PodCastle 460, ARTEMIS RISING: The Settlement
by Wendi Dunlap
They file out into the predawn chill before the rest of the settlement is awake. Cloaked by a thick fog and the still darkness of a waning night, they carry shovels and picks. Despite the high collars and low hats that conceal their faces, their attempts at anonymity are wasted. I recognize them instantly through the frost of the kitchen window, their layers of clothing stitched by my own hand or those of my brethren.
I see you Reverend John Able, Matthias Smith, Thomas Gore, William Roe and Matthew Surgeon. And God sees you too.
They are silent in their duties, barely even looking at one another. Their breath visible in heavy puffs that quickly condense into white frost, as they pound the hard, frozen earth. They dig deeper, until the ground cracks, and still farther until they hit bone. It is hard work and it takes an hour before the first body is pulled up.
They pull up three this time, quickly stashing them away before their minds can register name or memory. They stuff them into sacks that do little to conceal the shape of a human body and hastily refill the holes, haphazardly replacing wooden crosses, markers and other mementos from the living to the dead. Why do they even bother with the funerals now? They drag the bodies away before the sun cuts the horizon.
Our meat for the week.
Matthew enters shortly after, somber from the sacrilege he’s forced to perform. He discards his great coat and peels away the layers as I pour his bitter morning brew. His wife and child still asleep, exhausted from empty bellies and the cold—we have but an hour to ourselves. I sit next to him as he sips, staring straight ahead into the fire. One hand grasping the cup, the other gently on my thigh. Slowly he begins to rub, his movements hesitant, even shy at first, but progressively more intent as he takes the last sip. By then his fingers are pressed firmly against my groin. I guide his rhythm now, one hand clasped around his arm, the other working his fingers in the perfect motion. Just as I am about to moan, he places thin, rough lips over my mouth and kisses. Abruptly, he rises and throws a cloak across his shoulders. He beckons and I follow. We fight against the wind, towards the woodshed.
It is freezing but our bodies are boiling. We enter discreetly, but as soon as the door closes he is on me, pulling my skirt above my thighs while I unlace his breeches. I wrap my dark legs around his goose-pimpled pink flesh. His fingers trace the scars on my back—from when they broke me as a child—to the outline of the brand that signifies my servitude. But his cold calloused hands offer little comfort, so I move them gently to my breasts.
It is only now that he speaks. “Dear God, I love you Abiona,” he gasps as he enters me.
They called me Abigail, but it is in these moments that Matthew acknowledges my birth name, the name taken from me when I was but a child. It has been our secret since I sprouted breasts and hips. “Abiona,” he’d whisper in my ear as he tickled my sides. “Abiona,” he hummed when he first kissed between my thighs. It did not take long for me to understand that seducing an Abiona was decidedly more titillating than an Abigail.
I don’t answer but he doesn’t expect one. Instead, I close my eyes and press my hips closer into his. After minutes of desperate pumping and deep moans that carry across the icy, dry day, our morning ritual ends quickly enough. His seed spent, he kisses my face, my neck, my breasts and rubs the length of my body.
“This is wrong,” he says in between caresses. He glances back at the house, where his sleeping wife and son must be awake by now, our morning absence too familiar to question where we are.
There’s nothing I can say to assuage his guilt.
He begins to sob now, and it is then that I realize that his guilt has nothing to do with the mad and frigid woman that shares his bed. It is the digging and the meat and the awful thing he is forced to do for the survival of our colony.
Cannibalism is a far greater sin than adultery.
We both seek relief from our sins through these insalubrious couplings. I roll my hips until he stiffens once again. We take our time now, slowly sating a hunger much easier to satisfy than the one in our bellies. Somewhere in between my own bursts of pleasure I shout, “I love you, Matthew,” but it is a lie.
A slave can no sooner love their master than a sheep could love a wolf.
We are called to the church at noon, the ringing bells forcing us from our wretched, hungry homes. Shapeless mounds of stiff and frozen wool walk solemnly through the town center and towards the cross, the symbol of our inchoate new world. Only the sick and dying, too weak from starvation, do not join and there are plenty of those. Out of a settlement of one hundred, barely half fill the church.
