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[:en]Salvation by Adriana Wiszniewska[:]

[:en]Everyday people leave their homes and raise their hands to the sky, begging forgiveness.

The outpost has not seen water fall from the sky in years and the people have grown filthy with sin and dirt and shame. Abandoned and afraid, they lay themselves bare to the gods above, crying out for salvation from their wretched selves and from the dust-blown world.

She watches over them from Her grey crags, Her silence haunting each passing day. In the absence of gods, She passes judgement over all who crave it.

You also watch them from the cliffs above. You have been a priestess since She plucked you from the crowd as a little girl—your whole life, really—and everyone tells you it is a position of honour, but you feel more burdened by it every day, wishing you could go back to the ignorant masses below.

As a priestess, you are responsible for: dressing and bathing Her, preparing Her for public appearances, guarding and blessing Her water, bowing in penitence, preparing sacrifices, disposing of their remains, cleaning the sacrificial chamber, never speaking of what happens in the sacrificial chamber—devoting your life to Her in all things.

You get compensated in rations of food and water—more than most people have seen in their lives. When you think of all those who give themselves up to Her, you almost regret taking so much in return for your devotion and silence.

Then you go home to your brother and your sick mother and you find the will to keep doing your sacred duty.

“Dear, is She merciful today?” your mother asks. “Has She opened her doors and shone Her light and beauty upon the people?” Belief pours out of her fragile eyes and you do not have the heart to break her in this way.

Yes, mother, you think, She is merciful. Her mercy spills from Her mouth in soft-tongued whispers and cold-lipped venom and the blood of innocents.

Instead, you say, “Not today, mother. Today, She rests, as should you.”

You give your mother the last portion of your food. You do not need it as much as she does, but mostly you want to punish yourself for the things you have seen but cannot wash from your eyelids.

Because you are a priestess, your brother has been invited to train as an altar-waif so he might eventually become a guard, but he cannot go because there is no one else to take care of your mother in her poor state while you attend Her. You think perhaps it is better this way, so your mother is not alone and so your brother does not get too swept up in Her faith. Whenever you can, you smuggle old books out of Her library and take them home to your brother so he can pore over as many beautiful fragments as he can before you sneak them back. In the evenings, you teach him all you can while your mother sleeps.

He is a good boy, smart and lovely and gentle. You want more than anything to keep him alive and free of pain.

At night, the sky glows magnificent and people rejoice at the soft light that makes everything visible without hurting their sun-starved eyes. The atmosphere has become so warped that shadows of colour shift and heave across the canvas sky during the day. Blues and pinks and purples and oranges toiling around in a beautiful terrible catastrophe. People think the colours mean something. Some, whether they believe in the colours or not, call themselves sky-readers and sell their services, telling people the fortunes they want to hear. You feel like screaming at those who throw what little they have left at false seers and cloud-gazers, but you know it would only cause more pain.

It is rare that the sun breaks through the thick colour dripping in the atmosphere, but when it does some desperate few always throw themselves into the beams of sunlight in desperation and look directly into the light above. The weak ones die quickly, but others go blind and begin to speak of prophecy and revelation. Crowds gather around these sun-prophets until their words turn raving and guards come to take them away, where they think they will be rewarded with a place at Her altar. No one knows that those sun-blind lunatics are actually taken to be harvested and sacrificed.

You know that these poor people are no prophets because you have felt their insides and they are just the same as everyone else’s. Differences between all people disappear after their surfaces have been penetrated, and you, who has torn limbs and salvaged organs and felt blood still warm in cold bodies, know just how permeable skin is. Your faith in Her died a long time ago, but you believe wholly in the wonder and terror of wracked bodies. You bow at the altar of blood and bone and nerves.

On days of sacrifice, you cleanse your hands raw under the flowing waters of Her temple. Hidden in plain sight, your tears flow freely in silent grief. You grieve for the people you have mutilated in Her name, but mostly—selfishly—you grieve for your own lost innocence.

Cracked lips and dusty emaciated bodies call to Her daily, begging Her to show Herself for just a moment. A glimpse of Her thriving body is a balm for their fear and suffering. They imagine one day feeling the same as She does. One day everyone will be whole again, they think. We will all thrive and no one will have to merely survive anymore. They offer themselves up, longing to be received into Her palace, where they will never want for anything.

But you have seen the price that must be paid for that kind of freedom and you think maybe it is the same cost that fractured the world in the first place.

Today, you are assigned to her throne room and you spend the day in stillness and silence. Today, She decides to prey on the masses again, calling you to join Her on the cliff-like balcony that overlooks the barren land outside Her gates. You notice that the time in between sacrifices has grown shorter. She is growing hungrier.

You stand behind Her as She watches the crowd below, taking in the cheers and cries and adoration. For a moment, you consider how easy it might be to step forward and push Her off the edge into the arms of Her people and certain death, to give them what they want.

But your family still needs you, and you do not think you would be able to come back from killing a god. So you imagine doing it in your head—over and over and over—while She gazes down and tries to decide which lucky person will be sacrificed.

When She has had her fill of watching, She points down into the dirty jostling bodies amassed before Her and guards close in on the newest sacrifice. You follow Her back into the chamber, hear the cries escalate into desperation as Her doors close once again, and await the presentation of Her latest victim. When the guards finally carry him into the room, you are appalled.

A boy. She has chosen a little boy.

Perhaps you should not be surprised that Her appetites have shifted toward the young, the healthy, but She has never taken anyone this young before and you feel sick for what you will have to do to this little boy who reminds you so so much of your brother.

The boy approaches Her, slack-jawed in awe, and the sick feeling in your stomach digs itself deeper into your body. She watches him with jackal eyes, Her smile calling him closer.

The boy walks timidly into Her arms and they enclose him, Her hands gripping his soft head against Her breast. Tears start to roll down his face and She rubs Her cheek back and forth across the top of his head. Then you see Her holy fingers clench into a fistful of hair and suddenly the boy’s head is wrenched back and She looks at you—eyes dilated, intoxicated—and roars for you to bring Her a knife.

The boy’s expression of relief changes into unutterable horror as he realizes what a mistake it was to offer himself up to Her. What a mistake to hope that She might be able to take away his pain and his fear, that one woman could be so benevolent and powerful in a world empty of all benediction.

You see your own face reflected back to you in the knife you hold and as you walk across the chamber—the boy now sobbing, struggling against Her thin pale arms—you feel brave for the first time in your whole life.

When She smiles, teeth sharp and glinting and glutted on the flesh of your people, and says, “My child,” you don’t know who She is referring to, you or the boy She is about to devour, but it shifts a weight inside you. You stand before her and everything is still and quiet except for the boy. Without thinking, you thrust the knife forward into Her chest, raise it and bring it down again and again and again, and Her hallowed blood spills down over the boy’s head and into your open mouth and somewhere beyond the fog you hear the screams of the other priestesses. The boy falls to the floor, baptized in the blood of a monster, and you swallow the traces left in your mouth, praying for some kind of grace.

When you collapse down to your knees, the boy hugs you—both of you slippery wet—and you start to cry.

“It’s okay,” you tell him in between sobs. “It’s okay. See, she is just like the rest of us— she bleeds and she dies and—”

The words die in your throat.

We are all alone now. No one can be saved.[:]

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