What happens when an ancient people still in a time of spirits and superstitions witness a strange eclipse? Or was it really an eclipse?
The Night of the Bloodshed Moon
The time of twilight had painted the clouds in the sky indigo, lavender, and deep purple. Zadi walked up the mountain path leading to Cavern of Resting, where the deceased of the island laid in peace. The path was laden with winter’s last snow and frozen dirt, Zadi made sure she went up the path carefully; one wrong step would send her down to the ground, her skull and bones cracking from the fall. Around her trees towered above the earth, standing together in a thick bunch. Winter stripped the forest of foliage, leaving the trees naked and vulnerable. Leafless branches stretched outward like long, bony fingers. Overhead the flapping wings could be heard; the possibility of what the flyers might be ranged from nocturnal hawks, awakening bats, and the pigeons of dusk settling for slumber.
This was the winter of her seventeenth year, and one of the bitterest to ever descend upon Skaoi Island as far as her memory recalled. Zadi wore a plain dress of blue-dyed wool and a fur shawl to protect her from the frigid cold. Zadi clutched a small bundle to her chest. As she walked along the path, she could barely see the clouds of her breath. The rising moon provided little light and not for the first time Zadi wished she had taken a torch with her. She had thought by now she would be going down the mountain, not traveling upwards. She also faintly wished, deep inside her heart, that someone from her village had accompanied her. Winter nights were never meant for lonesome walks. But by the village code, Zadi was old and capable enough to look after herself. Old enough to be consider a woman though a young one, and capable for she was the leader of the youngest band of Skaoi Island’s warriors.
Suddenly she heard the sound of footsteps against the icy ground. Her hand instinctively grabbed at the dagger on her hip as she whirled around. Zadi’s mind went to the island’s wild dogs, which grew bold and hungry in winter preying upon farm animals and worse, humans. She stilled when she saw it was a girl she recognized.
“Jumpy, aren’t we?” the girl chimed. Zadi released the dagger. “The wild dogs, Osha,” Suki reminded her, “You can’t be too careful with them.”
“Naturally,” replied Osha. “Paying a visit to your mother?”
“Why else do I come here?” said Zadi. Osha approached her.
“We’ll go see our families together. Just at the top of this mountain is the Cavern of Rest.”
The girls finished walked up the mountain path together. When they reached the top, Zadi’s eyes searched for the trail that lead to the Cavern of Resting. Her eyes failed to penetrate the darkness. “I can’t see anything.”
“Here,” said Osha, “I brought a torch.”
“You?” said Zadi in surprise. For Zadi and the other warriors of the village, they regarded Osha as a carefree girl with her head up in the clouds who never took the world around her seriously. She was always late to practice, and consistently first when it came to asking if training was over. She possessed neither the determination nor dedicated heart a warrior required. When true danger occurred a warrior’s strength and discipline put to the test; Osha often faltered and failed her in the line duty. Many assumed the only reason she was a warrior-maid was because her uncle was village mayor of their village. The mayor took the village traditions, and because the girls who became warriors were held in such high esteem it would be no surprise that the mayor made sure his niece was a warrior-maid.
“I’m not totally incompetent. Let me set my offerings down; I need to find the torch and use my spark rocks to light it.” Zadi heard the scratching and scraps as Osha rubbed the ember rocks together before the torch ignited with fire. She lifted the flaming torch in her left hand. “That’s better.” In the firelight, Zadi was able to make out Osha’s appearance. Slim figured and short of height, her dark hair tumbled down her back and her eyes were big and brown like a doe’s.
“This way,” said Osha. She left Zadi going deeper into the forest.
“You’ve found the trail?” Clutching the bundle to her chest, she followed the wandering firelight. She caught up with Osha who had stopped for her.
“I come here often, it takes more than a few men to watch the ancestors’ bodies.” explained Ami.
That’s right, thought Zadi. Gossipers whispered Osha went to the Cavern of Resting more than anyone else, paying homage to the family taken from her by an angry sea storm.
“How did your mother die?” asked Osha as they resumed walking. Firelight danced off the bark of trees, and flickered across the snow-crusted ground, moving with the shadows and darkness.
