Imposing a deadline on myself has had an interesting side-effect. The story I am about to post has had two very recent edits, the last completing, oh *checks watch* ten minutes ago, maybe? This is a story that I think I could edit into oblivion. The initial version was overly wordy, and I decided to make a shorter version (ostensibly to meet a word-limit deadline for a contest put on by my current favorite serial fiction podcast, The Magnus Archives, which you should absolutely go and listen to immediately). Ultimately, even though I missed the deadline for that, tightening it up made for a better story… or, beginning to a story. But it was still wordy. My favorite editor, Farah, and I both independently determined that I had too many artificially drawn-out sentences, redundancies, and unnecessary prose. So I chopped it down again. I am certain that it could use even more chopping, but my own deadline is here. So, with that, I give you a story with a long and wordy title, “In Golgotha, the Dead Bear Many Scars” (working title… I need something better) that may or may not need more work.
In Golgotha, the Dead Bear Many Scars
In Golgotha, the dead bore their Scars openly. More than the ghosts of past injuries, Scars were manifestations of deep trauma. They were a lingering and twisted homage to the dead’s greatest shames in life, which in turn bound them to a hollow eternity in the desert of ground bones that was. The Scars shaped the shades into, at best, imperfect self-reflections of the humans they once were.
At worst, it turned them into something else entirely.
Golgotha was the dead’s land, and it reached out into infinity, at least as far as any of its residents knew. It had a sky, but how far it extended beyond the sickly yellow hue of daylight or the inky violet of night was another mystery. If stars hung in the firmament or a moon orbited Golgotha, there were no signs. Occasional flashes of light hinted at tumultuous storms, but never brought rain. Thunder, or something like it, often boomed across the wastes, thundering and groaning like the grind of a great and ancient machine. In those echoes, a keen ear could pick out the screams of the Lost. The dead were all lost, of course, but they were not all Lost. These were distinctions that mattered when nothing else did.
The lost and the Lost; scars and Scars.
Rabia wandered Golgotha alone. Her sandaled feet had learned to accommodate for the shifting of the white sands. Winds blew clouds of dust and bone across her skin, causing an abrasive agony that she had, nevertheless, learned to tolerate. Despite its outward appearances and similarity to human myth, Golgotha was not Hell. It did not serve to punish with lakes of eternal fire or sadistic torture from twisted demons. The torture of the Golgotha was self-inflicted. Beyond that, Golgotha just was. Rabia’s Scars made it impossible to avoid the unceasing sand-blasting. Not her mundane scars, the pockmarks from the acid that had burned her face when she had dared to remove her niqab in a public square. The acid scars and memory of the pain that created them were barely noticeable compared to her Scars. Those she had to endure in this place as a reminder of her debasement.
Not debasement for defying her husband or the patriarchal society that forced her to hide all of her features but her eyes behind a faceless black robe. What she carried—what shamed her most—was that she had capitulated after the attack. In the confines of her mind, she had screamed at herself to continue to defy the culture she increasingly felt had devalued her contributions. She desperately longed to be a hero and agent of social change like Malala Yousafzai or Mukhtār Mā’ī. Instead, she had retreated behind the safe anonymity of her niqab. She had felt pain and fear, and rather than make a stand there and free herself or die a martyr, she gave in to the oppression.
In the end, the acid hadn’t been enough, and her husband and his brothers had felt that she had to die to restore her husband’s “honor.” He had debased himself in the eyes of others by marrying an upstart of a woman, and only a public stoning would make it right. For him.
Rabia’s Scar was her niqab, fused forever to her body in Golgotha. More than fused, in fact, the niqab became her skin. She took on the haunting shape of a specter robed in the black and purple of bruised flesh. Her face displayed no nose, mouth, ears, or hair; only her muted amber eyes remained inside the borders of a rectangle of pale flesh. She had changed from a figurative facelessness woman to a literal one. With her robe now her skin, and her skin her robe, every grain of sand forced over her dragged its way along a body of raw nerves disguised as what would be protective clothing otherwise. Each gust brought fresh pain. But again, she had learned to accept it. What else could she do?
And so it was that Rabia traversed Golgotha, with little direction or destination in mind. There was no call for either, here. Golgotha held no logic or reason, no natural cycles like the movement of the tides or the rising of the sun. Night and day came and went at the whims of some unpredictable force. Direction, both in terms of navigation or purpose, was an illusion. A futile attempt to find order where there was none.
