I started this as a story idea a couple of days ago for Women Writer’s Wednesday… then I got carried away and into an entirely new direction.
Line of Sacrifice
(c) Lesley Donaldson-Reid
The sky filled with angry snow. It wasn’t the kind of fluff that drifts to the ground like a ballerina, delicate and wistful. Every surface in the park succumbed to the invasion, including the line of women in red woolen robes, bundles clad to their chests, heads tucked down to stop the wind from freezing the tears against their skin. The demanding flakes sought to muffle the sounds of the newborn children in the women’s arms before the babies’ cries prompted onlookers to interfere with the processional.
Not that anyone ever would. To do so brought the wrath of the Peacekeepers. Or worse.
Amara Castleford stood above the crowd, on a platform rigged for media crew. She longed to cover her cold-nipped ears but she knew her knitted cap made her look too young for this serious a story. Instead, she tried to hide in the lee created by Nissam and his camera. She made him spend the night in the station’s van, waiting with her for the park gates to open before dawn, much to the jeers of her co-workers. Her plan worked to her advantage. They’d parked the cumbersome vehicle on an angle restricting other reporter’s views of the path’s end. From here, he would be the only one able to capture the reactions of the city Councillors. It wasn’t the best leverage for her career, but it was a start.
This was the closest view she ever hoped to have. Amara lucked into covering the Winter Equinox Festival when her predecessor, the Queen of the news desk, suffered a devastating car collision. To make her mark, Amara tried to label the route through the park “The Road to Hell” but her producers shut her down before she took the term to air. In the waters, the people of the city see salvation, they’d said.
She didn’t care whether or not her success influenced the underpinnings of the city. Amara wanted to be remembered for something other than being the last minute replacement for the Queen, even if it meant making some enemies in the business.
She nudged her cameraman in the ribs. “I think there’s going to be a runner. Check out the blonde, fourth from the end,” she said with a surreptitious inhale on her cigarette. Nissam gave a non-committal shrug. Amara had ninety seconds to finish her smoke before her next appearance.
Like everyone present, the Peacekeepers would be focused on the women and infants. They’d likely turn a blind eye to Amara smoking in public. The bigger risk originated with the people she watched from her elevated vantage point, and the mothers themselves.
Only the immediate families of the women lined the sides of the gravel road as it sloped to the water’s edge. It was safer that way. One summer, a human tide swept into the depths as everyone tried capturing the best image of what emerged from beneath the water. Hundreds drowned in the chaos.
Amara thought that this year there were fewer Witnesses than before. Small children wore the same white over-gowns as the adults who held them close, the youngest wriggling under a tighter than usual grasp. Only the faces of the Witnesses distinguished them from the snowy hillside, a red line drawn through the midline of their lips symbolizing the vows they repeated at the start of the sunrise ceremony.
Tearful goodbyes echoed silently through the Witnesses as the women clad in red paced slowly past their loved ones. At the end of the path each woman knelt in front of a short granite table.
Seven years ago, there were so many women that some stood in pairs. This time, three empty spots punched holes in the crimson line. The water never froze at this point on the shore. Steam rose from the surface, creeping hungrily through the gaps between the stones.
To Amara’s right, a stage for the city Councillors provided the closest vantage point to the water’s edge without being within striking distance. The Leader Elect didn’t sit among them, but stood among the Witnesses. His wife occupied her own place at a slab of stone. Of all the tables, hers had a white rose on it, the wilting petals barely visible in the blanket of snow.
The Leader Elect walked to the women, careful not to disturb the water’s edge as he turned his back to the expansive space. Before he spoke, he beheld his wife’s eyes and placed a finger to his lips on top of the red streak that stained them. By custom, they weren’t allowed to share their feelings about the ceremony, at least, not in public.
