Bane; "Done mostly as a rushed school assignment. I'll go back and revision it later..."
"No, don't touch." Her mother reprimanded sharply at the small hand that remained raised, reaching for a larger, gauze-wrapped palm. The child looked up incredulously, questioning the reproach with an innocence that nearly broke the frail woman's stoic resolve.
To think I sacrificed this for beauty, she thought bitterly.
"Child," She began again, in a tone both tender and stern, "Do you remember Spryer's Hill?" The chile responded proudly, "The Wishing Hill." Staring once again at her mother, she waited for the approval of her words.
After a moment's hesitation, the elder gave a warm smile, barely visible through the bandages that firmly incased most of her features. "That is right."
Then, with an almost accusatory note, she intoned, "Have you ever wished on it?" The girl nodded her head and held up a one finger, as though afraid to say 'once'.
"Never again, do you hear me?" came again the woman's persistant admonishment, whereas the child nodded once more in silence. There was a slight pause before her mother added, this time her voice of more love than discipline, "What did you wish for, then?"
"For Mommy to get better." was the slow, quiet reply. The woman's resolve was just short of breaking. Her will was cracked, her very soul screaming at her to embrace the child. She ached to coo away any fear of sickness— to tell the child over and over again that she would get better, and that all would soon be well.
She longed, at an extent far more intense than any wish previous, to simply be a mother. But her reason sang to a different tune, and the notes would not be swayed.
"Listen to me, Cata. I won't tell you this twice." She began keenly, deadened gray eyes fixed onto those of the six-year-old before her, "I made a wish, too. Thirty-nine months ago, to the day, when you were only three. Do you know what I wished for?"
The child shook her head, settling expectantly for the other to continue.
"I wished to be beautiful."
At this, Cata peered into her mother's face, as though hoping to visualize the features beneath the folds of gauze.
"Then why do you hide it?"
The girl asked, bewildered. "Because," the elder formed slowly, choosing her words deliberately, "The gods showed me that beauty—" she lay her hand on her heart, "—is in here. The gods made me beautiful, child, but they have proved to me that appeal is not everything."
The woman held out her left hand, and, with difficulty, unwrapped it from its sheath of bandages. Beneath was a sight that the child would never forget. Wide eyes stared in both wonder and fear at the painfully deep, wound-like sores that adorned her mother's wrist.
"The gods blessed me with love for you, and, in fair exchange, have left me as evidence that the world's never quite as glorified when turned inside out."
She brought a still-covered hand to hover inches over the child's cheek, "You've a pretty face, but it's nothing to compare with the beauty in your heart, do you understand? One can never have it both ways."
Her rags trailed behind her, making the softest of flapping sounds. Muddied feet dragged sluggishly; her demeanor easily interpreted by her stance and unattentive droop of the shoulders.
Cata's face, covered in white wrappings as her mother's had been, was contorted into an expression of utter dispair as she caught each glare from passerby. A low hiss caught her brief focus; a hag crossing her path, rasping venomously, "Devil's work." before looking her over and moving on.
The girl backed away, skirting to the side of the streets. She clung to the walls of the deteriorating shops, keeping her gaze averted, and trying to keep her mother's words alive in her heart. She hummed quietly, only vaguely aware of where the tune had come from.
The child bawled, clutching her forearm to her chest as though broken. She melted into an embrace, and looked up abruptly. Firm hands pried her arm away, the eyes of a mother close to tears as they examined the first deep sores adorning the girl's limb.
At last, she could hold and cradle her child without worry of contamination. And yet; at such a price, the worth could be questioned.
The woman sang a song as she wrapped the diseased skin in cloth from her own dress. In time, the smaller of the two ceased her weeping, listening and earnestly memorizing each word and note. There were three verses, she knew.
She wandered aimlessly, just flowing in the notes, for longer than she might have anticipated, before bumping unceremoniously into someone of a similarly small frame. Rising from the ground, and attempting to brush off what dry dirt she could, Cata mumured her apologies incoherently.
The opposing force that had knocked her off balance stood before her, eyes bright with simpathy, and smirk full of knowing. The girl ran her hair through sleek blonde strands, watching her all the while with pupils the color of midnight. As Cata turned to go, flustered under the other's observatory gaze, she heard the words; firm and grinding, "Lepar?" She knew at once where the address had come from, and she turned once again to meet the girl's scrutiny.
She might have looked around to see if she was the recipient of the call, but there was never more than one of them walking the streets; not since the camps had been created… Not since her mother had been taken away.
