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I never knew what to do about the ashes.
As I walked the damp city streets, the slush of a late and half-assed snowfall skulking in the gutters and shadows, I hunched my shoulders and kept my head down, a thin and anonymous figure in a long, dark coat. But on this night, my eyes slipped to faces, drawn by the mark some bore--sometimes a black blazon, sometimes a faded, dingy smudge. It depended on how many hours the bearer was into lent.
I remembered the rites for the day. The Gospel says to make oblations without fanfare, to fast with a secret smile, when giving alms, keep from the left hand what the right one is doing.
But then the priest marks each person with a cross of ashes, and entreats his brothers to bear the sign as a reminder of mortality.
Remember, thou art dust, and to dust you shall return.
What to do about the ashes, then? Do I wash them off, and keep my contrition a secret, or let the soot mark me as the penitent that I am?
The people jostling past me didn’t look as though they were contemplating their mortality. They looked neither worried nor serene. They looked like they are contemplating their dinner, or what to watch on television.
What they would see in my face, if I raised anything but my gaze from the pavement? Dreams of mortality consumed me. Would the thoughts line my ancient face as time could not? Long experience said no. The right hand of humanity never knew what the left was doing. I had few blessings, but this was one.
I turned off the street, into the predatory alleys of the city. Like the people with their sooty smudge, I’d drunk today from the cup of life--but in secret, without fanfare or evidence. The sip was enough to made me strong and quick as I stalked the dark lanes, the soles of my shoes soaked by the grimy slush, but leaving little imprint, as if I didn’t completely touch this world.
The sounds of a desperate struggle, too soft to compete with traffic and cell phones and the busy noise of life, drew me deeper into the shadowed urban valleys. I rounded the corner, slipping along the greasy brick like the quick arc of headlights of a passing car.
The hooker in the alley was definitely thinking of her own mortality. She was staring it the face as it gripped her with taloned hands, hissed at her with sharp, crooked teeth, bared in inhuman hunger. This was an old one, thin and strung out, long past the age when it should be prowling the streets of the city for what it needed.
So was the vampire.
Its thick, yellowed claws had drawn blood on the woman’s bare arms; I could smell it even through the reek of stale urine and rotting garbage. She was too frightened to scream, the whites of her eyes gleaming beneath the caked blue eye-makeup and spider-leg lashes, her mouth pulled into a fuchsia rictus of terror. Her fear and the tang of blood had the monster in a frenzy. It wouldn’t sip from the cup it had stolen. It would rip out her throat and bathe in the spray, a gluttonous waste, spilling more life than it drank down.
Not for nothing is gluttony a deadly sin. The big sins were about taking more than one needed, more than a mortal could use. More food, more sex, more idleness, more adulation.
More life. Years, decades, centuries. The undead lived on because of their mortal sin. The irony was not lost on me, in calmer moments.
I moved in a flash of retribution, wasting no time on cinematic fighting or dramatic flying kicks. My weapon fit my palm like it had been born there, slipped out of the deep pocket of my coat with the ease of long practice. In its frenzy, the monster never noticed me. As it reared back to shred the neck of its prey, I drove a stake of fire-hardened oak into its back, angling to avoid the spine, the wooden point grating against rib before sliding, unerringly, into the unbeating heart.
Flames engulfed the monster, and the woman finally screamed as the talons burned her scored skin. But still she didn’t pull away, and pushing aside contempt, I pushed her aside, too, snarling at her to run. She did. Maybe she would tell someone what happened, and maybe they wouldn’t. Probably not. The right hand never knew what the left one was doing.
She took the smell of blood and fear with her. The stink of sulfur and scorched flesh remained, eddying around the screeching monster, consuming it in the impatient fires of hell long denied.
I watched with sad and weary satisfaction, shielding my eyes from the light. It had chosen its fate--the possibility of eventual hellfire over the certainty of mortal death. But it was a bad bargain. The undead don’t live sumptuous and decadent nights or sparkling days. They do not live at all. Decay creeps slowly, even on the undead. Hunger comes inexorably apace. And retribution comes by my hand.
The corpse collapsed to the slick asphalt in a charred heap. No magic, movie monster. It was an ugly, grisly reality. It did not disappear in a convenient puff of smoke. The skeleton would remain, and the body would be found sooner or later, chalked up to criminal mischief or spontaneous combustion.
The flesh continued to smolder. I grasped the end of the wooden stake, braced my foot on the spine to pull the weapon free. The jarring crumbled the burnt flesh like the spent end of a cigarette, disintegrating what had once--a long time ago--been a man, into greasy black cinders.
I paused, then pressed my thumb into the ash, raised it to my forehead, and drew the sign of the cross. It burned, because of what it was. And because of what I was. Penitent. Monster. Glutton for retribution.
Remember thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return.
All of us. Eventually.
Copyright Rosemary Clement-Moore. Please do not alter or reproduce/repost in any form.