“At the shortest and the longest of our days, we give thanks to the Waters,” his said, his deep voice mismatched to his short stature. Amara thought the sweat on his brow belied the calmness in his voice. “We know that the mysteries of the universe cannot be explained. With technology, we gain a measure of recovery for our population. But we must have faith that our sacrifice, your Sacrifice, serves more than a purpose. The future of our city comes from each of you.”
Off camera, Amara tapped Nissam on the shoulder with a polished nail and pointed at the woman who previously caught her eye. Every citizen grew up watching the Equinox broadcasts. She knew the signs of a rebellious spirit. The blonde woman had traversed the path to the water with her child upright at her shoulder, where she possessively rested the baby now instead of horizontally. When she came to the tables, she kept her right knee up, barely perceptible beneath the gathers of the robe, except that Amara could see the tip of a hiking boot sticking out. The other women wore sleeker footwear with shallow treads.
“She might not bolt,” Nissam stated about the blonde. “The Peacekeepers don’t seem concerned.” Amara hated that his job didn’t require him to expose himself to the elements almost as much as she hated that he questioned her instinct.
“Maybe they think the runner will be the Leader’s wife,” Amara whispered, checking first that her microphone was muted. “Her children weren’t supposed to born until next month. Rumour has it she tried to leave the city last week.” She made sure no one around them could overhear her suspicions. Amara wanted the story of the blonde woman’s escape, or failure, to be hers alone to report.
Decades ago, a group of women conspired during their last Vigil to run away from the waterfront. The Peacekeepers tried to stop them without harming the babies but there weren’t enough Peacekeepers to hold them all. A few women managed to escape. In the news coverage, older Witnesses begged for the mothers to return. Within hours a tsunami tore away all the buildings in the west harbour. Anyone within half a mile of the disaster zone drowned. The women who ran away were arrested and their children brought to the next Equinox. Since then, city Councillors mandated that each woman would place her baby on a table in turn, then join her Witnesses far from the shore.
The Councillors only sought peace from the water.
The Leader Elect wiped the snow off each cold slab and took the babies from the women’s arms, one at a time. “Our people owe you their future,” he said to each crying mother. He kissed the child’s head before placing the newborn on the table. Amara’s eyes rapidly scanned from him to the blonde, as Nissam’s camera stayed trained on the center of action.
By the time he reached his wife, the red line on the Leader’s lips had smeared. He traded the drooping rose for his child, red tinged tears spilling on his daughter’s forehead. He lingered longer here than with the previous six babies.
The blonde woman threw off her robe and launched herself from the ground. She’d fashioned it with a tear away clasp. She ran in front of the tables, her ankles splashing in the encroaching water. Her husband, standing at the end of row Witnesses, tackled the Peacekeepers with his rugby player shoulders when they started after her. He thumped into the ground with a several Peacekeepers beneath his bulk.
Amara fired rapid narration into the microphone over the Councillors’ shrieks and the Peacekeeper’s threats. “In a usual turn of events, one mother is running past the Leader Elect as he holds his Sacrifice. She looks like she prepared for this. A man, presumably the father, is trying to prevent the Peacekeepers from bringing her back to the Line of Sacrifice. Is that a… I think he might have a gun. He’s taking something from his pocket. It’s a… no. It’s an electronic paralyser. He’s launching probes at one of the Peacekeepers. He missed! This is incredible. She’s still running but now they’re gaining on her.”
The blonde stumbled and attempted to right herself without falling or dropping her baby. Two leading Peacekeepers of the pack chasing her noted her caution and found an extra burst of energy. One caught her arms while the other grabbed the baby out of them. Amara barely made out the child’s cries. They were too far away.
“We have to get down there, Nissam!” she hissed.
He looked at her with his free eye and raised his eyebrows. “Seriously?”
“Are you afraid of a few rules?” She nearly broke her foot as she sped off the roof. Nissam landed more expertly on the ground beside her. He hauled a portable camera and wireless microphone from the van.
“She’s going roaming,” he said to the studio via his headset. He tossed Amara the microphone and set off after her.
