The wood beneath her felt unusually hard. More so than last time. Or the time before. As if tonight, on this particular occasion, she had been carelessly dropped. Discarded. Like she was simply worthless. But she knew that wasn’t the case. They’d seen to her comfort. Taken the time to position her body just right. To shift her arms so her palms faced the sky, her fingers spread wide and ready to receive whatever special prize the stars, currently hidden behind immense clouds of black, would soon offer. Kind words showered down on her as busy fingers straightened her robe and brushed away uncooperative strands of copper hair, satisfied only once they were carefully tucked in place. Eyes full of admiration connected with hers as they made sure every single detail was to her liking. They respected her. Honored her.
Her temples pulsed as the line beside her finally began to still, save for those last few who scurried to their places, faces set. Stone-like. Their lack of expression wasn’t unusual by any means and didn’t shock her. The mood always changed in this way. In the beginning it had unnerved her. She’d been nervous that first night. So new to it all. Until then, she’d only been on the receiving end of this exquisite ceremony. A little girl waiting her turn with her small hand enveloped in her mother’s. But as each Feast came and went, she grew older. Her fresh-face eager to make a difference. Her smile still her own, not yet smudged in the corners from disappointment after disappointment. Suddenly, she was the one to give. She’d never felt such pride. And when the air had changed around her, she thought she’d done something wrong. Erred in some crucial way before the night’s events had even begun. She’d been incorrect. This was a positive sign, she’d realized after her first few times. The change in mood, the shift in energy as it morphed from excitement, to expectant, to primal.
She stole a glance from the corner of her eye, against the rules, she knew, but no consequences would be handed down. The faces beside her were heavy. Fixed. Almost…lustful. To say it was sexual would not be accurate. Sexual was far too…simple. And this night, everyone knew, was anything but simple.
She forced her gaze back to the starless sky. To the moon above her. So large, yet now dull, as it cast what was left of its light down on them, on this, their most sacred of nights. She heard footsteps make their way to her—one set heavy, the other two lighter and significantly slower. At this moment, even the earth was silent. Still. As if the air itself could not move. Now was the time. Now— when even the universe dared not to breathe—signaled the beginning of The Feast.
Her Husband and children approached first, as was custom. He pulled out two chairs, set beforehand for their children only, and they sat. And they waited. And He spoke.
“It is time.” His voice was deep and without inflection. It was one of the things she loved about Him most. That voice. She’d learned early in life men could make anything sound appealing when said in just the right way. A subtle change to the timber of their voice, the volume, their words perfectly arranged until whoever stood on the other end began to shift and mold and morph. Like putty. Family, lovers, friends… Deception and manipulation was a skill possessed by many. The true masters were the ones who weren’t necessarily aware of their doings. The ones who were careless with their gift. He was the first person she’d ever met who’d been practical. He was honest. He refused to decorate His sentences with fancy words and sexy whispers or calm reassurances. No. He said what He said, and He meant what He meant. Now this man—the man who’d chosen her—stood at the head of the table and stared down. She looked into His almost black eyes and pursed her lips in the tiniest of kisses. She would love Him forever. And tonight, tonight, she would make Him proud. And she was thankful.
He addressed the town. “Everyone should know the rules by now, but I feel it necessary to go over them again. Due to what happened last time, we know even the best of us can get…” The night remained quiet as He searched for the most accurate word. “…unruly.”
Tense chuckles vibrated through crowd at the mention of The Incident, and Lucinda inhaled as deeply as she could as the top right corner of her head—still tender even after a year—began to ache.
“In order to partake in tonight’s events, you must offer my love, our Lucinda, a secret. A shameful truth. For your body and soul to accept her selfless gift, you must give her a part of yourself. Must be willing to let go of your ugliness to truly embrace her beauty. Rest assured, only she will hear your words. With each revelation, you will be able to start the new year with a clean slate.”
