Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Handprints in the Sand


                                                          

You understand,” said the curator unhappily, “it wasn’t my idea to call you in? But the board insisted.”

The woman he was talking to bent closer and peered closely at the slab of stone on the table. Her hair slipped over her face, and she pushed it absently back over her forehead.

“I’m here now, aren’t I?” she said. “And you’re to help me in whatever way I need, aren’t those your instructions?”

“Yes,” agreed the curator unhappily. “They are.”

“And this...phenomenon...you speak of, when does it appear? Every night?”

“The security guard first reported it ten days ago. He thought it was vandalism, but when I went to look, the block was just the same as it had been the previous night. I thought he’d been mistaken, but two days later another guard reported the same thing. I had it removed from the display section and brought in here, and ran some tests. There was nothing wrong with it that I could tell.”

The woman glanced at him from the corner of her eye. “And then you saw it yourself.”

“Yes.” The curator swallowed nervously. “As you say, then I saw it myself. Two nights ago, and then again last night.”

“I see.” The woman turned her broad back to him and returned to studying the block of sandstone. “I’ll stay in here tonight with it, of course.”

“Uh...” the curator hesitated. “Don’t you want to know what I saw?”

“No,” the woman said without turning around. “I want to form my own impressions, thanks. I don’t want to have any preconceived notions of what I ought to experience.”

“Is there anything more you want to know?”

The woman began to shale her head, and then paused. “Yes. Tell me about this stone. Where did it come from?”

“It was found during the excavations in the desert south of here. The site’s still being kept secret by the archaeologists. They didn’t think this was too special, though, not really worth keeping – so they sent it to us.”

“Did they say how old it was, or anything?”

“If they do know, they aren’t saying. But it’s old – very old.” The curator cleared his throat. “Do you need coffee or a meal? I could have something sent in to you.”

The woman straightened and turned to him, not bothering to keep the amusement from her voice. “I may be fat, you know, sir, but I can last one night without food, I assure you. I’ll be all right. Please leave me now. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Left alone, the woman latched the door shut and glanced over the office. There was just the one window, of the kind that couldn’t be opened, and which overlooked the park behind the museum. In the faint light of the gibbous moon, it looked dark and mysterious, thick with shadows. Beyond it, the buildings of the city rose skywards, obscuring the desert that stretched towards the horizon.

The woman had no time for the scenery. She checked the window to make sure it was secure, and walked around the office checking in corners and under tables. Satisfied finally that there was no hidden piece of electronic equipment that might be part of some elaborate hoax, she switched off all the lights except for the lamp that hung over the table, pulled up a chair and sat down. Taking a magnifying glass from the pocket of her jacket, she bent over the slab and began to examine it systematically, from one side to the other.

The slab was not large, about a metre on a side and a quarter of that thick. It was of yellowish-brown sandstone, rippled as though it had once formed part of a long-gone beach. In the rough centre of the slab were the very faint prints of three hands, all of the right palm, as though the flow of time had almost effaced what some ancient artist had once carved.

With the tip of a forefinger, the woman gently traced the outlines of the hands. The stone was smooth with age and erosion, but it felt faintly warm to her finger, as though the heat of the sun was still lingering in the rock.

She’d already photographed the slab, but did so again, from various angles. Then she put the camera down close to hand, ready for anything that might occur.

Taking a notebook and pen from her bag, she set them down beside the slab, glanced at her watch, and waited.

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You’re a paranormal researcher?” The question had been asked so many times in so many tones of incredulity that she’d long got used to it. “How interesting.”

At first, she had tried to explain that it wasn’t all about ghosts, that she wasn’t an astrologer or a medium, that all she was doing was investigating things that weren’t readily explainable, and in as scientific a manner as possible. Then she’d realised that it was pointless, so she’d merely smiled and talked about something else.

She lived alone. Mostly, she worked alone. She attended no conferences, and wrote few research papers. It was a lonely existence, but hers was a lonely life anyway. She knew well enough that she wasn’t the kind who had relationships; too heavy, too plain, too intimidatingly intelligent, too plain-spoken. Over time, she’d told herself she didn’t care often enough to begin to believe it.

