Fredrick dipped his clothes into the icy stream, letting the glacial water lift the blood from the fabric. His hands shook, and the rock lodged into the muddy bank sent a wave of nausea rolling through his stomach. Downstream, the water turned a light pink, a silent witness to his crime.
Once more, he checked to see if anybody followed him, but he was alone. “Evil...Destruction...Sacrifice...” he muttered, mimicking the phantom voices. Where did they come from? He clasped his hands together, plunged them into the water, and splashed it onto his face. He knelt, frozen, over the stream and thought of the small corpse resting in a pool of blood. Fredrick threw his shirt over his head and shivered while the wind whipped through the soaking fabric. With shaking legs, he stumbled down the mountain, grasping at the tree branches for support.
The early morning sun struck the valley floor and warmed everything it touched, but Fredrick remained cold, both outside and in. Back in his village, the smell of fresh bread wafting from the kitchen brought his nausea back. He staggered past the huts, keeping his head low and avoiding the community hut where most of the villagers were gathered.
He slipped behind the kitchen to get to avoid seeing anybody, but the moment he saw a clear path to his hut, somebody called out to him, "Good morning." Susan leaned out the kitchen window, shaking out a dishrag. A couple wisps of gray hair framed her sun-worn face, and as always, she was smiling.
Fredrick kicked at the ground, stirring up a cloud of dust and stones to turn back to her. The sound of her voice calmed his nerves, and his stomach settled. "Whatever you're baking this morning smell wonderful. Please tell me it's acorn bread."
"You're right. We thought that since everybody has been working so hard in the fields, you all deserved a little treat."
"Do you think you can sneak me a taste?" Fredrick said with a half smile.
"I'm sorry, but I can't. Everybody gets to eat at the same time."
"Not even for me? I'm practically your son."
Susan laughed. "I think you're a very special young man, but I don't think I could ever take the place of your mother. You'll always be her son." She dropped her dishrag on the window-ledge. "Come here anyways and give me a hug."
Fredrick stepped closer and leaned into the window, wrapping his arms around her in a solid embrace. He pressed himself against her, feeling her heart beat and a wholesome warmth radiating from her. "Thank you for everything, Susan."
"It was my pleasure." She pulled away from him. "Your shirt, it's soaking. And you...you're freezing. Where have you been?"
"I went up into the mountains this morning."
"You know I don't like it when you go up there."
"I know you worry about that, but trust me, I'll be fine.” Fredrick glanced down at his hands which were trembling.
"I'm just afraid that one day some evil spirit is going to cast a curse on you. Then you're going to slip, fall, and crack your skull against a rock, and you'll lie there in the mud while some wild animal eats your liver."
"That might have worked when I was still young, but--"
"You should take my warning to heart. I don't want anything bad happening to you, and I certainly don't want you offending the gods."
A shiver swept through his body. "No, I wouldn't want to do that."
Susan reached out and caressed his cheek. "What's wrong? Something's different."
"I..." He brushed her hand away. "Nothing's wrong." He ran his fingers through his long, black hair.
"You can't hide anything from me. The gods and I can see right through you."
"Maybe I'm a little nervous--"
"Are you going to ask Anna to marry you today? Is that it?"
Susan smiled and picked up her dishrag. "I think that's it. You're nervous because you're going to finally do it."
Fredrick leaned against the kitchen, facing the temple. "I like her, but she would never say yes to me...I just don't share--"
"Just because she's always at the temple doesn't mean you and her can't get along."
"Yes, it does. We're friends, but we're just too different. She's so pious and I'm--"
"You're special." Susan reached behind her and broke off a piece of bread, giving a small piece to Fredrick. "May the gods smile down upon you."
"Thanks." He took the warm bread and ate it. The nutty flavor filled his stomach and began to warm him from within. "It's very good."
"Go see her."
"Thank you...You've always been so good to me."
"Go, go. Quit wasting your time and ask her already."
He started off towards the temple, his shoulders pulled back, radiating confidence. Susan cried out to him, but the sound never registered in his mind; his thoughts focused on Anna.
At the temple, he paused and ran his fingers around the sculptures of bears, vultures, rats, and rams, carved into the smooth stone walls. He peeled his fingers off the rock and looked up at the bell-tower that pierced the sky from the valley floor. It stood as tall as five grown men, and perched on top, a statue of an eagle grasped a thistle in its talons. Fredrick closed his eyes and pictured himself flying over the mountains and away from the village.
From inside, he could hear a woman's voice. It resonated clear and crisp, full of excitement, yet laced with reverence; it commanded the attention of the room. Fredrick walked along the wall to the opening of the temple and there, surrounded by children, stood Anna.
The children were caught up in the web of her story. Their heads followed her every movement and so did Fredrick. His eyes focused on her soft, smooth, lips with just enough color to give them distinction, but not so much that they looked unnatural. They were perfect. Fredrick studied her fine cheeks and sleek, black hair, then rested his head up against the wall.
