By evening an eerie calm haunts the house. Serene lies sleeping, cried out from my mom’s passing and I sit in our room, motionless__ frozen in disbelief_ alone.
The silence underscores a gaping hole__ the permanence of every passing moment, with no way back. Mom was just here, she’s always been here, for as long as I can remember__ now, she’s gone. The loss is just the beginning of what will surely be an enduring emptiness. And I have no sense of feeling. I am void of emotion__ numb. Oh, how dead this house will be without my mom’s loving presence.
My heart sinks with guilt as I recall her concern for my birthday gift. Holding the flute in my hands, only now do I become aware of its elegance. How did she find the means to attain something this rare in the village? I didn’t even get the chance to thank her. Those last precious moments… there are so many things I should have said. How can this be allowed to happen?
I need to get out of this dead house. I need some air. I lace up my boots and stand up, placing mom’s gift inside my vest, close to my heart.
Quietly shutting the door to our room behind me, I turn to find father sitting in silence at the dining table. How could this man choose this way of life for his family? Of all people, he should have done everything in his power to protect her.
Without looking at me, his voice drones, "The first time I saw your mother she was working in a garden. The sun was going down behind her__ made her silhouette glow. There’s nothing more powerful to affirm your belief in nature, then to be struck by such organic beauty. She had her hair up. I remember gold splinters of light shooting off of the tiny hairs on her neck.” He pauses, finishing his recollection, “I had to out-work a number of good men to claim her.” His eyes start to focus as he returns to the present moment, “The day I picked her my whole life changed.”
Unmoved by his fond recollection, my flattened voice stabs, “Then why did you let her go?”
“Oh, Caress, I didn’t...”
“You could have saved her!”
Father’s face hardens at what I am implying, "It’s not our place to think that we can take the reins from the cycle of life.”
"They had the power to save her.” I raise my arm in reference to the distant land of the NoBodys.
"The power to do what?" he asks rhetorically, "To rip out her guts and turn her into some kind of robot? No amount of technology can replace the work of God. We all come into this world embodied in the flesh so that we can remain humble in the moments we are given.”
“The moments we are given?” I cannot believe this gospel.
“Anything beyond that is not without its cost. Severing from the flesh only leaves you bound to their technology. And a life of servitude is not worth living. As painful as it might be…” he tapers off, as if there was no other choice, “Your mother left with her soul intact.”
"She didn't have to leave at all!!” I relent in exhaustion. The conversation is useless. He is blindly set in his ways, and has apparently made peace with what he sees as inevitable. For all of us.
"Caress, there are things in this life you do not yet know. What they are is not to be embraced. The Nobodys will be brought to terms." He stiffens his demeanor, "They will be stopped. Soon.”
Shifting with a gesture of optimism, he lifts his voice, “It's your time now__ Becoming THE AGE isn't just about taking a husband. It’s about growing up, becoming a meaningful member of THE CAUSE, of our community."
My shoulders drop, "And I am supposed to accept all this as just the way things are?"
"I can no longer shelter you from the realities of life.” With a cold shoulder he somberly resolves, “Obviously the time has come for you to find responsibility.”
I pause___ shocked in a moment of complete abandonment. Where other fathers would hug their daughters and grieve in distress, he can only bring himself to provide tough love as a sedative to make me numb. What did mom ever see in such a cold man? I turn and march out of the house, unable to take another word from my loving father.
The cold air on my face is perfectly fitting; along with the wooden shacks of the village, decaying like caskets in a town of the dying. With each step I feel the heaviness accumulating on my boots, as once again, the soles become entrenched with mud.
My lip begins to quiver in a swell of overwhelming sadness. I take deep breaths, trying not to cry. There is nothing left here__ only dirt, darkness and dying.
The gruffy voice of Jacob calls out "Caress" from ahead.
Keeping my head down, I throw out my arm in a gesture for him to stay away, "Not now Jacob." The well of emotions begin to wash over me. I can no longer take it.
Jacob rushes up to me, pushing my arm downward, sweeping me up in his arms, consoling, "I am so sorry." His sincere and comforting embrace melts the remainder of my resolve. My knees buckle and I fall into him, screaming into his shoulder; the sorrow now mercilessly pouring out of me.
"I know..." he whispers, “... I know."
I will never see my mother again. The one person who has always been there, the last person who knew me. The one that I could confide in, is gone. Only now do I understand the strength that she wore. How can I continue with all of it now taken away? Nothing will be the same. The warm moments, the birthdays, the kisses on the cheek, the gentle hugs, her loving smile. All of it is gone. "Why !?" I scream into the folds of Jacob's thick jacket. "Why was she left to die? It shouldn't be like this!"
"I know." Jacob's voice carries a genuine sense of compassion.
"The fever has taken so many.” I don’t understand, “Why doesn't anyone do something?"
My crying quickly descends into a thick feeling of nausea. In the cold, dusty smell of Jacob's jacket a new reality sets in. I am alone__ it hits me in the stomach again. I am now alone. A desperation evolves. "I don't know what to do. What am I going to do now?"
"It's going to be okay." Jacob warmly strokes my head. “Caress...” Grabbing my shoulders, he gently pushes me back, placing me in front of his eyes, "I will take care of you."
"What?" my watered eyes blur in confusion.
Awkwardly leaning in, Jacob puckers his lips to kiss me. I jerk back, "What are you doing?"
"I want to be with you. I'm going to choose you." His beady eyes glide across my face in admiration, "I will take care of you now."