She imagined what He saw in this moment. A crowd full of nods, clenched fists, and gritted teeth—many whose hunger so intense and painful, they wouldn’t hesitate to spill their guts. Inevitably, there’d be the resisters as well. They’d run their fingers through their dirty, tangled hair in frustration, eager for her to fulfill their needs but reluctant to relinquish any part of themselves. Selfish to the end. Oh they’d do what was required, but they certainly wouldn’t like it. Wouldn’t feel it was fair. Wouldn’t be thankful. But her? Oh, yes. She was thankful.
“The ones from The Before couldn’t be honest. Not even with themselves. A truly pathetic species, and now they’re gone.” He looked them over, then continued, “You get one chance. Tell the truth, and you shall receive her blessing. Dare to lie, and you’ll be turned away. Not just from The Feast but from the town. You’ll have tonight to collect your things, and you’ll need to be far away come morning. Your family, if they are honest tonight, will not be punished for your deceit. They may leave with you or stay with us. The choice is theirs. Never have we had to banish someone, and I’d prefer we not break such an illustrious streak. Let’s get started. Happy Feasting.” He clapped His hands together, then looked down at her again. His full lips curled up at the corners as He set His hot palms on her collarbones and began to slide them down the length of her torso. She responded to his touch like she always did, goosebumps forming along her flesh, her nipples hardening when he parted her robe, her naked body now on display as the silk slipped over the sides of the table.
The last ceremony had taken until one hundred and thirty. She inhaled the nothingness around her and focused on the moon as she silently began to count. One, two, three…
She heard her children, her precious little ones, make their way to either side of her head. Heat radiated off their small bodies, and she had to quell the urge to reach out and pull them close. It took longer than usual for them to get settled. Her poor babies were depleted, after all. Earlier, when she’d kissed them before nap time, she noticed how pale their skin had become. So dull. So thin. As if she could poke a finger straight through them. Touch right down to their tiny, porous bones. Perhaps slide her fingers through the marrow within. Six, seven, eight…
“Mommy,” whispered her elder, Sarah, her breath against Lucinda’s ear, “I love Daddy more than I could ever love you.”
Lucinda had known this day would come; how could anyone, even her own child, possibly love her more than the being that was her Husband? Yes, she’d known for many months, but the words, when spoken out loud, even when whispered and for her ears alone, caused her more pain than anything else would tonight. They gutted her. A sharp, incessant sting from her core to her throat, but they were true. Her daughter, her sweet Sarah, had been honest. And she was thankful.
“Momma,” her littlest’s voice came to her other ear, followed by silence. Dalton was always so hesitant. So timid. The Land would destroy him if he wasn’t careful. “Yes?” she urged in her most gentle and reassuring tone. “Tell Momma your secret. Be a big boy, and tell me your truth.”
“Momma,” he said again, so quiet Lucinda strained to hear, “I heard Daddy say soon he would have to find someone new.”
Lucinda choked down the cry that threatened to tear its way out of her throat. It wasn’t unexpected, but why did everything have to be spoken about tonight? It took her longer to heal after every Feast. It would only be a matter of time before the next Feast became her last. “Baby,” she whispered, his soft cheek pressed against hers. This was against the rules, but something inside her had to know. “Did Daddy sound”—she paused, the word she searched for taking longer to arrive than expected—“sad?”
Her baby’s breath came again, then a small voice laced with confusion. “What’s sad?”
She ignored the question and granted them both permission to continue with the ceremony. Thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two… She took in a surprised inhale as their sharp teeth bit into the soft flesh of her breasts. They were so much stronger this year and clearly in need of what only she could provide. They tore at her skin and soon the muscle beneath. Their teeth made a strange sound she’d never been able to get used to as they chewed. She clenched her jaw and found the moon again as the pain worsened. It bobbled in the sky while they jerked her body back and forth. An arm around her waist, a pull, then a bite to her right side. Another arm around her waist, a pull in the other direction, and then another bite. With a small whimper, she allowed herself a moment to remember them as infants. Their long, dark lashes and small fingers, pudgy, as baby fingers usually are, as they held the swell of her breast and nursed to their heart’s content. She had been all they needed. In this way, she supposed she still was. And she was thankful.
