Fear had coursed through my blood before in life, numbing my brain, icing my heart, but never like the moment I entered the church.
Devin laughed, “I dare you,” he said. As if I could refuse the thirty thousand silver coins he offered. Nothing to him.
The first time I felt real fear was as a child, walking the cobbled street beside my old Nana. In our daily travels, we had never before gone near the Blood Church before that day. The day after Midsummer, when townsfolk only left their dwellings if they had no choice, and the wind had already shifted, coming in from the sea.
As we reached the familiar crossroad, she took my hand and pulled me to the narrow alley that went up the hill.
“Never come you here again, girl,” she said.
By that time, the sun blazed down on us, my head swam in the heat, and the smell of acrid garbage swiveled around us. Fruits forgotten out to rot, vomit, something dead. The dust had already caked on my small feet, and more warmth radiated from the stone beneath, burning each toe that slipped out of the sandal. We were both soaked in sweat. Nana offered no explanation for our detour.
“Old Ma’,” I said when I’d had enough of the heat, “where are we going? I’m so thirsty and tired.”
“I wants you to see the Blood Church. I want you to hear the story and know. And then we shall never speak of this darkness again.”
“Oh, Ma’, I’m not in the moon for your ghost stories, my head hurts, and I’m so hot.”
She stopped walking, grabbed my arms and made me look her in the face.
“Nay, young babe, this be no ghost story. You remember always what your old Ma’ tell you, and maybe you never needs to think about it. But you always knows.”
After some sharp twists and turns where all I could see were the tall, rundown buildings leaning over the street, rags hanging from their windows to dry, we reached a plaza. We had been steadily going up, my feet dragging more with every step, but the view that now unfurled amazed me.
The street had led up a cliff, overlooking the marvelous turquoise summer sea. A salty breeze instantly refreshed me. I hadn’t known our village had a direct view over the water.
Enraptured by the sea, I hardly noticed the Church standing opposite, with its doors to the waves. It waited, small and decrepit, walls cracked, surrounded by brambles.
“Now, you listens to me child,” Nana said, coming between me and the Church. “This here is the Blood Church, on top of the water. This is where curses begun, where spells are brought about, and unholy gates are opened. Inside, there be a chest, and, in the chest, there be a book writ by the sea demon herself. If ever a curse is to be broke, the book is what holds the key. But beware you, the walls be painted red in blood, blood of seekers unworthy of the power. It is said the sea demon come to blind their bodies and take their souls away. My child, promise, never to go inside the Church, no matter what you hears. When winter’s wind shriek off the sea, that be the scream of stolen souls.”
I was much older the second time true fear came calling.
It was nightfall by the time I arrived home. Almost a woman, I spent much time outside our small rooms, working measly jobs, much the same as my mother. I knew why people refused to hire our service for a longer term and forced us to accept any work that came our way, but we rarely spoke of it.
“Ma’, what’s wrong?” I asked as soon as I entered the meager house. I barely noticed the heavy scent of mold anymore, and my eyes quickly adjusted to the semi darkness. Nana lay on the floor beneath our only window, a black rag clutched in her hands.
“Quick, child, cover them glass.”
“Why, is someone out there? Did someone hurt you?”
“Now, child!” She shoved the rag in my arms. I did as she commanded and helped her to bed.
Her face was paler than I’d ever seen before, black eyes bulging, lips of bloody red, blossoming black at the parting.
“Are you coming down with sickness, Ma’?”
She struggled to point to a small table in the corner of the room where I kept my beauty items.
“Cover all glass, child. It is not outside they comes from.”
“What? Who’s coming?”
She said nothing.
I inspected the table, confused, and then I saw what she meant. A small mirror.
“Do it,” she croaked from bed, “time be almost out.”
Even though I didn’t believe such stories, I did as I was told, hoping to ease her mind.
Later, when mother came home, relief flooded me, and I wanted to hug her and cry like a baby. Old Nana hadn’t spoken a word since I covered the mirror, but instead took to staring unblinking at the door. Blood dripped slowly from her mouth.
The ease I felt at seeing mother vanished quickly as her own countenance changed. She dropped her bags and ran to Nana, kneeling next to the bed.
“What is it, mother? What’s happening? Here, have some water.” She offered a chipped, yellowing mug filled to the brim, but Nana didn’t seem to notice.
