“What dream, my child?” The black robed man sat down on the bench. a careful distance from the young girl.
Dark matted curls fell away from the side of her face, revealing one bright, tear streaked eye peering up at him. She wiped her sleeve across her nose and backed into the corner of the bench, hugging her knees to her chest as she did so, the curls falling back over her face, a veiled mask he could not see past.
“They came for me and put ropes around my wrists and led me through the halls and all I could think of was how cold my feet were against the stones. And how very cold I was everywhere. And then we were outside and they were leading me to a very large platform and there were people all around. So very many people! Then we went up the stairs and I saw it for the first time. It was dangling from the beam across the top and I knew it was for me. And I was so scared, so very scared as they led me to a spot right under it. And then I woke up.”
“I can see how that would make you afraid. I am here to try and help you with all of it. Do you know who I am Eunice?” The robed man slid a couple inches closer to the huddled form, her body stiffening as he did.
“You are one of them.”
“One of whom?”
“Them what took my family and hurt them and sent them to the gallows to die. And now you have come for me.”
“My child, I am a priest, a servant of God. We don’t hurt people, and we don’t kill people. I am here only to care for you and hear your story and minister to your soul in whatever way I may. That is all.” The soft tone in his voice was almost convincing. Convincing enough to make the girl peer up a bit through her hair.
She pulled her knees tighter and brought back the words of her mother before they took her away the last time. “Tell them no more than you have to. Stretch it out as long as you can, for when they feel they have the all of it, that will be the end. Keep them asking and wanting for more till ‘you’ are ready. And only then give them the last piece. Keep your soul tight within you and never let them see it. You have been trained for this time. You may not think you are ready, but you must be.”
Over and over, she let her mother’s words echo through her head as she watched the man before her. She was no match for him. He was older, smarter and held the power of life and death in his hands. What if she failed? She knew that answer. She would swing like the rest had. Just like the dream. Only, she would not awake in a cell when the coarse rope slipped around her neck.
“You must trust me child.” Again, he inched closer to her, honey with just a hint of venom dripping from his words. “Let us begin at the beginning, shall we?”
And so the questioning began. It lasted deep into the night, till her lids could barely stay open, which she had to keep open or closer he would come again. Night after night he returned, probing deeper, asking more, till felt she had told the story a thousand times in just as many ways. Everything there was to know about her home, her family and even what happened when they were brought here.
“You beat her!” Eunice spat at him. “You raped her! I saw it. You did it right in front of me!”
“No, child. You are wrong. I never set eyes on you or any of your family until we began this.” His soft voice cooed.
“If not you, it was one of your kind and might as well have been you!”
“No child, you are mistaken. We are under vow of celibacy. I am sure you are confused as to what you saw. They tried to drive the demons from your poor mother. That you would see something so vile and profane shows that you have also been possessed. I just pray it is not too late to save your soul.”
“I didn’t realize that you drive demons out with your penis!” she shrieked at him.
He struck her hard, sending her spinning off the bench and across the floor of the cell. She grabbed her face where he had hit her and scampered into the far corner of the cell, fear and hatred sparking from her eyes as she watched him, holding the sobs she would not let him hear.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you!” He stood up and started to head toward her, stopping when she slunk tighter against the walls in the corner. “Maybe this is enough for tonight.” his voice softened. “I’ll leave you for the night and we’l begin again tomorrow.”
The dream, stronger than ever came again that night. The ropes, biting deeply into her wrists. She could feel every strand, every burr in the rough hewn rope. The smell of the outside air as she took her first step from the walls in who knows how long. It was not fresh air, the market areas seasoning that with the smells of rotting foods and fresh blood mingling in with it. But, it still had a taste of freedom that had been locked away from her. And she breathed it in. As deeply as she could. She wanted to take as much in as she could before it was taken away from her again.
And they turned. And the platform was there, with the stairs leading up far above her head. She knew what was at the top though. She didn’t need to see it to know it was there. And it was for her.
And the people were there. Watching faces, expectant faces, sad faces, hungry faces. They were here for the show. And she was the show. The guards took their time in leading her up the stairs. They wanted to extend the show as long as they could.
And then she was at the top and there it was dangling in front of her. And no matter how she tried to be strong, how hard she always tried to be strong, she couldn’t help but start crying when she saw it. And she had no strength as they led her to it and slipped it over her head and drew it tight against her neck. And she had just enough time to look out over the crowd one last time for just one friendly face before the bag dropped over her head. And the floor dropped out from under her. And she screamed.
She saw him start when she opened her eyes after the scream. Quickly, she curled back around herself in the corner. She could feel his eyes on her, burning into her. Each day she hated him more. Each day, she wished him to be the one tormented, the one the hammer blows were meant for that echoed through her head every day. She wrapped her arms around her knees and buried her face in the hollow of her arms.
