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A Touch of Red


A Touch of Red
by Deborah Bailey

These can’t be Mama’s shoes.

So what if they’re the right colour, the deep scarlet of sambar sauce dried in the pot the next morning because Mama had forgotten (again) to soak it out. Too busy making shoes for the river and the goddess.

These shoes have the right pattern on the toes; I’d helped cut out those seven point stars that represent the goddess in all her forms.

They can’t be Mama’s shoes, though, because they’re empty.

Silly Mama. Leaving shoes empty on the beach on festival day means everyone would think she’d decided to bathe in the river turned red with the goddess’s blood, see if she’d be touched by the goddess’s powers.

The trijo fruit I’d gone to buy drops to the river-beach. I hadn’t been away more than a moment.

Right now, the river is filled with people hugging each other, people taking tentative first steps into the glowing red water, their shock at the cold fading to bliss as they crouch down, dunk their heads, let the water run over their hair, down their faces and into their open mouths. Everyone looks the same, slick and glossy like wet pebbles.

Further down the bank, barges draped in white and yellow flowers bob at their tethers like eager dogs. A few stragglers from last year’s touched leap over the sides and splash back up to shore. Their skin is rough and mottled, their glow all gone. They stare at the barge, at the flowers swirling in the red water, and their faces look crumpled like…like Mama’s had, when Papa first got ill.

I don’t see Mama anywhere.

The shoes are the right size, just a bit bigger than my own feet. I know this because I’d tried them on the night before. I’d marched around our hut and my heels hadn’t slipped out. Mama had made me hold my hand up against hers. My fingers, too, almost matched her own, and she’d given me my special smile. “What a big girl you are, Nari.”

She wouldn’t have gone in the river. Not without telling me.

Maybe I got turned around coming back from the fruit seller. But I remember that barge with the triple row of yellow garlands and that pair of red shoes with flowers on the toes that didn’t look nearly as nice as the ones Mama made.

Still, I retrace my way to the fruit seller then turn back around. Pushing away the fear twisting around in my stomach, I orient myself by the river.

A group of chanting women sway along the river edge, bare feet shuffling in intricate steps. They look like a family, a white haired grandmother letting the water wash over her feet and a girl at the other end, twelve or thirteen, not much older than me, who’s waving at the beach. She catches my eye and touches the yellow garland around her neck, smoothes the red folds of her bathing shawl. As she steps into the water, a carved offering boat hits her leg. When she reaches down to right it, the water runs over her hands. Her expression changes to surprise and something more, but before I can see what, her mother pulls her arm to tug her deeper into the water.

I count my steps carefully. Twenty paces, turn, five paces, turn. The crowd pushes and jostles as more people wade into the swirling red currents.

An elderly couple hobble to the water’s edge, arms piled with flower wreaths. They toss them into the water then wade after them, clasping hands. People clearly not planning to bathe stand well back, shawls held over their heads to block the sun.

I wriggle my way through the throng, making sure I don’t mess up my count. I come out into an open stretch filled with more shoes. Rows and rows and rows of shoes. All red and all empty.

Just in time to see a pedlar leaning over her shoes.

Shoes from someone who’s been touched are lucky, and Mama’s shoes are the nicest. People pay big money for the shoes left behind, put them by the bed to heal the sick or help a healthy baby come, or else they bury them under the hearth to keep the goddess’s brother away. But Mama still needs her shoes.

Pinwheeling my arms, I charge down the beach at him, not caring that I step on other shoes, that their gems grind against my feet, that my feet are now bleeding. What’s a bit more red on this beach, on this day when the Goddess has turned the whole river red with her own blood?

I shout, “Hey, get away!” as I leap across three sets of shoes. Because she’s not gone in the river. Not, not, not.

Down the beach, other pedlars wander among the shoes, staking claim to the nicest ones.

I throw myself down across Mama’s shoes. “She’s coming back.” I glare up at the pedlar’s lumpy face.

He glares right back at me. “Give off, girlie.”

I shake my head, breathing deep against my heart thumping so fast I feel it in my fingers. “Leave Mama’s shoes alone.” I can barely hear myself above the pounding that has spread through my head as well as down my legs, which feel all wobbly. I raise my voice to hear it over the roar in my ears. “Go away.”

The pedlar looms, his dark hair a sweat-stiffened ridge over his brows. “Just looking.”

I bare my teeth and hiss.

