“I’ve been marked!”
I jolt awake at the sound of the cry. My sleep-addled brain trying to decipher if this was real.
“I’ve been marked!” the voice shouts, from farther away this time as he makes his way through the village.
No, no, no, no. This can’t be happening.
I pull on clothes and rush from my room. My little sister stands in the hall in her nightgown, clutching her stuffed bear.
“It’s real?” she asks me.
She hasn’t witnessed a Culling before. The last one was before she was born. She thinks they are just tales told by the older kids to scare her. I barely remember the events myself. Sometimes I think the memories are just nightmares fueled by all the whispered fears of the adults.
Now that I’m faced with their reality, the memories become clearer. Waking daily to the shout of “I’ve been marked”, repeated with such relief from the person who was marked, but meaning more nights of fear for the rest of us. The tension as people came out to clap the marked on the back in congratulations, but secretly thinking I’d rather it be you than me, your family than mine. The marked person knowing that everyone resented their safety, but not caring because their family would survive this.
“Yes, it’s real,” I tell my sister. “Go wake Momma.”
I leave her with her task and step outside. My feet crunch in the snow as I follow the sounds of the shouts, trying to see who it is that’s the first to be spared. I stop at the town square, deciding to just wait here for the marked man.
The tension and fear in the air are like weights, pressing down against shoulders and dragging feet. The wide darting eyes send me back to a memory of that same look in my mother’s eyes. My father comforting her the best he could. I would need to be that source of strength now. Just as my father asked me to be on his deathbed. Protect them.
At least we had that goodbye. Whoever gets taken will get no goodbyes. They will simply vanish, along with most, if not all, of their family. Never to be heard from again.
The town butcher, Tomas, approaches the group. “I’ve been marked,” he says. He holds up his hand as proof.
My first emotion is relief; We cannot afford to lose the butcher. But then I chastise myself. No life should be more important than any other.
Other villagers surround Tomas to witness with their own eyes that the creatures have returned to our village. The butcher has a cut along the top of his left thumb extending between the two knuckles. The telling feature is the green tinge to the edges of the cut. The wound will heal, but a green scar will remain.
Tomas is a good man. It’s obvious that it saddens him to be the one ushering in the beginning of the Culing. I put a hand on his shoulder before I go, and he nods to me. I trudge back home to deliver the news to my family.
Those who bear the scars from the last Culling have nothing to fear, but my family isn’t safe yet. Although I know it will do no good, I sleep on the floor at the foot of my sister’s bed. Or try to anyway. In truth, I lay staring at the door for hours, waiting.
The tales say that there is nothing you can do against the monsters. I wonder how anyone knows. I’m certain that others have tried and failed to stop them, but I’ve heard no tales of their efforts. Maybe because they never lived to tell of it. I shudder.
I feel like I can’t lay here any longer, but I’m also scared to move. As if the creatures will be drawn by my rising from the floor. I also don’t want to leave my sister, but am I really protecting her by laying here?
I kick off the covers in frustration. There’s got to be something I can do. It’s then I make a decision.
I’ll just go outside and look. I won’t try anything crazy. I’ll be a spy, not a warrior.
I put on a cloak and creep out the back door. I stand in the shadows, heart pounding, searching for any movement. I slide along the side of the house until I can peek around the corner to the front. Nothing there either.
I dart between houses, thankful for the snow that muffles any sounds. My eyes adjust to the darkness, but there is still no sign of anything amiss. I continue searching until I reach my house again. Now what?
My eyes slide to the woods behind this side of the village. I climb a tall, sturdy tree that gives me a good view of half the town. It’s only once I’m settled that it occurs to me the creatures might come from these very woods. I make sure to glance behind me every so often.
I stay in the tree until dawn. My muscles are stiff with cold by the time I climb down. I trudge home and wrap myself in blankets, shivering until I fall asleep.
“I’ve been marked!” shouts a female voice, this time.
My head throbs from the lack of sleep, but I rise from the floor and open the bedroom door. I’m about to walk out when there is a tug on my shirt. My little sister holds out her hand to me.
“I want to go with you, Cal.”
I contemplate whether it’s appropriate to bring a 10-year-old along to this. I decide that it’s her reality, as much as mine. I was younger than her during the last Culling. I make sure she puts on a coat and gloves before I take her hand.
We walk in silence to the town center. We stand off to the side, hearing whispers all around, as if the sound of normal voices might draw the creatures out in the daylight. The marked woman arrives.
A seamstress. Alana loves her dresses. She got a blue one for her birthday last year. The seamstress lives above her shop on the part of town I couldn’t see from my tree perch. That explains why I didn’t notice anything last night.
I lift Alana onto my shoulders and carry her home. Mother hands us each a mug of warm milk, mine mixed with strong coffee. I fill her in on the seamstress over breakfast, not mentioning my late night.
