This morning I was extremely lucky, Mistress Kyami was not around and instead Muralti doled out the chores. Otherwise things would have gone badly for me, Mistress Kyami is never easy, especially with those of us who are not her favorites; Altori thought. I must be more careful this afternoon, she likes her power and won’t stay away long. The laughter of the women at the other tables, eating their lunch made the loneliness that much more palatable, but today it served its purpose. Head down, carefully keeping her scarf low across her head, partially hanging in her face she hid the blackness of the bruises.
The morning had been hard enough, but Muralti was unused to handing out chores and so I got light duty. I can barely stand, if I had spent the morning on my knees scrubbing the floor in the great hall it would have been worse. That is one of the lowliest tasks given and one that was reserved for those that irritated Mistress Kyami. The only one worse, is cleaning out the commodes Altori thought. I hope she is over her anger with me, or I will be assigned that this afternoon. Stealing glances at the other women she wondered again, where did Helen and I come from? How did we get to this village? I truly don’t remember. We are both small and blonde, the women of this village are tall, big boned, with the straightest blackest hair one could ever have imagined. Where is Helen? I know she isn't dead, I feel her presence in my heart, and I am sure I will know if she dies.
The world around her disappeared as she drifted into her memories.
“Helen what happened to you? You are covered in bruises, and I can see bald spots on your scalp. What are you doing on the floor? What happened to your dress? Oh my God, Helen your face, your lips are swollen, oh my God Helen, what is wrong with your tongue?”
“Shush, speak quieter. Even though, our hut is on the outskirts of the village, you never know who might be listening. Helen spoke in a hoarse whisper. “Please Tori, bring me some water and a bit of bread, I am not well. I will tell you about it anon.”
Altori took the pot of water off the hook over the small fire, dipped a cloth into it and quietly walked to her sister. “Let me wash you first Helen? At least your poor face?”
Helen only nodded unable to stand, she lay on the floor. Altori placed a pillow under her head and carefully washed her face and hands. They were covered in bruises, black as night. Her golden hair matted, twigs and leaves sticking out of it. She winced as Altori washed her face. Helen put a hand up. “Water!” She croaked, the look of pleading in her eyes, made Altori move swiftly to fill a cup, holding it to Helen’s mouth, watching her cracked lips part and her swollen tongue nearly lapping the water. Altori’s arm was around her sister now, propping her up while she drank. “More!” She croaked as Altori ran and filled the cup again.
Startled out of her daydreams by the clanging bells signaling the end of lunch, Altori pushed herself up, body aching, she looked down at the half eaten piece of cheese and slice of bread. Hurriedly she picked them up, shoved them in the pocket of her dress, grabbed her cup of water and scurried after the other women. She stood at the end of the line, waiting for her afternoon assignment. As she took the last sip of her water, tucked the cup into the pack on her back, she reached the head of the line.
Head lowered, she waited for Mistress Kyami and prayed she wouldn't notice the bruises that now covered her delicate hands. Reaching out the woman grabbed one of her hands, with a smug look on her face she said. “Altori, if doing such a simple chore as peeling potatoes does this to your hands you haven’t been working hard enough. Still holding her hand roughly she said, “I think this afternoon your task will be the commodes. Now make sure they are gleaming before you go home. After all Monsieur and Madam are coming home tonight. It will be nice to have them back won’t it?”
“Yes Mistress it will.” Altori said quietly, knowing if she were to say anything else it would go harder on her. With a hard slap on her back and a push which nearly knocked her off her feet, Kyami shoved Altori towards the row of outhouses. So strong was the stench she could smell them fifty feet before she managed to drag her heavy feet to the door of the first.
“I can’t do this.” She said quietly to herself, nearly vomiting the contents of her stomach up. Pulling herself up she thought. You made it through the void, you can do this. Just put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Spittle and urine covered the floor in front of the small wooden toilet. From the rack above her head, she lifted down a pail and brush. Retching Altori heaved herself outside and managed to make it to the well without allowing herself to show weakness. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Kyami laughing and joking with Annora, both of them watching her with glee in their eyes.
Determination in her step now, Altori made her way back to the commodes. She knew no one had been assigned to clean them the entire time Monsieur and Madame had been gone. Kyami loved to wait until they were absolutely vile, then her power became supreme.