To her falter, she received a nasty snicker. The sound was low, piercing, even, and she wished simply to back away and shrink into anything remotely close to a grave. At last, the chuckling stopped. The blonde turned amused eyes to the sky, as though noticing for the first time that it was there.
"Looks like it's going to rain." She commented on the lack of sun, full lips curling into another one of those loathed smirks. The girl spared one more glance to Cata, and said, almost conversationally, "I don't suppose you remember what it was like to be…" She didn't finish the sentence. But she didn't have to; her words were blunt enough to complete the idea.
"Not really. After your skin starts rotting, it's hard to remember anything else." was the snarled reply. Cold, green eyes were narrowed behind the droop of rags over her brow. The girl gave her a questioning look, and spoke, this time in a whisper, "Have you ever thought of being… normal? Of having your life back again?"
Now it was the lepar's turn to laugh. It was a broken bray; harsh and ironic. She turned incredulous eyes to the girl, holding back from screaming at her ignorance.
"How could I not, when every look I get is disgust or pity?"
The blonde nodded, her angular, pretty face now rigid with solemn thought. Absentmindedly, the girl wrapped thin arms around a petite frame. She spoke, then, with a mixture of both certainty, and hesitancy that Cata had difficulty placing, "What… What if I told you I could give it to you?"
The lepar stared at her with wide, mercurial eyes.
"Would it matter?"
A pause, then Cata shook her head. Of course it wouldn't.
"Then at what price? What's the catch?"
The girl gave a wide grin, "No catch. Just meet me tonight on Spryer's hill." For a moment, neither spoke. Bandaged and yearning to believe that every word the blonde spoke was true, she felt a slight tug at the mention of the hill. But then, what else had she to lose but her pride?
There was a curt nod shared between them, and the girl took off in the opposite direction, calling behind her, "Tonight!" Cata stood there, watching her go, before turning and making her way down the muddy path.
Such a fuddle was she in, she was slow to notice that she was on the same course as a Mother and a boy. He was helping her along, holding her patiently at the elbow and supporting her every few steps. Ten or eleven, she might have reasoned. She stopped short before any real collision could take place, but the elderly, beautiful woman responded kindly at her start, "Excuse me, Dear." The boy gave her a somewhat shy grin beneath a splay of black hair, (the ungreyed color of his mother's), violet eyes shining innocently.
She passed them, her heart slipping slightly. Cata took to humming her tune as she continued on, only able to grasp a meager word or two of the song.
The lepar was waiting on the slope of the hill before dusk, warily studying the occasional shrub and hoping she hadn't been on the receiving end of some cruel joke. A few rays had shown through the grey in late afternoon. She gazed intently at the sluggish decline of the sun to the west, amber flowing into gold, and then to magenta, streaked with crimson.
It was not until the sky had turned a neutral blue that forms began to detach themselves from the shadows. Nearly a dozen appeared from the darkness, revealing their presence, and melding out of the surrounding brush.
Cata had to force herself not to seem startled, gazing at them all as they gathered near in what she hoped was a casual, if not disconcerting, way. The blonde was among them, smiling in that derisive way of hers. The entire crowd had their own unique beauty to them, and she found herself feeling somewhat alienated with her gauze-wrapped appendages. For the first time in her life, Cata was unsure of where to place her hands. Behind her back, or perhaps folded before her… She settled with them crossed against her chest. The squirmy feeling in her gut, however, had yet to cease.
"I came." She announced, lamely. The girl gave another chuckle, and looked around.
"So you did. Now, it's my turn to show you a thing or two. This, Lepar, is our group. We don't meet often, but when we do…" She smirked openly, and paused for emphasis, "It can get a little messy." A man, young in age, smiled at Cata, and closed his eyes in agreement.
"And where does that leave me?"
The blonde looked her over slowly, motioning for her to spin in a full circle. The lepar did as instructed, hoping this whole thing wasn't created her ridicule, but not particularly caring if it was. The next direction came as a shock for Cata. She hadn't expected it would come to such a request.
"I need you to take your rags off your face, Dear."
Cata shook her head, searching the nearest faces of the crowd for some excuse; some escape. When none came, she was left with no choice but to look into that of the girl. The expression was one of callousness.
Sighing, she brought shaky fingers to rip at the bandages, unwrapping them at a biting pace. Each turn of the gauze showed a little more of the scarring tissue. The wounds that adorned her face were terrible; horrible. But no one looked away. Not one of the crowd winced. She expected laughter. She expected scorn. None came, and the rags, at last, fell to the ground.
