Out of Such Desperation Are We Born

by LaShawn M. Wanak

And where do you think you’re going, my pretty, my pet? No. Stay here with me. I’m not like my sisters. Words sting sharper than the slash of a claw, I’ve found.

So. Not what you expected, hm? Let me guess. You chose a secluded spot, preferably near a stream. You lay down on a rust-colored cloak with your feet facing west. You placed the makka root under your tongue, along with the small coils of hair you managed to gather from the man you loved when he wasn’t looking. Then you took the knife — jagged, sleek, dull, keen; it doesn’t matter — and slashed your wrists. As the blood flowed out, you fixed your thoughts on your beloved, willing the love enmeshed in your skin to rise, to seek him out, to fall upon him like a warm, scented mist.

You performed the rite flawlessly. Instead, the lake brought you here. Don’t look so disappointed.

The lake brings all your kind here. I don’t remember if it has a name. To us, it’s always been the lake. Smooth and placid now, but every once in a while it churns, frothing like saliva on a mad dog’s lips. A soul flails out then, wild-eyed, wracked in convulsions, thrashing in the icy water. Naked they stumble out, male and female, to collapse on the shore, their mouths gasping for non-existent air.

We come for them, my sisters and I. We swoop down from the rocky crags that ring the lake, sometimes silent as owls, sometimes shrieking like banshees. Some souls freeze. Others dive back into the water. Still others crawl and slide on the gravelly shore, thinking they could flee if they could just reach the larger rocks. We let them, sometimes. There’s nowhere else they can go. Just the rocks, the lake, my sisters and I. And there’s Father. No soul ever gets past Father.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

***

When she stumbled out of the lake, we swooped towards her. She didn’t scream or flail. Instead, she raised her arms and pressed her hands together, as if she welcomed us to the threshold of the lake as its mistress. I recognized the gesture immediately for what it was; my sisters, not so much. They continued to shriek and screech, the great rush of their wings the fury of storms.

The soul’s voice cut through, clear and pure as a bell. “Stop! By blood and urine, sweat and tears, I claim a boon!”

I landed while my sisters — my poor, silly sisters — tried to stop themselves in midflight. They crashed into each other and fell into a tangled pile on the shore.

What? Did that amuse you? I saw your lips quiver. Perhaps I should place the tip of my fingernail in the sweet, small hollow of your throat. Oh, stop squirming; you no longer have a throat. Your soul may no longer be encased in flesh, but it still remembers inflicted pain.

Now where was I? Ah yes. Seeing that my sisters were incapacitated, I asked, “What is this boon?”

“I want to be taken to Dialo, directly, with no harm befalling me.”

I hissed as my sisters clapped their hands to their ears. Father has thousands of names: Mordicor, Anslit, The Evil One, Bacchias. But Dialo is the first, given to him by the Crown of Glory himself. How this soul knew, I don’t know. Perhaps she read it in a book somewhere. Maybe she was a cultist. Maybe the words came to her out of the blue. It didn’t matter. None of us could harm her.

Not that Seraline didn’t try. “So she knows Father’s name. What of it?” She untangled herself and lunged forward. Her claws barely touched the soul when she was thrown back, the power of Father’s name sizzling through her, flinging her several feet away. When she rose, I could see her scorched and bruised. Poor, foolish Seraline. She would have liked you very much.

The soul kept her hands pressed tight throughout this; barely a whimper had slipped past her lips. That pleased me, I remember.

“We will take her to Father, nothing more,” I told the others. As they hesitated, I added, “If she dares to try anything foolish, let his wrath fall on me and me alone.”

That appeased them. We took the soul by the arms, gently this time, and carried her to Father…

Ah, you have yet to meet him, don’t you?

You see those obsidian columns on that mountain over there? The one flanked by shards of stone below? The ground there is so jagged, no soul can climb without being sliced to thin ribbons. That’s why we carry souls up to Father’s lair. What he does then… well…

I like you. Perhaps it’s your face, your pretty, pretty face. Because I like you, I’ll tell you what really happens when we bring a soul to Father.