A sense of loss, of slight sadness, rose in Zadi. “It was near the beginning of spring, the end of winter—”
“Around this time of year?” cut in Osha.
Zadi had a flash of irritation. “Yes,” answered Osha stiffly, “This time of year.”
“Oh,” said Osha.
Zadi no longer felt she owed it to Osha to speak of her mother’s passing. She had not been comfortable with it in the first place, yet could not think of a good reason why she should keep it secret from the other girl. Her mother’s demise did not devastate; the death hurt but that did not render her mute about it, Zadi just had no desire to speak about the matter.
The sound of the girls’ feet crushing though snow echoed throughout the forest. It was all Zadi heard. It never failed to astonish her how quiet nighttime animals were, especially in winter. Silver beams from the freshly risen moon streamed through the crowded branches overhead. The glints of moonlight sparkled on the snow reminiscent of sunlight on the sea. The branches above gave a ghostly rustle as the winter winds brushed by. The wind then picked up, howling like wolves on the prowl, bone-chilling cold, shivers ran over Zadi’s body. How she hated winter.
At last, they reached the Cavern of Resting. Osha lifted her torch, banishing the moon shadows on the ground. The torch’s fire was not bright enough to illumine the cavern’s entrance, but the flooding light of the full moon was. A severe outcropping of rock; a giant compared to the towering trees. Its formation was triangular and a crack ran along the top. The entrance stood fifteen feet high and ten feet in width. The entry made her think of a sea serpent with its mouth opened wide, ready to devour the unfortunate souls that somehow came into its. Angled rocks and small statues of animal guardians protruded out of the laden snow. Miniature trees with twisting branches stood upon giant stones, their roots snaking down over their mounts into the icy soil below.
Osha stepped toward the Cave’s entrance. Alarm shot through Zadi. “What are you doing?” she sharply demanded.
“Going into the cave,” said Osha innocently with a hint of pride.
“We’re only allowed in there for restings!” chastised Zadi. “The only exceptions are the grave keepers and village heads--”
“Who do you think I am?” asked Osha, her tone suddenly cool as the air around them. “I won’t remain a girl forever, none of us will. When I discard my spear, I shall don the gray shawl of the keepers. Already I have promised myself to the ancestors. I don’t plan holding onto the legacy forever.”
Legacy… The word echoed in Zadi’s mind. On Skaoi Island, there were many legacies. In was seen in the inheritance of father and son, the succession of one generation to the next, and if you watched carefully it could be witnessed in the passage of seasons and the turning of years. However, to the warrior-women of Skaoi the most important legacy was that of a woman’s strength. Girls chosen to be trained began their lessons at the ages of eight to eleven, and were taught they were the ones who would hold the spear and dagger and combat others hand-to-hand. The girls grew into warrior-women, fierce fighters dedicated to the island’s protection. Yet such devotion did last. In time almost all the women of the warriors found themselves longing to start a family, to be part of another legacy. On Skaoi Island a woman could only be either wife or warrior, not both. If she chose marry, she must discard her weapons for good, and swear lift another weapon again except in times of mortal danger. Only a few women decided they would remain warriors.
Zadi’s mother had been one of them.
Osha turned from Zadi and stepped into the cave. Zadi did not stop her. Conflict was forbidden near the Cave of Resting. Moreover, if Osha was a grave keeper-to-be, she did have some right to enter.
Zadi knelt down to the snow-crusted ground and removed the cloth covering her offerings, a bouquet of dried flowers, both wild and garden-grown, and the rare autumn bloom. The autumn bloom was a flower that blossomed only at the end of summer, signaling autumn’s coming. The autumn bloom was the sweetest thing Zadi had ever smelled; also, they had been her mother’s favorite kind of flowers. When Zadi gave offerings on the anniversary eve of her mother’s death it was always autumn blooms she brought. The autumn blooms she had picked on the last of day of the previous summer, and had kept safe until now.
Zadi tucked her legs under her. Her lips parted and she began half-chanting, half-speaking the island’s ancient ritual prayer.
“O fathers of the past, mothers of yesterday
Who passed in the sweet seasons Spring and Summer,
And left us in the bitter turnings of Autumn and Winter,
Kin deceased; you became the watchful eyes of above.”