I wish I had time for a nap, but I have more orders than usual. The presence of monsters increases people’s desire for weapons. Most days I make knives for the butcher or plows for the farmer. Today, I let the pounding of my hammer onto a short sword settle me. Despite the circumstances, I enjoy the rare chance to make swords.
People came far and wide for my father’s swords. I only wish I had more time to learn his skills. Some of his customers still buy from me, but I know it’s more out of sentiment than for any expertise. I do my best to live up to my father’s legacy.
The day passes quickly, and before I know it I’m laying at the foot of my sister’s bed again. I stare at the door, as I wait for her to fall asleep. I plan to sit in the tree again and observe the creatures. Hopefully, I’ll gain some useful knowledge that I can use to stop them. Hopefully…
“I’ve been marked!”
I bolt upright and glance around the room. Crap, I must have fallen asleep. I hit the covers in frustration. I wasted a night, and it could cost someone their life. I yank on my clothes and stomp from the house.
I go about my day in a grumpy mood. How could I fall asleep? I’m such a fool. It’s up to me to protect my family. I have to do better tonight.
And I do. After a full night’s sleep, it’s not so hard to stay awake. I repeat my pattern from the first night, circling the perimeter of the village and then perching in the tree branches. In the darkest part of the night, I hear a noise.
I slide down from the tree as quietly as I can, the bark rough against my hands. I sneak through the woods in the direction of the sound. I see movement near a house out of the corner of my eye. I turn towards the motion, as I feel a soft gust of wind ruffle my hair.
I wake in the snow, the cold biting my nose. It’s still dark. I twist around and search for the…whatever I saw moving a moment ago. I feel disoriented, like hours have passed in an instant. The moon is definitely lower in the sky.
I rush into the tree line, so I can contemplate what happened out of the open. I know something was there, near me, but whenever I try to focus the memory is fuzzy. It’s like waking from a dream and trying to remember what it was about. I get a feeling that it wasn’t good, but I can’t say why.
I start to walk back to my house. I rub my hands together for warmth. It’s then that I realize one of my gloves is gone. In its place is a green-tinged cut down the back of my left thumb. I begin to shake, and not from the cold. I walk faster, looking over my shoulder the whole way home.
I lay back down on the floor, thinking I should sleep but knowing I won’t. I’ve been marked. It feels like a violation. Or maybe a warning.
But we are safe. I can’t believe it only just occurred to me. My family is safe now. A chill slithers down my spine. Maybe this wasn’t so much a warning, as a bargain. A way to say, “We don’t want you. Just let us take someone else, and we’ll leave your family alone.”
I should just let it go. I’ve protected my family. I didn’t sit back and do nothing. Now we are safe, and I can go on providing weapons for the rest of the villagers to protect their own families. That’s what anyone would do. It’s the smart choice.
I shake Alana awake and show her my thumb. “I’ve been marked. We’re safe.”
She beams at me and wraps her arms around me. I pull her from the bed and carry her to our mother’s room.
“Momma! Wake up!” Alana says.
Our mother jolts awake with wide eyes. After a moment, she notices our smiles.
“I’ve been marked,” I tell her.
She hugs us both, and we sit on the bed like that for a while. I can’t remember the last time we’ve sat like this, or felt this at peace. Not since father died. But something tugs at me in the back of my mind. I push it away. I don’t want it to disturb our happiness.
“I should go tell the others,” I say, pulling away.
The mood shifts. My mother and I know that the rest of the town will resent us. The longer this goes on, the more their fear will take over. I wonder if they will still come to buy my swords today. The price of survival is being shunned.
When I get to the town square, I can see the calculation going on in their minds. One less family for the monsters to choose from. The odds going up that they will be next with each passing day, with each night that someone is marked instead of taken. I feel for them. I knew that same fear until last night.
I just want to go home and not worry anymore, but I can’t shake the tension in the air. Our collective lives on hold, just waiting for someone to disappear. And no one ever does anything to stop it. I don’t just mean in our village. In all the towns the monsters come and take people away. They make the rounds through the villages, marking someone each night until they find what they are looking for. Then, they move on to the next place, only to return years later when they need more people for who knows what purpose.
What kind of person am I to just sit back now that I am safe? What kind of people are we all? Everyone just refuses to believe that they might be chosen. Would we rather live in ignorance than confront our reality and fight back? It looks that way.
I trudge back home, and I finally put my finger on the thought that’s been nagging me. Why did they let me live? Clearly I was out there trying to stop them. Wouldn’t it have been smarter to just kill me, rather than risk me continuing my efforts? Sure, it’s likely that I would stop after they made their message clear, but they couldn’t be certain. So why risk sparing me?
Unless they couldn’t kill me. Unless they were afraid to. I almost laugh at the thought of the monsters being afraid of me. And I almost cry at the realization that maybe we had the power to stop them all along, and no one bothered to try.
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-Clever & WTF