Imagine, if you’re capable of doing so, a child kidnapped from its home. Each day, it is beaten by its captors until the child learns to inhale fear and exhale terror. Then one day, the child is dragged from its usual room, but instead of implements of torture, it sees its parents, teary-eyed, overjoyed, their arms opened wide.

Do you think the child cares for the incongruity of seeing its parents in such vile surroundings? Of course not. The first thought in its tender head is relief. They’ve come for me! I’m going home!

So when Father appears before the soul, he takes on the form of the person that soul loved most. At first, all the soul can do is stare in disbelief, but when Father smiles, so tenderly, so sweetly, all that trauma we’ve done is washed away. The soul radiates so much joy, so much unadulterated love — ah, it burns to watch.

But I force myself to anyway. Because just when the soul rushes forward, arms open wide, Father’s smile lengthens to reveal his teeth. Every gleaming row. Every pointed edge.

Oh yes, my pet. Father eats souls. My sisters and I do what we can to make them malleable, but only Father can deliver the final seasoning: anguish. Think back to the child. Imagine what would happen when the parents take out the tools of torture used on the child, revealing themselves to be the captors. Think of the anguish, the madness, the horror that sweeps through the child. All that love swept away by such raw, agonizing despair

You’re squirming again, dear. Don’t make me call my sisters. Perhaps I should just continue with the story.

Father was asleep as usual when we bore the soul up to him. He lounged upon his bedding of tear-soaked letters mashed to an unreadable pulp, shorn locks of hair tied with moldy ribbons, dried rose petals that crumbled to dust. Unopened gifts. Sacrifices that are never appreciated.

We forced the soul to her knees. “Father, we have a gift for you,” I called out.

He rolled over to face us, his form resolving into a male youth. Sultry eyes. Full plum lips. Skin dark and rich as fertile loam. Had I still flesh, it would have tingled all over. Surely this would not be the first time I see this face. Many a young woman, and perhaps an older one or two, would gladly throw themselves at Death’s door for him.

Father graced us with a hip-melting smile, but it dimmed as he looked at the soul. “And what is this?” His voice was melodious as the morning sun, which I have not seen for thousands of years.

She hardly blinked at his appearance. “Dialo,” she said, and Father’s smile vanished entirely, “I claim a boon. By rite of blood and urine, sweat and tears and the winds that gust your secret name.”

Father shifted his eyes to me. Outwardly, I did not tremble as he directed his words to the soul. “And what is this boon?”

“Allow me to serve you with all I am, with all my being, until I can do so no longer and the others destroy me as they see fit.” Her voice was steady and strong as she knelt ramrod-straight. From where Father sat, he couldn’t smell the salty fear coming off her in waves. This pleased me more.

But not Seraline. She stamped her foot and cried, “No, Father, no! You let her in, then every soul would demand to become one of us!”

“She knows the rites,” I countered. “You did the same when you came to us. Or are you opposed because you’ve grown too comfortable being the youngest?”

Seraline flinched. I turned to Father. “It has been too long since another came into our fold. Won’t you honor the sacrifice she made in coming here?”

Father said nothing, scrutinizing the soul as my sisters muttered to each other. Why I defended her, I don’t know. Perhaps I sought a small pebble of distraction in the ever-stretching road of time. Or perhaps she reminded me of another who stumbled out of the lake long ago, who fought fiercely, demanding to be taken to Father. Who knelt before Him, trembling, defiant, filled with delicious fear and rage.

Abruptly, Father burst into laughter. There is nothing more horrific than the sight of him laughing — remember that when you meet him. “If the winds deigned to give you my name, then give me yours so I can hold onto it as payment.”

“Elena,” the soul said simply.

“Then, my little Elena, by blood and by spit and by semen and by grave, you shall become my daughter.” Again, he glanced towards me as he spoke. I relaxed — I had won his favor. The next time he devoured a soul, a tidbit would be left for me.

Father then turned to Seraline, his smile deepening. “No longer youngest, you may train her at your leisure.”

And that was my punishment for being so bold.

***

It was probably for the best. Not that I would have been any less harsh, but as you can tell, I had taken quite a shine to Elena. There would have been moments when I would have stayed my hand to spare her any more pain than necessary. But if I had done that, she would not have survived.