Zadi paused as she always did after the first verse.
“Ancestors of years gone, my people and I
Shall not forget what you have given.
The sweat, the tears,
The blood, the sacrifices
So that I may be here
To breathe, to live,
To laugh and love.
“Standing not beside me
Yet still guiding me
Watchful eyes in the heavens
Our ancestors above.”
Zadi shortly paused again.
“My mother, gone from this world
Strong in spirit, a true warrior of Skaoi”
She suddenly stopped chanting the verse. Where beguiling moonlight had lit the forest around her, dreadful crimson beams swept over her world, as swift as blood gushing from a gaping wound. A cold terror seized her heart as the world around her turned red. The village! her mind screamed in realization. Zadi ran from the Cave of Resting through the forest. As her feet began to dash down the ice-laden mountain path, the notion of stepping slowly and carefully became the least of her worries. Her heart thundered in her chest as she raced. Please…she thought, a silent begging prayer, not the village. She feared for the village, but what she was afraid of she did not know.
For a moment, Zadi halted when the village came into view, a small, quiet settlement filled with brown, tiny wooden houses and sleeping people. Snow and ice covered the roofs of houses. The village was calm and villagers slept peacefully, oblivious of the red moon looming wickedly in the sky.
Zadi picked her feet up to run again. When she reached the village, she found others had had already awoken. Dressed in their sleeping garments, they gawked at the sky above.
“Zadi!” Zadi jerked her head in the direction if the voice to find one of her fellow warriors running towards her. It was Tori, Zadi’s childhood companion and right-hand, a giantess of a girl, dark-haired and blue-eyed. Tori stopped when she reached Zadi’s side, breathing deeply. Instantly, Tori’s head turned upward to stare at what the other villagers saw.
Without thought, Zadi followed Tori’s gaze. They looked at the moon then turn to each other.
“What in the world is going on?” Tori asked, nearly frantic. Zadi was speechless. Words were in her throat but were unable to depart from her lips. A great bell suddenly rung, echoing through the night air.
“The death bell,” spoke Tori in a quavering, fear-filled voice, “someone is ringing the death bell.”
Slowly the villagers emerged from their houses. Men staggered out of their doors, young children clung to their mothers skirts as they rubbed their dreary eyes. Zadi barely heard the villagers’ yawns, drowned out by the death bell’s loud ringing. “Who died?” one man called tiredly nearby the two girls.
“The moon!” a woman wailed. “It’s bleeding!” The villagers’ attention went to the sky. Zadi felt her own distress grow at the cries of exclamation and grasps of terror. Instinctively Zadi grabbed Tori’s hand and their fingers intertwined. It was an old habit from their childhood, this holding of hands. At times of terror and trouble Zadi and Tori would clutch at each other; the knowledge of a friend the only thing comforting. Yet even with Tori by her side, it did little to ease her fear of the grim sight that was the blood-red moon.
Suddenly without warning, the moon disappeared. Its light simply went out, like how a blow of breath extinguishes a candle’s fire. Complete darkness enveloped the sky, even the stars had vanished. Never had Zadi seen the sky so black, not even on the cloudiest of nights. No benevolent moon, no twinkling stars, only a dreadful bleakness in the heavens above. All was eerily silent; no sounds heard. The tides had gone quiet, and the villagers had lost voies. Zadi could never recall a winter’s night ever being so stark and still. She did not know how long she and Tori stood there, stunned and terrified in the cold, holding hands like the two little girls they had once been. Zadi felt like a child again, for the first time in a long while nothing in the world made sense.
“Zadi,” Tori whispered anxiously, “what is going on?”
Zadi struggled to find her voice. “It’s probably just clouds… or an eclipse....”
“I saw no clouds pass over it!” blurted Tori. “And red moon never come before eclipses.”
“The moon is gone, the moon is gone!” a woman’s voice wailed in anguish and terror, practically in Zadi’s ear. Zadi’s head whipped to catch a glimpse of the raving woman. She was only a few feet away from Zadi. In the darkness Zadi made out the figure of a thin, long-haired housewife dressed in a rough-spun gown. The woman staggered closer, and Zadi felt her heart jump from fright. The woman clawed at her face, fingers digging so deeply she drew blood. “Murdered!” the woman continued to wail. “The moon was murd--” Her shrieks were cut off as a man’s hands snaked around her throat and began strangling her.