Her children were the only ones who got to eat as much as they wanted. Everyone else had a one bite rule because, truly, that was all that was necessary. The Feast wasn’t about gluttony. It was about nurturing the town. Its people. Her family and friends and those, especially those, who despised her. This was her sacrifice to give every year for as long as she could. And she was thankful.
Once her little ones were satiated, they wiped their mouths with the backs of their hands and ran off to play in the empty field. At the moment, it was nothing but dead grass, but soon…soon it would be—
The next voice interrupted Lucinda’s thoughts, and after that, the night became a blur of hurried whispers and pain and blood. Secret after secret, truth after truth was told in confidence, and then another mouth would tear into some part of her body. Her side, stomach, a thigh… They chomped and ripped and chewed; everything below her collarbone was available for their taking. That was the most important rule of all. Without her brain, she wouldn’t be able to heal correctly. The fact that they couldn’t enjoy her face was simply a kindness gifted to her by the elders of the town. And she was thankful.
By many people, The Feast was considered barbaric. Insane. Demonic, even. But those populations, the ones without a single woman willing to sacrifice some of herself for others, died out long ago. Now it was just them, and they’d thrived for many years and would continue to do so because their women were like none other. And she was thankful.
They’d tried before with men, her Husband had told her, but it hadn’t worked. This was before she had been born, but now, everyone knew men didn’t heal the same way women did. And even if they had, those who’d eaten from them didn’t stay satiated as long. The nutrients absorbed from a generous bite of a woman’s flesh would provide enough energy and strength to thrive for about a year’s time. From a man, though, the benefit would run out after a mere month. This meant men had to make the sacrifice more often with less than mediocre results. It became apparent early on the only way to ensure their people survived far into the future was for women to be the gifters. A woman could be fed on for approximately ten consecutive years before she wouldn’t be able to recover anymore. Then someone else would have to be found. Lucinda met her Husband when He’d scouted her. He, the most powerful man in town, was in charge of selecting someone for The Feast. And He’d chosen her. Given her children. Honored her. Made her life worth living. And she was thankful.
Fifty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty… Her eyelids fluttered, and she dug her fingernails into the table in a desperate attempt to stay conscious. The moon was a blurry disk at this point, but blessedly, she continued to stay lucid through the exquisite pain. And she was thankful.
“I can’t believe she’s still awake.”
“It’s because she’s so strong. Look at her.”
“Yes, so brave.”
“A true inspiration.”
“Momma, I want to be like her when I grow up.”
Her body convulsed now, and she squeezed her eyes shut as she concentrated on her breathing. Seventy-five, seventy-six… Not only did shock make the meat taste sour, but it also destroyed its nutritional value. Lucinda would be damned if she allowed herself to succumb to weakness. She was a warrior, everyone said so, so it had to be true. She was strong. Eighty-two, eighty-three, eighty-four… And most of all, she loved her Husband, and He loved her and trusted her to do this. And she was thankful.
The moon and sky and faces and voices swam before her as the rest of the town continued to feast. She floated in and out of time as she listened to their secrets. Some weren’t so bad. Silly. Superficial.
“I hate this place. I’m going to find a way to leave.”
“I think you’re stupid to sacrifice yourself for us.”
“No one really cares about you.”
“He only picked you because you’re pathetic.”
“You won’t be missed when you’re gone.”
Those made her sad, but she could handle sad. Soon she’d be healed and ready to hug her children, to kiss her Husband, to make love to Him. She could listen to silly secrets if it meant the rest was to follow. And she was thankful.
