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 neglected to bring an umbrella. I had enough room in the bag that I carried with me wherever I went even with the change of clothes I stored but I felt at the time that a true native of Washington State should not even deign to protect himself 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, opting instead to freeze in the rain. Originally from Olympia far south of Seattle, Joelle was just a freshman. She was ignorant of my sullied reputation.
I told her the truth. It was a religious dispute of sorts. The men and I had a discussion of my religious beliefs and they were dismissive, mocking, and told me in no uncertain terms that my views were “insane”. After that, I had no interest in waiting in the shelter with such bigots.
“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.
She misunderstood me. Joelle thought that I wanted to ask her out on a date which she immediately accepted. It was the most serendipitous mistake I ever made.
Not that our first date went without a hitch. Whenever I brought up the topic of religion and of the important work my congregation was engaged in, she was quick to divert 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 the idea of there being greater powers.
“I’ve heard about 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?”
Joelle instead of talking of the divine peppered me with questions about my life, my past, and my hopes and dreams. Not that there was much to tell. My mother died shortly after childbirth. My father disappeared not long after. Raised by inattentive grandparents, I received little love at home or at school. I had grown up alone, an outcast. This all changed when I found the congregation.
“There you go talking about religion again. I understand it’s important to you, but can’t we talk about something else?” It was amazing that we even got past our first date.
Perhaps it was loneliness. Despite my muscular build and boxed military cut, I did not receive a lot of feminine attention. Not that I was seeking it too strongly. My religious obligations demanded most of my time. Yet, there was definitely a void in my life. Our scriptures preach the importance of marriage. Being unmarried did make me feel like a less devoted disciple. Perhaps it was just a matter of filling the spiritual vacuum that consumed me.
No, that’s not true. I have a tendency to downplay her radiance, her magnanimity, the simple beauty of her mere smile in an effort to sedate my tumultuous emotional distress. Everything about her was perfect. I loved her so much that I almost wish I never met her.
She understood me as 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 at least. Unlike her other siblings, she worked hard to break the cycle and ensure she didn’t become a statistic. She managed to avoid drugs and bad influences, instead opting to take her studies seriously so that she would be able to make it to university.
Joelle admitted that part of her ability to concentrate on her studies was spurred on by her desire to simply avoid home. At times she’d even go so far as spending the night at a sympathetic teacher’s house to avoid finding her mother in bed with yet another paramour who would often set his sights on her or her sisters while Joelle’s mother was asleep.
It was for her strength of character that I immediately fell in love. Despite everything, she persevered and met adversity with a smile. Her experiences would have broken a lesser woman. Instead, she excelled, a scholar as well as a cheerleader, the most popular girl in her school, a friend to everyone, and the valedictorian of her class. The full-ride scholarship she received was just her latest achievement.
We continued dating after that night, through the entirety of my senior year and the rest of her collegiate career. Even after I had taken that job at a local tech company, our love continued to blossom. We spent many magical moments during those years cuddled together underneath that umbrella.
To this day I’m not sure why she loved a man like me. I was and frankly still am a rigid sort, never one to smile, quite solemn and serious. Joelle told me I made her laugh though it only seemed to happen when it wasn’t my intention. I proposed to her shortly after she graduated and to my utter surprise, she accepted. We were married the next spring. The next 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 was and still am an avid believer, more so than even our congregation’s average parishioner. I would spend up to five days a week 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. She knew how passionate I was while we were dating, of course, but she was under the notion that my attendance would lessen after marriage. Joelle had hoped that I would have other things on my mind. However, it was quite the contrary. If anything, my attendance had 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 did acquiesce. After all, love is sacrifice. Marriage is about giving up our 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 marriage I was willing to spend less time at the temple and more time with her. I reduced the number of visits to once a week, on Sunday, “like a normal person” as my wife put it. The leadership of my temple was hardly 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 stressed the importance of love and matrimony above all else. If reducing my participation would preserve my marriage, then it had to be done. That is not to say that I abandoned trying to get my wife to join me in my weekly religious excursions. Naturally, she continued to refuse no matter how much I begged. Otherwise, my wife and I then shared nothing less than wedded bliss for the next couple of years.
It was not until the spring of our third year of wedded bliss just a week before our anniversary that I was finally able to convince her to join me.
My congregation’s most sacred event was approaching, the sacrificium est dilectio, an event that happened only once every ten years. Every married couple of the congregation was expected to attend that night as participation was mandatory. Joelle was not initially amenable to the idea of attending the event. 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. I hardly raised my voice at all as I explained that this wasn’t like the other times I asked her to accompany me to the temple. This event occurred but once in ten years. Most likely all she would have to do is stand and watch which was hardly an unreasonable request. It took much cajoling but eventually, I managed to wear her down especially when I told her how much I reduced my attendance to make our marriage work. With a heavy sigh, she concurred with that sentiment then reluctantly agreed to escort me, as she put it, to our most sacred affair. As Joelle put it, love is sacrifice.
