Hello everyone! As part of Short Story Saturday, I have posted another short story, this one entitled Love is Sacrifice. Please enjoy.
The rain always makes me nostalgic. It reminds me of Joelle Iphigenia, the only woman I ever truly loved.
It was such a simple gesture. When I realized I no longer felt the heavy drops of rain falling upon my head, I looked down to see beautiful azure eyes, braided auburn hair, and a petite hand holding an umbrella over my head.
Unlike other students, my extracurricular activities did not take place on campus. It required a bus trip to and from the university as my current financial situation afforded me little better than public transportation. I didn’t even consider bringing with me an umbrella. Sure, I had more than enough room in that bag I always carried even with the change of clothes. However, I felt at the time that a true Washingtonian never even deigns to protect himself or herself from the rain. Now, I carry one with me wherever I go.
She asked me why I didn’t sit in the shelter with the other men, why I was opting to instead freeze in the rain. Originally from Olympia, a city far south of Seattle, Joelle was just a freshman, still ignorant of my sullied reputation. I told her the truth. It was a religious dispute of sorts. The men had been made quite aware of my religious beliefs. They were dismissive, mocking, and scornful. They, like everyone else, made sure I knew in no uncertain terms that they believed my views were “insane”. I had and still have no interest in waiting in the shelter with such bigots or interacting in any other way.
“Would you like to talk about it more over some coffee?” I asked simply seeking an opportunity to preach and convert. I had no ulterior motives in mind. Joelle misunderstood. She thought that I was propositioning her for a date and just before I could clarify, to my astonishment, she immediately accepted. It was the most serendipitous mistake I ever made.
Not that our first date went without a hitch. Whenever I attempted to broach the topic of religion, of the importance of what my congregation was doing, not just for us but for the world at large, she hastily, perpetually, and maddingly diverted the conversation elsewhere. She was not a religious woman, far from it. An agnostic she called herself, though it’d be more accurate to say she was completely indifferent to even pondering the idea of there being greater powers.
“I’ve heard them all,” she would say cutting me off, “And I have come to one conclusion. Either all religions are correct or none of them are. It doesn’t affect me one way or another. So why should I care?”
During that date and throughout our relationship, Joelle peppered me with questions about my life, my past, and my hopes and dreams. Not that there was ever much to tell. My mother died shortly after childbirth. My father disappeared not long after. I was thusly raised by inattentive grandparents receiving very little love at home or at school. I grew up alone, an outcast, and remained one until I found the congregation.
“There you go talking about religion again,” she’d always say. “I understand it’s important to you, but can’t we talk about something else?” Upon reflection, it’s amazing we even got past our first date.
Perhaps it was loneliness. Despite my muscular build and constant boxed military cut, I did not receive a lot of feminine attention at any point in my life. Not that I was seeking it too strongly. My religious obligations demanded most of my time. Yet, there was still a void in my life. Indeed, our scriptures preach the importance of marriage. My lack of a spouse, then, did often make me feel like I was a less devoted disciple. Perhaps seeking her was just a matter of filling the spiritual vacuum that consumed me.
No, that’s not true. I tend to downplay her radiance, her magnanimity, the simple beauty of her mere smile, and the warm feelings that enveloped me as a result to sedate my tumultuous emotional distress. Everything about her was perfect. Indeed, I only became aware of the aforementioned void only when she entered my life. I loved Joelle so much that I almost wish I never met her.
She too came from a broken home. Her mother was promiscuous to put it politely. Joelle never knew her real father though there were several candidates. Mind you, her alabaster skin ruled out several men but she was never able to narrow it down to a single candidate. My beloved was the youngest of three sisters, well, half-sisters, if one cares about semantics.
Unlike her other siblings, she worked hard to break the cycle and ensure she didn’t become a statistic. She avoided drugs and other bad influences, opting instead to focus on her studies. She was the first in her family to ever attend college. Joelle once admitted to me her initial gravitation toward higher education was birthed by her desire to simply avoid home. At times, she’d even go so far as spending the night at a sympathetic teacher’s home to avoid finding her mother with yet another paramour who would often set his sights on her or her sisters while her mother was asleep.
It was for this strength of character that I immediately fell in love. Her experiences would have broken a lesser woman. Yet, she persevered and met adversity with a smile. No, more than that, she excelled. She became a scholar as well as a cheerleader en route to becoming the most popular girl in her school, a friend to everyone, and the valedictorian of her class. The full-ride scholarship she earned was therefore just the crown of a lifetime of achievement.
The two of us dated through the entirety of my senior year and the rest of her collegiate career. Indeed, even after I had taken that job at a local tech company, our love continued to blossom. A smile creeps onto my lips as I think about how many memories the two of us shared under that umbrella throughout those magical years.
