The cool breeze tickled my skin. Something warm spread over my face as I turned to my side. The distant rustle of leaves reached my ears. I frowned. The house felt too silent to be mine. Cracking open my eyes, I groaned as the sunlight assaulted my vision.
Stretching my arms and legs, I felt at peace. My body wasn’t sore as it always was. Blinking, I tried to open my eyes again. The sun stared at me- high and happy. That was enough to make me jump out of the bed. Never had I slept so long. Why was I left alone? Why didn’t Daddy kick me awake? Pushing back the messy hair from my face, I noticed that my arms were smooth. Not a single bruise.
I got down the attic and walked through the house. He wasn’t there. No surprise. But why couldn’t I hear a sound? For a small wretched town, we made a lot of noise. It was maddening. Opening the main door, I stepped outside onto the empty street.
I rubbed my eyes. Nothing changed. Yet everything had. Not a soul was to be found. Funny how none of them had any.
Soul. The word echoed in my mind. Someone whispered it to me in the dark. Who was it?
Barefoot, I walked through the street, noticing the neat and empty shops. The houses looked different. Almost peaceful. No one was there to greet me. Not that they did before. Bits and pieces of memories poked from the corners of my brain. I let out a groan and clamped my mouth shut. It wasn’t necessary.
Curious, I half-ran to the only playground in the town. I would sit far off and watch little kids play. A few of them would smile or wave at me, ignoring their parents’ warnings. The others would hurl pebbles and laugh. Same seed after all.
A gasp escaped my lips as a deserted ground greeted me. I rushed across to reach the other street. Empty again. Not bothering about my tattered nightgown, I ran around the town. The sound of my footsteps reverberated in my ears.
Even without the townsfolk, the place was oppressive. People could taint their surroundings with such ease. Their shadows lingered long after they vanished.
Sweat covered my forehead and underarms and dripped between my breasts. I raised my hand to wipe it away. A sudden gust of breeze cooled my flushed skin. It was heavy, scented with the power of a rushing storm. It filled my lungs, cleansing the murk of leftover sins. A wayward leaf danced around me, green and full of life. I caught it in my palm and held it close to my heart. It felt wonderful in an instant.
My heartbeat stopped for a second before racing double time. I stayed rooted to the spot as the fog in my mind cleared. Did my wish come true? Wow.
The proof was right in front of my eyes. The townsfolk had disappeared as he said they would. Wiped without a trace. The flicker of hope inside me gained strength. It flourished into a raging fire as laughter bubbled in my throat. I let it out- loud, brash, and ugly.
I danced, throwing my arms wide, face raised to the sky. Clouds began to gather, inching with determination to block the sun. It would be dark. Sooner than it should. But there was no reason to be afraid of it.
The thought brought me back. Looking around, I found the house with the mahogany roof and door. Vivid memories filled my senses. My fingers curled around the leaf. A rush of energy flowed into my veins. Squaring my shoulders, I walked to the house and pushed the door. It creaked open, letting me in, uninvited.
I went straight to the room on the right. The bed was made. It had the dark blue sheet I loathed. It covered the stains, he used to say, forcing his dirty wick into me. I didn’t cry even the first time. Why would I? He wasn’t the only one.
Long before him, Daddy hurt me. He was supposed to be my guardian. This man was a friend. Daddy’s drink buddy and the leader of this town. He created laws, imposed them. Using me was one of them. They loved little girls. Especially, the ones without anyone to care for. Easy to play with as they pleased.
I tucked the leaf behind my ear. Pulling the sheet from the bed, I tore it apart with my teeth and hands. The ripping sound was music to my heart. Dumping the sheets on the floor, I went to the kitchen. After all that he did to me, the least I could get was free food.
What did I get instead? His wife shooing me out like an infected mongrel.
“Get lost now. He’ll drag you in when he wants some fun.”
I was meant for deeds that were beneath her status as a wife. That’s what she said.