In recent years, she’d been mostly confined to her laboratory in the university. It wasn’t much of a laboratory, and the funding dried up a little further every year; though she was still carrying on somehow, she knew that the Department of Paranormal Research was on the chopping block.

That was why she’d welcomed this call from the museum. Although she’d been certain it was a hoax of some kind, or a mistake on someone’s part, she’d come eagerly, because the exposure might help keep the department going another year or two. In all her career, she hadn’t really had any discoveries, anything worth calling genuine research, yet she lived in hope. If she got a break, and could produce one single original paper, then the department might be safe for the foreseeable future.

Now she sat under the bright lamp, staring down at the block of sandstone, and waiting for something to happen.

It took so long that the hands of the clock were far advanced towards midnight. She’d decided that it had been a hoax after all, and had sat back from the table with a disappointed sigh. She looked up at the window, through which the slice of moon hung wanly over the dark treetops, and glanced back at the slab. And, with a sudden frown, she leaned over it.

The surface of the block was changing. The ripples in it seemed deeper and clearer, and the three handprints were sharper, more distinct. Even as she watched, the handprints became so clear that she could see the lines and creases in the palms.

Almost as though hypnotised, camera and notebook forgotten, she put her hand on the left-most of the prints. The sensation was as of putting her hand in wet sand, and her entire arm tingled, as though at an electric shock. She began to shiver, uncontrollably, and desperately tried to pull her hand away, but couldn’t. Her eyes clenched tightly shut, and she felt an intense urge to vomit.

She had a feeling as though the room was full of rushing wind, and as though a cool breeze played momentarily on her face. And then suddenly the shivering and the nausea vanished as though they had never been, and her arm was free.

Blinking cautiously, she opened her eyes.

For a moment she thought she would scream.

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The river was so wide that the far shore was almost invisible, and the sandy bank was rippled with the waves. The water was brackish with the taste of the sea, and when the tide came in the river rose until it washed the steps leading up to the Temple.

The boats were tied to posts set in the bank, and the nearly naked slaves toiled, their skins shining with sweat, to unload the stone and timber from up-country, to make the Temple. They sang as they worked, in the dialect she had never mastered, their voices deep and rich, thrilling something within her so that she felt them down to her toes.

She knew she shouldn’t be here, down on the bank, watching them working like that, with almost no clothes on. After all, as the future High Priestess, she was vowed to celibacy and shouldn’t even think of men in that way. She shouldn’t be out in public without her formal robes, either, but in her short shift, sandals and loose hair, she wouldn’t be recognised by anyone who didn’t know her. That way she could walk around a bit before she had to go back. If her guardians got to know she was missing from her quarters, they’d come looking for her, and they’d be both angry and scandalised. But she had got weary of her tiny dark rooms with the little windows, got tired of the constant supervision, and today when she’d found herself unexpectedly unwatched, she’d taken the opportunity to slip away.

She sat down on a rock on the bank, slipped off her sandals, and, sighing with pleasure, dipped her feet in the water. The bottom mud clouded up and hid her toes from view, and when she leaned back on her arms, so that her breasts were clearly outlined by the cloth. For the moment, she felt as though she were free.

She never would be free again, though. Not really.

Away up river she could see the crooked tree which pointed towards her parents’ village, three days’ journey inland. She hadn’t seen the village for four years now, not since the royal priests had come and informed her parents that she had been chosen as the High Priestess for when the Temple would be completed. She hadn’t minded leaving the village, where her older siblings had often beaten her and nobody had enough to eat. Nor had her father minded, because it left him with one less mouth to feed and gave him honour as the new High Priestess’ father. Only her mother had cried, and not very much at that, because she was already heavy with child again and one had to be practical.

She would never see the village again, and had long since stopped thinking of it.

Turning on her rock, she looked up at the bulk of the Temple. It had been a long time building, since before she was born, but was almost complete now. This time next year the last blocks of stone should have been hauled into place, and the artisans would be putting the finishing touches to the decorations. Two years from now, she would have been formally consecrated as the High Priestess, in formal charge of everything from the worship of the Great God to the sacrifices.

