Let’s take a break from the A to Z poetry and have a story, shall we? Welcome to Sucky Story Sunday, where my goal is to prove Ray Bradbury wrong and write 52 bad stories.
Dagon’s Last Sacrifice
When your entire culture is based on the gods of your people, what happens when you pray to your enemy’s god?
The seeds of my heresy were watered at the village well.
As usual, we spent the morning at the well. I was there to help Mamma carry water home to boil for wash day. Mamma was with the older women, cackling as they gossiped about anyone not there to defend herself. The younger girls and I were hauling up the water from the well. I rubbed my arms, readying them for the work. The air was still that morning, not kicking up the dust in our faces as usual, but instead of appreciating that, all I could think of was that night.
The full moon. The sacrifice.
Tahishi pinched me. “Your turn, Dellonia, who you will marry.” She pulled her pail off the rope, and her strong arms gleamed with sweat.
“I will marry Caliath.”
“He won’t marry you for all the dowry in Philistine!” Moriah was tying her pail to the rope. “You are way too skinny for him.”
“Oh? So, he prefers someone meatier, like you?” I was being nice. Moriah wasn’t meatier. She was the size of most men.
Tahishi stepped in between us. “I heard that Conish prefers you. He likes skinny girls.”
“Conish? The fat old man who sells wine at the market? He’s lost two wives. I won’t be number three.” I rolled my eyes. “It would take plenty of wine to be his wife.”
Tahishi picked up her pail, “I can help you get Caliath. Maybe you’ll grow if we water you.” She threw the water at me.
The cool water went through my linen dress. I couldn’t let her get away with that. I grabbed a pot and took a dip of water from Moriah’s pail and flung it at Tahishi. She ducked, and the water hit Kallopi, who was behind her. The four of us splashed until we were soaking wet and laughing too hard to talk.
“Caliath will think you are even skinnier now,” Tahishi teased. “Like a wet rat!”
I started to toss more water, then dropped the pot. Breathing was almost impossible. The priests were approaching, moving solemnly in two lines. Their chanting grew louder. My uncle Yirgu’s voice was the loudest of all.
“There is none like Dagon. There is none like Dagon.”
We dropped the water fight and ran to our mothers. They too saw the temple priests and stood in a line — a wall we could hide behind. I didn’t think they could save us, but I would let them try.
Uncle Yirgu, as the chief priest, stood in front of the older women. He pointed. “Her. She will attempt to please Dagon.”
I looked. He pointed at Tahishi. Her mother hugged her, then pushed her toward the priests. My mother pulled me closer. When Uncle Yirgu looked in our direction, Mamma glared at him.
Tahishi seemed to be in a trance. She left her mother’s side and held out her arms for the priests. She went with them, walking in time to their chant. “There is none like Dagon.” No one in the crowd tried to stop them. She did not even try to stop them herself. Nor did I. It was so much bigger than me.
We went home and started washing tunics and dresses. Mamma said nothing, but she pounded each garment harder than usual. Her breath whistled through the hole where she was missing a tooth. Before I was born, I had an older sister. Yirgu had pointed at her. And my mother had tried to stop the priests, begging her brother not to sacrifice his own niece. He struck her across the face. But losing a tooth was nothing compared to losing a daughter.
A lesson for all, Dagon did not care what family fed his temple fires.
Mamma finally looked at me, brushing a graying hair out of her face. “You escaped the temple today. We will need wine.” She went to the shelf and took down an ewer where she kept a few silver pieces of her own. She took a couple of pieces and handed them to me. “Go to Conish’s stall and get the best this will buy.” She gave me a push. “Go, now.”
The marketplace was quiet, as it usually was on the night of the sacrifice. Conish was sewing wineskins as I reached his stall. He saw me and smiled. I looked down and concentrated on swallowing the hot liquid in the back of my throat.
“Hello there, little one. What brings you to my stall today?” When he smiled, rolls of neck fat spilled from his tunic.
“My mamma, she would like the best this can buy.” I held the two silver pieces.
He took my hand, removed the silver, then leaned over and kissed my palm. I had to swallow hard again. “Only the best for you, my little one.”
I was not his little one. I pulled my hand back and wiped it on my dress.
“I know the day of sacrifice is upsetting to you. It is hard to lose friends. I have lost many in my life.” He took a wineskin and began filling it from the larger, fermenting skin. “Dagon requires much, but we must remember that he gives as well.”
“That is easy for you to say. You don’t spend every full moon wondering if you will die this month.” I hugged my arms over my chest. Mamma would kill me herself if she knew how I was speaking to Conish.
“True, little one, but again, that is your choice. I have spoken with your family. I can save you.” He patted a stool in his stall. “Sit, talk to me. I am indeed harmless.”