“Daughter, they be coming, at last. It be time.”
“What? No! It’s not-”
“It, is child. Don’t fret now.” She took her hand and, finally, looked at her. “Tell your babe them tale, she needs to know. And pray for your old Ma’ and that your own souls be saved.”
“Please, mother. Tell me what to do. I’ll do it, I’ll go inside the Church, I’ll find a way to save you.”
“Never! Never my daughters go inside the Church of Blood,” Nana said and grabbed mother’s hand. “I pays the tally, spirits,” she cried out, “forget you this house!”
Then she would talk no more.
To my horror, mother wrapped a shawl around her own shoulders and ran into the night.
Nana refused to speak again, despite my prodding. Soon after midnight she closed her eyes, and in the early hours of morning, on the bed she had slept on my entire life, her chest rose for the last time.
I cried and screamed, but old Nana was beyond my help. I ran, face full of tears and bleary eyed, into the street, looking for my mother, but she was nowhere.
In the hazy light of the full moon, I spotted something shimmer in the distance. A person rounding the corner of my street, some steps ahead. Silver bracelets shone from his arm, reflecting the moonlight as he advanced toward me. I rushed to him, begging for help. My Nana is dying.
“Slow down, princess, where’s the fire? What’s a sweet girl like yourself doing out before the sun is risen?”
“Devin,” I said, catching my breath, some train of thought returning to me. “I – I don’t know what to do. Nana is sick and mother is gone and I-”
“Hush now, the ailments of old people are nothing to cry over. Troubles of the heart are a different matter altogether. I would believe you despairing over love lost, in the streets, at night.” A grin spread across his face.
“I have to find my mother.”
“Come now,” he grabbed my hand and pulled me in an embrace. “A kiss will make all better.”
Before I could wriggle myself free, he planted his wine tasting lips on mine. Fear and revulsion coursed through me; the shock was enough to make me forget why I was there, for a moment.
I pulled hard out of his arms and tripped over a loose stone. While I scrambled to my feet, he kicked me in my side, knocking the wind out of me.
“Go on then, filthy whore. I could have you for less coin than I spent on wine tonight. I could make you crawl to me on hands and knees. Trash, that’s what you all are. Witches. Cursed.” He spat on me.
After he left, I crept home, shivering and silent.
There I found my mother, crying on the floor by the bed. Her face was bloody, one eye bruised and swollen, her clothes ripped. Her shawl was missing.
I held her and she sobbed, but she refused to tell me where she’d been.
“Why mama?” I barely got the words out of my dry mouth, my throat tight. “Why did Nana die?”
“I don’t know, darling.” She had composed herself better than I. She washed and put on a clean, gray, dress, combed and braided her hair and mine. She took the black cloth from the window and covered Nana’s face with it.
“Why was she speaking of spirits at the end? And the Church?”
Mother made us tea, and we drank it at our salvaged dinner table.
“Your old Ma’ believed in the curse, even if she rarely spoke of it.”
“The curse? Like what folk in the village talk about us? Why would she start believing that?”
“She’s always believed. Maybe she was right.”
Mother took another sip of tea.
“When Nana was young, her father sold her to a sailor to marry. She only met him once. He was old and drunk and treated her rudely, but he offered a fine sum for her hand. They were to be married aboard his ship.
The night before the wedding, Nana slipped out and headed for the harbor. She set his ship aflame, and all the men aboard died.
She never told me how she managed, but the people have their own version. They say she went into the Blood Church and made a deal with the sea devil. She would help Nana be rid of her unwanted suitor, but there would be a price. For every man that died, Nana would be given one more year to live in freedom, but, at the end, the devil would come to collect her soul. People say death curses run in families, poisoning all those of the bloodline.”
She stared into my eyes.
“So, how many sailors died?”
She was quiet for a while, studying my face.
“I don’t know exactly, she never told me.”
The path that took me inside the Church, at high noon on Midsummer’s Day of Rest, started with my mother feeling faint one evening. She’d gutted fish alongside a neighborhood woman, paid nearly nothing, but grateful for the work.
It wasn’t the first time mother’s powers were spent after a day of labor, but, after seeing her, panic slowly rose in my chest. Is tragedy worse for being expected? On her last birthday she had reached Nana’s age of death.
