by Ashley Park
Illustrated by Rachel Wada | Edited by Danny Lore
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
2881 words — Reading time: around 14 minutes
You have been chosen from all of the unmarried girls in your village. It is a great honour. People you have known your whole life gather outside of your grandmother’s house. They bring gifts of salt-fish and clams, the bounty of your village’s coast. They bring sweet-smelling fruits, freshly picked from the surrounding forest. They bring coloured beads and woven fabrics, to brighten the rooms in your house.
Your grandmother places a hand on your head and prays silently. You are the third girl to be sent this year. You are the final girl that can be sent, and the journey must be completed. You carry the deaths of the ones who walked before you on your shoulders. Your grandmother prays to them to be kind to you.
Though you are too old, your grandmother takes your hands in hers and sings you a lullaby. A soft, sweet song that sent you to sleep when you were a baby. You close your eyes to listen, hoping to sear it into your brain forever.
You do not want your grandmother to weep in front of the entire village. You say you will make her proud, and you will finish what the other girls began. She kisses your forehead, your left cheek, and then your right cheek. A circle of love.
You are led out of your house by an Elder to stand in front of the crowd. Your grandmother remains behind, watching you with shining eyes through the open door. There is a burlap sack awaiting you on the ground. It is full of white, fine-grain sugar. The sugar has been measured to your exact body weight.
The burlap sack has two woven cords attached to it for handles. You slip those over your shoulders and heft the sweet bulk onto your back.
Your journey begins.
You walk through the streets of your village until you can no longer hear the voices of the gathered crowd. When you get to the edge of the village, you reach behind and place one hand into the open mouth of the sack.
You scoop out a handful of sugar. There are two piles already formed on the ground, and you pour the sugar reverently beside its sisters. The other mounds are somehow undisturbed.
You shake the last few sprinkles from your fingers, wiping away stray crystals. It is a hot day with little relief from the Sun.
You heft the sack, the weight ungainly. The cord straps dig into your shoulders. The burlap scratches against the back of your neck. When you were chosen three days ago, the sugar was weighed to match your body down to the last grain, though now less a handful.
You walk down the forest path, your footsteps burdened but purposeful.
The forest is thin with trees and not much cooler than the desert that lies beyond it. There is little relief from the Sun. It does not take long for sweat beading on your brow to turn into streams cascading down your face and neck. The dust kicked up by your footsteps begins to cake around your ankles and travel up your calves.
Your back is drenched with sweat. The thin linen of your tunic and the burlap sack are scratchy and uncomfortable against your skin. You wish for relief.
The desert is boundless. The hot sand sears your feet through the rawhide sandals. The heat feels like a large stone is pressing down on your chest. Every breath you take is thick, muggy, and slow.
Your journey is not measured in miles but in the gradual transformation of the burden you carry. The sugar sifts in the sack as it sways with your movements. Your back grows sticky as the sugar melts, forming into sodden clumps. Melted sugar oozes down the back of your arm, drying into a hard stickiness on your skin.
A shadow appears on the horizon. Eventually it forms into the shapes of two men and a mule bearing their supplies. As they come closer, you see that one has eyes and clothing like no one you have ever seen before. He sees you approaching and calls out to you in a language that you don’t understand.
He reaches into one of the supply bags and brings forth a waterskin. He makes a motion towards you, offering it. His companion tries to stop him, his voice growing louder in anger. It is forbidden for anyone to interfere with your journey. It is one you must walk alone.
You continue past the men, ignoring the calls from the kind stranger who is moved by your harsh vigil. Your throat is so dry that your tongue feels swollen in your mouth.
The Sun bakes down onto your face and shoulders. The white grains soften and sweat, melting into syrup. The sweet smell grows stronger.
You walk past a large camp. White tent flaps stir with the movements of the people inside them. There is no breeze to move them otherwise.
People poke their heads out of the tents, then come out to watch you pass. They hang their heads, solemn, and hold up their hands towards you, the third girl they have greeted along the way, wishing you a successful journey.
You walk. Your pack feels heavier for melting. Your feet sink a little further into the sand with each step.
As you walk, you see a slow-moving caravan up ahead. A spike of fear runs through you and you freeze. It takes all of your will to take another step. And another.
A group of men sit inside the covered wagons. They have rough faces and hands, murmuring urgently or crudely laughing with one another. They notice you and fall eerily silent. They watch you. You can feel their hunger pressing on you like dirty hands.
