She could feel the paint drying on her skin. It itched almost unbearably, but she didn’t scratch. There was nobody to repaint the designs if she smudged them. Even if she had known exactly what to paint she wouldn’t have trusted herself to do so; her hands were shaking too much.
Think about something else.
But there were so many places which she didn’t want her thoughts wandering to at the moment. Things far more terrible than itchy paint.
They had helped her to prepare herself in the traditional ways. For three days, whilst she had fasted, they had burnt offerings of resins, leaves and scented barks. On the fourth day, they had given her a bitter liquid to drink. Whilst she fought the urge to heave it back up, they had painted her body and led her to this place. Then, they had left.
That had been some time ago now. When they had left, the sun had been setting. Soon, it would rise again. And with it would come…
Maybe it wouldn’t come. Maybe she alone would be spared from this ordeal. Maybe there was no ordeal beyond a lonely day spent sitting here and covered in itchy paint. Maybe…
But she had been there when others had returned and the scars on the elders where lacerations had left a mark long after healing. She had seen some of the others too, the ones who hadn’t been so lucky. The ones who nobody was supposed to see.
Those were the ones who had been judged to be unworthy.
Perhaps she would be judged to be among them.
Somewhere in front of her, there was a knife and a cup full of water. They had placed them there after she had closed her eyes. When she felt the warmth of the sun on her face she would open them again and then she would see what generation after generation of girls before her had seen.
For a whole day, they had told her, it would dwell here with her. For a whole day it would teach her and when the sun rose tomorrow she would return to her people as a woman.
Or else, perhaps, as a corpse.
She could see the pale orange glow of the sun through the insides of her eyelids. Her face was starting to feel warm under the prickling of the paint. She hoped that it hadn’t cracked too badly. Soon, she knew, it would be time to open her eyes.
The night had been both painfully lonely and unbearably crowded. Her thoughts had seemed to grow louder and louder until they blended into an overwhelming and incoherent cacophony.
The morning to come had dominated her thoughts, of course, but there had been other things. Doubts mainly. Her mind had leaked out into the bleak emptiness of the night and she had found herself surrounded by thoughts which were almost unrecognisable as her own.
Had she always doubted her elders so much? The laws of her people, the traditions and customs which came together to make their culture? And, most of all, herself. Yes, she thought. Her mind, her body; in comparison, she was so small, so insignificant. So little knowledge, so little time… Of course she would doubt herself the most.
A flake of paint tickled her cheek. She hoped that it had stayed in place well enough not to ruin the design.
The sun warmed her cheeks.
Cautiously, with her head bowed, she opened her eyes.
Was this what all of them had seen?
Perhaps she was not worthy enough for the demoness to bother to appear to her.
What would happen if the demoness did not come? If she returned to her people unmarked, would they reject her? Would they believe that she had waited here, that she had not opened her eyes too soon or kept them squeezed shut with fear too long, or would they think that she had run and hidden?
The knife which they had placed in front of her had belonged to her father. There were a pair of cats carved into the handle; they were facing away from each other, their tails intricately intertwined. When she returned it would be hers, a parent’s first gift to his newly grown daughter.
If she returned.
Her lips were dry. They had left water for her in a dark-glazed cup, but if she took a drink from it she was sure that the moisture would dislodge the paint. But it was so tempting. She was so very thirsty. And… the demoness hadn’t come.
Her face was reflected in the dark bottom of the cup, distorted by the water’s surface. The jagged, white patterns stood out like bleached bone against the deep red base paint, further distorting her features. She looked almost monstrous. Almost demonic…
Not looking away from her reflection, she reached out a hand to pick up the knife and started to cut.
Is this what they all of the women who came here before her had done?
She held her reflection’s gaze as she cut into the soft, painted flesh of her left arm. Her hands had stopped shaking as soon as the point of the blade had pierced her skin.
She imagined her mother sitting here in the dark, alone except for her thoughts. Had there been a moment when she had opened her eyes and found herself to be just as alone?
But some of the younger women had dared to describe the demoness to her sometimes. It was against the rules, of course, but she had asked so many questions. Some of them had described the bony protrusions from the demoness’ skull. Others had talked about the blood which dripped from between her lips or the long, sharp nails at the tips of her fingers.
And all of them, without exception, had described her eyes. There was no forgiveness in them, they had told her, no warmth. Those eyes stared through flesh and bone and judged what they found in each woman’s heart. If that heart was judged unworthy, then the demoness would stop it from beating.
Her hands had carried on cutting as if of their own accord. She could feel from the slickness of blood on her skin that there were many cuts on her arms and chest and that some of them were deep. A few drops of blood splashed into the bowl, melting away into the water like crimson ghosts.
Maybe that was what had happened. Maybe the demoness had already judged her to be unworthy and stopped her heart before she had even opened her eyes. If she was a ghost, would she remember dying?
Did ghosts remember anything?
Did ghosts bleed?
She wasn’t sure. If she had been alive and bleeding this much then surely she would have been in pain. Instead, she felt numb. Empty.
