The silence made the vastness of the Barren seem so much bigger. So endless. So - hopeless. “Kal, let’s go. We shouldn’t be here.” Standing fifty paces from the edge of the red sands, heat rolled towards me in suffocating waves. The jungle was hot and humid but nothing like the swelter coming from the Barren. Dry heat so intense, you can’t sweat or pry your lips apart. The Barren is a taker. Taker of joy, taker of water, taker of life. We were too close.
“Kal!” I stomped backwards to catch my breath and turn towards the cave where Kal had disappeared ages ago. The opening and first fifty feet were well lit; the setting sun made a perfect opportunity to see inside. But Kal wasn’t satisfied.“Kaldren!” I bellowed through cupped hands.
“Gods! Alright!” His voice came back, reverberating off the rock face. He had been begging me to hike through the jungle to the edge for weeks because he had found something. I hadn’t agreed until now but was deeply regretting agreeing at all. No one was supposed to be this close to the edge. Not even the elders. But, somehow, Kal had wandered off and found this cave. He’d come back blanched and sullen, not talking for days. Then, out of nowhere, begged me to trek out to the edge to see what he saw. When I would ask him to explain it to me, he would just - shut down. He’d slump in his chair and mutter, “You will never believe me.”
“Meara! Come here, I found it.” Every instinct in my mind and body told me to walk away. Don’t go in the cave. His voice was echoing from the darkness looming just beyond the light. I’d known Kal my whole life, and there was not one note of excitement in his voice. He sounded lost, as if he hadn’t believed what he saw the first time.
I kicked at the sandy dirt around my boots. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see whatever Kal had found in there. We weren’t even supposed to be there. He stepped out into the light, brushing dush off his tunic, looked at me for a moment, his eyes desperate, and motioned for me to join him.
“Please, can we just go home?” There was no stopping the trembling in my voice; I was shaking everywhere. The Barren terrified me more than anything and we were so close, if I cried, the tears would just turn to dust.
“You need to see this.” He took several more steps into the light and held his hand out to me, “Trust me.”
There was no one I trusted more than my husband. He was my everything. Kal had been every one of my firsts and all of my onlys. Not that there were many of us in Viren but for more than three centuries, our people lived in the jungle at the edge of the Earth, our land was blessed by the Gods. The jungle and the Virenese people survived after the Gods set fire to the rest of the world. The rest of the world had been ugly and violent, so the Gods saw fit to wipe it all away and allow us to start over. But they limited our ability to reproduce so they would never have to cleanse the world again. They gifted only a few the opportunity to have children. Those born in the likeness of the Gods could bear fruit.
Kal and I were born in the likeness of the Gods. Kal was older, by several years, when I was born. We grew up together, bickering and fighting and teasing. He had been my nemesis and the thing my heart wanted more than anything else in the world. The day my bleeding began, the elders married us to each other and Kal did the only thing he thought honorable. He vowed quietly to me that night he would not touch me until I was ready. I was only sixteen.
Years went by and several of the elders began to call us cursed, claiming the Gods must dislike us since we had never delivered a child. Several of the other Children of the Gods had borne many children. Ylivea, a sunken, old hag who was only useful for gossip, snuck into our home while we were on a hunt and discovered there had not been any intercourse between us. She was in the village ranting about how the Gods sent her a dream to seek out our treachery when we returned. She condemned us for our selfishness and said we deserved the wrath of the Gods. Several of the men dragged Kal to the temple to beat him mercilessly. Only my father, Raydn, was able to stop them. “You could damage him enough to where he will not be able to reproduce, you fool old woman!” By then, I was twenty-three.
“Meara…” the softness in his voice snapped me out of the memory of his broken body laying on the temple floor. I couldn’t swallow from the heat and my throat was seizing up. I tugged at the chain around my neck absently, while he walked toward me. His hand grazed my elbow and, letting out a sharp exhale, I whimpered, “I’m sorry. I don’t like being here. Can we please just go home?”
“Meara, this place has opened up too many questions for me. I can’t go back to living the way we have. I need answers and I need you with me.” Both his hands were wrapped around my elbows, his dark brown eyes pleading and dark with insecurity. Little strands of brown hair danced across his face in time with the heat waves rolling in off the sand.
I kept twisting the chain around my neck nervously. Kal tugged on my arm and I let him lead me to the darkness. I counted the steps, synchronizing each one with a twist of the chain. My throat was closing up and I could feel my body trying to sweat. We took several steps away from the sunlight and deeper into the cave. Kal pulled me closer behind him and sunk into a crouch over several steps. I mirrored his movements by sense and the movement of his hand.