There is another crowd of men alongside the wagons. You can see that there is a burlap sack of sugar by their feet. They snarl and shove each other, grabbing and biting. They fight over the torn burlap sack of sugar like a pack of starved dogs, vying for their turn at the carcass.
Some of the men have ignored the fight, on all fours in the sand, desperately trying to fish precious grains into their mouths. They dip their hands into its fading contents, hungrily licking the grains from their fingers and palms. They notice your gaze and stare back. Wild.
You keep your eyes straight ahead. You must keep moving forward.
You continue to walk until the Sun has moved across the sky and finally fallen behind the horizon.
The night is cold as the day was hot. You shiver, your teeth chattering together with tremors you cannot still.
You are tired. Hungry. Sore.
You feel your eyes slip shut at several points in the darkness. Your feet still take step after step….
You wake with hot sand cushioning your face.
It is the Second Day.
You feel whispers of touch move across your skin. You shiver. Your eyes flutter open.
The men from the caravan have caught up to you. They move their fingertips through the sticky, sludgy coating on your skin. Sugar melting from the sack, mingling with your sweat, dripping down your limbs until it hardens. Melts. Re-hardens.
Thankfully, the burlap sack is unmarred, still attached to your back. Carefully and slowly, you rise to your feet. The scavenging men allow you, so long as their feeding is undisturbed.
You wait patiently until they have scooped up every last bit of syrup from your skin. They consider you for a moment further before turning their attention to sucking the stickiness from their fingers and palms.
You are not ready. You are not sweet enough for their liking yet. There is still too much raw sugar in the sack. Not enough of it has been cured by the Sun and your sweat. You are still mostly skin, hair, and blood.
You find the courage to somehow take a step, and another, further into the desert.
You walk a little slower than you did on the First Day. A small rash has formed on the back of your neck from the rubbing of the burlap.
You look back in the distance, and you can see the shapes of the caravan just breaking over the horizon. Moving forward. They are still haunting your steps.
You continue to walk.
The Sun rises again. It is the Third Day.
The burlap sack on your back is lighter, but your body is more tired. The burden feels the same and greater.
The sugar that was the weight of your body, less a handful, has melted back into you, clinging to you, forming a second skin. You are still carrying the weight of this second body.
You walk past two villages on the Third Day. You marvel that people have made homes in the unforgiving desert.
Some people call out to you. Most watch solemnly as you pass.
Hunger has settled into your bones like a heavy rock. You try to carry the hunger with as much grace as you carry your given burden.
You continue to walk.
You look behind you and see that the caravan is still just cresting over the horizon. Always at your back. The specter behind you, creeping ever closer should you not move forward.
The Sun sets. Then rises.
It is still the Third Day.
The Third Day lasts many days.
You have forgotten hunger. Your thirst consumes your every thought. It is slaked and sated only by the stickiness rolling into your mouth, sweat and syrup, made by your two bodies and the Sun.
The hump on your back subsists you on your journey but also makes it arduous. The sack’s contents slowly melt and harden and re-melt with your steps, coating your skin with a thin shell that melts, hardens, and re-melts with each day.
By the Third Day, the syrup has glued your eyelashes together, and you can only see your path through a shuttered frame.
Though the sack rests on your back, hard lumps of crystal hang from your hair like a beaded curtain. Crunchy, sticky strings, matted to your skin, as if you were sweating syrup.
You can still see the caravan at your back. But their shapes are growing larger, getting closer.
They call out to you now, emboldened, hungry. Beckoning you to stop, to slow down. To feed them.
You must keep walking forward so they are always at your back.
You take a step when you feel a sudden hot sting.
You look down in alarm. The sand moves in a sinuous curve, a snake diving back into the desert sea.
There are two streams of blood on your ankle.
You have been bitten. Your body sways, and you collapse to the ground.
You hunt desperately through the sand until your hands close around a rock. It has a jagged edge. Steeling yourself, you press it to your ankle and saw at the skin. It tugs at the edges of the puncture wounds, splitting them open wider.
You bite back a scream of pain. You squeeze around the wound, forcing more blood out. It oozes onto the sand. You squeeze as much as you can before you feel like you will pass out.
You feel very dizzy.
You take a slow breath. Then another.
You take a handful of sugar and scrub it into the wound. It is raw, and it aches, but you do it anyway. The sugar clumps together, soaking up all the blood and remaining venom.
