The moon shines bright on Sago tonight, I can see the twin orbs through the station window. Outside stretches the wilderness plains, rocky ground, nearly devoid of life, save for the occasional raiders who attempt to steal our supplies – and even they have grown few in number of late.
“Do you have to?” I twisted in my chair, trying to see behind me.
Mamere continues combing my hair and makes clucking noses, like the brush is going through her greyed tangles instead of my turquoise locks. She’s prattling about something or other, and I nod, half listening.
“Teia, you need to be on your best behaviour for the ceremony tonight – remember –”
“Yes, Mamere,” I roll my eyes. She doesn’t see it because my back is to her, she’s fiddling with the knots on my head. “I’m sure it’s fine, really.” I reach my hand up, groping blindly to figure out what she’s done, and draw my hand back in dismay. “You didn’t – you did the braids.”
“Yes, of course, I did. It’s the ceremony tonight – coming of age, and then –”
“You know that’s an old wives’ tale, right?”
She clucked again, and then hissed. “You better watch it – if the sire champion hears you speak –”
I rolled my eyes again. This time she did see me, and cracked the side of my head with the brush. Not too hard, but just enough to jolt me a little. I glanced up at her.
Mamere looked like a storm cloud threatening to explode, and said with forced calmness, “The coming of age ceremony is the key to all things on Sago – birth, death – life itself cannot continue without its participants.”
I nodded, trying not to roll my eyes.
She scrutinized my face, seeking an appropriate level of solemnity, and seemed satisfied. “Your gown is all laid out, and –”
“Not that thing.”
She stood, arms folded across her chest. “Absolutely yes. White gown, for the ceremony.”
“Oh, but come on…”
“No buts – everyone will expect you in white. It’s for purity – and to remind people of your virginal status.”
“Don’t say that.” I blushed furiously.
“Modesty becomes you Teia,” she murmured approvingly. “You’d do well to remember that.”
“Yes, Mamere,” I nodded, thinking of Keyna and I fumbling together in a darkened storage closet. Privacy nearly impossible to come by on the station, she and I would meet as though by chance in a maintenance hallway, and –
“White it is.” Mamere interrupted my thoughts. I was glad she was still braiding the back of my head and couldn’t see me blush. “That gown has been passed down through generations – my mother, her mother –”
“It’s dumb tradition. About menstruation – and a row of white virgins at the ceremony – c’mon.”
“But it’s true – only the sire champion selects your lifemate.” Mamere looked skyward, “With luck, you may be one of the chosen.”
“No way – not that old windbag.”
“Hush your mouth.” Another crack up the side of my head with the hairbrush. “You should be banished for saying such things.”
“Yeah, whatever,” I said quietly, and ducked in case the brush was coming again. Nothing. Slowly I looked up.
Mamere was gazing at the icon of the sire champion, lost in adoration. She said, as though to herself, “I remember my day – it’s duty, and an honour; and when I was selected as one of the chosen…”
Hundreds of people sat silent in rows around the auditorium, it was a strange crowd, solemn and still, unlike the young men’s coming of age ceremony, with hoots and jeers from the bystanders as young men demonstrated athletic prowess and their fitness.
Loud cheers filled the auditorium as young men grappled with each other in combative sports, young women waved to their favorites, in hopes that the sire champion would see them, and approve of the match.
The competition was simple. If healthy, the young men would be chosen to reproduce. If deemed unfit, they would be expected to fulfil their daily duties and live out their lives in celibacy.
Most chose to end their lives early, anyway.
There simply was no room on the station to harbour genetic weakness; over the centuries our people had thrived through careful selection. Infants deemed unfit at birth were culled, an act of mercy for the rest of us as our resources were already stretched thin.
Those who were found to be unfit during their lifetime were given a choice of engaging in perpetual servitude to others, or to end their lives early.
We could not support those who could not give back.
Suddenly the ceremonial song for the sire champion began, and a deep hush fell over the crowd as they awaited his entrance. I looked up expectantly.
There were twelve of us standing on stage, all young women still within their first blush of womanhood. Keyna she stood across the stage from me, fidgeting; the station lights cast her skin in a pearly glow. She looked radiant, her hair swept back and knotted at the base of her neck, and, as she caught my eye, she flashed a small smile.
As the ceremonial song swelled to a finale, the sire champion walked onto the stage. A virile man, now in his sixth decade of servitude to our people, he sat judgement on acts daily life, and proclaimed the best path for our colony to follow.
Biological father to hundreds, his DNA ran through my genes and many of those around me. We did not use those antiquated word any more – mother, father. All offspring were selected before birth for maximum fitness, and through a combination of sperm and egg, and nine months’ gestation in a female womb, they were then upon birth entrusted to the care of doula to raise them to adulthood.
Family – another ancient term – was non-existent. Partnerships were selected to maximize genetic fitness, and produce viable offspring. Companionship was secondary.
Mamere was an oddity, both as my doula, and the female who carried me throughout pregnancy, and then gave birth to me. I was assigned to her as she did not have a lifemate; and an infant was thought to be a reasonable companion.
The crowd stood, in silent reverence as the sire champion approached the front of the stage, image of his face emblazoned on an oversized screen overhead.
His words, amplified to fill the arena, swam around me.
“Over the past centuries we have not forgotten what we have lost on our long voyage here, for many, come before us, we represent the pinnacle of success, emulating the ideal form –”
Half-listening to him drone about the reproductive needs of our people, I felt a twinge of guilt. The sire champion was going on about the need for order, and regularity – in all things.
