Les Femmes Noires One-shot Contest
"The Final Cleansing"
Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer is the creator of "Twilight"
no copyright infringement intended
The Final Cleansing
I lay in my bed that night blanketed only by the gentle evening air. My flesh was on fire again, but I had learned not to think of it; the raw spots would soon scab over, and then I would be safe for a little while. It wouldn't be until after they were gone that the cycle would begin again. Mother said it was essential.
I lay very still that night, listening to the night things go about their business. Everything has a schedule, a routine that has to be maintained, and those routines run in cycles. Mother said that, too, was essential. While mother had scrubbed my skin fervently, I had thought of my sister Alice. Alice was no longer with us but with God. Mother said that she was too fragile and pure to sustain the filth of this world, therefore, God took her away.
She died one night while Mother was cleansing her. Alice was only a small child of two. I watched Mother's routine, and I watched it transform my baby sister into a ghoulish mess. Her little screams reverberated in my ears and filled my head to capacity. She flailed her bloody little arms in violent protest and tainted the water pink with her blood. Mother held onto the child tightly and carried on. She dunked her under the scalding water to rinse off the blood and soap. Alice's little screams were muffled. She came up gasping and sputtering out new yelps of terror. Mother dunked her again. When she came up the room was heavy and still, transfixed by the horror of her silent and limp body. Mother let the infant slip down into the basin and took a clumsy step back. She stared at the child for quite some time before she spoke.
"She is clean," my mother whispered solemnly.
Then she took the lifeless body and wrapped it in a white cloth. I watched scarlet ghost circles appear and magically grow. I remained silent as I watched mother take Alice out of the house. I remained where I was. When she came back her hands were empty, and I never saw Alice again.
A small bird had perched on the windowsill earlier tonight and had watched it all. He sat there and watched it, and I watched him watching me. We watched each other as Mother completed my cleansing. An unspoken word was shared between us, and now, here in my bed, I lie listening to his mournful song. It was a story that only he, Mother, and I had witnessed.
Mother was rigid. Mother was leery. Therefore, she was constantly cleansing. She said that the world was full of very dirty, dirty things, and if we did not scrub away the filth vigilantly, then we too would become as dirty as the world.
She hated the area in which we lived. It was a small town but mother swore it was full of extreme filth. She said it was everywhere, contaminating us all. She could feel it in the people that walked down our street, in the things they said, and thus in the air that they exhaled with their words. And that worried Mother. She said that the filth was contagious and no one was safe, not even us.
Mother believed the town to be so filthy that we never left the house. All of our goods were delivered directly, sealed extra tight in their casings. I can't remember a time when I was ever outside. I was born in this house, ten years ago, and my only knowledge of what grass feels like has come from what I've read in books. Mother made our house so efficient that there would be no reason for us to step foot out the door.
I could hear her now, sitting in her rocker, gently humming hymns. The long sterile runner swayed back and forth. I could hear their rhythm in the groans of the sterile floorboards. She was content for now. Our house had been scrubbed free of the world's filth, and she had scrubbed us too.
Sighing, I carefully rolled over on to my side and closed my eyes for sleep. I welcomed its refuge. It took me away from my pain and the rawness and kept me safe from Mother. It cleared my mind of the sad bird that sang of my cleansing.
I dreamt of a field of wild flowers that stretched out for miles. And there I was running through it wearing a frilly dress splendid with colors and void of any white. There was dirt between my fingers and dirt between my toes as I ran barefoot through the field. The wind was brisk and playful and not at all dirty and pregnant with filth. I ran fast over the uneven ground; my strong legs free of scars and raw sores.
Then I awoke. It was morning and Mother had pulled the covers off of my tender limbs. I arose so she could strip the bed. I dressed carefully, trying to avoid touching the open wounds with the rough cloth. Her face was set in an odd little grimace that told me she was thinking about something important. Over breakfast, she told me what it was. Mother had decided to move.
"But, Mother, where will we go?"
"I have found a place in the south that is pure and untainted. The people there live simple lives and are not aware of the dirtiness of civilization. Everything there is natural, as God intended, and our cleansing will no longer be necessary."
I marveled at the prospect of it. "Does this mean that we will be able to go outside, and I can play outdoors? Where is this place?"
"It is a small island in the Pacific. It will supply all our needs and we will live off of the goods it bestows. Yes, Bella, you can play there, for there will be no one to tarnish you."
A small dagger of dismay shot through me that I would have no one to play with but was soon dismissed by the joy in just being able to play at all. I was embraced with vivid anticipation.
"When are we leaving?"