Seraline did an excellent job. But then again, Seraline didn’t take too kindly to her position being usurped. Elena bore her wrath well enough; the crags echoed with her screams and sobs. But whereas a soul would withdraw into itself in an attempt to escape, Elena desired it, allowed herself to be broken, then dragged herself up for more.

Out of such desperation are we born, my sisters and I.

Her wings came in not too long afterwards — beautiful, black, leathery wings that arched over her shoulders to sweep the ground. Her short, coiled hair fell out, scalp and skin darkened into tough, impenetrable hide. The color of her eyes faded to a sick, mottled white. Her fingernails and toenails lengthened to sharp claws, her teeth into sharp fangs.

She became such a fine, fine wraith.

When a soul emerged from the lake, she rushed forward with the rest of us to inflict her share of punishment, expressionless as skinning a fish. Occasionally, however, a soul appeared that caused the fiercest reaction from her. She’d dash out before any of us moved, dragging the soul out of the lake by its hair, ripping into it before it barely dropped onto the shore. Even Seraline dared not approach; she hovered nearby, arms dangling at her sides, while Elena’s ragged panting accompanied the soul’s tortured shrieks.

I never questioned her about those souls. Our past is as dead as our flesh.  So she kept quiet, I kept my mouth shut, and time passed in its immeasurable drudgery.

Until he appeared.

We were lounging around the lake, drowsy, bored, wondering if it was worth it to pick a fight amongst ourselves when he emerged from the water with an explosive gasp, scattering droplets like dull glass beads. As we watched, he struck out for shore as if something pursued him, his arms slicing the water with even, neat strokes. I licked my lips — it had been so long since we’d played with a male.

The rushed flap of wings alerted me that Elena had already gone forward. Amused, we watched through half-closed eyes, certain that we were about to see another one of her unpredictable rages. Her talons slammed into his shoulders and waist, knocking him over as he stumbled onto the shore. She crouched over him, and stayed that way, unmoving. When Seraline grew bored and flew lazily over to see what was going on, Elena hissed and lashed out, slicing Seraline across the cheek.

We took to the air, shrieking our outrage. Elena soon bore several slashes along her arms, her face, her wings — Seraline’s retribution. She managed to keep us all at bay, the soul clutched tight to her bosom. Through my fury, it dawned on me that there would be only one reason why she would fight so hard, so furiously.

I landed on the shore and folded my wings. “Show me his face.” Elena scrutinized my non-aggressive stance, then wrenched the soul’s head around.

The face was much older than the one Father wore. The same pouty lips. The same honey-hued eyes. The same face Elena had loved, had killed herself for. And he had come here, of all places. So even one such as he hungered for someone he could not have. Even he could be driven to take extreme measures.

“He must be given to Father,” I told her. “Those are the rules.”

“I know.”

By now, the others had landed. Seraline, her rage forgotten, strutted up to Elena. “Why didn’t you say he was your former lover?” She traced a talon down the soul’s bare chest, and a shudder flashed through him, quick as an itch. “You aren’t taking him to Father just like this, are you? You are going let us prepare him, yes?”

Elena did not relinquish her hold, but turned him around and pushed him forward. “Do what you like.”

I won’t go into detail on what we did. You’ll find out soon enough. But Elena did not join us. She simply held the soul upright, her talons sunk deep into his shoulders, so he wouldn’t escape. Her face mirrored the lake in its calmest state: cool, unruffled, and utterly blank.

***

Father lay with his back to us, looking out over the wasteland stretching beyond his lair. One of my sisters, one much older than I, used to tell stories of an enormous army riding through that featureless plain, its leader bearing a silver-tipped spear. Some of those stories have Father as that leader; others have him slain by that very spear. We don’t know if it is truth or tale, past or future. If Father knew, he kept it to himself.

As we landed on the outcrop that led to his lair, Father smoothly rolled onto his back. Two apple-round bumps rose from his flat chest. His frame shrank, becoming slender, yet curvaceous. His hair grew out in long, black ringlets. His lips became full, sensuous. Sardonic.

The soul, barely conscious in Elena’s grip, stirred and froze at the sight of Father’s form. He gasped through torn lips, “Cynae…”

So this had been Elena’s rival. No wonder she didn’t stand a chance.

