Saturday, June 15, 2024



Al Bruno III 


The First Day

Brother Simon and the elders of the fellowship led Judith out of the Settlement of Arbatan through the tall corn stalks to the brown sawgrass that covered the Meadow of Larn. They would go no further because the Vulgate of the Magna Mater decreed that from this point on, the supplicant must walk alone.

Judith wore only a thin, white robe with a cowl. Judith was younger than most supplicants, barely a woman in the opinions of some, but she had learned every verse of Cybele's writings, and she had passed the tests of purity and strength with ease. No one could deny she was ready for this.

As was the custom, the soil of the meadow had been sprinkled with shards of broken glass. They gleamed in the morning light like dewdrops. Judith walked carefully, but the flesh of her bare feet were ragged and bloody by the time she reached the Vessel of Transubstantiation.

To an outsider the vessel would look like an old steamer trunk, but it had been blessed by Brother Simon in the name of the Holy Mother. Now every angle and surface was infused with divine power. Kneeling beside it, Judith lifted the lid and felt along the inside, her fingers tracing the rope handle that had been added. Judith looked back to see the elders watching her, ready to pray when she took her place in the vessel and ready to give chase if she tried to run, tried to make it past the tall fences to the interstate.

Judith remembered the last time that had happened, the way the failed supplicant, Lillian, had been dragged back to the settlement, the way she had been tied down and given a hundred lashes. That had been ten years ago. The woman still lived, her home on the north side of the settlement where she made candles and sour wine.

Her face and body were a tangle of scars; she had no husband, no children, and when she eventually died, she would be left to the animals.

Was that what made the ruined woman come to Judith last night? Lillian had whispered through her window that trying to escape had been the best decision she’d ever made.

Alone in the meadow, Judith prayed that she would have the strength to survive the inner wilderness and that Cybele would find her worthy. No supplicant had been found worthy in over a generation, leaving the fellowship without a Holy Mother.

Now there was only Brother Simon to lead the way, Brother Simon who had gelded himself to prove his devotion. Judith admired him, and like him, she had no intention of turning away from her great calling. She had wanted this since she was twelve years old, and hadn’t there been signs and portents to encourage her?

Finally, it was time to climb into the Vessel of Transubstantiation. To fit she had to tuck her knees up tight beneath her and bend down until her head was almost level with them. After a

moment’s fumbling, she found the rope handle attached to the inside of the steamer trunk’s lid. She gave it a good hard tug.

Nothing happened.

She pulled again. Still nothing. The lid wouldn’t quite close. There was half an inch of space keeping the trunk from clicking shut completely. She shifted around a little, trying to make herself smaller, and exhaled for as long and hard as she could. Then she pulled again on the handle.

The lock clicked. She listened for the elders to approach and check to make sure she was secure. It wasn’t unheard of for

supplicants of weak faith and strong ambition to try and keep the lid from truly closing or jamming the lock with mud. As Brother Simon always said, “No chances can be taken in matters of faith.”

She heard their hands move over the vessel, felt them jostle it this way and that. Satisfied there was no earthly escape for her, they left the Meadow of Larn, abandoning Judith to the mercy of the elements and the wisdom of Cybele. 


The Second Day


For a time there was only darkness, darkness and the sounds of her shallow breaths. There was a nervous fluttering in her stomach, and she worked to calm it by reciting the Vulgate of the Magna Mater, those tales and proverbs of the faith set down by Shelia Small in the year 1979. The year before an angry God cleared the Earth, leaving behind nothing more than a veil of illusions and lies to beguile the unwary. Only those who dwelt in the grace of Cybelle were allowed to truly live.

By the time Judith reached the sacred hymns of Attis, her holy prison had grown warm. She could imagine the afternoon sun shining down on the Vessel of Transubstantiation, making the new padlock shine and faux brass fittings glisten.

The songs of birds and chirping of cicadas were muffled but still recognizable; she even heard the illusion of a jet airplane pass overhead.

It was so easy to look upon a sight like that and be fooled into thinking the outside world still thrived.

The rush of adrenalin faded, and her eyelids began to grow heavy. She was more tired than she realized.

Judith yawned, but her position in the trunk made it little more than a hiccup. The sacred songs began to jumble together. She didn't want to sleep. She wanted to be strong and alert for every moment of her ordeal, but it was so dark in the trunk.

The dreams that rushed up to meet her were of familiar faces and old arguments. All of her family and friends had tried to talk her out of this, sometimes out of doubt and sometimes out of love. Judith might have let them sway her if she hadn't been absolutely certain of her calling.

Soon they would understand. Soon she would be the new Holy Mother. This is what she had been born for. It was not her destiny to become another corpse at the bottom of the Great Ravine. 


The Third Day


It was night when she awoke again, the bird sounds replaced by crickets and frogs. Her shoulders and spine were aching, and her feet had gone numb. She wanted to inhale deeply, but the unnatural posture she was held in prevented that. It felt to Judith like she was trapped in a giant fist that was slowly closing in around her. Was that it? Was the Vessel of Transubstantiation somehow shrinking?

