An: This is an old story. Like, OLD. Please keep that in mind if you attempt to review it. I would have deleted this story a long time ago, but decided to keep it up for comparison purposes. It's been seven years. My writing style has changed considerably. Check out my recent works if you plan to review my writing techniques.
When we were small, we once went to the river that flows out of the village.
That day we made a promise. We said we'd always stay together, forever. Even
if we left the village, we wouldn't part.
The air is heavy tonight, filled with cold expectation. I feel the weight of the hour upon me. My juban presses into the valley of my spine, and the damp strands of my hair cleave to my cheeks and lips like dark, wet string. I walk with the sacred rope in my hands, flanked by priests and monks who stare straight ahead and clasp their staves with gnarled fingers. I can feel their fear; it's as palpable as mine but they hide it well-better than I. My kimono flutters in stale wind and the crimson sash around my waist dances behind me. The rope feels so heavy in my hands, burdened like my soul. Everyone in the village has gathered above, waiting and praying for the Ritual's success. This is the night of all nights…the Repentance. Here is where the Crimson Sacrifice will take place, but instead of two Shrine Maidens as tradition requires-there is only one.
The other has fled, forsaking the Ritual, forsaking her people, forsaking her duty-
What does this mean to me? Honor and sacrifice is what it used to mean, but those are empty words. I realize now, with reluctant clarity after my sister's betrayal and the loss of Itsuki, that duty is a mask we wear; a visage of lies. Duty hides misery and ignorance; duty is safe…a familiar routine so that we may feel secure with our place in this world- with what is expected of us. Duty is a scapegoat to point our fingers toward and blame something other than ourselves. Duty is an oath, duty is an ideal, and duty is the shield that my Father huddles behind and will never emerge. Duty is also why I stumble onward, silent with terror and clinging to the rope they will soon hang me with.
I don't look at anyone. I don't want to. They surround me, but they mean nothing to me, nothing more than a sea of pointed hats and white veils, of trembling fingers and stiff shoulders. They hope my sacrifice will pacify the Darkness; they want the rumbling to stop and the nightmares to end. They do not love me, nor I them. I had loved only one other, but she has left me alone, to die alone.
Biting my lower lip, I try to quell the tears in my eyes. I stare at the rope in my hands, caressing the smooth threads with my thumbs. It fascinates me for some reason, and I can't stop touching it. The priests shuffle with an uneasy gait. A few tilt their heads toward me, watching me. There is no need to see their faces; their body language says enough.
Am I such a disgrace? Is my weakness so abhorrent that no one can console me? I was not the one who wanted to escape. I only wanted to be with Yae; I only did it for love. How can I be faulted for that? Yet, my own father will not speak to me; he won't even look at me. And more than once, an unkind hand has pushed me when I have hesitated, prodding me forward as if I was some witless dog. I can't help but feel resentment; I can't help but feel disgust. I had once thought my people were strong, but now I know they are cowards. My people fear the Malice more than anything, and they fear its answer when they throw my body into the Hellish Abyss.
"It will never be appeased…no matter what they do, it's too late, Sae, we must leave the village, leave this place forever. This is the only way we can be free," said Yae just days before our foolish attempt to flee. I remembered her face, pale and drawn, those fearful dark eyes glimmering with tears. I could never tell her no when she looked at me like that; I could never refuse when she begged. "I don't want to hurt you Sae; I could never hurt you. Let Itsuki and Mutsuke be the last to suffer."
Yae…so wise, yet so foolish. We are only children, and children should obey their elders; we should follow the rules. The Crimson Tombs are written for a reason; it may seem cruel and unjust, but who are we to question? The seal is almost broken, and the Malice that leaks will soon become a river, and then that river will become a sea, and then that sea will boil over and destroy us all. There is not enough time, not enough.
Oh Yae-why, why did you leave me?
There are only minutes left until I die. But how can the ritual be completed when my soul is torn? The better part of me is gone. I am incomplete, worthless, weak. She was meant for The Remaining, she was the stronger one, the eldest. It was supposed to be her.
And we ran away; and deep in the woods and on the mountain path I was filled with such horrible fear that we were doing something shameful-beyond dishonor-beyond disgrace. I stumbled on purpose and my ankle twisted. I cried out and fell, but Yae kept running and running and running…
I hold the rope in my hands. It's getting heavier. There is a resounding emptiness inside me, pulsing and waiting-and the only sound I hear is my wild breathing. All I feel are eyes upon me, disappointed, angry, accusing. So, I think, this is what it means to suffer, this is what it means to have lost everything.
This is what it means to die alone.
I feel as if I'm a great void, an empty shell painted and pretty, but as brittle as dry clay; as weathered and fragile as ancient wood. I am only air; I'm only half of what I was. The other half-the stronger half flew away; flew like a brave bird, yet, selfish and cruel. I can remember her black hair bouncing as she ran, her kimono only a flash of white between the trees. But…had she hesitated? When I had lain there on the cold earth, hurting and calling for her to stop-did I imagine the faltered step? The uncertainty in her stance as she had almost turned that pale, beautiful face toward me?
