Lora always spent hours on admiring those embellishments of the facade. The microscopic chisel work on the marbles, the details on the quaint sculptures, the tantalizing mix of the colours on them, all made it look like a gateway to the heavens. She would either do that from the gardens or sometimes wait by a particular artistic inscription on the wall, trying to read it despite the sweltering sun. But not once, she had the faintest thought of indulging herself in a quick look of the inside. The grandiosity of her Lord’s cradle could not compete with her fidelity. Both hands supporting her worn hips, she was on a swivel that day, trying to read the inscription from all possible angles she could.
Johanne noticed her from the garden. “Lora,” she called, taking extreme caution not to startle her.
“Sister Johanne,” Lora beamed out of her wrinkles, and without letting her talk she grabbed her hands. “Thank you for letting me serve. Thank you. For everything.”
Johanne smiled back with a nod. “I am in no position to welcome your gratitude, Lora. I serve at his command. And you shall too.”
“Amen!” She clasped her arms into the air.
“I will show you the kitchen,” Johanne beckoned her towards the garden and led the way.
Adding more praises to the one inside, Lora followed the hem of Johanne’s robe that was sweeping the dead flowers along.
Tucked inside the pines, the kitchen house stood anew, as detailed as the structure behind them. Four columns stood bare, with guardian angels carved out of it, one at each corner. The birds, who were bombarding the air with a mess of notes, stopped altogether at the sight of them. They walked past the fountain by the entrance and stepped into the kitchen. It was white. Just plain white that was contrasted with the shades of fine metal kitchenware.
Lora observed the range of utensils on either side. She hesitated. Probably it was the transition, and she remembered something. Or she thought it would be an act of sacrilege to walk in with her stained clothes and muddy feet. But as Johanne called her inside, she moved. The birds started singing again. At the centre of the room, she noticed a large iron bowl, inside an enclosed boiler, ready to be used for the first time. “Five hundred, you say?”
“Five hundred and seventy-two,” Johanne replied, wistfully taking her time to look around.
“And it shall be done in his name.” Lora tried to smell inside the boiler.
“Indeed,” she smiled.
“How many chickens do you have in the—” Lora stopped as Johanne ignored her and walked towards the kitchen shelf.
She took a golden chalice, filled it with water, and offered it to Lora.
“Thank you, sister. But I am not thirsty,” said Lora.
“Are you sure?”
“I am.” She nodded, rubbing the back of her neck. “So, how many—”
“I will show you where the stocks are,” Johanne poured back the water, placed the empty cup by the boiler and walked.
Lora trotted behind the white veiled superior. They stopped at the end, facing the white wall. It was smooth and devoid of any imperfections. Pristine. Lora noticed a handle. It was made out of an elephant’s tusk. Johanne nudged the handle sideways and the door opened itself outwards, slowly. A huge gust of vapour puffed out.
Lora grunted holding her breath with her hands. “Good Lord! When did you stock these?” She found a rustiness in the air.
Johanne looked at her. Her lips were pleasantly shut. There was no answer. There was nothing but a pale vacant stare. As Lora opened her mouth to speak, she turned, adoring through the mist.
“I—” Lora stopped the moment she saw through. In those neatly arranged ivory hooks, hung the meats that resembled not like animals. Some had clothes, robes. Some had limbs, with deep straight gashes. Some were fresh, but torn. Some were a congealed mass of paste, like frozen cream.
Shudders rippled across her body and squashed her gut into her heart. “What is this—” A fit of retches put her down on her limbs. Before she could stifle it, a stream of vomit spewed out of her. “Oh, Lord!” The only words she could spare, gagging in that corroded air.
Johanne promptly got down to her. She touched on her head softly. “Relax,” she said. “You need to be cleansed.”
Lora could not speak. She crawled back from her vomit.
Johanne brought a silver bucket from the utensil rack and placed it in front of her.
Lora tried to crawl away. But her hips failed and she sprawled back on the floor with a groan. She found Johanne in front of her, beaming with warmth. She extended her left forearm as if she was about to help her. Then her right index finger made a straight and clean incision on it. Like peaceful red dawn, the undisturbed warm liquid seeped out of the cut evenly. The stream found its way to her sharp elbow and dripped down into the bucket dead centre.
“Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! Sister, what are you doing?! What in the name of—”
“What needs to be done shall be done,” she said in a rested tone and lowered her arm. Like the disturbed dew on the stalks of a winter’s morning, the fluid dribbled down her bony fingers.
Lora’s strength and the will to act was arrested beneath her flesh with shock, fatigue, and dismay. But she managed, out of her instinct, to crawl towards Johanne and tried to stem the flow. “Help,” she screamed, but her words cracked, her hands slipped. It was the cold. “Please, stop!”
