She appears like an apparition at the edge of the corn field. Her orange gown’s contrast to the neutral, earthy surroundings is like a punch in the eyes. It makes me think of blood. The other workers stop what they’re doing to rush up to her like excited children. From where I stand, it looks like she is holding a tray of treats. Curiosity beckons me. I walk begrudgingly toward the story teller, resisting the urge to shake my head at her.
The tray in her hands holds a tall pitcher of water, cups, a pot of coffee, a bowl of fruit, and cranberry cakes.
“What has inspired our great story teller to bring all this to the lowly workers?” I ask.
Her smile fades as her gaze meets mine. “I thought it would be nice to bring refreshments to our hard working men. That includes you. While you’re still here, that is.”
I force a smile, but she does not mirror it. I laugh hollowly at her unmasked annoyance.
“This is the first time I’ve seen you not being fake,” I whisper in her ear.
“I’d say it’s the first time I’ve seen you smile, but it doesn’t count if it’s not genuine.”
She moves away from me.
“You’re a goddess, Almaz,” says Balaam, a middle-aged man and father of three. “Thank you for the kindness.”
He throws me a scowl before walking off with his cup of coffee and a handful of fruit. My smile widens as I realize my ability to cause people to scowl.
“Thank you, fair lady, for this cornucopia,” says Markev, a younger version of Balaam. He also gives me a scornful glare as he makes his way back to work the corn.
She shifts uncomfortably as I slowly make my selection of fruit. I decide on a shiny red apple then weigh the options of sipping hot coffee as a treat or drinking more cool water. She smells like lavender and lemons. No doubt she prepared herself carefully for this occasion to charm us.
“I already have my canteen out in the field, but that coffee’s mighty tempting. Isn’t it too hot for that, though? Are you trying to give us all heat stroke?”
“Barak, you’re impossible!”
“Well, you obviously have some kind of agenda.”
“Every summer will become a little hotter than the last one, yet humanity will still want to drink coffee,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Oh, but seriously this is so kind of you to stop by with refreshments!” I say, feigning enthusiasm. “We wouldn’t want them to think you’re here just to be pampered and admired.”
“Stop the sarcasm,” she says sharply. “You’re being childish.”
I ignore her and pour a cup of coffee on the wobbly tray. I take the apple in my other hand and walk away.
“Wait,” she says quickly. “I couldn’t sleep last night because … well, I thought about what you said. I started writing a story that I think you’ll appreciate. Would you come to the camp fire tonight?”
“I thought you only told stories twice per week.”
“This is a special circumstance. I’m doing this for you. You inspired me, Barak. I hope it might be something you can relate to.”
“Do tell,” I say.
The lack of sincerity in my voice is obvious even to me.
Her thickly lashed eyelids lower as she looks down at the tray. “The story is a surprise. I can’t spoil it for you.”
I take a step back and sip the hot, bitter liquid. I wish she brought cream along. With a sigh, I shrug. “I’ll go to the campfire this one time. If you insist.”
She smiles softly. It almost looks sincere, but I know it bothers her that I’m the one person who doesn’t like listening to her. She’s used those big, bright eyes to persuade many people to believe that she’s the answer to all their prayers. “I’m so happy you’ll be there to listen, Barak. I hope this story will help you.”
“We’ll see,” I say, leaving her to get back to my work.
As the bright sky fades to inky darkness, I return from fishing at the river with a pail of red carp and a handful of wild berries in my cargo pocket. The blackberry and raspberry bushes have flourished on the riverbank, much to my delight. Had the people at camp been nicer to me, I would have told them about it. Back at my hut, I fry up the fish over a small fire.
I can’t deny that I’m looking forward to balking at the campfire as Almaz tells her tale. I wonder why she’s been fixated on me lately. Out of anyone in this commune, Almaz has made the most effort to speak with me. What if it’s a ploy to make a mockery of me? I wring my hands, surprised at my sudden nervousness. I remind myself that I have nothing to be afraid of. These people mean nothing to me and I’ll soon be gone. It feels strange to walk up to the campfire after not going for a while. Though we all live in the same camp, I live in an entirely different world than the rest of them. I’ve been alone since my friends died over three years ago.
I sit on a log bench that is farthest away from everyone. I’ve never been a people watcher so I look up at the stars instead. The crowd’s chattering rises in volume as everyone congregates around the fire with their children. As usual, no one looks my way to offer a greeting or a smile. I’ve been dead to them for a long time. I swallow past a painful lump in my throat.
Almaz steps out of her hut and walks regally up to the crowd. She’s changed into a fresh white gown. A crown of dainty wild flowers adorns her dark head. People stand once she reaches the small podium. I marvel at how they regard her. She’s become like a queen in their eyes. I don’t stand up and she doesn’t look my way. Once everyone is seated again, she takes an audible gasp of air. Her gaze hardens as her lips part slightly.
“With my sword in hand, I walk up the hill, slipping once I near the top,” she begins. “When I hit the ground, red liquid sticks to my exposed skin. I force myself to rise, covered in the life that was drawn from other men. I stand and make my way to the top of the rise.”
Her eyes dart to me. “Ahead of me the battle rages. I grip the hilt of my sword and charge ahead. As I run toward the violence, the thunder in my ears drowns out yells of pain and anger.”
I stand abruptly on shaking legs. Her eyes widen, but she continues talking. Some of the group’s eyes are on me now. For once, they notice me.
“Most of my friends lay dead at the foot of the hill, but I must carry on,” says Almaz with passion.
Our eyes lock together. She hesitates to speak as she studies my face.
“How dare you?” I ask, my voice barely above a whisper.
I turn to leave, nearly tripping over my own feet. I run clumsily to my hut as her raised voice chases me like an evil spirit. I lock myself inside, but I can’t escape the hatred that grows stronger inside of me.
“That twisted bitch,” I snarl.
I walk back and forth in the small space with my hands planted over my ears. Her words can’t reach me now. I close my eyes and travel back to the battle in my mind. The images of the dead and dying are as fresh as they were in the moment it was happening. I suppress a scream, falling to my knees. I am so lost without my friends.
“How could you all forsake me like this?” I wail, lowering my face until my forehead hits the dirt floor. “How am I supposed to move on from what happened when I can’t stop thinking about that day?”
Silent tears stream down my skin, blending with my sweat. The world has gone quiet again. Almaz is finished with the story. I sit up and my head turns in the direction of the table. I stand and walk toward it. I pick up the carving knife, gripping it by the hilt. Standing with the weapon in my grasp, my tremors cease and my body temperature starts to cool. I know what needs to be done now.
Some of the people are still outside. I wait.
Hissing sounds above the soft voices. Someone has put out the fire for the night. I stand there waiting until the voices stop. Taking in a choppy breath, I open the door and step into the darker, quieter world. I scan the area. No one else is outside.
I walk quietly in the direction of the story teller’s hut.