Author: this wild abyss PM
I was eleven when my third husband died. The people of Aegyptus thought I was cursed but they didn't understand. They didn't understand that I was more than a wife—more than a woman. Magna Mater had chosen me. / SKoW Best Non-Romance Winner / Featured on Project FictionRated: Fiction M - English - Fantasy/Spiritual - Chapters: 13 - Words: 48,966 - Reviews: 340 - Favs: 66 - Follows: 94 - Updated: 11-29-12 - Published: 02-05-12 - id: 2994819
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
by R.E. Musekamp
"What though the sea with waues continuall
Doe eate the earth, it is no more at all:
Ne is the earth the lesse, or loseth ought,
For whatsoeuer from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide vnto an other brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought"
— from "The Faerie Queene" by Edmund Spenser
The sun didn't shine the day my third husband died. I was eleven years old.
I stood barefoot on the marble tiles of the great terrace and watched storm clouds gather. I watched the River Nilos move sluggishly between its banks. Its water was the same yellow color as the sky. Beyond Nilos the city was quiet and the streets were empty; the empire was in mourning for my husband but I didn't mourn with them.
I lifted my nose to smell the air and raised my hands to feel the wind. The air was stiff against my skin. I closed my eyes and tried to hear the sound of the desert's failing pulse. I tried to imagine green fields and stalks of wheat so heavy they bent to the ground. I imagined an end to the drought. But those things were foreign to my mind and I couldn't find a place for them amidst my rainless, loveless musing. I knew better than to pray for rain.
The rains would not come.
I knew this, we all knew this. Nilos had been low ever since the conquest of the Sealords; there had been no flood for the past five springs. When they thought I wasn't listening some of my mother's slaves had said the first Imperator had cursed the skies. The desert advanced more each year and laid claim to farmlands and villages. The river was no more than a muddy trickle. I didn't believe in a curse but there would be no rain; not today, not ever. Even as I watched the hot sands began to scorch away the clouds.
We were a dried up people. Sweltering under the heavy thumb of drought.
I kept my eyes trained on the retreating clouds. If the skies did open I wanted to see it. I wanted to distract myself from what the slaves had found in my husband's bed this morning. Behind me, my mother was frantically conversing with the Imperator. Her shrill voice rose and fell around me. "How can you suggest this is her fault!" she shrieked. "Do you think she wanted Nason to die?"
The Imperator's answer was inaudible.
Nason. My husband. Does it sound callous to say I didn't mourn him? At eleven, I knew no emotion but hate. I'd hated Nason's older brothers Urif and Achai. They'd been my husbands too and I'd smiled when they died. But I didn't hate Nason. He was my third husband and for him I'd had no more hate left. Only emptiness and cold exhaustion.
I was tired of husbands.
Behind me, my mother laughed. Her voice was sharp and desperate. It stung the dry cracks of my skin and singed the bottoms of my feet. I turned around. I didn't want to listen but I had to. I had to hear this.
Across the terrace my mother sat with the Imperator on a bench. A naked slave held a canopy over their heads as protection against a sun that did not shine. There was frightening urgency in my mother's face. Two years ago she'd grasped for power, had reached her greedy fingers to secure the Imperator's oldest son. He'd died and left her hands closing on empty air. She'd tried again, and again. This was the third time power had turned to dust inside her fist; it would probably be the last. She knew this. I watched my mother and knew she was a moment away from collapse. She'd put every effort into using my status as the stepping-stone to achieve her own ambitions. All for nothing. I was thrice a widow and had no daughter, not even a useless son.
Nason had been her last hope, had been my last hope. And he'd failed us, just like his brothers. Thanks to him my mother stood on the edge of ruin. She was in debt, she was growing old, she couldn't boast that her daughter was married to Imperator's son, and she couldn't say that she and the Imperator shared a granddaughter. She balanced on the edge of the pit: one wrong move would send her toppling. She was a breath away from losing all she had strived for since she was fourteen.