She fought down a shudder of distaste at the thought of the sacrifices. As the High Priestess, she, least of all, had a right to question the Great God’s demand for sacrifice. Besides, it wasn’t as though she, herself, had to do the sacrificing, just supervise and direct. And, anyway, they said one soon grew used to it.

She should probably be getting back now, but it was cooler by the river, with a whisper of breeze to blow against her face and reach her breasts through the thin fabric of her shift. And there were the slaves, their rippling muscles under the sweat-shining skin, some of them sneaking glances at her breasts under their brows as they worked. Though they were only slaves, she enjoyed the attention, feeling a strange yearning in the pit of her stomach. She’d been in training to be the High Priestess since before she’d attained puberty, and none of the men who were permitted contact with her dared look at her as a young woman. To them she was the High Priestess, remote, untouchable, with the power of life and death at her lips in the years to come.

She turned back to the river, watching the evening sun dip towards the west. In a little while her personal slave girls would come to her quarters to bathe her and prepare her for her evening rituals, and she had to be there, or they’d go scurrying off to her guardians. She wondered which of the slave girls would be there tonight. It didn’t really matter – she disliked all four of them, blunt-featured and stupid young women with scurrilous tongues. They all hated her, because she was a village girl just like them, but favoured only because she’d been chosen to be the High Priestess. That wasn’t her fault, but they hated her anyway. They couldn’t do a thing to her directly, so they tried to get back at her in other ways, like sneaking to the guardians about her.

Maybe when she was the High Priestess she could have her revenge in some way, she thought. When she was the High Priestess. Was that even something she wanted?

The sun was a red ball over the river. She must have been sitting there a long time, she realised; much too long. The boats had been unloaded, and the slaves were gone. The tide was beginning to rise, and the water began lapping at her calves. Sighing, she rose, stepping out of the water before slipping on her sandals. She didn’t know when she’d ever be able to come down again like this. If they found out that she’d been gone, they’d make sure not to leave her alone a moment after this, not even when she was sleeping.

Before she returned to the Temple, she bent to press her right hand into the wet sand at the water’s edge. She’d leave her mark at least, she thought, even if she couldn’t be there herself again.

So she would be the High Priestess, and would carry on the rituals and sacrifices demanded by the Great God, and there would be other High Priestesses after her, stretching on and on into the foreseeable future, as long as the world should last. Maybe the Great God would be pleased to change his demands, perhaps not. Maybe he would grow kind and mellow, or cruel and capricious, but it would all be in the future. Other High Priestesses would have to handle it, not she.

She wondered what it would be like for them, for some other young woman standing where she was standing now, when the Temple had grown old and she herself had long turned to dust.

The river rose as the tide came in, and she walked up to the Temple.

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The woman in the office pulled her hand away from the slab of sandstone so suddenly that the back of it almost struck her in the face. She sat back in the chair, her eyes tightly closed, her heart racing. The smell of the river was still in her nostrils, the water still cool against her shins. When she opened her eyes and looked down at her right hand, she was surprised not to see grains of sand sticking to the palm.

She closed her eyes again and took a series of deep breaths, until she felt calmed down enough to look at the slab. The handprints were still clear, deeply imprinted in the rippled stone, which looked as though the water had just flowed away from it.

Sucking in her breath and biting her lip, she hesitated a long moment before putting her palm on the right-side print.

The room spun into darkness.

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The day was intensely hot, and the sun so bright that she screwed her eyes shut and turned her face away.

She lay on her back on sand, the grittiness of it scraping at her hands and the backs of her shoulders. Her arms had been pulled behind her and tied, and her feet roped together too, so that she couldn’t escape. Not, of course, that she had anywhere to go, even if she did get free of her bonds. They would catch her and bring her back. Not even her own parents would shelter her, if she found her way back to them.

Blinking her eyes open cautiously, she found herself looking at one of the other young women lying on the bank. The girl’s breath was coming in shallow gasps, her face pale and clammy with sweat. Maybe she would die right there and rob the Great God of a sacrifice. But surely that wouldn’t really matter, not with the other girls, including her, who lay waiting for darkness and the Festival to begin.

