. Your good friend is Mishti, right? From your village. The beautiful girl who was part of the selection.”
Adesha’s face lit up at just the mention of the other girl’s name. “Yes! Mishti! Can I see her?”
“You certainly may. I can contact her parents and, if they do not want to come to Kathmandu, I can send an escort to bring her to you.”
Adesha thought about how much her friend would love having a special escort from the palace arrive in the village to bring her. She also remembered how much she dreaded being around her father – how she never wanted to go home when the sun set.
“Can we just send the escort? Mishti doesn’t really like to go with her parents.”
Jass’ face inexplicably darkened. “Yes. That is a very good thought. Perhaps that is the thoughtful goddess possessing you.” She blinked and her face cleared again. “Or maybe Adesha is just a thoughtful girl.”
Mishti’s visit was arranged for a month after Adesha’s request. Jass informed the kumari that her friend’s parents had asked for it to be that far away. Adesha was impatient, but composed herself as the kumari should and decided that she could wait. Besides, she was busy enough. Every day there were people to visit her who were in need and had requests of the goddess. It saddened Adesha to see so many with lives so painfully different than hers had been in her village. Some of those who visited were grotesquely deformed or terminally ill. Some had lost their homes or their possessions to accidents or the earthquake. Many of those who had lost their homes to the ground’s violent seizures complained that the government had promised them money to rebuild, but had never produced it. Adesha couldn’t help but start seeing the government as a villain in the story of her people.
Thankfully, these depressing meetings did offer distraction while she waited for Mishti, and as she became more comfortable meeting with the people, she noticed a stir in herself when she sat down across from someone with tears in his or her eyes. Once in a while, at those moments, she would feel Adesha begin to recede, and a force of sheer confidence would take her over. When she felt it happening, she would focus hard on allowing the goddess to overtake her, but sometimes in focusing so hard, she drove her away. Quickly the fear that she would not return was squashed, for Adesha knew she was the only vessel.
The day of Mishti’s arrival was exceptionally hot. Adesha woke at 5am, sweating through the thin sheets. Once awake, she was too excited to sleep. Hearing her toss and turn, Jass came into the room looking groggy, but she smiled. She was happy for Adesha’s reunion and went about washing the girl’s hair in the dim sun rising through the Eastern window. The light illuminated flecks of dust that fell around them as Adesha chattered happily about all her childhood memories involving Mishti.
Shortly after breakfast, the companion of all her best stories finally arrived. When Mishti entered the room, Adesha automatically jumped off her cushion to embrace her friend. She was shocked to find Mishti’s beautiful face cold and smooth. Her arms didn’t fly up to wrap around her waist. Her eyes looked at the floor instead of crinkling around the corners as she held her gaze. Adesha couldn’t hide her astonishment, even with Jass still in the room.
“Mishti what’s wrong?!”
Mishti looked warily at the servant, then at Adesha. “I… well…I don’t know what you mean!”
“Aren’t you happy to be here?”
“Well yes of course! I just…..” she glanced at Jass again and Adesha waved her hand in a clear gesture of ‘it’s ok to talk in front of her’. “I just don’t know how I’m supposed to act with you now.”
Adesha flopped down in her chair dejectedly.
“How you’re supposed to act? Like usual! Like always! It’s not different because I’m the kumari.”
“I…no I guess not. It’s just….well this isn’t exactly like running up the side of a mountain, is it?” She laughed as she gestured at the palace around her.
Adesha had to laugh. “Yeah. No I guess not”. And she was struck suddenly by how quickly she’d apparently acclimated to her surroundings. They failed to strike her as really that unusual anymore. She leapt out of her chair again and took her friend’s hands. “But forget about it. Tell me everything about home!”
With that, Mishti melted a little and sunk into her seat, slowly letting all the gossip of the village seep out of her like water leaking luxuriously from a pump.
Mishti was only allowed to visit every few months. When she did, the two girls never spoke about Mishti’s failure to be selected kumari; in fact, they both actively tried to forget that the goddess even existed, much less possessed one of them from time to time, as they chatted and played ecstatically. The times between their meetings were like strange filler for Adesha as she felt the goddess guiding her more and more. Now there were times when, meeting with a villager, she would seem to almost black out, only to have a vague memory later of leaving the meeting, falling asleep, or crying at their story. Jass assured her it was because the goddess was fully in her. Adesha was often embarrassed of those times she fell asleep with an audience or became angry, but she was assured that the goddess was always right in her responses, and that the girl must trust the woman there within her.
When she was not giving out advice or walking past her window in hopes of bestowing luck to those below her or, more frequently, scanning those in the square for a glimpse of her father whom Jass told her was too afraid to visit for fear that he wouldn’t recognize his daughter, Adesha read and researched far-flung places on the internet. She started crafting elaborate daydreams about the places she would visit when she was no longer kumari, even as she came to expect Jass there to wash her hair, the cooks to create her perfect meals, and the children to play whatever board game she might like at the moment. But nothing compared to the days where Mishti would visit, though she could only ever stay for a few hours. Those hours were the landmarks in Adesha’s routine; everything else simply filled time.
The month after Adesha’s 10th birthday, Mishti came to visit looking pale and even thinner than usual. She was becoming rather tall, and Adesha couldn’t help but feel jealous of her friend’s perfect form. But Mishti didn’t look satisfied. It was as if, in all her beauty, she was instead trying to camouflage herself against any surface she found herself near, whether it be papered or human. When anyone but Adesha was in the room, she studied her long fingers nervous, picking invisible dirt from beneath her papery nails. When Adesha asked for the news, she hesitated and dropped her friend’s gaze.
“Oh, not much has been happening really. Just the same things as before.”
Adesha prodded her by asking about particular former school-mates and family members.
“Oh they’re ok.” She was clearly elsewhere.
“Mishti?” She snapped briefly back into focus. “Is everything ok?”
“Oh! Yes. Well, I don’t know what you mean.” Her eyes wandered to the corner of an area rug and hung there despondently.
“Something is wrong.”
To Adesha’s surprise, her friend burst into tears. Adesha was glad Jass had left the room so she would not even have to hesitate in going to embrace Mishti.
“What is it?”
It was the first time Mishti told her about the abuse her father and uncles had been committing against her since before Adesha had even left home. The physical results had led to Mishti’s being rejected as the kumari, but this was the easiest of the repercussions for her to handle now. Adesha asked if her mother knew. She did, but she remained silent. After Mishti had cried for what seemed like days, but for what could only have been mere minutes, the girls attempted to devise a plan. Mishti would stay in kumari ghar. Adesha would send the police to the village to take away Mishti’s father and uncles. As quickly as Adesha formulated a strategy, Mishti shot it down. Mishti would not be allowed to stay in the ghar, no matter what the circumstances. It was for the kumari and those who served her, and Mishti was not old enough to be a servant. If Mishti’s father and uncles were taken, there would be no one to support the large family. Adesha’s temptation was to try and wield her power as the goddess, but even she could not do so without leaving Mishti’s family in an impossible bind of poverty and shame. In fact, Mishti wanted no one to know; she turned flaming red even as she spoke about it to her best friend.
Before either girl had time to collect herself, Jass and the driver appeared in the doorway. It was time for Mishti to go home. She shot Adesha a look of dread that Jass seemed to pick up immediately. The driver was oblivious. She was gone.
That night as Jass prepared Adesha for bed, she asked how the visit had been. Adesha, not sure yet how to speak about it if she did at all, kept her lips held tightly together.
“Did Mishti say anything…unusual?”
Adesha could not lie to her ally Jass. “Yes. She…something bad is happening at home.”
“With Mishti’s family?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“There were rumors after the selection.”
Adesha hung her head, embarrassed for her friend.
“It is nothing for Mishti to be ashamed of. It is not her fault.”
“But what are we supposed to do?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Is there something we can do? I want to bring her here with me.”
“You know it is not possible.”
“Can’t we separate her from her family?”
“But she is only 9. How would she support herself?”
“I….I don’t know.”
“It is a difficult situation, but one that faces many young women.”
“I am a goddess. Why can I not do something?”
“Because you are merely the vessel of the goddess. The goddess may offer advice and guidance, but she does not act.”
“Only Adesha the girl can act.”
Adesha turned this over in her brain as she flowed in and out of sleep like a tide onto sands so fine they slipped through her fingers as she tried to hold on.
Only Adesha the girl could act. And she must. When she woke the next morning, Adesha the girl felt the goddess strongly within her, riling her to action, compelling her to do what they both knew was right. Adesha would take her friend away from the village. She would steal her away in the night, hide her safely in Kathmandu, and use her many resources to ensure her friend was cared for until Adesha’s first blood, when she would be free to go and stay with her friend. By then they would be nearly teenagers and old enough to care for themselves. Jass saw the resolve on Adesha’s face immediately.
“Kumari, it seems you have devised a plan.”
For a second, she was torn between wanting to trust Jass and fear that she would try to stop her. Trust won, and she told her how she was plotting to flee the gar and travel to the village in disguise. After all, she would need Jass’ help with make-up and hair so that she would not be recognized and stopped.
Jass looked unsurprised.
“Your absence would be realized almost immediately. I could claim you were ill, but…”
“No, you would be released from your duties. You would have to tell everyone I had gone missing.”
“You would have only 12 hours or so to get out of the city, and even then everyone would be hunting you.”
“What would happen if they caught me?”
“You would be sent back here immediately, and you would be stripped of your place as kumari. Another vessel would be chosen.” She looked at her with great intention.
She thought hard about this. Without even realizing it, she had been growing to love the presence of the goddess, to love the people who came to her with their tears and their anger and their desperation. She had loved the look of calm and peace that crept across their faces as the goddess blessed them and reassured them, sending them back to their children and donkeys and sheep. Even though she had been here only a year, it was hard to imagine life without the goddess. What a shell she would be, a girl abandoned by the most powerful of women and left alone without even a childhood.
And then she remembered Mishti. Mishti, running through the terraces, destroying the crops under her bare brown feet. Mishti, twisting her hair into braids that looked like the scaly tails of dragons, singing under her breath without even knowing. Mishti, climbing the snowy paths over an avalanche as if she was a mountain goat. The mountains. Adesha gasped at the memory of them. It had been a year since she’d glimpsed the blinding snow or felt the fine powder fall on her face. A year since her face had grown numb in the cold as she gazed up at those impossible peaks. A year since she’d run up those slopes as if it was nothing. She touched the muscles in her legs – she could not run up them now. Unexpectedly, this thought infuriated her. She loved the goddess, but where had Adesha gone? Where was that girl who could herd the animals as competently as her father? Who could carry an injured baby goat the whole way home.
She would take Mishti away from her family. She would bring her here, to Kathmandu and they would work in the palace until they were old enough, serving the new girl who would be Kumari. Who better to serve her than a previous vessel? They would get strong and clever and older. And then they would go back to the mountains. But not back to the village. They would join the porters. There were women porters now; they escorted the white women who came to climb, but who didn’t want to be surrounded by foreign men of dubious intent. Mishti could be around all other women; she would feel safe then, and Adesha would be by her side. They knew the mountains. They would make names for themselves. She would be in the mountains always, traversing the jungles, picking leaches off legs as she showed them to people from around the world; her home, the roof of the entire world. The place that dictated whether it would rain or snow in any part of the globe. She would pray to the goddess, but she would not be her. It was ok that way.
“The best time would be after your last meeting, before supper. I will do your make-up. I will say you’re eating in your chambers. You will have 15 hours before anyone knows you are gone. Then they will begin looking for you.”
Adesha merely nodded.
“Are you sure this is what you want? You will lose the goddess forever.”
Adesha’s face remained passive. Her mind was already in the mountains.