“Silence, wench!” the man yelled at the top of his lungs. Zadi recognized the voice; it belonged to the town’s tavern owner. Stifled gags issued forth from the woman as she was choked. “Each time you open your bloody mouth. For once shut—”
The next moment Zadi’s hand was empty of Tori’s. Movement flashed in the darkness at where the man choking the woman was. The choking ceased and panting breaths filled the air. A thump vibrated across the ground.
“Tori!” called Zadi.
“Just taking care of this filth,” said Tori in disdain. “This is fourth time you’ve harmed your wife,” Tori scolded the tavern owner. “Next time I wouldn’t be surprised you’re sentenced to a hanging.”
“You dare threatened me?” the tavern owner raged. He shoved himself off the ground. He was a beefy man, well into his middle age. “Why--”
“Enough, the both of you,” ordered Zadi as she approached them. “You,” she directed her words to the tavern owner. “I do not wish to see you again this night. Return home and stay there.”
“Where do you get off bossing me around, child?” he sharply demanded. Gasps issued forth from the crowd of villagers gathered around them. Zadi took a deep breath. It never set well with the some villages when the warriors acted as police. Most just saw the island’s warrior-women as protectors only.
“You threatened a villager,” Zadi told him coldly. “Now out of my sight or do you want to be shamed by a girl further?” She could feel the heat of his eyes even in the dark. He shoved passed her as he made his way back to the tavern. She doubted it the shove was accidental. Zadi turned her attention to his woman who now leaned on Tori for support. “Don’t return to your home tonight, it isn’t safe.”
“I’ll… I’ll…” the tavern owner’s wife stuttered, “perhaps the healer’s?”
“That would be best,” said Suki. “She’ll take you in and give you ointment for your cuts.”
“The moon?” the woman whispered so softly Zadi barely heard it.
Zadi clenched a fist. “You should be ashamed of yourself… a grown woman should have more sense than to believe the moon is dead. Have you forgotten what lunar eclipses are? We’ve all seen such phenomenon before; when the moon is gone for but a short time and it returns.”
“I’ve seen eclipses before you were even born!” shouted the tavern owner’s wife. “But never have I witnessed such evil light cast upon the earth! The moon… it bled and…and died!”
Zadi could not make sense of the red moon, nor anyone else apparently. Looming above the village as if some unspeakably dreadful fate; watching the humans below like a demon’s sinister eye. She remembered how the blood red moonlight that had whisked across the island, like a tidal wave crashing against land and stealing away the world she knew. It was nothing like Zadi had seen before. A rare or perhaps new phase of a moon eclipse no one had seen before, Zadi had no idea.
“And why,” the tavern owner’s wife said softly, “am I unable to hear the tides?”
Slowly, Zadi turned her head to the ocean. Without thinking, she started running down to the beach. She was barely aware of others following her. Going down hill her feet slipped on the ice-laden path. She began to fall. In a swift reflex Zadi brought her arms to her chest. As she reached the ground, her hands slammed against the frozen dirt and she swung her legs over her head. She brought herself into a crouching position. Zadi then sensed someone reaching for her from behind. Instinctively she whirled up and snatched the person’s wrist just as they would have touched her. She gripped the wrist tightly. A yelp of pain rang though the air. “Zadi let me go!”
“Osha?” blurted Zadi. She quickly released her comrade’s wrist.” I can’t believe you’re here,” whispered Zadi.
The girl sniffed. “Well, I am. Have the tides truly stopped touching shore?”