Amara narrated their path over her shoulder as they picked their way through the bewildered watchers, unseen by the Peacekeepers who were still dealing with the husky father of the stolen baby. As they approached, Amara clearly made out the woman’s pleas. She paused, allowing Nissam to capture it on camera.
“Take me, Leader Elect!” the woman cried when the Peacekeepers presented her to the political head of the city. “Make me the Sacrifice instead of my boy. I only have one child. We lost his brother at birth. Please! Those women have a twin at home. I only have the one.” She collapsed to her knees and clawed at his trousers. “I can only have one,” she repeated, as though casting a protective spell.
The Leader Elect nearly dropped his child. A Peacekeeper approached her, baton wielded to strike. The Leader raised his hand to stop the nameless officer.
“Stand, good woman,” he said. He gestured to his wife, asking her to hold their daughter while he helped the blonde woman to her feet. “You know that we cannot do this. If we anger the Waters, they will exact their blood toll, as it has always been. Each Equinox, the Waters must have their Sacrifice. I’m sorry that you were unable to keep your other child. Reproductive technology helps us with our population, not our pain.
Yours will be the greatest Sacrifice.”
The blonde mother wept uncontrollably in his arms as he guided her back to her place in the Line of Sacrifice. Their footsteps sloshed through the approaching tide. A Peacekeeper gave the Leader Elect the woman’s baby. He kissed its forehead and lowered the infant. The blonde placed her hand on the Leader Elect’s arm to stop him. She looked at her husband. The red vow of silence was completely eradicated from his face.
“I’m sorry,” she mouthed to him. The blonde moved around to the front of the stone slab, face to face with the Leader Elect who held her child.
Restrained by four Peacekeepers, her husband yelled, “Tenna, no!”
“Ladies and gentleman, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Amara said, stepping back into the camera frame. “The woman who tried to run away, and then trade her life for that of her Sacrifice, is now holding her Sacrifice and sitting on the offering table like a bench, even though the Waters are rising up against the shore. She doesn’t look like she’s going to leave. Her husband is being removed now, in handcuffs. Our Leader Elect is returning to the ceremony. Of course, the other Sacrifices need to be laid out before the Waters arrive, or devastating consequences may result.”
The Leader Elect looked at his wife and offered to take their daughter once again. She shook her head. He frowned at her. His wife kissed him gently, the remaining red pigment on his lips transferring onto her own. Her eyes met those of the blonde, and tears ran down her face. She sat on the offering table with sad smile at her husband. The Leader Elect’s wife held her daughter to her chest, and a finger to her lips. The tide now immersed the women’s boots up to the ankle.
Amara spoke into her microphone in awed tones. “There are two women offering themselves up for the Sacri…just a moment, ladies and gentlemen. Another mother has taken up her Sacrifice and joined these two. Simply unheard of.”
Then a Witness came forward to hold her grandchild as the waves advanced. Before the water reached the underside of the table, each of the Sacrificial babies were being held by by a family member or a parent who sat on the offering table, save for three.
One of the Witnesses cried out, “Women aren’t supposed to be the Sacrifice.” His family held him back. His children clung to his legs, wailing for their mother.
“What about your other children?” shrieked a mother in red, safe within the large group of white bodies surrounding her.
“I don’t know what effect this will have,” Amara said, thrilled in the knowledge that her captive audience would never forget this moment. She looked directly into the eyes of the home viewers, held in suspense on the other end of the electronic feed. “What toll will the Waters exact on this change in the traditional ceremony? As we all know, sometimes the Sacrifices die of exposure before the Waters rise. If the Waters don’t take these offerings, will city Councillors allow these mothers to keep their Sacrifice? What effect will this, an adult and a Sacrifice going into the Waters, have on our future? This is Amara Castleford with the closest and most detailed breaking information on this developing story. Stay tuned to Bellewind News, Channel Three.
The water is getting closer.”