Jass was a master with a make-up brush. When she looked in the gilded mirror, Adesha found herself neither the girl she was, nor the goddess. She was something else entirely. She was any child on the streets of Kathmandu. Her hair looked disheveled, her face slightly oily and stripped of the make-up she’d grown so accustomed to. She looked as if she’d been running down dusty streets through the sunset pollution, chasing after school mates. She did not know where Jass had gotten the clothing she changed in to, and she did not ask. They could have come off any clothes line in the poor part of the city. She felt immediately dirty just looking at them, and she laughed at herself as she flinched pulling them on. Soon she would be back amongst donkey dung and horse flies. When she was finished, they waited together for the sunset. Jass gave her advice on what sorts of vehicles to look for. Ride only with women, she said. Foreign women if possible. It doesn’t no matter where they’re going, even if it’s the wrong direction. Just go away from Kathmandu. Women who looked like they had children would be best. If she got stuck, bring on some fake tears and plead with every passing family that she was lost and needed to get back to her village.
Then the sun had collapsed in the sky, folding in on itself through the strips of murky orange that hung around the city, and it was time. Jass helped her out of a one-story window silently. The guards were changing and no one noticed. It was not the stealth endeavor Adesha had imagined; she simply walked away from the ghar.
Once she was out of sight range of the palace she reached down and removed the simple shoes Jass had given her. Her soles were soft now, lotioned and susceptible to every pebble, every shard of glass, the bite of every tiny insect. She didn’t care. The street dug into her heels until she could feel it up her calves, and she closed her eyes to enjoy it. She wiggled her toes, displacing a thousand shreds of unsavory materials. She dug her manicured toenails into the dirt. Then she remembered and went on her way.
She didn’t have to wait long for a woman with a teenage daughter to pick her up. She clambered into the back of their tiny vehicle and asked where they were headed. It didn’t matter. She’d say she was heading just a couple miles from that destination, as long as it was out of the city. It wasn’t far on the outskirts, but it was good enough. They rode in silence, the teenaged girl frowning while the mother tried to make small-talk with them both. Adesha smiled politely but refused to open her mouth more than necessary, afraid the goddess would gush forth unwittingly. The woman dropped her off at her signal and Adesha looked for another ride on the road the led towards the mountains. Many men stopped, but she backed away, staying close to any available lights. She was thankful for the bustle of the outskirts even this late. Eventually a very old man in a truck stopped. She asked if she could just sit in the back of the pickup. He smiled, understanding, and she ducked down with her head on her knees as they rumbled over potholes so large she had to hold herself down to keep from flying out. They whizzed up the narrow roads passing brightly colored buses adorned with scenes from popular movies, common sayings, and dashboard sculptures of Buddha. She could smell the air changing and dust stopped assailing her bare face.
By the time the sun rose, she was miles outside Kathmandu in a small town near the foothills. She had found a garden shack to sleep in, and chickens clucked and pecked at her. She didn’t mind. As she wandered aimlessly around town, anxious to find something to eat, people began whispering, then shouting about reports of a missing kumari. She kept her tangled head down. No one even glanced twice as the women beat their garments clean and hollered to each other their inquiries into what if meant if a goddess went missing. Had the higher powers abandoned Kathmandu? Perhaps it was a political statement.
She found a trio of American women hikers, and they got her close to home, asking her questions the whole way about the culture and the people of Nepal. They could not believe in such a thing as a kumari, and she laughed when she told them the legends about selection rituals and thighs like deer. Even as she spoke, she could feel the goddess abandoning her. The gravity that had held her adventurous spirit in place so that she could fulfill her duties began to lift, and beneath it, Adesha the girl stirred. As she watched the mountains approach out the open window, her heart gave a series of small jumps and her stomach turned around on itself.
They left her at a suspension bridge, and she jumped lightly out of their jeep. She looked up at the whiteness above her. This was where she belonged. She paused for a moment to breath the air. She pulled her shoes from her feet and wiggled her toes. But she was here for a reason, and she proceeded barefoot across the bridge towards Mishti’s house. It was still light, and she would need to wait until nightfall to lead her friend away from the village. For now, she stayed out of sight, hiding herself beneath rocky outcroppings and wading in the river.
When the moon had climbed over Annapurna, reflecting off the sullen starkness of that mountain that claimed half those who attempted its peak, she headed into the village. She found an appropriate pebble and aimed its trajectory just right to hit Mishti’s window, as she had so many times before. Her arm, it seemed, had retained that muscle memory perfectly. Mishti glanced out and her expression changed instantly to one of awe. Her eyes grew rounded and her mouth broke into the grin that seemed to literally drown her entire face in warmth. She was in the window for only a split second – she seemed to know exactly what was happening. Why else would the kumari be at her window? Yet when she appeared before Adesha a minute later, she held no possessions. Her hands were empty until she threw them around her best friend. Adesha motioned for quiet and grabbed her hand. They re-traced the goddess incarnate’s footsteps along the bridge and back down the mountain. It was a challenge to pick their way along in the dark, where slipping would be catastrophic, but their feet were sure and they were patient with one another. Hours passed as they made their way towards the road, but they hardly felt them as focused as they were on getting safely away from the village, and on talking to one another whenever they weren’t in earshot of a house.
Mishti caught Adesha up on all that had happened since her visit, good and bad, without the normal time constraints of a goddess schedule. When they finally got to the road, they had to wait until sunrise for a truck to appear. As they walked up and down the dirt path, Mishti asked what would happen when they returned to Kathmandu.
“We’ll go to the ghar. After that, I don’t know. Maybe they’ll say I’m not the vessel anymore and then I’ll just be a regular girl again. Or Jass says they could maybe forgive me and continue to let me serve as the vessel until I become a woman. I don’t know.”
“If they say you aren’t the kumari, what will we do?”
Adesha shrugged her slim shoulders. “Maybe they will let us stay in the ghar to serve the new kumari. I could help out a lot with her adjustment and all, and you’re so good at sewing that I bet they’d let you work with the seamstress.”
“That sounds ok!” She smiled shyly, always modest about her talent. But her face clouded over suddenly. “But what if the goddess leaves you and they won’t let us stay at the ghar? What will we do?”
“We’ll work in Kathmandu for a few years until we’re strong enough to be guides, or maybe porters for women hikers. Would you like that?”
“Oh we’d make the best guides! We know all about the mountains and the wildlife and how to get the best views of the sun coming up over the peaks. But we would guide together, right? Or carry bags together if we had to.”
“But, Adesha…..” As Mishti spoke, her eyes traveled to the dirt between her bare toes. “Won’t it feel painful for the goddess to leave you?”
Adesha looked far away for a moment, her face to the mountains. The goddess might leave her, but in that moment, she would know a freedom no one else could possibly understand. To not only be Adesha, but to be Adesha in a wide world now known to her where no one recognized her, where no one understood what it was to be just a girl after being a goddess. To be Adesha, a strong young girl who had been a woman and come back, and to be what she was in these mountains that were the home of where all the weather was made.
As a truck bounced along the potholes headed towards them in the rising sun, Adesha turned one last time to glimpse the white peaks before the hustle of Kathmandu obscured them. As the driver slowed to a halt, she turned to her companion.
“If the goddess needs me, she will find me again in the mountains.” And they climbed into the bed of the truck and asked to go to Kathmandu. When the kindly driver dropped them just outside the Ghar, Adesha faced the building without fear. She contemplated the slippers in her hands, and she paused. Then she put her shoulders back and walked boldly forward barefoot, towards whatever fate unfurled to meet her and her goddess.
Nora Weston is a Michigan based writer/artist. Her publishing credits include novels, anthologies, plus fiction and poetry in various magazines, including; Hoboeye, The Harrow, Eye to the Telescope, Calliope on the Web, Bete Noire, and NewMyths.com. Recent work has been published by The Drabble, Star*Line, Ramingo’s Porch, and Bull & Cross. Drabbledark Anthology and Ad Astra have accepted work as well.
FANTASTIC TALES OF MERRICK
Josaya’s heart throbbed, while his lungs ached for more oxygen. “Not more rebels!” he yelled. His scratched up and bleeding legs betrayed him. Josaya fell down a muddy hillside to land fairly close to the Atlantic shoreline of his home, Freetown. Wiping sweat from his eyes, he picked himself up and bolted like a wild animal toward the sandy beach.
“It’s no use. Things will never change. Isn’t it enough those brutes recruited my brother last year?” Thunder rolled across an almost black sky; lightning shattered Josaya’s memories of his older brother, Solomon. “I’ll never see him again. It’s not…” Abruptly, he stopped speaking to look up. Rain smashed upon his face forcing him to close his eyes.
Filled to the hilt with grief for his brother and his homeland, Sierra Leone, Josaya felt hopelessness swell. The storm raged on soaking him from head to toe. “I’ve nothing left to live for,” he said knowing the rebels were about to find him. Opening his eyes, Josaya dropped to his knees. “Solomon. You were always there for me after Father left.” He struggled to remain calm; for in truth, Josaya feared the rebels. “No. They won’t own my last minutes.”
Gunshots and the frantic screams of the rebels grew nearer. The loud roar of their militant vehicles threatened all sensibilities. “Where is that kid? ” More gunshots were fired. “He stole from us, so he’s done!”
“I stole from them? Never would I be such a fool.” Josaya stood up. “I’ll die for something I did not do,” he said walking toward the ocean, “but I know who I am.” A sigh, filled with much sadness for a life not yet lived, caused his chest to tighten. “Nothing else I can do, so I’ll look at the beauty in front of me until they come. I’ll see what is good in Freetown.” Standing with his bare feet in the sand, Josaya felt ocean waves crash against him. He felt every single raindrop prick his skin. A peculiar smile smothered Josaya’s face. “Strange. With only a minute or so to live, I’m finally not afraid. I’m a waterside stone, at last.”
“There he is!” The rebels zoomed faster toward Josaya. “He’s ours now.” Gunshots echoed in the air with animosity.
That second, the great storm vanished. Welcomed sunlight shone down on a calm, blue ocean as a flowery scent floated upon the air. No whacked out rebels could be seen or heard.
Josaya looked all around thinking, What’s going on? A rush of adrenaline burned his insides. “Where’d they go?” Clutching at his chest, he said, “I’m still alive?” A few chuckles escaped. “Very good! Very good, indeed.”
And then, to his surprise, he felt something bumping against his feet. Josaya looked down to see an extraordinary, black leather-bound book. The title, Fantastic Tales of Merrick, was written in the most beautiful, blue script he’d ever seen. “What’s this?” Leaning over, he picked up the book holding on to it for dear life. Moving away from the ocean, Josaya wiped his face saying, “Got to get out of sight.” He dashed back into the menacing woods. “It’s either outwitting those rebels, or I’ll have more than cut up legs to worry about.”
Thrilled about his new discovery, Josaya found a quiet spot in the woods. He stared at the black book while his thoughts raced. Hmm, not wet. Whose is it? Still perplexed, but curious too, he bit his bottom lip looking around for imminent danger. “Dare I open it?” Taking a deep breath, he ran his fingers over the blue script. “Fantastic Tales of Merrick,” he said with a tone of special mischief—the kind only a young mind owns.
Suddenly, cool wind brushed up against him. It whispered in his ear, “In the dreams of children lies all hope.”
“What!” Josaya about jumped out of his skin. “Hope? Here in Freetown and brought to me by the wind? I’m losing my mind.” Swallowing hard, he settled himself and looked down at the first page, which was blurry. “This is not at all what I expected.” He attempted to read the first page, again.
Page 1: Life is never what one expects, is it Josaya? Escape your doldrums, ring the bell, go berserk…anything, but speaking such balderdash. Life is an adventure! Are you ready to take one?
Most profoundly shocked, Josaya tossed the book in front of him. “No…can’t be. How could this book be written to me?” Rubbing the back of his head, he sighed feeling eager and horrible at the same time. “And, yet, it is. It chose me.” He leaned over, and with trembling hands, he grabbed the book. “Okay. Let’s do this.” He opened it.
It read: Thank you for your full attention, Josaya Cole. And do not look at me with those wide-open eyes of disbelief. What? You do believe in magic, don’t you?
As if the book were a person, Josaya answered it. “Uh…well, I used to believe in magic. But, I used to believe in many things. And, now, look at me. I’m talking to a book I pulled out of the ocean, that is not wet. I must have a monkey’s brain!”
