I stared at the chest that contained the tablets. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the water that rested in the divot on top of the chest. The sacred water — the Gods tears, shed for their sadness in missing their children. The divot was carved into the wood, deep and narrow. Salt crystals filmed the edges of the divot, white and patchy, interrupted only by a single dark smear of blood.
I stared at the blood, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. It was old blood, brown and flaking, but I knew that it was blood the same way that I would have known my own daughter’s cry from the cries of a hundred other children.
My memory darted between the present moment and a moment three weeks before, the night before I found the dismembered heads of the dissenters that had left our camp to find the Promised Land for themselves. It had been the middle of the night, and Ducky had been stirring and grumbling, and I had woken to take care of her.
Marc had been kneeling beside the chest.
He was praying, and I remembered stifling bitter resentment at the sight of him on his knees, attempting to commune with the Gods while I cared for our child. I remembered watching him touch his fingers to the top of the chest, and I remembered thinking that I should tell him not to. That I should tell him the water in the divot was intended only for the Prophetess of the Gods.
In the aftermath of finding those twenty half-eaten heads in the desert, I had forgotten to tell him. It was important, but I was taking care of my people and I forgot to tell him. But I thought back now, as I stared at that drop of blood, and I tried to remember if Marc had been wearing his sandals or not. I tried to remember if there had been a pink tint to the wash water in our basin the next morning. I tried to remember if I’d seen him wearing those same clothes again, or if they’d disappeared.
The more I tried to remember, the larger the blood loomed before me. The more I tried to remember, the louder the Gods whispered: Look, Fisher. Look at what he has done.
That night, I pretended to sleep until Marc eased himself onto the sleeping mat beside me. I startled awake, grabbed at him, pushed my face into the crook of his shoulder and allowed myself the shudder I’d been suppressing all day.
“Oh,” he said softly, his arm rising to wrap around me. “What is it, love? Are you all right?”
His hands were so gentle. His breath stirred the hair on top of my head, and I remembered that I loved him. Look at what he has done. “I had a nightmare,” I said, and the tremor in my voice was real.
“It wasn’t real,” he murmured, pressing his lips to the top of my head. “It wasn’t real, you’re safe. It’s all right.”
I swallowed hard, forced myself to continue. “It was awful,” I whispered. “It was like I was back there all over again, in the desert.”
Marc didn’t say anything for long enough that I feared he’d fallen asleep. Beside our bed, the baby shifted. Finally, Marc spoke. “The dissenters?”
“Yes,” I said, too loudly. Ducky made a low noise in her sleep, and I reminded myself to whisper. “Yes,” I repeated, “the dissenters — it was so horrible, Marc, their faces… some of them were children, and I—”
“I’m sure it was hard to see,” Marc replied. He began to rub my back in small circles. “Sometimes the Gods’ justice is difficult to take in.”
“Justice?” I asked. Marc was very still beside me.
“Yes,” he said. “It must have been awful for you, having to see that. But surely you agree that it’s no less than what they deserved?”
I pulled away from him, stared at him hard even though he was just a vague patch of darkness in the shadows of our tent. “No,” I said, forgetting my volume again. “No one deserves that. They didn’t—”
“They strayed from the Gods’ path,” Marc said, also too loud, and his voice was a cliff’s edge. “Whoever killed them did them a favor. They were spared a life of sin.”
Ducky began to cry. I reached for her without needing to see where she was. Her forehead was hot against my shoulder, and I patted her back, blowing on her neck to cool her off. “Who would do such a thing?” I asked Marc. “Who would slaughter those children? They were innocents, Marc.”
“Innocents who stole seeds and water from the Children of the Gods,” he said. He was breathing hard, and I could hear him twisting the blanket between his fists. “Innocents who abandoned their people.”
I shook my head. Ducky had fallen back asleep moments after I’d picked her up, but I didn’t want to put her down. Not yet. I couldn’t find words. Marc reached up a hand and tugged gently...