The darkness was a loom upon which the cold rain wove. Only the thin bow of a moon haunted the sky as I traveled to the village of the Blue Sparrow clan. Every fifty years I made this journey—as I had done these last two centuries. Each of my steps trembled with restrained desire. It was my master, this hunger.
One day still remained before Seyol, when the passage of night begins to outlast the day. By now, the villagers will have already chosen a maiden, my poor sacrificial bride, waiting by the cornfields. She will wait in white wedding robes, bound tight lest she think to run away, golden string in her hair to plait our braids together as husband and wife. I will slay her, with a thousand kisses.
I wondered if she would be short or tall, if her body would mimic the plains or the curving hills. In the end, though, what mattered was her spirit. Strong and fiery, as it would need to be to sustain me for the next fifty years.
One would think my soul so black that I felt no stirring in my conscience. Untrue. Part of me...remembers.
Somewhere along my journey, the rain had turned to snow, fat flakes that whitened the trees and rocks. The beads of my wedding necklaces clacked, sending crisp echoes through the ice-brittle air. The prints my moccasins left were smoothened by the trail of my hawk-feather cloak. Were it as easy to erase my past.
When I reached the cornfields of the Blue Sparrow clan, I stopped, unsure if what I saw before me was some trick. The wind played with the feathers of my headband as I stood, mountain-still.
No bride waited for me.
Instead, three young braves—if that word could be used—were blindfolded and tied to stakes, left out to the merciless weather. I walked closer and saw that their robes, breechcloths, and leggings were woven from bristleweed, whose spiny needles cause the flesh to blister.
Captives from a warring tribe? Oathbreakers? I wondered what they had done to merit this treatment.
The first brave sobbed like an old woman. His body shook from more than just the cold.
“Who are you?” I demanded, the power in my voice causing the very wind to pause.
His head snapped up, and he looked in my direction. Confusion warred with fear upon his face. He opened his mouth, began to stammer. His voice shook so much I could not comprehend him.
The second youth was murmuring prayers to the Buffalo Dancer for protection, deliverance.
“Who are you?” I asked of him, but it was not he who responded.
“Perhaps I can answer your questions, grandfather Tocho.”
I was startled by the calm in the third youth’s voice, and even more so that he recognized me despite his blindfold. His face was sharp and angled, a strong face of the kind that made other men take heed. In age he appeared the same as I, though the heartless caress of years has not touched me since I was cursed in my youth.
“If you know who I am, you would not bother with titles of respect.”
“I give only what is deserved...or will be.”
I did not find his riddles endearing. “If you have answers, speak quickly. Where is the maiden your clan was bidden to leave me? Where is my wife?”
My temper rose. “Do they seek to test me? Blood shall water their crops.”
“No. Only that the memory of man is short. Especially when darker terrors show their face.”
I unwrapped his blindfold. It, too, was made of bristleweed and left an angry red swath over his eyes. Through obvious discomfort, he smiled. “Thank you,” he said.
I saw mysteries dancing when he opened his eyes. There was magic in them, of that I was certain. “What darker terrors do you babble of?”
“I leave the babbling to the other two who were offered with me as sacrifice.”
“Sacrifice to whom?”
“They call her Tuwa Nukpana, daughter of Masauwu.”
My jaw clenched. Masauwu was the Skeleton Man, the great god of Earth who dances with his One Horned Priests. But never had I heard of a daughter.
The brave continued. “Three youths does Tuwa Nukpana require, to be offered at each season’s end. Three youths to feed her dark lust with their blood, their seed, and their lives. Hers is a fresher darkness, and under her shadow, I fear your own demands have been forgotten.”
“But you have not forgotten...you, who speak of fear but show none.”
“I am Ahote. My sight grants me glimpses of things to come. I knew you would rescue me, just as you will rescue this village. The same way I shall rescue you.”
Laughter escaped me. “You will rescue me from my fate?”
“I must,” he said, and I sensed a touch of inexplicable sorrow.
“You wish to play savior, then save yourself. Perhaps you are simply mad?”
“My father believed that true and spilled much of my blood to cure me. Or so he claimed was his intent. No matter, I am not wrong. You were once an honorable warrior.”
“I know the lore from no source but my dreams. You will save this village.”
His words disturbed me more deeply than I let show; redemption was a wish I knew better than to make. “You are a fool,” I hissed, “a mudhead unable to grasp the truth standing before him. I am as far from a hero as tree roots are to clouds.”
“You have called me mad and a fool, but my faith is not shaken. For clouds weep, their tears quenching the thirst of roots. Untie me, and I shall instruct you. Trust me, and no longer will you be condemned to take a maiden every fifty years.”
“If you are lying—”
“I am not.”
My hand did not shake when I drew my knife and struck his bindings. No hint did I give of expectation, nor trust in his words. But inside...inside, I sensed my hopes, like winter-starved wolves, stalking me.