Hogwash! Don’t be so sure I’m just a book. I beg to differ. What you have found is hope. Within my words of wisdom and fantastic tales are dreams dipped into magic. Josaya, are you ready to go on a quest?
Squirming in his own skin, his throat became dry like the Sahara Desert. “A quest? For years, that’s all I’ve dreamed about.” He sat. “Yes, I can do this.” With eyes dancing with delight and a heart on fire, he turned the page.
Page 2: Well, done…lad! Slowly, I’ll bring you into my world of wizardry. However, for today, our journey is over. About a half mile behind you, is a small cave. Branches and thorns cover the opening of the cave. Do not fear your skin will be shredded to the bone…leave me there. You’ll know when to return. Speak of this to no one! If you do, I’ll be gone, forever.
Josaya tapped on page two and thought hard about turning to page three. “I could sneak a little peak, right?” A sly smile showed as his brown eyes darted all around to see if anyone had suddenly emerged from the woods.
“Don’t even think about it,” demanded the ruthless wind as it blasted into Josaya’s ears. “No more reading today, and what your eyes behold shall not cross through your lips. Integrity, boy!”
Shrugging his shoulders, Josaya stood up saying, “So be it, black book. To the cave I’ll take you, and then home. I don’t need to make a wizard angry. I’ve had enough misery in my life.”
Swooshing about him like a sentinel of sorts, the wind blew through his long hair to remind him he was not alone anymore. “Good decision, Josaya. Merrick will be pleased,” said the wind.
Josaya grinned. He climbed up a rocky hill and instinctively knew where to find the small cave. He knelt down, and without any thought of danger, stuck his hand right through the numerous sticks and thorn branches; he placed the black book in the cave. “Stay put.”
Nightfall invaded Freetown bringing eerie sounds and movements to the woods. Moonlight flickered about with ghostly intentions while Josaya stayed alert for danger. His nerves were on edge as he said, “Merrick, who…or what are you? I still can’t believe you sent the black book to me.” For once, he made it home without any mishaps along the way.
Josaya looked at the shack that was his home saying, “Well, another day in the trenches.” He stopped for a moment and studied his neighbors tending to their lives in the glow of moonlight. Despite wearing colorful clothes, their situation was anything but that. “Mama always tells me that when a chicken is white…it’s white. Sorrow lives here, and that’s plain to see.”
The dirt streets and mud shacks, surrounded by people starving and anxious for hope, saddened him. Folding his arms and with raised eyebrows, he said, “I feel sick. When will things change?” He entered his home feeling aged, as though childhood had been devoured by the continual violence.
“Josaya! Mama is not well.” Aisha pulled him to their mother.
Looking pencil thin and as frail as a butterfly’s wings, Mama stared at Josaya devoid of much emotion. Her breathing was shallow.
“Oh, Mama, have you been feeding us only to starve yourself?” Josaya kissed her forehead.
“My son, you and Aisha need whatever scraps we have. I’m an old woman. Leave me be.” She tried to roll over atop a bed needing mended.
Josaya stopped her. “We’ll all eat. We don’t have much, but we need you. Come, and eat with us.” He held her fragile hands.
“No, I won’t take food away from my children.” Tears ran down her cheeks.
Aisha turned away from her mother and began to sob. “Where have you been, Josaya? I’ve been yelling for you!” She threw a wooden spoon at him in anger.
“Jeez, I’m sorry. I lost track of time.” Kicking a few blankets out of his way, he grabbed his pounding head, totally stressed out. “If I could change things, I would,” he said.
“Josaya!” said Aisha as she turned around to view bags of fresh food by the door. Aisha hugged her older brother and rushed to prepare food for her family. “Why didn’t you say something? Sheesh!” Pulling her lengthy, coffee colored hair back and securing it with a multi-colored, straggly string, Aisha giggled.
“My son, you’ve brought food for us?” Mama smiled and sat up. “What have you been up to? Nothing I would disapprove of, I’m sure.” Her gray eyes always had a way of seeing truth.
“Well, Mama, um, it appears as though my luck has changed. No worries, let’s eat.” But before Josaya ate a spec of food, he wondered, Merrick, how did you do this? He grabbed a plump plum and tossed it into the air. Catching it, he uttered softly, “Yes, magic, of course.”
Not a word was spoken as Mama, Aisha, and Josaya ate a fine dinner of fish, rice, plums, and mangos. All too often, their stomachs rumbled louder than their voices.
“Aisha, take some food to our neighbors,” said Mama. Then, she held Josaya’s hand. “Boy, I believe you. That this food is ours, and you worked hard for it.” She stared into his dark eyes. “For all of your fifteen years, I’ve raised you right, and now, look. You’ve not just helped us, but our neighbors. Thank you…” She hugged her son.
“Things are going to get better around here…promise.” He excused himself to go for a walk along the streets of Freetown. Although this time, Josaya looked into the eyes of his people. Agony, as boundless as the universe, infected his mind. In spite of eating a delicious meal, Josaya grew ill. He headed home and fell upon his mound of old blankets. Nightmares attacked him until morning.
Not soon enough, rays of sunlight warmed Josaya’s face. He opened his weary eyes. He rested on his sorry excuse for a bed, rubbed his eyes, and wondered if the Fantastic Tales of Merrick was part of his dreams. “I must find that cave.” Still dressed in his torn and faded beige shorts and a red tee shirt, Josaya left home never minding the fact he’d worn those clothes for almost a week. Traipsing through the woods, wearing Solomon’s scruffy, timeworn shoes, his eyes shimmered with glee. “What’s going to happen when I find you, black book?”
Locating the cave with the mapping skills of a young adventurer, Josaya collected his nerve. He knelt down and stuck his hand into the tiny cave. It slipped through the many sticks and thorn bushes as though they were a hologram. “Yes! So cool.” Josaya grasped onto the Fantastic Tales of Merrick and pulled his hand out. “Ah, here you are. Page three?” he asked while walking down the hillside.
Once again, the wind spoke to him, making contact with his skin. “In the dreams of children lies all hope.” It chilled him to his bones.
“Man, I hate that! Knock it off.” Josaya shook his head attempting to shake off the weird sensation caused by the supernatural wind. “What is up with you?”
Laughter echoed throughout the woods. “Open the book, boy!” ordered the wind.
“Okay, okay.” said Josaya. He sat down on soft grass. Plucking a few slender pieces of it, he weaved the grass into a bookmark. “This will do,” he said. Page three was ready to reveal itself. As Josaya’s eyes dropped to read it, words appeared. “Wow, remarkable. It’s like an unseen hand is writing the entire page.” Ready to dive into Merrick’s world of magic, he read page three.
Page 3: Josaya Cole, have no fear. I’m not a darkling; rather, I shine with armor forged from knowledge. My name is Merrick. I’ve lived for thousands of years. I’m a wizard of ceaseless power, and I’ve worked with many people including Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, and even Abraham Lincoln. Are you aware of these people?
“Yep. Heard of them. All fascinating people, for sure. But wait, how have you existed so long? What are you, now?”
The answers to his ponderings were already written on the page before him.
Page 3: I am what I choose to be, as we all are. I should’ve met with death thousands of years ago. Let’s just say…I’ve been blessed with a higher mission. Marvel at the men and women who’ve changed the world. Now, what excites you?
Josaya placed the black book in his lap. “I’d like to read a story about flying high in the sky. Is that possible?”
Page 4: Excellent choice, my boy! Your wish has been granted. If speed is your desire, then soar into the heavens with Charles “Chuck” Yeager. He took time to dream big and made history. Chuck knew the meaning of freedom, for he escaped a difficult life along the Mud River in West Virginia, USA.
Myra, West Virginia: 1934
Running barefoot, along the banks of the Mud River, Chuck was determined to win the race. He looked over his right shoulder and smiled. “No one in sight. Billie and Justin are far behind me. Fools, they are.” He pressed onward, until he ran right into a tall, strange looking man who seemed to appear from nowhere.
“My…my, we are in such a hurry, today, aren’t we, lad?” The tall stranger looked down upon the startled boy. He slammed his golden-tipped rod upon the ground saying, “Cat got your tongue?”
“No sir! And you need to be getting out of my way. I’m aiming to win this race, and you’ve stopped me dead in my tracks,” said Chuck. “You going to move it, or not?” asked Chuck sizing up this stranger.
“By the way...my name is Merrick. And I don’t believe I will be moving.” Merrick stared into Chuck’s eyes.
Chuck felt odd. He grabbed his head and tried not to look into Merrick’s greenish-blue eyes, but the trance was too great. “Business? You have some business with me, sir?”
“Yes, lad, you’re going to make history.” Merrick waved his hand in front of Chuck’s face. “Follow me, for we must speak of things to come.” Using his golden-tipped rod, he pointed to a huge boulder positioned along the bank of the river.
The two strangers sat.
“Sir…Merrick, who are you? Your long, black coat and fancy boots tell me you’re not from around these parts. Well, not unless you’re going to a costume party, that is.” Chuck snickered just a bit. “We need to hurry this up. The boys will rip me up if they see me swiping words with a guy like you.” Chuck threw a few stones into the river. They skipped across the water, but the water didn’t make any ripples. The stones had moved like they were in slow motion. Bewildered, but also quite curious, he said, “Mister, what have you done? I’ve a feeling you mean me no harm, yet you’re up to some nonsense, aren’t you?” Chuck stood up saying, “Incredible…”
Merrick arose and whispered, “Nonsense? No, I forbid it. I’m a bona fide dream weaver. Look around. Nothing is as it seems on this day of spells and shenanigans.” He encouraged Chuck to observe the wonder of his powers. “Don’t footle about, look!”
Chuck turned about and got the shock of his life. The woods no longer resembled the rolling hills of West Virginia, rather they had transformed into emerald valleys, which soon stretched out to become a sparkling white beach. The ocean waves splattered upon massive, black rocks and seagulls flew high above him. “Oh, wow. This has to be a dream,” he said.
“Yes, it’s a dream, your dream, Chuck. Don’t you recognize it?” asked Merrick. “Your dreams are always filled with faraway places.”
Just then, a fast moving plane swept through the blue heavens. It soared through the air faster than anything Chuck had ever witnessed. It flew upwards, faster and faster…
Then, it happened. Through the eyes of the pilot, Chuck experienced flying the plane. No fear was present in this boy, only immense joy. Determination laced with a longing to exceed all expectations he once had for himself exploded as his view of the world returned to that of Merrick’s.
“Awesome! Did you see that? I was in that plane, well, sort of…I think.” Chuck smiled ear to ear, happy to have run into Merrick.
“That’s a Bell X-1…and you’re flying it, Chuck Yeager. However, the date is October 14, 1947.” Once again, Merrick stared directly at the boy.
“What?” Chuck stepped back a few steps. He sat on the boulder. His West Virginia hills surrounded him once more. “Surely, you must be as nuts as a person can get, old man. You’d best be leaving these parts.” Chuck stared back at Merrick now wanting nothing else to do with him.
Quite amused with the entire situation, Merrick sat next to Chuck. “Oh, don’t get your dander up, lad. You desire to change your life. And you know how to dream. The key to your future is flight. Believe me when I say, you’re going to break the sound barrier in that Bell X-1…in 1947.
Chuck got up and brushed off his pants. “Yeah, that sounds like a good dream to me.” He was no longer angry with Merrick, because for a split-second, he wanted that vision to come true.
“There he is!” yelled Billie. “No way to beat me, now!” He hustled like crazy to try and pass up Chuck.
Swiftly, Chuck turned around to see Billie running toward him. He then noticed Merrick had vanished. “Was he for real?” he said. “Doesn’t matter….”
On October 14, 1947–with two broken ribs to boot, Chuck Yeager ascended into a dark purple sky to make history and became the first man to break the sound barrier exceeding 660 miles per hour.
Josaya was intrigued with this magical tale of Merrick’s. “I have dreams, too.” He closed his eyes. “And, my people…do they dream of better times?” He opened his eyes and placed the grass bookmark on page eleven. “Dare I look onto another page?” he whispered. “Yes! I want to know more.”
