Monday, February 19, 2018

The Sisters of the Dust by Simon McHardy

In Simon McHardy's fantasy, Anwen is a reluctant volunteer for a bizarre ancient ritual.

The priest was getting very excited now, droplets of spittle trembled from the corners of his mouth, his tongue darted out between pauses to dab at the drool which only had the effect of relocating it onto his chin where it hung like spindly jungle vines before dripping onto the pulpit. 'The Empire was dying, the cities had sunk into cesspits of corruption and moral decay, at night blood thirsty phantoms preyed on the weak and poor,' the priest shrieked, the high tones reverberating through the hall. Anwen winced at the sound and slumped further into the pew as if she could escape it, the hard, wooden back grated uncomfortably against her spine. On and on the priest droned, erupting spasmodically into spittle-filled tirades. How much more of her day was this old fool going to take up, she wondered? Outside, the sun was shining, the park would be shaking off the last of the morning dew, insects were humming and the smell of spring lay thick and heady in the air like the vapours of a strong wine.

'But not all the gods had forsaken the people,' the priest continued, his voice now more restrained, the previous outbursts seemingly having upset even his own ears.

'A young priest, Diecot Black, prayed daily kneeling on the stone floor of his cell. His fervent mutterings beseeched the gods to deliver the Empire from evil. One of the gods took pity on this young man and as the sun sought its rest one evening the priest's devotions were interrupted by a voice whispering within the stone walls of his cell. "Do you want to save your people?"

'"Yes," said Diecot Black, rising shakily from his knees, and with his head bowed he stood reverently before the stones of the cell wall.

'"Then hear me, I am Varn, the god of mountains, hills and stone. Your people abandoned me but I have not forgotten the adulation and love I was once shown. Thirty days' ride north, beyond the great plains and dark forests, there is a hilly region and the land there is good. Upon the tallest hill there stands a statue of me, it has withstood the test of time whereas I have drifted beyond mortal memory. Gather the faithful, worship me and I shall protect you from the corruption and phantoms that plague your people."' Anwen's lips pulled back in a sneer. A priest who hears voices, she mused, and talks to stone walls. No wonder the city was in such rapid decline if these men were looked to for guidance.

'Few believed, and even fewer set out with Diecot Black to the statue of Varn. On the thirtieth day they emerged from the twisting forest into a land of rolling hills and azure rivers. From the tallest hill, a statue, its features long erased by centuries of wind and dust, stared sightlessly at the quiet land. The city of Davark was founded, a period of peace and plenty ensued. In honour of their deliverance, the citizens of Davark reshaped the weather-worn statue in Diecot Black's own image. Along with other safeguards, religious orders were formed to combat the phantoms that would inevitably come from the ashes of the dead Empire. Principal among these orders was the sisters of the dust.'

Anwen sighed, some of the more mischievous children would be climbing the trees now, the more daring sitting in the top branches of giant cedars and grinning happily at the domed temples from which they had escaped. The priest turned his head and grinned at the group of older girls among whom Anwen was sitting. 'Today we call on someone from our very own congregation to make an extraordinary sacrifice, to be one of the few, a sister of the dust.' The girls around Anwen murmured in excitement, exchanging fervent glances. Anwen pitied them, their naivety, their blind obedience. The miserable wretch who was chosen would be plucked from a life of comfort and normality and forced to walk ceaselessly around a crumbling statue. And what for? So their pitiful shuffles would produce dust, sacred shavings from the rocky base of the statue that were supposedly lethal to phantoms, to be sprinkled on the windowsills and thresholds of the homes of the superstitious to keep the evil at bay. Bah, phantoms, Anwen scoffed. She had never seen one. She had, of course, heard tales of households that had lost loved ones because the family could not afford the sacred dust, but these may very well be just that, tales. If there were deaths could they not be explained by other means? Either way, it was not something she need concern herself with, her parents were well-to-do and always paid the dust pedlars well. 'Anwen Soros, among the many, you have been chosen for the most revered order, the sisters of the dust.'