But the awful ones…those she’d never understand. The woman whose foul breath assaulted Lucinda as she whispered, “I think about what it would be like to drown my children. How would it feel? To hold their little bodies under the water while they writhe and kick until they finally give up and leave me be. Then I’d be free. Finally free.” A longing sigh. “Maybe when the lake isn’t dried up.” A bite to her shoulder.
The young man, Thomas, who couldn’t have been more than fifteen: “Old man Jeffers didn’t run away. I…uh…I strangled him. And I”—a smile—”I spit in his mouth as he died.” A bite to her hip.
“When my wife is asleep, I cut her with my knife. Not deep, just enough to where it bleeds real nice.” A drunken snort as he giggled. “She gets so mad when she wakes up. And you know what? She’d never admit it, but I think she likes it, too, because we fuck real good afterward. Hey, maybe that’ll be her secret.” Another snort, then a bite to the skin between her inner thigh and sex.
One-hundred twenty-six, one-hundred twenty-seven, one-hundred twenty-eight…
“You’ll make them pay.”
His voice was new and quickly gone, only to be followed by many others.
Then finally, thankfully, it was near the end. Her Husband was the only person who hadn’t eaten. Once He’d taken what was His, she’d fall asleep and He’d start her treatment She’d wake up fully healed, and there He’d be. He’d pull her to Him and run His hands along her renewed flesh. Slide His lips along each and every new scar. Pleasure her. Slip his tongue into her mouth and sink deep inside her. He’d make everything okay. One day, she knew, she wouldn’t wake up. But that day hadn’t come. Not yet. He told her He’d let her know before the time came. So she could hug her kids for an entire year. Really watch them play. Speak with them. Listen extra carefully to the sound of their voices. Breathe in their sweet scent. Truly take in every moment she had left. Not all the women in the past had received this kindness, the gift of knowing when the time had come wasn’t guaranteed, but He promised her she’d be different. She’d been so selfless, and that deserved a reward. And she was thankful.
One-hundred forty-two, one-hundred forty-three, one hundred forty-four… She watched each number slowly dance behind her now closed eyelids, waiting for the final moment of the night. This night which already felt so terribly long, because she wasn’t sure how much more she could take. A glance down showed much of her skin and muscle gone. Her ribcage mostly bare, save for strings of…what? Flesh? Tendons? Like a long-forgotten carcass, picked clean by vultures and other sly scavengers.
He lay on top of her, His center between her shredded thighs, His upper body supported by His forearms. He pressed His lips against the still hairless scar on the top of her head, the permanent reminder of The Incident. When even He, her beloved Husband, had lost control. He gave featherlike kisses along her face which, apart from a few splatters of blood, remained smooth and untouched. “Open your eyes, my wife.”
Lucinda followed His request and watched as He held His hand over the chasm where her chest used to be. She wanted so desperately to hear the words, thank you for your sacrifice, but she quickly pushed the thought away. He hadn’t said it in a while, and that was okay. They all used to say the words, but somewhere along the line, they’d decided she didn’t need to hear them anymore. Or perhaps it was something different. Maybe they simply didn’t feel it. And she guessed that was okay as well. After all, she didn’t do this for simple thank-yous. This was her duty. Besides being a mother, this was why she was alive. And she was thankful.
He ran His tongue along the underside of her jaw, His frenzied groans the only thing to break through the haze of her pain. He’d once told her this was one of His favorite parts. When He got to taste her sweat and blood. “But never your tears,” He’d said.
She’d been confused by this. “Why would I cry? I’ve been of service.” And she was thankful.
“Lucinda, my darling Lucinda. I need you to hear me.” He flicked His tongue along the seam of her mouth, then pulled her bottom lip between His eager teeth. He sucked and nibbled, His breath coming out in short, excited bursts. “Tonight is your last Feast,” He whispered and then plunged His hand into her chest cavity and began to dig.