I stand with the servants in the back near the door, every new entrance hitting us with a frozen blast that tears through rags and sets deep into bones. Twelve huddle together for warmth—seven women, five men, all taken from the comfort and bounty of our homes to this desolate place. Forced to forget who we are, to serve these weak and pitiless people.
We stand apart from the white servants, their sentences of servitude voluntary and significantly shorter than our own. They too are relegated to the back of the church, but they huddle to the right while we—their darker brethren—occupy the left of this unimpressive wooden box they call a house of worship.
As an elder, Matthew sits in the front row with his wife and child. He holds my gaze before his wife notices, his longing replaced by her beastly, hard hatred.
There’s nothing you can do to hurt me anymore, Betsy Surgeon, I have your man.
I stare back with the defiant insouciance of the oppressed, until I am nudged by Moses.
“Abi,” he cautions, “You play too much.”
I assure you Moses this is no game.
Beautiful, blue black Moses, towering over the entire congregation, but as docile as a cow. Moses wasn’t stolen, he was sold—by his own people—for reasons I can only guess. He’s been Moses ever since, rejecting whatever name given to him at birth, serving with a quiet obedience that is easily mistook for complacency.
“You don’t worry about me, boy,” I snap back and he is silenced.
The bibulous Reverend John Able takes the pulpit, cheeks ruby from the cold and the whiskey oozing from his pores. I can smell it, even from the back. His morning disguise discarded now for a dusty, moth-eaten Black suit and white preacher’s collar. But he cannot escape his shame. He struggles to hold his head high, to face his congregation, knowing the abomination he condones.
I see you Reverend John Able and God sees you too.
Speech slurred with liquor, he begins, “t-the meat will be d-distributed in the town square. Portions will be d-determined by size of the household. Please send a single repre-repre … a s-single person to collect your s-share.”
“We know fool preacher!” someone shouts.
This has been the routine for the past 6 weeks. But the meat is rotten and it’s making too many sick.
The Reverend grows irate, “well, what you don’t know Mr. Dods—I heard you, I know that was you—is that t-this morning was the last. T-there is no more meat! Nothing left! So t-there!”
The church erupts in curses and cries. We servants simply stand by and watch as the useless Reverend John condemns his congregation, “No, not in God’s house! You watch your mouth in God’s house!”
“What about England?” someone asks.
“They’ve sent us here to die!” shouts another.
The Reverend holds up his hands to calm the congregation. Swaying, he steadies himself against the pulpit. “No, no, no never,” he stutters, “N-neither King nor God has abandoned us. Re-reinforcements are due in May! Like Job we must s-simply wait this out. T-this trial of our faith, of our f-fortitude!”
“Save your drunken sermon, preacher!”
“You’ve condemned us to hell!”
These people aren’t in the mood for the word of God, if the gods ever spoke to them at all.
The voice of Betsy Surgeon rises above the din, “and I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters,” her rare moments of coherency marked with an eerie religious fervor. It is not long before all eyes are on her, “And everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in this siege.” But Betsy Surgeon speaks only to her husband, “you said if we did this thing, this horrible, sinful thing, we’d last the winter. You said redemption would come with spring. But if we die with this awful crime on our souls, surely we will burn in God’s hottest hell.” Each word is a dagger slicing into Matthew, the only one who looks away. She turns to the congregation now, “how do we meet our savior with this evil on our conscience?”
“We ask for forgiveness, every day and every night,” Matthew responds, “that is all any of us can do.”
“God is punishing us!” Betsy shouts, “for this sin, husband, and others.”
Matthew continues to stare straight ahead, but Betsy’s cries are echoed and the fury of the congregation rattles the windows like no winter wind.
“P-please, we all a-agreed to this,” Reverend John pleads. “And w-we h-hoped it would be enough. I-I’m sorry, but it is n-not!”
“What about the sick and the dying?” comes the question, anonymous and inevitable, finally spoke aloud. The church is suddenly still.
Reverend John frowns. “Surely you d-don’t suggest…“
Matthew stands now, eyes downcast, voice solemn, “We pray for the recovery of the ill,” he begins, “I check each and every one of them on a daily basis, administering what care I can, knowing each one afflicted was hand-selected for this journey, to establish this colony in the name of our sovereign, King James I. To suggest otherwise is to commit treason and I assure you there is no greater sin.”
