I feel the ceremonial paint mix with my sweat and dribble between my breasts. As my husband-to-be prepares the sacrificial animal, I can feel his brother, Tzetl staring at me from the crowd. I shift my weight, being careful to remain silent and leave my gaze on the jungle floor, as my grandmothers told me. I watch one leaf cutter ant struggle with his burden across twigs, foliage, and even my bare foot, too distracted by his duty to sting me.
My grandmothers sang to me about duty as they prepared me last night. So I must not let Tzetlís secret gaze bore into my heart. If his brother knew he was here, he would kill him much less deftly than he was now killing the baby wild boar. It twitches on the altar, blood running into the gathering groove, a border of red. The boar fights, not wanting to die and I remember the small bird whose skull I crushed earlier in the morning. Once I had it cornered, it lay still, waiting. And as I shifted my weight again, I could feel its tiny bladder, filled with its blood shift inside of me and I continue to hope that my husband-to-be could not tell the difference between bird blood and my blood tonight. My grandmothers told me I was a silly girl, but I know that my husband-to-be is a smart man who has seen much blood and perhaps even my grandmothers do not know if men know the difference.
The sacrificial animal has given over its spirit to my husband-to-be and he begins to chant in a mysterious language only men know. The life Tzetl placed inside of me responds. Even though my grandmothers say that it is impossible to feel this life yet, I know it is there swimming inside me and I beg it to remain still, just for another night.
I roll up my linen sleeves almost to the starched white wimple and gather my skirts into a knot at my knees. If the priest in town saw me, he would command that I pray to the Virgin Mary for absolution. Of course, if the priest were here, he would probably be much less concerned with my attire than my behavior. I smile, amused, as I use mortar and pestle to crush pungent herbs, scraping them along the ribbed interior. Such nonsense over plants. That was what Grandmother would say.
Crow hops across the room and makes his way to my table, cocking his head at me, the light glinting off his beady black eyes. We found him in the maw of a stray hound two days ago, his right wing a bloody mess. Grandmother says that he reminds us of the benevolent stewardship required by God of man towards animals.
I wonder where Grandmother is when I am startled by someone kicking open the door to the hut. I donít even remember to straighten my dress. It is William, the young Vicar in the province. He is handsome, his strong arms shapely under his bulky shirts and lace, but he is low bred and struggles to gain respect. He looks me up and down most obviously. I have seen him glancing at me before, prudently, appropriately, socially. My father told me of his request for my hand in marriage. Of course, my father turned him down. It would not be proper for the maiden daughter of a Magistrate.
Behind William, I see Grandmother. Her hands are bound and her head bowed. Her long grey hair hangs limply around her face. William does not address me, but strides in, yanking Grandmother along on a tether. He grabs the lamp oil from a low shelf and splashes it on the table, my herbs, Crow. I jump back to avoid the sparks from Williamís tinderbox. Flames sprout on the table. Crow screams as the fire eats him, the smell of burning feathers and my aromatic herbs mixing. I hold out a useless hand. What am I to do? What is to become of me? I look at William exiting through the gathering smoke, Grandmother in tow. He looks over his shoulder at me and smiles.
I wonder why they allowed me to keep my jewels. After all, what use are they to me here? I have a lot of time to wonder, locked away like an animal. And I want to wonder about my jewels because I do not want to wonder about my baby. My breasts ache just at the thought of her. I double over and place my hands on my neck.
Water drips somewhere in the stone room gathering around and soaking through my slippers making my toes cold and wet. Sunlight comes through a tiny barred window and I hear the swallows singing outside as they dive from the high surrounding walls.
I get up to pace again, my skirts rubbing against my ankles and my sopping slippers. It would have been considered criminal just a week ago for my slippers to be wet. My servants would have made sure my toes did not experience this discomfort. A frown forms on my brow without my permission as I wonder how it could have gone this wrong. Everything had been going so well. Finally, one of my pregnancies had resulted in a live child instead of a demonically deformed one. And after all, did not my Lord husband also have some responsibility in the creation of each of these stillborn children as much as he had responsibility in the creation of our live one? The courts did not see it that way. If only my daughter had been a son. She may well be for as much as I had gotten to see her. The midwives had whisked her away almost as soon as she left my body. But my body had not forgotten her. Warm milk creates a small unsightly spot on the front of my dress. I will not let my tears increase the stain and instead take a deep breath, straighten up and smooth out my skirts.
