Issue January 26, 2011

Literary LEO 2011

SHORT FICTION — HONORABLE MENTION

Ritual

BY MARY O’DELL

At the start, there were a few luminous years — years shot through with sunlight. Then came the start of the secret.

They were eight. It was summer, 1979. Cyn wore yellow shorts and tee shirt, goldy yellow that looked so right on her. Amazing, how neat she kept herself, considering how she lived, considering their house and all. Molly had on — she didn’t remember. It didn’t really matter. Cyn was the one.

They’d been digging beside Molly’s porch looking for pill bugs and stopped to sit on the top step and cool off. Cyn took a drink of purple Kool-Aid, then pulled up her tee shirt to wipe sweat from her face. “Marilou’s scared of pill bugs,” she said, running an earth-black finger along a scratch on her shin. “I put one on her yesterday, and she about screamed her head off.”

“She’s silly,” said Molly. “Like the other day when we were playing Camp in the Woods, and she said she couldn’t get dirty.”

“Ha!” Cyn’s voice went high and squeaky. “Claimed her sneakers were brand new and she had to save them for school.”

“Well, her mama did say that. Maybe she — “

“Oh, poopy. Don’t take up for her. She’s not like us.” Cyn gave her a look. “We’re special, Molly. We were born together. We could be — we could be — sisters. Yeah!” She grinned, her large new front teeth and the purple stain around her mouth giving her a weird, jack-o-lantern look.

“Except we have different mamas and daddies,” Molly mumbled, and crunched a piece of ice.

“It don’t matter.”

By some act of will, Molly refrained from saying, “Doesn’t. Not don’t.” Not that she cared, but Mama would have all but slapped her or Alex if they’d said “It don’t.” White trash talk, she called it.

“It don’t matter at all,” Cyn repeated. “We can be better than sisters. I seen it in a book of Alex’s the other day and then I knew it was what I been needin’ to do.” Cyn’s eyes grew bright, all shiny and excited-looking.

Molly felt confused but said nothing.

“Then while I was waiting for you to come out of the bathroom, he showed me pictures.”

“Hmm. Were they dirty?” No telling what Alex had been looking at if Mama was out trimming grass or something. Since he’d turned twelve he acted really goofy.

“No.” She sounded a little regretful. “It was one of them old magazines he got at the liberry. It was yellow.”

National Geographic?”

“I think. Anyway, it was about some black guys in the jungle. Alex said it was a — a rickshul, or something.” Her eyebrows slid down at the outside edges like they did when she got real serious. “It showed how you can be blood brothers. Or blood sisters. Let me tell you — And she told about the jungle guys, and the knife, and the blood running out of their arms and how they smeared their cuts together.

“Yuck. I don’t know, Cyn. I don’t think I — ”

Cyn’s brows drooped even further. “You don’t want to do it? You don’t want to be sisters in the blood?”

“Now, don’t look like that.” Molly tried to use the same tone Daddy did when Mama tuned up to cry, a sort of shaming voice, like she was doing it on purpose.

But Cyn was unshameable. “Okay,” she said, “we can think of something else.” They turned to sit side by side, staring out across the yard, munching ice. “I know,” she said, finally, in a resigned sort of way. “I know how we can do it without blood.”

She took Molly’s hand and led her to the back of the yard, behind the tool shed, where the elderberry bushes grew thick and rank. “Here,” she said, and pulled her in among the smothery fronds.

Molly bumped against the shed, feeling a squishy dampness on her back and thought about the reddish purple stain spreading up her shirt. “Cy-n.” She said like it had two syllables. “It’s hot back here. And Mama said I wasn’t to get this juice on my clothes any more. It doesn’t come out.”

“Poopy on your mama,” she said fiercely. “It’s like blood. It’s the most important part. You want to be blood sisters or not?”

“Well sure, but — ”

“Okay, then. Now listen. If you’re sure you won’t do the blood, we have to do something else real. I mean, something with — you know. Something secret.”

“Okay.” She wasn’t sure what Cyn meant, but she began to feel buzzy in her head, sort of dream-ish, like the day she was waiting for Mama outside Merling’s Drygoods and that old man came up with his thing hanging out of his pants. Mama came out, and the man walked away. She hadn’t looked at the man, just said to Molly, “We need to hurry, Daddy’ll be wanting his supper.”

Cyn looked at her intently.

“Okay,” Molly said again. Her voice sounded thin and airy in her own ears. “What do we do?”

Cyn’s eyebrows came together. “We need a cup,” she said, “or a bowl.”

“Well, I can’t just go ask Mama for a cup or a bowl. She’ll want to know what it’s for. And if this is supposed to be a secret — ”

“Oh! I know!” Cyn began to wiggle backward, out of the bushes. “You stay here.” There was a soft, metal, sliding noise, and she was back, in her hand a tin can that read, Del Monte Early Garden Peas. She peered into it, then held it for Molly to see. “It looks pretty clean.”

“We had peas last night for supper,” said Molly, dreading to think why it mattered that the can was clean.

“First,” Cyn said, “we do some elderberries — not that many, just a few.” She watched as Molly stripped off a handful of berries. “Like this,” she instructed, taking one of the berries and mashing it against the inside edge of the can.

“Yick, it squirted,” Molly said, swiping at the spots on the front of Cyn’s shirt.