The surface of the water rippled as another droplet of blood splashed into the cup and dispersed. The bleached bone patterns on her reflection now had a pale pink tinge to them. Without meaning to, without even noticing that she was doing so, she had tainted her own reflection.
She resisted the temptation to tip the water out onto the ground. That would mean breaking eye contact and she wasn’t ready to do that just yet.
The tip of the knife traced the lines which had been painted onto her right thigh, drawing a red line in the middle of each flaking white stripe. Anywhere her fingertips touched her skin, they left wet patches. She imagined the blood swirling into the paint, creating a new pattern of loops and spirals which overwrote what had come before it.
That was how this day was supposed to be. The demoness would come to overwrite the girl who had come before with the woman who she was supposed to become, taking what she was, blending it with what she could be and cutting away the parts which were no longer necessary.
She had wanted to be different.
She remembered how she had fantasised about the kind of woman she would become when the demoness had visited her. In some of those fantasies, she had driven the demoness away or even killed her with the blade she had been given. She had imagined the admiration and respect that would win for her, how they would gasp when she returned to them carrying the demoness’ severed head.
Now, that would never happen.
Perhaps that was why the demoness had not come. Had she somehow sensed those murderous intentions and been afraid, or else judged her to be unworthy based on them? Had those thoughts driven the demoness away? Would every girl who was brought her from now on open her eyes and find herself alone?
Then she would become the demon. Instead of returning to her people she would stay here and wait for the next girl to come. Throughout the night, she would watch to make sure that the girl did not open her eyes. She would judge the girl based on how quietly she waited and whether she managed to control her bladder. Then, when the sun rose, she would move silently to sit in front of the girl. When that girl opened her eyes, she would be there waiting.
If her own eyes were as cold and dead as those of her reflection’s, the illusion would be complete. Here in this empty place she was not a ghost. Not a girl. No longer even human. She was the demoness herself.
But wasn’t a demon by nature evil? Was she evil? Granted, she had done evil things. Once, she had beaten a cat to death. She hadn’t meant to. Drawn by the scent of cooked meat, it had snuck into the house and stolen a piece from her father’s plate. She remembered how angry she had been that a filthy, greedy animal had snuck into their home and taken food which was meant for her father. Only after it was dead had she noticed the sharpness of its ribs and hip bones under its skin. It was too late by then. She had already crushed its skull with her blows. She had buried the ruined meat with the cat a little way from the house in a hole deep enough to keep the dogs from digging it back up.
Did killing a starving cat make her evil enough? She wasn’t sure.
She drew the knife across her cheeks. Droplets of blood rained down into the cup, shattering the surface. She waited patiently for them to stop falling, for the water to calm and her reflection to reappear. Yes, she certainly looked the part now.
The numbness had spread to wherever the knife had cut, and by now that was almost everywhere. Her mind felt numb too, her thoughts clouding, although she didn’t remember cutting that deeply into her head.
She wondered if she was dying, if the demoness had been watching from a distance, making her hands cut deeper and deeper into her flesh until eventually she cut herself away.
But no. She was the demoness, she remembered. She had decided that.
If she died, then, she would be ridding the world of a great evil.
Both of her hands closed around the handle of the knife. The point hovered over her chest where she supposed her heart was.
Do demons have hearts? she wondered. There was only one way to find out.
They had been watching her, from the trees at first but moving closer over time. If she had looked up, she would have seen them. She hadn’t looked up.
Her mother before her had been the same. Her eyes had fixed on the water in the cup and, oblivious to the world around her, she had picked up the knife and begun to cut. Afterwards, she had said that the demoness had been guiding her hands and that she had not even known she was bleeding.
Some of them never opened their eyes. Instead, they kept them closed as they reached blindly for the knife and started to cut. Others would stare, unseeing, at the sky or the ground once the knife was in their hands. Some girls would cut too deeply, but not many. In those cases, they would try to intervene as best they could.
It was the ones who attacked them who were the most problematic. Those were the ones with too much of the demoness inside them for them to cut it away, too much to allow them to become women. Their deaths were a regrettable price for upholding tradition, but a price that they were willing to pay.
When she stopped cutting and put the knife down, they moved in closer. When she slumped forwards over the cup, they caught her arms and lowered her gently to the ground.
When their sister returned, they couldn’t help admiring the lacerations the demoness’ claws had left in her skin. Everybody said that it had been a long time since a woman had returned so badly marked. She must have fought especially hard.
They dared each other to ask her what the demoness was like, although they knew that they weren’t supposed to.
When they were finally brave enough to ask, she told them about the bleached bone of the demoness’ face and how red tears had dripped down them onto the ground. Most of all, though, she told them about the cold judgement she had seen in those eyes and how they had hypnotised her as they explored the depths of her heart.
She didn’t tell them what judgement they had made.
Rebecca L. Brown is a British writer. She specialises in horror, SF, humour, surreal and experimental fiction, although her writing often wanders off into other genres and gets horribly lost.
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