Completely lost in time with Merrick’s real life characters, Josaya had not heard the snapping of sticks and weeds, nor did he realize for the past five minutes, Okoro had watched the ancient magic dance in his eyes.
Unable to grasp the importance of friendship, always a slave to greed…Okoro caught Josaya by surprise. “Hand it over! That’s a prize if I’ve ever seen one. Now, Josaya, I mean it.”
Josaya stood leaving the one-of-a-kind book on the ground. As his dark brown eyes caught the gleam of a blade in Okoro’s right hand, Josaya understood perfectly well the wickedness present in Okoro had deepened, especially since his days and nights were spent as a scout for the rebels. Josaya stared at a seventeen year old threat desperate to prove himself. Careful, think…what to do? So, he smiled.
“Idiot! You think this is funny?” Okoro lunged toward Josaya attempting to inflict pain…or worse. “I’m taking that book!”
With newfound strength, Josaya blocked the attempt on his life, and then shoved Okoro to the ground. “Nah, you’re not. You’re not taking anything from me ever again.”
Okoro stood up. He was unaware Josaya was not alone. Big mistake.
The wind howled with vengeance as it rushed to engulf Okoro. His body spun around and around, until the knife flew from his hand. Filled to the hilt with terror, Okoro’s eyes about popped from their sockets. He couldn’t breathe. Gasping for air, he said, “P-please…Josaya! S-stop!”
Watching the supernatural show, Josaya knew he had a choice. Let him suffer, or show mercy. “Ah, let him go. I believe Okoro will keep this between us. He will change. Am I correct?” asked Josaya looking at the frightened boy. “Well?”
Presently screaming, Okoro belted out, “Yes! Okay…O-kaaay!”
Okoro ascended a bit higher. The wind, taking full advantage of this situation, whispered into Okoro’s ears. Future revelations were gifted to him that would surely transpire if he refused to change.
A minute later, Okoro’s body fell. It smashed upon Mother Earth. Moaning, he mumbled, “I’m not dead? And you could have killed me.” He held his head saying, “Whoa, whoa…”
Josaya stood over Okoro. “Well, it’s your lucky day, I suppose.”
“Uh-huh, yes…I know,” said Okoro getting up and feeling embarrassed.
With the situation under control, the wind left the rest of this conversation to Josaya.
“So don’t make me regret this. Take a chance. Be the difference, instead of the pain,” said Josaya.
“You kidding me?” he asked swiping a smidge of blood away from his hazel eyes. “Nightmares are all I have. I’m behind in school, my mother gone…my brother has turned his back on us, and my father is working himself to death.”
“Then change things. Think,” said Josaya with much compassion. “Now, go home. In ten days, meet me here. Bring new ideas, your goals for tomorrow, next week…next year. I will help.” He shook Okoro’s hand like a young diplomat.
Okoro smiled. “Yeah, why not? I’ll be no worse off. See ya in ten.” He walked over the hillside, and for the first time in four years, possessed hope.
Josaya watched Okoro until he was out of sight. His heart pounded with a fierceness he had never known. “Alright, so back to my adventure.” He sat, put The Fantastic Tales of Merrick on this lap, and then opened it.
Page 21: Unpleasant as that was, you handled yourself admirably. Okoro has potential, as we all do, but he needs a friend. You’ll see the importance of his friendship in eighteen years. Enough! Read…
“Oh, okay…like that doesn’t just make me nuts! Wait eighteen years?” Josaya laughed hard. The book shook.
“Fine! I’ll read…”
Page 22: Josaya, time has stopped. You will not leave this place until you’ve read this entire book. My tales will teach you the wisdom needed to make your dreams come true. Every word will be lodged in your brain, ready to access when necessary. Days will pass, but you will never be aware of it, nor will your family. You will not eat or sleep until this task is done. My magic will nourish you. I shall be on guard this time. Read, Josaya…read.
Josaya began reading all of the extraordinary tales of Merrick. The next fifty pages took him back in time with Cleopatra, who was born in 69 B.C. She ascended the Egyptian throne at the age of seventeen and died at the age of thirty-nine. Josaya learned of her strong determination and intelligence, but he also learned of how her alliances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony angered Rome and caused her collapse. Cleopatra was the last Egyptian Pharaoh.
Hungry for still more knowledge, Josaya read about the Vikings, Napoleon, the Aztecs, and all knowledge concerning World War I and World War II. Josaya, for better or worse, had consumed the many pages concerning the causes for World War III, but on the bright side…knew what to do to help prevent it. “Knowledge is, indeed, power. Power should be used for virtuous endeavors, though.”
Another two days passed before Josaya slid the book off of his lap. He lay back on the chilly grass and watched the stars as they took command of the sky. “Ah, my mind aches from the knowledge crammed into it. Although, the world does not appear so grim. I’ve changed.” He sat back up and proceeded to stretch, grasping that he is responsible for his life. The black book was sitting in front of him. “One last page to read, huh?”
Page 2545: Josaya, congratulations on the completion of this most important and difficult task; you’ve done well, boy. Use your unique talents and gift of compassion to help your people.”
Josaya picked up the heavy, black book. It had grown with every new tale Merrick had magically added to it. “Of course, I will help them.” He swallowed hard realizing why Merrick had chosen him. “Uh, I get it. I start by helping my family, my friends. I must make a difference, because I’m going to be a leader, aren’t I?” He finished reading the message from Merrick.
Page 2546: “Oh, Josaya…you won’t be just a leader. Your dedication to your country and sense of compassion for those around you will not only change Sierra Leone…it will change the world.”
With that, the Fantastic Tales of Merrick slammed shut. Josaya carried it through the foreboding woods and out onto the cool sand. Gently, he placed it in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
As it drifted out to sea, Josaya grinned. “Someday, a child is going to find the Fantastic Tales of Merrick and read about me.”
A boom, followed by another, echoed across the vermilion sky as the cylinder penetrated the atmosphere of the rocky planet. It shook off the ball of flame that had engulfed it and, steadying as it descended toward the line severing the light and dark sides of the planet, began slithering forward just above the chasms. For a few minutes the gleaming vessel seemed coiled in a mortal struggle with the craggy landscape, before it settled on a flat expanse just large enough to land on.
The hiss of the cylinder faded, and then it stood motionless on the span of weathered sandstone. After some time, an opening appeared on the side of the craft. Through the darkness a figure materialized, clad in a gray shell that shrouded its body, save for a globe atop its neck that reflected the rugged topography and gave it the suggestion of an insect. The figure cautiously scaled down a ladder, which protruded from the hatch, to the rocky terrain below. Another body, hoisting a container, emerged from the vessel and followed down the steps. They clung to the ladder for a moment, turned towards one another, then shuffled forward.
Reaching a small pool of water that flooded from a crack in the surface, they drew a sample into the container. Doubling back toward the cylinder, they paused to survey the vast stretch of canyons and mesas and buttes, and the dark clouds hanging in the blood-red firmament, then strode to the craft and dissolved once more into the shadows.
Beneath the shade of the cylinder the emptiness seemed to stretch to the horizon, broken only by the life-giving water.
The vial of clear liquid tremored slightly in Cassen’s gloved hands as he handled it through the glass encasement. He squeezed a couple drops of phenolphthalein into the vial. The liquid remained clear, just as he had suspected. He knew clean water when saw it. Water clean enough to splash on your face. Water pure enough to –
“But is it good enough to chase this?”
It was Dixon. The habitat’s pilot – a decorated pilot, having flown hundreds of combat missions in Lebanon and Yemen – dangled a packet of SynFood before Cassen, powerless to receive it with his hands buried in the glovebox. Cassen considered for a moment, before he tested for hardness, bacteria content, and so forth, why not, in fact, let Dixon dump the powdered mix of synthetic nutrients into a glass, stir in some water that the lips of a human being had never touched, and sit back and see what happens?
“It’s got about eight parts per million of dissolved oxygen, but I haven’t measured the pH,” said Cassen, “so you better steer clear of it after you jump off the 360-treadmill. But,” he added, “it might allow you to get that quarterly shampoo in.”
“Or you a shave, right, Cassen?” said Dixon, a toothy grin spreading across his pale visage. Cassen reflexively patted the months-old growth that had sprouted from his own face. He thought of the beard matting as water dripped from it in slow motion.
“Have you ever tried to use shears in zero gravity?” asked Cassen.
The grin expanded so widely that it seemed to fall off the edges of Dixon’s face. “Not without a vacuum cleaner, my friend.” His cheeks slowly folded back into place. “Maybe we can fill the tank with it anyway.”
“If we can find enough of it, sure,” said Cassen.
Dixon inspected the twin computer monitors above the glove box. “If it registers normal pH balance and low turbidity, you think that would indicate there was life on this planet at some point?”
Before Cassen could chime in with a nothing-above-the-microbial-level musing, his skepticism was usurped by a voice behind them. “Not in the Opiochus constellation there wasn’t.”
Garret was an avowed proponent of the school of thought that, despite a century of effort by private and public research organizations, the failure to locate life in so-called habitable systems such as Proxima Centauri and Trappist-1 – or, for that matter, to identify a single Dyson sphere in over 200,000 galaxies – was incontrovertible proof that humans would never find another advanced civilization close enough to be reached by the 22nd century’s solar propulsion spacecraft.
“This is a snipe hunt,” drawled the flight engineer, who joined Cassen and Dixon behind the glove box. “No infrared, no little green men.”
“Or brown,” said Cassen.
“Science fiction isn’t part of our operational directives, gentlemen,” rang the familiarly assertive voice of Commander Ford. His shoulders back, jaw square, hair high and tight, and eyes locked with whoever he engaged, Ford not only looked like what the space agency was after, but had the pedigree to match: third in his class at the Academy; instructor and test pilot at Schriever; commander of the 545th wing of Space Corps; time behind the consoles at Cape Canaveral; and even an Eagle Scout with 85 merit badges.
“But as you know,” Ford continued, assembling with them at the console, “dispatching an unmanned aircraft system to perform a routine survey of the landscape when we have detected a water source on one of our target planets is.”
Garret snapped to attention. “I’ll get ‘er online, Commander.”
“You better let me help you find the on switch,” quipped Dixon. They disappeared down the white corridor together.
Ford’s eyes returned to the console. Cassen knew what the ask would be. “Let me know what you turn up on the mineral content in that water, Cassen.”
“I’m on it, sir.”
“Thanks.” Ford turned on his heels and filed down the passageway, fingers curled at his sides.
The blades protruding from the mechanical insect began spinning furiously, and it whipped the surrounding dirt into a storm as it lifted from the ground next to the ship. One of the gray-sheathed figures, his head no longer topped with a globe, sat below, his arms stretched to another machine. He watched the insect ascend to the height of a mature pinyon pine. The device, legs extended from it like a spider, emitted a loud pestilent whirr as it crept across the sky.
Harrington was more reclusive than the other crew members of the habitat, often seeming to blend into the consoles and control panels of the sterile white interior. But his cohorts were keenly interested at the moment in what the soft-spoken archaeologist, the first such specialist to ever accompany a deep space mission, had to say as they gathered around his computer monitor.
“Now, the UAS laser scan covered an area of 31 square kilometers, with an altitude range from 65 to 500 meters,” said Harrington, his fingers tracing the contours of the 3-D topographical map on his screen. “I was browsing the reference images uploaded from the drone, and stopped when I ran across this outcrop here.” He pointed to a black spot in the midst of the yellow and orange hues coloring the image.
“What the hell is it?” asked Dixon.
“A cave,” said Brookes, his arms folded and a knowing expression painted on his face. His composure masked any intimation that he might erupt if pushed too far in a debate.
“Now there’s a geologist,” said Harrington. “And Brookes can speak to this better than I, but there are, of course, the possibility of volcanic formations on Wolf 1061c. Perhaps this is some sort of lava tube like they found on Mars in the 2030s. But another scenario –“
“Is that there are additional hydro sources in the cave that host microbial life,” said Cassen.
