The 21st day of Ripening Season, 342 years After Mourning
When the snows melted and the days became longer, when we cast off our heavy winter cloaks and the heady smells of the first blossoms drifted in from the windows, we had twenty-four acolytes. In addition to the youngsters, we had ten priests, three priestesses and one Cardinal all roaming the halls and serving the people of Aramas.
Before the first victim arrived. The days are shortening now. Ripening season is halfway over, and we have three acolytes, four priests, one priestess and one Cardinal.
As always in times of disaster, the Divine Sisters provide. We replenish our dwindling numbers with orphans, though it is not enough. It will never be enough. Fifteen have joined our ranks. Fifteen youths who carry the burden of survival upon their shoulders. I’ve assigned the children to one of the remaining priests, Priestess Imorgan, and I myself now have three shadows: Barly, Wohlrin, and Noreen. Barly and Noreen have been with me a fortnight and though Noreen remains silent, both listen well. They have adapted easily to the temple’s routine, as traumatized survivors often do. For centuries we have used the monotony of the mundane to cure that which cannot be cured. If they weather this storm, they will serve the Sister’s one day, for both youths have the patient temperament required of the clergy. Wohlrin is the youngest, and the newest. For the second night I hear his sobs as I write these words and pretend I don’t. I understand the boy’s sorrow, but I cannot allow him to wrap a barbed blanket of grief around himself lest he bleed to death. Tomorrow, he must bury the pain and begin his new role as water bearer.
Tomorrow. One day melts into another. I distinguish today from yesterday only by the number of bodies carted away. We lost five today. All children. Once alone, away from the eyes of others, I wept. The liquid tears, the physical manifestation of grief lost amid the parched fragments of my soul, never came. This day has long haunted me. Now that it is here, I mourn for my humanity. I fought as long as I could, Sisters, but I have lost this battle. Life, once full of beauty and joy, has decayed before my eyes. I see only death. Putrid bodies devoid of memories surround me. Stripped bare of laughter . . . and love . . . and hope—that most precious of commodities. Nameless, the faces of the dead blend together. The bodies lay stacked atop each other with limp hands open wide, embracing an eternal darkness. Until the Sisters claim them. Then their souls are ripped away, leaving the shell, and the echoes of where their lives should be has put in motion a future too disastrous to contemplate. How will each untimely loss reverberate throughout our lives?
And on this day of darkness, of lost humanity, in this chasm of despair . . . I want to say the girl, Sofie, has rekindled my hope. Restored is too strong of a word, and now seeing the word written, I realize rekindled carries too much weight. Perhaps the girl has merely blown on the embers of my dying hope.
She made me repeat her name. ‘Say it,’ she had whispered this morning when I knelt beside her. ‘Say it and remember. There must be someone who remembers more than my death. My name is Sofie. I am seven. My mother and father have gone before me, but I am here. Today, I was alive! Promise me. Don’t forget. Sofie.’
I savored the way her name sounded, hoping that by indulging her I could seize the same courage I found in her voice. My emotions fought each other. Hope against despair. Compassion against indifference.
I repeated her name even though the sound of it also repelled me. Keep the names away while they are alive! With a name comes a life and, oh mercy, I have not the strength to honor them all. The voices of the dead stretch out before me, one after the other, all clamoring to be heard. They haunt me. No, their names are not—cannot be—important to me. They are only important to the ledger. Don’t speak them! Don’t whisper them with your final breath. Don’t beg me to remember.
What a fool I am! To think I could escape humanity so easily. It is a remarkable thing when the dying eyes of a child can lay bare my darkest thoughts . . . my deepest shame. She made me promise, and reluctantly I did—with a cracked voice, but no tears. Who among us has the strength to deny a child’s dying request?
I repeated her name throughout the day. And now I record it here with heavy pen strokes. Because I have kept my promise, the courage of a child is recorded somewhere other than a death ledger.
She smiled at the end, while I walked away to see who else had died.