Yae: my twin, my sister, my undoing.
Where are you now? Are you safe? Are you thinking of me? I yearn to see you, to touch you, to put my arms around those glimmering, white shoulders and pull you close. I want to breathe the very wind from your body-that warm breath of air that fills me in an instant with almost savage love. I want my fingers curling through your hair, all that black hair, so much like mine, but more perfect, more precious. Everything about you was always more-more than me, and yet, now there is only me, and I'm dying inside. I feel it. I'm frightened Yae, I'm so scared; I can't hear your voice anymore.
I wish for many things. I want you here beside me, and with longing as fierce as rage, I wish for you as one wishes for a golden egg, or for the moon to smile-an impossible wish, a foolish wish. If I could just feel your heart beat beneath my palms; if I could just hear that soft sigh as you sleep; if I could just experience these things one last time-my surrender would be worthwhile. But no, there is nothing, there is nothing, there is nothing…No whispered comforts, no kisses on foreheads, no safe embraces or tender hands brushing away tears. A cage of lies and ignorance. What honor is this? What privilege? I am blessed this day? This day of all days…
The priest shoves me again, that hard, blunt rap of his staff against my back. I gasp and almost drop the rope, but I clutch it in defiance and glare ahead. I can play their game; I will play the proper Shrine Maiden and pretend my sister is walking beside me, holding my hand, her lips curving with love and sadness.
"Sae," she would say, her voice husky with tears, "we'll become one soon. I'll never leave you; remember our promise? That we'll always stay together, no matter what…"
The fantasy makes my lips twitch with a wistful smile-but then I see the rafters.
Terror bathes me in black ice and my fingers convulse around the rope. I don't want to die. I don't want to die; I don't want to die alone. Yae-Yae, where are you? Please, please come back. I don't want to-
"It is time, Sae." My father appears beside me, his voice a sand-paper rasp. I don't recognize it-or him. I look over and stare at him with dull eyes, not straining at all to see beyond the veil covering his face. Coward, says a traitorous voice inside me, but I close my eyes, becoming the proper Shrine Maiden again. Duty, honor, sacrifice.
He takes the rope from me, and it slides from my grasp with a silky shiver. I'm sorry to see it go. Now, I have nothing to hold-nothing to anchor me, and the cavern spins like a top. My father notices as I sway, and he offers his hand to steady me. I flinch and recover myself, shunning his presence. He withdraws his hand with a slow, uncertain movement, and I can feel his embarrassment as he glances toward the other priests. I do not care. I do not care what any of them think. We are past meaningless gestures of civility. We are not civilized; we're not enlightened.
Gathering my courage, I step beneath the rafters and turn to face them.
The Hellish Abyss howls a short distance away, spewing miasma and filling the Underground with its guttural screaming. I shiver in the wake of its breath, every hair on my flesh rising and my eyes widen like a startled doe. They will cast me down in that dark pit; they will toss my body inside like a sack of meat.
Yes, feed the hungry beast, make it happy, give it treats…
I swallow and fight the tears that rise. I wait as my father confers with the other priests. They mutter among themselves-muttering and muttering like restless old men. Finally, my father nods in agreement and returns with the sacred rope in hand. He stands before me, and I stare beyond him, beyond the priests, beyond the stairs-watching the tunnel's mouth for a white kimono with a crimson sash rolling in the wind. I watch for dark hair, for dark eyes, for an oval face with the palest skin and lips smiling. I pay no attention to the words my father speaks, nor his hands upon my shoulders, nor the rope's weight as it's placed around my neck with tender care. I don't recoil as it tightens, and I don't blink as three other priests grab the end and toss it over the beams above me. I only watch, waiting, hoping, praying that I would see her one last time.
"Sae, please forgive me," my father says, the rasp in his voice now strong with grief. "Your sister dishonored you, and this was the only way to save our village. I am sorry but the Abyss must be appeased." My father clenches the rope, his knuckles white as ivory. If I favor him with even the smallest glance, I might see the tears staining his veil. But, I do not.
I only stare ahead, rivers streaming down my own cheeks, waiting and waiting…
Yae, please remember our promise. We will always be together and we would never part-no matter what.
My father's voice trembles from somewhere in the background. "Forgive me, Sae."
The Abyss screams and the rope tightens around my neck and my heart slams against my ribs like an angry thing, and yet still, I stare at that stairway with the failing and desperate hope that she will come, that she will keep her promise.
Yae, remember, please.
The priests heave with a collective shout and then I hear a distant snapping sound-and then I can't breathe…I can't see the stairs anymore…I can't hear the howling…I can't-