art by Shothot Designs
by Christine Lucas
"And did you find God, stranger?" Aisa asks, scrubbing the shirt she's washing harder. There's a persistent tint of guilt around the collar that the river waters won't clean.
"No, I didn't." His voice is weary, hoarse, the dust of countless roads lining his throat and lungs. He settles down on a fallen trunk close to her, rubbing his leg. "I haven't seen anyone wash clothes this way in ages, and I have wandered far, and for a long time. Why?"
"It was either this or prostitution. And the settlers won't pay for old whores." This river reminds her of the Nile back on Earth, only this one brings life to an entire barren planet. But this forsaken rock in Orion's Belt isn't Earth. These waters won't clean well. Or, perhaps, the people's sins have changed. So she scrubs harder. "You searched all of Earth for God?"
"I walked many roads, wandered in many places: the streets of Antioch, the churches of Rome, the hills of Jerusalem, the battlefields of Baghdad. And I didn't find Him. Only ash and dust and silence." He sighs. "And you? Surely even this remote settlement has washing machines and indoor plumbing."
"They like my work better." She raises the shirt close to her face, sniffs the wet fabric. There. The guilt is gone. She sets it aside and picks another garment from her basket: a girl's nightshirt. This one reeks of fear and shame, and Aisa's mouth twists. She starts scrubbing. "And you didn't find even a trace of Him?"
"Time and times and half a time I circled the Earth, and didn't find Him. Only echoes of His words and memories of His presence. By then, mankind had reached the stars." He kneels by the river, splashes water on his face, brushes back his red hair. He glances at her, frowning. His wrinkles ripple around a scar in the middle of his forehead. "Don't you have anyone to take care of you? Family?" He spits out the last word as though it hurts his tongue.
"Not anymore. But I had sisters once..." One spinning the thread, one measuring its length. They're both gone now, along with this wanderer's God. The memories hurt, and she scrubs harder. But neither the fear nor the shame will wash off the girl's nightshirt. Her fists clench. She puts it aside and reaches into her basket. Her fingers find another shirt, this one belonging to the girl's stepfather. It's all there: lust, rage, fear. But no remorse. She cannot--will not--wash this shirt. "So you left for the stars."
"Yes. As soon as I could afford it, I booked passage on a freighter ship, working my way from star system to star system. I followed legends, lullabies, and deathbed confessions, seeking a trace of Him." He throws a stone in the river and watches the ripples until they fade. "I too had a brother once...." Pain lingers around every word. He draws in a sharp breath, looks away. "But still, in your age, there should be an easier way to make a living than hand-washing clothes."
"It has its rewards." She takes a delicate pair of scissors from her apron's front pocket. Her fingers trace the thread woven through the sinner's shirt, unseen by mortal eyes, but glowing bright in hers. It glows through the aether, a shimmering umbilical cord from his heart to infinity. One swift cut and it's done. He won't hurt his stepdaughter again. When she picks up the girl's nightdress again, the fear and shame wash off easily. "Why are you looking for God?"
Silence stretches on. When he speaks again, his voice is barely a whisper. "Release." Another word lingers behind this; he won't utter it, but they both hear it: Absolution. The moments pass, until he finds the breath to speak again. "Do you have a name?"
"Some call me Aisa." But she was once known by another--older--name: Atropos. A name forgotten like a dream at dawn, lost in Time and Space like her sisters. In this new world, with humanity spreading through the galaxy, she flies on the stellar winds, wherever human suffering beckons her, seeking a meaning in her prolonged existence. "And what's your name, wanderer?"
"Cai--" He stops, shame clear in his voice. "No. My name is my sentence and my curse. I won't offend you with it."
She turns around, reaches out to him. Her fingers brush against his clothes, and it hurts. It burns. Countless centuries of guilt, countless roads traveled in search of forgiveness. The mark on his forehead--the fingerprint of God--has seeped through every cell of his being, every fiber of his clothes.
Grief grips her heart. No one deserves this. He has wandered enough after the many names of the One who is Nameless, the many faces of the One who has none. The road ends here.
She takes out her scissors. "Give me your shirt."
This story was first published on Thursday, December 2nd, 2010