Beyond the dying girl, she could see the high walls of the Temple, rising towards the heat-burnished sky. The walls were carved with figures that time had blurred so much that they could no longer be identified, but she knew it was the Temple, of course. She’d never seen it before, but where else would they have brought her to be sacrificed to the Great God?

The priestly guards had come to the village two days before, rowing up the river in their flat-bottomed boats, their long spears sticking up like the quills on a porcupine’s back. She had been down by the banks, turning over the racks on which fish were being sun-dried to preserve them. It did not take long, because the catch was growing smaller each year, as the river shrank and the desert swept in to swallow up the fields and villages. People had not actually starved yet, but it was only a matter of time, everyone knew. Only the Temple prospered, commanding the people to propitiate the Great God to make the good times come again.

Once, years ago, her father had told her that the Temple had been made by men, not by the Great God Himself as an abode on earth. He had said this furtively, looking round to see whether they were alone. Even the village priest would not have tolerated such blasphemy if he had heard it. Instinctively also whispering, she’d asked how her father knew this. Wasn’t it something that everyone knew as a fundamental truth, that the Great God lived in the Temple?

“The Temple was built by men,” her father had insisted. “Everyone knows this, but nobody dares say it aloud, because the priests call it blasphemy. And don’t you go talking about it either.”

And she hadn’t, but she’d never altogether forgotten it, either.

So the priestly guards had come to the village, and demanded that the young virgins be presented for their inspection and selection. Nobody argued with the guards – it was known that they were more powerful than the King himself, for he got his power only through the blessings of the Temple. Nobody tried to hide their nubile young daughters to keep them safe, for those whose daughters were chosen instead would be sure to complain, and nobody wished to face the punishment for disobedience. The priestly guards had honed the inflicting of torment to an art form, to the point where death was an option infinitely to be preferred, but those who went against the Great God were not permitted so easy an escape.

So she had been handed over to the guards, and been taken to a tent set up by the muddy trickle of the river. And there, stripped naked, she had been inspected head to toe by a couple of the High Priestess’ ladies-in-waiting, and they had pronounced her suitable.

She hadn’t even been allowed to say goodbye to her parents. Still naked, she’d been tied and thrust into the bottom of the largest of the boats, among the girls already selected from other villages. Some of them had been there for days, and a couple were already on the verge of death. They had been the lucky ones.

Now she waited, the thirst burning her throat, and felt the sun beating down on her like a hammer. When the sun had gone down, the festival would begin, and with its start, her life would end.

Now that it had come to that, she no longer had anything in the way of emotion. She just waited, lasting it out, trying to keep her mind free of her own situation. She had no desire to go insane with fear like the girl who had begun screaming on the boat, and whom the guards had finally thrown overboard, still alive and struggling, after cutting her throat. Fear would not help her in any way – it would just make the remaining moments of her life that much harder to endure.

Closing her eyes again to keep out the sun, she began thinking of the High Priestess. She had seen the woman once, many months ago, when she had come up-river on her painted boat, dispensing the blessings of the Great God to the people who lived along the dying river. Under her headdress, the High Priestess’ face had been astonishingly young for one so powerful; her body slim under the loose robes of her formal costume. The colours of both the boat and the robes were so faded that nobody had been able to decide what they had originally been, but it did not matter. For all her youth and grace, the High Priestess inspired terror in those who beheld her.

She couldn’t be far away now, the girl realised. Somewhere inside the ancient carved walls, she would be preparing for tonight, her thoughts no doubt on the rituals to come. The sacrifice would be just another of the details, looking on while the muscular assistant priests pulled each victim down across the great altar, and, taking the holy knife from her hand, carved out each still beating heart.

The girl wondered what kind of woman she was, the High Priestess. Shut away behind those walls, allowed only her yearly trip on the river, could she ever be happy? Was it worth wielding the power of life and death if one could hardly ever see the sun?