I wasn’t to have a decent life. They had decided it for me. Why not? Daddy was happy to agree with them. A girl in exchange for lifelong free drinks. No one to question.
After eating my fill, I raided the daughter’s wardrobe. The scarlet ankle-length skirt and the white, virginal white blouse she flaunted would be mine. Their girls were untouched, or so the stupid adults believed. If they saw the scenes in the accompanying woods, they’d know who the sluts were.
I strode to another house, the one with the green door. Carrying the clothes in my arms, I went to the bedroom on the first floor. The sweet-smelling pink room where I was never allowed, except once.
It was less than a year ago. Sometime after what I considered my birthday, a week after the summer solstice. Daddy didn’t know when I was born. The one who birthed me had left. Ran away with an outsider. Or so they said. My memories were hazy. As if someone wiped them away from time to time.
It took a while to fill the heart-shaped bathtub in the bathroom. Built for her, the pampered princess with more venom than a serpent. The water would be cold. I’d make do. I needed to wash away their touch.
The leaf fell into the tub as I tore away the nightgown. Steam rose from the water as the leaf heated it. Soft bubbles popped on the surface. My lips curved into a smile at the magic. A thunder sounded far away. He was bringing the storm for me to cleanse the town.
My sigh filled the tiny space as I sank into the hot water. Perfect. No. Not when the day from the past forced me to acknowledge the pain and humiliation again.
Everyone in the town was at the fair. She invited me home. Said I was the only one who could help with her unexpected trouble. I was terrified and thought they did the same with her. Her father was also Daddy’s friend. How wrong I was.
She welcomed me into the house with a glass of water. I woke up on the floor in her room, my hair scattered around. She loomed over me, scissors in her hand, a wicked smile on her face.
“My love likes you for your hair. I know it. But I’m not my momma. I won’t share. He won’t even look at you now.”
“Who?” My words were a whisper.
“Don’t you dare act innocent, you whore. I know everything about you. Don’t ever look at the baker’s son.”
I shoved her aside and ran, not stopping until I reached the woods. She knew nothing.
I stepped out of the tub, her soft towel hugging my curves. With all the time to do nothing, I pampered my skin and hair. She had such wonderful stuff. No wonder she decided she was entitled to anything.
I slipped on the skirt and blouse I brought along. Taking from each one of them was the aim.
I went to the mirror and turned from side to side. My skin sparkled. My eyes shone. They were his gift. My stranger from the other world. Or was it the world between the worlds? He ignited life in me. In return, all he wanted was a few souls of those who did nothing but ruin me.
I walked out of the house head high, running fingers through my hair and giggling. It grew back soon afterward. Not that it mattered. The baker’s son wasn’t hers alone. He was the same as every man in this town. Too eager to let go of an opportunity to dip his wick whenever possible. At least he preferred older women.
The sun gave up the fight with the clouds. The wind picked up speed. It brought cries and wails to me from the invisible world. It felt amazing. Seventeen years, that’s all I lived, and what did I get?
The worst day of my life gave way to the best future I didn’t even dare envision. No. That would be untruthful. I dreamt of this day every minute, looking up ways to make the townsfolk go away. Fires, pentagons, tongue-twisting chants, and blood. None worked.
Then the scholar arrived in the town. It was a surprise. Outsiders weren’t allowed, lest they noticed the true faces behind the mask. He came from the city, a wise man who knew it all. A kind man too, with grey hair and tired eyes. The only one who didn’t consider me a toy. He would give me a sad smile and touch my head. I liked to think he was blessing me.
He came once a week to teach numbers and words. I wasn’t allowed at school. But he said it wasn’t fair and wouldn’t teach unless every child was present. Never understood a word, yet I sat listening to his soft voice.
I noticed that the clouds grew heavier. Thick, dark, and ready to burst, they grouped together over the town. Raindrops began to make their way down to the earth. A sudden piercing wail made me jump. Where did that come from? The leaf swirled around me, with increased urgency. I trembled as the cry echoed again. The voice was familiar.
