The Mother was pregnant. For eleven months, she had bled, stopping finally on the first day of December. A hushed excitement filled the air as the acolytes prepared for the impending birth of their new sister. As the Mother’s belly began to rapidly swell, the girls cooed and rubbed warmed oil across her stomach, softly tracing the plethora of darkish purple marks that indicated their births. They lay her on top of the stone surface where she would be bed-ridden for the duration of her pregnancy, carefully placing her head on a pillow.
There were twelve of them, the acolytes; daughters of the Mother. They grew quickly at first, all able to walk in their first few weeks of life. Their maturation slowed as they reached puberty, always in their twelfth year. They were known by their rank in the Cycle. The senior acolyte, XII, wore the resplendent crimson robes of her station as she presided over the care of their matriarch with a watchful eye. The Mother gasped as their new sister kicked within, shifting in the womb. Her daughters quietly moaned at her pain, their hands fluttering over her uncertainly. XII nervously placed her hands on the woman’s troubled brow. The Mother managed a weak smile and spoke in a strained whisper.
“Any day now, child.”
The contractions began early in the morning. The Mother’s pained cries woke her daughters who slumbered at the foot of her stone table. XII quickly rubbed the sleep from her eyes as she called to her sisters nearest to her in the Cycle.
“XI, bring a large bowl of warm water and soap, not too hot. X, boil the blade and the forceps.”
XII looked to the younger acolytes to instruct them, but they were already fetching the linen cloths, dipping some in warm water to cleanse away the fluids of birth and some in cold for their Mother’s brow. XII turned her attention to the woman writhing on the table and carefully placed her kicking feet into the stirrups. She touched the tanned and treated umbilical cord which served as a belt for reassurance, and saw her sisters doing the same. XI proffered the bowl and soap, and XII lathered up her arms to the elbows. She patted them dry on a clean white cloth held up by IV. She then thrust out her arms wide, startling her sisters, and told them to ready themselves.
“The Time has come, sisters-mine, the Cycle will continue as it always has and will so long as we stand by the Mother. Look to her and be grateful. Attend her!”
They hurriedly swarmed their matriarch, bathing her brow, and washing away the excrement that was passed as the woman strained, lifting her head and shrieking. Pits of smoldering ash burned from her eye sockets as she stared at the huddled mass of the youngest girls. She spat viciously at their feet and laughed at their terrified faces.
“SEE HOW I SUFFER FOR YOUR LIVES, CHILDREN! YOU WOULD NOT EXIST IF NOT FOR MY PAIN!”
The girls shied away from her, watching with scared, wild eyes as the Mother seemed to levitate off the table, arching her back. Her nails splintered and bled from her clawing at the stone. XII ushered them forward, signaling for XI to bring forth the obstetrical tools. The birthing of a new sister never took long, and as XII peered down between the woman’s legs, the Mother seemed to split at the seam as the babe’s head started to crown. XII held out a hand for the forceps, snapping her fingers angrily at the delay. XI fumbled for the pliers, her hands shaking, transfixed by the sight. XII snatched them and let them hover near the matriarch’s widening hole. She placed her hand on the heaving stomach and pressed as the woman pushed, shoving herself upright. Her screeches echoed in the cavern as the cold forceps slid in and grasped the head of the infant. XII brought forth their new sister into the world, the cries of the child rising as her Mother’s ceased.
The girls surrounded the Mother as she gave a shuddering sigh, fading out of consciousness. They mopped her perspiring brow, their faces filled with awe. XII and XI wiped their wailing sister’s bloody body with towels, and hushed her. XI held the child, her eyes going soft at the next link in the chain. XII gently shook the Mother, sprinkling water on her face to wake her. She awoke with a start, her hand shooting up and wrapping around the senior’s throat.
“It is time, Mother, you must sever the connection.” XII gasped, her breath whistling as she spoke.
The Mother nodded, ignoring XII’s coughing as she released her, and took the blade. The sister’s held their breath abated, watching the the edge of the knife placed against the cord. A strangled, soft cry broke through their lips as she sliced through the bond, and some looked away, tears streaming bitterly down their crumpled faces. The small child could not know now the agony of the wait, the torture of non-unity. But she would, the years would slowly tick by, and she would learn the endless yearning for the return to the womb of her creation. XII did not join in her sisters’ mourning. She knew the epoch of her life was soon approaching. A week’s time to let the new acolyte begin to mature and for the Mother to recuperate, that was all. The wait was almost at an end.
The Mother was bleeding again. The acolytes readied for the Observance of the new sister’s coming and the oldest sister’s departure from the mortal world. Crimson footprints scattered the cavern as the girls dashed to and fro, their steps smearing the droplets of blood left by the Mother. She did not wear her linens on this day, but instead let her thighs become slick with red, a reminder to her daughters that she was the only woman here. She favored the girls with near feral grins when she caught them staring and let her hands run through their hair, her finger nails scraping their prickled scalps.
“Such good girls you are.” She purred.
They smiled at her, bathing in the validation.
That night they held a feast in the honor of the three, the Mother, XII, and the child. The daughters watched with thinly concealed envy as the Mother held the suckling child at her breast and told XI to pour her eldest sister a glass of wine.