Granted, she blanched when I showed her what she was required to wear. “I agreed to go, but I’m not wearing that ugly thing!” she shouted. I had no idea what she meant. The coal-black hooded robe with a white eye with white tentacles surrounding it etched on the back was beautiful. It took some persuading and by that I do not mean through actions such as begging and pleading on my part but she eventually agreed and we both donned the proper attire and headed to the temple’s most sacred event.
On the way, I tried to explain the intricacies of the event but Joelle refused to listen by changing topics. Her behavior was nothing as I should not have expected. “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 such as… you know… what happened to me and my sisters.” She refused to elaborate whenever I questioned what she meant by that.
Joelle did express a modicum of interest, though, I drove past the temple. I explained that the ceremony would not be held in Tacoma but instead at Ocean Shores. That’s along the coast of Washington State for those who are not from Western Washington. I elaborated by telling her that the ritual could only commence on the state’s largest seaside cliff as it was the only place conducive enough for such a sacred event. I could tell by her face that she found amusement over what I had told her but to her credit she was respectful and did not say a word, disparaging or otherwise.
We could not drive directly to our location as no roads were available so we had to park at a gas station in a nearby town. Our attire attracted more than a few sideways glances as he headed toward the precarious trail much to the chagrin of my exceedingly embarrassed spouse. I instructed her to ignore them. The trail took us through several large forests which included excursions through relatively short parts of rivers and valleys. It only took us about an hour to complete our trek but it was thoroughly exhausting. It took a toll on Joelle. She needed several breaks and the whole ordeal was beginning to leave her despondent. Despite this, we managed to persevere and when arrived we were somehow much earlier than the rest of the congregation and we still had to wait several hours before the ceremony would begin. I suppose I was a bit too eager for the upcoming event.
Joelle was livid. The slog had taken a lot out of her physically and mentally. She was cold and hungry and would have rather spent her Sunday morning in Skagit Valley enjoying the Tulip Festival than going through a muddy, treacherous trail. She stormed off then sat and pouted about a foot from the cliff, shivering in an effort to keep herself warm. I stepped toward 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 crept onto her lips.
After most of the congregation arrived, I awoke Joelle so I could introduce her to them. My lovely wife became the center of attention as she was the only one none of them had ever met. They peppered her with questions which she reciprocated. My fellow parishioners were noticeably evasive to her inquiries. Most of the time they, along with myself, are more than happy to field any questions anyone might have but time, or should I say lack of time, was preventing us from providing any adequate answers. Therefore, we thought it would be best to ignore her for now.
Besides, I had over a hundred people to introduce her to so I was in a bit of a hurry anyone. Really, I only had enough time to share a few pleasantries with each couple before we absolutely had to move on. Even then, I was only about a quarter of the way finished when a gray hooded robed man interrupted my efforts. With a booming voice that echoed through the hills, he announced that the ceremony was about to commence.
The deacon gave each of our wives a number written on a small slip of white paper. Joelle asked me why. I smiled and told her it was all part of the ritual and that she needed to relax. I asked to see her number and she showed me. Seventeen. That was not a lucky one indeed. I resisted telling my wife that I did not like our chances. After he had delivered all the numbers, the deacon bade us to gather in a semi-circle at the center of the cliff, the point that had most of its circumference facing the ocean. Once we did as he instructed, he announced that the high priest was approaching.
A regal man in a purple robe and golden crown approached our mass gathering. Each of us expressed notions of reverence upon seeing him. He was not only the highest standing individual of our religious organization but also an exceptionally busy man. He oversaw all branches of our religion throughout the nation which meant he did not usually have time to deal with us peons. Only for sacred events such as this one would he even deign 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 of our congregation. In each of their hands were large bamboo torches. The high priest waited as each of them drove them into the ground in a semi-circle around us then lit them with lighters they kept underneath their robes. Once finished, the men and women in crimson gathered with the high priest and began to make their way in through the crowd. We made a path to better allow the high priest and his cohorts access to the center of the mass of people gathered for this holy day.
“His crown looks like a tiara,” whispered Joelle as the high priest passed us. She tried desperately hard to muffle her giggling.
“Silence!” I scolded, “Please show the high priest the proper respect.” Joelle complied meekly and obediently, the suddenness and abrasiveness of my voice not lost on her as I typically never raised it even during fights.