There was a sound, and she twisted herself round to face it. Two men, Temple slaves, were walking amongst the bound girls, pushing them up one by one and holding a leather bag to their lips. Most of the girls drank the water eagerly, but a few were so far gone that the liquid dribbled down their bare bodies and spilled onto the sand. The girl was amongst the last they reached, and by then she’d decided that she wouldn’t give way to her thirst and suck at the water like the others. She would retain her dignity if she could. But when the water touched her lips, gritty with dirt as it was, she opened her mouth as greedily as any of the others and drank as quickly as she could, until they took the bag away and the one holding her up by the shoulders dropped her back to the sand. Her stomach clenched suddenly, and her consciousness wavered as she threw up the water and passed out.

When she recovered consciousness, it was much cooler and the sun was no longer smashing its heat on the ground. She knew it was evening, and she could hear the chanting coming from the Temple. Soon, they would be coming for her, the guards with their hooked swords and long spears, and they would take her up to the altar, along with the other girls lying on the sand, those of them who were still alive.

She had a moment of intense hatred of everything. Why couldn’t she have been the High Priestess herself, causing death instead of suffering it? She hated the slim young woman she’d seen so many months ago, hated the black eyes and the narrow elegant face under the tall headdress. She wished it were the High Priestess lying in her place.

But what good would that do? Someone would still be about to die.

For the first time she thought of the possibility that the High Priestess might know mercy, might not be doing what she wanted to do, but was constrained by the rules and traditions of her office, as completely imprisoned as she herself by her bonds. And then she felt intensely sorrowful for that woman, as well as angry for herself. At least she would be free in a little while. For the High Priestess there would be no escape; she would spend a lifetime of dealing out pain and blood, her soul struggling not to scream.

The sluggish tide had moistened the sand under her, and she pressed the palm of her right hand into it, with all the force of her sudden, savage anger. She would be leaving the world, but she’d leave her mark on it, even if only for a moment. If that was all she could do, it was still better than nothing.

Perhaps, she thought, in time to come, some other young woman would be where she now was, and she wondered what it would be like for that unknown girl. Silently, without moving her lips, she whispered a word of greeting.

The chanting grew louder, and more distinct. Looking up towards the Temple, she saw the guards coming.

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The woman in the office scarcely hesitated. Without even pausing to catch her breath, she slapped the palm of her hand into the central print on the slab, and pressed it there as if she would push it right into the stone.

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The caravan had been travelling since before the dawn, and now, in the last of the day’s light, the heat had finally begun to dissipate. The animals were straining against the harness as if they could smell the water, and the men, too, seemed to perk up at the prospect of rest.

In the ruddy glow of the setting sun, the desert was painted gold and pink, and would have looked pretty to the girl if her eyes were not weary from days of looking at rock and sand. Now she, too, leaned over her mare’s neck for a glimpse of the oasis.

It was the ruins that she saw first, starkly outlined against the western sky, high roofless walls and tumbled pillars. Beyond them was a patch of scrub and a few stunted trees, which would mark the oasis itself.

She was still not used to her new husband, who rode to her right on his horse, as tall and black as he was himself. Her husband, she thought, looking at him, at his head and face hooded against the heat and sand. What a strange concept – to be a wife, married to this man, and to be travelling across the desert, far away from her town on the coast to his own land in the interior. She hadn’t really wanted the marriage, but when he’d made the offer she hadn’t rejected it either, because she’d known that her parents had wanted her to accept. Not that they’d said anything, but they’d made it clear what they wanted.

She didn’t really care either way, she’d told herself. She had no affection for the way she’d had to live in her town, sealed away behind walls and curtains like the other unmarried women, allowed out only in each other’s company and when her parents allowed it. At least in his country she would have a measure of freedom unknown to the women of her own, if the stories she’d heard about it were true. For that she would put up with marrying him and bearing his children.

Love? That was just a word. Only poets spoke of it.

“What are the ruins?” she asked her husband, pronouncing the still unfamiliar words carefully. As a trader who spent part of each year on the coast, he could speak her language quite well, but she was trying hard to learn his. When they reached his city, she’d need at least a basic grasp of the language, he’d told her, so she’d better learn fast. And she was trying.

“Those?” he turned his head as though he’d never seen them before. “Just ruins. Very old.”

“Doesn’t anyone know what they were?”

“I don’t, certainly,” he shrugged. “I don’t see that it matters.”

“And that is the oasis there?”