Reverend John nods eagerly in agreement, “Yes, yes, listen to the doctor!”
Matthew steps up to the pulpit, “This is not the time to turn against one another. We need each other now more than ever.” He speaks with earnest, but the congregation is not convinced.
“We cannot survive without food!”
“Send hunters into the woods again!”
“The woods! The woods!” they cry.
Matthew sighs, “you know as well as I that we cannot spare another soul to those savages. Anyone who goes into those woods is as good as dead.”
“They are starving us out!”
Of course they are.
We servants watch in silent judgement as the free men and women of this settlement, these indomitable conquerors, confront their mortality. Desperation flies like spittle from angry dry lips, landing on the frost bitten pink and peeling cheeks of a desperate and dying people.
“The elders are cursed. England is cursed,” they howl and the flimsy structure of the church sways with rage. I would be amused except my own survival is tragically tied to these people.
Matthew struggles to maintain his composure, displaying a poise that few in this situation would be able to maintain. I admire him for that, but it isn’t enough.
I sigh with reluctance and step away from the others. I close my eyes and begin to pull from the earth. There are creatures there—deep and thriving— content, controlled, focused, calm. I snatch that, feeling it first through the soles of my feet, tingling, and I will it forward. Up through my shins, to rest momentarily in my knees. I buckle slightly, reach for the wall and remain upright. It is moving through my thighs now, settling in my groin, erupting bursts of pleasure, but I push it forward. It swirls throughout my womb, flowing into my gut, spinning, and I resist the urge to retch. Up, up now, through the throat and out through parting lips, it blows from my mouth and into the room until my body is concave and my chest is emptied. And when I open my eyes again it is silent, except for the whistle of the wind.
Moses frowns and steadies me with one strong arm.
“What…?” he asks, but I ignore him.
When Matthew speaks again his voice is several octaves deeper, channeling the calm that I’ve given the room. All mouths are closed, all eyes are on him.
“The situation is dire. I will not deny that.” He is comfort now, he is strength. “The council of elders will re-convene and we will find a solution. The survival of this settlement and the survival of our loved ones,” he looks to his son now, “demands it.”
There are murmurs of doubt, but for the moment the mob is appeased.
Satisfied, Matthew nods, “I ask that you all depart to your homes now. Send your servants to collect your meat, eat sparingly and await our update. We will survive this winter!”
We servants line up to receive our share of meat. At least here there is equality, each household given a share determined by the size of their respective families. The cut of meat is more hierarchal. Elder households receiving their choice cut first, the rest left to barter over the scraps. Matthew is the settlement doctor and so I am one of the first in line, behind Sissy—Reverend John’s servant.
“My master ain’t gonna eat no organ meat,” Sissy complains, her voice high pitched and whiney. Like me, she was taken as a child and had to learn the language and ways of these people. We all wear our masks, but Sissy has affected a child-like demeanor and way of speaking. Each syllable grates my ears. She is as ridiculous as her master.
“I’ll take it then,” I step forward, tired of her screeching. “Matthew Surgeon, family of 3, one servant.”
Butcher Thomas Gore nods and pushes Sissy aside. “One liver, two kidneys then.” He hands me the organ meat in a bucket covered by a thin icy cloth.
This will last but a fortnight, and only if we fast every other day.
“Gimme that thigh meat then…” I hear Sissy haggle as I push through the line.
I look up and there is Moses waiting patiently for his turn. He looks my way, but I avert my eyes and continue forward. He steps out of line and follows me.
“You’re going to lose your place, Moses,” I say as his footsteps fall behind me. His long strides quickly bring him to my side.
“This is more important.”
“More important than food?” I snort, “Moses, you are a fool.” He swings in front of me and reluctantly I stop. I look up several inches into his piercing dark face. “Boy, you better move.”
“How long you been able to do that, Abi?” he asks.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Why you so difficult?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Now that there are no more bodies but the living, who do you think they will come for first?” I don’t answer so he continues, “they will not kill their own. No matter how close they are to death’s door. Not until there is no other option. Us. They will come for us.”