To this day I’m not sure why she loved a man like me. I was and frankly still am a rigid sort. I’m never one to smile. Rather, I tend to be quite solemn and serious. Joelle told me I made her laugh. It pleased me even though I realized I only invoked her laughter whenever it wasn’t my intention.
Regardless, I proposed to her shortly after she graduated. To my utter surprise, she accepted. We were married the next spring. The three years we spent together were bliss, though that is not to say we never had any conflicts.
One of the biggest points of contention was, perhaps unsurprisingly, my religious convictions and her lack of them. I remained an avid believer, more so than the average parishioner. For at least five days a week, I was going to the temple. No matter how much I begged Joelle to go with me, she utterly refused and chastised me for going so often or even asking. She knew how passionate I was while we were dating, of course, but she was under the notion that my, well, “fervor”, as she called it, would lessen after marriage. However, it was quite the contrary. If anything, my devotion, as I called it, increased. Often, she’d be quite incensed that I’d choose the temple over a social activity that she had planned with another couple. This dispute of ours would practically define our first year of marriage.
Eventually, though, I acquiesced. That may surprise you but remember, love is sacrifice and marriage is about giving up selfish desires for the sake of another. Giving up some desires, anyway. And I feel ‘selfish’ is inaccurate and harsh too.
Regardless, to preserve our wedded bliss I spent less time at the temple and more time with my wife. I reduced the number of visits to once a week on Sunday “like a normal person” as my wife put it. My religious leaders were admittedly the opposite of ecstatic when I explained that my attendance would drop dramatically. I had become the proverbial pillar of the organization and my absence would surely be missed. However, they also understood. Our religion stresses the importance of love and matrimony above all else. If reducing my participation would preserve my marriage, then it had to be done.
Our wedded life was wonderful for the next couple of years. Being home more indeed did wonders. I felt joy unlike what I had ever felt before. Mind you, that is not to say that I abandoned trying to get my wife to join me on my weekly religious excursions. I’d broach the topic every now and again. While such efforts might seem fruitless on the surface, they eventually paid off as lo and behold, in the spring of our third year of wedded bliss, just a week before our anniversary, I was finally able to convince her to join me.
My congregation’s most sacred event was approaching, the Anima purgatio est amor, an event that happened only once every ten years. Every married couple in the congregation needed to attend that night. Participation was mandatory.
Joelle initially was hardly amenable to the idea of going when I brought it up to her. We had a heated discussion of the matter, though I must admit it would be more accurate to say that I spoke calmly while she exploded with rage.
Hardly raising my voice at all, I explained that this wasn’t like the other times I asked her to join me in the temple. This event only occurred once a decade. Most likely all she would have to do is stand and wait which was hardly an unreasonable request. Besides, as I told her, I made a major sacrifice for her. It was more than fair to ask she make a minor sacrifice for me. That argument above any other convinced her to join me. Joelle truly did love me.
Our argument hadn’t quite ended, I must admit, though. Attendees were required to wear the congregation’s finest robes. I had obtained one for my wife shortly after our marriage in the naïve hope that she’d one day join me in worship. When I eagerly showed her our garments for the night, for the sacred event, she blanched. “I agreed to go, but I’m not wearing that ugly thing!” I still have no idea what she meant. Our hooded black robes that have a white eye with white tentacles surrounding it etched on the back are beautiful.
Though it took some persuading and by that I mean me begging and pleading, she eventually acquiesced and we both wore the proper attire to our temple’s most sacred event. On the way there, I tried to explain the intricacies of the soiree but my wife refused to listen. Joelle interrupted my every attempt by swiftly changing the subject. She had her reasons for being so sensitive.
“My mother was supposedly religious,” she once explained, “She thought that prayer would make some ‘god’ forgive her for spending what little money we had on alcohol and drugs instead of food for her children. She used her beliefs to justify a lot of her behavior, too. Used it to justify what happened to me and my sisters.” She never elaborated when I questioned her about this. She refused.
The trip took us a lot longer than the typical forty-five-minute drive I made every Sunday. Joelle noted her confusion when I drove past the city of Tacoma and continued toward Olympia. I explained that the ceremony would not be held at the temple but instead at Ocean Shores, a city along the coast of Washington State, on its largest seaside cliff. It was the only place where conditions were conducive enough to make it even possible to conduct our ceremony, I explained. Although her face expressed bemusement over this statement, my wife remained silent as I continued to drive.
