This short story is part 3 of the Daughter of the Goddess series. You can read part 1 here.
“Peaches, I’m yer mum now,” the woman says.
The little girl looks up. The idea frightens her. If this woman is her mum, will she be mean now? Mums are always mean. They have to be so that they can teach their little girls to be good. It is important to be good.
The woman puts her arms around Peaches and lifts her chin. “As yer mum, I’ll be a-taking you to the priestess. It’ll be my right to give you to the goddess if you be my daughter.”
Peaches’s hands shake. The woman doesn’t want her. The woman won’t keep her. “Please no,” she whispers.
“You won’t be a slave, little love,” the woman keeps talking. “And you will live here. They will be edjicating you, and ye can visit me everyday.”
Everyday. Peaches feels her heart jump and turn inside. She’s not quite sure how her heart could move like that, but it’s a nice feeling. Everyday, she can come to the woman, sit upon her lap, and eat biscuits and honey. “Everyday?” Her voice comes out as more of a squeak than a whisper. She bites her lip and looks back down at her toes. She shouldn’t make so much noise. The woman might change her mind.
“Yes, m’love. Everyday.”
Everyday. Peaches hugs her. She isn’t quite sure where her arms are supposed to go—she’s never hugged someone and no one’s hugged her—so it’s more of a wild flinging of arms. And then, frightened, she pulls away and looks up at the woman. Did she go too far? Will the woman be angry? But no, her face is soft and friendly, and all those little creases on her face seem like laughter.
The woman stands and takes Peaches hand in her own, and out the door they go. Peaches ducks behind the woman’s skirt, to hide, but the woman gently pulls her out and leads her. It feels so safe, her little hand in the big one. It’s warm and inviting and comforting. She’d like it to last forever.
Peaches wants to stay in the kitchen with the woman. She doesn’t want to go to the priestess. But she’ll trust. She’ll trust this hand to lead her. The people in the square—she can’t see their faces, just their legs—press in around her, but that hand never lets go. Up the stairs, it takes her and through the golden doors that stand open.
Then she goes all the way up to the where the priestess stands. Peaches looks up at her, the long robes and the stern face. That face looks as though it will bite her if her whisper gets too loud or she eats too much or shows just how useless she is. Looking back down at her feet, she remembers that she wants to be a good girl. She shouldn’t have looked the priestess in the face. The girl’s hands shake and shake, and even as she balls them into fists, she can’t make them stop. Please, oh please, don’t hurt me.
The woman beside her kneels down and tugs on Peaches hand to do the same. She stumbles to the ground quickly, wishing the ground would open up and eat her. The earth would be warm and soft and safe. She could curl up and sleep, and nobody would ever touch her again.
“Rise, children of the goddess.”
Peaches feels the woman standing beside her, but Peaches can’t move. Not listening to the priestess would surely get her a beating on her back or her head. The lashes on her neck were still sore. But try as she might, her legs weren’t a-listening to her. They were too heavy like the big wooden chair at home that she had to move to scrub the floor underneath. It would never budge, no matter how hard she pushed. She’d always had to ask for help. Useless, they’d tell her and hit her.
She doesn’t want to be useless. She wants the priestess to want her, to think she’s worth keeping. She squeezes her eyes shut and pleads with the goddess. Don’t hurt me. I will be useful.
Hands touch her gently. It must be the woman. She hears her voice, a-talking to the priestess. Someone lifts her up, and she finds herself looking into the face of the priestess.
“Oh,” she cries and scrambles away. It was only just a little more than a whisper. And she regrets making so much noise. The priestess will think she is a bad girl. What do they do to bad girls? Will they hurt her? Throw her out? Please don’t hurt me.
“Child, I will not hurt you,” the priestess whispers. The priestess must be a good girl. She whispers. And her voice is so soft. Peaches would like to sound soft and whisper like that. Then maybe no one would hurt her. Then maybe they’ll like her. She shuts her eyes. Please make me good. I will be useful. I promise.
She feels hands a-lifting her and a-carrying her, but she keeps her eyes shut and prays harder. She prays so hard that her lips move, but no sound comes out. I’ll be good. I’ll be useful. I promise.
The shock of a cold wet floor under her body forces her eyes open in surprise. She’s surrounded by priestesses. Staring at her. She wants to run and hide, but there is no gap between the women. She tries to push her way through, but to no affect.
They pull at her patchwork dress, and she cries out. The tears in her eyes are so thick, she can barely see. She pushes, scratches, runs, kicks. Screams. She has never screamed before, but she does now, desperate to get away from them. No! Don’t touch me. Don’t hurt me.
A patch of cloth is thrown onto the cold, stone floor. But there, the patches writhe like squirmy leeches with tiny arms and legs, their bodies fat and their mouths squealing. Someone steps on it. It screams as its body explodes from the pressure. Brown blood and red.
She just stares.
She isn’t screaming anymore.
More patches are pulled from her. More bodies lay upon the floor. A foul odor clutches at her like a hand clenched at her throat. She gags, wretching bile and phlegm. Worms wriggle in her vomit.
Naked and spent, she slumps onto the stone and shuts her eyes. Something feels different, she realizes. Her stooped back is straight. The bones don’t ache. Her stomach doesn’t churn. She sighs and smiles. Now she will sleep, Peaches decides.
But hands push and pull her, making her stand. Peaches stumbles, but they hold her up and drag her until she plunges into a vat of warm liquid. It’s not water. It’s so smooth on her skin. Oil. The hands push her under. She flaps her arms, trying to break free, but the more she struggles, the deeper she slips under the surface.
Her lungs burn and she fights to get free. To get a breath. A single breath. She opens her mouth to scream and breathes the oil into her lungs. It burns her tongue, her throat, her lungs. It flows through her, melting her body with its heat. She opens her eyes and the oil stings them.
She no longer wants to breathe, and the water is dark as she slips into the recesses of the pool. There is a light in the distance. She lifts her hand toward it. Her farewell gesture. I would’ve been useful. I would’ve tried.
The light comes closer. A woman, in the midst of the light, her long hair floating in the water around her, reaches for her. Peaches reaches her hand out in return. It doesn’t matter if she dies. Or if the woman leaves her in the pool of oil. What matters is that she touches her finger.
That light. The light will heal. The light will make all the pain go far away. It will warm her and comfort her. She must touch it
As their fingers meet, Peaches feels the light moving into her, spreading slowly up her arm. She smiles. The woman smiles back. Stretching out her arms, she embraces Peaches and brings her to the surface. More hands lift her out and cover her in a soft robe.
Her hands seem to glow, and her toes are clean. I’m clean. No one had ever bothered to bathe Peaches before. Now it felt as though she mattered. She looks around for the woman in the pool, but only priestesses are here now. She studies her clean hands, how they glow, how soft they are, how clean. It was like that woman, that light, was inside her, glowing through her skin.
“What’s your name, Child?” It’s not a whisper. But then it’s the tone that matters. The voice is gentle and kind. Not quiet and good. But Peaches doesn’t want to be quiet and good anymore.
She lifts her chin. “My name is Peaches,” she says aloud and looks the priestess in the face. Peaches smiles.
“Welcome, Peaches, priestess of Araphia.”
You can read Part 4 here.