Linford brought me to a stop outside a small dark apartment building. I glanced up at it. There was nothing significant about it and looked the same as the surrounding buildings – dark, empty, forgotten.
“Be watchful what you say, warrior,” Linford said. “Rhema is more than she look. She know if you lie.”
“I won’t lie.”
“Many say such things. Many pay the price.”
“There’s a price for lying too?”
“Lying can cost lives.”
“Okay. No lies.”
Linford knocked the door with a gentle rap. It opened quietly. Linford made a gesture and the two men stepped aside. The entrance was in a similarly squalid condition like the other apartment blocks Linford had led me through. Dirt and debris covered the floor and ears of wall paper flapped in the cold breeze. On a wall someone had scrawled the words: Rhema Sees You. The door guards closed and bolted the door. Linford led me up four flights of stairs. The top and bottom of each flight was guarded by masked people who were armed with long knives that glinted in the darkness. When we reached the top I saw burning candles sat atop mounds of old candle wax.
The breeze on my face was warm and I detected an aroma of incense. The corridor was carpeted and clean. Pictures of trees and lakes were hung neatly on the walls. It actually looked like someone lived here rather than just survived. Linford knocked on a door at the end of the corridor. A pale-faced woman dressed in a thin red robe glanced from Linford to me then bowed and let us inside.
I didn’t know what to expect but a clean welcoming kitchen lit by electric lights surprised me
“Wait. I must speak to Rhema.” Linford gestured to the girl in the red robe. “Oshema, a nourishing drink for our guest.”
Linford parted a thick beaded curtain and left me with Oshema.
“Don’t suppose you’ve got a Budweiser,” I joked.
“The Lady does not allow it,” Oshema said. “I may bring you a tonic if you are thirsty.”
“A tonic of what?”
“Herbs, spices and fruits. It can revive even the most weary of souls.”
“Sure. I’ll try some.”
I watched Oshema prepare the brew. She went about her work in silence. I wondered how one woman like Rhema could command such loyalty. Oshema had that aura of dedication I hadn’t seen since the war. Her red robes whispered as she opened cupboards and fetched out ingredients. When she bent down I caught myself gazing at her cleavage as her robe billowed forward. Her milky white skin was stark against her robes. I closed my eyes and looked away. I felt guilty for invading the privacy of what I suppose was a holy woman. Those in Zone 2 knew Rhema had strange powers, that her followers were devout in whatever religion they followed.
With religion abolished generations had grown up without learning about what I consider to be a fundamental part of life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a believer, after the shit I’ve seen who could blame me? I’ve always had a hard time accepting the concept of a god but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some important moral lessons to be learned from religion. I would never mock anyone for worshipping their deity, but I do respect them for their devotion and loyalty.
Oshema placed a plastic tumbler on the kitchen counter. “You may find it bitter at first but the warmth that follows is worth it.”
I swished the liquid around and inhaled the vapours. “Smells like Gin.”
Oshema smiled. “So I have heard.”
“You don’t know what Gin tastes like?”
“No. Alcohol is forbidden.”
“You’re missing out,” I replied.
I took a tentative sip. She wasn’t wrong. It was bitter and pungent, it reminded me of sweaty socks and old wet grass. As I swallowed more I felt warmth spread through my chest. It reminded of the heat wave my regiment suffered through in Pakistan many years ago. We were cut off from our supply line for days and when we finally stumbled into a lush oasis in the mountains we couldn’t get enough of the cool spring water.
My throat was so dry I could feel that cold water all the way down into my stomach. Oshema’s brew had the same effect. I hadn’t realised how cold it was in the wastelands until the warmth from the drink filled my body. I knocked it all back and returned the tumbler to Oshema.
“Tastes like sweaty socks.”
Oshema frowned. “So…not good?”
“Oh it’s good. Very good. If you’d have marketed that years ago you’d be a rich woman.”
“Money is of no use to me.” Oshema rinsed and dried the tumbler. “Is that what you desire?”
“No. Not really. But I wish I had more for MET instead of coming here.”
The beaded curtain behind me clinked. “What wrong with here?”
I turned to see Linford frowning at me. “It’s dangerous for one thing. And cold too,” I added. I glanced around the kitchen. “Obviously not right here but the wastelands are no place to live.”
“You are right, warrior. It is cold.”
Linford and I stared at each other for a moment. I sensed sudden tension as if I had insulted the very people I sought to help me. Then Linford let out a deep rolling boom of laughter and slapped me on the shoulder.