Anwen started at her name being called, then trembled as a flood of panic washed over her. Why had the priest called her name, she was to be a sister of dust? Anwen couldn't think of anyone more unlikely to be asked. 'She is never here,' someone seated behind Anwen hissed. 'I come every day,' the girl stifled a sigh. That's right, Anwen thought, I only ever come when my father is too weary and sends me in in his stead. Surely the priest knows this sort of thing does not interest me. She wanted to tell the priest just that, he was still staring at her, a crooked smile on his face, his jowls moist with saliva. She opened her mouth to protest but all that came out was a strangled groan.

'Congratulations, Anwen, please report to the Delubrum of Diecot Black at dawn tomorrow,' the priest said. There was scattered clapping from the congregation in the hall and everyone including Anwen stood up and began to file outside. Dazed, Anwen wandered through the streets and found herself sitting on a bench in the park staring tearfully at the wispy cotton-white clouds as they drifted across the sky. She often came to this bench when she wanted to be alone, she felt safe here, content with her own thoughts, the rustle of the trees and the trickle of water over rocks into a nearby pond the only sounds. Today the gentle murmurings offered no comfort to her, her thoughts were racing uncontrollably. 'I'm to leave all this,' she said aloud to herself, 'this beautiful world of love and light for darkness and dust.'

The sun rose with the chimes of the bell. Anwen walked reluctantly through the empty streets, her heart heavy, her hair still damp with her mother's tears. She had slept very little that night; in the pitch-black of her room she had wrestled with an almost uncontrollable urge to flee the grey city with its dust and priests and be free in the hills and forests she had only ever glimpsed. It was the pride in her father's eyes when she told him that she had been chosen to be a sister of the dust that had kept her in her bed. In the darkness doubts began to grow within her, what if she were wrong about the priests and their tales of phantoms and the sacred dust which kept the spectres at bay? It was her duty, her obligation, to protect her loved ones and the city from harm, she had been chosen. Surely not everyone was mad?

The Delubrum of Diecot Black sat at the top of four hundred stairs. She took the steps slowly, in no hurry to reach the top, but by the end of the climb the thin, summer dress she wore was soaked with sweat. A squat man with a red, pudding face was waiting by the temple's golden doors, his white robes luminous in the morning sun. As Anwen approached, the priest's lips, already stained a dark red from wine, curled up in a welcoming smile. 'Anwen, my dear,' he said, 'so glad to meet you at last, I've heard so many wonderful things about you.'

Anwen smiled happily at the enthusiastic greeting. The priest offered her his hand. It was warm and wet. 'I'll take you to your room,' he said and led her down a narrow pathway lined with pretty flowers. She hesitated a moment, stooped to pick up one, sniffed it and pushed it through the top buttonhole of her dress. The priest continued leading her down the path before stopping at an iron door streaked with rust. 'Into the darkness,' he said solemnly and winked. As if for dramatic effect the door screamed as he pushed it open. He ushered Anwen inside where she felt the warm sunlight leave her skin and an ancient damp creep across her face in its stead.

They twisted and turned in the dripping blackness. A strange, shuffling sound echoed off the walls around them. 'Where are we?' Anwen asked.

'In the catacombs of the little sisters. Every sister starts here until her turn in the circle of dust.' Another curve then in the gloom, by the faint, orange glow of a torch, she could see iron bars and dark shapes shuffling behind them.

'This room's yours,' the priest said, gesturing.

Anwen didn't think it looked like a room at all, more like a prison cell. She peered through the bars as the priest unlocked the cell door. The space was small, ten feet by eight feet, there were no furnishings, a pitcher of water squatted in the corner of the room with a wooden bucket opposite it. The walls had no windows, the only light coming from a spluttering torch two cells down.

'In you go, I suspect you won't be here long,' the priest said, cheerfully guiding Anwen inside. She didn't resist, she was too dumbfounded. He shut the door quietly behind her and turned the key. 'Oh, I nearly forgot, pass me your shoes, you won't be requiring them anymore. You need to get used to walking without them.' Anwen bent down, unfastened the straps of her sandals and handed them through the bars to the priest. The floor was smooth like river pebbles beneath her feet, buffed from centuries of the little sisters shuffling over it.

'What do I do in here?' she called to the priest as he disappeared into the gloom.

'You walk, of course.' His voice echoed along the corridor.