“Father, I have a gift for you,” she said, her face unreadable. She shoved the soul forward; he fell, splayed, onto the hard ground. He barely seemed to notice.

Father smiled, and oh, that smile! It whispered secrets, told promises, broke rules, lavished heat. Any slender sapling would be snapped in twain by that tempestuous maelstrom of a smile. “Bring him to me.”

Ah, and there, there! On the soul’s face — that joy, illuminating him from within. So happy, so unaware of what was about to happen. And as Elena bent to take his shoulders, I wondered if she had dreamed of this moment from the very beginning. This was what enabled her to bear so much: losing her flesh, her identity, her dignity, her very body. Here, at last, was the culmination to all her torment. It was going to be delicious.

The soul squirmed in her grasp, eager to run to his lover. We pressed close to each other, nearly swooning with the enormity of the moment. Elena’s hands shook…

And she did not let him go.

Seraline grunted. She glided forward, stepping into Elena’s line of sight, and Elena turned and screamed. It pierced our ears, our bodies. It threatened to dislodge the rocks, indeed, to shake down the very outcropping we stood on. It flung itself out to the wastes and beyond, this desolate wail of anguish.

It is a sound uttered by a soul when it loses every ounce of joy and hope. We have heard it many times, my sisters and I, but not from us. Never from one of us.

Elena drooped, as if her very essence had faded along with her cry. “Don’t eat him,” she whispered. “Spare him… please…”

Father looked as if she had demanded him to fly through the gray barrier of clouds and pluck the sun from its favored spot. “Why?”

“Because — ” Elena hesitated, then spoke the soft, weak words of flesh. “I love him.”

I looked at my sisters, their disbelief mirroring mine. Father’s frown deepened, making his form all the more lovely. “Impossible. You cannot love. That withered the moment you relinquished your name to me.”

“The elder told me the same. She said if I was patient, if I could just bide my time, then I could inflict on him all the suffering he gave me, and ten thousand more besides.” She looked at the soul and her face softened, became obscene in its gentleness. “But even a seed left in parched earth too long can ripen and set forth leaves with just one drop of rain. I can’t help it. I love him, and I can’t do it!” She buried her face in her claws and sobbed, a picture of abject misery.

In contrast, Seraline shook with barely suppressed fury. She spun towards me. “You see? We should have torn her apart from the beginning. This is all your fault!”

She pounced, and would have sliced me from head to groin had I not jumped. We would have clawed each other to bits right there, if not for Father’s voice booming out, forcing us flat on the rock. “Be still!

He turned to Elena and his next words were so gentle, so compassionate, a feverish haze of awe and jealousy rose within me. “Daughter, let him go. You cannot hope defeat me.”

“I can,” then, gaining boldness, “I will.”

“Boastful child.” Father leaned back with an insouciant smile. Something else lurked beneath his chuckle, something black and heavy and ominous.

Elena only squared her shoulders. It was absurd; she was no more capable of harming Father than a mouse biting an armadillo. My sisters and I would rip her to shreds before she took a single step –

“…Elly?”

The name was spoken quietly, yet had the same impact as a lightning bolt. We turned to see the soul struggling to his feet, the joy on his face fading to something less certain. He glanced at Father, then turned his back — ah! He no longer saw his beloved — and moved closer to Elena, who had gone immobile. He studied her scaly skin, her leathery wings, her bone-white eyes, wide with shock.

“Elly… is that you?”

Elena blinked. “Moran?”

How he recognized her, I don’t know. What I do know is it made Father furious. “E-LE-NA!”

She fell, writhing, to the ground. Father rose to his feet, invoking her name as was his right. And as he did, his form changed

I told you there is nothing worse than Father’s laughter. That’s not true. It’s his true form he keeps carefully hidden from us, even from himself. To see that beautiful face split, open wide, impossibly wide, to expose the dark pit of his gullet, ringed by rows of jagged teeth. To see things emerge from that darkness — ropy, twisting things, with barely recognizable faces of previously devoured souls, others bent and warped into mindless blobs. All of them, shrieking, howling in eternal torment…

That, my pet, will drive anyone, even a wraith as long-lived as I, deep into insanity.

