The drums continue their rhythmic beat as I savor the final minutes of my mortal life. Standing at the edge of the natural pool, I look around at the assembled followers in their black robes—faces hidden under deep hoods. The full moon reflects off the water’s glassy surface.
Suddenly the drumming stops. Across the pool, our priestess stands in her green robe with arms extended. She throws back her hood, revealing a fiery mane of dark red hair.
“Brothers and sisters, we gather at the edge of the sacred pool to make another offering to the gods. They continue to bless us beyond measure, and tonight we honor our good fortune. Begin the ritual!”
The drumbeat resumes as I release the clasp of my red robe and allow the garment to fall to the grass. The summer evening is warm, and my bare skin is slick with sweat as I walk forward into the pool. I shiver as the enchanted water touches my feet. Undaunted, I wade deeper. It reaches my knees, my waist, and then my chest. Beyond the pool stands a stone tower. My destination lies at the top.
The water reaches my neck as I lock eyes with my priestess. She nods as I disappear beneath the surface. The muffled drumbeat follows me underwater. After about twenty paces, my head emerges from the pool. Ten more paces and I stand, dripping and naked, before the priestess. She gestures toward the stone tower and smiles.
“Go with the gods, my brother,” she says.
I nod and start running. Time is short, and I must be quick to succeed. As I approach the tower, I slow down and take care to step around the broken stone pieces. Arms, legs, torsos, and heads litter my path—the remnants of unsuccessful offerings. I resolve not to end up among them. Having navigated the debris field, I begin to climb.
The tower is composed entirely of stone figures. Those at the bottom kneel in a circle with the next layer of figures standing on their shoulders. The tower has grown to ten layers of ten figures each—save the top layer with only nine. I will complete it if I succeed.
I remember the very first offering eight years ago. The man emerged from the pool, ran to the empty clearing, and knelt in wait. A minute later, he was rendered in stone. Every full moon, we have added another man or woman. Now it is my turn to join them.
I scale the first five levels with ease using various handholds and footholds: ankles, hips, shoulders, forearms, and more. I see my opening above—a gap between two muscular stone women.
I notice my body is losing responsiveness. My legs start to feel leaden. This is the critical phase of the climb. It is make or break quite literally. I glance down at the broken limbs and torsos below and shudder. I must reach the top before the enchanted water finishes its work on me.
I ascend two more levels when suddenly my feet slip, and I’m hanging by one hand from the tower. My fingers cling to the wrist of a stone man. With no small struggle, I swing my body like a pendulum and grab his other wrist. I breathe a sigh of relief, though my feet grow heavier as they harden into solid marble. They’ll be useless for the rest of my climb, so I must rely entirely on my hands and arms to reach the top.
I pull myself upward and grab a woman’s knee, followed by a man’s hip and then a woman’s breast. I don’t discriminate when it comes to available handholds. My calves have now succumbed to the marble wave as it approaches my knees. It’s a tale of two ascents. I am climbing the tower as the petrifying effect climbs my body. The question is which climb will finish first.
Drenched in sweat from exertion, I reach the ninth level as the marble claims my thighs. My arms are burning, but still, I climb. I feel my loins turn to stone. Three more feet to go. The petrifying wave flows over my abdomen and approaches my chest. If it reaches my shoulders before I’m in position, I will fall and shatter on the ground below.
I wrestle my stone body up to the top level with a grunt and a final heave. Carefully I position my petrified feet on the shoulders of the man below me and wrap my arms around the necks of the stone women on either side. Praise the gods!
The marble wave pauses at my neck and cascades along my arms to my hands, locking my body in place. Finally, the transformation moves over my chin, mouth, and nose. The distant drumbeat goes silent as my ears turn to stone. The marble figures across from me fade as my eyes become featureless orbs. The wave crests the top of my head and is finished.
My thoughts slow down as my brain calcifies. I have fulfilled my vow to the order. Glory to the gods for bestowing this honor upon me! With immense pride, my consciousness drifts into the night.
Copyright 2022 Veronica Malbec
I watched Hunger Games (yet again) and got to the part where Katniss volunteers as tribute. That got me thinking about the Aztecs and human sacrifice and whether any of those unfortunate people volunteered as tribute. The answer is probably no, but what if volunteering meant becoming part of a monument to the gods? That’d be at least a little tempting, right? I daydreamed about what it might be like and ended up with this story.