The pain was so excruciating and all-consuming she almost didn’t realize what He’d said. “Tonight is your last Feast.” She wasn’t going to be healed after tonight. He’d lied. She tried to move her arm, though she hadn’t the slightest idea what she’d do with it. Her fingers had been chewed down to their bones, and those bones were broken. It didn’t matter anyway. Her arm remained limp on the table as blood dripped from the remnants of her mangled body. She waited for unconsciousness. Begged for it. Pleaded for any kind of relief. She felt the moment He closed His fingers around His treasure and ripped it from her body. Her eyes connected with His. “Sarah is so proud of her momma. She told me she wants to be just like you when she’s old enough, which is only a few years away. I think she’ll make us proud. Don’t you?” He smiled down at her. “Yes, I think she will.” She watched as He tossed her heart up in the air and caught it again, a boyish smile on His beautiful face, then sank His teeth into her most precious muscle.
The town cheered as the ground beneath them began to vibrate. It’d been a year since they’d felt this alive, and they danced under the now vibrant moon. Their arms and legs flailed with newfound energy.
As Lucinda’s head fell to the side, she caught site of a rosy cheeked Sarah, and for a moment, she imagined Sarah in her place. Lying on the table. Devoured. Nothing left. She’d been wrong; she realized all too late. Sarah’s secret wasn’t the most painful thing she’d go through that night after all.
The field was now lush with green grass and flowers upon flowers upon flowers, their sweet smell intoxicating. Her blood, which had spilled over the table and seeped into the dirt, had done its job. It had revived The Land. Dalton sat to the side, his eyes fixed on hers, his lips and chin caked in her blood. His skin practically glowed with life as his gaze moved to his fingers in his lap. He knows.
“Not Sarah,” she choked out through the blood that continued to fill her throat.
“It’s been decided.”
“You have no say.”
“You used me.”
“I had to.”
He remained quiet for what felt like an eternity, but finally, she received an answer. “Because the way I feel for you, my darling, is the closest I’ve ever felt to Love. I swear, I really think I might Love you. And Love makes people weak.” He touched the tip of her nose with his forefinger. “I refuse to let my Love for you destroy me.”
“I Love…you…too.” A sob ripped from inside her as the tears began to slide down her face.
His brow wrinkled as He looked at her. He leaned in close and set His forehead against hers. “Why is it you cry now?” He asked while wiping her eyes.
Lucinda tried her best to swallow but was unable to do so. She coughed up more blood, spitting it out until she was able to croak out her next words, “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Forgive me, my sweet wife, for you are probably right. Please know, I truly thank you for your sacrifice and accept this final gift.” His long fingers found her cheeks, and He squeezed, forcing her lips apart. “You really are quite exquisite.” He shivered against her as he spoke, his breath hot on her skin. “Exceptional. Here.” He kissed her with a featherlight touch, then whispered as He continued to move His mouth across her lips. “You have to taste how utterly perfect you are…”
Her breath was quick and shallow, and she felt his length harden against her as He slipped His hot, wet tongue into her mouth. He ran it over hers, then offered her a tiny piece of meat. A tiny piece of herself.
Her teeth worked on the meat involuntarily. It was salty. Chewy. Slick. Delicious.
“I’m going to kill you,” she whispered. But he was already gone.
She saw more numbers. One-hundred fifty-seven, one-hundred… fif…
Her head rolled back and she found the sky. The stars shown with spectacular brightness, and despite of the horror of the night, she couldn’t help but be taken in by their beauty. The longer she looked, the more they began to blur into each other, and the fight which had helped her cling to life proved harder to hold onto. Her eyelids slowly began to close, and she knew the end had come for her. It was time. After everything, it was finally time to die. And she was thankful.
* * * *
Lucinda’s eyelids fluttered but were unable to open when Death slid its bare arms underneath her limp and torn body and lifted her from the table. Her limp body soon found comfort as she tilted to the side, her cheek coming to rest against something warm. The inaudible whisper from her lips, “Are you Death?”