“Come. Rhema is want to meet the warrior who saved her guardian.”
I smiled at Oshema and followed Linford through the beaded curtain. The room beyond caught me by surprise. I’d heard the rumours of Rhema from those in back street bars who spoke in whispers, where liquor can still be bought and fragments of the old world linger on. The first thing that came to mind was Voodoo, the stereotypical sort portrayed in movies. There was a small altar on the left adorned with animal skulls, candles, flowers and small silver bowls. The room itself was quite plain, dark red walls with no pictures but a large dream catcher on each. I saw no source for the heat yet I felt moisture on my brow the moment I stepped inside.
The ceiling was covered in strange symbols, both large and small. It must have taken a long time to write them all out. A mound of cushions were piled against the wall to my right. Rhema herself was sat on a low armchair. The best way I can describe Rhema is she looked frighteningly like a small Buddha statue I used to keep near our front door. It was a gift from my brother who told me to rub its belly every time I left the house to be blessed with a good day.
Rhema sat, no, slouched in her armchair, an arrangement of robes and wraps flowed over her large body, except her dark bulbous stomach that glistened in the candle light. Her long hair was braided with an assortment of beads and trinkets and her neck seemed none existent. Several chins lay on top of one another until the lowest one sat on her large chest.
The most startling thing about Rhema was her eyes, or eye. Her left eye was totally white. No pupil or iris. It looked false but as she looked me up and down I saw it move in its socket. I obviously tried to look elsewhere but Rhema smiled at me.
“You think true, chile,” she said. It had been a long time since I heard a beautiful Jamaican accent. “My eye sees you well. Come. Sit.”
I lowered myself onto the cushions. Linford gave Rhema a short bow and left us alone.
“You be a warrior.”
“Was. A soldier during the war.”
“Now you survive wit jus your memories for company.”
“If you mean my family, yes. They were killed in Green Park.”
Rhema leaned forward. Her chins slid down her chest. “You suffer. How long you be slippin?”
“A while. It gets worse every day.”
“Do you see them?”
“Not yet.” I remembered Linford’s warning about lying. “At least I don’t think so. Maybe in a bar last week I think I saw someone…but it could have been a shadow or a reflection.”
“Subtle they come. Make you question your eyes.”
“I don’t want to slip. I’d rather die than lose myself to my own memories.”
“An so you come to me. Tell me chile, how you think I can help?”
I had worried about this kind of question. I didn’t want to insult her by saying I knew she could help me, it felt too much like a quick and easy paid transaction. But I also couldn’t say I didn’t know, because that implied I was just curious and possibly wasting her time, or even worse, that I was a spy. The government have made it very clear that anyone following or practising religion would be branded outlaws, punishable by death.
“The world has shunned religion in favour of Zoneism,” I said. “I don’t think this has helped anyone but the rich. Maybe it still has a part to play.”
Rhema laughed. A deep throaty sound with genuine humour. “You say mebbe, chile. Is good to have doubts. Doubts make us question what be wrong.”
“I admit I’m not a religious man but I have nowhere else to turn.”
“Like so many. Answer me this, chile, if your memories were purged what would you do?”
“Leave and never come back.” I said this without hesitation.
“Why you no leave anyway?”
“Because my memories haunt me, no matter where I am. Without them I am free. I would leave the misery of the city and experience the world for the first time. I have no family to care for. No friends to share my life with. My memories are killing me.”
Rhema stared at me for a long moment. Her white eyeball twitched back and forth.
“The Cleansing is no like MET. Is painful an leave scar that last a life time.”
“I don’t care. It’s a price I’m willing to pay to stop myself from slipping.”
“How many did you kill?”
Her question caught me off guard. “Too many.”
“Why you kill them?”
“To stop the plague.”
“That no reason,” said Rhema with a frown. “Warrior take orders, kill infected to stop plague. But why?”
“To protect my family,” I said.
Rhema smiled. “But why not take family to safe place?”
“I couldn’t leave. Many did for that very reason.”
“But not you, chile, why?”
“I wouldn’t leave my friends. They needed my support and protection. If I knew they would be safe I could have left. But to live with the thought that my inaction could be the cause of their death… No. Even with my family slaughtered by the Peacekeeper’s I would never abandon my duty to protect.”
“You believe in loyalty an honour?”
“Truth? Love? Friendship?”
“Yes. All of those. Without a doubt.”
