The Cheerful Sacrifice
Raise me up on a silver platter. Garnish me with salads. Thrust me up, weeping, trembling, and hoping you're not next. Like the smoke brimming from the coal pits of his nostrils, I've been steam boiled. Lift the lid; it billows up like a mushroom cloud. He'll taste the smell of my burned flesh on his licking, darting tongue. The smoke subsides. Ah! And there I am. With an apple gorging on my plump mouth, stuffed like hot, spicy sausage.
The ironic thing is, only days before I had been the one to lift the platter. And far from being remorseful, I'd done it gratefully. When he pointed his clawed finger at the next in line, when another cousin was sent to die, all I'd thought was, Thank God. Thank God it's not me. All our familial ties, the sisterly bonds- ripped apart, replaced with a sacrificial ribbon, tied lovingly round her neck.
Round my neck. In a crowd of weeping women, he'd singled me out. I, who had survived all this time, and had began to think I would be never picked. That by the time I was, one of the knights of Camelot would come to save us. Although two years had passed since he flew in with his monstrous scales and teeth flecked with human flesh. In return for our lives, the dragon had drawn a deal in the ashes of the crops he had destroyed. A sacrifice. Once a fortnight. And his yellow eyes locked on little Ashelia, my second cousin. At first the men fought- fought, and were burned to a crisp. They handed over Ashelia in desperation. But in two weeks time it was Gwendolyn, then Sarah, her sister Jodie. And no one has come. Now, as my uncle ties the crimson ribbon round my neck, I realise that they never will. That if they do, it will be too late. There aren't many of us left now, which is why it's my uncle who does the job. I never realised how red it was. Red like blood. As though someone has cut a thin line across my neck, from ear to ear. Which I'm sure will happen in time. All my dresses have high-collared necks to preserve my modesty, but today, for the first time in my life, I wear something new. The sticky silk clings under my collarbone- it fastens and sticks onto my thighs when I try to walk. I'll be delivered into his jaws looking like a living doll. Good enough to eat. My uncle's fingers are shaking. He fumbles the knot and has to redo it. He plants a brief, sloppy kiss in my hair.
"Thank you November." He thanks me like I'm doing this willingly, for him. A personal favour. I can see it on all their faces; a restless, crazy joy. By dying, I extend their lives by a notch.
Only my sister December stays back. She's clenching her teeth with the most unbearable look on her face. Her cheeks are full with righteous anger. She looks like she's going to expel a breath so powerful it will blow us all away.
She and I used to be best friends, long before the dragon came. Our father was a famous knight at Camelot. We would ride on the back of his horse, and glinting in his silver armour I thought no one else had a father so magnificent. But he's gone now, before he even had the chance to save us. He died not valiantly in battle, but slowly, painfully, of the fever. And since then it's been poverty, povery, poverty, with a side dish of death. The world is rotting. I think King Arthur must be dead; why else would we get no reply?
Only December refuses to lay down her pride. Her arrogance. Only she dreams of taking the matter into her own hands. Always a shrew, refusing obligation, refusing to live normally, she now talks wildly of slaying the dragon herself.
"Are we not daughters of a famous knight?" she whispered some weeks ago, in that strong, passionate voice she uses when she's preaching. "We don't have to sit around like damsels, waiting to die. No one's coming, November. Don't you see it? No one's coming!"
"How do you know that? There's still a chance! The King could be sending out one of his knights right this minute." And until I got the call for myself, I really did believe it. But December always knew the truth; she threw herself off the bed, her hands contorted into fists. In the darkness, I could see the glare of the whites of her eyes.
"It we keep waiting like this, for someone to come and save us- which might not even work!- we're going to run out of time. Damn it, why can't you ever act? Sooner or later, one of us is going to be chosen, and I won't be able to bear watching them dress you up with slimy fingers, trying to save their own skins. We have our father's blood running through our veins. Fight with me! At least that way we'll have a chance. If we just stay here, we'll have no chance at all. And I refuse to die like that!"
But I just rolled over. "Go back to sleep," I said. What could we do, two women? I hated when she talked like this. When she was brave and proud. When she exposed what a coward I really was. I didn't deserve my father's name. Because I was the one with the slimy fingers, looking after my own hide. I would even have tied a crimson ribbon round my own sister's neck, if it meant I'd save my own skin. When she reminded me of this, I hated her.
And right now, I hate myself. Even now, with my uncle's hand on my arm, leading me up the cliffs to the dragon's cave, I can't do anything. I can't even save myself. Father would have saved us- father, daddy… but six foot under, he can't do anything. With the wind swirling round his gravestone, the weeds growing up around my feet. Why did he have to go?
We march forward, and the cave looms larger, like a mouth swallowing us up. The stalactites are pointed teeth, the iron in the rocks crust them with blood. My sister follows behind at a distance. She's burning. Death is minutes away, but all that fills my mind right now are the girls I've helped sacrifice, to gain one more pitiful fortnight. To cling to the pinnacles of life. All this time, I've never really been living. How could I do that to them? How could I do it to myself? I've made up my mind. I raise my slumped shoulders, pick up my dropping head. And I smile. I'll die for those who died for me, and I'll die for my sister, so she can keep on living. Because she's the only one who'll be able to save us. So I'll give her my life, and what little courage I have. I'll lift my head and walk into the jaws of a dragon, and I'll do it with a smile.
A/N- This is the first out of twelve short stories organized around the months of the year. The next story, about November's sister December, follows directly on from this. But I'll be posting it as a separate story rather than as a chapter to this one, if you're interested.