He is not wrong.
“I don’t plan on being anybody’s food,” I answer.
“And what about the rest of us?”
I shrug, “good luck to you,” and push pass Moses towards the only hope for freedom that I know.
I can tell from the plumes of smoke coming through the chimney that the fire is too hot. Wood, like food, is scarce, but I am grateful for the heat when I enter from the cold. Young William Surgeon, twelve years and nearly a man, sits by the hearth restlessly flipping through a book. His mother rocks in her chair, Bible laid across her lap, eyes closed.
The hours pass painfully as I move about the small home in the fulfillment of my chores. Cleaning and salting the meat, dividing it into portions to last the next few days. My hands rub and tenderize the crimson flesh. Blood clots underneath my nails, my fingers stained red. The smell is both wild and familiar. This was a person and I prepare it for feast as if it were a hog.
This whole time Betsy Surgeon has been in contemplation, her lips silently reciting verse. Her rocking more intent with each passing moment. It is never a good thing when Betsy Surgeon gets too deep in prayer.
“Hallelujah!” she shouts and I jump at the sound. “Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in your midst,” she stands now, wagging her finger at some unseen assailant. I back against the wall. “And sons shall eat their fathers,” she moves forward, her voice growing in fervor, “and I will execute judgements on you all!” She lunges for the meat, racing towards the fire, tossing handfuls against the hearth and into the flames, “This is sin, sin, sin!” she shouts.
“Dear God, not again,” sighs William as I wrestle with his mother, restraining her arms in an attempt to salvage our only food. But when Betsy Surgeon is filled with the Holy Spirit not even my kicks and slaps will slow her down. She grabs a cleaver and swings wildly for my head.
Reluctantly William stands and helps me to subdue his mother. She is left to slump on the floor, her bloodied hands grasping her heart and staining her dress. She hollers now in maniac despair.
William ignores her, snatching the remaining pieces of meat from her hands. He places them back on the table before turning and slapping me across the face.
I stagger backwards.
“I don’t care if she kills you, you are never to lay a hand on my mother.”
The door swings open and Matthew enters, his son’s slap still fresh on my cheek. He looks from me to the boy, but says nothing.
“Father,” greets the boy.
“Son,” answers the father.
“Jesus!” Betsy wails.
“Hush wife,” Matthew sighs, “The sinner does not need to be reminded that he is in hell. William, clean up your mother. Abigail, with me.” He grabs my arm and snatches me from the house.
“Abigail, Abigail!” Betsy shouts as I am dragged outside by my master, “I am the mistress of this house. I am!”
Matthew slams the door behind us, his hand wrapped tightly around my arm.
“You’re hurting me,” I whisper and he lets go.
We huddle close to the warmth of the house, close enough to hear William leading his mother to her chair.
“William hit me,” I say.
Matthew only shakes his head, “why do you agitate her so?”
I lean against the house and close my eyes against the cold.
“We’ve come to a very difficult decision,” he tells me, “Really there is no other choice. I need you to understand that. Do you believe me, Abi?”
“If you say there is no other choice, then there is no other choice.”
He nods, “thank you my Abiona,” he strokes my arm now, the same arm he yanked and squeezed just moments ago. “If you will help, you will be safe.”
“I am free in two years,” I say.
“You will not live two weeks unless you agree to this.”
“I am pregnant,” I say.
Inside the house I hear a chair smash against the wall.
“Did you hear me, Matthew?”
“I think hell heard you,” he finally responds, “but there are more important things to think about right now.”
He begins to tell me of the evil thing I must do, how they trust me and will follow, but it must happen tonight. All I hear is the fading of freedom.
“Do what you’re told,” he tells me, “And you might survive this famine.”
So I choose Sissy Able first and head back out into the freezing, fading day. Leading her into the stables, the warmth of my flesh emanating calm and security, and so she follows like cattle. Four men, nearly starved and willing to do anything to survive, meet us at the stable door.
I see you Matthias Smith, Thomas Gore, William Roe and Matthew Surgeon. And God sees you too.
Despite my touch, it takes only a moment for Sissy to understand.
I block the door as she turns to run, but she is quickly subdued. Two of the men wrestle her to the ground and stuff a rag into her mouth. Another pulls her arms behind her back.
