Initiation

initiation victoria griffin

Originally published in 6 Tales, now closed.

***

His crinkled spine hit the ground. Then his dimpled skull. A moment later his leg struck the earth a few yards away. The smell of decaying air and gasoline spilled into the canyon, draping itself over the piles of bones boiled clean, smooth as bark-stripped trees—a welcome mat. The smoke had long cleared from the town above, drifted high above to join the clouds, spread the word, warn the others. Ragged mutts dragged their feet along the desert floor, carrying their souls on their shoulders, tied down with twine. They were heavy. Their wagons were loaded down with meat and jugs of water, matches and blankets and wood to burn. But mostly meat. The bones they left in the canyon, buried beneath a veil of final judgment. The faces haunted the pews, hidden among the pools of guts left to rot inside the white church, standing intact like a guardian angel over the blackened spirits of the fallen buildings. They left the bell ringing. The names were lost forever.

As the dry wind licked at the wounds, charred and open, too deep to mend, the troupe of sharp-toothed soldiers travelled on, straying by design from land that had known the touch of God’s hand. They soaked their skin with the numbness of the desert sand, and when they settled in for the night it was with the certainty of another day and grateful, self assuring glances toward the wagons piled high with meat. They covered themselves with tarps and fitted themselves close together for warmth. And when they settled into a familiar sleep, it was with their knives stashed inside their belts rather than threaded through their slender knuckles.

Morning brought the staggered breaths of fumbling flames, drying the meat until the rawness lived only on the bones of those waiting to feed. And as they fed they thought little of the bones and faces and least of all of the names, only of their empty stomachs, their steadily pumping hearts—dried by more than the desert air. And they moved on. They could hear the sizzling of the meat cooking against the wagons, and it soothed their minds. But as the sun’s cycle broke the dawn, the dusk, the dawn, the food sank lower into the wagons, and they began to pull meat burnt by the steely sun. Eyes flickered like candles and knives settled deep within their palms.

A young one, saved from the last town, had only a rusty fork. He kept it in his pocket. He would use it in the next town. He was nervous, anxious, like a child before a school play. He watched the older ones for direction, placing all his trust in their wisdom.

“What’s yer name, kid?”

The man stood like an oak tree over him, a heavy shadow fastening his feet to the ground. A beard hung from his chin. It commanded respect, especially when compared to the mere stubble that the young man had developed. His lips cracked as he spoke, dried as much by nerves as the desert sun.

“Does it matter?”

The old man chuckled. He could see the shape of his knife tucked into his belt. It was the size of a butcher’s knife. The man kept his arms crossed—odd that his fingers did not itch to feel his knife.

“Ya catch on quick, kid.” The man had a light in his eye—almost like amusement. He had to admit that it was frightening. “So I gotta ask…who were ya?”

His features twisted, confusion drawing them in circles. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Before we came. Who were ya? Job? Family? I know ya had ‘em.”

The young man scratched the back of his neck, feeling the dampness that he wore like a robe. No one had asked him about his prior life. It seemed to be an unwritten code—act as though it had never existed. They had no life now except the sheer act of surviving. They had no friends, no allies, but this man seemed to want them. He seemed to be seeking true human connection. He realized that he’d forgotten what that felt like. In such a short time, he had become an animal.

“I was a merchant. My family and I had a little store, near the church. We lived in an apartment above the shop—myself, my wife, and our two little girls.” He felt a smile touch his lips. No, don’t do that. He tried to wipe it away, but something stopped him. Something inside his heart warned him that if he denied himself such emotions as nostalgia he would deny himself his humanity. So he smiled. And he smiled confidently. Both hands were behind his neck, fingers threaded together. He rocked his head back toward the sky and smiled, wide and clear as a desert highway. “I had a picture of my youngest, but…”

The old man watched him expectantly. “What?”

“…but I burned it. In the fire.”

The man nodded. “Tends to happen. See we lose ourselves out here. It’s like livin’ for the sheer sake o’ livin’. But damn, kid…” He put his hands on his hips. “That can be the best kind!”

The old man laughed, and the young man laughed, too. He didn’t know what he was laughing at, but he felt better just to be laughing. He felt better to be himself.

“My name’s Haytham.”

The old man nodded and chuckled to himself. Haytham rocked back on his heels and felt his skin go taut against his ribs. He thought of his little girls and his wife. What he wouldn’t give to steal that picture from the flames.

He looked back to the old man, the odd glint still in his eyes. “I didn’t ask about you, Mr….?”

“Ah, they ain’t nothin’ ta tell ‘bout me.” For a moment his lips curled into a tiny smile, and his beard hung a little differently.

Haytham’s smile fell away as the old man’s fingers found his knife, and his hands were still on his neck when it drove up between his ribs.

His crinkled spine hit the ground. Then his dimpled skull. A moment later his leg struck the earth a few yards away. His soul is pinned to the canyon floor with twine.