The night air, cool and filled with the floral scents from the field invaded her senses. It helped to calm her burning skin. Her raw nerves. She felt her body begin to bounce against whatever she leaned on. She didn’t know how much time had passed, hours, maybe days. Did it matter? Everyone in town was most likely home, exhausted from the night’s events, asleep in their soft beds. All while Death carried her away. And then she heard it. A voice.
“We’ve got to hurry; she won’t make it much longer without help. Come on, stay with me, Lucinda.”
A man. Not Death. A human man carried her, and he was running. Fast. She wanted to open her eyes to see who had taken her, but she couldn’t. She could only lie there against the man’s chest.
He began to move quicker. The wind flew through her hair as his footsteps pounded against the dirt. The smell of flowers, which had been so intense moments before, now slowly started to drift away. The field where she’d last seen her children play, she knew, was behind them. They’d left the town.
One voice became two, two became more. She couldn’t tell how many people surrounded them. So many voices and still too much excruciating pain to concentrate. Blood pooled in her throat and, when she could hold no more, spilled out her mouth in a trail of coppery fire.
“Shit. Give me the pouch. Hurry up.”
The ground met her back with a soft thud, and then something thick and gritty was shoved between her lips. When she didn’t respond, she felt something warm and salty, maybe fingers, push the substance down her throat. She gagged then, but the man’s hand over her mouth stopped her from coughing it up. She tried to push her tongue against his hand, to spit it out, but that only caused him to use more force.
“Eat it. Trust me,” he insisted. “I know there’s no reason to but do it anyway.”
Angry tears slipped out the corners of her eyes as she choked down the filth which covered her tongue.
“You’re not done, yet. Come on.”
More sludge was pushed through her lips, but this time, her body took over and she welcomed it. She chewed and swallowed with newfound strength as she was picked up again, her body bouncing once more against the man who held her. She could tell from his breaths he ran as fast as he could, but he kept his fingers in her mouth so she could have every last bit of what he’d given her. Something familiar, the name so close… She swirled her tongue in a frenzied fit, desperate for more of whatever had been in the pouch. She licked and sucked, her teeth gnawing against his flesh, desperate for every last gritty bite. Only when she was finished did he remove his fingers.
“Good girl,” he said, his rushed breath against her forehead. “We’re almost there. Don’t you die on me. Do you hear me?”
“Yes…” The word barely made it past her lips before she was told to rest. She obeyed and listened to the sound of his feet below her. Clomp, clomp, clomp, snap. Twigs. She heard leaves and twigs crackle beneath him. We’re in The Forest. Panic shot through her body. She tried to move, to pull away or hit him, to do anything at all to save herself, but she was still too weak. Nothing good happened in The Forest.
“No, no, don’t move. We’re here to help. I promise.”
She heard more voices then.
“Move! It needs to be done before the sun comes up.”
She strained to think of what they could be speaking of. What had to be completed? All she knew for sure was they should not be in The Forest. It was not allowed. Everyone knew that. It was the first rule of the town. Never, under any circumstances, was one supposed to go in The Forest. Open your eyes.
“It’s ready. Do it.”
Open your eyes.
Hands grabbed all over her, then. Her legs, her hips, her back and shoulders. “This will heal you, Lucinda.”
Open your eyes.
Her stomach dropped as they lowered her, then slid her into something hard and snug. Her arms close to her sides, her fingers rested on something crumbly underneath her, soft but thick and heavy. Earth. Roots began to curl themselves around her legs and waist, holding her in place. She knew what this was. They meant to bury her.
Open. Your. Eyes!
Something within her pooled hot in her belly. She dug her shaking fingers into the dirt.
Lucinda’s eyes popped open long enough to see her captor’s face, his green eyes alive, red hair streaked with muck.
“I promised you’d make them pay,” he said.
The man from The Feast.
“First, you’ll heal,” he panted as he poured more dirt over her. “Then, you’ll kill every last one of them.”
For a split second, in the early morning after The Feast, Lucinda’s scream filled the air before the last shovelful of dirt filled her throat.