Reverend John stands aside, watching from a corner, both hands clutching the neck of a bottle. He closes his eyes and recites a prayer as they bind his once faithful servant. She’s served this man since she was eight-years-old.
I stand in the doorway unable to move so Matthew pushes me back.
“Go now,” he urges. “You do not want to see this.”
I face the terror in Sissy’s wide eyes.
They hang her from a hook, strip off her clothing and throw cold buckets of water across her bare, freezing flesh. She is able to spit out the rag and screams now. No words, just the ear splitting shriek of an animal brought to slaughter. She looks to me, her eyes questioning why, but I have no answers so she is left with her own explanations as she continues to struggle.
They beat her now, punching her until she is still, hanging limp from a hook like a sow. Someone jokes about tenderizing. Butcher Gore reaches for a knife.
I step forward, but Matthew blocks my way.
I turn from the sight of Sissy’s lifeless body to face him, but he is unable or unwilling to meet my eyes.
“Better some of us live than all of us die,” he states. “We’ll need two more this day. One at a time, spaced an hour apart.” When I just stare back he laces his fingers between my own. “Tonight,” he whispers, “the woodshed. Let us be together again and forget this ugliness.”
He thinks I want his affection, but it is his power that I need.
The barn door is slammed in my face. I peak through the crack and watch as a knife is slid across Sissy’s throat and she is turned over to bleed out into a bucket. It is only now that the shock turns to sorrow, rising from the blood soaked dirt that marks Sissy’s barbarous death. And I realize what I’ve done.
I reach for the barn door, but it is bolted from the inside so I kick and claw. Chunks of wood begin to fly as I tear through with bare, bleeding hands.
“Matthew control your girl!” comes a voice from inside, which only fuels my rage.
I spit and curse, ready to slaughter these men where they stand or die trying—until a thick hand is clasped against my mouth and I am dragged into the trees.
Moses presses me against a tree trunk, his black eyes boring into me with judgment. Drained, I struggle in vain against his grip.
“They will kill you too, fool girl,” he whispers, “You can’t trade her death for yours. What is done is done.”
“Yes!” I shout back, “I did it! I brought Sissy to them and now I must bring two more! And tomorrow I will season and roast them and serve them as if they were beasts until there is no more and then they will take me too. So let them just kill me today.”
I do not ask, but command, “Let me go!” and he drops his hands. I slide to the ground as the sobs overwhelm me like waves—those waves—so long ago. I cry now for a mother I will never see again, the village that I loved, the people that cherished me. For the girlhood stolen on a ship. For the liaisons with a man who would have me call him master and facilitate murder in his service. I cry for a life where I am forced to toil and manipulate, to deceive and murder simply to survive. It is only when my chest can shake no more and my stomach is emptied of its sour bile that I am able to speak.
“Now what will you do?” I ask Moses.
But he just shakes his head.
“I had no choice,” I tell him.
He slides down beside me. “I think you, Abiona, have many choices. And they know it too. Why do you think they chose you to do this thing?”
“Because I am my master’s lover. He wants to save me … and his baby.”
Moses twists his lips, “You believe that?”
No. I never really did.
“Your power is not here,” he places his hand between my thighs. “At least not in the way you think it is.” I back away, but Moses only laughs, a sound filled with bitterness, “Relax, there’s nothing between your legs that interests me. I always knew you were special. I could feel it. You proved it in the church today. The others, they don’t know what to look for. But I do. I told them you would help.”
“Like I helped Sissy?”
“You are strong,” he continues, “You almost tore down a door with your bare hands. And I know you can influence things. Emotions. And maybe other things too.”
“I can barely help myself.”
Moses shakes his head in response, “You are wrong. My mother was like you. Very powerful, highly regarded. She had many husbands, but no children, until me. She wanted a girl, but the gods saw fit to give her a boy. Perhaps they were cursing her. There is always a price to pay for power.” He lets that sink in before continuing, “I learned many things sleeping on that mat at my mother’s feet. I watched her conjure, cure and curse. But as a male I could not be initiated into her sect … ” His voice trails off. He is miles and a decade away.
