I walk alone.
The market street on which I walk was once busy, with street sellers flogging their wares loudly to busy passersby. Now it is empty. The stalls are still there, but only ghosts attend to them now. Nobody does trade here anymore. What is there to buy? The market is dead, as are many of my friends.
I just might be joining them soon.
I remember where I was when all this began. I, like so many, was a part of the huge throng that gathered before the old city temple to witness the death of the priests. The recently crowned King had found faith in a strange new god from the West, and had decreed that all servants of the old gods be put to death. One by one the priests were killed, their blood flowing down the steps of the temple. It proved to be a grave mistake.
No rain has fallen since then.
It has been a year since the last crops in the field withered and died. Famine has the city in its merciless grip. The people starve, and the king does nothing but hole himself up in his palace and pray to his cold, unfeeling god.
I keep my head down, and walk on. They are waiting for me.
I pass through the market and immediately turn left, into a narrow street. I know exactly where I’m going. After a couple of minutes I come to an unmarked door.
I take a deep breath and open it.
I emerge into an empty room. It looks like it was once a bar but it has been a long time since any drink was served here, for when famine strikes alcohol is one of the first things to go. Walking across the deserted space, I come to another, smaller door. It’s near impossible to see unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, and I open that too. There’s a flight of stairs going down to what was once the cellar of the bar. I go down and emerge into a wide, dimly lit space.
They are here.
They all turn at the sound of my arrival with wide, expectant eyes. I do not bother to count; I know there are exactly nineteen of them. Or are there more? New people are always joining us, each of them driven mercilessly before the whip of the Great Famine. The cruel hand of hunger has drawn lines on each and every one of their faces. Most of them I knew before the famine hit; all of them have changed drastically. We all have a few things in common though: We all are women, we all are mothers. Most of them, like me, are widows. And we all are bound by a secret that would condemn us if it ever got out, even in this broken world of ours.
For we all are here for one reason and one reason only.
It is here that we gather to eat our children.
I do not know exactly how this group began, but I cannot forget how I came to be a part of it. One day I was walking the street, near faint from hunger, when I came upon two women who took pity on me and brought me here. Here I was offered meat. It was not much, but it was more that I had eaten in weeks. I even had some left over to smuggle home to my seven year old son.
It was much later that I learned that I had been eating the baker’s son.
The following week, we ate the daughter of the taxman’s wife.
And on it went. Every week we cast lots to see whose child we would eat next. On weeks where rations from the Palace were enough to see us through we would not meet, but such occasions were few and far between. Deep down I was disgusted at what we were doing, but I dared not complain. After all meat was meat, and we were desperate. So I kept quiet, and went along.
Until last week, when the lot fell on me to bring my son.
My only child.
The baker’s wife – a woman who was once plump and kind-faced, but is now lean and rarely smiles – speaks first. “You’re late. Come, bring the boy. Let’s have it done.”
I say nothing.
One of the other women says, “Wait. She comes alone.”
The baker’s wife turns suddenly. After a minute, she asks quietly, “Where is the boy?”
I do not answer. I do not tell them of what I have done. I do not tell them that rather than offer my son unto the altar of our fellowship, I offered my body to a palace guard for three days on end in order to smuggle my son into the palace as a slave. There he will live a hard life, a cruel life of servitude, but he will live. I do not tell them this.
But my silence is enough. They know what I have done, as only mothers can.
What happens next happens in a blur. I am seized and bound and thrown roughly to the floor. The women gather around and stare down at me. I can feel their hate. I can see the anger in their eyes at my betrayal. But I see something else there too. I see shame.
At length, one of them speaks: “What shall we do with her?”
“There is only one thing to do,” replies the butcher’s wife, drawing a knife out of nowhere.
I do not struggle. More wood is added to the fire, which roars. I can almost feel its eagerness to roast pieces of my flesh. Somebody turns me over as the butcher’s wife puts her blade to my throat…
…and slices it open.
And as the world fades to black, my last thought is: It does not hurt as much as I thought it would.