His muddy brown eyes widen, nothing of the goddess in them. His hand twitches as if poised to snatch the shoes out from under me. His fingertips, only his fingertips, are stained a waxy dull red, a sign he’d once been touched.

A thin blade of a smile slices across his face. “Fair game, girlie. Because where is she, then?”

The freshly touched glow with red. It gets under your skin and even in your eyes and makes you beautiful. How can it fade to the greed in his eyes? Maybe the goddess didn’t want that part of him, and that’s why she left it behind. Didn’t she think that maybe we didn’t want it either?

He lunges for the shoes.

I whip my head around and bite him on the arm.

He shrieks, an honest to goodness shriek that has people turning our way. Even one of the priestesses setting out flowers and vials of scented oil on a barge glances over.

We both shiver away from her gaze and he jerks his arm back.

“She’s coming back.” I say this louder, and people nearby nod while still managing to tut-tut at the pedlar.

“It’s not even time,” I add. Shoes aren’t supposed to be collected until after those left un-touched come back out our side of the river.

Glaring even more, the pedlar slinks away. I stick my tongue out at his back. I’d be worried, but Mama will come back, and she’ll be proud of me for protecting her shoes.

This year, she tried to teach me to make shoes. I’d wanted to learn, to see how scrolls of dun leather turned the same colour as the glow of the cooking fire when I got to work the bellows and make the embers glow like the touched. When they assembled themselves under Mama’s graceful fingers, it seemed like she was touched by the goddess without having to bathe in the river.

So when she asked for my help, I said yes.

But it wasn’t like that. I spent long boring hours waiting as Mama sewed tiny perfect stitches all day and most of the night. She forgot about being my mama as she sat hunched over the long strips of red leather that looked like rose petals.

When I tried to cut out the shapes she’d traced, snippets had fallen around me like scabs. My head had hurt, and so had my fingers. When I’d stabbed at the leather, my needle had gouged rough holes instead of Mama’s neat little dots that turned invisible under the thread. The shoes I helped make were ugly, not fit for an offering. But she’d given me my special smile, and told me to go play. She hadn’t acted disappointed.

Where is she?

The river is as wide as a yawning mouth. Cousin Amel had called it the goddess’s piss-stream last year and earned a beating from his father. I hadn’t said anything, not even a nod. After all, back when Uncle had been touched, the goddess had granted him the ability to hear everything people said even when he wasn’t around. Now, even though the touch was gone, he still could look at you, make you scared not to tell everything.

I could see what Cousin meant, though. Because if the goddess created the whole world, the stars, the sky, and everything in between and beyond, then she must be big enough that this river, which splits the world in two, could well be her piss. In any case, how is piss worse than blood?

I glance around, as if just thinking that would make a priestess appear at my elbow ready to drag me away. Mind words are like heart promises, I decide. The goddess can hear them but pretends not to notice, like she sometimes does with prayers.

I say a prayer now, even though I know the goddess is extra busy today giving birth to the world and choosing who to touch with her powers. But I say it anyway as I start back towards where Mama should be waiting. The priestesses say the goddess does listen to everyone, even if it might not seem like it.

Please. I want my Mama.

If Mama has been touched, the priestesses will give me money for the year she works for them. Mama explained how that means that everyone can have a chance to serve the goddess, that all families, not just rich ones, can receive her touch.

Then she’d tell the story of how people wore red shoes from the moment the water turned each spring until the actual celebration when people immersed themselves in the great river red with the blood of the goddess giving birth to the world.

I love to hear Mama tell the story. She holds me on her lap and tells me of the goddess and her brother and their child the world who is born anew each spring. Her voice rises higher and becomes musical for the goddess, then falls and takes on a mountain twang for the brother. A bunch of children always gather by the end, but she only looks at me as she explains how the touched leave their shoes behind for the whole year they spend working for the priestesses.

You leave your shoes behind, not your child. Not me.

I poke at the shoe. Mama had made four pairs and sold them all within a day. But not mine. No-one wanted to insult the goddess by wearing mine.

But mama had saved them, worn them this morning. She’d sewn over my crooked stitches with a neat smile of thread, and they looked perfect until you looked close. She told me they were beautiful, that I’d done well, but that had been Mama, not me.

When people bought the shoes, she’d brushed away questions about whether she’d bathe. One woman had been particularly insistent, giving me a look as she said, “But it’s been years since you made the blessing.”