“Why did they sell you, Moses?” I ask.
He turns to me now, “if you must know, they found me with my lover. We were both so young. All we knew was that it had to be hidden. She killed him, but I shamed her—probably since birth. My fate would be a lifetime of suffering so they brought me to the coast.”
“I see,” is all I can say.
“Abiona, are you ready to end our suffering?”
I shake my head, “I am no witch.”
“Call yourself whatever you like.”
“Sometimes it doesn’t work.”
Moses nods, “You are untrained. I do not know much, but perhaps some of what I do remember can help you unlock the rest, if you are on our side.”
I respond honestly, “I am always on my side.”
“Well, let us side with you then.”
And just like that I have an army.
The night is late when I return. Betsy and William have already retired. Matthew sits by a dying fire. His body is still and for a moment I suspect that he too is asleep, but then he rises. He places trembling hands on my shoulders. I wait for him to break, to collapse into my arms, drag me to the woodshed to find comfort between my thighs. But that time has passed and power has shifted—if it ever moved at all.
“We need three more by the morrow, Abigail,” he says, “They trust you so bring them. If not for me, than for your baby.” He turns then and retires to bed.
My own sleep is restless as I lie against the cooling hearth. Sissy’s cries, her naked body, the blood pouring from her neck…It takes hours pass before I settle into a light sleep and then I am woke by a hand on my hip.
I freeze at the touch, wondering if Matthew would be so bold as to claim his comfort while his wife and child sleep under the same roof. But it is not Matthew’s touch. The hand is lighter, smaller and I suddenly realize that it is young William rubbing my buttocks, his agrestal manhood yearning.
“Father says I can have you when I’m ready,” his breathe heavy in my ear, his body pressed against my back, “he says you will teach me when I’m ready,” he kisses my neck, “well, I am ready.”
I do not move as he presses me close, grinding against the layers of clothing. I shut my eyes and feign sleep. His movements grow frantic as he claws my belly and breasts, his hands as hungry and desperate as his pumping. Eventually there is a soft gasp and a sticky wetness spreads across my skirt. He lies there for a moment longer before pinching my nipple and returning satisfied to his bed.
This is madness.
It is morning and I find Moses chopping wood. I carry two shovels and the trauma of yesterday.
“I’ve been here half my life,” I explain, “but I do not know this land. This place is foreign to me and I cannot save anyone in a void. The secret is in the earth.”
Moses hesitates, “Yes … you will eventually learn to command nature. My own mother could raise the grains or call the locusts. But she did not learn this in a day.”
“There is no time. I am to bring three today.”
Moses just stares straight ahead.
“We must move forward,” I plead, “If we are to survive this, I need to know this land. And I need to know it now. I cannot, will not live like this anymore.”
“I would be killing you. You cannot breathe underground, Abi, and neither can your baby. If you do not suffocate, you will freeze,” he shakes his head, “are you so eager to abandon us?”
“I promised you that I would not, but this must be done—now! I feel it. As for the baby … you said yourself there is always a price to pay for power. Bury me. If they cannot find me, they will be forced to find another way to herd their cattle. But by then I will be ready.”
“We are already on alert.”
“Then there will be a struggle,” I say, “and we will be killed anyway, unless I find a way out. I could make you do it, but we have been forced to do too much already.” I push a shovel into his hands. “Please. Trust me. At least as much as I trust myself.”
“This is madness.”
“It is,” I agree.
And together we dig.
There is a lot to learn from the earth.
First, I learn that there is air. After the last shovel of dirt is thrown over my face, I find it. It is in the soil and my entire body takes it in. Every inch of my flesh is able to breath and it is not long before the tightness in my chest is relieved.
Then, I learn that there is life. Beneath the crust of frozen ground, where the dry, cracked land gives way to deep red, nourishing soil, an entire world is living and dying, listening and learning, welcoming me. Earth worms and beetles, tree roots and seeds, waiting for the warmth of spring to erupt, but surviving nevertheless. They wiggle through my fingers and toes, slide against my thighs and buttocks. They study me with a cautious curiosity, darting from one part to another, until they know me by name.
“Abiona!” they shout.
And then they begin to speak.
