Chapter 23: X’andria

Chapter 23: X’andria

The pain was becoming tolerable. Though possibly just a trick her nerves were playing on her, the cool wet mud she had painstakingly applied to her skin seemed to make a difference. 

She had been in shock. All she could think about was the burning. What little energy her flummoxed mind could muster was frantically occupied with the search for relief.

Afraid to move, X’andria lay still, face down, and became aware of her breathing. The rising and falling of her back slowed down as she began to trust that the burning sensation was receding.

What happened to me? she finally allowed. 

And then the blazing nightmare returned.

What had happened to her was bad, but what it meant—what it triggered inside her—was far worse. She began sobbing convulsively, and the sudden movement caused her skin to scream again.

She had gone back to the docks, needing to know if he was there. She had seen one of those terrible fiends. She had wanted to spy on them, to see how many there were, to see which boat was theirs. To see if it was the same one.

She had crept through the night. The time was well after midnight, but the sky had been clear and the various creaking and swaying manmade contraptions of wood and rope were illuminated by the lunar glow. A ramshackle stall, with two open sides, had stood near the place she had seen the Islander.

The stall had reeked with layer upon layer of dried fishy juices left over from countless mornings of gutting, scaling, shucking, and hocking slippery creatures that had been hauled up from the depths of the sea. She had pictured them, mouths working in the suffocating air, eyes staring blankly at the alien world, all the elegance and color of their scintillating undersea lives stripped from them in their final moments.

And it reminded her of the little girl.

The girl was cowering in the corner, eyes brimming with tears, but afraid even to cry. Crying was discouraged. It was punished. And she quickly learned to hold back the flood, somehow balancing the heavy tears on her eyelids, somehow convincing her eyes not to make any more, chin jutted out just enough to give the impression of fortitude and defiance even though all she was trying to do was keep the wet sadness from running down her cheeks and exposing her weakness. 

They pulled her from her childhood. They reeled her away from the care and love and support and freedom and guidance and promise her mother had created so carefully around her. She tried to be good—she did what she was told to the best of her abilities. But it didn’t matter.

The punishment came, she realized, not as a result of her actions but because of their sickness. Their character, softened by opulence and corrupted by power, left them weak with false superiority. So they took out their frustrations on their slaves, on the kids, on the little girl.

At first she lived under the delusion that it was all some terrible mistake. That it was temporary. That soon she would be discovered. That her mom would come for her and that she would be liberated. But months passed, and slowly her youthful hope eroded. Her imagination, once such a bright and limitless haven, became no less vivid, but far more desolate.

That was the worst. There was no longer any escape. No place to hide. No place to dream. No place to forget. She arrived at a crossroads rarely visited by one so young and from which few ever return: hopelessness.

She served the fat man. She brought him things to eat and drink. Her world during the day was the kitchen, with brief sojourns to whatever part of his sprawling seaside villa he happened to be luxuriating in. He was rarely alone. Usually he had guests: imposing men with hatred and lust barely contained beneath a veneer of cordiality. The fat man had power and money, and X’andria could sense they wanted both, and they wanted more. 

He was outside lounging, under a broad-leafed squat tree. Nearby was a rock-rimmed salty swimming pool fed by the sea. She had olives, but he was angry. The fat man did not yell often, but today he was in a towering rage. One of his visitors stood stone-faced before him, venom and defiance in his eyes, while two of the huge tattooed Islanders looked on with folded arms. She lingered with her olive plate, unsure what to do.

The fat man made a limp gesture with the fingertips of his left hand. The Islander on that side stepped forward, pulling off the loose white tunic that covered the ornate swirls of flame all over his body. The visitor lost the hard edge of his glare to uncertainty. 

The tattoos began to swim. At first they swirled within the skin in which they were drawn, the inky flames flickering and writhing like black snakes. But then they jumped from his body in a blaze of fiery orange and red, like he was a human torch. Flaming torrents tumbled forward engulfing, then roasting the terrified visitor.

At some point during the swirling, during the screaming pleas and the hideous immolation, the olives dropped from her tiny hands. The earthenware platter exploded. The olives rolled away like little traitors abandoning a losing battle. The charred man had not yet stopped twisting on the ground when she was hefted over the shoulder of the other Islander like a sack of grain, and shuttled wordlessly to a small, lightless underground chamber she had never seen before.

And there she stayed.

She was trembling from the shock of what she had just seen. There was no explanation for it. The cold cruelty was unimaginable. The fiery animation of the tattoos was terrifying. And the black void of hopelessness inside her became tinged with fear for her very survival. It was the worst night of X’andria’s life.

But one night was not all she spent in that hole with only her fears and imagination for company.

Over and over again she vividly recalled the execution. She saw the flames in her mind’s eye. While at first the flames were a source of fear, soon she realized that they brought something else to her as well. The flames brought light and color back to the drab bleakness into which her dreams had shriveled. The impossibility of their existence became a new source of wonder. If fire can be drawn on skin, and called upon at will, then what else is possible? And so as time passed in solitude, her imagination began to flourish. She began to hope again.

She began to dream. Of escape.

Why had she followed him? After a long night and an even longer day camped uncomfortably in that fishy stall she had seen him. He had been carrying a large crate along the dock when she had spotted the tattooed man again from her hiding place. A crate large enough for a little girl, she had thought bitterly. That was why she had followed.

He had turned and walked purposely along the coast, and she snuck after him. He had disappeared around a corner. She had tarried a moment, followed him, and then she had walked into blinding light as bright as the sun.

And she had awoken here. In pain, alone, in the dark. It was like all those years of freedom never happened. Like her escape, her time on the streets with the urchins and thieves and Gnome, her prodigal consumption of language and magic with The Alchemist, her friendships—all was a dream snatched from her and burned up in the blink of an eye. She had become the scared little girl again.

The girl without hope.In spite of the pain, X’andria lifted her arms to hug herself and murmured softly the one comfort she could think of: laamnu neila hiiwa. Sleep little one.

READ CHAPTER 24

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