“And when the blood flows, pausing life, momentarily, it is a sign, that within a few short days, an opportunity will present itself, for –”
I blushed. Keyna was the only one I’d told, even Mamere didn’t suspect the truth. I had bled, once, as an adolescent girl, but after that the monthly pains that Keyna endured had escaped me. No further blood had stained my clothes.
“You’re lucky,” she’d said as I rubbed her back, unsure as to what to do further to help relieve her discomfort. “I wish I was in your position.”
I nodded, but was still unsure. I had a feeling it was wrong somehow, and listening to the sire champion’s words, I wondered.
A master of ceremonies stepped forward, ushering us all into position. A large pot was carried onto the stage, and the master held a box beneath his arm. I waited for what would come next.
We formed a circle of young women in white gowns standing around an enormous cauldron; blackened with use through the years, a blue flame danced below it.
Now for the final part of the ceremony. An oath of blood.
The words again drifted around me. A promise to serve our people, and follow the ways of those before us. Respect our position in life, and follow the natural order.
The sire champion took great pride in walking around the outer edges of our circle, appraising our bodies for health and vigor, all with the goal of fertility. I watched Nethan, girl in my year blush furiously as he reached out, grasping her breast, and hefted it, as though weighing it.
Tears started in her eyes, and she stared at the floor. The sire champion smiled.
I knew my secret would be safe, but still, as he approached, I looked down.
“Teia, isn’t it?” his voice whispered near my ear.
Nodding, I stared at the floor.
His hand reached out, patting my shoulder. “You’ve turned out well.” The sire champion then headed toward the next girl, and bent over her, whispering.
I breathed a sigh of relief and glanced over at Beethav; she blushed, her cheeks crimson under his inspection. Only days before she had told Keyna and I about the horrors of the first night her friend had endured as she laid with her newly assigned lifemate. We had gathered, whispering together not far from the storage closet Keyna and I escaped to.
Standing riveted, we listened to terrors not taught in our lessons on genetic purity and reproduction. The awkward fumbling, and scathing embarrassment, followed by burning pain, a strange tugging, with grunts and moans and ripped flesh.
Beethav had told us, wide eyed, that the bedding was soaked with blood afterward, her friend’s thighs stained crimson.
Keyna and I held hands as she told us the tale, and, when she left, Keyna’s lips brushed mine, both of us sinking into softness and murmured promises to protect the other from such evils.
As I watched the sire champion evaluating each of us in turn, I wasn’t sure how I could save her. Or myself.
From the centre of the stage, the master of ceremonies opened the box, and lifted out a shining blade, holding it out to the crowd. A knife, that has been used by our people in ceremony for centuries.
The audience shifted, awaiting this final act.
The master of ceremonies approached the first young woman, her hand trembled as she held it out, exposing the soft underside. As the blade flashed, she blanched, yet held her hand now dripping above the cauldron.
More words floated around me, steady drone of the sire champion speaking of the importance of bonding through blood and flesh, as a sign of commitment to him, and our people,
Holding my outstretched hand above the cauldron, I watched, strangely fascinated, as the knife flashed above my wrist – a thin slice, releasing a stream of blood into the cauldron below. Others looked away, their faces paled above white robes.
Across the cauldron, I caught Keyna’s eye again. We had both sworn that if the sire champion chose either of us, we would flee, and take our chances upon the wild plains; and plead for asylum among the raiders, or eke out a living together.
As I looked at her, I knew this was impossible. Neither of us would survive for long. She looked frail in her gown, and her eyes wide as the sire champion approached her, the master of ceremonies following with the knife.
Perhaps, I thought as they approached Keyna, the sire champion sweeping a thick finger across her slender neck and causing her pulse to beat violently, the best we could hope for was adjacent apartments. Near each other, so we might never be alone.
Her eyes met mine as she held out her wrist. One swipe – and the red stream dribbled off her ashen skin. The sire champion then moved on the next one.
I reached out across the cauldron, holding my hand near hers, and briefly her fingers grasped mine, our blood intermingling momentarily.
Pulse beating together, we clung together as one; both of us lost in memories –kisses tasting of sweetness, and soft flesh pressed together, whispered words and secrets flowed together as droplets of blood.
As the sire champion turned toward the next woman in line, Keyna startled, and let my hand go.
She stared at me, watching our blood falling together.
Her words, pledging unending friendship, undying affection – for we have no word for the quaint term, ‘love’ – echoed in my mind. Soft kisses amid promises of eternal commitment, all in the silences of the supply closet.
As I watched the knife flash across Nethan’s wrist, her blood spilling into the cauldron, I realized with a start that could be our only escape – a quick slash with a knife, and all our troubles ended.
It would be a much deeper cut, for both Keyna and I, slicing through flesh and tendons, and exposing tender veins. But the end, I believed, would be quick; and better than a lifetime of false servitude to an assigned lifemate.
Keyna’s eyes held mine as we watched our blood flow together, droplets now slowing and falling steadily.
And as I held out my wrist, watching blood drops fall into the cauldron, I knew this would be the only blood to ever stain my clothes.
Liz McAdams is a short, sharp writer living in the wilds of Canada. Her work appears in Spelk, Yellow Mama, Near to the Knuckle, Shotgun Honey, and many other places, including Twisted Sister. You can connect with Liz through https://lizmcadams.wordpress.com/