Their voices echo through the soil and I hear them with ears, nose, lips, belly and limb and respond with the same. My own words form from thought into vibration and they respond. It is a cacophony as they all begin to chatter at once, each eager to tell me their tale. Epic tales of lives lived so long I can scarcely comprehend or the short-lived riddles of those extinguished mere moments after their birth. But there is no regret, simply a pure and enduring thankfulness to have existed at all.
They teach me many things.
They thank me now for the nourishment as my womb’s blood begins to flow through clenched thighs and into the ground. I hear the laughter of a child, a wild spirit, dashing away, filled with unbridled energy and joy. They are elated to meet her and they assure me that I will know her one day too. They drink my tears and give me comfort. They assure me that she is not gone, only traveling, but she will be back.
They ask of Sissy’s sacrifice and grow sad when I explain it was one she did not intend to give, but they do not judge. They forgive me and so I am able to forgive myself. Sissy too is there in the earth, becoming something else. Greater or smaller, but alive. Perhaps I will know her again too. I owe her much.
They complain about the bodies, pulled from the ground where they danced and feasted with them, only to be robbed. I tell them of the cold and the hunger and explain why it was necessary for us to dig up and eat our dead. They accept this too, with no judgment, understanding all things eventually devour all things. It is nature. It is cruelty and it is mercy.
There is community here and a natural co-existence not determined by master and slave, but harmony and balance. There is death and loss, but sorrow is soon relinquished to birth and renewal.
This is freedom.
“Now you get it, girl!” There is one voice, clearer than the others and I ask it to come closer. It is familiar, almost human, old but not ancient. It comes to me as a beetle, crawls up my thigh and nestles in that warm space where leg connects to hip.
“Hello little sister,” it says wiggling close.
“What took you so long?”
“I am a slow learner.”
“And there is still much to learn. Tell me your story,” it demands.
And I begin, not with a shackled journey across a great sea in a large ship, but with the birth of a third daughter to a second wife in a once prosperous village lulled to sleep each night by ocean waves beating against coral rocks.
When I am done the beetle is sullen.
“You need a teacher?” it tells me.
“And you need refuge?”
“WE need refuge,” I correct.
And I feel it smile.
“Go back then and gather your people. We will send help.”
Moses buried me deep and it takes hours to dig myself out, even with the assistance of my new friends. Air rushes into my lungs and I choke for several painful minutes. I stuff snow into my mouth, letting it melt down my dry throat, until I have the strength to pull myself to my feet.
The settlement is as silent and frozen as ever. Plumes of smoke puff through chimneys, candles burn in windows, but none venture into the black and frozen night. I make my way to the stables, slipping in silently and unseen. Dull moans of misery greet me.
I have been gone too long.
Bodies striped of flesh and organs dangle from hooks. Others lie chained and alive, missing limbs, wombs cauterized but rotting nonetheless.
Butcher Gore works furiously on one, chopping at the joint, stripping away any diseased flesh, hanging what is salvageable. The ground is a pool of mud and blood, feces and urine. The stench unbearable. Matthew inspects the living-–chained and conscious, forced to witness the slaughter of their own. Black bodies and white bodies, shackled together in despair.
“This one has some sort of infection,” Matthew notes absently. “The meat may be tainted.”
He turns at the sound of Thomas Gore’s limp body hitting the ground, his neck slit from ear-to-ear.
I drop the knife. Matthew only stares.
“You-you been gone three days,” he stutters. “We thought you were dead.”
“No,” I answer. And it is the most powerful word ever uttered.
I pull gently from the earth, seeking the tree roots, deep and unyielding. It flows easy now and so I bind Matthew’s feet with little exertion and step around him.
“Abi, you made it!” Moses exclaims as I unshackle his arms and legs.
“We both did, brother. Help the others.”
Together we unchain the other living servants, releasing those too sick or dissected with merciful hands. Matthew stands throughout it all, a paralyzed witness to the beginning of his end.
“I will not stop you from seeking the revenge you deserve,” I say as I release the last of the captives. “There is harmony in that too. But if you desire to escape this place, meet me at the gates in quarter of an hour.”
“Where do you go?” Moses asks.
“I’m not sure you would follow me if you knew,” I answer and turn to my master. “Matthew, with me!”