The wound is dry. A crusty coating covers the punctures, protecting them from sand and grit.
You look at the red clumps of sugar on your fingers. You roll and mush them together into your palm until you have formed a hard sugar ball. It is a deep red. A candy, made from you. You tuck it into the belt of your tunic.
You get to your feet. You must keep going.
You take a step, and another step.
Your skin feels hot. Fever and venom are running through you. You fall to your knees and collapse into the sand.
The world goes dark.
You slip into a dream. You do not understand everything that you see.
You are trapped. There is darkness all around. You push against the soft walls closing in on you. They feel like burlap. You struggle. You tear through the burlap and tumble onto sand. You are back in the desert.
You see two girls. They look to be the same age as you. Their skin glistens, coated in sugar crystals.
They take your hands and lift you to your feet. They sing your grandmother’s lullaby and lead you through the darkness.
You wake up in a bed of sand.
You are completely drenched in sweat. You struggle to get to your feet. You can hear the sugar in your burlap sack sloshing around. It is half liquid.
You have lost time. But your fever has broken.
You take a step. And another step.
You hear a howling. You turn to look behind you. The scavengers have tracked you. They are very close.
You take out the red candy from your belt. You hold it up in an outstretched palm, waiting patiently.
The scavenging men are confused by the gesture. They approach you cautiously, though they are still excited by the smell of syrup and sweat. One is finally bold enough to come up to your open hand. He sniffs the candy, then picks it up, marveling at its shape.
He puts it in his mouth and chews. His eyes light up with delight at the taste.
The other men see his pleasure and clamor at him, jostling each other, grabbing at him, as if to pry it from his mouth.
He suddenly chokes.
His eyes bulge. He wheezes, gasping for air, his hands closed around his throat. He falls to his knees, spit foaming around his lips. Pink.
The men look at him in horror as he collapses to the sand, his body twitching. They look up at you, chattering excitedly, fidgety, wondering what to do.
Finally, they decide to leave. They leave their fallen brother to his fate, returning to their caravan so they can disappear back into the desert.
You let out a held-in breath. You can continue your journey.
On the Third Day, the desert’s end is finally in sight.
Stunted shrubbery begins to poke out of the ocean of sand. You can see the peaks of mountains in the distance.
You take a step. And another step.
The desert melts away and grows into towns with each step you take.
Every step forward builds the towns higher and higher, until you are walking on the stone roads of an opulent city. Glass panes decorate the buildings that grow ever taller, twinkling in the Sunlight.
The people now trickle out, at first a few and then a cascade, like grains of sugar spilling forth. You can hear music. Laughter. Chanting.
The sack resting on your shoulders is now almost empty, but you still feel heavy. The sugar has melted and clumped down your back into sludge. The cloying, warm smell is the only air you can breathe. It has baked into your skin.
The mountain grows larger. The city opens up to show the pyramid that rests at the bottom of the mountain.
Your journey is coming to an end. Your heart sings.
You make it to the bottom step of the stone pyramid.
You can see empty, discarded burlap sacks littering the path upward. Candied sisters that have stepped here before you.
The people have gathered in crowds. They surround you and sing. Their voices are joyous, celebrating the girl who found her way.
The Third Day is over.
There are three hundred and sixty-five steps exactly.
The crowd’s chanting and cheering envelopes you in a wall of sound.
The Sun is at its highest point in the sky. Its light sparkles off the glistening, hard shell of syrup on your face.
Your feet leave sticky, sweet prints on the stone.
At the hundredth step, the sack slips from your shoulders.
It tumbles down the stone steps like a discarded skin.
At the two hundredth, two hundredth and first, and two hundredth and second step, you shed your tunic, your left sandal, and finally your right sandal.
You climb wearing nothing but your hair, armoured in the syrup carapace of your sweet burden, now a second skin.
You climb the three hundredth and sixty-fifth step.
You stand on top of the pyramid and face the Sun.
You have carried your exact body weight, less a handful, of sugar for Three Days.
You have crossed the desert with no water or sustenance, save for the nectar the sugar and the Sun have provided.
The Sun grows brighter and hotter in the sky. Its light becomes blinding as it strikes the top of the pyramid.
You have succeeded. You will be consumed. You are honoured.
Your final thoughts turn to your grandmother, her lullaby playing softly in your mind.
The crowd at the pyramid steps chant, “Sugar. Sugar. Sugar.”