“Precisely. And with Cassen’s confirmation that the water is potable,” Harrington added, “maybe there were once higher life forms on this planet –“
“Oh Lord,” said Garret. “Here we go. He thinks he’s going to find the Pompeii of Opiochus.”
Harrington shot Dixon an icy glare, then turned to Ford. “Sir?”
The commander gave his chin an authoritarian scratch, then dropped his arms to his sides. “Alright, listen up,” he said. “We’ve got about two weeks before we could get stuck in a blizzard, so let’s make it snappy. Brookes, get the gear and a team together. Let’s get soil and mineral samples. And make sure you’re armed – in case we run across any microbial unfriendlies.”
“Yes sir,” Brookes replied. He allowed some levity to crack the unruffled veneer. “Dixon, you got the .50 cal under your pillow?”
“You bet your ass I do,” said Dixon.
They cracked matching grins at each other, then quitted the lab, followed by Ford. Cassen scrutinized Harrington with a mix of bemusement and frustration.
“Good eyes, Harrington,” said Cassen. “You might get your name on the map after all.”
Harrington said nothing, keeping his sights trained on the webs of color before him.
Brookes and Harrington disembarked guardedly from the space exploration vehicle, then paused at the cave’s entrance. Though they were on the side of the terminator line that was bathed in the glow of the red dwarf, they switched on their headlamps. Behind them were Martin, the mission specialist in botany, and Dixon, the rifle slung across his chest. The quartet stepped forward and, probing the interior with beams of light, were stunned by what they saw.
The cave appeared to be over a hundred meters high and an equal distance wide, putting it on par with the largest on Earth. Small pools of water, flowing over with calcite crystals shimmering white and yellow and orange, were scattered across the base of the orifice. From the ceiling hundreds of stalactites drooped, and, most impressively, in the center stood a stalagmite some 60 meters high, the rock flowing through it like the pipes of a church organ.
While Brookes marveled over the tapestry of thorny prisms before him, Martin extended a telescopic pole with a metal container on the end to the cave’s floor. On the verge of plunging the container into the soil, he halted as Brookes cried out.
“Oh my Lord!” Brookes’ eyes were fixed on a crystal formation that looked like a stack of white sheets of paper.
“What you got there, Brookes?” asked Martin, whisking the beam of his headlamp to the geologist.
“I think what I’m holding here is a compound of thorium and molybdenum known as ichnusaite. One of the rarest minerals on Earth.”
“Outstanding. I’m guessing you may not need a hammer for that one.”
“Negative. It should be,” Brookes said, carefully extricating the sheet of crystals, “brittle enough to come right off in my hands.”
“Nice work, Brookes,” said Dixon, a small camera with which he had been documenting the space coiled around the index finger of one hand, the other poised on the rifle’s trigger. “How you making out, Harrington?”. No reply came. “Harrington?”. He spun around.
Harrington stood motionless, his headlamp illuminating a carefully laid stack of rocks on the floor of the cave.
The purity of the habitat’s interior was disturbed by the dark metal storage container resting on a table next to Brookes’ workstation. Ford and Dixon flanked the box that held the geologist’s haul, their fists alternately resting on their chins or their palms patting their cheeks. Harrington, Cassen and Martin lingered in the background, arms folded and eyes trained on Brookes.
“If there is a strong occurrence of ichnusaite on Wolf 1061c,” said the geologist, “we may be able to collect enough samples to improve our understanding of the chemistry of the actinide molybdates that can cause radiation to be released from nuclear waste repositories.” He saw the eyes glaze over. “So that’s a huge win for the nuclear industry.”
The significance of the discovery began to dawn on the men. “Of course,” mused Garret, “they would want to study the impacts the temperature, atmospheric pressure and chemistry of the planet could have on their equipment.”
“Affirmative,” said Brookes. “You’ll recall they had to develop special drill bits to withstand the wide range of terrain and environmental conditions on Mars, for example. But I suspect they will ultimately be able to adapt those technologies to Wolf 1061c’s ecosystems.”
Harrington’s muted voice suddenly intruded from the shadows. “What if the cave shouldn’t be mined at all?”
The crew members twisted their necks to view the archaeologist with incomprehension. “I beg your pardon?” asked Brookes.
Harrington stepped forward cautiously. “What if that pile of rocks was deliberately placed?”
“Oh, here we go,” said Garret, throwing his arms up in frustration.
“I’m not saying anything is definitive, but … well, the columnar configuration of the stones suggests to me … a North American burial cairn dating from the Mississippian period,” said Harrington.
The men were silenced by his appraisal. Their heads told them it was wild speculation, but this was countered with the exhilaration they felt from being confronted with the possibility of such a monumental breakthrough.
Brookes broke the peace. “Well, that would obviously be a find of extraordinary magnitude. Should there be any … foreign objects … in the ground there, we do have a process for their recovery and examination. The procedures, of course, allow for the simultaneous exploration for mineral resources once a protective buffer has been established around the … archaeological site.”
“Yes, I agree, I’ll excavate and see what’s under the rocks,” said Harrington. “But if something is buried there … then I think we should consider recommending that it be preserved in situ, and the entire cave placed off-limits to extraction activities.”
Brookes turned to Ford to plead his case. “Sir, I think we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. We all can appreciate the potential import of that rock formation. But it’s only a potential. And I know I don’t need to remind you that our agency is guided by Space Council policy that prioritizes research promoting the economic benefit of the United States.”
“Sir, I would point out that the Outer Space Treaty, as amended, says that celestial bodies and the lands wherein are not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty,” said Harrington. “And if, on the off chance the cave is a cultural site –“
“Cultural site?” said Brookes. “Look, that treaty is a century old,” said Brookes, “it makes no mention of alien archaeological properties; no one is talking about appropriating anything other than mineral resources; and American mining law – emphasis added – says finders keepers, losers weepers.”
Ford cut in. “At ease, gentlemen. Let's table this discussion and focus on what we need to get done. We’ll establish a perimeter around the rocks, and Cassen and Martin will work with Harrington to excavate the site. Garret and Dixon will be assigned to Brookes to continue searching for mineral samples. Clear?”
“Yes sir,” said Harrington, and Brookes reluctantly echoed.
“Outstanding,” said Ford. “Get your toys out of the playroom, and we’ll set out at 0600.”
Brookes glowered at Harrington, then turned to exit. Harrington regarded the container. He peered deep into it, and saw a group of elderly women, sitting in a circle next to a lake. They cried as water lapped menacingly at the top of a stone wall that held the lake back from their land.
The cave was a hive of activity, with the men fanning out to inspect for mineral and archaeological resources. Dixon and Garret had installed an antenna just outside the entrance, which allowed their handheld to communicate with the neutron star-based galactic positioning system. Carefully avoiding the strings staked around the boundary of the rocks, they recorded coordinates, images of the cave, and voice notes – which were occasionally punctuated by an epithet followed by an allusion to Kepler, the namesake of one of the dead stars that sometimes failed to provide a proper signal. Brookes scanned the floor of the cave for major and trace elements with a portable x-ray fluorescent spectrometer. Martin helped guide Cassen as he used a magnetometer to search for objects potentially buried under the surface.
Harrington was on his hands and knees next to the rock column. He applied an electric trowel to the soil, gently peeling away layers that he dusted into a pan and then discarded to his side. He had covered about three quarters of the perimeter surrounding the column. His eyelids began to droop from the tedium of the activity. The tool whisked back and forth, side to side, like a metronome.
Suddenly a pallid tinge emerged through the dirt. Harrington instinctively lurched back, and his gloved hands clutched his face. Martin, observing Harrington’s reaction, helped Cassen extricate himself from the magnetometer, and, easing around one of the crystalline pools, they hiked to the piling.
No longer exercising restraint, Harrington attacked the soil furiously with the trowel. The dirt gave way around the sallow object, until finally revealing a long and slender bone.
The men gathered around the biosafety cabinet, suggesting in the manner they regarded the bone they were gazing upon the first addition to a musty old cabinet of curiosities.
“And by the way it appears to have facets for articulation with the sternoclavicular and acromioclavicular joints at the medial and lateral ends, I would say, gentlemen, without a doubt we’ve got ourselves a collarbone,” said Cassen.
“I’ll be damned,” said Ford, stroking his neck. “Martin, can you date a soil sample for us?”
“Already on it,” said the botanist, always eager to lend a hand to the crew. He produced a small plastic container of dirt. “I’ll run it through the OSL reader.”
“Great,” said Ford. He swiveled his neck in Harrington’s direction, and spoke haltingly. “Then I guess we just go and dig the rest of it up.”
Harrington sat reticent, his arms folded and legs crossed. Cassen resumed outlining his plan for strict biological containment of any remaining bone specimens according to planetary protection protocol, and for their return to the Gateway once any risks of backward contamination were eliminated. He asked if there were any questions.
Harrington broke his silence. “I have one: what is the protocol for notifying next of kin?”
“This is no time for jokes,” said Ford sternly. “We’re days away from Wolf 1061c’s version of a nor’easter.”
“I’m not kidding,” insisted Harrington. “If these were human remains, we would be obligated under the law to notify the family.”
“Okay, does anyone have any serious questions?” asked Ford.
“No, if he wants to go there again, then I say let’s run with it,” said Garret, stepping in front of Harrington. “You all know I thought we were chasing Bigfoot, but now that we’ve crossed that line in our understanding of the universe, let’s break it down. Let’s say that the law required us to notify next of kin – or descendants – in the event of the discovery of alien remains, and we actually encountered a live alien in this wasteland. How would we talk to it?”
Harrington remained dispassionate, his eyes trained on Garret.
“Matter of fact,” the engineer continued, “if we were considering the rights of these aliens, how would we even define them under the law? Are they human rights? Animal rights?”
“We’re just talking about a heap of rocks,” Dixon interjected. “Doesn’t suggest a higher order of intelligence in my book. They may only be slightly evolved from what we know as animals.”
“Animals don’t bury their dead,” said Harrington.
“Crows hold funerals for them,” mused Cassen.
Ford’s patience was wearing thin. “What is it you’re getting at, Harrington?”
Harrington stood and puffed out his chest, his arms still folded. “I’m saying, before we rush to turn this site into a mining pit, or become grave robbers, let’s consider another perspective. What if this cave was a sacred burial ground for this species – whatever we call it? If we desecrate it, we could be wiping out years – centuries – of their history. We can’t replace that. And how would you feel if the shoe were on the other foot, and they came to our planet and dug up our cemeteries?”
It was Brookes’ turn to plead with Ford. “This is horseshit! Now I know I was wrong to dismiss Harrington’s premise about the rocks. But dead aliens do not have rights. At least not on Earth. We’re not philosophers or politicians. We’re scientists, tasked by the American people with gathering data and samples from other planets in the hopes of reversing the decline of our own resource supply. And,” he said, pointing a finger at Harrington, “you know the protocol on this was settled over a century ago: when remains are found interred in areas where mineral resources are located, those remains are to be excavated, relocated and contained in a safe environment for scientific study.”
“Human remains,” said Harrington. “And we’re not on Earth.”
“You are not here to rewrite law, Harrington! You’re just here to pack up the pots and bag the bones!”
“Who’s the one rewriting the law?” said Harrington, backing Brookes into a corner.
Ford placed himself between them. “That’s enough! Harrington, I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but with all this talk about hallowed alien ground, I’m beginning to wonder if you’re not prioritizing the interests of our nation and its values and traditions. Like Brookes says, the rocks we find here could create American jobs, and improve our technology in ways we can’t even begin to fathom.”
“What if we pulled up stakes and the Russians or Chinese got here next?” Brookes demanded of Harrington. “Do you think they would respect any treaties? Do you think your remains would be in better hands with them?”
“Finders keepers, right?” said Harrington with a smirk.
“Gentlemen, you’re both out of line!” snapped Ford. “Now I want you all to go back to your quarters and cool off. Check in with your wives and kids, or whatever. Then I want you all to ready yourselves for more mineral exploration and a full excavation of the rock site at zero dark thirty.”