And together we head home.
Betsy Surgeon paces the floor, as mad as ever. She recites the Lord’s Prayer—oh these praying monsters—clapping and kicking in-between cadences. Her little monster pokes at the fire, ignoring the antics of his lunatic mother.
Matthew enters first and there is relief from the boy, “Father, what has taken you so long …” and then terror as I step in from behind. He looks to me and then his father. “Father, what is this?” When Matthew does not answer, he turns to me, “You are dead.”
“No,” I say.
I turn to his mother who has grown still, her mind worlds away, dancing through her promised land. I place my hands gently on her shoulders, forcing her to look me in the eyes, “you must help me now, Mistress Surgeon.”
Slowly, she nods.
“Father, please. What is going on!” pleads the boy.
“Together now, Mistress Surgeon,” and we begin to chant.
“Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers. And I will execute judgments on you all…” we recite over and over and it is not long before Betsy is twirling to the tune.
Matthew reaches for a skinning blade. William for the axe. And with each line they slice once another tearing through cloth and flesh, their faces contorted in pain, voices choked back in terror.
And throughout it all we sing, “Fathers shall eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers!”
Frail and under-fed, William offers little resistance and soon collapses, his screams finally unleashed and adding cadence to our hellish hymn. Matthew opens the boy wide, spilling entrails onto the floor. He kneels now and begins to eat the raw flesh of his first born with the voraciousness of the depraved.
I see you Matthew Surgeon and God sees you too.
It is only now that Betsy’s voice begins to waver, her legs tired of their jig. Her mind begins to clear. She sees her husband feasting on their child, her scripture a macabre prophecy fulfilled, and what little sanity left simply snaps. She begins to tear at her own flesh now, clawing strips of meat with her nails, stuffing bloody bits into her mouth until she is choke.
It is nasty business this subjugation of human beings. And so I leave the Surgeon family to their supper.
They are waiting for me at the gates, gathered together in solidarity, the Black and White indentured of this accursed colony. They mill around, uncertain of what to do next. The dead bodies of our captors lie strewn about—axes, hatchets and arrows from unseen bows, stick out of the corpses.
Let the survivors eat their own now.
“Why do you stand here,” I shout, “Into the woods!”
I rush into the darkness that surrounds us. The howls of wolves announce our entrance. The moon lights our path while the rustle of beetles leads the way. I follow, but I do not look back. Let those who seek refuge step behind me, but I will not compel the free.
It is not long before Moses, with his long strides, is by my side. I take his hand and squeeze.
A dozen cloaked figures step from the trees and surround us. There is a flash of doubt, their bows held high, faces concealed by night. But then she is there, wrapped in furs, a thick hood covering her silver braids. The moon illuminates the wrinkles of her light brown face and the whiteness of her teeth as she smiles. We do not speak the same language, but I hear her nonetheless. Her voice-—familiar, soothing—-her arms out-stretched.
Hello little sister. Welcome home.
About the Author
Wendi Dunlap has been writing speculative fiction since she was seven-years-old. Drawn to the genre by the Arthurian legends and the epic traditions of Europe, she eventually found a home in the works of Octavia Butler and Tananarive Due. She credits the novels Wildseed and My Soul to Keep for opening her eyes to the potential of combining African mythology, history and culture into the fantastic sagas she enjoyed as a child.
Her writing career has spanned across film, journalism, poetry and cultural critique. She has worked as a freelance journalist for The Amsterdam News and wrote op-eds on race and diversity for The Bergen County Record. She has won national awards for playwriting and was a regular in the NY / NJ spoken word circuit. Her literary reviews and cultural critiques have appeared in independent press publications like African Voices and New Jersey Perspectus magazine.
Wendi holds a BA in Film and Africana Studies from Cornell University. She currently resides in the Seattle, WA area with her teenage son. By day, she works in Digital Media & Advertising for a major technology company. In the evenings, she is completing her first full-length novel, a YA horror epic.
About the Narrator
Kimberly Taylor is from Memphis, TN. She enjoys reading, coloring, and cackling over tea with friends. She is obsessed with Black Southern Womanhood (her own and that of others), nail art, and Bioware games.