I know the charge is witchcraft. That is how my husband will get out of his responsibilities to me. I knew the game I was playing was deadly; I just never thought I would lose. I was too beautiful, too crafty, too strong. Now I would pay the ultimate price for my gamble.
As that notion becomes real to me, I am determined to remain regal to the last. Hunting around the room, I soak cloth ripped from my inner skirts in the chilling water. I wash my arms and face and pull back my hair twisting it. I stand to practice the walk I will make to my execution, wet slippers slapping the stone floor as I glide confidently.
My dread abates but I still jump at the sound of the lock turning.
The dirt chokes everything. Dry, dusty billows blown around by the baking desert wind get into all our supplies. Soon I am used to the constant coating of fine silt on my tongue and the sand in our food. Even the children stop complaining about it. Of course, I make sure the children complain about as little as possible in order to keep Billyís temper in check.
He didnít want to bring them with us but I begged him. He said they would cost too much to feed and would only drag us down. They werenít even our children anyway Ė just ragamuffins my bleeding heart had collected from the dirty city and filled our modest home with. He said to leave them in an orphanage with the Sisters. I couldnít bear it and he couldnít bear to sleep alone so they piled into our wagon.
Ellie climbs up front, her chubby toddler frame unbalanced. Even though he wonít admit it, Billy has warmth in his heart for her. She sits on his lap and he does his best to ignore her, but holds tight around her waist so she wonít fall off and be maimed by the unstoppable wooden wheels. I hold the bench, the wood worn smooth from my grip, and watch Billy look for a place to camp. The plains have given way to rocky paths, hills and mountains these past few weeks, the plant life growing sparse and the animal life lean and tough. Because food is meager, Billy forges on past daylight to squeeze in as many miles as possible.
After dinner, Billy announces that he is leaving to find game. I look around at the dark world and protest. He scowls at me and grabs his rifle. I stand. The children are sleeping bundles around my feet and the fire is dying. Billy turns to leave and I step over to children to follow. He looks back at me, angry. He begins to shout and walk backwards. I can barely see the ground now, my feet slipping on flat shale. He makes a large motion for me to go back but I ignore him. He is furious but I want him to stay with us, to keep us safe from wolves so I continue to follow. He takes a large step backward and disappears. I run forward, but stop short of the edge of a cliff, watching his thrashing body fall into the canyon, its depths darkened by the night. I hold out my hand, wanting so much to not have followed him, unbelieving that he was beyond my grasp as I hear his body break against the rocks below. I look around desperately, wondering where he keeps the rope in the wagon. Wondering how I would save him. Wanting to save him. Paralyzed by the realization it is too late, I lay belly down on the edge of the precipice, curl into a ball, and sob.
I wake as my cheek is caressed and look around for Billy but realize it is Ellie. She smiles at me. I suck in a breath, remembering the cliff and enfold her against my bosom. I look overhead to see vultures circle high in the air over the canyon.
I wake from my dreams, sweat gathered around my shoulders and lower back, drenching my night shirt. I sit up and wincing, hold a cool palm to my jaw, certain I have a black eye this time. I look over at him, sleeping in the bed next to me, his jeans and t-shirt still on and the blanket rolled around his waist, leaving my bare legs exposed to the breeze from the open window. Getting up to close it, I decide.
Pulling on my jeans and fumbling for my bra, I watch him breathe heavily. I wanted to tell him last night, but he came back scary angry and I was lucky only to have gotten what I got. I swallow as I brave his wallet, grabbing all of the loose bills I can see in the half dark. He rolls in his sleep, moaning. I freeze.
Daring to breathe, I search for the car keys, holding them tightly in my fist to keep them silent. I stop and look around. A half life of memories in my closets and drawers surround me. I gather my purse, twist the latch and gently tug the door. Before it clicks behind me, I remember.
Slipping back into the house, I enter our bathroom, my sneakers scuffing across the tile. I crouch and dig through the trash until I find it. The wrapper is crackly as I stuff it into my purse, the two pink lines tellingly running across the cotton stick.
I donít breathe again until I am ten blocks away, the engine of my Firebird roaring echoes against the buildings of the sleeping city.