'Just walk,' she said to herself. Looking around the room she could see little else to do besides sleeping, and the hard stone floor didn't look very comfortable at all. She began to shuffle across the room, her feet following the path worn by the little sisters. It didn't take long for her to tire of the activity and she bent down, lifted up the pitcher of water and took a sip. The liquid was cool and refreshing but had an earthy after-taste as if it had come from an ancient well, its walls thick with luxuriant moss. 'Keep walking,' a voice ordered from the darkness. Her cell door clicked open and Anwen spun towards the noise. A tall, stooped man dressed in the humble, grey robe of an acolyte, a thin cane tucked under his arm, strode into the room and loomed over her, his small, squinty eyes staring unflinchingly at her.

'I'm sorry,' she stammered.

'Don't ever stop,' he hissed, his cane snaking out and striking her on the shoulder, causing her to cry out in pain and surprise.

Anwen shuffled forward, grasping at the burning pain with her hand. The acolyte stalked out of the room on his spidery legs and disappeared into the dark recesses of the corridor where Anwen imagined him, arachnid-like, clinging to the wall and watching her intently with his beady eyes. As the hours passed Anwen was exhausted by the hypnotic shuffling of her feet. She idly ran her hands along the walls as she walked, her fingers brushing against soft, damp moss and curious sharp objects that were embedded in the cracks of the stone. She pulled at one, it came away easily but she quickly dropped it in disgust when she realised it was a fingernail.

Anwen woke with a jump. She was in the corner of the cell leaning against the wall, her face was stinging and her ear buzzed and burned. The acolyte's arm was raised above her, the thin cane hovering in the air ready to strike again.

'I was asleep,' she said by way of an apology, sinking further into the corner.

He laughed, a loud, unbridled sound that echoed around the room long after he stopped. 'You don't get to sleep here, you do everything while you walk: shit, piss, sleep, eat and drink, all of it.' The cane flicked down, catching her on the bottom lip, splitting it in two like a piece of juicy meat on a fire. Anwen screamed but the sound was shortened by a gasp as the acolyte rained down a series of blows upon her, lashing her arms and legs, leaving behind stinging welts. 'Walk,' the acolyte growled and left.

Anwen took the small flower from her buttonhole. It was pure white; she hadn't noticed in her hurry to grab one last piece of beauty before she was swallowed up by a world of darkness and ritual. She twirled it between her thumb and finger, the petals blurring into a soft, white hue. It was a soothing image. Anwen's eyes began to feel heavy. Too exhausted to fight it, she fell asleep, this time her unconscious body did not take itself to the corner of the cell but instead kept her in motion, slow, dreamy steps along the well-worn path. When she woke the flower was no longer in her hand.

Time passed unmeasured for Anwen, she felt different, weak and thin. She seldom ate the watery soup that was splashed into a chipped, wooden bowl in one of the corners, away from her shuffling feet, instead she found herself draining the earthy water from the pitcher, eagerly awaiting its refilling. She thought the water magic, it took away her pain and weariness, making her solitude and confinement bearable. In the psychotropic haze it brought she became preoccupied with walking, the soft rustle of her footsteps a mantra filling her ears and quieting her thoughts. Into this sound she would retreat for days at a time, until a thought, unable to be suppressed any longer, would roar above the hypnotic shuffling of feet and Anwen would again find her weary body moving interminably through the gloom of her cell, the smooth stone cold under her feet and the reek of her toilet filling her nostrils. In these moments of nightmare clarity she would often see the small form of a boy scurrying around her narrow cell, sweeping away the dust, emptying her bucket or refilling her water pitcher. 'Send word to my parents,' she would plead when she shuffled past him, 'tell them I am unhappy and wish to come home.' The boy kept his head lowered submissively offering no indication that he had heard her.

Strong hands clasped Anwen's shoulders, shaking her, she had been away again, deep in thoughtlessness. The plump moon-face of the priest was hovering in the darkness before her. 'Congratulations, you are now a sister,' he said, beaming at her. 'Put this on.' He passed her a black tunic, coarse to the touch and poorly stitched, a contrast to the priest's spotless robe, glowing with lunar light in the gloomy cell. He waited for her to dress, clicking his tongue at her dirty skin, patched with dried blood and grime. She caught wafts of sweet, red wine coming from his breath. When she was done dressing he walked out of the cell beckoning her to follow.