When Rhema nodded the trinkets in her hair clinked together. “I will cleanse you, chile. You have the heart of a warrior an the soul of a true friend.”
Relief and sorrow washed over me. “What is your price? I have little funds but it’s yours if you want it.”
Rhema laughed. “I seek no moneys.”
I frowned. “Then why do it? Why put yourself in such danger?”
“Because I give hope to those slippin into darkness. There was a time, much long ago, where people cared for others. Not give their service for coins an exuberant trinkets. They help folk because they can. Nature make them how they are an nature cannot be stopped. It is a thing of balance. One good deed mean a bad deed happen. But where many bad deed go without good people to give balance back, nature take over to wipe away the darkness.
“You’re talking about the plague.”
Rhema grinned at me. “For a warrior you got rare sense of insight.”
“The plague was nature getting pissed off?” I asked.
“Nature is both cruel and kind,” said Rhema. “You can’t have one without the other.”
I wasn’t sure if I believed Rhema’s easy theory. “So who are the bad guys?”
“Everyone of us be bad. The world be filled wit greed an violence an selfishness.”
I thought about this for a moment. I supposed there could be some sense in her theory. Mankind has always fiddled and messed with things, from genetic engineering to the first atomic bomb. We had raped the planet in every conceivable way but it couldn’t last forever, sooner or later something had to give and it seemed that mankind had finally crossed the line where nature was waiting to correct the imbalance.
I had spent years spilling the blood of the infected right across the planet but I refused to believe every life I took was that of a greedy selfish deviant who took and never gave. I questioned Rhema’s belief that mankind was inherently bad but I agreed with her reasoning about nature seeking to even the balance of things.
“Will the world ever recover?”
“It recover good, in time,” said Rhema. “But nature need help.”
“From people like you?”
Rhema smiled. “An you.”
The Balance of Nature.
Oshema busied herself arranging a small table before Rhema. She placed four candles on the table, a black shallow dish in the centre and a white silk napkin beside it. In this she laid a silver spoon and two flowers with orange petals. Rhema shuffled her bulky body forward and leaned over the bowl. She plucked each petal from one of the flowers and placed them in her mouth. After each one she muttered words in a language I had never heard before. When they were gone Rhema took the spoon and swished it around the bowl as if stirring an invisible broth.
She did this with intense concentration. The spoon never touched the bowl. Her chanting finished and she placed the spoon carefully on the napkin.
“In your secret back street bars were you tole how the Cleansing work?”
I shook my head. “I asked. No one knew.”
“Or no one want tell de truth,” Rhema said. “Fear can kill a man quicker than a blade.”
“I get the feeling you’re about to tell me about the bit I’m so supposed to be afraid of.”
“Supposed.” Rhema waved her fat fingers through the flames that danced on the candles. “You no think you’re afraid of much, chile?”
“Slipping but little else. I’ve seen horror and fear up close. Those emotions were burned from me a long time ago.”
“Fear don’t go away jus because you see it plenty.” Rhema licked her fingers.
It felt like Rhema was baiting me. “Why don’t you just tell me and let me decide.”
“The warrior is brave. Very well.”
She hunched down and inhaled nothing from the bowl. “Memories are made by that which we see. It is said the eyes be the windows to the soul. Memories come in through your eyes but not leave. They be trapped behind them. MET take memory from the mind. Is dangerous to mess with the mind. It be connected to the soul. Man with damage to either is no man but hollow shell.”
“MET works for the rich.”
“The rich be dying. Nature has selected them for extinction. Mark me well, chile, they be gone in but one generation.”
I wanted to see a smile on Rhema’s face but she was serious and I believed her. Somehow she knew the rich elite in Zone 1 were unable to sustain their lifestyle or social exclusion from the rest of the world. I wondered why Rhema would reveal such a dreadful truth to me. If she was going to clear the memories from my head, why tell me something I wouldn’t remember?
“The Cleansing leave a scar, am no jus talkin physical but mental an spiritual.” Rhema leaned over the table. Her stomach bulged. “You, warrior, will know you have bin cleansed.”
“Why? What purpose would that serve?”
“It only make true sense after. Is different for all who be cleaned.”
I sighed. I supposed that didn’t really matter so long as it stopped me from slipping. I pointed to the table. “So how does it work?”
Rhema smiled and looked down. “The Uhundra Blossom have special power. You eat the petals one at a time. Think hard about your memories. Them which you desire be gone. This stir up your memories, make them loose an ready to leave your mind.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Is it some kind of drug?”