The men groaned obligingly, then filed out. “Not you, Harrington,” barked Ford. The archaeologist halted and his eyes met Ford’s. “I’m not sure what’s going on here, but you need to get your head screwed back on. After centuries of asking the big question, we’ve finally made first contact, and now you’re worried about being haunted by alien ghosts. This,” he gestured at the bone, “belongs to the entire human race. It’s this century’s Lucy, and you’ve got the chance to study it. And you can help demonstrate that we’ve found a planet that can sustain life while we –“. He stopped himself.
A half smile crept onto Harrington’s face. “Yes, sir,” he said. “I’m with the team.”
“Great,” said Ford. “We need you.” He clapped the archaeologist on the shoulder. “Don’t forget to ask yourself why you got into this field,” he added, then wheeled and departed.
Harrington lingered behind, withdrawing into the recesses of the ship. His hand reached into his pocket, where he grasped a small pouch, and thought of the bucket with the steel teeth on it that had wrenched the soil in the bag from his land. To protect, he thought, answering Ford’s query.
The commander had not planned to micromanage the crew’s activities on this mission. But given the friction Ford had witnessed the previous night, he thought it best to supplement the data he was collecting from the crew’s behavioral interaction badges with a site visit.
He halted at the cave’s entrance and admired the rays of multihued light bouncing off the puddles and stalactites. The tranquility of the grotto was interrupted only by the thumping of Brookes’ electric hammer on the wall, and Harrington’s monotonous delivery into a handheld. Ford made his way to the rock pile.
“The remains are interred roughly three meters beneath another meter of unbroken strata,” Harrington said into the device. He glanced at Ford, then continued without interruption. “The specimen has been placed on its right side, its brain case pointed in a southerly direction, and its legs bent at a right angle.”
“Note that the femur and tibia are joined by a ball-and-socket, like a shoulder, and not a hinge joint like a knee,” said Cassen, who was on his hands and knees, sculpting the soil with the electric trowel.
Ford stepped to the edge of the alien grave and gasped at what he saw. There, emerging from the dirt, was what figured to be an intact human skeleton.
“There are features that are distinct from human bone structure,” said Cassen, as the crew gathered around the skeleton, now laid on its back in the biosafety cabinet. “It has fewer molars, no coccyx, longer fingers, and extra ribs – which presumably aided with lumbar-core resiliency.” He tapped the portion of the cabinet nearest the skeleton’s feet. “And there seems to be some damage to the phalanges and metatarsals that I want to probe a little more closely. Ultimately, once we’ve completely minimized backward contamination, we’ll want to send the specimen to the Gateway for radiocarbon dating, DNA extraction, and other lab tests.”
“Amazing,” said Ford. “And yes, of course. Martin, anything on that soil sample?”
“Nothing conclusive,” replied the botanist. “The organic matter from the decaying body – or bodies, I suppose – makes it difficult to arrive at an estimate. And curiously there is an overall elevated level of carbon-14 in the sample. But at any rate we’re looking at, maybe, several centuries since the surface layer was last disturbed.”
Dixon whistled. “And God said, let there be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,” he mused. “And it was so.”
“Yes, well, I guess that debate is over,” said Garret.
Cassen and Harrington had found an empty chamber that appeared to be out of range of the visible light network. Free of ducts and valves and canisters, the space seemed less confining than the common areas where they congregated with the rest of the crew.
“I’ll kill you and your family, you infidel,” said Cassen, with only a trace of actual menace.
They waited, but no one came. Harrington tapped the sensor strapped to his chest, paused, then nodded at his crewmate. “What you got?” asked Harrington.
Cassen inhaled, then let out the airless breath. “I thought, given your objections, you should be the first to know the results on the injuries to the lower limbs.”
Harrington’s pulse quickened. He dreaded what he would hear next. “And?”
“My conclusion,” he began, then correcting himself, “my supposition is that the broken bones indicate blunt force trauma that was inflicted upon the feet of the specimen.”
Harrington’s shoulders sank with the realization. The irony of what he had blurted out many years previous, during a lecture on Weber’s Protestant work ethic theories, intruded upon his thoughts. History isn’t that straightforward. It’s muddled. His classmates had gawked at him as he if were from another planet, and now Cassen too seemed very far away as he went on about how they couldn’t be certain until there was a CT scan and 3D modeling and so forth.
“What if,” Harrington said, clinging desperately to speculation, “what if this were committed by a hostile occupying force upon a peaceful group?”
“What if it weren’t?” said Cassen dispassionately.
He saw Harrington’s spirit being drained slowly out, and he could read the archaeologist’s expression: we have to bury it. Cassen’s mind wandered to when he had seen Earth from space, entirely blanketed in darkness, save for the brilliant orange glow over the sea and mountains and desert.
“There are many sides,” said Cassen, a smile breaking on his now hairless face, which he stroked purposefully. “But I’m on yours.”
If the men were suspicious of Harrington’s abrupt change of heart, they didn’t make plain their skepticism. They had learned that achieving consensus sometimes amounted to nothing more than taking advantage of a temporary suspension of the debate.
At any rate, Harrington had informed them that upon careful reflection he had concluded that activities that benefitted the welfare of American society trumped any implicit sovereign rights this alien species might enjoy – the latter being little more than an error of judgment he in turn ascribed to the difficulties in psychological adaptation to the duration of deep space missions.
The incident was smoothed over in the official mission report – “consultation amongst the crew terminated with the decision that full excavation of the specimen is deemed in compliance with existing laws or regulations” – and no mention was made of it at all when the crew contacted the Gateway via the lasercom system to report their findings. The discussion, rather, largely centered around a painstaking recap of Cassen’s plans to adhere to planetary protection protocol, as well as what procedures to follow in terms of notifying the chain of command and/or the general public. They agreed that, given the overall sentiment in favor of research activities that promote fiscal growth – weighed against the discomfort that might be aroused in society by the revelation that intelligent life may exist elsewhere in the universe – they would recommend to Houston that the ladies in the public affairs office emphasize in their communiqués the landmark discovery of ichnusaite and plans for future geological assessments of Wolf 1061c. The crew further advised that ongoing studies of its value as a habitable exoplanet should be positioned well below the lead. The Gateway pledged to relay to headquarters the proposal that a Space Corps outpost be immediately established to secure American mineral interests.
Afterwards, Harrington and Cassen stood on the surface underlying the habitat one last time, and admired the tiny ice crystals falling on their faces that signaled it was time to depart. They thought about what they were leaving behind, entombed beneath the rocks, and smiled, knowing in the end it mattered to no one.
Snowflakes tumbled upon the cylinder, which discharged a plume of fire and seemed to devour the clouds as it ascended.
Also exiting the planet’s atmosphere was a micro-drone that had observed the activities of the Earth people. It made its way past constellations shaped like animals these beings could never comprehend. Beasts that the people who had sent the drone had hunted in the deserts of Kugama land for centuries. Before the Old One had a vision about a great fire in the sky, which eventually came to be, spewing foul air that had extinguished all life on the Wolf planet.
Their Nagiham brethren had come to save them. First they brokered a settlement with the enemies of the Kugama, saying that the sky fire was a sign they must lay down their weapons. Then the Nagiham helped both sides bury their dead. The enemies return to their home planet, and the Kugama were carried to the Nagiham planet. There the Kugama were looked after for twelve thousand winters.
Over those millennia, they gazed together at many worlds, but took a particular interest in Earth. They saw how, at the same time the German astronomer peered through his glass at their dying star, humans were assigning colors to each other. Then the white ones broke treaties with the colored ones, and seized their territory, and stole their people, and killed people of all colors. No peace could be made with such creatures.
The ancient Kugama had warned that one day danger would come from the sky. Giant snakes made of metal would arrive, breathing fire, and belching up an alien race. They would build settlements, and dig in their caves and under their rocks, and take whatever they found – by force if necessary.
But not this time. Now that the hour of return to Kugama land was approaching, the confederation of Wolf people would not let the prophecy happen.
At the mesa, the Wolf women and men received the drone into their hands, where after viewing what it had recorded, they would paint themselves, dance in a ring, and prepare to rain fire down on the trespassers.
Nigel moved to Ontario, Canada from England as as boy and has just moved to Nova Scotia for retirement.
He has had several short stories and poems published and is currently working on a collection, now that he has the time.
I looked at the tattered hand-written letter, the cursive script of another time. The words so precious yet so secretive. I sold my house in Bristol and disposed of all possessions. A loner for most of my life, I felt now some how at peace with myself and at home here, on the moors, with only my solitary quest and the letter to guide me. All that I owned I carried.
Up the road was a village. Its local pub would be my source of information, for the simple map drawn on the back of the letter had no major landmarks, except for an old graveyard that I was sure would be well overgrown and abandoned. I was not far wrong it turned out, except for one grave that was kept by a woman who was said to be over a hundred years old. She lived in a small cottage at the end of a narrow lane.
I paid the innkeeper for a night’s stay and made my way to a cosy corner by the fire to dry my shoes and warm my feet. Making myself at home, I sipped at a glass of port while talking with the local few who worked the sheep farms in the area. Hitchhiking my way here from Bristol gave me a clear view of the landscape but only a vague plan of what to do. Much was riding on the old woman and the location of the graveyard, if it was even the same one.
As the evening grew and the pub cleared out, the flames of the fire drew my mind back and it felt as though fate led me here. The year is two thousand and twenty-one and I am thirty-five years old. I have seen new technologies, new governments and new nations formed. But with all of the change going on around the country and around the world, I sit here in a place untouched by time, content, warm and thankful. I feel more at home and in my element than I ever have. I’m finally doing what my grandfather wanted me to do and I can feel his presence around me. I swear he sits beside me, pipe in hand, and will be my guide from this day on.
It all began just prior to World War II when a group of scientists and engineers formed a top-secret division known only as M-CON. Its sole purpose was to build a post-apocalyptic rescue robot programmed to automatically awaken and help an elite selection of the population escape from hibernation after a nuclear attack. M-CON stood for Messiah Control.
Messiah was made mostly of iron and steel. It stood twelve feet tall and weighed five tons. It moved with the aid of hydraulics and pneumatics and was powered by an atomic battery shielded with a lead casing six inches thick, located where the heart would reside if it were human, which its body loosely resembled. The brain was an intelligent analog computer, developed through years of research. The project was assigned the highest security rating: ULTRA TOP SECRET.
It continued through to 1951. Policies changed and history moved on. Nuclear war never happened and so the project was mothballed leaving Messiah buried in a cavern somewhere under Dartmoor in south-west England, all that remained was rumour and fear. Little was known of the project, everyone but my grandfather passed away and only he was left to tell the story. Or so that’s how he explained it to me every time I went to see him in the old folk’s home.
I was twelve when he first told me the story. He swore me to secrecy and of course I agreed, secret handshake and all. By the time I was fifteen the story was like a piece of history to me. The different stages of progress that the team went through, the failures and the victories, I could see it all happening right before my eyes. Then one day I was pulled out of class and brought to the Head Master’s office. There, I was offered a glass of warm milk and some scones, which I refused, put off by the sympathetic looks I was receiving from the office staff. A little while later my dad came in and knelt beside me.
“Your Granddad is dying. He wants to see you.”
With that I was taken to the home and to his bedside, his cold hand placed in mine then a kiss on the head from my Mum. I looked back and they beckoned me to move in closer so I did.
“Johnny, what I told you, about Messiah. There’s a letter for you. Make sure you get it. Be careful. Read the code, remember the key. Only you know. You’re old enough now.” He whispered breathlessly.
He looked at me and tried to do the secret handshake but couldn’t so I moved his hands into the positions for him, my tears falling onto his cold withered skin until he stopped moving at all. And then he was gone. His eyes closed and his head nodded to the pillow. My mother moved me away and his hand slipped from mine limply to the bed. On the drive home I did not cry or speak, I only stared out of the window, the smell of the leather seats coating my memory of that day for years to come.
