Into the Unknown (soundtrack: Tool – Aenima)
Lisette hesitated, her gaze split between the gun and the red ember held in the bowl of the pipe. She couldn’t be the first girl they’d ever had that didn’t sell. What did they do with girls they couldn’t trade? Surely they wouldn’t keep her.
“Girl, I am not going to ask again. Git down here.”
She climbed over the tailgate, and jumped to the ground. It was broken, almost springy, like a raft resting on water. In the dark something splashed, and she jumped. They were closer to the Big Death than she thought. She kept one hand on the truck as she rounded it, heading toward the red glow of the driver’s pipe. She stopped just outside grabbing distance.
“What are we doing out here?” She wished she sounded less like a mouse, but there was little she could do for the squeak that emerged.
“Stoppin’, you got a problem with that?”
“N-no.” She looked over her shoulder. The trees swayed in the wind, and she thought she heard a moan. She knew she could run faster than him, but where would she go. Without a Flock no one would take her in, even after all these years the fear of infection was strong among the walled cities that littered the Bayou.
“Well, come on then.” The driver reached for her, and Lisette jumped. He caught her arm before she could decide to run. It was like being held in a vice.
“Ouch,” she said and tried to break free, but he tightened his hand until she squeaked from real pain instead of just surprise.
He hauled her along with him, down over the embankment. Her eyes flickered back and forth between the grim line of his mouth and the gun over his arm. If he killed her no one would know but the gators and the shamblers. Her grave would be the Big Death, and no one would find her ever.
Together, they walked through a curtain of Spanish Moss, its corkscrew tendrils like the cold hands of death testing her flesh. She shivered.
“Keep moving,” the driver said and without pausing stepped over a pool of water onto a wide path. Lisette blinked. The path was wide enough for three people, and was topped by a thick layer of gravel and edged by larger stones that kept the smaller ones in place. It was pristine, no weeds or limbs lying across the path, which meant someone had to be caring for this place. What could be so important out here in the middle of nowhere?
The driver stopped and whistled shrilly, it was returned almost instantly from above their heads. Lisette looked up, it was pitch black and nothing moved.
“Yeah?” Ahead of them a deep voice rumbled out of the darkness.
“Got one didn’t sell.” The driver pulled his pipe from his mouth, the smoke smelled like wet dog and cherry.
“Yeah?” The same voice responded.
“Heard tell the Mambo might need someone for the rice fields, someone you don’t have to be too picky over.”
Lisette squinted, she saw movement. There was a hiss and a flare of light, a small man with a bent back lit a lantern. He was dark as pitch and older than anyone she had ever met. His tight curls white as blanched bone, and his long fingers bare of any spare flesh at all. He reminded her of a scarecrow.
“Well, here she is.” The driver shoved her forward, releasing her arm and causing a tide of tingles to flow down it. She rubbed at the red mark he’d left behind. “She ain’t much.”
“Got the mark, eh?” The old man said to her. She couldn’t help but put her hands to her face. “Let me go get the, Mambo.”
He whistled a sound that echoed and repeated until she thought the very trees themselves were recreating it. Then all fell silent, and Lisette could hear the quick-time march of boots cutting through the dark. In no time at all a woman entered the warm glow of the lantern light, and drained it of its cheer and warmth.
She was tall and sharp like the knife hanging from her waist. Her hair was twisted into knotted braids that were decorated with everything from bone to wax. She shook her head, and it was dizzying trying to follow the flashes of light and color. When she stopped, she put her hands on her hips. Her frown filled the air between them. “You bring me the cursed, again? And why don’t this Flock never see the best of your wares, Noma? Why don’t we get a chance to trade for the pretty ones?”
Lisette dropped her head, shamed once again.
“Mambo Brighette, I am wounded! I bring you the best of what I can.”
“Lies! You bring them here because you know I can cure them. Still, I cannot argue with your prices, especially since I set them.”
“Maman!” The old man next to her protested, and then ducked away as her black eyes flashed toward him. The wind blew, and the hand holding the lantern shook in time to the swaying of the willows. Lisette could not take her eyes off him.
“So, what say you, Miz Brighette? Another for the fields?” Noma, the driver, gestured and Lisette tried to sink farther into the shadows around them. She had more to offer than just field work, she could read and write and she was quick. All her teachers said so. If she could only find her voice to say, “I know how to read.”
When she heard the squeak, the Mambo turned the intensity of her gaze on Lisette. It felt like a slap, like the shock of spring thaw.
“What did you say?” Her voice was soft, but deadly, a rattle in the weeds or a growl in the underbrush.
Lisette swallowed her fear, “I can read, and I can write too. My teachers told me I was too quick by far, for a girl with the curse.”
“An education? At least they offered you that much, even if they couldn’t cure you.” She paused, thinking, “What flock are you from?”
“Far from here.”
“I didn’t sell.”
“Well, that is obvious if you’ve ended up here on the edge of the Big Death.” Above them an owl screamed. Everyone looked up but the Mambo and Lisette.
“Yes, Ma’am,” she said.
“Ok, Noma. Fetch her stuff from the truck. And you, little girl-”
“My name is Lisette.”
“I care little for names, and even less for being interrupted.” she snapped, “You will follow Bertrand to the purification cottage.”
The small man next to Mambo Brighette flinched, then straightened as much as he could. His narrow face drew into a thin, sharp frown and it was mirrored in the rest of his body. Lisette could not tell if the frown was directed at her or the Mambo.
“We ain’t settled on a price yet, Brighette,” Trader Noma said.
Lisette looked from Trader Noma back to Bertrand.
“One bag of seed, and not a bit more,” the Mambo said.
“One? It took more than that in fuel to get out here!”
“And do you know how much it is going to cost to purify her? Besides, who else are you going to sell her to?”
The Trader mumbled and spat before looking up, “Fine. Take her.”
Lisette should have been happy, she’d just sold, but the cold lump in her stomach was anything but happiness. Out of one bag of seed he parents would see almost nothing. They would continue to live hand to mouth as they had always done, and without her there to offer help with the babies. She wanted to protest, she wanted to proclaim her worth, but her skin told a different tale. She was a bane…a curse.
She hurried forward to follow Bertrand’s odd shuffling gait beyond the trees, and into the unknown.
Umami: Trading Season