In time, Rabia found herself at a crossroads. A solitary structure rose like a tumor, diverting the winds and forcing them around it, piling dunes against the building’s windward side. Rabia saw the building as a seedy inn from the more questionable neighborhoods of Peshawar. To others, it would be different. A North-American roadside motel in disrepair. A European flophouse. A Chinese opium den from an older time. Regardless of how it appeared, it was a collection of empty rooms for travelers passing in need of a brief respite from the wastes. Relieved at the prospect of getting out of the stinging winds, she entered the building with little worry for safety.
The lobby was sparsely decorated. An empty vase sat on a weathered coffee table. Moth eaten chairs surrounded it. A broken hookah nestled uselessly in the corner. Attached to the lobby was an open space, occupied by several tables and an uneven distribution of chars to go with them. No one was at the front desk, so she passed the ruined chairs and walked into the inn’s dining room.
This area was open on the inside, reaching up three floors worth of rooms arranged in a square around the “atrium,” as it were. Dust hung in the air, and week light filtered in from a skylight that was somehow still intact. In the rear of the room, she saw a bar, and behind it, the man who she assumed was the innkeeper.
He was a large brutish man with a ruined face pressing through the jagged hole of a shattered car’s windshield that was as much a part of his face, now, as Rabia’s niqab was her flesh. It looked like the violent crowning of a baby’s head, ringed by javelins of glass that drew dark red canyons across his cheeks, forehead, and the bridge of his nose. Tendrils of flesh uncoiled from his abdomen and wrapped around the bar, becoming a part of it. Some of them had also latched on to bottles of old liquor, suckling at them and rippling with peristaltic waves as they moved the bottles’ contents into the innkeeper’s body. She didn’t inquire as to the nature of the man’s Scars, as it was often seen as impolite. It was rarely difficult to interpret them, however. Scars were not intended to be subtle.
Their interaction was brief and silent; she couldn’t speak, and he seemed to see no need to. There was only one reason she would have entered the inn, and there wasn’t a reason for the innkeeper to do anything but turn his ponderous bulk to a row of hooks, take a room key, and pass it over to her. She took it from him, and their brief transaction was completed. She was not charged in any currency, though something less tangible and more ephemeral was exchanged. Even in Golgotha, there were prices to pay. Whatever it was that passed between Rabia and the innkeeper—the cost would find her later—she felt that it would be worth it to spend a night in a private room with a bed, sheltered from the winds and the sand of bone therein.
She made he way up to the second floor and, without sparing a moment to inspect her room, sank slowly onto the rickety bed.
* * * *
She woke the next morning to a rising commotion. Like the Illusion of the need for a bed for the night, sleep wasn’t necessary. She had slept because she did so in life. Sleep had been her escape; the only time where she wasn’t her husband’s property. Sleep brought dreams where she was the woman she’d wanted to be. Waking then had been a cruel interruption to her fantasy world. Now, it was just another moment in time, for there were no dreams in Golgotha.
She didn’t know why she left the room and walked to the landing overlooking the atrium. The concerns of others weren’t hers; this was a hard lesson she had learned both in life and in death. Something, however—some unidentified pull—guided her there to the railing, staring down at the small crowd that had gathered below. They appeared to be arguing in hushed tones that occasionally rose in intensity and with a growing fervor. She recognized the owner of the inn immediately not only by his hulking size, but the flesh fettering him to the bar.
With him was a small man who appeared to be another traveler just in from the wastelands. Clouds of bone-dust puffed off him with every gesticulation. The traveler’s arms appeared to be scaled by overlapping disks of metal that clanked with each of his excited movements.
Rabia moved toward the staircase to the ground floor and approached the impromptu quora. Overturned chairs rested on at least half of the old tables that she passed on her way to the small meeting. She moved smoothly with a practiced elegance that made her appear to float across the uneven wooden planks. She eased into the huddled group that consisted of the innkeeper, the traveler, and the third speaker, likely one of the innkeeper’s employees. She was an older woman with an opened chest cavity that revealed a cold gray nestled partially within her ribcage. None of the others spared more than a passing acknowledgement toward Rabia. She was not interesting at all. Being unnoticed had been a necessity life a part of a culture that preferred its women to be invisible.
What was more interesting than the gathering was the small person who was the apparent focus of their discussion. Curled up on the floor, seemingly asleep, was a child. A girl of not more than 10 or 11, sleeping deeply despite the din above her. She had locks of dark, curly hair, lightly powdered with the same ubiquitous dust. Her clothes were similarly clouded, but the colors in her summer-style dress held a memory of vibrancy, sharply contrasting the muted gloom of her surroundings.
It took Rabia some time to realize exactly what it was about the girl that was different.
She had no Scars.