“Give your eyes a moment to adjust,” he whispered to me once the darkness surrounded us. My breathing was rapid, and I was starting to see bright flecks of light when I noticed a shape in the darkness. Darker than the rest of the darkness and unmoving. I inched closer until the outline of hand became visible.
I jumped back, slamming my head on a low-hanging rock. My eyes strained with the need to release tears, but nothing would come. I grabbed the back of my head and winced as I felt blood trickling down my scalp. Trembling so hard dust was coming up off the floor, I whispered, “What is that?”
“Calm down. Nothing in here is going to hurt you. We just need to drag her out to the light so you can see her face.”
“WHAT?” My skin was crawling off my bones. Scrambling to my knees, I crawled back to the light frantically. I felt Kal grab my ankle and I was kicking and screaming to get away. “What do you mean, SHE? I can’t do this, Kal!”
“LOOK AT HER FACE!” Kal never yelled. Never raised his voice to anyone or anything. I froze at the sound of the growl in his voice. Staring in the direction of his outline, I rolled over and fell back on my elbows. “Meara, I would not ask this of you if it wasn’t important. Just look at her face.”
“Kal, I’m so scared,” I sobbed, “I don’t know how to help you with this.” He pulled my leg, dragging me through the dusty floor of the cave until I was underneath him. His hands worked up my stomach and between my breasts and latched around my necklace. He paused there, not breathing, staring at the locket hanging from the chain. Letting go, he slid his hand to my chin, leaned down, and pressed his lips to mine for a breath. “I love you,” he breathed onto my mouth. “I know this will be hard and probably traumatizing but there is a truth hidden here that you and I need to understand.” I felt his forehead press down against mine. His pleading ripped at my heart, leaving me gasping for more air.
Quavering, I breathed, “what do I need to do?” His body trembled over mine and I could feel the relief flood him as the muscles in his arms loosened and he sank more of his weight on to me. He sighed heavily and pressed a kiss to the tip of my nose. “Just grab and pull. I’ll show you where,” and he stood abruptly leaving me in the dented dirt. His hand wrapped around mine and pulled me towards the shadow.
Kal took both of my hands and placed them under what felt like a shoulder. The weight was sickening in my hands. I couldn’t stop the bile from rising in my throat. Dead. It’s dead weight. With all the heat, the weight was cold and stiff. An eerie feeling crawled across my spirit and I knew, with certainty, nothing would be the same.
The fabric under my hands felt rough and corded. “When I say pull, we’ll pull together until we reach the light, ok?” My fingers searching the material for anything recognizable. Or anything to confirm I was dreaming. There was roughness right off the shoulder and something smooth and silky mixed into the jagged patch of material. I was nodding my head, totally oblivious to Kal.
“Meara…you ready?” I could feel him staring at me, unseeing in the darkness. “Yes, sorry. I was nodding, like an idiot.” His shoulder brushed mine, “it’s alright.”
“Deep breath. One…two…three…pull!” I dug my heels into the loose dirt and pulled backwards. Kal pulled most of the weight so it didn’t take more than a minute to reach the light. I tripped twice scraping my arm both times. Blood welled up and turned to goo almost immediately between the dirt and the insufferable heat.
I stumbled backwards, letting go as soon as I felt the sun touch my neck. Kal grunted as he dragged to form a further into the light. I did have hold of a shoulder. A shoulder that was connected to a neck and head, covered with a helmet. A clear shield covered the front of the helmet, the face turned away from me.
“Alright, come here.” Kal waved his hand to come to the other side of the body. Light glittering off the top of the shield, I winced as it bounced around my vision, blinding me. Rubbing my eyes, I crawled to where Kal pointed and stared into the face of the helmet.
What lasted for all of a moment for the rest of the world, felt like the moment Kal was bloody and beaten on the floor of the temple. Time was swirling around me, freezing me to the Earth. Breath and pain and fear and heat all - gone. My mind halting on what my eyes were seeing.
Exceptionally like me.
Blessed by the Gods, but…
In almost every way, she looked like me. Her golden hair, the oval shape of her face, the pointedness of her nose, the thinner upper and fuller bottom lips. I fell back to sit on my heels.
“I think the helmet and suit preserved her. She’s been here Gods only know how long.” Kal’s hand started to gently swirl on my lower back. “Look at her neck.”
I blinked several times, trying to comprehend what it meant. At the base of her neck, bunched up and dangling at an odd angle, was a heart shaped locket.
Exactly like mine.