by Steve Redwood
The stranger arrived one evening when the rain was lashing down like the whips we used on Obedience Days. He walked into the inn, acknowledged us with tired, unsmiling eyes, and drew off his heavy cloak slowly and deliberately, as if each movement caused him pain. Underneath, he was wearing a simple white robe. Round his neck hung a huge chain of shrivelled, ugly, shapeless beads, black and broken and heavy as the thoughts of a man facing execution. They swung slightly from side to side, emitting a cold fuligin power, as he walked to a table in the corner.
Peter the innkeeper asked him if the beads were the ninety-nine names of Allah. The man considered the question for some time, and then nodded, as if to himself. They were, he said, the hearts of women he had met in our country.
We muttered to each other that the stranger was a liar and a braggart: could any one man have won the hearts of so many women? But something about his eyes stopped us from mocking him openly. That night we took it in turns to keep watch outside the inn, and guarded our daughters and our wives and our slave girls, and kept our hands near our knives. But the stranger remained in his room, and also throughout the whole of the next day, which was bleak and glinting and expectant after the rain. Often, when we looked up, we saw him staring out through the window, away towards the ocean that marked the boundaries of our world. It seemed as if he was waiting.
That evening, Yazgul , whose name means summer rose - a flower most of us had plucked, and not only in summer, for she was simple in the head, and her father Moshe was old and infirm - headed towards the inn, her body hunched against the cold and her own madness. Peter was going to refuse her entrance, but the stranger came down and said something, and the innkeeper nodded reluctantly and returned to his meaningless rituals. We were angry, and went to Moshe and told him what we had seen, and offered to drag his daughter out and stone her for him, but he didn't seem to understand, just picked up one of her old torn abayas, holding it against his cheek, and weeping.
She did not leave the inn till the morning, tossing her now uncovered hair in brazen challenge, defying us with eyes that were no longer downcast and broken, but seemed to read and mock the longings of our loins, and walking upright as if she were free as a man.
Honour could not allow this. That afternoon, we dragged her from her father's house and into the public square, tore her sari from her insolent body and spread-eagled her so that the whole village should see her shame, and beat her and spat upon her.
When we let her go, she stumbled, not back to her house, but to the inn. We followed. She ran upstairs. We waited, daring the stranger to come down, to interfere, to publicly claim his hundredth conquest. But the coward did not emerge, so we drank and laughed - Peter as usual pretending that nothing had happened, and busying himself with his incenses and his catechisms - and then drew our knives and went up and burst into the stranger's room.
Yazgul was sitting on the edge of the bed, bare to the waist, her hands clenched between her breasts, while he was lying on his back, unmoving, his robe torn open, behind her. She rose and stepped aside, strangely calm and unhurried, as we rushed forward, eager to finish our sport . . . but our knives fell uselessly as we saw only emptiness in his chest where his heart should have been. I stared at that empty space - cold, pure, infinitely desolate - and then at the rosary still around his neck, to which had been added one final bead - a lump that still dripped with blood. In that moment I visualised the final excruciation, as he had gouged out from his own body that last piece and exchanged it for Yazgul's crushed heart.
The heart with which he had finally completed his rosary.
And then, as we stared, frightened and uncomprehending, Yazgul pushed past us and snatched the rosary from the stranger's body. She shook it, and the beads scattered to the ground. She turned to face us - but those eyes were no longer her eyes, nor was it her voice that now spoke.
"He's gone. He had nothing more to sacrifice, you left him nothing to shield you with any more. Now it is our turn."
I knew that it was over, that the final bead had completed the shape of the Forbidden Name, a name, I now realised too late, that we had always known, and always worshipped, in our own heartless way.
Summer Rose began to create her own deadly rosary.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Steve Redwood. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Steve Redwood is the author of the sorely under-rated comic fantasy Fisher of Devils (Prime Books), and time-travel escapade Who Needs Cleopatra? (Reverb)
He has had lots of short stories published. Most of them very funny. The Rosary is one of the few that isn't quite so funny. Steve lives in Madrid. (That's in Spain.)