Johanne courteously heartened Lora with the other hand and put her back on the floor. She then removed her veil. The baldness had its own tranquillity in congruence with her lips. She knelt down, with care, and folded the veil into a narrow roll, following the right creases. Once it could not be folded anymore, she dipped it into the bucket. The veil turned mellow, a ball of dripping mush. With a smile that shone from the heavens, she cleansed Lora’s face, stifling her broken screams with her unbroken blood.
Lora put up a hissy battle, like a child that hated bathing. Like a pup that wanted no business with cleansers. But Johanne was strong, in a humane way, and she would not stop until there were no spots to clean. “You are cleansed now, Lora.”
Lora’s face looked like the ones in the cold room, except it was wheezing and wailing in staccatos. She felt like a lamb in a butcher’s shop.
“You shall now do what he commands,” said Johanne as she stood. The drips from her arms started blotting Lora’s grimey dress like flecks of scarlet supernovae. “The five hundred will arrive with the seventy-two. And you will cook. For the lives you have shifted. For the lives you have broken. And I shall be cooked, for I seek my penance for the ones that have been cursed.”
“Stop! Please!” Lora begged, prayed, and then begged.
Johanne’s face looked like she had been blessed with an eternal gratification. She graciously removed her collar, the habit underneath, in a very delicate way to avoid any crinkles on it, and then untied the cincture around her waist. The robe slipped itself on the floor and she stepped out like she had been incarnated. A smile, a fulfilled one, sprouted at Lora. “You shall now cook.” Holding that radiance for her, she ran her index finger around her neck. A flawless and methodical cut. Like an overflowing fountain, the red flood suffused her body, the limbs collapsed. Johanne came down to her knees and ceased. Her empty eyes left a gaze at Lora with echoes of her words.
Lora did not care about the deluge that was creeping towards her on the floor. Her twitches went quiet and she felt paralyzed. She looked like she had just woken from a nightmare inside a beet farm. She could not tell if she wanted to observe or she was forced to realise. She just sat there with her legs submerged deep in Johanne’s blood, and her eyes tied to the pair in front of her.
“I must,” she uttered once and stood upright. She breathed in the air like it was her first, and lifted Johanne in her arms and carried her to the boiler. She placed her inside the bowl in a fetal position and looked at the ceiling. “As you command.”
As the sunlight faded, a silent procession appeared over the horizon. A long file of men, women, and children entered the hall. No clamour, no nothing.
The seats, smooth levitating spheres, were concentrically arranged from the middle of the hall. Lora stood at the dead centre, like a sacramental pole to indicate where the foundation stone was laid. The first five hundred got magnetized towards the spheres in harmony, starting from the inside. The rest returned from the kitchen, along the walls like creeping lightning, with bowls and pots floating at the nodes. They placed it around Lora, in order, sorted by size, and found their spheres.
A slim bolt hit Lora from underneath her feet. “The alpha shall have the first,” Lora announced, but not in her voice or at her will. It was as if she was switched on. Her left hand opened the first bowl. The crowd responded with a high-pitched burst of a transient thrum in unison. Her hand raised high in the air with the bowl like she was about to feed a hungry bird. “The alpha shall accept this humble offering.”
The dome above her whirled, almost silent, and let in the darkness of the night. A violet crack of discharge, as thick as a column, bolted down. Its fringes connected with all five hundred and seventy-two spheres, retaining a static discharge, like a blessing. The air would have smelled like charcoal for Lora. She stood unfazed, disconnected, with her hand raised with the bowl that had some Johanne in it. A streamer lingered around the pot, vaporizing the contents in a cyclic manner, every cycle, some sort of a scan, radiating brighter than the scathing plasma. And every time the energy burst, a stream of luminescent cells projected in the air at a macroscopic level before it vanished.
“The rest shall have their feast,” Lora spoke as the streamer shrunk itself to an air of static discharge above her head, like a crown. Streamers then bloomed out like arms, in hundreds, regenerating out of a body, or an overgrown nerve tree, and levitated the bowls to all the seated spheres. “For she has finally cooked one of hers.”
The feast lasted for less than a second.
Lora woke up to an empty hall and a chalice at her feet with something that resembled water. She chugged it.
The next morning, Lora was at the wall, outside, trying her best to make sense of the symbols in that inscription that loosely translated ‘The Human Cook – Every Morning, 10:00:00 to 21:00:00‘.
Nathan noticed her from the garden. “Lora,” he called, taking extreme caution not to startle her.
In the quantum space, a high-pitched burst of a transient thrum erupted in unison.