I parked as closely as I could, the parking lot of some dive fast-food joint. The city’s roads ended far before our destination. A hefty trek awaited us. Our attire attracted more than a few sideways glances from the population much to the chagrin of my exceedingly embarrassed spouse. I instructed her to ignore them. Unlike her, I was used to such scorn and knew how to react. We then hiked through forests, through trees, through rivers, and through valleys. It was a relatively short trek but still took over an hour to complete and was truly strenuous and exhausting. We also arrived much earlier than when the ceremony was scheduled to take place, a few hours before sundown. The majority of the congregation had yet to arrive. I suppose I was a bit too eager for the upcoming event.
Joelle was noticeably upset, especially upon the realization we were amongst the first ones there and still had hours to wait. The slog having taken a lot out of her physically and mentally certainly didn’t help with her mood. Indeed, she was cold and hungry, and would rather have spent her Sunday morning in Skagit Valley enjoying the Tulip Festival. After loudly announcing this, she stormed off to sit alone while pouting about a foot from the cliff while shivering violently.
Maintaining a tranquil calm, I sauntered over to her, gently opened her robe, hugged her, and placed my robe over her to keep her warm. Although resistant at first, Joelle eventually curled into my arms and fell asleep. A small smile formed on her lips. For a while, we were at peace.
Most of the congregation arrived just before sunset. As they did, Joelle and I arose from our embrace. I then introduced each within my flock to my lovely wife as she was the one person none of them had ever met. My wife had numerous questions to ask, most of which we would have normally been happy to answer. However, time, or should I say lack thereof, prevented this from happening.
I had over a hundred people to introduce, after all, so I was in a bit of a hurry. I talked with each couple just long enough to not be considered rude. Despite this, I still ran out of time as I was only about a quarter of the way finished with the meet and greet when a man in a hooded gray robe interrupted my efforts by announcing that the ceremony was about to begin.
This man was our deacon. He gave each of our wives a number written on a small slip of white paper. Joelle, clearly confused, questioned why. I smiled and told her to relax. It was just part of the ritual. She then showed me her number. Seventeen. Hardly a lucky number. I resisted telling my wife that I did not like our chances.
The deacon bade us to gather in a semi-circle towards the center of the cliff, the point that had most of its circumference facing the ocean. He then announced that the high priest was approaching. We turned to see a regal man in a purple robe and golden crown step toward us. Each of us, save Joelle, of course, expressed our reverence upon seeing him. He was not only the highest standing member of our religious organization but he was also an exceptionally busy man. The high priest oversaw all branches of our religious organization throughout the nation. Only on exalted occasions would he even bother setting foot in our state.
Flanked to his right and left were several couples, men and women, all of whom were dressed in crimson. They were his entourage, the highest-ranked married couples in our congregation. In each of their hands were large bamboo torches. The high priest waited as each of them placed them around us and used the lighters they kept underneath their robes to light them. Once finished, the men and women in crimson gathered with the high priest before making their way inward. In response, we moved aside to allow the high priest and his cohorts access to the center of our mass.
“His crown looks like a tiara,” Joelle whispered as the high priest passed us. She tried desperately hard to muffle her giggles.
“Silence!” I scolded, “Please show the high priest the proper respect.” Joelle complied meekly and obediently.
After taking their places among us, the high priest and his four companions then began to chant in turn in a language that was completely indecipherable to me. It was similar to Latin but the cadence was wrong and the words were completely unfamiliar. They were almost inhuman, alien even. Something that did not originate on Earth. I was captivated by their speech regardless as was the rest of the crowd. Even Joelle seemed impressed.
After the fourth impassioned chant was recited by one of the women in crimson, the deacon entered the semi-circle with an ornate red and gold box in one hand and a pedestal in the other. He placed the latter on the ground and put the former on top of it. With a bow, he then returned to his position outside the crowd.
The high priest demanded silence. We obeyed. He reached into the box and fumbled around for a few seconds before pulling out a large ball of crumpled paper. Swiftly, the high priest smoothed it and held it over his head. All of us gasped in awe. The number was seventeen.
“You won!” I shouted as a mixture of pride and apprehension enveloped my very being.
“What…what does that mean?” Joelle asked, clearly confused. Her answer came in the form of one of the women clad in crimson quickly shuffling her away through the crowd. They took her to a nearby olive-green tent where the deacon was standing. He had set it up when the number was being drawn. The man bowed to the women as they entered. Scores of minutes passed as we waited.
Then, like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, my beloved exited the tent dressed in ceremonial garb. Her aquamarine and gold dress with white trimming practically shined in the moonlight. Framed perfectly atop her head accentuating the features of her face was a silk headdress that had tassels hanging from the side. On each ear were two long, rainbow-colored earrings emphasizing their litheness and demureness.