Now I sit here staring at the letter left for me by my grandfather. More than eight decades after the story of Messiah began, I have come here to this remote and forgotten place in hopes of finding him and at the same time, maybe even finding myself.
I looked up from my heavy thoughts to find Howarth, a tall slim man in a tweed cap and work pants, standing beside me as if waiting for an introduction. I obliged and asked him about the village. We talked for about an hour at the fireside. His knowledge of the area and its folklore was impressive. Like most of the villagers, he was born here and had land passed on to him from father to son. Tradition flowed thick like glue and bound all that lived here together.
When I asked him about the stories of the machine-man, as it was called during the years after the war, he only nodded slowly and said, “Oh ah, I remember. Frightening tales they were of a giant robot out of control, its inventor, mad as a hatter.”
I stirred in my seat trying not to become too defensive of my grandfather. I didn’t want anyone to know of my relationship to the “mad inventor,” at least not yet. One thing I knew is that I had come to the right place and the authenticity of the letter, the stories and most importantly, my grandfather were valid. I talked more to the tall man before finally heading up to my room.
The morning fog seeped in through the open window and chilled me out of bed. I got up and slid it shut. As I looked down the road I could see an old lady tending her garden. It was only six o’clock and she was already hard at work. I decided to get up and talk to her. In the kitchen at the bottom of the stairs, breakfast was already being made. I forgot how early farmers rise in the morning. After a cup of tea and some sausages and eggs, I was ready to get started.
A black metal gate framed the entrance to a flagstone pathway that led to the old lady’s cottage. A stone wall choked with ivy surrounded the yard and completed the picture perfect country home. I said good morning, introduced myself and told her of my grandfather and the map.
“Oh wonderful,” she said, “please come in.”
I followed her as she walked slowly up the path to the house. Inside, I sat at the kitchen table while she put on a kettle of water for tea. My hunch was right. She knew my grandfather and as it turned out, she also knew of my grandmother.
“Your grandfather Tom worked on a special government project during the war,” she said. “It was all very hush-hush. He would come out here and work in one of the cottages. It’s not far from here, been deserted since he left. Most people thought he’d gone mad there, so they left it alone. Now it’s just an empty shell, the weeds got it years ago. You have to keep at it or they’ll take over before you can blink an eye. No weeds in my garden,” she said and set the teacup down in front of me.
“Thank you.” I said and sipped it slowly, the hot liquid burning off the coldness in my hands.
“Your grandmother was dead for two weeks before word got to Tom.” She continued. “He was out here working on the project. She was in Bristol. She was a seamstress making parachutes and uniforms for the troops. Her factory was bombed during an air raid. Bristol was hit bad. His job was so top secret that nobody even knew how to reach him. When he finally went home, he got the news. She’d already been buried. From that day on he devoted himself to his work. He left Bristol for good and spent his time here at the cottage. The army trucks came and went for years, bringing in supplies and digging up the ground. The area was sealed off and soldiers guarded it day and night. Then one day they just left and never came back. He stayed though. The light burning all night. I’d see him passing back and forth in front of the window in the morning while walking my dog. He’d probably been up working the whole time. He was obsessed with his work. I’d bring him food from time to time just to make sure he was all right. We talked and we became friends. He told me things, strange things I believed were just the thoughts of a lonely hardened man, stuff that they would now call science fiction, but back then they’d just call it plain crazy talk. So I listened to the stories and kept them to myself. He must have told some of it to other folk because word got out and it wasn’t from me. I kept quiet.”
I listened intently. It brought back the feelings from my childhood. Things started to come back to me, things I hadn’t thought of for years. The secret handshake, it was more than just that, it had to be practised to precisely the right timing. Timing was everything.
“I’m sorry,” I said, realising I’d been drifting off into a memory for the last couple of minutes. “Did you just say something about a key?”
“Yes, your grandfather gave me a key for safekeeping but never came back for it. I suppose it belongs to you now.”
She left the room still talking and returned with a small wooden box. Inside, within a red velvet compartment, was a long black key, the letters, MESSIAH stamped onto the shaft, my heart raced as I looked down at it.
She was already walking away, muttering again about her garden, all trace of the previous conversation lost. I was studying the key when she came back in and startled me with what she said next.
“You know, the robot thought of him as his father.”
I sat there listening, somewhere between memory and imagination. She went on to tell me of the conversations that she’d had with my grandfather. He would come over and vent his frustrations and accomplishments on her, just as he did with me all those years ago. She said that when the robot, or ‘Messiah’ as she said he liked to call it, was first powered up, it imprinted itself on him. She said that this was some secret thing that he programmed into the robot for safety’s sake. It would obey his commands without question and would protect him or anyone who used the code.
The code, as it was told to me as a lad, was a set of six words that had to be spoken at least three seconds apart. The robot would then kneel, allowing the key to be inserted into a slot behind a panel on the chest plate. Should any of these instructions not be followed precisely, Messiah would go into defensive mode, destroying everything in sight.
She started walking outside so I followed her, three steps behind in case she should fall.
“What about the graveyard?” I said, pulling out the letter with the map on the back.
She turned and without looking down simply said. “It’s beside the cottage silly, at the church.” She pointed down the road to a steeple about a half-mile away.
“See, that’s where he lived. It’s all overgrown with weeds now. Nobody goes there, weeds everywhere. The only place there isn’t is the one grave I keep clear. I promised him I’d do it and I haven’t gone back on my promise, just like I never told his secrets, except now, to you.”
“When did he leave and why did he ask you to keep the grave clear?” I asked.
“Don’t remember,” was all she said and walked into the cottage.
I went down the lane towards the gate, shading my eyes from the morning sun with my hand. I was about to go, to walk straight there but thought again before leaving. I decided to get my things from the inn first, for I had a feeling that I might not be going back.
At the inn, talk of war and bombs were on the lips of everyone. The place was full and each had a cup of tea or coffee in hand or on the table in front of them. Some were shouting, some were slamming their fists onto tabletops, others just listened, but all were very serious. I walked in bringing with me a stream of sunlight through the door that illuminated a path down the middle of the floor and set all eyes on me.
“What do you know of this?” The tall man from the previous day demanded.
“I don’t know what you mean. What’s happening?” I asked.
“War’s broke out all over the place,” said the landlady, her flabby face giggling as she spoke. “France, Germany, London, won’t be long ‘til it hits here.”
“But why, what’s going on, what caused it?” I said. My mind racing.
Talk of war and threats had been in the news for years it seemed. Most people just ignored it and got on with their lives, but behind closed doors the collaboration between governments was dissolving quickly and conformity of the masses was about to be shattered.
People in the pub looked at me with distrust. I was not a villager, only a stranger asking dangerous questions. My timing couldn’t have been worse. I went upstairs and gathered my things. On my way out, the landlord asked where I was going. I told him I was called away. He asked me to wait while he went to the lounge. I listened through the door. I heard anger in their voices. They wanted answers and needed someone to blame. I left quickly and made my way towards the old church and the grave where I hoped I would find some answers.
I passed the old lady’s house heading towards the steeple in the distance. I glanced back but she was nowhere to be seen. I felt for the key box in my coat pocket. It was there, thank goodness. I kept walking, looking back as I went. I knew it wouldn’t take long for them to figure out where I was headed after bringing up the old stories again, so I quickened my pace.
The graveyard was as broken down as the old lady described it. Headstones crumbling, the pavement cracked and crooked. I walked towards the church doors. They were arched and studded with metal pegs. The handles were two large metal rings. I pushed the door but it did not budge so I walked to the side of the building. There was another archway, the door long since missing judging by the growth around it. I walked cautiously into the dark church. The only light, that which managed to penetrate the dirty stained glass windows, illuminated the weed covered pews an eerie green. I backed out before going much farther and instead went outside to the graveyard.
Again, nature erased what Man would have had last forever. Weeds grew everywhere. Vines covered the stone perimeter walls and even the trees. I walked around the outside of the church. A path led to a clear spot in the far corner under a sycamore tree, its large leaves flapping freely in the breeze without restriction, an oasis in an English jungle. At the end of the path was a grave, well kept and clear of all foliage. There were no flowers or wreath, only a cleared spot as promised a long time ago. The headstone read:
1937 – 1951
REST IN PEACE
It was my grandmother’s name, though the dates were incorrect. She was born long before 1937 and died during World War II. This date described the period of the MESSIAH project. I’d forgotten most of the secret code I was taught, under strictest security from my grandfather. Now seeing the name and the dates pulled it all together; it was the code to control Messiah.
“Muriel: Mechanical, Uranium, Radioactive, Ionised, Electrical, Life.”
The phrase, “Rest in Peace” had me a bit worried though. If war were about to break out, if it hadn’t already, would Messiah awaken? What would it do? I stood gazing at the headstone trying to recapture my memories of what I’d imagined it would look like. I turned around, a little startled and feeling somewhat vulnerable out here alone when I spotted a small stone cottage over the wall, just beyond the sycamore tree. Another path through a gateway led to the front door. I strode towards it with new vigour and hope for an ending to my search.
The cottage, unlike the grave, was overgrown and in poor condition. Its architecture resembled that of the church. Inside, dark curtains covered the windows letting in only cracks of light but it was enough to find my way around. There was nothing remarkable in the front room or the attached kitchen. Down the hall were a bathroom on the right and a large bedroom on the left. The bedroom had a bed at one end and an oak desk in front of a window overlooking the graveyard. I went over to the window and opened the dusty drapes to get a better look at the desk. The drawers were empty except for some pencils and rubber bands. The room showed no sign of my grandfather’s work. I was looking for something but wasn’t sure what. I went back to the hallway. The bathroom was ordinary, nothing significant there either. In the kitchen I found something I’d missed the first time, a trapdoor to the cellar. I opened my bag, got out a light and descended the stairs. Ten feet in front of me was a brick wall with a large door in the middle. It was locked. I took out my wooden key box, quickly opened it and inserted the key into the lock and turned it, it worked. I pushed open the heavy oak door and shone my light into the space behind the wall. A tunnel started about eight feet in. I walked down a few steps and looked around the entranceway. The ceiling was much higher, castle-like. Two fuse panels were mounted on the wall side by side. I pushed up the main switch on each and the whole tunnel and entranceway lit up.
The tunnel extended about fifty yards with three doors along the left side. I opened the first one. Two old oscilloscopes, a large power supply and some hand tools sat on top of a long lab bench against the wall. Other equipment I was unfamiliar with sat off in the corner. I started to look around excited at my discovery when suddenly a loud switching noise came from behind the wall, then a buzzing sound started. A red light flashed over the door and I quickly exited the room and went into the tunnel. There, a row of red lights blinked in sequence, leading towards the next section of tunnel. I followed the lights to a stairway at the end. It led up towards the surface. I started walking up when the ceiling automatically slid open. Earth fell in covering my head and I tumbled down the steps. When I looked up I could see daylight. I walked back up and looked outside.
I was at the gravesite. The sound coming from the tunnel was deep and steady, almost that of a heartbeat, slow and regular. I looked back into the opening, staring as the lights blinked in rhythm to the sound, “thump, thump, thump, thump.” Behind me, I heard another sound, engines coming towards the church. I climbed the rest of the stairs to the outside and looked down the road. There were several trucks and a tractor. People were hurrying beside the vehicles, raising their arms and shouting. The shouts got steadily louder as they approached. There were at least fifty of them, the people that were gathered in the pub earlier. I was afraid. They looked like a lynch-mob and I feared for my life. One more casualty of war, I didn’t want to be that statistic.
They reached the churchyard pointing towards the grave and started to spread out. I was being surrounded. I looked up at the sycamore tree, a branch the perfect height for a hanging. Suddenly a plane flew overhead, low to the ground. It circled around and came in again, this time lower. The angry mob scattered, surprised as I at the low approach of the plane.
I heard another sound, this one much closer. The ground began to tremble around the grave and the noise grew louder. I looked back towards the mob and could see that they also heard the sound and stopped where they were, stricken with fear, for the old legends seemed to be coming true. The mad scientist’s monster was awakening.