Mama had not quite looked in my direction, while I pretended to play and equally didn’t quite look in hers. After all, I’m almost eleven. Some people think that’s old enough to be left behind.

“Not yet,” Mama said. I thought that meant I was safe.

When she offered to teach me to make shoes, I’d wanted to learn not because I wanted to make a glorious offering to the goddess or earn money for school, but because I wanted to sit next to my mama, maybe not leave to go to school after all but stay close enough that I could pretend her smiles were still all for me, that the songs she hummed as she sewed were still lullabies. How could I have found it so boring, then?

She wouldn’t go in. She promised.

Not a word promise, though. Word promises are most sacred—unbreakable—because the goddess can’t help but hear.

She can hear heart-promises as well, of course. But they’re different. I’d figured that out for myself but I didn’t tell Mama. That had made me giggle. A secret between me and the goddess, one no-one else knew.

But it looks like Mama did, too. Because why else would she not make it a word promise?

In any case, the difference is just for promises to the goddess, not ones from mothers.

I hadn’t thought I needed a word promise.

Maybe Mama had needed to bathe in order to apologise for my shoes.

Down the beach, the pedlar is collecting more shoes. The sun is melting across the river and the barges are almost ready. The white-robed priestesses light the torches so that the flames, red and green, shoot upwards until they touch the sun.

I sit on Mama’s shoes and wait. Just because you go in the river doesn’t mean the blood of the goddess gives you a touch of her powers. She might still come back.

The barges set out into the river. Echoes of the prayer chants waft across the water.

As the sun skims the darkened water, some of the bathers start to glow red.

The shoes hurt my bum, but I refuse to get up.

All barges are launched now. Smoke from the incense offering bowls curls across the water in tendrils as graceful as the goddess herself. It mixes with the damp-earth smell the water gets when filled with the goddess’s blood. Behind me, the rougher smell of cooking fires being lit signals the end of the festival. Aunt and Uncle are standing by the biggest fire, waving at me, beckoning me over.

I give a quick wave back, but don’t stand up.

The pedlar is circling again. He slinks closer, a jumbled armful of shoes clutched to his chest, a bulging rough-woven sack hanging off one shoulder.

To make sure he can’t get them, I slip my feet in the shoes. The red from the leather spills over onto my skin in the low slanting sunlight. It doesn’t make me look touched, but like I’ve somehow been turned inside out. I shiver.

He edges closer. “Sunset.” His elbow jerks towards the barges now gliding through the water, alight with the glow of the fresh-touched on their decks. Family members on the beach call out and toss more offerings into the water.

The touched don’t look back, though. We can’t see the far river bank, but I know that priestesses wait at the golden bier of the old world whose funeral is tonight, after which the newly-touched use their goddess-given powers in service of her name, giving up their own names, families, homes—and shoes—until the powers wear away and the glow fades as the earth dies again in winter.

Just that morning, Mama had said, “I already do the goddess’s work,” when asked if she’d bathe.

She’d said the same thing last year, but then, her hand had dropped to my head, slipping through my hair to the back of my neck so tingles raced up it. I’d giggled and squirmed away.

This year, I’d insisted I was a big grown up girl who could be trusted to take our offering down to the barges, then buy fruit all on my own. I’d only been a moment, even if I had got distracted with watching a group of schoolgirls handing up long twisting garlands to a priestess.

Closing my eyes, I picture Mama’s smile, the one she gives only to me, where her eyebrows dart up like it surprised her that she could love me so much.

Maybe now she’d got used to it and needed a new surprise.

I wish I could ask. I wish I could see her smile. I wish I’d asked her to come with me to launch our offering boat and buy fruit. Instead, I’d said, “I wish you’d stop treating me like a baby.”

Then I’d called “Mama, look at me,” as I scurried to launch our carved wooden boat with the garland I’d woven, the dried star seeds in little clay bowls, the white beads that represented healing prayers. She glanced in my direction, but her gaze was pulled over my head to the red-blood river that had split the world in two.

She gave the river a smile.

My smile.

No, not the same smile. She smiled at me like a goddess-day present that you already know you’re getting, like the one I’d tried to put on after Cousin Amel told me he’d seen Mama sewing beads on a shawl.

Mama smiled at the river like a present you don’t even dare hope for, not even in trade for a heart promise.