Anna's arms whipped through the air as she approached the climax, and the children gathered in closer, staring up at her with their mouths open. Suddenly, Anna looked up and saw Fredrick. She stopped, letting her hands drop to her side. The children, curious to see what had interrupted their story, turned around, and with their innocent eyes, glared at him.
"Look at that. Fredrick came to try and listen in again." Anna acknowledged one of the girls in the group. "Elizabeth, do you want some boring old adult hanging around here while we try to have fun?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "No."
Anna squatted down next to her. "And why's that?"
"Because old people are boring."
Anna laughed and smiled at Fredrick. "You know you can't be interrupting me every morning. I have a job to do." She dropped her eyes towards Elizabeth. "Plus, you're boring." The children broke into laughter.
Fredrick leaned against the door frame. "They're allowed to stay." He pointed at the parents in the far corner.
"Those people?" said Elizabeth. "You're not that old."
He took a step forward. "Will you at least sit with me at breakfast?"
She shrugged. "We'll see. But from what my kids have indicated, there might be more interesting people to talk to." Anna and the children laughed again, and Fredrick walked out towards the village; a chill ran down his spine. Anna called out, "We were just joking..." He didn't turn back.
Fredrick escaped towards his hut. It looked identical to every other hut in the village: a one room wooden structure with a simple thatched roof. Inside, he had a small bed with a straw mattress, a jar of nuts, and a book on a table. Tucked away in a corner, a small pile of dirty clothes sat, begging to be washed. Fredrick gathered them up and took them to the river.
"Evil...Destruction...Sacrifice." he muttered again to himself while he walked through the village. What did it mean? What were they trying to tell me?
Phillip and his wife, Karlie, one of oldest couples in the village, were already at the river. Phillip sat perched on the bank, washing their laundry, while Karlie whittled a small piece of wood. Fredrick knelt beside Phillip in the mud and placed his clothes on a boulder. With his head down, he took one of his shirts, dipped it into the river, and began rubbing it against a rock, avoiding eye-contact with Phillip.
Phillip asked, "How are you today?"
Fredrick grabbed another shirt, covered in dried mud from the fields, and dipped it into the river. The dirt mixed with the water, lifting out of the fabric, and floated away with the current. "I've been better. How about you?"
"Remarkable!" said Phillip. "It's great to finally have a voice, you know? I've waited almost sixty years to get a seat as an elder, and now that it's come, it just feels great."
"That's right." Fredrick's voice was flat. "I'm happy for you. Quite happy." He violently scrubbed his shirt against the rock. "What's Karlie doing?"
Phillip pulled a pair of her pants from the river. "Ha! My crazy old wife--I never quite understand anything she does anymore. And even when I do--why don't you just ask her?"
Fredrick removed his shirt from the water, but some dirt remained. He laid it across a nearby boulder to dry and walked over to Karlie. "What are you working on?"
She put down her knife. "I'm making a new voting stick for the elders. Actually, now I'm just working on the beads."
"It looks nice, but why?"
"Have you looked at the one we use now?"
Fredrick sat down next to her and picked up the knife, spinning it in his palm. "Yes, but why are you making a new one?"
"The old one is ugly, crude, old, and falling apart. It needs to be replaced."
He handed Karlie the knife then picked up one of the beads. "Why now? Because of Phillip?"
She shrugged. "I guess. When I saw him move his first bead on that stick...it was supposed to be one of the proudest moments in my life, but I kept looking at that stick, thinking that I could do better, that I should do something about it." She stuck the knife into the ground. "So I decided to make a new voting stick, something that me and everybody else in our village could really appreciate." She paused for a moment. "I consider this my offering to the gods this year."
Fredrick examined the bead in his hand. "What are you carving on this one?"
"Once I'm done, that one will show a woman working in the fields." She took the bead from Fredrick and looked at it herself. "I want to make the voting stick a true representation of our village. It's something sacred, so it should be beautiful. Not some old piece of scrap wood with a fading white paint, plain as an overcast sky." She tossed the bead back at Fredrick. "The day that we toss that old stick into the fire will be good day."
Fredrick placed the bead on the ground next to Karlie, and Phillip came over, holding a pile of clothes. "I'm done here. Let's go get ready for breakfast."
"They made acorn bread. It's delicious." said Fredrick.
Phillip stared at Fredrick. "How do you know? Did you have some already? You know that is not allowed."
"I..." Fredrick tried to say something, but nothing came to mind.
Phillip shook his head muttering to himself. Karlie gathered up her beads, placed them in a bag, and rose from the ground. Before she walked away, she stared towards a meadow across the river. "Look over there." She pointed. "There, do you see them, a family of deer?" Karlie bowed her head and kissed the back of her hand. "The gods have blessed this morning."
Fredrick backed away, and a weight dropped into his stomach. Phillip asked, "What's the matter? You look sick."
Fredrick took a couple steps away from the river. "I have to go." He kept backing up, watching the deer as the voices returned to his head. He turned around and ran towards the village, leaving his clothes on the bank.