The water would run out soon. They all knew it. Maple sat in the cool of the stone chapel with her eyes shut and imagined herself by a stream. Unlike her grandchildren, she still had memories of real ones. She let the light dapple on the surface, and felt her feet connect with the softness of grass. When had she last trod barefoot on real, honest-to-goodness grass? It must be decades. The sigh escaped her cracked lips before she could stop it. Hopefully there was no-one sitting behind her to report it. But in any case, what did it matter, now?
Indulging in memories was a sin, of course. But she had no idea what category it came under. Whose idea was that, to rank sin? A stench was a stench no matter where it came from. The punishments were much the same now for everything, since the shields had appeared. But she did not want to think about that now.
In the old days, she would have lit a candle. Prayed, can you believe it, out loud? Daring to mouth one’s own sacred words. Another sin. But they couldn’t outlaw breathing, and that was speaking holy things, wasn’t it? The in and out of life itself, the great I AM deigning to move softly and tidally through his or her creation. Was it his or her or their? She could not remember. Perhaps it was all of them. Perhaps. She risked a quick look around, ratifying her solitude. So few came now.
Before, when crises arrived, the faithful would rise. They would perform rites and make petitions and intercessions, pray with intentions and novenas. They would, we would (she inwardly corrected herself) ask the Holy Mother for her aid.
No one came now. No one asked. No one prayed. Or did they? Did they hold a space deep within as she did, that nobody could police, where there were still memories of streams and of sunlight that played and danced, and did not burn? An altar before which one could speak openly? Even climb up as a child onto a stone bed, and lie, breathing slowly and deeply of a kind of communion lost to the world?
She had closed her eyes again. She was tired. The waters gurgled and swirled. The colours too, still vibrant there, not covered in red dust as everything supposedly real was. She sank her toes into the ground, letting the blades tickle in the spaces between. She breathed deeply of air so fresh and vibrant that it seemed wicked to partake of it. She determined one last rebellious act, albeit in her own mind.
She rose up, and made her way gingerly down towards the water. It seemed to be waiting for her. She hesitated right at the edge, hardly daring to step into something buried so long in her dreams. When she finally dipped her foot into the stream, it felt so cold she jumped, jolting her body even in her pew back in the real world.
Good, so good, that coolness on her skin, to feel that flow. It was just a little stream, but she was shocked at how strong the current was. She smiled, in both worlds. It had been a long time since anything good had threatened to knock her off her feet. There had been a man. A long time ago. Before children and grandchildren. Before the expedition. Before here. And, she laughed, she could not help herself, the strange sound echoing warmly off the stone, there had been a dog, a big golden one, a… the unfamiliar words took a while to dust off.. retriever? Whatever it was, it had been bouncy, strong, loyal, playful, all lolling tongue and splashing feet and sending everything flying, including her. Animals. She had missed them. Such an ache in her heart, a deep and difficult homesickness, a longing to see one again.
A tiny bird in a tree, singing a song only it owned, or something prickly snuffling along the ground, methodically examining the grass for insects. One of those small shelled creatures with the slimy foot, climbing and eating everything in the gardens. She had forgotten the names for them. She only knew she missed them terribly. Here in her closeted place she could see them, even if she had lost the words. Didn’t they all have Latin names too? She suddenly remembered. Maybe their beauty was too much for us even back then and we had to pin them down in dead language. Before they were taken away altogether, the missals had been put back into Latin. As though they too needed to be kept under the lock and key of a meaning once removed. People were not to have feelings about God. She went back to her stream. She felt, if the God she knew was waiting for her, he would rush over her tired feet just like this fresh water. Might too, knock her flying with the unconditional love of a Golden Retriever, sent to bring her home, with an entourage of singing, snuffling, creeping things.
Is this the place she would come home to, when she walked into the Abyss? Was it really there, this heaven she had held in the vision of her mind and heart for so long like one last precious drop of rain? She would not have to wait long to find out now. Even if she had not been chosen as the Goat today, they would all die soon. Maybe this was a kinder exit, and it would be made under her own power, at least, an act of her own will. She frowned. Had she made that up? Her name had been drawn, after all. It wasn’t as though she had volunteered. It was strange how attached one could be, to even the smallest crumb of life. To give it up, to hand over one’s right to breathe, to be, to think, to imagine, wasn’t that a sin too? Apparently not.
She pretended not to hear, needing a moment to come back from that other, spacious place.
“Sister? Are you coming?” She opened her eyes to see Noah-san in front of her, his heavy beige robes signaling the reality to which she must return, as though it were her and not him that was dragged down by their weight.
“It is time,” he said, simply. No emotion. Even here, even now. Keeping to the ordinances.
“I am ready,” Maple lied.
Cover image by JOHN TOWNER.