“It don’t matter,” Cyn said. A strange little smile curved her lips, and she whispered, “Now we’ll do the rickshul part.” Holding the can between them, she leaned over it and let several clear, fat drops of spit fall into it. “Now you.” She watched Molly work up some saliva and let it fall into the can. Then Cyn closed her eyes, pulled down her shorts and underpants and slipping the can between her legs. She began a hypnotic, droning hum, which covered the sound of splashing pee. “Now you,” she whispered, handing Molly the can.

Molly peered in at the half-inch of reddish purple liquid. She needed to go bad by now because of the Kool-Aid and the excitement of hiding in the bushes not knowing what was going to happen. She glanced quickly at Cyn’s eyes, then back at the can. The way Cyn’s eyes glowed was scary. Or the way she was beginning to feel was scary. It didn’t matter, though. This was Cyn.

Molly felt her watching as she pulled down her own shorts and pants and positioned the can, praying she wouldn’t wet herself all over, or fill up the can and ruin the rickshul. But there was a pressure, tight and squirming, down there close to where the pee should come out. Sweat stuck wisps of hair to her forehead, and she could hardly get her breath. Though she really had to go, she could barely squeeze out her half-inch.

When she handed the can back Cyn peered into it and smiled her approval, then leaned down, picked up a twig and stirred. “This rickshul is in three parts,” she intoned, and Molly wondered if she was making this up as she went along. “There’s some things you have to say. First, say ‘This is my body, this is my blood.’”

“This is my body, this is my blood,” Molly repeated, wondering how come Cyn knew this stuff. She was praying, at the same time, for forgiveness in case God might think it was blast-me or whatever they called it.

She watched in disbelief as Cyn stuck her finger into the can and tilted back her head, then raised her hand to let five large drops of the liquid fall into her mouth. She swallowed without a grimace. Dropping in five more and holding them on her tongue, she leaned and put her wet, open mouth on Molly’s forearm and sank her teeth in gradually. The pain built so slow that by the time it was unbearable, Cyn was finished. She opened her terrible yellow eyes to gaze into Molly’s.

“I know,” Molly whispered. “Now me.” She took the can, stuck her finger in, and stirred. She stirred and stirred, and her stomach began to squeeze itself right up her throat. “I — I — ”

“Yes, you can,” Cyn said softly, and took her hand. She lifted it above Molly’s head, which seemed to tilt on its own. Molly felt her lips part beneath the fingers of Cyn’s other hand, felt the burn of drops hit her tongue — one, two, three, four, five — felt her throat convulse in a swallow. And on to the next part. The body. First the blood, then the body.

Cyn’s skin was salty and Molly could hardly bite down, but Cyn wiggled her arm, and when Molly rolled her eyes upward she saw the impatience in Cyn’s, and clamped down tighter and tighter, till she heard Cyn’s small, sudden intake of breath. Jaws aching, she finally stood up.

Cyn smiled.

It was over.

By now Molly had to pee really bad, and had grown slick with sweat from standing in the small, airless space among the elderberries. She started to slide along the shed toward the corner, from behind the smothering bushes.

“Stop,” Cyn said. “There’s another part. We ain’t done.” Aren’t, thought Molly, watching as Cyn pulled her shorts and underpants down again and gave her a look which didn’t need words. Molly did the same. “Say, ‘pussy’,” Cyn whispered, closing her eyes again, “and put the blood-stuff on it.” Heart pounding, Molly stuck her finger in the can and lightly touched the top of the small cleft under Cyn’s smooth belly. She watched Cyn’s lips curve, watched her eyes roll upward beneath their lids, then open to stare at her flatly.

Molly waited as long as she could, waited till Cyn’s eyes grew dark and her brows knotted ominously, then whispered, “P-pussy,” thanking God Mama couldn’t hear her.

Cyn took the can and stuck her finger in. Feeling her face flame, Molly closed her eyes, felt Cyn’s damp, lingering touch, felt a compelling rush as the droplet trickled down and beneath. “Pussy,” Cyn whispered in a solemn voice.

Something pulsed, released, and Molly couldn’t hold it any longer. She felt the warm gush, felt it drench her shorts and pants and bare feet, smelled the steamy, shameful odor rise around her.

Cyn laughed. Her normal, bubbly laugh. And though Molly dreaded Mama finding out she had wet herself, her shameful feeling went away.

When she got to the house, Mama was in the living room with the Avon lady, so she changed out of her wet clothes and put them in the hamper.

Back outside, she pulled one of the soft, leathery leaves off the daylilies and wrapped it around the red spot on her arm like a bracelet. She wore it till bedtime, then put on her long-sleeved pajamas. Mama didn’t say anything, just gave her a curious look.

In bed that night, she thought about all she had done with Cyn. She remembered Cyn’s words — “it was what I’ve been wantin’ to do — ” and wondered again what she had meant. She turned on the flashlight under the blanket, pulled down her pajama bottoms to examine the reddish purple spot where Cyn touched her. The elderberry stain was small and round, its comma tail curving down into the little split place which was — or contained, Molly’s pussy — it would be years before she got that straight.

Then she studied the delicate red marks on her arm. They made a shape like an almond. No. More like two little smiles stuck together at the corners.