If she fell I would fall with her. I was not immune. Nason's death was a blow in my stomach too. I'd come to love the palace in the three years since I'd married Urif. My life in the imperial enclosure had been the stuff of nightmares but I didn't wish to leave.
Next to my mother, the Imperator was stiff and somber. His face was hard like stone. "I can't allow it to happen again," he said. "Your daughter has married three of my sons already. I shall not give her a fourth." There was sorrow in his words. Had I been other than who I was I might have felt sorry for him.
"You must! It's the law of Magna Mater!"
"Your daughter is ill-fated and disastrous. She's killed Urif and Achai and now Nason. Not one of them lived a full twelvemonth after they took her to bed. Am I to believe that she'd had nothing to do with my sons' deaths? Am I to feed my last child into her merciless jaws? Truly, it's too much to ask of a father. I am but human." He rose and pointed at me. His chest swelled with anger and despair. "You have no daughters, girl, and no husband. Magna Mater has abandoned you!"
I swallowed and pressed my lips together. I looked at the Imperator and watched the tic in his jaw. His Senatorial tunic couldn't hide the truth from my eyes. He was ancient; he couldn't live much longer. He should have been embalmed and entombed years ago. It was only because of his sons that he still breathed. The sons I'd married, the sons he believed I killed.
My mother spoke again and there was a pitiful sob in her throat. I knew that for once it was genuine. "She didn't kill your sons, Imperator. Their deaths were accidents. My daughter isn't to blame. She's a woman grieving the loss of her husband."
"She is a child!" said the Imperator. His face was purple and his eyes were midnight holes. I wondered what would happen if I fell into them and got lost.
My mother bit her lip. She couldn't win this argument. "Perhaps you're right," she said. "But the ways of sacred Magna Mater cannot be ignored. You know that if a woman's husband dies before she gives birth to a daughter, his brother must marry the unblessed widow and take his place in her bed."
The Imperator said nothing.
Her eyes narrowed. "Do you deny the laws? Do you reject the laws set down by Regulus Imperator at the behest of his bride Gloriana, servant of the Divine? Do you refuse my daughter her rights?"
I bit my lip and waited. My mother didn't believe in Magna Mater or the teachings of the sacred ones. She already had one mother who told her what to do, she said, and she didn't need another. That she challenged the Imperator's devotion to the Divine meant something.
The only sound on the terrace was the shallow breathing of the sky. I glanced up. The sky was dark with raindrops that would never fall. Even the slaves were silent.
"In Dea, no." The Imperator sank back on the bench and I could hear his bones creak. "I will not dishonor Magna Mater."
I closed my eyes.
"Your daughter will marry my son Chal," he said. "But bear in mind, I have no more sons after him. If he dies you won't have another chance. It will be the end." He frowned and for a moment I saw what he must have been like as a younger man: black and vengeful and strong. "And you had better pray to the Divine every waking moment that he does not die."
My mother said something but I didn't hear it. The furious rush of blood in my eardrums deafened me. My knees trembled and I swayed in a sudden gust of wind. I tasted bile on my tongue.
The last son, Chal: he was nineteen. Too young to die. But he would die anyway, just like his brothers. If I was sure of one thing I was sure that Chal would die.
I wasn't cursed like they said but he would die. I knew it.
Chal would die and I wouldn't mourn him—I didn't know how to mourn. I'd forgotten. Urif and Achai and Nason had made me forget.
I stared across the sick river. The skies were gray and cold. My stomach heaved and I retched and retched until my eyes were filled with dark needles and my vision was blurred with tears. My vomit spilled across the white tile in a hideous mosaic of childish disappointment and empty hatred.
Thunder rumbled overhead, warning of rain that would not come.
The razor slid over my skin with relentless motion. I watched in the mirror as one of my mother's slaves removed my hair. The marriage feast was tonight. Tonight I would be a bride again. A priestess from Magna Mater's temple would pour oil over my head and the Imperator's youngest son would carry me to his bed and take me.