How people can live like this is beyond me, Altori thought. Why don’t they have the pride to clean up after themselves? Taking a cloth from her pocket she tied it around her nose and commenced cleaning. This job will take me well past the usual quitting time she thought. I expect that is why it has been given to me today. As I expected, Kyami has found a reason to make life even worse for me, being late is an unforgivable offense. Tomorrow is likely to be worse if anything can be worse than the commodes, she thought.
Dinner had come and gone, the sliver of moon hung low in the sky when she finished her chores. As she stood outside the door of the last waiting for Kyami to inspect her work. She swayed with exhaustion. The piece of bread and cheese still in her pocket would have to do for her supper when she got home. A bit of water was left from her weekly allotment, she could wash and have a small glass. Luckily tomorrow they doled out water. I hope they don’t short me again this week, she thought.
Here she comes now, please let it be satisfactory to her. Altori prayed and waited, standing up as straight as she could while Kyami inspected each outhouse.
“Get in her girl.” Kyami shouted from the last of the outhouses.
“Yes Mistress.” Altori said quietly as she made her way into the last of the toilets.
“YOU SEE THAT? YOU MISSED A COBWEB!” Kyami screamed. What kind of worker are you anyway? What kind of woman are you? I just don’t see how you can be such a slacker all of the time.”
“I’ll get it right now, Mistress, I’m sorry I should have seen it.” Altori said cringing from the berating. She had worked hours, her hands were red and chapped, her back aching, her throat parched and her stomach empty.
“You do that right now, I’ll watch, and tomorrow you will wash the floors in the great hall in the morning and clean these commodes again in the afternoon. I can’t send you to the fields, you are too small and would make things harder for proper women. Those who know how to do things properly.”
Altori, cleaned the cobweb, her body swaying until finally, Kyami said. “You can use a bit of the water from the well to clean up before you go home. You stink! Make sure you have a clean dress on tomorrow.” Kyami turned on her heel, but stopped, turned back once and with a smirk on her face she said. “Don’t be using too much water, or it will be taken out of your weekly allotment.
Washing up at the well and using only a drop of water on her cloth Altori’s mind was blank. She was much too tired to do anything except wobble home afterwards.
Opening her door she staggered in, pulling the soiled dress off, she noticed her bruises were worse and remembered.
“My God Helen, you look worse today. I will cover for you again, but I fear soon it will become impossible soon.”
“I’m sorry Altori.” Helen said, lying on the small bed in the corner, her bruised face now full of large welts. “I wish I could get up, but I can’t, I don’t want to make it harder for you, but please, before you go put some of that cooling cream on my back, it feels as if it is on fire.”
Altori walked quietly over to her sister, the jar of cream in her hand. Carefully, she turned Helen over moving the night dress away from her back, she almost gagged. The black bruises had become tremendously huge lumps, oozing a green tinged fluid, which smelled awful. With a tender, feather like touch, she smeared the cream over Helen’s back. “You may need a doctor Helen. These look terrible they are worse than yesterday.”
“We can’t Tori, they would know I was in the void. They might put me in ‘the box’ for fear someone would catch something from me. I’d die in the box Tori.” She replied. “Do what you can, I will be okay.”
“I’ll make sure you are safe Helen, but I am worried it is the third day and each day you look worse.”
The memories faded as she cleaned her dress and hung it on the peg. Looking at Helen’s dress on the other peg she murmured to herself. “I will have to wear that tomorrow. My own won’t be dry and the other I must patch.”
Still wobbly from the night before Altori pulled open the door of her small hut. I must get through today she thought. Somehow, I must and I must find a way to earn enough to afford the cloth to make another dress. I feel that I am giving up on Helen by wearing her dress. Please don’t let them notice all these bruises, they are worse today, she thought just before Mistress Kyami came into view.
“You’re late! What is wrong with you, why are you all bruised?” She said, her voice a near scream.
“I am sorry Mistress Kyami, I fell last night. I didn't feel well and tripped over a chair in the dark.” Altori stated head lowered, she knew better than to meet the head mistress’ eyes. She had once a few years ago and felt the lash for it, besides she didn't want her to see she wasn't telling the complete truth.
“Well don’t let it slow you up today or there will be hell to pay, we can’t afford slackers in this village. She loved to punish her any and every chance she could, Altori thought.
“Thank you Mistress Kyami.” She said as she turned onto the path that lead to the great hall, scrubbing the floors on her hands and knees would be brutal she knew. Her body quaking with hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. She didn't turn to watch the look of glee she knew was on the Mistress’ face, it was there, and she knew it. I won’t give you the satisfaction of knowing how much this will hurt, she thought as she moved as quickly as she could.