When I freed the two other youths, they spewed their gratitude with praises and honorifics. I, too, was grateful, for the silence that followed the fools’ departures. I wondered what stories they would spread to their clan.
Ahote stayed with me, acting as if all were preordained. Each time I looked at him, saw his calm and certitude, I wondered if I’d misjudged his age. Perhaps he was as I, clad in the seeming of youth though long years had roared past, foaming, bubbling in the cataract of time.
Even the bristleweed appeared to bother him little. Still, when I offered him my cloak, he accepted. I asked why they had been wearing the bristleweed clothes.
“It was by order of Tuwa Nukpana, to insure her victims suffered while they waited.”
Cruel. “How long has she plagued your village?”
“No more than three years, but you are wrong to assume this is my village.”
I stared at him. “You are not of the Blue Sparrow clan?”
Ahote laughed. “The elders were no more surprised than you when I volunteered. But I knew it was the easiest way to meet you.”
“There is much you keep hidden. Too much.”
“Yet what I offer is surely worth your patience.”
I clenched my teeth. “Why help the village? Or me?”
“I do as my sight commands.”
Snowflakes spun around us, swirled by the restless wind. My hawk-feather cloak fluttered upon Ahote’s shoulders like a broken wing.
In the end, he was right. If he could aid me, then what cared I for all the secrets he hid? And if I aided others, what harm was that to myself? In my first life, I had been trusted. Whenever my village had been threatened, hadn’t I shed blood to save it?
“You suggested my curse could be broken. Tell me how.”
“How did the curse come upon you?”
I snorted. “Does your sight not tell you?”
He said nothing, only stared into the dark wilderness and waited. My patience frayed. All I had wanted was to bring a new bride home and consummate our union. To draw her spirit through her lips, shiny with her blood. Even now, I was distracted by the ache of my need.
At last, Ahote spoke. “Stay still as I do one last thing.” He bent down before the bristleweed clothing that lay upon the earth. With no hesitation, he licked the spindly fabric.
I scowled. Ahote the mad, Ahote the mudhead.
He stood, leaned close to me as if to whisper, and I felt the tip of his tongue touch my ear. I flinched away. My finger wiped at my ear, and I saw he had left his blood.
When he spoke again, his voice flew soundless like arrows through my mind. Stand against the evil that visits, and I shall lift your curse. Now behold, beware. She is here.
I saw a hill, veiled in snow and bearded in moss, undulating as it approached. With it came the stench of decay, like dead bodies too long in the sun. Only when it neared did it unwrap itself, rotten vegetation sloughing away like overripe flesh.
Her age was impossible to say, for her face was crusted with muck and roots. Her teeth were like kernels of mottled corn. She was naked, her skin textured like stone, gray and gravelly. Wet, bulbous mushrooms grew in the moss around her womanly crevice. Her reek nearly brought me to my knees.
When she spoke, her words slithered, foul and colder than the night air. “Where is my food? Where are my husbands? Who are you who waits, whose lust keens feebly next to mine?”
I noticed I was alone. Ahote had fled.
“These people are under...my protection.” The words were thorns on my tongue, and yet I could imagine myself having spoken them many ages ago. “And if my hunger pales next to yours, then you are even more wretched than I.”
She hissed, like those venomous red lizards that live under desert rocks. It was all the warning I received.
Her attack came swift, her thick legs launching her wide frame into mine. My knife flashed out, but its strong blade shattered against her stony skin. She wrestled me down into the snow, our bodies sliding about with our struggles.
Kiss her. Ahote’s voice rang through my mind, even as my ear tingled where his blood had touched it.
“No,” I whispered, disgusted at the thought. I dug my fingers into her throat, hurled her off sideways.
In amazement, I watched the ground catch her, then throw her back at me. I had barely gotten to my feet, and her new assault sent us tumbling, this time into the cornfield, crushing the dead stalks.
Kiss her, Ahote said again.
“Never!” I shouted, but his distraction gave her an opportunity. Roots burst out of the hard ground, wrapping themselves hungrily around my limbs.
Then, Ahote’s counsel became moot...for it was she who brought her lips to mine.
My mind recoiled. Her tongue was a grave-worm tunneling into me, befouling me. I bit down, but her tongue was resilient as petrified wood.
She tried to drink my life into her, and for the first time in centuries, I knew dread. Was this how it had felt for my brides, as I slowly swallowed their lives? It must have been. But whereas I consumed a single bride through fifty years, Tuwa Nukpana gorged upon three men each season.
I fought back, tried to absorb her own life into me. Like starved wolves tugging a scrap of flesh with their teeth, our souls battled through that macabre kiss.
Ahote’s presence was a shining dove in my mind. To win, you must surrender.
More riddles. I berated myself; it was I who was the mudhead, for releasing him.
Footsteps crunched in the snow, and from the corner of my eye I saw Ahote appear. I sensed Tuwa Nukpana’s reaction, a mix of curiosity and caution. Perhaps she wanted to break off the kiss, but if she tried she knew I would devour her soul.
