The Final Ashes
"but one night, a candle burned in the window."
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. "Finally, I thought to myself. It's time." I swiftly and silently made my way up to the attic in my dimly lit house. Under a small window in view of the village, I pried a pre-packed bag out of a hidden compartment in the wall alongside a candle of my own. I fumbled through my pack to grab my match book. The smell of sulfur filled my nostrils as I struck a match to light the candle. A chill of excitement flowed down my spine as I placed my own beacon of hope in the window.
There wasn't much of the world left, the cabin was in view of the remaining society. There wasn't much to the end of the world either, the hubris of man came with a price. While things became simpler, power still remained in the hands of those who did not deserve it. Clean water was scarce, and food was scarcer. The new systems were still built to benefit only a select few, and bureaucracy was set in place to keep it that way. While the majority were forced to squabble over food and water and fuel, bodily autonomy became a thing of the past for our "ease". The "select few" decided everything and derived power through threat of force for anyone who dared disagree. It was a never-ending Kafkaesque nightmare. Even though the world had ended, everything was hauntingly the same.
Fortunately, the candle in the window beaconed change. I slipped the book of matches into my dress pocket and within the hour, under the silver light of a full moon, a warm golden glow throughout the village signified the beginning of freedom. From my pack, I pulled some first aid supplies and a knife. I set up a needle and thread for stitches, a small bottle of vodka I'd stolen from work, and a set aside a clean bandage. I took a deep breath and shut my eyes to draw courage as I ran my fingers over the small lump in my forearm to find the obedience chip implanted shortly after my birth. It didn't take long to find it, leaving my fingers in place I reopened my eyes. I felt a wave of helplessness wash over me as I reached for my knife. Trembling, knife in hand, I tried to calm my now shallow breaths, "It's almost over, you can do it". As I set the cold steel against my skin, I tried my best not to flinch. Slowly and methodically, I began to apply pressure next to the tiny lump in my arm with the blade the same way I had practiced on at least 20 oranges in the months before while making lunches for the husband that had been forced upon me. A small stream of blood ran down my arm and I grimaced as I withdrew my blade and squeezed the chip out. The chip fell to the ground into my small pool of blood, and I let out a huge sigh of relief.
I was almost giddy in starting to stitch myself up, I whispered to myself, "one step closer to escaping".
Halfway between a few stitches I froze. A chill shot through my entire being. The attic door slammed shut and the shadows danced around me as the candle was nearly extinguished.
Nearly paralyzed by fear I glanced down at the ground where I knelt and saw my shadow move from behind me this time. I heard a familiar sizzle from the chip now discarded in the pool of my blood. It was no doubt an attempted shock to subdue me. The door swung open. In a single movement, with a knife in one hand behind my back and a bloody needle and thread dangling out of a half open wound, I stood and pivoted to face a large figure in the attic's entrance.
Menacingly, he asked, "What did you say?"
I stuttered in response, "No-nothing. I said nothing, le-leave me be. This is a wifely duty you have no business in."
Raising his voice he took a thunderous step towards me, "I asked you what you said. What is this you're doing?" He looked around at my set-up and proceeded to interrogate me, "Is this the witchcraft we were warned of?” He continued to raise his face in anger, “Do I need to remind me how lucky you are to be here? Do I need to call the police?"
I raised my voice, braver this time, "I said nothing! Leave m-" he yanked my wounded arm from my side and pulled me in close to examine it. I drew the blade hidden behind my back, this time holding the icy steel to his throat. Lowering my voice back down to a whisper, so as not to attract any other unwanted visitors, I commanded him to unhand me. "Listen here," I uttered through clenched teeth, "let me go. Let me go or I will see to it that the rest of your life is so miserable you'll have wished I slit your throat in your sleep. I will haunt your every move into a waking nightmare."
He took a step back, eyes wide enough to peer past his empty brain and into his misguided soul. "I knew it I knew you were a witch," but almost immediately a wicked grin overtook the shock on his face, "now you have to do whatever I want. You have to do it whenever I want, too, without your crazy dramatic reactions. We both know the village can't know who you truly are. I own you now."
"Own me? As if you didn't own me before!?" Blinded by rage, I sprang forward with the knife aimed for his throat.
Barely dodging my attack, he let out a sinister chuckle under his breath, "Do you really want to do this the hard way?".
I lunged again, but this time our nearly silent battle was broken by my screech. A searing pain engulfed my arm as he tore the dangling needle and thread out of my fresh wound. I fell to the ground and dropped the knife so I could compress my arm. Blood now streamed freely down my arm and through my fingers, but the pain no could longer be soothed by dreams of freedom. No chip and I was still trapped.
The overpowering weight of fear and failure crushed me, I whispered, "Stop. Please. You- you win. Let me clean up and you can have your way with me."
I stumbled around bit as he pretended to help stand me up and prop me against the wall to the right of the window. The candle flickered again. Wiping the tears from my face, he whispered, "See? Now was that so hard?"
He kicked my pack to its side. Its contents and spilled out and knocked over the open bottle of vodka. He forced my chin up so I could see his petty smile while he pinned me to the wall, "Oh, so sorry, baby. I didn't mean to get all of your things wet. But you can clean it later, right now, you have more important things to tend to."
Using one hand grab my dress, he used the other to hold my face towards the window. I could see my candle nearing the end of its life, its little flame now dancing madly. "Be a dear," he said, "help out a little."
I undid his belt, pushed his pants down to his knees, and lifted one hand to tease him. He closed his eyes in excitement as my bloody arm brushed his leg. I reached up to the window with my other hand and tried to knock the candle onto my pack and the alcohol-soaked floor. It was too far. I squeezed my eyes shut in disappointment and perturbation. Escape had been within my grasp, only for me to end up trapped in the same exact position I'd been a thousand times before.
To my surprise, he lifted his weight off of me. I opened my eyes as he stumbled backwards. His own gaze locked to the window; he was confused, scared even. As I turned around to see what had him so focused, my candle levitated from the windowsill and clattered to the floor. The room burst into flames.
Oddly enough, the fire did not seem to worry him, he was still fixated on the window. I’d never seen him act seem so helpless before. Through the growing fire I could make out three figures. In place of his reflection was the image of his two previous wives and a woman that had gone missing.
I backed away slowly as to not break his trance, but I accidentally kicked the knife I’d dropped. He spun around and tried to lunge at me but in his rage and arrogance, he must have forgotten that his pants were around his ankles. The entire house shook as he fell face first into the hardwood floor.
Without hesitation I bolted through the attic door and heard it slam behind me once more. I ran down the stairs, wincing at his screams and desperate slams to the door and floor. The tortured souls of previous "witches" he'd burned so callously had saved me. My survival through everything in that house, including my narrow escape, made so much sense now. I'd never thought I'd be thankful for life in a haunted house.
The bitter night air and smoke stung my lungs as I raced down the street and flames quickly engulfed the top half of the house I'd been forced to call home. Freedom was finally within reach, I was almost out of the village.
Halfway up the hill I had to catch my breath. I turned around to look at the village; unsurprisingly my house was not the only one ablaze. Every ounce of nihilistic housewife left my body as a wave of gratitude and hope washed over me. Behind me was every oppressed being also crawling their way to freedom. The final ashes of a society that failed us filled the air. The women who saved me had not died in vain. I looked back up the hill, where the cabin lay at the edge of the woods. Its candle still burned bright, and so did we.