I dragged myself over to the stool and sat down. I didn’t think he could really save me, but I didn’t want to go home and think about Tahishi. I took the offered cup of wine.
“Dagon seems harsh to you, but he is large and powerful. Now, the god of our enemy, the Hebrews? He is so small that they had to make a box for him to travel in. Imagine a god who stoops to live in such a place!” Conish laughed. He took a sip of wine. “The Hebrews say that this tiny god created all the stars. And then told them that they would one day outnumber the stars.” He laughed some more. “As if such a little god could provide for so many?”
It was funny. The sky was far too large for one god to make it. But Conish had also said this god-in-a-box had mercy. Dagon did not know mercy. Could this god-in-the-box save me from the fires of Dagon’s temple? But I was no Hebrew. Why would the god-in-the-box care about me?
I thought about the boxed god every night, sometimes begging him for help.
Even a month later, I could not go to the well without missing Tahishi. Every splash of water was another reminder of her laughter, her lilting voice, and her bravery. I tried to concentrate on my work, pulling the pail from the well. But I heard them coming again.
“There is none like Dagon. There is none like Dagon.” The joyless monotone chilled my blood. I looked at Mamma. Did she hear?
She didn’t look at me. She was angry that I refused to marry Conish. I did not have many months left, being the oldest virgin in the village now.
It happened slowly and fast at the same time. The grip of the priests on my arm was tight and painful. The screams of my Mamma, the thud as Yirgu again made an example of his sister. I turned and bit one of the priests on the arm and was rewarded with a fist across my face. My mouth filled with blood as I started to get up, half expecting to be hit again.
But the priests turned away from me. In the distance, I heard chants of “There is none like Dagon,” but instead of a holy monotone, these voices were bright and exuberant.
A young boy ran to Yirgu, gasping for air. “I am sent by the commander, sir,” he said, inhaling deeply between words. “We have won. The army is returning with the spoils of the Hebrews.”
Yirgu glanced at me where I crouched on the ground, then puffed his chest out. “We shall meet the army. Dagon feasts on the Hebrew spoils tonight!”
I fell, dazed. What had happened? It was almost like the god-in-the-box had saved me.
The next morning, Yirgu was in our home, drinking wine and talking with my parents. After the celebration last night, I was surprised he drank more wine. I crept as close as I could to hear them.
“Surely Dagon was pleased with such a sacrifice?” My father poured another cup of wine for Yirgu.
“Dagon fell to the ground, face down. He was not pleased. We did not celebrate his victory enough. We shall have a bigger feast tonight. That will please him.” Yirgu’s voice did not have its usual fullness. Was he nervous about the god-in-the-box?
The next celebration was even bigger. The sea provided an abundance of fish, and Conish made sure that the wine flowed.
The following day, we were all woken by the cries and screams of the priests. They were covered in bright red boils and tore their clothing. When we looked at them, boils began to grow on our own bodies. What was this?
“Why is Dagon so displeased with us?” I asked my father.
He had boils as well. “Dagon is gone. Yirgu said that this god-in-the-box smashed Dagon into pieces. We have no god. We must send this plague away.”
A plague. Did I bring this? I was the one who asked the god-in-the-box to save me. I would not go to appease Dagon, so maybe he wasn’t strong enough to withstand the Hebrew god.
Everyone in the village was covered with boils. It hurt to wear clothing. As we compared bodies, my friends and I realized that those of us of sacrifice age were not stricken nearly as severely as the priests and the territory leaders.
After a day of talk, the priests and leaders decided how to rid our village of this curse. The priests carefully lashed the god-in-the-box to a new cart.
I watched with my father. His eyes were red, and there were bags underneath them. His skin was pale, except for bright red sores. He moved as if he was a tree instead of a man.
“They filled the box with golden tumors and rats. That should appease him.” He took a deep breath and looked at my mother. “They say this god likes new things. Even the oxen have never been yoked.”
“Who will drive the cart?” I asked.
“No one. The oxen will travel alone. Their calves will be tied behind the temple. If the cows go on to Beth Shemel, we will know that this curse is from this foreign god. If they return, we will know that this is only bad luck.”
I ran to our home and grabbed my cloak. I filled a skin with water and a bag with raisin cakes and bread.
Mamma watched me from the door. “You mustn’t go. The cart will go to Israel. You are Philistine. They will kill you.” She had tears in her eyes.
“Better to be killed by our enemy than Dagon.” I started to tie the sack closed.
“Dellonia, I don’t know how, but you have been spared.”
“God-in-the-box spared me. I asked him to.”
“You prayed to a foreign god? To the Hebrew god?”
“Yes.” I looked at Mamma. “Now I must follow him.”
She said nothing else but handed me twelve silver pieces.
When the crowd dispersed, I followed the cart to a world where maybe I mattered.