What Is Sacrificed on Your Altar
1255 words long
"Two Goddesses walk into a bar...." It sounds like a joke, but the bartender isn't laughing.
Notes from the author:
The two words making up the writing prompt were "nimbus" and "rident." Did you know what "rident" means? I did not. The woman in the gold veils might be described as rident. The woman in green, not so much.
A writing prompt is a starting gun but not a finishing line. It's something you write from, not towards. I much prefer to be writing towards something. The best freewriting sessions are when I forget about the prompt almost immediately because I've already figured out where I'm going, and now all I have to do is get there.
"There," in this case, was a story about the effect of stories, the effect of the story-in-progress on someone unfortunate enough to be a secondary character therein. But of course that makes the secondary character of their story into the protagonist of his own. Small comfort, though, if he'd have preferred to stay out of stories entirely.
The woman entered the bar in a peacock-green gown and on flat, cork-soled sandals. More than that you couldn't say; her appearance was oddly changeable. Did the material of her dress flow and billow, or cling and slink? Were her toes exposed or sternly sheathed? Her face and hair, too, evaded description: dark one minute, light the next. She entered the bar accompanied by a strange dim glow, like a patch of mist made of light rather than moisture. It caught the corner of the eye but, upon direct inspection, gave the eye nothing to hold onto.
Tonight only two sets of eyes were available for capture: that of the bartender, and that of the woman whom for some time he'd been trying, and failing, to observe unobserved. She had an appearance as striking and as mutable as that of the green-gowned woman. Her dress was an outpouring of gold veils and silver lace whose constantly changing arrangement defied detailed description. Her hair, in color, was that of a sunlit grain harvest (but which grain would be a matter of some argument). She was constantly smiling, smiling with such abundance as to convince you that scarcity was extinct.
She was smiling now, of course. She rose from her seat in the murky, shadowed booth and rushed to greet the newcomer. The bartender watched as they embraced without hurry and shared a deep draught of a kiss. He paid special attention to the kiss.
"It's been too long," said the golden-veiled woman.
The green-gowned woman said, "I know. That's the trouble."
The golden-veiled woman did not lose her smile, but her smile lost some of its carelessness. She touched her companion's cheek with fingers that seemed at once delicate, artistic, clumsy, childlike. "Tell me," she said, and drew the green-gowned woman over to the booth.
Their conversation became at once impossible for the bartender to hear. He debated whether there was anything to be done. Their dress, their mannerisms, and their chameleon features had roused his curiosity. Of course their kiss had roused him elsewise--he had that much in common with the general run of the men who frequented his place (and were oddly absent tonight). But the business side of the bar creates a certain distance, such that he was more in the habit of observation than interaction. Those of his male customers who tended to take a predatory interest in his female customers, they'd look at these women and think how can I get some of that? But he watched them and thought, I wonder who they are.
He also wondered, What prayers would best please them?
There was, alas, no effective way to eavesdrop without their noticing the sacrilege. But with the bar so empty, there was no harm in at least approaching them once. He found a tray and a couple of napkins, two glasses of water, a scrap of paper, and a pencil. He didn't typically wait tables, but these strange customers didn't need to know he'd made an exception for them.
As he approached, the women's murmurs began to coalesce into intelligible speech. "...couldn't have taken it. Not him. If he'd done it, I would know. The betrayal itself would have set a hook in my heart long before I'd noticed the theft."
"But does it matter who took it? Forget the thief. The more pressing matter is where--" The gold-veiled woman silenced herself mid-sentence as the bartender stopped at their booth. She looked up.
"Ladies," he said, "what can I bring you to drink?" He tried, without knowing that he tried, to say it worshipfully. He only managed polite, but this didn't worry him as he didn't realize he'd aimed higher.
The gold-veiled woman favored him with a smile that went straight through him to the center of his being, to some small forgotten corner of his heart that had been gathering dust since his fifth Christmas morning. It made him lose his breath. His mother had given him a bicycle that day. His father, with a look that was both sad and angry at the same time, had introduced her to him; she'd been gone since the week of his birth, and he hadn't known who she was. That was what the gold-veiled woman gave back to him with her smile: the joy of getting a bicycle and a mother for Christmas. "Champaign, please," she said, and the words were as golden as her veils, as the drink she requested. "Your best bottle. Spare no expense."
"Whiskey and bitters," said the green-gowned woman. Her voice pulled his gaze away from golden smiles and plunged him into the terrible abyss of her eyes. Why had he expected them to be green? They were deep as pits and twice as dark. He felt himself falling. Perhaps if you survived hitting bottom and were allowed to light a lamp, you'd see green down there. But you had to survive first.
Her eyes did not dislodge his fifth Christmas morning from his attention. But the part of that memory that now had hold of his heart was the look on his father's face. Sad and angry at the same time. That had puzzled the nearly-five-year-old boy, who then thought no more about it because he'd just gotten the best Christmas presents in the world. But the adult forced to look back on that memory was not puzzled at all. His father had looked sad because his mother would not stay. She would never stay. She would come again on his seventh birthday, then vanish until his high school graduation. Then she would disappear for good. And his father had looked angry because he knew exactly what she was doing here now.
It was not a memory the bartender chose to linger over. Adult understanding tinged the whole thing with guilt: in his heart, he had betrayed his father for a bicycle. He knew it was absurd to hold his nearly-five-year-old-self responsible, but the guilt remained. It didn't care what he knew.
"Your house whiskey will be sufficient," said the green-gowned woman. And it wasn't that she'd paused noticeably between sentences. It was simply that the gap between the period and the next capital letter, narrow enough to step over, was yet deep enough to accommodate a fall to one's death.
She broke eye contact, freeing the bartender to stagger away from their booth. By the time he reached the bar he'd forgotten their orders; he had written nothing down on the scrap of paper. He had not even set the glasses of water upon their table. They were still on the tray. He set this down now on the bar.
He stood there disconsolately for a few minutes, then stumbled out the door into the back alley. He thought he was going to be sick. And he was, but not in the usual way that involves vomit and bad breath and headaches and embarrassment. He wasn't sure what kind of sick he was.
He began walking. He did not return that evening, not even to lock things up.
The women did not miss him. Eventually they moved from the booth to the bar and poured drinks for themselves in his absence. They talked long into the night, during which time not a single person came into the bar to disturb them. They left with the dawn.
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