My wife smiled broadly at me as she moved past the crowd and headed toward the high priest still standing at the center of our mass. That smile was positively radiant. I had never seen her more beautiful in my life. Gently, the high priest put his hand on my beloved and motioned her towards the ocean. He briefly explained she was to remain facing forward during the remainder of the ceremony. Shortly afterward, he stood a few feet behind her as did the rest of his crimson guard, each a few feet behind our greatest religious authority. All of them stood parallel to us still gathered in a semi-circle.
With only the torches providing what little illumination there was in that otherwise pitch-black sky, the high priest began to chant, slowly, in a low hum. His chant began to crescendo. After a few stanzas, the men and women in red joined in reciting the hymn. Soon, the rest of the congregation including myself engaged in the chorus. I had memorized these words even though, again, their meaning was completely foreign to me. They were foreign to almost everyone. Yet, somehow, all of us still knew the impact of our chant.
At one point, Joelle turned and gave each of us a baffled smile. Upon seeing this, with fire coming from his eyes, the high priest gruffly pointed her forward. She was not allowed to turn around. My wife reluctantly but swiftly obliged.
Then the hymn continued to swell as it grew into a large cacophony. Louder and louder, the words were gradually spoken in a much fiercer and stronger manner. Our chant grew more wild and crazy until it became completely unhinged and untamed. Not just our words, but our mannerisms, our expressions, and our very actions became unrestrained. We were riotous, deranged, absolutely mad. We ignored Joelle’s panicked cries as we continued our guttural and fiery hymn.
Our environment began to change. It was as if the very air became thick and tangible. We could almost literally feel tension. Somehow, beyond all reality, the sky became darker. The torches and moonlight struggled to provide any sort of light. The temperature decreased immensely. It was suddenly freezing. A wind came from the ocean’s sky in the west, the direction we were facing. It moved slowly at first but with every passing instance its speed increased. It began to circle in the middle of the sky, violently and rapidly until it was a vortex. It continued to do this until it formed into a small tornado. Bolts of electricity exploded from its core.
Suddenly, the sky split open. A large pustulous being climbed through the newly formed portal. His description defies human words though I will do my best to describe Him. He was a scaly beast. His body was mostly black though He had putrid brown spots on his chest and head. A translucent pallid slime poured from every pore and orifice. Claws protruded from each of His six hands. The mouth was perpetually gaped showing His large, distended teeth along with large, black fangs. His large head was almost like a toad’s, though He had no discernable eyes and large, goat-like ears. He was gigantic, as only a part of His head and torso were able to fit through the portal that must have had a radius at least the length of a football field.
An inhuman shriek echoed from my wife’s lips. She frantically tried to escape upon His sight, a fear that became only more manic when He reached down with several of His hands. Her terror was unlike anything I had ever seen or even heard before. It took nearly our entire congregation to hold her back to offer her to Him. As we did, I couldn’t help but notice the stupefied look of horror on my beloved’s face.
Tears poured down her cheeks like rivers. Her mouth was wide open as if she had not once had ever closed it in her life. She looked as if she wanted to scream but the ability to had simply disappeared. I wanted to apologize but could not find the strength. Instead, just as He laid His meaty hands upon her, I, like everyone else, let go. My wife struggled in vain as He took her with Him into the portal.
The swirling winds suddenly subsided. Seconds later, the portal, along with Him and my wife, had completely disappeared. The tension in the air dissipated thinning back to normal. It became a little brighter.
“That concludes our ceremony,” the high priest said calmly almost in a monotone. “I hope to see you all here in another ten years.”
After congratulating each other for a successful ceremony and wishing each other farewell, we all returned to our homes. Sadly, for me, I was the only one minus a wife. I comforted myself knowing that she’s happier now that she’s in a better place.
Her terror was due to ignorance. Had she listened to my explanation, she would have known that the Creature with No Eyes and Many Fangs seeks a bride every ten years to add to His concubine. His preference for married women stems from his desire to ensure his prospective new mate is capable of love. Marriage is, of course, the ultimate sign of love.
Of course, there have been tall tales that have permeated throughout the years that had we not offered Him a bride the world would have incurred His eternal wrath. Admittedly, that misconception is so pervasive some of the more impressionable parishioners may actually believe it. It is also perhaps what ultimately motivated them to be there that night. Not me, though. I don’t believe those fables one bit. He is a god of love, after all. He wouldn’t ask for anything out of pure malice. So, Joelle should not have been so worried. He took her to paradise where she will live happily for the rest of eternity. It truly is an honor.
That is not to say there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t miss her. Every time it rains I think of her and it certainly rains a lot in Seattle. Perhaps one day I will remarry, when I am emotionally ready to do so. The hardest part will be to once again steel myself for the potentiality of losing another wife. I’d have to remind myself that her happiness is more important than my own, much like it was for Joelle. After all, love is sacrifice.
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