Tomorrow, she would be a person again. Tomorrow, if she survived, today would never have happened.
Today, however, she is a tool. An ornament forged in the flames of a shrine, then cold hammered over the years by its priests, mocking its original purpose. That this was not blasphemy spoke of the empty pantheon her people now worshipped. Empty, uncaring, or unseeing.
The air is full of memories. Remembrances of long-dead ancestors and recently-passed relatives. Blood kin, one and all, and today they live once more, in the minds of those who survived them.
Today is an occasion to celebrate their lives, mourn their deaths, and appease their restless spirits. Food—a feast for the family—to celebrate, flowers and incense and ritual powders to mourn. And her, to appease.
She sits facing the firepit, memories and lives—indistinguishable—dancing on the flames. They speak to her in whispers, in a tongue lost to time. A priest sits across from her, a well-thumbed verse book opens in his lap. He coughs, and the spirits hum in anticipation.
The first harsh note leaves the priest’s mouth, to find itself being played by her voice. An instrument once, capable of spellbinding melody, reduced to a rough implement that repeats guttural intonations. Each word of each verse is hammered into the air around them, into the fire between them, and into the spirits surrounding them.
The spirits whisper no longer. Their tongues are still alien, they start to scream. She would weep for their fate if they were not tormenting her so. With each verse, the screams grow louder. She is kneading dough—flour, black sesame seeds, cow milk, and cow piss. Amid a haze of incense, she looks on at her family, coughing and screaming. These screams she can understand, and she rues their shared tongue.
She has formed three balls of dough: food for the spirits, whose screaming abates. The ritual has ended, the firepit is snuffed out, and the priest ceases his barking. And the feast begins.
Not yet for the tool and her spirits. She must feed them herself now. When the gods still smiled they would, as cows, accept offerings on behalf of the spirits. They do so no longer. She must instead breach a god’s unwilling and ailing body and fling her offerings into its maw.
The ocean is too far away, as are the holy rivers. For today, something smaller would have to suffice. Other tools with their offerings to their spirits gather in a fell convergence at the nearest lake. In a silent moment of unity on a cacophonous day of inhumanity, the tools drop their offerings into the brackish green water. Let the spirits salvage what they can. Let their screams join with the lake’s.
In a final act of perversion, the tool pays the priest for the privilege of being used, of being adorned by her family on this holy day. A wage that would make the gods weep, if they still had tears or eyes. The priest collects his bounty and departs to his next ritual.
The family leaves next, having thoroughly gorged themselves at the feast. Some of them had been tools themselves, once, yet they had not lost their appetite. Should she hate them? Or pity them? Compassion is a hard currency to part with, today.
The tool, then, alone, strips to her skin. Garments of white, once holy, sloughed off in disgust. Her fingers are a blur of red and yellow, the colours bleeding into her nails. No amount of scrubbing today will cleanse her.
But tomorrow, broken as she may be, she becomes a person again.