Her steps slowed a bit as soon as she was out of her sight. I will get through this she thought taking the pail and brush from the closet, she walked into the great hall. Annora stopped working and moved toward Altori, momentarily looking her over, before giving her a small shove. “You are not to hold us up today. We don’t care if you fall over later, but there is work to do today.” She said before turning and with a chortle went back toward the other women. “She’s not worth her weight, but she will pull it and more today.” She said as they all looked at Altori, laughed and went back to their work. Their job was dusting and cleaning the silver, a light task one she wished she had, she thought as she filled her bucket and began scrubbing the floors.
At least, I will be left alone. Scrubbing floors is a monotonous job, were her last thoughts as she sunk back into her memories.
“Helen, where are you? Oh my God, she nearly screamed as she saw the pile of hair lying on the pillow.” Altori spied a small crumpled piece of paper lying on the table. Picking it up Altori read it.
I can’t continue to make you try to cover for me, physically I am stronger, but my skin is getting worse. Today, most of my hair fell out. I’m a horror now and am going to slip away and hide till this passes. I might have to see if I can find the void again. Maybe that will heal me? Regardless, I know this is the only way. Give Mistress Kyami the note I wrote to her. It will help ease your burden while I am gone. It is sealed so I will tell you it says, I am going to visit family for a bit. She will not believe it and will probably believe I have run away or am dead, but it will help you. Lastly, the third note, is a phony note to you saying much the same as her note, let her read that one it will help keep you above suspicion. Tori, I love you, we will see each other soon, it may not be for a year or two, but we will see each other. You will know in your heart if something happens to make that different until then keep safe.
She fell to the floor sobbing that night and every night since she cried. Still she knew Helen was somewhere safe. But, where?
Waking from her trance, Altori realized she had finished the great hall. She still had to wax the floor, but would be able to finish that before the lunch bell rang. Looking down at her hands she realized that her skin was beginning to show signs of the welts that proceeded the green puss. She had no one to cover for her, what would she do? She knew that if someone saw this, she would be put in the box, just as Helen had feared a year ago would happen to her. She would die in the box, yet where would she go, how would she hide these horrid changes that were taking over her body? It was a year till the next night of no moon. I must make it through today and figure out what I will do tonight. I am afraid! Tomorrow will be the third day since I was in the void, I hope I won’t continue with the same symptoms that Helen did. If I do, I don’t know what will happen. Where will I go?
Her long golden hair whipped in the breeze. Flying into her face as it came loose from the black ribbon that had tied it, she watched the ribbon fly off, clinging too a tiny branch out of her reach. She couldn't climb further out, those branches were to slight to hold her small frame. The last dregs of light was sinking over the horizon as she settled herself as best she could, wrapping her legs around the base of the branch and clinging to it with her slender arms.
Without the moon, tonight would be the darkest night of the year. So black even coal would seem bright in comparison. The stars which normally gave some light, however tiny that might be, were covered over by clouds. Each year there were the eleven dark moon nights and one that was the night of no moon, the moonless night. Helen disappeared near here last year on the moonless night. She had gone out late to fetch a bit of wood for their fire and that was the last anyone had ever seen her.
We both heard the warnings since childhood about this place on the no moon night, but how could we believe them? The villagers were all such an illiterate and superstitious lot, Altori mused. Why they wouldn't even plant their crops in the fields below her.
Blackness descended, the sound of the hooting owls, calling crickets, and even the howling of the wolves stopped. Silence fell like a blanket over the air itself. Not a sound escaped, no whisper of leaves, no sound of wind, all was shrouded in nothingness, till she thought she would scream. It pressed into her being, crowding her thoughts, stifling her ability to breathe, except in short shallow gasps.
Closer and closer it came, that terrible emptiness. The golden hairs on her arms standing up, her skin parched in the void. She could still feel her body, but she could not see, the closer the vacuum came the less she could feel. Still she held on and waited, for now there was nothing she could do except wait, for movement was impossible. Fear gripped her tightly in its arms. All too soon the silence was broken, not by the normal sounds of the night, but by a chanting from below. It began slowly, shallowly, quietly, swelling, filling, and becoming the night.
Down below her on the prairie in the distance lights danced with the harmony of the chants. Louder and louder they became, and the lights grew brighter and stronger until she could see something small dancing in the shadows of the flames. One creature became two, then three, until the plain below her, filled till she couldn't tell how many beings there were or if there was only one that had grown immense taking over the field. The chanting went on and on, the lights, and the creatures became the night itself, everything outside of them was nonexistent.
