Check back for GFWW President Jeff Bacot’s take.
Asher hunched over the breakfast table, spooning small mountains of scrambled eggs into his mouth as if he’d just come home from a three day fasting pilgrimage to the temple of Saint Palin. A mug full of milk, fresh from our morning chores in the barn, disappeared in a series of quick gulps, and Asher refilled it from the stoneware pitcher Momma had set next to him on a yellowing crochet doily.
I wasn’t hungry. Last night’s dream had left me with anxious nerves and an unsettled stomach. Flashes of fiery red seemed to dance just beyond the edges of my peripheral vision, and I couldn’t help but feel like there was something important I’d forgotten to do.
Momma reached out from her constant spot over the stovetop and ran her fingers through Asher’s hair. It was a routine gesture, my brother was the youngest after all, but she’d never touched my head like that and watching her pull the dark curls away from his eyes always made me feel like an outsider. I was born first. Asher came minutes after, smaller and feeble. Momma called him her miracle – her blessing, and she’d fussed over him for as long as I could remember.
“What do you boys have planned for today?” Grammy settled herself down slowly into the chair next to me. Momma handed her a cup of hot tea, and Grammy thanked her.
“Goin’ into town,” Asher mumbled through a mouthful of buttered toast. “Elder Thomas found a crate of artifacts when he was plowing his north field last week, and Billy Thomas is gonna show us what was inside.”
“Is that so now …” Grammy wrapped her hands around the honey jar and twisted, but her knuckles were swollen with arthritis and her grip slipped. I took the jar and opened it for her. “Isn’t that something,” she smiled.
“We’re going to Elder Mitchell’s place,” I looked at Asher hard until he looked up and met my gaze. “You know we promised to help with the chores until he’s back on his feet.”
Asher groaned and kicked at me under the table.
“Now there’s Ezra,” Grammy winked at me. “Always helpin and leadin the way. Just like his Daddy. Don’t you think so Mary?”
Momma stilled over the stovetop, her hands hovering uncertainly in mid-air. She turned her profile to me, nodded once, and then turned away.
When Asher and I made it into town, the square was crowded with people pressing in, breaths smoky in the cold morning air, for a better view of something I could not see. Small children sat on their father’s shoulders, and one of Billy Thomas’s little brothers scampered up a nearby lantern post and clung tightly with his bare feet. Somewhere nearby, a woman was weeping.
Elder Thomas rose above the crowd and began to speak.
“My Brothers. My Sisters. We know we must always be watchful.” His voice was grave and the pit of my stomach suddenly seemed to fill with lead. “Evil has once again crept in among us.”
Beside me, Asher craned his neck. “Is it a burning?” He tugged at the sleeve of the Grandfather standing next to him. “It’s a burning, isn’t it?” The old man nodded somberly.
Somewhere ahead, the woman’s crying rose to a breathless keening.
“The evil that seeks to destroy our way of life,” Elder Thomas’s voice rolled over the silent crowd. “The same evil that seeks to destroy the very fabric of our Fifth Society is relentless in its greedy desire to find its way in to our paradise. Do not let your hearts be weakened. The destroyer cloaks itself in the disguise of a child, but it is no innocent babe. It is the poison that will choke you.”
Murmurs of assent swept through the crowd. Behind Elder Thomas, a cloud of black smoke began to rise and the scent of burning timber filled the air.
“It is the poison that will annihilate everything that you’ve struggled so hard to protect. It is the snake that slithers in the quiet of the night to murder your children. Brothers! Sisters! Join me in protecting our way of life!”
Someone lifted a bundle to Elder Thomas’s hands and a shock of fine red hair flashed to the crowd. Cries of terror rang out.
“Join me in putting an end to this abomination! Raise your voices in prayer to the gods that watch over our Society. Let our offering be proof of our devotion – proof of our worthiness!”
The crowd cried out as one, and Elder Thomas raised the white bundle high over his head.
My stomach rolled. This wasn’t my first burning, but suddenly the act seemed all wrong and a foulness closed in on me. I turned to Asher, ready to pull him into a quick escape, but his expression stopped me cold. His eyes were afire, his lips quivering with zealous fascination.
“Asher.” I took his hand. “Let’s go home.”
“Wait.” He shook me off.
Ahead, the woman began to scream, and I ran away.