What?_ I__ quickly wipe my face, trying to collect myself as his eyes carry the full weight of his sincerity. He's not just trying to comfort. This is clearly something that he's been waiting to say. A toxic whirl begins to twist in my head__ why would he? "No!" I recoil, "No Jacob!" I shake my head, “You and Serene…”
“Serene and I are over…” he dismisses, “... I’m not putting up with that. Caress…” his voice reiterates the implied good news, “It’s you. I choose you.” The look on his pudgy face presumes that somehow this was going to make me feel better, “You have nothing to worry about now that we…”
"No!" I interrupt, squeaming in repulsion, "No, no, no__ Jacob, Serene LOVES you," I plead, trying to prevent…
“Forget Serene.” he cuts, beginning to get annoyed at my resistance.
I pull away from him, quickly walking away. The pit of my stomach churns at the thought of him. Serene’s devastation will rage when she learns…
"I'll handle Serene." He calls out in pursuit, "I won't let her get in the way."
As I pick up my pace, he becomes insistent, "I’ve saved the biggest offering for your father. I’ve started work on the new house at the western corner. There are lots of rooms__ plenty of space for our family.”
I push my steps into a run towards the base of the mines, trying to get away from him. Serene will never forgive me. She’ll cast this as something of my doing.
Sprinting past me, he turns to block my path, positioning me between himself and the mine's utility shack, "Look!" clearly annoyed by my rejection, "I am not just some simple miner okay? Your father and I have plans."
"That's right!" His voice jumps with excitement, "We’re not telling anyone yet, but we have broken through to the outer territories. In the ceremony tomorrow, your father is gonna announce that we are moving all the women to the western side. We've tunneled some safety shelters there, a secret bunker, deep underground, just in case."
"What are you talking about? My father never mentioned any of this." A stifling, cold sweat drips down my spine. I can feel them taking__ My LIFE! My spirit__ crumbling.
"This is gonna to change everything.” He reveals, “We have the connections to the other villages; new alliances, trade, weapons. Your father thinks we might have the makings of an army. All the women will be going underground initially. The bunker will keep you safe."
"No!" My objection forces Jacob's face to harden under the realization of my resolve. A panic begins to pull at each of my accelerating breaths. The thought of being forced to live underground has me desperately turning my head upward, to the top of the cliffs; the setting sun still shining brightly on the rocks towering above.
"Wait," Jacob's voice suddenly falls flat, "You're not still holding out for Adam?" His shoulders sink in the manner of looking at me like a foolish child. "Caress, he’s not coming back."
The condescending gleam on his face makes me want to punch… My eyes dart to the ground, looking for something to hit him with.
"I mean come on." His chiding continues, "In fact___ he’s likely dead. Heh. A fitting fate for a non-believer."
"SHUT UP!!" Thrusting my hands into the explosives bin, I grab a stick of dynamite, lighting it with a seething anger, pointing it towards his face, "Shut Up!!" bringing an immediate end to his mockery, "I would rather die!! Do you hear me? Are you listening now!?"
I stare directly into his eyes. The dynamite's fuse burns with its intended purpose as I hold it in his direction as a weapon, forcing him to reckon my determination.
With a brief pause, his eyes begin to gleam once again. He steps in my direction as a means to call my bluff, leaning in tall, towering over me, stiffening his voice with an assertion of dominance___ "I'm not afraid."
I can suddenly feel the sweat of my hand soaking into the paper shaft of the dynamite. The fuse is getting smaller. The men of the village espouse their bravery in ways that almost welcome death. I can't let him… I need to… I should…
In a crushing defeat, I frantically begin to grasp at the fuse, trying to pull it out. My instincts rage, taking over in that I AM AFRAID to die. Unable to pull out the fuse, I cock my arm back to throw it as far as I can.
Jacob snaps a vice like grip on my arm and slowly takes the dynamite from my hand, "Look, you’ve been through a lot." It continues to BURN as he looks right at me, "So, I am gonna let it go." Calmly sweeping a giant glob of spit onto his hands, he slowly grabs the fuse at its tightest point, pulling it out just in time. And with a disappointed, flattened voice declares, "I have the biggest offering. So, it’s my choice. Your father knows that I’ll take good care of you. Trust me, it's gonna be okay. Once you have some kids you'll feel better."
I BURST passed him! Quickly scouring up a rock face with a frantic fear fueling the intensity of my climb.
Knowing he doesn't have the skills to come after me, he yells with conviction, "I'll fight for you! __You'll see__ I'll make you happy!”
Scaling up between the mines, their wide-open mouths threaten to swallow the remaining days of my life; as large black pits wreaking a foul combination of burnt out sour dynamite.
I hit the trail up top at full speed, bursting into an ascent, an instinctual desperation to climb. To get back to the top of Tereka. To resist the setting sun and the shadows stretching from the bowels of the village.
For the next hour there is no slowing of pace. Every upward reach is a hope of survival. Grabbing, holding on, pulling myself up and away. The rocks become increasingly infected with the darkening sadness of nightfall. I fend it off by climbing higher.
The finality of reaching the summit brings a crescendo of inevitability. There is nowhere else to go. The darkness wins as I break down with the night beginning to consume me.
The once comforting breeze of the cliff tops now weathers away at the tears crawling down my cheeks. The darkness is cold, eerily silent, empty. And as the collar of my vest serves as a tissue to wipe away weeping eyes, there will be no wiping away of what lies ahead.
But then… on the distant horizon… a resting light; clean, peaceful. It marks a faraway point as its radiance pierces straight up into the night’s sky.