Ahote knelt beside us, put a hand on each of our foreheads. I felt connection, my mind to Ahote’s touch, and through him, the mind of Tuwa Nukpana.
“Remember,” he said...
...and my spirit obeyed.
The world around me vanishes. In my memory I am kissing Sulali, my mistress—the last woman I have truly loved, as beautiful as Tuwa Nukpana is hideous, as gentle and warm as my enemy is wicked and cold. The scent of Sulali stirs my soul, my body—the remembrance of her doe-like grace, her sunlit smiles. She does not deserve the fate that my wife, Powaqa, decrees.
Powaqa knows what I think is hidden, knows the depths of desire I feel for Sulali...and makes that hunger real. What dark magic my first wife uses, I cannot say—it is clear she has secrets of her own. When I kiss Sulali again, I feel her spirit consumed into me. My lover withers in my arms, her strong, youthful body desiccating into a black husk, and no matter how hard I try I cannot stop myself. Her death takes only a moment.
And still I hunger. Powaqa decrees I take a new wife from the Blue Sparrow clan—Sulali’s clan—to sate my treacherous lusts. My wife vanishes into the night, but her curse lingers. Forever will my infidelity haunt me, she says. Forever, for my lusts will drive me to find new wives.
The agony of guilt and wasted years are barbs that pierce my throat, my eyes, my heart.
With no warning, the world around me changes: a verdant glade spills into existence. I have no recollection of this place.
A lone woman giggles as she tiptoes barefoot across a brook. Three shadows wait on the other side. By the time she notices them, it is too late. Three braves, their headbands adorned with blue feathers, surround her and give in to their depravations. Her tears do not move them, nor her anguished screams.
Their savagery revolts me. I charge at them before I even realize what I am doing. My fist goes harmlessly through the first brave, as does my next strike and my third. I am powerless.
I close my eyes but visions seep through. Blood from her struck mouth. Angry red welts around bound wrists. The body, presumed dead, abandoned in a ditch where the earth reclaims it. The infection of wickedness—first to her flesh, then to her spirit—corrupting her, disfiguring her.
Enough, I shout in my mind. Enough, Ahote!
And then I was back in the waking world. Tuwa Nukpana’s lips trembled against mine. Her face, pressed to my own, shivered; and screams, faint with age, echoed in my skull. A dark bonfire swelled in her gaze, only to gutter from the tears in her eyes.
“Surrender,” Ahote said again. “Or your pain shall never fade.”
After all I had just seen, my soul was a tempest of emotion. Death, then. Is that what he meant with his offer to end my curse, to die that I might break free?
Surrender, I told myself. Life is not worth killing innocents. I want to live.
Surrender. Let Tocho the Cursed Groom die, a widower to the last. I want to live.
Surrender. That I might search for Sulali in the World of Clouds and beg her forgiveness.
I ceased my struggle.
And to my astonishment, Tuwa Nukpana did the same. I felt the power of my every yearning—release, absolution, fulfillment, love—flow into her even as her desires flowed into me.
I gasped, fell back, and saw Tuwa Nukpana now transformed—she blinked at me, a beautiful young woman with fawn-shaped eyes who had once tiptoed barefoot across a brook.
“What did you do?” I demanded of Ahote.
He smiled, and I saw contempt. “It is better to ask what you just ceded. The life force you both required existed in the other. No longer will you need victims to feast upon.”
Tuwa Nukpana stood, touched her smooth face with fingers that could not stop shaking. “My curse has undone his?”
I looked to Ahote. “You said she was the daughter of Masauwu, the Skeleton Man. Not that she was cursed.”
“No,” he answered. “I said she was called the daughter of Masauwu. Do not blame me if your assumptions prove you a mudhead.”
Again, I was taken aback by his tone. Gone was the humble helper, replaced by one who seemed only to hold derision. “You helped us break our curses. If you seek payment—”
“You are not the first I have aided this way, not the first whose curses I have broken. Save your empty gratitude.”
“Then why do you give your help?”
Ahote’s eyes sparked as he looked at me, the mysteries within them awhirl in frenzied dance.
“To atone for my own sins. To aid those accursed fools whom I once deemed beneath me. That,” he said as he turned away, “is my curse.”
Tuwa Nukpana reached out, touched Ahote’s shoulder, but he shrugged her hand away as a horsetail slaps a fly. My hawk-feather cloak slipped off him. I retrieved it, draped it upon Tuwa’s shoulders.
What could I offer her when she leaned closer but to hold her near? What answer could I give but a dazed shake of my head. My mind still reeled, rejoicing, trembling at my reborn humanity.
We watched as Ahote strode off into the wintry shadows, to stalk others as accursed as we once were. Part of me was desperate to call to him, to demand answers, and yet...if he could aid others, if he could take away their hunger as he did mine, then what cared I for all the secrets he hid.