The barge torches have died down to fat gobs of light that look harsh next to the gentle glow of the touched. Their reflections wiggle on the water. The sky is turning green at the edges and the water doesn’t look red now, just ordinary.

I shiver as the dark drapes itself around me.

People are starting to clamber up the near bank, pale, teeth chattering, staring at their feet. I stand, because if she wasn’t touched, she’d be coming out now. Maybe…

Maybe the goddess really does listen to heart promises.

Just in case, I say it aloud. “Please, please, please, I want my Mama. And I promise…” I stop. You are supposed to offer the most important thing in the world. She already has it.

The river is empty now that the barges have passed beyond the halfway point. The chants are dying down as people straggle to the cooking fires at the top of the beach.

The pedlar is back.

If Mama has been touched, he has a right to collect her shoes. I kiss my fingers, brush the star on each toe, and step back.

The pedlar looks at me, then the shoes.

He reaches out. I close my eyes.

The pedlar’s hand lands on my arm

“Girlie,” he says. “West Market pays the best prices.” His hand drops away, fingers glowing ever so faintly. “Don’t take less than twenty.”

West Market is far on the other side of the city. I know I can stay with Aunt and Uncle. The money I’ll get from the priestesses will pay for my food and clothes. An extra twenty will mean I can pay for school too.

But they’re not Mama.

Still, I nod thanks to the pedlar as he trudges along the beach, scooping up more shoes. Then I pick up Mama’s shoes and walk down to the river edge.

On a barge far out, I think I see her, backlit by the last rays of sun. The long waterfall of hair, the way the elbow juts out, hand on hip. “Mama, look at me,” I whisper. “Look at me and I’ll be happy for you.”

But she doesn’t. None of them do. Just look at the other side, where priestesses are waiting. I know what happens next. The touched step, barefoot, off the barges. The priestesses bow and hand out red robes. The new year is successfully birthed, the old one buried, and the joyous new year begins.

Same as every year.

The ceremonial horn sounds and the crowd gives a final cheer as the river itself seems to glow. A wind whips up, slopping water over its banks. It runs across the packed sand like it’s searching for someone. People fall silent, some dart forward, others scramble back.

It stops nearly at my feet. Even though I’m too young, I crouch, close my eyes, and thrust my hand in the water. I don’t feel anything.

Maybe it was too late, even last year. Maybe it has nothing to do with me.

I want my Mama.

I am happy for her, I decide. I say it aloud, so it’s not just a heart promise. Then I open my eyes. The water isn’t red anymore, just plain old clear.

People congratulate me as I stand up, clapping me on the shoulder and saying how proud I should be that Mama has been touched. I don’t care.

I just pick up the shoes. It’s a long walk to West Market.

* * *

Deborah Bailey is an expat American who lives in a small English village that prides itself on its annual potato festival. She is a full-time freelance writer and editor as well as Treasurer of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio. She attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in 2012, and her fiction has appeared in Luna Station Quarterly, Wicked Words Quarterly, and MicroHorror. She blogs at FourGreenSquares.wordpress.com, and you can follow her on Twitter at @4GreenSquares.

What do I think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?

Fiction is a process of asking questions about the world, about existence. One important aspect of this is exploring how dividing lines are drawn. When does self become other? Child become adult? One culture or species become another? Where do you draw the line? Of course, you don’t draw it or, rather, it gets drawn a million times a day by a million different people—in a million different places. Fantasy lets you examine these choices by setting the sliders to achieve exquisite focus on precisely the elements you desire. Fantasy also lets you play with this on a grand scale: what is reality?

As a writer, therefore, I like fantasy because it gives you a bigger playground: whole societies, worlds, religions, species, genders can be custom configured to allow you to dissect phenomena along fault lines that may be ignored, dormant, or nonexistent in modern society. You can create something startlingly different, unsettlingly similar, or anything in between, but always a mirror to our own world—and you the writer get to decide if you want that mirror to be a funhouse distortion or a precision lens.

As a reader, I enjoy fantasy for much the same reasons. I find it fascinating to see where other people choose to set those same sliders. Besides, who doesn’t get enough reality in daily life? But beyond the sheer fun of visiting the magnificent landscapes of other people’s imaginations, I find fantasy stories can achieve grandeur in scale and character that more realistic fiction struggles to attain. For me, nothing beats a long afternoon with a fat fantasy novel and wondering who I’ll be, how I’ll have changed and grown when I come out the other side.

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