Her face would have been gorgeous, that much one could tell. High cheekbones, and a thick set of lashes gave her a tastefully unique look. But what was left of her face could no longer be called beautiful. Not after the plunder leprosy had led.
Cata's head drooped considerably, eyes averted from those of the group before her.
"Look at me, Lepar."
Gazing up, she met eyes with those of the blonde, and she knew, beyond all doubts, that she could be what she had once been. The girl looked into the small mass of people and demanded, do you have her? A distinctly handsome man spoke in an undertone for a moment before speaking to another beside him. Within another minute, a body was produced from the crowd.
"Fresh." Was a comment given from a young brunette, grinning as she laid the carcass down on the grass. Disgusted, Cata took a step backwards. She glanced into the face of the woman lying in what seemed like a naturally peacefull state in the center of the group, and had to muffle her surprise.
The dead body before them was the elderly woman she had passed earlier that day; unwizened by age, but for the greying locks of sable that fell over her ears and were cut not unsuitingly at the base of a slender collarbone. Below the base of her jaw was a slight mark; an akwardness of skin that indicated that her neck had been wrung.
The blonde bared her teeth in a molevolent smile, giving away what had earlier been concealed. Just at the corners of her upturned-lips, elongated bicuspids could be seen. They were elegant, and were somewhat compatible with the sharp features of her face.
Noticing the shift of gaze, the girl cut her grin short.
"You said you wanted your life back. Did you mean it?"
Cata nodded weakly, entranced by the metalic glaze of the other's eyes. Something in her throat had caught, and words were become more and more difficult to form.
"Would you do anything for it?"
At this, any uncertainty had gone; she was ready to seize what leprosy had taken.
The lepar never saw one member of the group shake their head in both disappointment, and hopelessness. She might have known, then… but… the pull of normalcy was intense, and perhaps too much for resistance.
"Then come here."
She did as she was told, and stopped but a foot away. Cata was motioned to give up her wrist, only mildly surprised when the blonde dragged a keen fingernail across her wrist. The girl pressed into several points on the arm, coaxing blood to dribble to the grass, melding with the dirt.
"It's tainted." Was her explanation. Abruptly, however, just as Cata was feeling faint, the blond cut her own wrist and brought it to the lepar's lips.
Before she could protest, she tasted the sweet, bitter mixture at the edges of her mouth and instinctively latched on, revolted, yet loving the taste. A few minutes passed, and she was led to the body. Kneeling beside the woman, Cata was handed one of her wrists, and told to feed.
The directions were strange, even somewhat pretentious, if she thought on it. She opened her mouth to question the command, but was again cut short.
"Shut up and bite already. You told me you wanted it. So take it."
Hesitantly, Cata closed lips on the still warm flesh, cutting into the vein with more ease than she would have managed before. She drank, slowly, waveringly. The feeling filled her, creating a veil between her and what had once been the cruelty of the world. Abruptly, the entire civilization was made of magnificence, her own experience simply a small smudge of what she would be.
She was too preoccupied to notice that her heart beat once—twice—and stopped, before the third; she was something unhuman entirely.
Rising to her feet, Cata locked eyes once more with the girl, waiting for the next command. A laugh ensued, the sound no longer mocking, but playful.
"Just as I thought. You really are superb underneath that rot."
Unsure for a moment, she slowly brought searching fingers to caress the side of her face. All sores were gone; left was only smooth, silk skin.
"Yes, the first feeling is grand, but you'll need more blood before it sticks."
The smirk was returning gradually, and the faces of those around her were becoming knowing, as though there was something she ought have known.
"This was a gift," the blonde indicated the body, "The next one will have to be fresher, and taken by your own hands. We can't help you this time."
Cata wrung her hands, but nodded, understanding that there was a price to everything, and particularly apathetic due to her inward joy. Anything was worth this.
"You're one of us, now."
She turned to part, before she was stopped once more by the girl's voice, "Oh, and do watch the sun. I'm afraid that you'll now find it a bit… dodgy."
She paused to rip a bit of the discarded gauze on her way, putting the slip of bandage in her left breast pocket as a passing whim.
Again, she hummed, but words now appeared in her mind with the notes; becoming lines, and then verses.
"Listen, Love, have you no heart?
Beneath that face; soft, yet cold.
And still, for all that beauty's use,
Your need for love has yet to fold.
Remember, my word won't live for long,
Love's not youth; as Sun's not stars.