"The train leaves this afternoon for the docks. From there we will board a ship that will take us to another island, close to the one where we will live. Another boat will sail us out to our new home.
"But, Bella, I must warn you, the trip will be a trying one; it will be full of dirty people and dirty things, and we will have to cleanse ourselves thoroughly to be rid of their filth after we arrive so as not to contaminate our new home.
I nodded in understanding and compliance before whispering, "Yes, Mother."
We finished our breakfast and began packing. As we did, I thought of Alice. If only she were still here to go with us to our new island home. If only she could run and play with me outside. If only….
We boarded the train late that afternoon. I trailed close to Mother in a silent daze. The newness and the peculiarity of it all overwhelmed me. Mother noticed this. After we sat, she leaned over to me from her seat and whispered something in clipped tones. She told me to be careful; curiosity attracts filth like flies to a carcass. I sat in silence and continued to wonder. I was careful though to hide my wonder from Mother's watchful eyes.
The train plummeted down the tracks like a hell-bent dragon, taking us far away from everything I had ever known. It raced toward the setting sun. It carried us to the edge of the sea where we would travel to a new land; a land that would be our new home. A home where I could go outside and play in fields blanketed with wildflowers.
I watched the trees pass by and gradually change with the hours. They mutated with the contours of the land, as we swept further out into unknown territory. Their leaves expanded to long fingers that Mother called "palm fronds". When it finally grew dark, I regretfully pulled away from this fascinating picture show and fell asleep on Mother's bosom.
A loud whistling awoke me abruptly from my slumber. We were in a bizarre area surrounded by water that stretched out to eternity. We got off of the train and stood at the depot that was stationed on the port. Salty, thick air invaded my nostrils and seagulls shrieked above. The light was blinding as shards from the sun reflected like sparkling diamonds on the water. There were fish in barrels that flopped in their waterless cage. People were everywhere, bustling about in their hurried manner. To me, the entire world's population had flocked to this one little port.
Mother quickly shuffled me away from them and onto the dock. We walked briskly down its length to a large boat and climbed aboard. The ship soon set sail, drifting slowly out into the vast ocean. It rocked and swayed insufferably. Mother got ill once and vomited over its side. We were on that boat for three days before we docked at the large island.
New smells greeted me here. A strong spicy aroma wafted over from a grill and there was a pungency of animal odors that filled the air. Chickens squawked and fluttered all around the docks, and cows grazed lazily on the grass or roamed the streets. They looked up at us with full mouths and dull eyes. I stared bemusedly at one that mooed at us while still chewing. The sound was muffled and clumsy.
Children with skin much darker than mine ran in little swarms, chasing each other with colorful sticks and toys. Their laughter was shrill and innocent. Somewhere out of sight, a dog would not stop barking.
A tall, thin man led Mother and me to a little boat and helped us in. Our luggage was then piled in around us. He yanked a cord and the boat roared to life sputtering blue smoke everywhere. It gave a little jerk and then pulled us away from the lively port. We cruised down a river full of marvelous oddities. Mother soon grew tired of my asking what things were. Our tall, thin guide merely smiled at us.
The river let out to the ocean again and we ventured out some more. We stopped at a secluded island that had a tiny hut on it several feet from the shore. The guide helped us out and placed our luggage in the sand. Mother handed him some money and then he returned to his boat, roaring back up towards the river. Mother grabbed some of the bags and began to head towards the hut. I did the same.
Once inside, I looked about our humble new home. It was only one big open room. Along one wall were our beds, two small twins set on iron frames. Along another wall was a table that bore a kerosene lantern, an array of candles, and a can of kerosene. There was also a small grill that was about a foot high, and a large aluminum washbasin with a cast-iron kettle lying next to it.
Mother unpacked our things and settled everything in. She then reached over solemnly and grabbed the kettle. I watched her walk out to the water with it, and then began to undress.
My sores from the last cleansing were now scabbed over, but not completely healed. I traced my fingers over them, and the scars on my arms, and hoped Mother would be gentle this time, knowing that she wouldn't. When she returned to the hut, she set the kettle to boil on the grill and undressed herself.
Mother pulled out two large towels, our nightgowns, and a bottle of bleach. I closed my eyes and turned my head away. The anticipation of well-acquainted pain filled me. My legs became tingly, but I dared not sit down lest Mother notice. If she sensed fear, she would think I had succumb to the evil indulgences and the filth of the world, and God only knew what she would then do.
I shakily crossed my frail arms over my bare chest watched on in silence. Steam hissed from the kettle and mother poured its contents into the basin. She then proceeded to empty the entire bottle of bleach into the water, right before my terror stricken eyes. My breath hitched, and I suppressed a whimper. Mother turned to me in expectation.
