He had been one of us.
We trailed towards the river in a long mournful parade. He was already there. I could see his red hair flaming on the banks, surrounded by the sombre brown of the leaders. I couldn’t see his expression but I could imagine the defiance etched across it. Of course it would be possible to see the fear below it. But he had no idea he was so transparent, and I had never told him.
As we neared the water, we started to fan out.By the time we had all stopped, we stood in a large crescent shape around them. The dawn was just breaking, and the watery light dipped uncertainly around us. I shifted the pack on my shoulders. A cramp started to snake across my back from the weight and the cold. The little ones were starting to shiver. They had no idea what was going on. This sort of thing happened so rarely, and they hadn’t witnessed the brutality of the previous night.
I could feel many eyes on me. After all, he was supposed to have been mine. They looked for some weakness in me, grief for the traitor, shame for the betrayal. I would not give them the satisfaction. I looked straight at him, straight ahead, much as I had last night when they cut her down. She did not get the chance to live. They had defiled our home. Already, though, her blood was working to cleanse it so that one day, we might be able to return. One day. Not today. After the ceremony, we would trudge across the brown dusty land hoping that the sacrifice we had made would be enough to appease the gods so they would lead us once again to a land we could live on.
A hush fell. One of the leaders started to speak. He was too far away for me to hear, but I didn’t need to. He would walk out into the river, right into the centre, where the water frothed and thrashed. If he could stand there until the sun reached the highest point, the gods had forgiven him and he would be welcomed back. If he was washed away…. Our sacrifice had been accepted.
The red blur moved and he stepped into the water. Near the shore it was calm, steady. Perhaps he felt confident at this point. It was a false hope. As soon as he got closer to the centre, I could see his pace slowing and his steps becoming more uncertain. The water must have been up to his waist by that point. It was hard to tell.
Finally he reached the centre. For a moment, he was still. Then, gradually, he turned to face the shore. Despite the distance his face was as clear as the day we said our vows. His expression was resigned. Reproachful.
Then he was gone. We waited a quarter turn, as was the custom. He did not resurface.
By the highest point in the day, we were walking, searching for our new home.