Chal would take me tonight. And the next night. And the next and the next. He would take me every night until the night he died. Then he wouldn't take me again. After that I would be free. Free of the Imperator and my mother and my husband—all four of my husbands.
I played with a piece of hair that had fallen into my lap. It was dark and thick, shorter than my little finger. It had only been two months since the slaves last shaved my head. Two months since I'd married Nason. It felt as if I'd been born and died and reborn in the space of those eight weeks.
A small grin quivered over my lips but it never became a smile. This was the last time I would shave; this was the last time I would be married. Ever. Forever. I didn't hate the thought.
I did hate my reflection. The bare, smooth head; the round, childish jaw, the young, unblemished skin; the wide, empty eyes. I did not look like a bride. I had never looked like a bride.
Brides were happy and beautiful and desirable. Brides were not little girls forced to take a woman's role. Brides were not children playing at being grown up. Brides were not like me, never like me.
I'd been nine when I married Urif. Ten when I married Achai. Eleven when I married Nason. Eleven again tonight, when I would marry Chal. I was old enough to know it wasn't right.
My mother entered the room and I watched her movement in the polished looking glass. Her face and clothes were perfectly arranged and she clucked and cooed out of her thin, birdlike mouth. One eye shone with excitement, the other burned with anxiety. Her stare was heavy on my skin. She walked around me and her examination was sharp. I stood still and let her do as she wished.
"You're beautiful!" she exclaimed. Two hands came together with a quick, brisk sound. I flinched in spite of my resolve to remain a statue.
I was not beautiful.
My mother's slaves had shaved my head and rubbed sweet-smelling oils into the naked skin. They had hennaed my tiny breasts and hands and feet with scrolling designs of flowers and vines. They had looped gold and jewels through the piercings in my ears and nose. They had fastened a heavy gold collar around my neck and clasped bangles on my wrists. They had flung malachite dust over my skin until I sparkled. They had dressed me in a tunic made of the finest silk from Seres.
They had done all this and still I wasn't beautiful. Beauty came from the inside but I was empty. Empty of everything but hate.
Hate was not beautiful.
My mother tapped me under the chin. Her filed nails were daggers. I looked at her.
"Chal is the most handsome of the Imperator's sons."
I said nothing. Chal could be hideous and still look better than his brothers; they were dead and rotting.
"Aren't you pleased to have a handsome husband?"
"No," I said.
"Are you glad to be getting a new husband?"
"No," I said.
She sighed at me as if I was a naughty toddler. "You should be," she told me. "Every woman should want a husband. For if she has no husband, how will she get a daughter?"
Hot words flew into my mouth but I said nothing. I could hear my grandmother's soft voice in my head. My mother was only repeating what the Imperator and his Senators said, what they'd taught her and showed her since she was fourteen. It wasn't her fault she was wrong but I still resented her.
"Listen to me," she said. "It's important that you conceive as quickly as possible. The Imperator has no more sons to give you and no other family will marry you, not if you have four dead husbands and no daughter. Do you understand?"
"If only your moonblood would come. That would solve everything." The creases in her face didn't go away but her eyes softened. She touched the top of my bald head. "Remember your duty."
"Always," I said.
When had I done any different?
My fourth wedding feast was no different than the other three.
I sat at the Imperator's table where everyone could see. A red-robed priestess from the Great Temple recited Magna Mater's seven marriage commandments and when prompted my new husband made empty promises to worship and obey me in all things. Our joined hands and heads were sprinkled with sacred oil. Then the feast began and I was pushed to the side and ignored as the adults celebrated my supposed happiness.
I had only to wait until it was over. I drummed my fingers on the table and counted seconds in my head. A slave put a platter of fish in front of me but I didn't touch it. I wasn't hungry when I thought about what I'd be doing after the feast. My mouth was full of sand.