Rhema laughed. “Chile, drugs be a cheap word for street trash. Uhundra Blossom be spiritual essence.”
“Okay. So I get high, then what?”
“Then the Cleansing begin.” Rhema pointed to the silver spoon. “I bathe an eye to purge your memories. I warn you, warrior, the pain be great, mebbe too much for some.”
“Bathe in what?” I asked. The bowl was empty.
“Memory not go away. They leave you but must go somewhere. Remember, chile, there must be a balance. I take your memories.”
I stared at Rhema. “Take them how? Why would you do that?”
“To keep the balance.” She tapped a finger against the side of her head. “I absorb them. Fear not how this work. Rhema walk with nature. I will no slip.”
I still didn’t understand what she meant. Somehow my memories would be passed from me to her, but how? I sensed she either wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me the exact process or why it would hurt.
“When do we begin?”
“Eat the blossom.”
Deep red swirled around me. Orbs of light floated above the candles. I lifted my hands in front of my face and watched them drift back and forth, hundreds of fingers twitching and trembling. I shook my head to clear my vision but it just made things worse. Animal skulls watched me from the altar and the dream catchers on the walls writhed like snakes tangled together. My body felt light as a feather. My arms wanted to float toward the ceiling yet it felt like someone else was controlling me.
I didn’t notice Rhema peel away her garments at first. Her robes seemed to blend with the red walls until all I could see was a mass of swirling red material. Oshema drifted across the room, her pale skin bold and stark against the blood-red mist that clouded my vision. I remember laughing at one point when I realised the priestess was naked. I gazed at her and tried to apologise for staring but what came out of my mouth was gibberish.
I tried to concentrate on something solid, anything that wasn’t moving around.
The bowl. It was like seeing a heavy object unmoved by a tornado of red.
Rhema was on her feet. Her massive body shimmered before my eyes. It didn’t seem natural for a woman of such size to be suddenly so agile. She danced before the altar with Oshema beside her, handing her candles and chanting. The crack of gunfire filled my ears and I panicked. Someone was screaming. My heart hammered and my instincts fought to rid my head of intoxication. Blood soaked faces rushed toward me. I screamed and dove into the mountain of cushions.
Overhead I saw missiles whizz through the air. Flames and debris shattered my vision and I closed my eyes to block out the sudden chaos raging around me. In the solitude of darkness a moment of calm filled me.
Strong hands grabbed my wrists and I was dragged from the battlefield. I kicked but I was too weak. I could smell the infected clawing at me, biting, scratching, eating my flesh. I screamed until my throat burned.
“Open your eyes, chile.”
Rhema sat in front of me. The sweat on her dark fat body twinkled like drops of rain on smoked glass. I glanced up and saw Linford holding my arms above my head. He gave me a grim smile.
“Warrior too strong, lady,” he said. “No good come of this.”
One white eye stared at me. “Chile, hear my words. The blossom make memories attack you. They force you to slip. Don’t hold back. Must let them free. Fear them not, strong warrior, they be cleansed soon.”
I tried to answer but my throat wouldn’t work. I nodded instead.
The war I had tried so hard to forget exploded before my eyes. The bodies of the infected marched toward me, torn, bloody, angry.
I was back on the battlefield. Which one I couldn’t tell, they all looked the same. The only difference was Rhema sat in front of me, watching me with her white eye. Behind her the armies of infected trudged by, shaking and shambling, groaning and howling as the world around us exploding in a rain of gunfire.
A river of white poured out of Rhema. I sensed rather than saw Oshema kneel beside the dark lady. She held the bowl between us as it was filled. Rhema faded in and out of my vision. Clods of earth dashed into the air as mortars smashed into the ground. Bodies were torn apart. I saw faces of fear and anger as the infected staggered all around us.
In the distance I could hear my regiment calling for me.
I tried to move. The bloody hands of an infected man held me tight. I lashed out at him and shouted for help.
None came. I was trapped on the battlefield of my nightmares.
It was only a matter of time before the infected found me. I had seen my share of people being eaten alive or pulled limb from limb to know the terror that waited for me. Maybe this was what Rhema meant by fear. Maybe I deserved this. I’d followed my orders and slaughtered entire villages and towns where the plague raped innocent victims. Even after I knew my family were dead I continued to fight. I felt no guilt or remorse. I used to tell myself I fought to protect my family but after the Green Park massacre I fought to kill the plague for what it had done to my loved ones.