“Yes, we’ll stop there tonight.” He turned his horse back to check on the caravan, and for a while she rode alone.

The high broken walls towered over her when she finally drew the horse to a stop. She was still unused to riding, and her muscles were sore and aching. But her husband was busy with seeing to unloading and watering the animals, so she walked down to the oasis and looked around.

It was a series of relatively long and narrow pools, for all the world as though a river had once run along here, but had been swallowed up by the desert, leaving just these remnants of itself to quench the thirst of travellers. The water was, however, dank and gritty, and after splashing a little over her face and hands she went up to the ruins.

It had been a tremendous structure. Even now, staring up at the walls, she could see the half-effaced carvings that had once decorated it. The floor was covered with sand and chunks of broken masonry, and she had to be careful of where she put her feet.

She wondered what the place had been. A fortress, perhaps, or a palace. She tried to imagine those long-lost days, when elegant women in shimmering dresses might have trod these halls, and soldiers in armour would have stood guard at the doors. She wondered what it would have been like to have been alive then, and she felt a surge of jealousy.

The last of the sunlight was shining on the tops of the walls, so she could still see well enough not to have to go back down to the caravan, and it was the first time she’d had a chance to be alone since her marriage. Looking around, she wandered from room to room, until she suddenly realised she was lost.

It was not frightening so much as annoying. The ruins were extensive, true, but the oasis and the caravan – and her husband – weren’t far away. If she yelled for help, they’d probably hear. But she was annoyed at herself, for allowing herself to lose her way. Turning, she began trying to retrace her path, but it was getting dark now, the floor was soaked in shadows, and she couldn’t even see her feet.

It was then that she heard the sobbing. It was low and ragged, as though the person who was sobbing was utterly exhausted. And then, turning a corner, she saw a flicker of light.

Once it must have been a gigantic idol. Most of it had crumbled away with the years, but the lower portion still existed, immense stone-worked legs and torso vanishing upwards into the gathering darkness. Below the idol, on a stone platform, were set a flickering lamp, the flame burning low.

The sobbing came from the platform, near the lamp. She came closer, and saw a girl lying on her back, her legs and arms tied to her sides. The girl looked up at her with fear-dilated eyes.

“There you are,” someone said behind her, and she turned. Behind her stood an old, old woman, dressed in the remnants of what must have once been a beautiful gown. A stone gleamed in her tall headdress, as though it were a third glowing eye.

“Who are you?” she asked this apparition. They were both speaking her language. “What are you doing here, and...” she pointed to the bound girl, “...who’s she?

“That?” The old woman glanced at the platform and back again. “That’s the sacrifice. Now get ready to help me.”

“I don’t understand. Help you to do what?”

“Sacrifice her, of course. What did you think? The Great God must have His sacrifice, if He’s not to get angry.” The old woman took a knife from the belt of her dress and held it out. It was a very old knife, with small jewels set in the tarnished butt. “I’ve consecrated it,” she said. “Go ahead, cut her heart out.”

“I’m sorry.” She took the knife and held it away. “I can’t do that.”

“You don’t understand,” the old woman said, as though to a child. “The Great God sent you to help me, because a High Priestess should not have to do the sacrifice by her own hand. Once my predecessors had priests to help them, but I was alone. The Great God saw this, and acted. You don’t have a choice.”

“The Great God?” She looked up involuntarily at the shattered idol. “But I have never even heard of this place, let alone...that. Nobody has.”

“But,” the old voice quavered, “He is the Great God, whose abode this is since He built it with His own hands. How can you not have heard of Him?”

“Because...” she paused, suddenly struck by a thought. “You don’t understand do you,” she echoed the old woman. “Whatever this place was once, it’s fallen to ruin. There’s just a desert outside. Everything that was here is gone, long ago, blown dust. Let that girl go.”

“Cut her heart out,” said the aged voice. “I will not have you betray the High Priestess.”

For answer, she stepped back and hacked at the bonds tying the girl on the platform. The child rolled away, fell on the floor and scuttled out on hands and knees.

“If you want a sacrifice,” she said to the old woman who called herself the High Priestess, “you’ll have to sacrifice me.”