There was no stopping the panic, the terror that came with that thought. Judith clawed at the walls of the trunk until her nails broke, and she left trails of blood on either side of her. She called out for help, howling and sobbing. 


The Fourth Day 


The sounds and chill of the morning called her back to consciousness. Her head ached. Her hands ached. She had soiled herself, and even though it had been an inevitable part of the trial, she still felt shame and disgust.

Had her faith really been so weak? Was this how it had been with the others? Fear, pain, madness, and then death?

No. Judith told herself. She couldn’t believe that.

It wasn’t pride or foolishness that had set her upon this path. She knew the Fellowship of Cybele was growing weaker despite the

best efforts of Brother Simon. The Holy Mother had always said she knew her time would be brief, that she would be martyred by the faithless.

They needed a new Holy Mother desperately. Brother Simon was doing his best, but he needed three wives to assist him in his

duties, each one a young scholar, wise and beautiful beyond her years. The fellowship could never move forward on the path of Cybele without a woman leading them. No man could do it, not even a man as devout and self-sacrificing as Brother Simon. 


The Fifth Day


By her fifth day in the Vessel of Transubstantiation, hunger and thirst competed for attention with the muscle spasms that traveled along her body. Judith tried to keep her mind focused on the Vulgate of the Magna Mater, but instead her thoughts kept returning to the subject of food, especially the taste of wild blackberries. What she wouldn’t give to have a few of those with her now. Just a handful.

At first the sound was so faint that she was sure she was imagining it. A deep, animal grumbling punctuated by labored breathing. Before she knew it, the sound was right outside her holy prison. Beasts usually stayed away from the Meadow of Larn —the shards of broken glass saw to that—but this one’s curiosity, or hunger, must have gotten the best of it. Judith forced herself to stay quiet as the creature chuffed and grumbled.

Children of the fellowship were always warned about the bears that lived in the forest, but no one had ever seen one. It had been a game among the teenagers to go looking for them, to have something to brag about. The most anyone ever encountered was the occasional group of campers. Such strangers might look innocent, but the teenagers of the fellowship knew they were the living embodiments of temptation and far more dangerous than any beast.

They were always dealt with harshly.

Judith had been part of these acts of secret savagery only twice, once when she was twelve and once when she was seventeen. Both times she had been amazed and horrified at how much those devils in human shape had bled and begged just like real people.

The thing that might be a bear nudged the steamer trunk, rocking it in place. Judith squealed and tried to cringe away, but there was nowhere to go. The sound of her voice encouraged the beast. It pushed against the Vessel of Transubstantiation again, tipping it to one side.


The thing that might be a bear beat its claws against the walls of wood and leather.

Thump! Thump!

Each blow was punctuated by a growl that almost sounded like a bark. Judith imagined the walls of the trunk coming apart like the walls of a tent, she imagined failing at everything she’d ever prayed for.

“Go away!” she shouted.

The beast made a startled noise then beat at the trunk again.

“I said go away!” She raised her thirst-ragged voice as loud as it would go, bellowing orders like she would at a mischievous child or amorous boy. “In the name of Cybele, go away!”

And just like that, it did. 


The Sixth Day


Time had lost all meaning. Sometimes it was night, sometimes it was day, sometimes it rained, sometimes it didn’t. The creature

that might have been a bear never returned, and that had been a great bolster to her faith.

But now some part of her wished it would come back just so she could feel something more than the serene agony of dehydration and starvation.

Sometimes she would dream that she had never done this, that reality was her still home in her bed, or in Brother Simon’s bed.

He had asked several times for her to become his fourth wife, but she had always refused the old man as gently as she could. To have any husband in her life, even an emasculated one, would be a distraction.

She had been so sure of herself when she had entered the Meadow of Larn.

Just a few days of discomfort, she had told herself. How terrible could it be?

And look what those few days had done to her, locked in a box that reeked of piss, shit, and blood, insects crawling on her skin, muscles that ached and a head lost to confusion.

More and more she began to worry that she had made a terrible mistake.


The Seventh Day


It had been so long now, so long that she felt like she was already dead and rotting away, that she was a corpse that prayed to a goddess that didn’t listen.

But it wasn’t that Cybele wasn’t listening, was it? Cybele had listened but found her unworthy. And what was the fate of the unworthy?

All she could do now was wait. 


The Eighth Day


A few hours ago, or maybe it had been a few days, Judith had tried to gnaw her wrists open. She couldn’t remember when she had decided to kill herself, but she was too weak for even that.

She became more and more certain that she was already in Hell, that this was her the punishment for her presumption.

“What happened here?”
She started at the voice. It was familiar. It was Elder Gregory!
“Another bear. They’re getting too close.”

And that was Elder Mary!

Judith started to laugh. She had been right! She WAS the chosen one!

She called out to them, begging them to set her free so she could offer a prayer to the light of day. Her first prayer as the new Holy Mother!

“She’s alive?” Elder Mary gasped. “After all this time?” Elder Gregory’s voice broke “It’s a miracle!”

“What—what do we do now?” Elder Mary said.

When Brother Simon spoke, his voice was calm and passionless. “Throw her in the ravine with the others.” 




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