A short story
Gretchen shivered as she leaned against the cold wall, waiting for the ritual to begin.
Some nights, they performed the ritual while the moon and starlight streamed in through the roofless tower, but most of the time, the gloomy darkness of cloud-drenched skies and an inescapable chill filled this place.
Gretchen had heard that the tower was once a grand edifice where people and spirits had gathered. Gretchen wondered if their ritual would bring back the spirits. Maybe if they tried and believed hard enough, it would. But no matter. They would perform the ceremony today as it was performed every day. The ritual was important; her wishes were not.
The tower was the tallest structure in their village, although there wasn’t much to see other than three blank walls and one wall into which the numbers 2013 were etched. Gretchen often discussed how such a place could have been built, where the material came from, how many horses were needed to transport everything across a vast distance, and what happened to the makers. But perhaps some mysteries were destined to be eternal.
“Waiting is cold,” Gretchen said to Ekon, who sat beside her.
“Waiting is what we must do,” he replied.
“I know.” Gretchen looked into Ekon’s brown eyes. “I’m just cold.”
Ekon slid closer so their bodies touched, his leg against hers, his tattered sheepskin chemise leaking heat that warmed her. He noted Gretchen’s smile.
“Are we allowed to touch this way in this place?”
Ekon shrugged. “What does it matter? Only the ritual matters.” He looked up and watched the clouds race across the sky, lightning occasionally illuminating them from the inside. “The makers may not have allowed touching inside the ruins, but the makers are no longer here. This place's original purpose is no longer here. We have just one purpose, the ritual.” He tapped the disc that was strapped to his wrist. “You know and I know and the entire village knows that the disc is the ritual and the ritual is the disc.”
Ekon’s disc was gold and attached to a metal bracelet, while Gretchen’s silver disc wrapped around her wrist with a leather strap. Spires radiated out the center of Ekon’s disc and glowed at night, while the spires on Gretchen’s did not make light in the dark. The letters “Rolex” were embossed on Ekon’s disc, while the lettering on Gretchen’s read “Timex.”
The differences among discs were part of the mystery.
The others who would arrive when they had finished their day’s work wore discs that differed, too. Some had pictures of the moon or sun, while other villagers had discs with three or four spires. Some discs were white, others black or faded green, blue, or red. Some displayed Arabic or Roman numerals, while other discs had no numbers at all.
The absence of numbers on many of the villagers’ discs puzzled Gretchen. Numbers often yield meaning, but what does it mean when only some discs have numbers?
Gretchen rubbed the disc's knob between her fingertips.
Ekon jabbed her arm with his forefinger. “Not yet,” he whispered. “Wait till the ritual.”
“I know, I know.”
“Then why do you look like you’re about to turn the knob?”
“I’m not, so don’t worry. I know we have to wait for Conall and the others. I would never do it alone. I just like the way the knob feels, that’s all.”
Snorting horses alerted them to the villagers’ arrival. Gretchen straightened her back and slid away from Ekon. Judging from the noise, dozens of people would be joining them, more than the usual number. Bodies will warm the tower, good. But she was curious. Why so many? She rubbed her hands together and blew on them. I’ll know soon.
The villagers single-filed into the tower room and sat with their backs against the hard wall with legs crossed. Everyone's right sleeve was pulled back, exposing their discs, ready for the ritual.
A white light caught Gretchen’s eye. She looked up to see the crescent moon punching through the clouds. A good omen, she thought.
Conall, the village elder, stood with a grunt and walked to the center of the room. He wore a long purple cowl that ended mid-calf, thick wool socks, and leather sandals. Steely owls and ravens were carved into his oak cane. He lowered his hood and pivoted, making eye contact with each villager but not saying a word.
Gretchen held her breath. Something was afoot—something momentous bubbled inside Conall. Gretchen leaned forward and clasped her hands together. She shot a quick nod at Ekon.
Conall extended an arm toward Eydis, the village’s builder. Eydis was a skillful builder—she made doors that didn’t stick, bells that rang great distances, and fences that didn’t fall apart during storms. Any village would be proud to have Eydis as their builder. Conall nodded to Eydis and waved his arm in an upward motion. “Eydis has deciphered the disc,” Conall said.
Everyone, including Gretchen, gasped.
Eydis stood. A bitter wind swirled down from the top of the tower, blowing her long, blond hair across her shoulders.
“More than that,” Conall said, “She has restored her disc to its original purpose.”
“Purpose?” The gravelly voice belonged to Celso, a thick man in his thirties with curly black hair who raised pigs. He sat four people away from Gretchen. “What do you mean by ‘purpose?’ We have the ritual. The discs have no other purpose.”
“Just like this place, the discs once had meaning beyond the ritual,” Conall replied. “Everything has an origin if we look and think hard enough."
“No!” Celso stood. He stomped his foot and shouted, “No!” again. His face turned fiery red.
“Celso, my friend, hush. Just for a moment.” Conall bowed his head and smiled. “It’s best we let Eydis explain.”
Eydis stepped into the middle of the room. She looked to the sky before speaking. “It’s difficult to explain, but I will try. What I am about to describe was originally hard for me to fathom, as it may be for you. But now the truth is clear.” Eydis unfastened the bracelet that held her disc and raised it high so everyone could see. “I will show you something.” Eydis walked from villager to villager, holding her disc high. Everyone’s eyes went wide and wild. When Eydis finished, forty-two beating hearts echoed against the walls.
“The spires on the disc move!” Siobhan shouted. “They move!”
“Yes,” Eydis said. “The discs have a purpose beyond anything we imagined.” Eydis rubbed her chin. “You know how the sun and the dark come and go? You know how the warm days become cold days before the warm ones return again? How the roosters always know when dawn arrives?” Eydis held her disc high above her head again. “The disc—” She brought it to eye level momentarily. “This one called ‘Omega,’ now informs me when light and dark arrive. I returned its original purpose, to measure time. The spires on my disc move, a wondrous machine. I can imagine a hundred uses for the disc. It’s incredible.”
Eydis turned to Celso. “Celso, you will know when your hogs will wake.”
Celso glared at Eydis with fury in his eyes.
Eydis spun toward Tallis. “Tallis, you can assemble all your students at once instead of them staggering into school in the middle of a lesson.” Eydis smiled more broadly. “Vilette, you can tell everyone that your shop will open when the spires point one way and close when they point another. No more disappointed villagers who arrive at your shop only to find it closed."
Eydis held up both arms so everyone could watch as she turned the rough-edged knob that extended from the side of her disc. She spoke as she performed the ritual twisting of the disc’s bump: “What we have come to know as the ritual, what we and our parents and our parents’ parents have done for generations, has a purpose. We turn the knob to start the disc’s spires to note the time.”
“No!” Celso shouted even louder than before. “The ritual is the ritual. This is blasphemy! I will not stand for it.” Celso withdrew a dagger from his belt. With a single stride, he reached Eydis and stabbed her twice in the chest, moving like a blur. Eydis died before she fell to the ground.
Celso curled Eydis’ fingers, removed the disc, threw it to the floor, and stomped on it. There was a crack like a tree branch snapping, and pieces of plastic and metal scattered.
“What’s done is done. The ritual has been restored,” he said.
Gretchen, Ekon, and everyone nodded. Celso sat down, and the villagers spun their discs’ knobs in unison.
If you enjoyed The Ritual, I think you’ll also like my story, The Lost Explorer
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