This Is Not a Place of Honor
Published, AU XXVII: Crisis (Spring, 2020)
The bloody desert sunrise bloomed across the sky, illuminating the twisting black spikes and spires of the old temple. Matta’s mother held out a stone dagger to her. It was dull and black and chipped in many places, but Matta knew well the speed and efficiency with which it could end the life of a sand serpent and separate its skin from its flesh.
“This is the knife my mother gave me when I took my vigil.” Her mother’s voice was clear and dignified, sounding as it did when she told stories of the old gods. “She was given it by her mother, who got it from her mother, who got it from her mother as far back as our family has stories. Now it is yours. Know the weight of this. This is all that I can give you on this journey. You are ready to walk this place as we have. From now until next sunrise, you must stay here. Speak the words of the old ones.” Her voice softened. “You make us proud, Matta.”
Matta grasped the knife in her calloused palm. She said nothing – was not permitted to speak in the tongue of her people – but merely bowed her head. Her mother kissed Matta’s presented forehead and then left her.
Matta turned away, not wanting to watch her mother’s retreat. She walked into the thicket of points and edges making up the temple, beginning to chant in the old tongue.
“This place is a message,” she began, her mouth not quite fitting around the sounds it was being asked for. The actual meaning of the words had been almost entirely lost to time, but the sounds were still clear – if odd even after years of memorization. She was to repeat this chant until the sun rose again.
“Part of a system of messages.” The sun beat down on the dark pleats of hair that snaked around her head. Her sisters had spent hours braiding it into intricate patterns as her mother had painted swirls and symbols in black ink along her body.
Jones finds me after our meeting in the seemingly endless stairwell spiraling down from
the office we had been called to.
“We’re fucked. You know that, right?” Jones says instead of a greeting.
“That’s the spirit,” I reply, leaning on the railing of the stairs, staring down into the abyss
of the floors below.
“No, I mean it. We’re trying to fight against basic human instinct. We’re fucked.” She
lets out a puff of air that is somewhere adjacent to laughter. “It’s a puzzle,” I say.
She laughs outright at that. “A puzzle? Is that what you want to call it?” She exhales, as if to punctuate a point. “I’d say it’s Sisyphean, an impossibility. This goes against everything we’ve observed about people for hundreds – hell, thousands of years. It’s Greek for god’s sake! We’re trying to stop Pandora from opening the box.”
“If that’s how you want to think about it. So you give someone a box, what’s the first thing they want to do? They open it. So you give them a box and tell them not to open it, now they just want to open it more,” I say. I keep my voice even in an attempt not to show how much I think she might be right.
“So you give them a box and tell them what’s inside is dangerous and will kill them, and they think you’re hiding something.” Jones picks up my analogy and runs with it: “So you give them a wooden block without an opening. You don’t tell them it’s a box. It doesn’t look like a box. There is no reason to think it’s a box. But one day they need some extra wood and hey, what’s this block good for anyway?”
“So they break it open and then it all comes pouring out,” I say and try to smile. “It’s a challenge. But isn’t that exciting? And to think, my parents told me anthropology was a waste of my talents.”
“Oh, yes, playing with the fate of humanity really is a good way to stick it to the world. Fucking look at us now.” Jones won’t look me in the eye.
“This is not a place of honor.” Matta walked for what seemed like hours, all of it in
circles around and within the old temple. The sun was approaching its peak in the sky. Its heat felt heavy against Matta’s dripping skin. She briefly sat under one of the black metal beams of the temple, but doing so had made her feel like an insect in honey. She would rather let the red soil rub her feet raw than face that subtle sense of dread.
“No esteemed deed is commemorated here.” There was no inside to this place, only pieces of structure sticking out of the ground at odd angles like broken ribs. They burned in the heat of the sun, as she discovered when she tried to lean against one. The heat still radiated in a pink spot on her hand.
“Nothing valued is here.” Matta’s throat screamed for rest or water but she could give it neither. She heard or felt or remembered or wanted all of the voices of all of the other vigils here. Generations of those leaving the role of child behind in this place; all making promises with a dead man’s tongue.