Scars were never hidden. They were reflections of regret and shame, forcibly exposed in the Golgotha. Rabia could no more easily throw a second robe over her body and cover her Scars than the old woman could put a shirt over her chest, or the innkeeper wear a cowl in front of his ruined face. The traveler couldn’t cover the scales on his body, which she now saw were tarnished coins. It was not the nature of the place to allow one to hide one’s Scars. And yet, this child had no visible Scars, which meant she had no Scars at all.
“I’m telling you,” the traveler said, exasperated at having to explain this yet again to his disbelieving audience, “she’s not from here. Can’t you see?”
“Yes,” the innkeeper said, “I can see that, and you have said that, many times. However, she is here, and nothing has changed.”
“We should take her in,” the older woman said, a tremble to her voice. “We should take care of her.” Reflexively, she reached into her chest and put an aged hand on the cold stone lodged in place of her heart.
“And what then? What would we do with a child?” the innkeeper asked.
“She’s not just a child,” the traveler said. “She is something new. She might have… value.” At that, his coin scales rippled and clanked along his arms. Rabia saw a haunting emptiness in his eyes.
“She has no value,” the innkeeper scoffed. “Nothing has value.”
“We can’t leave her,” the older woman said, pleading in her voice. “The Lost will get her.”
“Ain’t no one seen no Lost here in ages,” the innkeeper replied.
“I’ve seen the Lost,” the traveler said.
“You’ve not,” the innkeeper said, but his conviction wavered.
“I have,” he insisted, that empty look deepening. She’d seen that look once before, and it hadn’t ended well. She feared the traveler and his intentions not just toward the child, but to everyone.
As the trio continued an argument that could have easily carried on for as long as the Golgotha existed, the child stirred. She whimpered softly, a dream of some kind running through her subconscious mind. Rabia thought that there was a warming effect, being near her. Something about her was more substantial than anything she had ever encountered in the years (ages? Eons?) she had wandered. As she stared, the child’s eyes fluttered open. While the others were still trying to determine what to do with this discovery or if the Lost were closing in on the crossroads inn even now, the only eyes that met the bright blue of girl were Rabia’s amber irises.
“Who’re you?” the child asked, unaware or indifferent to her surroundings. Rabia tilted her head at the girl’s question. There wasn’t a hint of fear in that small voice. Rabia smiled; or imagined she did as her mouth was permanently closed behind the flesh-cloth of her Scar. She put a hand to the space where her mouth would be and shook her head sadly.
“You can’t talk,” the girl said more than asked. Rabia nodded.
“Oh,” the girl replied. It was at this point that the others noticed.
“Well,” the innkeeper said, “she ain’t dead.”
“We’re all dead,” the traveler said.
“She ain’t any deader, then.”
“She spoke to this woman,” the older woman said. She addressed Rabia, directly. “Is she yours?”
Rabia shook her head.
“’Course not,” the scaled traveler said, nearly hissing. “She’s not yours because she’s mine. I found her! Finders, keepers!” He moved to scoop the girl up into his arms, but even as the girl shrank away from him, Rabia interceded, imposing herself between the scaled man and the girl. “Out of the way,” he said, but without the confidence to back it up. Rabia felt the child press against her leg, peering out at the man. With her arms outstretched, her robe-like stretched out like black bat wings. He was already mousey and small, and Rabia’s posture was clearly intimidating. He thought about pressing the issue and spared a look toward the innkeeper and the woman. The innkeeper, satisfied that the matter was solved, turned away and trudged back to the confines of the bar he could hardly travel far from anyway. The old woman’s gaze was locked on Rabia, her hand still clamped tightly on the stone in her chest. There was hope in that pleading look, as well as pity for the child (and perhaps, regret?). The traveler knew that he would find no support there for his claim. His scales rippled and noisily clicked in frustration.
“Fine,” he said, “you can have her. She has no value to me. She’ll have none to you, either. Something like that only brings trouble, you mark me.” He skulked away, sitting down at a table near the back with a grunt of disgust. Rabia lowered her arms, turning away from the traveler to look down at the child.
“Thank you,” the older woman who said it. Her eyes were wet with welling tears. “She wouldn’t have been safe with him.” Rabia felt that the child wouldn’t have been safe anywhere and was not certain that she was any safer with her. However, it was clear that the girl was her responsibility, now, like it or not. A part of her, quite a large part of her, in fact, regretted the decision to seek shelter in the inn. It was the traveler’s insinuation that the child was property that had set her off. That this child—this girl—was something traded down the line, and not a person in her own right.
Her Scars itched, and it was decided.
* * * *
Rabia once again crossed the Golgotha, but this time, she was not alone. The Scarless girl traveled with her. Both now braved the stinging winds of the desert, still with no specific destination in mind. And yet, Rabia felt that her wandering now had purpose, though she didn’t yet know what even that purpose was.
Perhaps, she thought, Golgotha has borders after all.