There is a middle-aged woman at the foot of your bed when you wake up.
Plump and dark, she stands as an unpleasant reminder of your past mother and your future self, twenty, thirty, forty years from now. Her eyes track you around your bedroom in a similar matriarchal fashion, politely flat and disinterested, as you reveal yourself to the naked air. They widen with mild curiosity of the black habit that is your custom school attire and wrinkle disapprovingly around eyelid edges as you turn your back on her to stand by your tiny armoire and comb through what’s left of your hair. The room’s mirror rests here against the wall, cracked and dirty from decades of disuse (and what does it mean that it is even in your room now, that its mere existence is all the invitation you need to relish in your vanity every morning? Surely the priests knew of the temptation, would not purposely try and trick you with it). From its reflection you peep at the woman from the corners of your periphery, to perhaps parcel out the purpose of her visit from her large eyes.
You can admit it; you are a little self-conscious. If this woman has been following you around lately, as you suspect, then the cutting of your hair must be something of a shock. You do not have the time or the strength to recount the recent experience (the midnight dragging from your room, the chains that bound your arms to your feet so you could not fight and the cloth stuffed into your mouth so you would not scream, the claws that left twin sets of crescent moon markings around your throat and on your shoulders so that you would look straight, face front, hold still for the knife you were sure was going to kill you) but it does not matter.
The woman is staring lower than your ears to rest her gaze at your neck; she has finally noticed the wooden cross that limply hangs from there. If a small gasp is heard behind you, it is too quiet to pierce the air and demand your shame. After all, she could be jealous; you can see now that her neck, previously hidden behind the curtain of her own billowing hair, is a ravaged mess. Cuts and scratches dance around the deep jagged line that seems to have nearly dismembered the woman, and it hemorrhages blood from labored breaths she now only takes out of habit. Scar tissue would have surely covered up most of the lifted skin and the exposed ligaments hanging from the wound by now. If she were still alive. So it must be an embarrassment to her, here in this situation with you. At least the noose around your neck has protected you from fates like that.
You leave her in the room, a heavy air of silence between you two. You don’t close the door as you go, but it does not matter. She and all the others like her are your burdens to bear alone.
The compound is a relatively small community, a relict carved into the tall earthy hillside of a much larger mountain. It seems centuries older than you and several planes removed from the world you had known in your youth. The notion of privacy has never graced these walls, and there is no reason for it to have: there are no barriers in the relationship you are forging between you and the Lord, so why should there be any between you and the other women in the compound, or between you and the priests? Therefore, after your little morning visitation, you must hide out in the farthest bathrooms from the dormitories so that no one can walk in on what you’re doing. You heave the last remnants of dinner into the toilet for several minutes, stay hunched and sweating against the wall for several more, go to the sink and wash your face, grip its edges as more waves as nausea rattle through your bones. Repeat the purification. Compose yourself. It is an important day; you can’t have anyone seeing you weak like this.
When did your visions become so intense? They had never been described by your elders like this, these physical manifestation that shatter through the seams of acceptable reality and shock all sense of equilibrium from your body without so much as a tangible conversation. (Besides, even if they had wanted to, your elders, they never had the time. Once the armies blazed through your familial valley and salted the earth behind them, the elders had been nothing more than indistinguishable smears of blood and intestines splattered into the dirt, against the hut walls, on the dress you had worn that day).
It surely was not when you were first brought here, knobby kneed and barely out of swaddling clothes. Then you were maddeningly alone, no voices whispered to you in the winds of this secluded place and no gentle brushes of translucent flesh comforted you during your nights in the windowless cell the priests had kept you in for their own safety. Some years after when the priests realized you had stopped trying to run away or kill them, and when by chance they discovered you became pliant and calmed by listening to their passionate sermons (it reminded you of home), they thought it suitable to release you into the general compound population and teach to you their beloved scripture. The words of their god mixed with the history of their overseers, gnats dancing in your head declaring queen and country, the glories of the British, bringing a crucified man to civilize the darkest continent, to help you, to do good for you…
Yes, it had been the first lesson you attended when all the violence began. You saw your father then, or a man similar to him. He stood right in front of your table, eclipsing your view of the priest with his large frame and skin. “The old world is dying away, and the new world is struggling to come forth. Now is the time of monsters –”
His incredibly dark, disfigured skin. Never in your young life had you seen someone so naked before, someone so brutally scarred. They were different from the ones you sometimes got, spidery little rivers of yellow and brown that soon dry up like old parchment. His were violent expulsions of flesh from his body, sharp and roughened as if his skin grew extra mouths. There did not seem to be a part of his body that had not been destroyed. However, these old scars were pale pretenders to the new one he had – a crater, oozing, dug almost right through his chest.
It did not matter how badly he was trying to scare away your focus. You did not speak to him, allowing any potential speech to be drowned in the impassioned screams of the priest. “– repent, sinners of this earth, repent! Give up your false gods; give up your past lives of depravity! Only through Christ will you have salvation, only through God will you know peace and protection –”
Your past father’s booming laugh, curt and sudden as if startled out of him, made you scream.
Today is an important day. After so many years of hard work, you are to be ordained into the compound’s ministry. Today you are to be accepted as their own kind, and perhaps one day loved the same as well. Today you are to join a new kin – and you are happy. Truly, you are.
There is so much to be grateful for. The ceremony is simple, but the food is as good as what the priests eat and this is the first time you have been allowed to bask in the unfiltered sunlight in months. Everyone is here to celebrate you, and it warms your heart to feel so cared for by the other women still in training, the priests who kept you locked away during most of your childhood here, the priest who taught your first sermon, the priests who held you down and cut your hair – and your ancestors, who stand along the walls of the church like beautiful omens.
It is not just the wayward one or two who haunt you today, but all; past and future generations stolen from the earth, hands outstretched and reaching for their last present link in this world. Reaching for you. Longing grips you by the throat, an ancient dialect of homesickness you had long forgotten how to speak. As if sensing unease, the nearest priest envelops you into his arms and you turn (away, again, always) into him. His cross presses deep into your cheek, and you revel in its embrace. (Do you understand me now? This is why I never spoke. I’ve turned away).
They do. One by one, arms receding, your ancestors fade into mist and memory. Only your past mothe– no, only your mother remains just long enough for you to fully look at her for the first time, to suddenly and desperately seek out her face in the way you never could do before now.
She stares only but a moment, and then she turns away from you for this and the last time. Ashamed, as you had been of her not so long ago, as you had been and will forever be of yourself.