It was… mine. The scream came from within me, from the depth of my soul, tearing me apart. Why was I crying now? I sank to the ground. My tears mixed with the raindrops streamed down my face. More leaves flew, gathering around me to envelop me in a warm hug, to push away the memory. But it stayed. It had to hurt to heal.
The last morning of my misery started as always. A few days earlier, after confirming that the scholar wasn’t going to harm me, I had approached him with a request to take me with him to the city. Words tumbled out as I showed him the wounds that I could.
He understood. Oh, he still didn’t agree. I begged and told him what happened whenever I tried to escape.
Who thought the women wouldn’t be glad to be rid of me? They caught me running away after my father forced himself on me. They refused to believe me and said I was to stay and care for him. It wasn’t until later that I realized, the women bartered me in exchange for their girls’ safety.
The leader said men could have their pick of girls for occasional enjoyment. Some survived, some didn’t. Lust killed faster than diseases. I was a small price to pay to protect their precious daughters.
The next time I tried to escape, the leader found me. He hurt me with such passion, I was bedridden for a week.
I told the scholar about the bitter liquid the old woman made me drink every month so that I’d not have a baby. Then, he agreed. He couldn’t fathom how the folk from a picturesque small town could be so ruthless. Neither did I.
I was to meet him in the forest after twilight. He would hide me in his little wagon, and we would leave this disgusting town forever. I slogged through the day, taking care to not make anyone suspicious of me. Daddy came home early, already drunk. I endured him. It was to be the last time.
I managed to sneak away and meet the scholar. But he said he changed his mind. He couldn’t risk being caught taking me with him. He was afraid of the leader. He promised to send help. As if…
I knew he wouldn’t. I would rot in this town. I couldn’t do that anymore. I took my chance and shoved him aside. He stumbled and fell to the ground as I tried to get away in the wagon. The leader arrived on cue, drunk, furious, and unsteady. Wonder how he knew about my plan?
Things got blurry. I grabbed a rock and smashed the monster’s skull. Once, twice, thrice. The scholar was scampering away from me, horror in his eyes. I couldn’t let him escape. And the blood from the dead men pooled at my feet.
I ran into the woods to my secret spot, tripped over a dead stem, and fell into the circle I drew more than a fortnight ago. Shivers wracked my body. A faint smell of smoke reached me. My blood-soaked dress was burning. I tried to stop it. The circle around me began to glow.
I couldn’t move. The earth shifted as the wind picked up handfuls of leaves and formed a mini-tornado. It came straight at me. Petrified, I shut my eyes and turned to the ground. A gentle touch on my arm made me look up.
He had the most beautiful face I ever saw.
“Why didn’t you come before?” I had to know.
“You had no malice, sweetling. Now, you do. I came right away.” He smiled.
He helped me sit and ran his fingers over my wounds healing them. But my soul? That too, he promised, would be all right. One condition. I had to trust him. I did.
I walked through the raging rain, the leaves keeping me dry. My feet took me to my house. It was what I asked to keep. He agreed with a smile.
Back in the attic, I placed my leaf on the bed and watched the town burn in the storm. Was it possible for houses to burn when it rained? I didn’t know. The shrieks reached me now and then. He must be still at work. Something about collecting souls. I didn’t care.
I’d wait for him to come and savor the cries in the meantime. They filled my heart with peace. He was, indeed, healing me. So what if he called himself a devil. For me, he was an angel. My savior.
This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.
This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.
Prompt: A soft breeze stirs the leaves that have fallen on the pavement. Otherwise, the street is tidy and beautifully maintained, just like the quiet houses neatly arranged along its side. Just like the vacant shop fronts along quaint Main Street nearby. Just like the silent playground. Where is everyone?
Cover Photo By Pixabay
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