“We’ll find out once we get to the beach.” She briefly wished it were Tori by her side, but she was probably still handling the tavern owner’s wife. Zadi took a hurried pace to the beach, anxiety bubbled in her chest when she failed to hear waves crash against the beach. She heard Osha’s soft footsteps on icy path the behind her. The two arrived at the beach. Zadi walked to the water. She was only vaguely aware that other villagers had followed them. Osha cried out, begging her to stop, but her words did not reach Zadi. She knelt down at the water’s edge and dipped her hands into the ocean. She stared at the water in her hand then looked out into the dark distance of the sea. The ocean was still and calm, as unmoving as a dead beast. The tide did not wash ashore, the water only lulled before her, there was no sound of crashing waves out at sea, and solely silence reigned. Stunned, Zadi rose slowly.
For some perplexing reason Zadi, thought of the ancient tales the village’s senile storyteller Hag Nanna used to tell her when she was little. “Believe this or not, the moon is connected to the ocean,” she used to say, and crackled after she spoke. “I was told this by an astronomer from the mainland, but still I think he was a dreamer. They move together, like two lovers. It is the moon the churns the seas and shapes the tides. Without the moon the ocean is still like dead water.”
No, thought Zadi. She titled upwards her head to stare at the dark heavens. It can’t be…
“It is…” lamented Osha behind her. Suki had never heard such anguish in any voice before. “I thought it was…” She began sobbing, but quickly stopped. “We need to pray.”
At Osha’s words Zadi snapped. She spun around to face the girl; white-hot
anger and disgusted disbelief raged to life rapidly in her. She clenched her fists so tight, her nails dug into the skin of her palm. Zadi was oblivious to it, so lost in her rage. “Pray?” she demanded hotly. “That’s all you can think of right now? The ancestors are not the answers. The dead are gone and deaf to our pleas! They have never answered our prayers. How can you believe mere words no one hears can help us? We’re only stuck with out own problems!”
Osha regarded her icily. “I,” she declared, “unlike you, know the ancestors are there. What other choice do we have turn to the ancestors in this time of crisis? They have guided us out of the darkness before. If we give up, we reduce ourselves to panicking, animals! Zadi,” Ami took Zadi’s hands in hers, “you know the teachings of our people. Even before our warrior ways, our people knew the dead were not gone, but had departed to another place. Even if they have left this world, their bloodlines and villages they had sacrificed so much for... All they have given still lingers here, and for that reason, they continue to watch over us. In the other world I know they can bring the moon back to our natural world, but those bound to the spirit world cannot cross unless there is a connection. Zadi, our prayers must be the bridge… What choice do we have?”
Osha dropped Zadi’s hand. The mayor’s niece folded her hands over her heart, and begun to chant the island’s most ancient and sacred of prayers. However, as quickly as the prayer began, Ami fell silent. Zadi understood the girl’s actions. This was a prayer spoken to be heard by the dead, but never meant to be heard aloud by the living. Zadi closed her own eyes, and lifted her head skyward.
Zadi tried to think the people she had known that were now dead, would the sheer memory help the prayer. Genzo and Tsunami…the elderly couple that had raised Suki and the other children given up by warrior-women of Skaoi, dead since the autumn of her seventh year; Sachi, Rin… the comrades who could no longer stood by her side. Grief spread through her, the unbearable weight of sadness and despair grew heavier as she thought of her lost kin. Ancestors… she silently begged, please… Mother… A tear fell from her eye to roll down her cheek. Mother…A proud woman she had been, who had once led the warrior-women; whom had surrendered her only daughter to another so she could continue to walk the warrior’s path. The warrior-woman who been killed by a pack of wild dogs, rescuing a girl that had been taken by the wild dogs for a winter feast, the warrior-woman dead for over a decade.
The wind blew, caressing her cheek akin to a woman gentle touch. Zadi lowered her head. She imagined the tide coming in, the soft roar it made as its freezing water washed over her boots and soaked the hem of her skirt. The tide then receded and nearly pulled her away with it. Zadi opened her eyes. Silvery beams reflected upon the waters’ surface as the tide washed forward. She was vaguely aware of the exclamations of joys across the beach. Osha circled her stomach, hugging her fiercely. “The ancestors heard us!” cried Osha.
Zadi looked up at the heavens for a final time that night, no longer so dark. The moon shone whole and brightly above them, staring down at the world in a solemn benevolence. The stars twinkled softly as if smiling sadly at the hapless mortals below.
Zadi could only stare at the moon in shock as others rejoiced around her.