Altori watched and clung to the tree though she couldn't feel her arms or legs now. She held onto her thought of separateness, fearing she would lose herself, just as Helen must have if she surrendered to the night or the oblivion beyond the dancing, moving, chanting night. Then with an upsurge of the inundating presence below, it was gone and the void pushed in on her again, and she fought to hold on to her sanity once more. It must end soon she thought. My name is Altori, I have a sister somewhere named Helen, and I live in the village on the other side of the forest. Her mind continued to shout these words to herself while she fought the oblivion and abruptly that too was gone. She felt the roughness of the branch she was clinging to and heard the crickets singing the last of their night songs. A final wolf howled, and owl hooted as the sky began to brighten.
Tangled in the leaves and the branches, her golden locks pulled with each movement of the wind. She was now shaking with exhaustion. For with the disappearance of the void so went the last of her strength. Still she began the tedious job of removing the strands of her hair from the branches and leaves. Sometimes, she pulled in terror when she discovered a part of her hair had become one with the tree. Finally, sliding and nearly falling to the ground, sinking to her knees, she fell and curling into a ball, she lay there for a few minutes unable to move.
I don’t believe I can walk, she thought. Though I must get back to the village before dawn, no one must see me like this. Her brown dress ripped, soiled with sap, sweat, and her fear, hair disheveled, with twigs and leaves sticking in it. Her skin completely covered in scratches and soil, lips parched, tongue swollen from thirst, she began to crawl. Pulling herself along until she managed, with the help of a long branch, she got to her feet and staggered forward.
No thoughts went through her mind now, except two words. Get home. Over and over they rolled around in her head, nothing else just those two words, she hadn't the strength for anything else.
At last, her feet felt the dirt road of the village, just as the cock crowed she fell against the door of her small hut. Pulling herself into her home, shutting the door she fell to her knees again, crawling to the water basin. She drank, lapping the water like a dog, quenching her thirst, then ripping what was left of her dress off, she used a portion of it to wash herself.
Shivering in the crisp dawn air, not yet able to stand nor light the stove, she pulled the remnants of her dress over her body and slept. Through the depth of her unconsciousness,, she heard the pounding and banging on her door, it went on becoming louder and louder. It was insistent, dragging herself to her knees, she yelled. “I’ll be out as soon as I can, I’m not well today.” The banging stopped and footsteps moved away from the door.
Still weak, Altori pushed herself to stand and stagger to the peg that held her only other, day dress. “Nothing can be done with that one.” She said to herself as she looked at the rag lying on the floor in front of the door. Turning she made her way to the small table, slumping down on one of the rickety chairs standing beside it. In the middle of the table sat the day old bread, dried out from sitting in the open air, and a block of cheese on a dish. It was to have been my supper. She mused as she slowly pulled tiny pieces of the crumbly bread and stuffing it into her mouth. Finally, able to hold a knife she cut a small sliver of the cheese and ate that too. Still drained of energy, but able to stand she walked to the table by the bed and picked up her comb and began to brush out her hair. When she had it as neat as possible, and the small bald spots were hidden, those spots that she had pulled out in chunks while trying to free it from the tree, she tied another ribbon around it. She hoped no one would notice; usually she felt invisible in the village and hoped today would be no different. No one must know she had been out in the void. No one must ever know. If Helen was there she could have talked about it with her, but after last night she was afraid that maybe the villagers were right, and she would never see Helen again.
The villagers had said Helen was gone for good, but she didn't believe it. She would have felt it if Helen was dead and she didn't Something was terribly wrong though, and somehow she must find out what it was if she were ever to get Helen back. Today, she had her share of the village work to do. Even those who were invisible to the rest of the village had to work. They were only visible if their work was not done or done incorrectly. “I am an outsider here. Once when Helen was still here I had someone I felt I belonged to. We were family, now everything is empty.” Altori spoke quietly to the walls and shuddered. “At least it isn't the void though.”
She didn't know if she could go on feeling as if she didn't belong anywhere, yet where would she go? Would she fit in anywhere? If she went would she ever find Helen? She pondered these questions all day. Throughout her lunch break, sitting alone as usual she thought and wondered. What is the mystery, what was that thing or things down in the prairie last night? Her mind couldn't wrap itself around that question, instead continued to shy away from any thought of that or of the void. Think about that tomorrow it said to her.
Copyright 2013 Marta Moran Bishop