I walked over to the washbasin and stepped inside. Fire shot up my ankles and legs like great chariots of burning rage. I began to jerk about in tiny convulsions as my entire body tried to protest vehemently while my screams remained muted.
Mother firmly pressed my agonized body down into the water. I choked back a sob that fought to escape me. I kept my eyes tightly shut. I refused to look in the water because I knew what I would find floating around me would send me over the edge into hysterics.
Mother held me by one shoulder and tore into the other with a coarse cloth. She scrubbed for an eternity, but neither of us said a word. I felt small objects float over the water and bump into my arms and legs. I quickly rid my mind of what I knew they were before the thought could fully develop. I pardoned myself from their macabre sight and pressed on in denial.
Mother stopped scrubbing and that is when I knew the worst was coming. The pain of the bleach water in my open sores and privates would be nothing in comparison. With gentle firmness she lowered me into the infested water and thus into total submersion.
My body wracked and twisted in panic. The pain was unprecedented and I could hold back no longer. Daggers by the millions shot through my lids and pierced my eyes in excruciating horror. I became delirious with agony and started to go numb. The chunky liquid found its way into my nose and mouth and gagged me to near drowning. I arose coughing and sputtering in violent spasms. Mother drew away for one terrified instant before regaining her composure and helping me out of the tub. I tried to open my eyes. The light was too much and I slammed them shut again. In that moment I was sure I was blind.
I stood shivering in dark silence while Mother handed me a towel. She began to move about the basin. She handed me the kettle. Her voice was calm and quiet when she spoke.
"It's done. Bella, please go fetch me some more water."
Naked and disoriented, I went to the shore. My eyes cracked open just enough to guide me there, and I filled the kettle. Heaving its weight, I carried it back to the hut and to Mother where she placed it on the grill to boil.
I sat gingerly on the edge of the bed and thought of Alice while mother took her "bath". That night I hardly slept; it felt as though I had no more skin and the covers were scraping my bones and organs. I hoped by morning I would be able to see again.
The days passed by and my sores remained raw, refusing to heal. It would be weeks before my skin was able to knit itself completely back together.
It was now autumn and the weather had chosen to be less docile. Strong gusts of wind would swirl around our hut. It produced a sound that seemed almost demonic in its force and fury. The rain crashed down in torrents and flooded around us often.
One humid day I stood on a bluff above our hut. It was an ominous afternoon that promised foul weather, and I knew Mother would want me home soon. She had sent me out to this cliff, high above the ocean and our home, to pick berries for a jam she intended to make. I rummaged through the thorny brush eating a third of the amount I picked. Suddenly, the wind blew up from over the ocean and swept my hair away from my face. I looked up to the sky.
Thick black clouds loomed ominously above and flickers of lightning danced inside them. A thunderclap busted forth in a deafening bang. Faintly, I heard Mother call out for me from below. But I remained frozen. Slowly, my fingers uncurled and the basket fell deftly to the ground. Mother called for me again. As if in a dream, I watched her shout and wave, a small creature on the land beneath me. The sky raged with turmoil. But amidst its furious anger, the air remained dry and there was no rain. The clouds looked as though they would burst in waiting.
Then, from a great distance, a growing roar began to build and descend towards the island. Something magnificent and terrifying was unfolding before my eyes. I watched as the sea began to swell and gain momentum. It was as if God, himself, had dipped his hand into the water and gave it a gigantic push. A surge—a wall of ghastly proportions, raced towards the land and the hut below.
In slow motion, I turned to look down at Mother and the small hut. She stood paralyzed with fear and stared out at the wave. The wind died abruptly and the roaring was all that was left—roaring and the vast wall of water.
As it continued to close in, a great black shadow engulfed Mother and our hut. From where I was, I could see the swell's grand lip as it fluidly curled over. In the next few moments I stood mesmerized, a silent and still witness to a kind of twisted and isolated apocalypse. Then, in one great instant, I watched the wall tower over and down in a gargantuan crash below. The spray soared up the cliff face and splashed on to my arms, face, and legs.
For quite some time, I don't know how long, I stood there silent and still. I thought of Mother, and I thought of Alice. I thought of the fire I felt in the water all those weeks ago. I thought of how God had once sent the mighty flood to cleanse evil from the world. I thought of the prophecy that said God would end the world with fire. And I realized that that would be the final cleansing. That whether it was by fire or water, it didn't matter because they were one and the same. The water…the fire, both purifying forces that purge. I had watched the water deliver a final cleansing. And Mother would never want for it again.