'I've had quite a time of it, we had two elderly sisters leave us last week and then another this morning. I've been run off my feet organising their replacements.'

'That's horrible news,' Anwen said feeling very peculiar walking so fast, the muscles in her legs used only to a shuffle. They emerged from the labyrinthine corridors into the gloomy, inner sanctum of the temple. The priest waved cheerfully to an ancient, wizened man sitting in a chair who was busy trying to untangle himself from his long, wispy hair which was threatening to cocoon him. 'The Master of Dust, he hasn't gotten out of that chair in years,' the priest said loudly, making Anwen blush in embarrassment. 'Oh don't worry, my dear, he's totally deaf.'

Anwen looked sympathetically at the Master then turned her gaze to the centre of the sanctum where the towering statue of Diecot Black was being circled by a dark tide of weary-looking women in black tunics. 'Ahh the man himself, the founder of Davark,' the priest said, following Anwen's gaze to the statue. Anwen was dismayed to find out that Diecot Black wasn't how she imagined him at all. He was long-necked and small-headed with a puzzled expression; he had the look more of an ostrich than a man. 'Well we can't stand around all day staring at the great man himself, it's time we got you walking, helping the city and all that.' He put one foot in the trench the sisters had worn with their feet around the statue and helped Anwen down. 'You make a noble sacrifice,' he said and was gone.

Anwen joined the throng of women, it felt good to be around others after so long in the solitary gloom of her cell. Enthusiastically she whispered her greetings to the sisters but was met with only dazed and downcast expressions. There were others in the circle around the statue too, acolytes who carefully collected the sacred dust beneath the sisters' feet and others still who seamlessly moved beside the sisters offering them ladles full of rich, earthy water. The water was more bitter here but Anwen gratefully drank all that was offered to her. Even more magical, she thought as thrills of pleasure rippled through her body and she felt as if she were walking on air. The throbbing pain that was always present in her feet melted away. She looked around at the other women; gone were their glazed looks and downcast expressions, there was a light in their eyes. They turned their faces up to the statue of Diecot Black, eyes weeping, trembling smiles upon their lips. In their ecstasy, absent was any resemblance to an ostrich, he was steel-jawed, courageous, wise and benevolent.

'Oh great father,' Anwen said, tears streaming down her cheeks, hands clasped to her bosom. Other sisters heard her words and took up the cry, their voices echoing in the sanctum. The acolytes gaped at the sisters, confused by the outburst. The master of ritual did not appear to notice, continuing to untangle his beard. The sisters began to move faster spurred on by their fervour. From the snake-like blur an ancient face, with an ecstatic smile wreathing its toothless mouth and eyes like moons, turned to stare at Anwen.

An old sister, on seeing Anwen, was jolted into the recollection of her own youth. A flood of memories assailed her, felling her as if she had been hit by a sledgehammer. The old sister lay on the cold stone, her mind lost in reverie. The other sisters did not veer around the obstacle but instead traversed the old woman as if she were nothing more than a bump in the road.

When the euphoria began to diminish, the pain returned to Anwen's weary body. She looked down at the trail beneath her feet, bloodied by scraps of the corpse, and swallowed hard as bile bubbled in her throat and she tried not to scream. There was little left of the old woman now, a few greasy bones and a head misshapen and bloated. She stared at the other women around her, stupefied they mindlessly shuffled around the statue, the hems of their tunics dripping with gore.

'All the old ones go like that,' a voice said at her feet. She looked down and saw an acolyte squatting on the rock, scooping up the handfuls of dust that he had swept into piles and emptying them into a sack, 'seen it umpteen times. One day when you are too old or sick to keep walking you will be that old woman.'

'Not me,' she said, not knowing why she should be any different.

The man smiled sadly. 'You know it's the water that makes you crazy.'

'The water?' she questioned as the acolyte moved beside her pretending to sweep at the dust.

'There is something in it, something that makes the sisters euphoric, frenzied.' Shouldering his sack of dust the acolyte climbed out of the trench and disappeared through a small side door. For a moment, before the door closed behind the acolyte, Anwen caught a glimpse of a shard of sunlight reflected on a pillar.