Anyone leaving a quarantined zone paid the price with violence and bloodshed. I hated myself for being there. Every day I put myself in harm’s way, hoping the infected would take their revenge and rip me to shreds.
Maybe I deserved to die for what I had done.
The pain in my mind intensified. My memories wanted out. They wanted to punish me and I was prepared to let them.
Rhema held her bowl up to my face. White liquid curdled in a miniature whirlpool.
I gaped at her as she appeared on the battlefield, shreds of red robe billowing around her body.
“Chile, hear my voice. No let your fear of memory take control. Face them.”
I didn’t want to. The pain in my head was too much to bear.
Every memory I had of the war appeared before me. Every dismembered body, every wounded soldier, the screaming masses crowded around me. Flames and smoke roared over people, gunfire and the sound of heavy artillery boomed inside my rib cage.
I was on the cusp of losing my mind. I could feel it cracking, my sanity was being stretched like a plastic bag before it finally splits open from the pressure. My eyes burned and for a moment I thought they were going to melt out of my skull.
Then I saw the silver spoon. It hovered in the air before me. Rhema’s pudgy fingers gripped the handle. I couldn’t see her face, the battle obscured everything except the spoon.
“Let memory out.” Rhema’s disembodied voice called to me.
In that moment I knew what was going to happen. I knew where the spoon was going. I tensed as it slipped under my right eye, a scream ready to hammer out of my mouth as madness finally overwhelmed me.
The cold metal scooped behind my eye. I felt a tug and I thought my brain was going to be sucked out through my eye socket. Rhema was right. I had every right to be afraid. The spoon dug in further and I stopped struggling. The battle field had gone silent. My vision flipped back and forth between the spoon and the infected who were stood still and silent. Bullets hung in the air. Fire froze. The screaming had stopped.
I heard a splash.
With my one remaining eye I looked down at the bowl.
My left eye floated in the white liquid. In seconds the pupil faded away leaving a sphere of gristle.
Rhema raised the bowl and drank until it was empty. She shuddered, her heavy breasts wobbled on her stomach. I watched her expression shift from serene concentration to fear and repulsion. Oshema reached out and carefully took the bowl with my eye in it. We watched Rhema shake and writhe as my memories were absorbed.
Elation rose in my chest. The flames were fading. One by one the hordes of infected slipped away and the dark red walls reappeared. I could no longer smell charred flesh and smoke. Rhema breathed deeply and composed herself. She plucked my eye out of the bowl and held it up. Linford released my hands. I took it and frowned at her. With a shaking hand she pointed at me.
I had to push my eye back into my socket. I couldn’t do that.
“You must,” Oshema said. “To complete the ritual your eye must belong to you.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Do it or Rhema dies.”
I stared at Rhema. She lay back against her armchair, chest rising and falling, her skin drenched with sweat.
I looked at my featureless eye-ball. I had to do it quick like pulling a plaster from a cut. With my left hand I pulled open my eye lid, took a deep breath and pushed my eye-ball back into my socket. I felt no pain. There was a sound like air escaping through jelly. I closed both eyes then blinked. I could see perfectly.
“I’m not blind.”
Oshema pulled on her robes. “You see better than before.”
Rhema smiled at me. “You are cleansed.
This short story was inspired by Indigo Spider’s Sunday Picture Press – a challenge to write a 1500 word piece of fiction using one of 4 photos as a prompt. This weeks prompt was entitled “Sixty Percent Off” and whilst my tale does key in with this in a small way, it was the picture that really grabbed me.
This section took about 3 and half hours to write, and is a shade under 4,400 words. It took a bit longer to write as I’ve been so tired from work this week. This story is a bit different from my previous work, a bit darker and more gruesome. I hope it wasn’t too graphic but I felt with all the dark future tech stuff it needed physical and spiritual rage to balance things out.
I did consider adding a final chapter about how our warrior favoured after his Cleansing. Maybe something about him living far away from the city, on a quiet beach somewhere, writing a diary of his life. Since his memories had been purged there was a question of how he would remember anything to tell. But then I figured he only had memories of the war taken away, and probably wrote about that before the Cleansing. Besides the diary route felt like a bit of a cheap way of explaining the story, and that is often best left up to the reader.
Excellent picture prompts from Indigo. If you want to join in and write a short piece of fiction clicky-click Indigo Spider’s link above and wrap your imagination around one of the pictures.