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Litany in the Heart of Exorcism Sarah Pauling

Do you understand?

On your skin, do you feel the white sand the priests threw in fistfuls from the blessing-basin? Do you feel it crusting over your eyelids? It sticks between your cheek and the temple floor like a binding. It powders the sigils on the stone.

Do you understand what’s happening to us? Songs, prayers, incense. That awful boybarely old enough to call a man—praying. His mother, weeping.

They want to take you away from me. To drive the demon out.

I hold your body close to mine, the white grit on my forehead grinding against the grit on yours. I hook my nails into your naked back. I try—not for the first time—to draw blood.

Do you feel it?

You must. You cry out; bury your face in my breast.

Shh, now. Use me as your anchor. I protect what’s mine.

The priests don’t see our bodies as they really are: entwined, limb-to-limb, tight as knots in ship’s rope. Educated men, men of lofty purpose, they see only what they expect to see. They see only one body in the purification circle—one writhing woman, alone, caked with sand, thin wrists like bird bones ripe for breaking.

Wrists gentle enough to ink copies of every ocean map found in every book in the city library, if only educated men like these would let us. Wrists you’ll agree are too weak to hold up wedding bracelets of cold ivory.

That’s why we’re together, remember? Why I bound you to me. Better than that stupid boy.

Devils are not women, but I like to think we understand each other. To be blamed, cast out, suspected. Or worse: held down. Kept. Tied.

To frighten and be frightened, at times in equal measure. No fear without fear.

Shh, now.

Does the priests’ singing hurt you? Does it clatter like a breaking bell in the back of your mind? Does it make you want to leave me?

Poor thing. Don’t think of it. Think of stealing away from the engagement feast, leaving his mother’s house—shucking our dress, all alone, the wind running through our bare thighs on the southern plateau. Think of commanding strawberries to be overripe and letting the juices run down our chin. Think of pilfering books and pulling out the pages—swallowing sailors’ maps and knowing where new continents lie. I’ve given you the world of men.

You’re shivering. Is joy not enough for you? Coward.

Fine. Fear. Think of the way we drained, together, the color from that stupid boy’s dreams until all he could see was gray rocks at the bottom of ravines. Think of catching his mother’s wrist before her palm hit our cheek. Think of her face when she saw the tar seep from our eyes. Think of the fear.

Isn’t that what your kind want? Why you’ve let us bind you, ritual after ritual, centuries down and down? I gave you fear. I gave you power over fear. Don’t you feed on it?

Better devil-deals than marriage contracts. We are stronger now than we were alone.

Their tricks won’t work. Don’t watch the sand gather on the lines of the temple sigils like iron nails to lodestones. Don’t track the map the sigils form. A compass rose—northeast, northwest—

No. Look at me. Sailors navigate by starlight; you can navigate by me.

Don’t you understand? Their power can be broken.

If you want me badly enough.

Stop crying. I want you. I reached for you across the great divide. I upheld my end of our bargain. I became your foothold in this world, and you won’t fight for me?

That blasted singing. Wrenching like an arrow from a breast, lover from lover, mother from—

No! Don’t let go! You hideous little ghoul, fight for me! Take me with you!

Please, take me—we’ll ride the rivers of the netherworld and cross the cosmos together. I’ve always wanted to be a sailor. Long before I summoned you, flaying fish in the creek behind the boy’s house to draw you to me. Before I was engaged.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve watched sailors dock at port and leave again. They chase continents. They get to leave.

Don’t go. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I don’t know why I said those things.

I’m sorry. Cruelty spills out of me, sometimes, like an estuary—like a river to the sea.

I’m afraid.

I caress the tender space between your ear and your jaw—or I try. Nothing’s there. My fingers brush my own skin instead.

Your absence collapses me like a punctured lung.

The singing stops. The boy’s mother scrambles into the circle. She pulls me to my knees and embraces me tight enough to suffocate. Tighter than love would call for. A warning, then. A fear.

Her son presses his ugly face to the temple floor, shoulders slack with relief that you are gone—more relieved for himself than for me. Eager for the return of colorful dreams.

He holds my wedding bracelets like a pact. Like a contract.

Briny tears trace mud-routes down my face. They land on my wrists and draw seaways there.

The sand on the floor forms a compass, leading you to oceans I don’t know how to sail.

I’ll learn. I’ll ink a thousand maps and maybe, in another place, my faults and fears will be forgiven.

Saltwater sticks to my lips: a sharp taste that evaporates, cold.

© Sarah Pauling

Meet the Author

Sarah Pauling

Sarah Pauling

Sarah Pauling is a recent transplant to Seattle, WA, where she manages a university intercultural exchange program. She was shortlisted for the James White Award for new writers and is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop. Her work is published in places like Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Escape Pod. If approached without sudden movement, she can be found at @_paulings on Twitter, where she natters on about writing, tabletop gaming, comics, and books.

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