I focused on the Senators' table across the great hall. I studied their faces. Hard women with fierce eyebrows and cold men with crooked noses. I found them fascinating. My mother wanted a place among them. She wanted to wear a Senator's tunic more than anything. It was hard to imagine her face among theirs.
"Imagine making love with that!" a feminine voice said. I pulled my eyes away from the Senators and looked to the right. My eyes met another girl's. She wore the red veil of womanhood over her long hair. She was beautiful. I tried to smile at her and she laughed and turned to her friends.
"Pathetic," she said. "I can't believe the Imperator let her marry another one of his sons. My mother promised me I'd get Chal. It's so unfair!"
Her beautiful friends murmured and patted her arms. They shot glances full of knives in my direction. They hated me.
My skin prickled and I shifted in my seat. The hate from other girls wasn't new. Their older sisters had hated me when I married Urif and Achai; their cousins had hated me when I married Nason. I was a threat to them, to their daughters. There was no better husband in the empire than the son of an Imperator. I'd killed three of the Imperator's sons already and now I had a fourth. There were none left for their own beds. Of course they hated me.
If I'd been able I would have stood and screamed at the top of my lungs. Take him! I would have said. Take Chal and his brothers! Take them into your bed and let them use you! I want nothing of him!
I didn't want Chal. This marriage wasn't my doing. If only they could see that.
I was going to vomit again.
The beautiful girls laughed through their noses and smirked. I turned to see my new husband looking at me. I jumped.
"Are you ready to leave?" he asked. Five long fingers dangled in front of my nose. Everyone was watching; I had no choice. I wanted to run away like a child and hide behind my grandmother's legs.
But I was a woman and my mother's eyes were daggers in my back.
I took Chal's hand.
Chal looked at me and I looked at Chal. We stood on opposite ends of the room, not daring to move. Not daring to breathe. Just looking. The wedding feast was a dim echo in our ears. We were alone in a dangerous place. Watching each other.
I had seen him before but I'd never truly looked at him. I looked at him now and did not like what I saw. I looked at his naked body and knew I should be afraid.
He was long legs and hard muscle, red blood and cold eyes. He was a tall pillar that did not bend in the wind or break under strain. He was big hands and bigger bones. He was thin lips and narrow cheeks and sharp brows. He was looking at me look at him and I didn't like it.
Chal moved closer and I stepped away.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said. And moved closer.
I stepped away. His brother Achai had told me the same thing on our wedding night and he hadn't been gentle. I knew better than to listen. Listening was always a mistake.
My fourth husband took a step closer and I took two steps away. We moved without words, never taking our eyes from one another. Never daring to trust. It was a dance—a dance between two unwilling partners. A dance between a man filled with lust and a girl who felt nothing. I knew this was a test. I knew I couldn't fail. I wanted Chal to die.
My back touched the wall. I could go no farther. Chal closed the distance between us until I could see the black of his pupils and hear the sough of his breathing. I tried to keep my heart from beating. I tried to keep my body from being.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said again. Then whispered: "Noemi."
I swallowed past my pounding heart. Noemi. My bride-name. Two months ago Chal's brother Nason had named me Tabit. I couldn't remember what Urif and Achai had named me. I couldn't remember much of my first two marriages beyond the deaths that had ended them.
"Noemi," Chal said again. I watched his lips move as he said my name. "Noemi."
Then he touched me.
His hand was hot against my naked hip. It burned my belly and scalded my shoulder. I clenched my fingers and struggled to stand still. I kept my eyes on his mouth as he repeated my name.
No squirming, I told myself. Give him what he wants and get out.
But my husband pulled away. His hand fell from my shoulder and he stepped back. He inhaled sharply. I stared at him as his lips became a frown. He was unhappy.
"I don't want you to be afraid of me, Noemi," he said. "I want to do this right."
I mulled over that, turned it over in my mind. Comprehension came slowly. A hysterical shriek of laughter welled inside me but I drowned it in my empty gut. If there was a right way to do this, I'd already seen it. I'd had three husbands already—did Chal think that he, at nineteen, had knowledge his older brothers did not?