Slowly, he began to speak from his place on the bench. At first so low, she could barely hear him. But, slowly his voice got louder, drawing her into the tale he was weaving. It spun about her head. a magic thread that drew her in and held her.
Her family, he said, had been suspected of consorting with demons for quite some time. The church had been watching them, keeping very careful records. Oh, they saw through the respectable charade they put up. The thriving business, the standing in the community. But, there were just too many things that didn’t add up, that weren’t natural. But, they had to wait to see how deeply was the family infected. Were there any that were still capable of saving?
Her mother, he said, was the most difficult to crack. In her lay the purest seed of the demon and she was the one that must be broken and broken completely. He knew she wouldn’t understand, it was after all, her mother they were talking about. But, they needed to cleanse the community of the evil within it. And her mother, with her beauty, her charisma, her way with simples and herbs, there was no question she was infected. And she had the mark, as had all of them. It was harder to find on her though. The demon hid it well on her.
He supposed that is what she saw when she thought they were defiling her. He could understand the confusion. And he had asked to be her confessor. He had, in fact, begged for it. He hoped with all hope that she could yet be redeemed. Even though she also bore the mark.
He cried as he spoke. And Eunice listened. Her heart hardening more with each word spoken. She moved not a single inch. She let loose no indication that she was even listening.
Finally, he seemed to have reached the end of what he had to say. He told her that his time was almost done. He would return tonight. So, she had the day to think of what she had to confess to free her soul before the morrow. He had done all he could and there was naught left he could do.
Quietly he got up from the bench and walked across the cell to have the guards let him out. And she was alone with her thoughts.
All day, her mother’s words echoed in her head. She would be ready. Yet, the fear chilled her bones. No, she was not ready. Her mother was wrong. She would never be ready.
She heard the door open and felt him enter before she saw him. He sat beside her and told her again it was their last night. This was the last chance she would have to clear her conscience and free her soul.
She broke down and began to cry.
“I’m afraid!” She stammered.
“I understand.” he replied softly.
“The dreams they still come. They come every night. They come every night and every night they are more vivid. And I am more frightened. And I know that tomorrow it won’t be a dream.” The sobs began to wrack her body.
“I know child. And I am here to help you meet the morrow confessed and ready for cleansing.”
“Hold me please” she begged him and brushed the hair from her face, showing her eyes, her mother’s eyes for the first time since this began.
Slowly he held out his arm and drew her slight form to him. Her arms wrapped around him, fingers digging lightly into his back, tears soaking into the front of his robe. He patted her head and hair gently, so like her mother’s hair, so like her in so many ways.
Slowly, her sobs began to quiet, she began to still and calm. Her fingers dug a little deeper into his sides and his memories drifted to the mother. Her questioning, her derision, her stubbornness. He held the child’s quieting form as he drifted back to that night when that woman fought him till it drove him to forget his vows. Her demons touched him and entered him, filling him with the desire, the need that must be filled. He held the child as he remembered mounting her mother, the power of God and the Mother Church filling him with the power as he drove himself into her, drove in to drive out the demons that had such a hold. And when he was spent, she lay in a crumpled heap, broken, all fight, all sense driven from her.
The child held tight to him as the memories flowed through his mind, exciting the demons again, proving they lived within the child as well. Causing him to spill his seed again. And still she held him. Quiet in his arms. Unaware of the small pool he left on the bench.
Dawn came quickly and the guards opened the door to the cell, rope in hand for leading her out.
As they rose, she smiled gently up at him, still calm. Then she touched the bench where they sat, where his seed had spilt and seemed to be christening herself. He watched in horror and crossed himsef. She was as damned as her mother. Together, they walked out the doors into the sunlight. A tiny tendril of hair slipped from under the cloak placed about her shoulders. Just a touch of gold against the drab gray of the fabric.
The ropes, so coarse and rough bit deeply into the tender flesh. All around, the faces of the villagers as they gathered for the execution. They could always be counted on for making the show. The faces, the voices, the smells. They created a fugue mind state and the climb up the steps was a blur. The calmness still holding even when they reached the top and the dangling rope loomed ahead. A few more steps and they found the mark and slowly brought the rope down, over the head and then the tightening around the neck.
One last look around at the crowd before they brought the sack down and there, off to the side! The dark cloak and the tiny shock of golden hair. And the face looked up just before the bag dropped down and he had one last glimpse before darkness of the smile that spread across her little face. Then the rope grabbed and his feet dangled in the air below him.
Eunice watched till there was no further movement left in the body, then turned and began to walk away. At the edge of the crowd the others were waiting for her. Just as she knew they would be. Not as many as there were before. But enough.