We wailed and flung ourselves down, my sisters and I, certain that nothing can stand before Father’s fury, not Elena, not us, not even the rock supporting us. Nothing except that soul, that damned, stubborn soul. He stumbled before Elena’s convulsing form — as if he, weaponless as he was, meant to protect her. “Stop! I’ll do whatever you want. Just leave her alone!”

Incredibly, the avalanche of Father’s transformation slowed to a crawl. His true voice emerged from the heaving depths of his maw. “You will give yourself to me? Voluntarily?”

On the ground, Elena moaned, “Moran… no…”

The soul bent over her. The lake preserve me, despite all the damage we inflicted on him, he still looked comely. He whispered something my keen ears could not catch, then leaned over and pressed his lips to her forehead.

Maybe it was Father’s pause, as if he actually considered how a soul would taste if it gave itself freely. Maybe it was Elena’s startled expression at the light, almost brotherly kiss. Or maybe she was close enough to hear the soul’s exact words. I don’t know, and I will never know, but something in Seraline snapped.

With a savage cry, she threw herself at the soul. Before any of us could move, she had reduced him to misty shreds; and even those tendrils she snatched at, ripping them, biting them, clawing them until they curled into nothingness.

Then she turned to Elena. And ah, I don’t know what that soul said to her, but Elena, my beautiful, darling Elena — Love radiated from her, so strong, so fierce, it smoldered with the heat of a thousand suns. From souls, it was barely tolerable. For a wraith like Elena, it made her damn near invincible.

She struck back with such force it nearly tore Seraline in twain. Then she grabbed Seraline and heaved her towards Father’s still-gaping maw. Even Father seemed briefly astonished before his beastly nature took over.

***

Elena left us after that. She flew off across the wasteland. We watched silently as she became a mere dot against the gray sky. None of us stopped her. None of us wanted to.

We’ve seen what sleeping love can do, my sisters and I.

With Seraline no longer among us, our passion is gone. We still do torment the souls for Father, of course; it is our duty. But we have no zeal, no rage fueling our actions.

It’s affected Father as well. Oh, he still eats what we give him, but the relish isn’t there. It’s all rote. Sometimes, we catch him watching us. It’s made us meek. Afraid.

A couple of my sisters have even left without explanation, flying off over the wastes in the same direction as Elena. Perhaps they also seek the love they long thought had been torn from them.

We are ruined, ruined as the sun poking through a drear, cloudy day. She has done this to us, my Elena. And yet, I cannot hate her. Time and time again, I’ve tried.

Those of us who remain like to ruminate about her whereabouts. Some think she wanders the wastes, the reawakened shard of love an unreachable thorn within her, driving her slowly mad. Others fear that she is the one rumored to raise the mythical army that will overthrow Father, that a time will come when she will take revenge on us all.

My theory is more simplistic.

I think that she flew upward, burdened no longer by jealousy or anger or pain. She flew, light and free, until she reached the gray barrier that separates this wasteland from the bright, peaceful lands beyond. And I believe that, somehow, she slipped through, her scaly hide peeling from her arms and legs and face, revealing her beautiful brown skin once more; her leathery wings molting until they gleamed downy white, her face upturned, shining with that brilliant, beautiful smile that was Seraline’s undoing. At least, I like to think that.

Tell me, pet, what do you think? Do you honestly think that a sliver of love, real love, remained in her even in this damned place, to blossom forth at the right time? Do you think such a thing is possible? I ask because I, nor any of the other wraiths, have ever experienced such a thing. It would be so easy for me to think that if such a thing could happen to Elena, then perhaps somewhere inside me, far beneath this rough, hardened exterior, there is a kernel no bigger than my fingernail that also slumbers, waiting for the right moment to burst forth.

Then again, the one I slew myself for stumbled out of the lake ages ago. I served him to Father with nary a thought. It was delicious to hear his screams.

Ah, well. It is time. I don’t think I’ll call my sisters over after all. I’ll do what needs to be done myself. And when I drag you before Father, perhaps he’ll let you stay. There are so few of us, really. Who knows, if he’s feeling especially gracious, maybe he’ll even let me train you, as I did with Seraline long ago.

Sadly, if he does, I don’t think I’ll be as gentle.

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