I couldn't stop staring at him now. Licking my lips, I said, "You don't have to. I'm not a virgin anymore."
Chal blushed and closed his eyes. His face was twisted as if in pain. I studied it curiously. Had I hurt him? I'd never wounded a husband before. Chal nodded and frowned again. He brought his face close to mine, so close his exhales were my inhales. "Let me do this," he gasped. His lips touched mine; they were dry and smooth.
The taut skin of his arms enclosed me, concealed my nakedness. My feet left the floor and my husband carried me to the bed. I was on my back and he covered me with his long, hot body. His lips were everywhere, touching me all over. His scalding fingers ghosted over my face. His chest pinned me to the mattress. His eyes bored holes into my forehead. "Sweet gift of Magna Mater," he breathed.
What is he trying to do? I asked myself.
I wondered if he thought I would love him for this. For this, this…thing.
I wondered why he bothered; he would be dead soon. I knew it even if he didn't.
I stopped wondering because I grew fascinated with the trickle of sweat on his temple. The sounds forced from his lungs. The frenzied movements of his lower body against my lower body. He was saying my name. Over and over.
My fourth husband slumped on top of me. He wore a tired, drunken smile and I watched it go slack as he fell asleep. Why did he smile?
Chal was different from his brothers. I knew I'd been right to be afraid.
I rolled onto my side and stared at the wall. I counted the shadows. I watched the gray room grow black. I rubbed my palm over my bald head.
"Noemi," whispered Chal, chasing a dream.
My eyes opened and I bit back a scream.
Chal's smiling face hovered in front of my sleep-blurred eyes.
I jumped and pulled away. The bare skin of my back touched the wall. My heart couldn't beat fast enough to pound away my fear. I clenched my shaking hands into fists and pressed them together.
"Sorry," said my husband. "I didn't mean to scare you."
My tongue shivered and I couldn't speak. I'd never woken up to the sight of a man's naked chest. I'd never woken in the same bed as a man. I'd never woken to incoherent panic. Not even when I was married to Achai. Never never never.
This was dangerous. Dangerous and wrong.
"You were watching me sleep." It came out of my mouth as an accusation. I was too frightened to think.
He shrugged. "You were beautiful," he said. His smile evaporated in the morning heat. "Did you enjoy last night?"
"You didn't…" he stumbled and grew red. "That is, I didn't hear you…" His neck and chest were a sunset. He shrugged again. "You didn't say."
I stared at him. What did he want me to say? That I liked what he did to me, what his brothers did to me? Was that what he wanted? I watched his face but I couldn't read his expression. I offered a shrug of my own and that seemed to please him.
"I didn't think you'd stay," he said. "The slaves told me you wouldn't."
I hadn't meant to. I'd always gone back to my mother's room after my other husbands were finished with me. It was safer that way; my mother would protect me. Why hadn't I gone back? Why had I stayed?
My pulse slowed and I considered my surroundings. Harsh red sunlight fell across the bed. The sound of a slave's laugh tickled my eardrums. I scooted toward the foot of the bed, away from Chal. His bright eyes and wide smile followed my movement. He was wrong if he thought I would spend every night in his bed. This was dangerous.
I put my feet on the marble floor and stood. I swayed dizzily and the walls spun. I bit my tongue and took one step toward the door, then another. My mouth was filled with dirt and my eyes were filled with stars.
"I won't stay again," I told him.
He laughed out loud. The sound was brazen and hot.
There was a mirror on the wall. I brought my empty eyes to meet the reflection's empty eyes. I hated the reflection; the reflection hated me back. We stood there, naked, dangerous. Hating each other.
Behind me, Chal shifted on the bed. He grinned at me like I was a foolish pet. I narrowed my eyes. "Sweet gift of Magna Mater."
I hated him too.
(c) R.E. Musekamp (FictionPress id. 674138) under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Cover image of model Ajak Deng.