“Come on. We’ve been asked to do something good with all the knowledge we’ve built
up.” I grip the railing. “Doesn’t that mean something?”
“What are we doing here?” she says, joining me against the railing.
“Stopping people thousands of years in the future from digging up nuclear waste dumps. I felt like that was made very clear in the meeting.”
“No. No, I mean what are we—” She makes a circling motion with her hands. “—the larger we, doing that this would even be a question.”
“Hell if I know.” I surprise even myself with the curt response. “That’s not our question. The damage is done whether we like it or not.”
“The danger is still present.” The cold of the surrounding night seeped into Matta’s
bones. Her voice shook as she shivered. She gripped her mother’s knife tight in her hand. The red dirt looked purple in the full moonlight.
“In your time, as it was in ours.” She traces pictures into the clay beneath her, stained slightly red with the blood of a sparrow snake that had tried to bite her. Its body lay in a coil, oozing blood and venom. She had stuck its head on one of the many long silver spikes protruding from one of the beams, but she couldn’t remember which one now.
“The danger is to the body.” The stories told of the thing that lay under the temple. It was a god or something worse. Its name, Danger, was the only meaning left in the old tongue. She thought she could feel it beneath her, humming and twisting. Singing. She carved the image of a bird, the swirls on her skin, and her youngest sister’s name into the soil. “And it can kill.”
“What if we don’t give them the box?” Jones turns to me.
“I don’t understand.”
“What if we aren’t the ones giving the box.” Jones pushes off of the railing. “Their mother gives them the box. And her mother gave her the box. And her mother gave it to her. And her mother gave it to her. And it’s just mothers all the way down.”
“And so they understand it as their responsibility to keep the box closed. That there’s, well, something else behind it. Establish a tradition, a mythology.” I start smiling.
“A sense of duty,” Jones finishes for me.
“Do you think it will work?” I ask, because I know it’s what I’m supposed to say.
“Fuck if I know. That’s the worst part, we’re never going to find out if we did our jobs or
doomed the future.” She stares down to the bottom of the building. “It’s the best shot I can think of.”
The sun made its return known with a band of light that clung to the mountain tops. Matta
raised her head and extracted her body from the ground. Her feet moved her to the center of the temple, where her vigil always had to end. She began her final repetition.
“This place is a message. And part of a system of messages.” The black spires began to catch the first rays of sunlight, glittering as she walked past them.
“Sending this message was important to us.” She barely registered the sounds she was making anymore. “We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture. ”
“This is not a place of honor. No esteemed deed is commemorated here. Nothing valued is here.” At the heart of the temple there was a ring of bits and pieces that had been left behind – piles of stones, beads, a pair of shoes, teeth, a long, dark braid.
“What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.” Matta placed the body of the snake in a coil on top of a picture of marigold carved into a wooden block.
“The danger is in a particular location. It increases towards a center.” The ring surrounded a single tree bursting out of the ground in twists around itself. The Eldest was barren and barely taller than Matta but her mother told her that it had stood in this spot as long as anyone had stories. “The center of danger is here and below us. ”
“The danger is still present in your time, as it was in ours.” She rested her hand palm up on top of one of The Eldest’s wandering branches. The sun began to overtake the mountains, shining red across the sky.
“The danger is to the body. And it can kill.” Matta’s voice came out in scratches and hisses. Both arms shook as she brought the black knife to meet her open palm. She sliced open her skin with the same cleanness that ended the sparrow snake’s life. She watched her blood well up and escape through her fingers, dripping onto the stained soil below, before pressing her dripping hand against the generations of dried blood coating the trunk of The Eldest. She saw her mother and her grandmother and a hundred women’s hands, pressed steady to the tree beneath and above and within her own shaking one.
“This place is best left shunned and uninhabited.” The last words left her cracked lips as the last of the dark left the sky. She pulled her palm from the tree, seeing the stains of her blood fresh against a rusty backdrop.
And she was silent.