The high priest led the chant with his four companions. Each of them spoke 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. His words were almost inhuman perhaps even alien. It was something that did not originate on earth at the very least. These men and women were powerful orators. I was captivated by their speech as was the rest of the crowd. Even Joelle seemed impressed by the sermon.
After the impassioned speeches concluded, the deacon entered the semi-circle with a box in one hand and a pedestal in the other. He placed the pedestal on the ground and put the ornate red and gold case on top. With a bow, the deacon 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. He smoothed it and held it over his head. All of us gasped in awe. The number was seventeen.
“You won!” I shouted with a mixture of pride and apprehension.
“What…what does that mean?” Joelle asked bewildered. Her answer came in the form of the crimson-clad women quickly shuffling her away through the crowd. They led her to a nearby olive-green tent where the deacon was standing. He had apparently set it up while the number was drawn. He bowed to the women as they entered.
Scores of minutes passed as we waited until my beloved exited the tent dressed in ceremonial garb. Her aquamarine and gold dress with white trimming glimmered in the torchlight. Her head was framed perfectly by its silk headdress with tassels hanging from the side. On each ear were two long, rainbow-colored earrings that seemed to shine. My wife smiled broadly at me. She was absolutely radiant. I had never seen her more beautiful in my life.
The four crimson-clad women led her back through the crowd so she could stand in front of and face the high priest. Gently, he put his hand on my beloved and led her toward the ocean. He briefly instructed her to face forward and continue to do so during the remainder of the ceremony, emphasizing the words, “No matter what”. The high priest then backed a few feet behind her as the rest of his crimson guard joined him in even numbers on both sides. All five stood parallel to the mass of people gathered in a semi-circle.
Against the pitch-black sky only illuminated by a few torches, the high priest chanted, slowly, starting in a low hum. His chant then crescendoed and after a few stanzas, the men and women in red joined. After only a short while, the rest of the congregation including myself engaged in the chorus. I had memorized how to recite words even though their meaning was completely lost to me. They were lost to almost everyone. Yet, somehow, all of us still knew the importance and the sacredness, of the chant.
At one point, Joelle turned and gave each of us a baffled smile. The high priest’s eyes were lit aflame upon seeing this and he brusquely pointed forward and crudely remarked that she was not allowed to turn around. My wife reluctantly obliged.
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, 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 the 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 where we were facing. It moved slowly at first but with every passing instant, 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 agape showing His large, distended teeth along with His large, black fangs. His large head was almost like a toad’s, though He had no discernable eyes and large, devil-like ears. He was gigantic, with only a part of His head and torso able to fit through the portal.
Joelle elicited a primordial shriek. It was terror unlike anything I had ever seen before. Joelle turned to escape but she did not manage even to get a couple of steps in before she was grabbed by a sea of hands. Practically the entire congregation had leaped from our positions to hold my wife in place. She was His offering, after all, the one chosen and blessed by our sacred ritual.
With trepidation and a feeling of sorrow, I gazed into my wife’s eyes one last time, There was nothing but horror and betrayal as makeup-stained tears streamed down her cheeks. Several times she opened her mouth as if to scream but the words simply failed to escape.
Just as the Divine One laid His meaty hands upon her, we let go. I nearly passed out after getting but a whiff of His majestic smell. My wife struggled in vain in His hand as He took her with Him into the portal. Joelle exhaled one last horrific scream before she, the Divine One, and the portal, had completely disappeared.
The swirling winds subsided. The tension dissipated. The air thinned. The night sky became a little brighter. All returned to normal.
“That concludes our ceremony,” the high priest said calmly, “I hope to see you all here in another ten years.”
We congratulated each other for another successful ceremony then said our farewells before we all returned to our respective homes. A few members of the congregation did have flights to catch so in a certain respect I was lucky for I only had a long drive but then again, I was the only one returning minus a wife. I comforted myself knowing that she’s happier where she is now and in a better place.
Her terror was due to ignorance. Had she ever attended a sermon, she would have realized 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 steams from his desire to ensure the woman is worthy of His affection as marriage is, after all, the ultimate sign of love.
I have had rumors from some of our more impressionable parishioners along the lines of had we not offered Him a bride the world would have incurred His wrath but there is no truth to that whatsoever. It is nothing but a silly little fable. The Divine One is a God of love. He wouldn’t ask for anything out of pure malice.
I maintain she should not have been so worried. The Creature took her to paradise where she will live happily for the rest of eternity. It truly is an honor. Again, don’t listen to those who say otherwise.
That is not to say there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t miss her. Every time it rains I think of Joelle 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 knowing that marriage comes with the potentiality of losing another wife. Yet, if it came to that again, I’d have to just 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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