In the water Anwen found continued solace, blissful waves of numbing warmth built to a crescendo that exploded in an outpouring of love for the sisters, their duty and the statue of Diecot Black, the beloved father. But the water did not always possess her and in those times she walked as if in a nightmare, the acolyte always present whispering the same words over and over.

I've heard the priest's whispers and know their secrets, it is the dust that makes them rich and powerful, they sell it as if it were gold dust. The poor would rather starve than not be protected. The dust keeps them poor, keeps them in their place. There are no spectres, Anwen, it is the priests who break into unprotected houses and commit terrible acts.' Then, moving closer to her so it felt as if his mouth were inside her head he would say, 'It is all a lie, Anwen, your life is a lie, you suffer for nothing.'

'A lie, she would mutter to herself, all a lie, I miss the trees and sky and the sun, all for a lie.' The thought did not linger long, however, it was swiftly drowned by the water. One evening, it was her acolyte that offered her the water, but when she went to drink, the ladle was empty. She moved to walk away but he reached out and left something light and delicate in her hand, it was a crumpled, dried, white flower, the thin petals turning to dust in the draughty temple. Everything turns to dust here, she thought. Under her breath she began to chant, 'A lie, a lie, all of it is a lie.'

The acolyte was sweeping the dust when she saw him again. He looked different, worn and time-weary, an older man than she remembered.

'I need to escape,' she blurted to him.

The acolyte did not show any surprise. Nodding, he said, 'Through the door where I take the dust, go when the acolytes sleep.'

'What about the old priest?'

'He never opens his eyes anymore.'

'Thank you,' she said, looking down at him as he swept the last great pile of dust into his sack, she could make out slithers of bones, pieces of broken sisters glinting in the soft, grey powder.

When the last acolyte left the sanctum Anwen made her way past the sleeping priest to the door that led outside. She peered over her shoulders at the sisters as she tried the door, they had not noticed her absence, they were absorbed in their own private horror, besides it was inconceivable that one of the order should put her own happiness above that of the city's.

It was night time when she quietly slipped through the door and stared awestruck at the bright stars and the waning, crescent moon. She hadn't thought much about the night sky inside the temple but now she realised she had missed it almost as much as the endless, blue skies of her youth. Nobody challenged her as she made her way down the hill into the dark, sleeping city. She walked slowly, her legs still not used to anything more than a shuffle. I will go to my parents' house, she thought to herself, my mother never wanted me to leave, she will understand, she will hide me from the priests when they come to find me. The streets were as deserted as the temple hill, people who could afford the dust were sleeping and those that couldn't were cowering in the darkness.

The lights were not on in her old home, she knocked and waited but there was no answer, she knocked again and tried the door. There was a sound of bolts being rattled and the door was flung open by a shirtless man who pointed a pistol at her head. 'What do you want?' he yelled.

'Please, I want to come into my house, I want to see my mother and father,' she said.

'You have the wrong house, old woman,' he said and slammed the door shut in her face and locked it.

'Old woman,' she said perplexed, 'this is my house, my family's house.' Perhaps her parents had moved, it was best not to make a scene. She could wait until first light in the park, no one would notice she was wearing the garb of a sister, the tunic was little more than a rag now. She would be mistaken for a beggar.

She sat on a bench shivering in the autumn wind and staring up at the cosmic canopy. At daybreak the orange orb of the sun peaked out from behind the temple hill; she stared down at the sun's first rays as they slowly moved across her arm. The skin was wrinkled and her hands were blotched with liver spots. She raised her hand to her face and traced the deep crevices with her fingertips. A gentle sigh escaped Anwen, she lifted her face to the sun, its pale warmth exquisite. Anwen was still sitting there, face raised to the evening sun, arms outstretched as if in supplication when a concerned passer-by stopped to see if she was okay. At his touch she wilted and slid from the park bench to lie cold as the stone under his feet.


  1. A magical story, full of disorientation and otherness and yet threaded with elements of slant recognition. Many thanks,

  2. Excellent world-building ripe with symbolism. And despite all the eeriness and mystery, the story does a good job of allowing the reader to empathize with Anwen.

  3. Deeply disturbing tale with rich and descriptive prose.

  4. A cruel myth perpetuated by the overlords to subjugate their people and steal their wealth was one of many strong themes featuring in your story. Thank you for a thought-provoking read, written in hauntingly beautiful language.