And far from being left alone,
You'll find that looks can always scar."
The last verse simply would not come, and she abandoned hope, assuming that it would later come to her.
As she wandered the streets, Cata felt somewhat strange; as though her heart had undergone some great change. She had to admit, she no longer felt quite like the quiet, kind girl that had retained leprosy for more than half her life. Cata even found herself smirking with confidence as she shed the remaining bandages, finding underneath more layers of smooth, beautiful skin.
The few that passed no longer looked upon her with disgust, but instead watched her with fleeting interest. One of the gazes caught her recognition, and she approached a boy perhaps half a decade younger than herself. She stared into violet eyes, framed with black, unbrushed tassles. Familiarity pulled at her heart, and she knew this was the one she wanted to sever herself at last from the past.
She would start a new life with his blood.
"You look just like your mother, you know." She prompted teasingly, lavishing the pained expression that took his face briefly. So, he'd been looking for her, had he? The boy looked up at her searchingly, trying to find something about such an observation in her eyes.
"You… you knew her?"
Cata allowed herself to chuckle morosely. Matching him in searching glances, she replied coyly, as though her words were merely to pass the time, "Of course." Pressing her hand down against his shoulder, letting long fingernails scathe skin, she leaned forward. With her lips just inches away from his ear she added in a calm whisper,"Who do you think killed her?"
He drew back, watching her now with wide, knowing eyes. His answer came slowly, as though his thoughts were having difficulty reaching his mouth, "But…why?"
At this, she no longer chuckled. Her visage contorted into a pure look of disgust. Baring her teeth in a snarl, Cata withdrew her hand from his shoulder.
"Sweetheart, I've been asking myself the same question since I was seven."
The child was no longer mesmerized by her eyes, but was instead staring at her teeth; at the recherche edges of her now elongated canines. Realizing this, she widened her smirk, wishing he would respond, waiting for that satisfying moment of tantalizing fear.
It never came. The boy stood emotionlessly, gaze unshifting, and eyes blank. "She always used to say things like you didn't exist." He abruptly glanced once more into her eyes, his own shining with cold irony that bit at what was left of her heart, "And once she even said that if there ever were, she would always be there to keep them away."
"Things like me." She repeated. Once again in her mind it echoed, things like me. But once a thought, the deepest caverns of memories opened up and swallowed the words whole, taking them into the darkness where they were free to evolve into something that cut deeper. They stopped at her throat, changing subtley into 'monsters like me', echoing once again to the point at which she wondered which had been said.
Her very soul shook, and her mind, able to hear the cries of the trapped being—the person she had once been—was at last able to free what was left of her. Cata took a step back, glimpsing the boy, only to see what she had before failed to see.
Wide, bewildered eyes met hers, and she felt sure that the child felt the change in her demeanor.
"Did your mother ever tell you the meaning of Beauty?"
He shook his head softly, to which she responded just as gently, "Then I will tell you. And if ever again you see anyone like me, anyone ready to sell their soul for it, you repeat my words to them, understand?" There was one curt nod in reply.
So she told him. She spun a children's story from the one-sided evil of appeal. And when it was done; when she was certain that he understood her message, Cata took another step away. Her strides gained momentum, until she was at least ten yards from him. She turned back slightly, wishing more than anything to go back to the child; to hold him in a warm embrace and apologize his unshed tears away. She longed for his forgiveness, and for him to know that she had found true beauty in and out; him.
But his mother's death was permanent. It could not be willed away by her regret. Instead, she forced herself to walk forward, to lose herself to the rising guilt.
Her footsteps silent and ever graceful, she made her way back to Spryer's hill. Just as she had anticipated, the wishing hill was barren of all but a few shrubs. As she waited for sunrise, a familiar tune rose to mind, and the last tidbit of a song found its way into her lap. Her voice, ragged with supressed weeping, filled the dawn air. The upcoming light drove her onwards, each note becoming another heartbeat; warming the frostbitten case within her chest. Just as light engulfed her, she sang the last verse of the song she had once known so well.
"I wished again for skin like yours,
Smooth as milk; fair and fine.
But sweet as apple's flesh may be,
Bitter is the core's stiff rine."
And with that, she was swallowed by the sunshine, torn from the inside out. The brightness flared within her, refusing to retreat even as her life left her, leaving nothing but a chilled case behind.
She was found that night, resting where only the moonlight could reach her. Under her breast pocket; right where her chest had ceased its beating, was a small collection of sores.
Her beauty had begun to rot from the heart.