The ancient eyes blinked at her for a moment, and then the old woman leapt at her, hands grabbing for the knife. Instinctively, she swung the jewelled blade at her, and, stepping back, fell against the platform.

The lamp overturned and the fire went out.

She heard laughing in the darkness, shrill and demented. Turning, dropping the knife, she ran, blundering through the maze until turning a corner, she suddenly found lights and men’s voices.

Almost fainting, she fell into her husband’s arms.

The next morning, before the caravan left, she went back to the ruins. After some searching, she found the room with the broken idol, but that was all. There was no knife, no lamp, or any other proof that anything had happened there. Perhaps she had dreamt it all, but she didn’t think so.

She wondered where the old woman was, and what she would do now that there had been no sacrifice. She had told her husband nothing about what had happened, just given him a tale of being lost and wandering around in circles, and he had accepted it.

She would never mention the old woman to anyone, or the girl she had saved. She wasn’t even certain that they were real, any longer. She wasn’t certain of anything.

Her husband and the other men were still seeing to the animals, so she went down to the water. Kneeling by the side of the pool, she pressed her hand into the wet sand, wondering if she would ever come this way again.

Turning, she looked up at the broken walls of the ruins, wondering whether some long-gone girl had once crouched where she was, and what that girl had been thinking.

Her husband was calling, and she got up and trudged up to the caravan.

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The knocking might have been going on for a while. When the woman opened her eyes, it had begun to rise to a frustrated pounding.

The dawn light was shimmering in through the window, and her head was throbbing with pain, in a cadence with the pounding on the door. She stumbled out of the chair and opened the latch, standing back to let the curator in.

“Are you all right?” he demanded, staring at her. “You  don’t look well, and you weren’t answering my knocks.”

“Oh yes,” she managed a smile. “I’m fine. I’m sorry,” she added. “I fell asleep.”

“And the slab?” They both turned to look. In the combined light of the lamp and the dawn, the handprints were scarcely visible, thin lines on the stone. “Did you see anything?”

“No,” she said. “I didn’t. It must have been an optical illusion of some kind everyone had.”

“An optical illusion,” the curator said. The woman could see he was relieved at the idea. “Yes, of course. You’ll say that in your report?”

“Yes.” She looked at him, and at the slab, and back at him again. “That’s what I will say.”

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The desert was carved up with trenches. The crews had left for the evening when the woman arrived. She had walked the last several kilometres, having parked her car by the highway, and planned her arrival so that she would have the site to herself.

It had not been difficult to find out where the dig was being held. Officially, it was a secret, but she had contacts she could tap.

She walked now by the wan light of the moon, refusing to use the torch she had brought with her. Her mind was a whirl of images, each thrusting the others out of the way.

She was the High Priestess, her heart heavy with sorrow, as she handed one of her acolytes the knife. Incense swirled in the air, and the chanting of the gathered men and women sounded in her ears. She had no desire to make the sacrifice, but the Great God demanded it, and even more, the assembled people demanded it. Their expectations were far more important than her empathy for the naked girl on the platform. She could feel the tears in her eyes, trickling, but all she could do was make the gesture for the acolyte to plunge the knife into the waiting breast.

A few steps further, and she was on the platform herself, looking up into the tragic eyes of the woman in the ceremonial robes and headdress, hating and pitying her in equal measure, and wishing she could tell her what she thought. Maybe the two of them could even have been friends, once.

And then she was a slave girl, helping to dress the High Priestess, and burning with jealousy and hatred as she worked, because the High Priestess was just a village girl like herself, but had been lucky. Smiling, she handed the High Priestess her knife, and wished she had been the Priestess herself, for then life would have been full of ease and splendour and joy.

And then she was running through the maze of the shattered Temple, the insane laughter of the old crone in her ears, fear and disgust fighting for space inside her. She was all of these women, all of them together, and trying to find space for them inside her being.

She knew now that she had been them all, and that she had been waiting for this moment, all her life. And she knew that now she could never be free of them. She was the vessel in which they would meet and mix and perhaps settle their histories and find some sort of peace.

Kneeling, she pressed her right hand hard into the sand, until it trickled up between her fingers.

Then she stood up and walked away, and she did not look back.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011


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