“Drink, darling, I can literally smell your excitement. You’ve not long now, dear, so calm yourself. Here, a little extra something for your nerves.”
The Mother uncorked a stopper on a small glass vial and poured the amber colored contents into her wine and offered it to XII, winking at her as she did so. XII managed a thank you before she gulped down the cocktail. The night had finally come. She felt excited, yes, but also rattled. The last year had been almost unbearable; she had given herself completely to her duties to distract her from the last leg of the wait. While she drank her wine, her mind settled into a haze. She had drifted into a stupor-like state, the stimuli around her meandering slowly through her senses.
After what seemed like minutes, the plates were being cleared, and the Mother took XII’s hand, leading her to face the assembly of her sisters. XII felt her arm raised, her fingers entwined with the matriarch’s, weaving slightly were she stood. Her Mother spoke softly to the acolytes.
“The Cycle is a living, breathing chain of existence. Each year I sever a part of myself from my being and give it to a new link. You are the links. You are the parts missing from me. I feel the loss; I can hear the desperate pleas of the pieces in each of you aching to be joined with me once more. Listen to their cries, children, and feel my shattered soul within you.”
The daughters clenched their chests, swaying and lamenting at the pain in their hearts. The Mother continued, her voice rising as she shook XII’s hand in the air.
“Tonight, my children, a daughter returns to the womb! Tonight, my soul will be reunited with a missing part! This part of me has waited twelve long years, knowing the hunger that cannot be sated and the thirst that cannot be quenched. Look to your eldest sister, and rejoice in her triumph!”
XII’s younger sisters cheered, running forward to wrap their arms about her, sobbing mightily as they did. The Mother disentangled XII from her sisters and led her to a separate chamber. XII looked back at the tear streaked faces, her mind foggy as she took each lurching step forward. The Mother closed the door, shutting them out. XII stood awkwardly to the side as her Mother went to the fireplace and stoked the embers to new life, adding some wood and blowing on it. She then turned soft eyes upon her, and slid the crimson robes from XII’s shoulders. XII dazed eyes filled with moisture as she stood naked in front of her maker and whispered brokenly.
“Oh, Mother, I have waited so long…..”
The Mother’s face was compassionate when placed a finger on her daughter’s lips.
“Hush, darling, I know. I have waited just as long, and I have missed you. Come, my daughter, and kiss your mother.”
She drew XII toward her, her eyes warm and loving. XII’s lips parted, a tear sliding down her face as the Mother kissed her. The kiss deepened as the matriarch angled her child’s face, placing a hand on the back of her head and making a fist with her hair. Suddenly, XII felt her breath being sucked out of her lungs. Her eyes flew open and she tried to push herself away. The Mother bit XII’s lip sharply, red liquid dribbling down her chin as she pinned her in a vice-like grip. XII struggled, spots appearing in her eyes as the walls of her lungs touched, the air gone, vacuumed into the Mother. She tried to wrestle herself away, struggling feebly, but to no avail. Her Mother continued to suck the life out of her, and XII’s eyes rolled skyward as they sunk into her sockets. Her skin sagged as her muscles seemed to melt away, the marrow in her bones disintegrating. Her veins dried, the blood leaving their casing.
XII was dead long before her Mother had finished, her emaciated and shriveled corpse falling to the ground when the matriarch finally released her. The Mother licked her lips, the adrenaline pumping through her. Her face glowed with renewed energy and she breathed in deeply, exhaling forcefully. She stepped gingerly over the body at her feet, smirking down at it. She made her way to the mirror on the wall and touched her cheeks, relishing their softness, eyeing the youthful complexion. She started to laugh silently, shaking with mirth. Her eyes sparkled with merriment while she rolled the small heap of skin and bones on the floor toward the fire.
“Poor little fools, how they fall like flies.”
The skin split and crackled as the chamber filled with the smell of burning flesh and crisping hair. The Mother’s nostrils flared when wrinkled her nose at the sharp, acrid smell. She walked toward the door, stooping to pick up the crimson robe and folded it neatly, her hands smoothing the fine fabric. She was still chuckling as she placed her hand on the door handle, trying to keep a straight face as she opened the door.
The daughters sighed and beamed at the beautiful woman who glided toward them. Their beloved matriarch gestured for XI to step forward, the babe in her arms. The Mother reached down between her thighs and then anointed the young sister’s brow. The child looked up at her with wide eyes, the red stain tingling on her forehead. X stepped forward and took the newest acolyte from XI, tying the child’s leathery umbilical cord around her small waist. XI’s focus was trained on the crimson robes in her Mother’s arms. The woman then spoke.
“A new sister joins you tonight and you all move forward in the Cycle, one step closer to your destiny. XI, shed the robes of your former rank, for you are now the eldest acolyte, XII.”
The new XII trembled as the Mother placed the red robe of the eldest’s station about her shoulders. The Mother peered down at her, smiling at the hunger staring back. She touched her daughter’s chin reassuringly.
“Soon, love, soon.”
XII nodded, her hands clenched as she savored the word, reveling in its sound, its taste rich upon her tongue.