Her state decayed with the passing of days, sinking me into despair. When she could no longer rise from bed, I gathered all the coins I had saved, and all belongings of any value and headed for the local healer.
“What do you want?” his wife asked me, closing the door behind her.
“Please, my mother is gravely ill.”
“Thirty thousand coins, and my husband will have a look at your dirty mother.”
Selling my small treasures in the street, I’d only amassed five thousand.
“Please, ma’am I only have-”
“Thirty thousand. Don’t come near here again, unless you have it.”
She slammed the door in my face.
As I turned to leave, I was almost knocked down by a man. He’d clearly seen me and made no effort to avoid the collision.
“Devin,” I said, regaining my balance.
“I heard you have no coin for the healer, dirty girl,” he said, laughing. “Maybe I should do the men of the village a service, and lend it to you. After all, we can’t have you spreading disease everywhere you go.”
I didn’t care how he insulted me, if there was any chance I could get my mother treatment.
“It’s not for me, I said. My mother is ill.”
“I knew you learned your ways from her, as she learned from the old crone. Come.”
He gestured for me to follow him, and I did. I ran after him like a dog, as he strode through the streets, too fast for me to walk beside him. He took me to a quiet crossroad, the one that began the climb to the Church.
Soon his hands were all over my body.
“First, I want you on your knees,” he whispered in my ear.
I jumped back, wrapping my coat around me, as tightly as I could.
“Come, now, don’t be shy. You want the money, don’t you?”
I did, more than anything.
He came near me again, pulling my coat off my shoulders, breathing fumes of alcohol all over my face. His hand went beneath my blouse, his lips hovered over mine.
“You should be proud of yourself, when has a whore ever cost thirty thousand coins?” he rasped.
When his calloused, cold hand touched my skin I sealed my eyes shut. I would do anything for my mother, but I couldn’t do this. I stepped away from him.
Though I expected that to be the end of it, Devin didn’t leave. He stood there, laughing.
“What’s this now? Am I the worse you’ve had? Worse than every man that’s set foot on this shore?”
He kicked a small stone out of his way.
“Come on, now, I’m not an evil man. In fact,” he said, grinning, “I’ll even give you a choice.”
Devin looked up the street that climbed the hill, the afternoon sun making his eyes glint.
“Either I have you how I please, or,” he took a step near me, “or you prove you’re not a cursed witch.”
“How do I prove that?”
“Easy. Everyone knows the cursed cannot go into the Blood Church. If you go in there and make it out alive, I’ll give you the money. But, if you’re scared, there’s always an easier way.” He took another step towards me. Close enough to whisper.
“Prove you’re worth more than the dirt beneath my boot. I dare you.”
The cold inside the Church is breathtaking. Like submerging in the sea, at the dawn of winter. Ice air invades my lungs, my pores, my thoughts. I see the demon of the waves, in my mind, coming closer and closer, a black sky behind her. Cold water washes over me, bathing me, cleansing me. I’m drowning. I’m free.
I open my eyes. The space is empty. There are drawings on the walls: ships at sea, mermaids lying bare on rocks jutting from the waves, the moon with all her faces, women with long hair and rounded bellies. The walls are warm to touch, like skin. Currents pass through the hall, like breath. There is nothing left for me to do but leave.
Devin is waiting outside, and I walk right past him.
When I arrive home, mother is feeling better.
Many years have passed since I crossed the threshold of the Church. Mother is old, and so am I. We sit on the porch of our house, our new house, we call it, though it is hardly new anymore. My children run around, picking flowers from the garden.
It is the eve of Nana’s death. She was then much younger than we are now.
“Mother,” I want to ask what I’ve never asked since. “Where did you go the night Ma’ died? Did you go into the Church?”
She looks to the horizon for a while, where the sky sinks into the sea. At this hour the colors mince, and the line between heaven and water is blurred.
“I wanted to, but I never made it.” Her eyes fill with tears. “I ran into the healer, although where he was going at that hour I do not know. Reason got the best of me, and I told him Ma’ was ill. I begged him to come help her. He asked for a fabulous sum. Giving him such coin would have left us homeless. So, instead he said he’d come, only if I-” tears stream down mother’s face “-well, if I let him use me. He hurt me and left me bleeding on the ground.”
I hold her hands until she stops crying.
“I thought I would die as well, all those years ago, when I fell ill. But it seems you did what I could not: you broke the curse.”