I ran through the graveyard towards the sound. It was coming from beneath me though I had seen no sign inside the tunnel. Ten feet ahead the weeds gave way to a massive square box rising from the earth straight up. It stopped at about twelve feet high. Two steel clamps at the top released and one side lowered slowly to the ground on long pneumatic pistons. A thick fog rolled out and hissed as the vacuum seal was broken and air from the new century spilled in.
The fog cleared and there stood Messiah, silent and enormous. A red light blinked three times on its chest and went out. I watched and suddenly without an ounce of fear in my body, I smiled. “Granddad,” I said to myself and walked towards the robot.
He matched the description precisely, my grandfather having been the one who primarily designed him in the first place. I remembered the drawings scribbled on scraps of paper and destroyed before I left the old folk’s home so no word of the project leaked out. Back then I only half believed the stories he told but loved to dream of the adventures I’d have with Messiah as my robot companion. Then the yelling started and snapped me out of my daydream. Messiah was real and so was the angry mob at my back.
I walked up closer and stood in front of him. He towered over me. Most of his body was shielded with armour plating. The knees and elbows, for he truly resembled a giant man, had hydraulic pistons in place of muscles. The feet were at least a yard long. Shins were made of iron with steel plating and kneecaps were protected with steel rectangular guards. The thighs were similar to the shins but twice as thick. His coating was not shiny but of a flat black that reflected no sunlight. The waist was narrow, giving him a v-shaped torso. The centre of the chest bore a triangle shaped plate with the flat side at the top resembling a shield. Across the triangle were the raised letters, MESSIAH. Square shoulders and massive biceps led again to joints at the elbows and wrists. Each hand was different. His right had three fingers of equal length each with two knuckles. The thumb was shorter and had only one knuckle, resembling human form. The left hand was triangle shaped and had a split down the centre forming two smaller triangle-shaped tools and a swivel mechanism at the wrist. The neck was cone-shaped and fit into a pivot point allowing the pyramid shaped head to rotate 360 degrees and move down to his shoulders so he could view objects at almost all angles.
The head had no distinguishing marks other than two thin slits in the front. This was a sonar device that actually radiated at all angles but focused forward and so required openings to concentrate the signal. It also gave the illusion of a face to a small degree. On the top of the head was a glass dome and inside a circular vacuum tube similar to the old amplifiers I had seen as a child. This one however was used to create a powerful laser beam that could cut through a tank like a block of butter.
Without notice its head tilted down, it had ‘seen’ me. The light on its chest glowed red again and a sound emanated from the sonar holes in the faceplate.
The sound radiated through the ground for at least ten seconds and trembled through my body. Its vibrations played havoc with my eardrums. The low frequency voice seemed to drill its way into my brain. I stumbled backwards and fell to the ground. It moved towards me in slow mechanical steps. I lay there helpless but somehow believed that my life could not end with my childhood dream turning on me like this.
“Muriel!” I shouted but it just kept coming. Then I recalled the code.
“Mechanical, Uranium, Radioactive, Ionised, Electrical, Life.”
I said the words, three seconds apart as my grandfather had instructed me to do time and time again. With that the robot stopped its advance and knelt beside me. I had three minutes to do the next step, put the key into the compartment behind the chest plate. I reached into my pocket, it wasn’t there. I’d left it in the door to the tunnel. I stood while Messiah knelt motionless, its sonar sweeping the ground, tracking my movements. I had about two and a half minutes, a hundred and fifty seconds, to get the key and come back. I ran as Messiah continued tracking me.
The lights were still flashing in the tunnel, leading away from my direction. For a moment I was tempted to follow their path and leave this place but knew that I could not. I ran, not looking back. The sound of air raid sirens started outside and seemed to chase after me. I moved on, dreamlike to the door at the end of the tunnel. The key was still there, the wooden box on the ground below. I quickly picked up the box in one hand and took the key in the other. I ran towards the outside, this time the flashing red lights streaming ahead of me, moving me forward.
As I strode the stairway the sound of gunfire clashed with the air raid sirens. I had somehow entered a war zone in the few minutes I was gone. I looked towards the lift but he was no longer there. I must have gone past the time limit. He was now in defensive mode. I looked behind me. The villagers were shooting at the sky with shotguns and rifles while the dogs barked and howled. Then I saw Messiah, its head pivoting towards an incoming plane. A glow formed within the dome on its head and the laser beam shone and turned the aircraft into a massive ball of flames. It crashed near the village and smashed its way through buildings as it skidded down the main street. Messiah then lowered its head and turned towards the shouting villagers, their guns pointed at him. They screamed and fired all at once; the sound deafening as the smoke from the barrels formed a long cloud across the graveyard. The bullets merely bounced off of its armour plating and it moved slowly towards them.
The deep sound, rumbling through the ground, terrified the attacking crowd and scattered them like mice. Its beam once again glowed and swiftly brought down one of the men, instantly turning him to flame, his bullets exploding in his hand. It strode towards the retreating invaders, igniting them one by one as it made its way to the village. One of the men drove the tractor head-on towards the robot. Messiah sensed the vehicle and rotated its head, the laser melting the machine and the driver without missing a step. I stood watching, key in hand, frozen in fear.
It began to move faster, marching through the graveyard, crushing headstones in its path. Suddenly the church became an inferno, the weeds crackling as they roasted, the stained glass windows melting into a pool of black tar. It started down the road leaving deep tracks in the ground behind it and burning anything that moved.
I followed, keeping a safe distance behind, waiting for my chance to reprogram Messiah. After all it was not evil, for it had no soul. It reached the old lady’s cottage, not yet destroyed from the growing fire that had swept through the village. It stopped for a second and then rotated its head towards the house. The old lady came out and it aimed its deadly laser.
“Messiah!” I shouted. It stopped and turned. I stood there out of breath, awaiting death. The old lady watched calmly. I repeated the code slowly and precisely. Messiah knelt and I pressed on its chest plate. It slid open and I inserted the key and turned it clockwise. The light in its glass dome dimmed and I removed the key. The steel chest plate slid closed. It then stood; a faithful servant.
The old lady smiled and came over. “Hello Messiah,” she said and looked towards the burning churchyard and whispered, “goodbye Tom.” With that she returned to her cottage and closed the door behind her.
Above, the roar of approaching, shooting planes filled the sky. As they came into sight, Messiah picked them off one by one, their missiles exploding all around. After the last of them crashed to the ground, Messiah turned towards me, standing still and tall like a sentry. I gave him one last command: “Protect England.”
That was a week ago, though it feels like a month. I sit here now, injured and bleeding in this deserted bombed out building in London. Messiah stands guard outside.
Most of what I’ve seen could not be described as a city but as an open morgue. The Tower of London is a mound of rubble. The Thames River, dammed by cars and debris, flooded into the streets forcing the rats to flee from the sewers and into the open where they now feed on the rotting corpses. The London Zoo was bombed yesterday, releasing lions and elephants along with all other types of wildlife to roam the streets, some injured, all of them hungry.
Millions of people, homeless and fighting each other spill from the cities towards the country, while the villagers head towards the cities. The military have set up barricades and barracks but panic and mayhem have overwhelmed the people and there is no end in sight. The world is at war and it’s each country for itself. Alliances are a thing of the past but I have faith that England will survive, for I have a friend, faithful and strong and he will not stop until his mission is complete. My part is done. I have told my story. I do not know what Messiah’s full potential is. My grandfather did not tell me everything. I do know though, his mission is of survival and the protection of England and that if there is a God, I pray he be an Englishman.
Jackson Strehlow is an aspiring fiction writer and veteran of the United States Navy. You can follow him and see more of his work @jsghostwriter.
I consider myself a patient man. After all, good things come to those who wait, and I’d say I’m very good at waiting for things. But today, for some reason, my curiosity was eating away at my patience like stomach acid. And all because of this box that showed up out of nowhere this morning. The little thing was wrapped in plastic and covered in bright red stickers on all sides.
I had placed the box on the coffee table in my living room before I went to the kitchen, where my wife was making dinner. I stood by the counter, listening to my wife talk about her day, when I thought back to the box on the table. What was it doing here? I hadn’t ordered anything, and it wasn’t like my family to send me gifts unannounced and for no reason.
“Jack? Jack, are you listening?”
I stopped my train of thought as my wife’s voice caught my attention. “What?”
“Is everything alright? You seem kind of spaced out.”
“Oh, sorry. I was just wondering about that box we got earlier.”
“Hun, you’ve been distracted by that darn box ever since it arrived. Can’t you focus on something else?” She let out a brief sigh, “Why don’t you just bring in and we’ll look at it?”
With that, I walked into the living room and picked up the box from the table and brought it into the kitchen.
“Just set it on the counter, I’ll just be a moment.”
As I waited for my wife to wrap up, I took a moment to examine the box. It was medium sized, large enough to hold a watermelon or two, had been wrapped in what felt like several layers of plastic, and each side had at least three bright red stickers with different foreign languages typed out on them. I checked the sides again, trying to find a name or an address, but to no avail.
I looked up to see my wife was now standing next to me, looking intently at the box with a curious look in her eyes.
“No, nothing. There’s no name, no address, and these stickers are written in at least a dozen different languages.”
“Well, whatever it is, I think we should wait on opening it until we have it examined by somebody.”
“Because we don’t know what’s in there or who it’s from. I mean, it could be a bomb or something. Terrorists are always doing this sort of thing.”
I chuckled at the notion. “Terrorists? Really? You’ve been watching too much Fox News.”
“Ugh, regardless, I think we should have someone come over to examine it. I’m gonna call the police.” In an instant, my wife had her phone out and was dialing the cops.
“Fine, if it’ll make you feel better, go ahead.” As my wife left the room, I called after her, “I still think you’re over reacting.”
I brought the box up to my ear and shook it, hoping to hear something that would let me figure out what was inside, but nothing came out. I set the box back down and decided to check on my wife. As I entered the room, she was just hanging up the phone.
“What’d they say?”
“They said it was probably nothing to worry about, but someone will be over soon.”
“Seriously? Why don’t we just open it and get it over with?”
“Because I’m worried, that’s why.”
“Come on, I’m not sure there’s anything even in there. The box sounds empty.”
She slapped my arm. “Don’t mess with that box! You don’t know what’s inside!”
“Well, maybe I would if we just opened the damn thing!”
“Then go ahead, open it!” throwing her hands up in resignation as she walked towards the kitchen door. “You do what you want, I’m going to finish dinner.”
As the door closed behind her, I felt a little guilty about yelling at her. I mentally chastised myself as I looked at the mysterious box. Why was I so damn curious about it? Maybe I should wait till someone came to examine it. But as I looked at the box, I felt the urge to check it out one more time. Lifting the package and flipping it around, I finally noticed one of the stickers had English writing on it.
Do Not Open. Seriously? That was kind of odd.
Ignoring the sticker’s warning, I grabbed the letter opener from the coffee table and cut through the plastic before opening the box to reveal…nothing inside of it. Wow, all this over an empty box. Kind of a let-down, if I was being honest with myself. I was about to tell my wife to cancel the police when I heard my wife’s scream come from the kitchen.
“Honey? Are you alright?” I dashed towards the door, box still in hand. “Honey, what-”
And there before me was my wife, lying on the floor with blood oozing out from her eyes, ears and mouth, her limbs unnaturally contorted. But what made it even more petrifying was the fact that her head was missing, leaving only a bloody stump. I dropped the box, the object now feeling heavy in my hands, as I noticed a small slip of paper left on the chest of my wife’s corpse. I picked up the paper and made out four words written in small, barely legible handwriting.
You Shouldn’t Have Looked
Suddenly, I could hear sirens coming from down the street and I backed away in horror, tripping over the box and falling to the floor. As I turned my gaze to the momentarily forgotten parcel, I now noticed why it suddenly felt so heavy only a moment ago.
What was once an empty box was now occupied by the bloody, severed head of my now dead wife, a look of horror frozen on her face. The sound of enclosing sirens did nothing to drown out my screams.
Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in Motion Picture and Television Production from UCLA.