The little dark-haired girl shielded her eyes as the sun exploded over the gradually expanding horizon of the great sea, violently dispersing a million effervescent sparkles along the massive cascading waves. She was not the first of the horde to cross the final dune approaching the shoreline, but she was also not the last. Scattered all around her were dozens of families, not wholly unlike her own, that had set out on the long march to the sea when the moon still hung low in the sky.
In all, hundreds of people, indeed the entire village, had made the pilgrimage from their inland hovels, just as they had last year and many years before that stretching back across memory unknown. From the smallest babes feeding at the breasts of their mothers to the oldest and wisest of the elders, now carted along in rickshaw jalopies that younger men struggled to move through the coarse beige powder beneath their feet, everyone moved continuously and ceremoniously forward toward the ocean that was now, blissfully and resplendently, before them.
As her sandals whisked silently through the still damp sand, the little dark-haired girl took her mother’s hand in her own and squeezed gently. Her mother’s fingers gently wrapped around her own, and they felt warm and dry. She looked down at her daughter and offered a weak obligatory smile before returning her eyes to the magnificent sunrise in front of her. The little dark-haired girl knew the smile was meant to give her strength, but she hoped there was some truth in it for her mother as well.
To her right, the little dark-haired girl’s father was trudging through the sand with a knapsack slung over his shoulder as he spoke in hushed tones with his friend from the mill. He walked with a slight hitch in his step and his eyes told of an ancient weariness, but when he held her in his arms, she never doubted the strength that ran through him. Just in front of her father, her brother matched a schoolmate of his stride for stride. Although she could not see his face, she knew that his jaw was clenched, and that his brow was furrowed in an attempt to collect his features and feign the type of outward stoicism that only a young man coming of age can manage.
In the distance, a small brown triangle appeared to float above the water. The figure grew larger and larger with every step the little girl took until, finally, 50 yards west of the highest point of the tide, a towering mountain of pine, and oak, and ash stood before her. She had to crane her little neck in order for her eyes to fully inspect the structure from top to bottom. The limbs had been strategically placed like lattice work in intricate cross sections to fortify the structure of the great pyramid. They intersected one another at close and regular intervals, beginning with a wide base and gently rising to meet a sharp summit that was crowned with the gigantic green flag of The Empire. It had been wrapped tightly around the massive tree that served as the brace for the entire structure.
Placed in the foreground of the abundant swell of the tangerine sea, the arrangement looked like a shoddy, modest altar – but an altar nonetheless.
The villagers wandered in a loose assemblage, a collage of bobbing heads and disoriented limbs, deliberately separating themselves from their family members, before they finally formed a semi-circle situated directly in front of the giant wooden framework. Once they had settled, the cleric, formless in loose-fitting, shabby rags void of color, approached the altar, torch in hand, and set fire to the brittle timber. Immediately, the flames began to climb the lengths of the tepee rapidly, culminating in a singular blaze that soared and wavered above the onlookers and warming the cheeks of the little dark-haired girl. The cleric then disrobed, threw his tattered garments onto the flame, and returned to his position among the villagers, where he then slipped a white shawl over his body.
After no small amount of time passed, an artist proceeded to the center of the semi-circle, placed his easel firmly in the sand, with his back to the flame, and began painting. His hands flittered about the canvas with the expert dexterity of a seasoned professional. His face was marked by a perverse euphoria as his inner anguish was transferred onto the page in a macabre catharsis. At no point during his work did he break concentration, and none of the villagers uttered a sound. Once he’d finished, he rose and displayed his work to everyone. The once blank canvas now depicted a melting paintbrush imprisoned within a decaying museum. Calmly, without trepidation or reluctance, the artist threw the likeness onto the flame. The little dark-haired girl’s eyes began to water, but she forced them closed until her tears subsided. She knew that the fire was hungry and the feeding time had arrived.
One by one, the villagers went around the arc, each taking a separate turn in the middle of the semi-circle, and every beautiful performance suffocated the little dark-haired girl with despair.
While the sun rose and set in the cloudless sky, the shores of the sea bore witness to the annual sacrifice of the townspeople. A musician softly played a melody on his mandolin; a poet wrote a sonnet; a sculptor fashioned a raven from driftwood; a photographer took a picture of the little dark-haired girl; an actor performed a Shakespearean soliloquy. The mandolin burned; the sonnet burned; the raven burned; the camera burned; the pages of The Tempest burned. They all burned.
As the stars came out, creativity was alight within the hungry eyes of the great fire, but the flame desired more. So a cobbler crafted a shoe; a tarot reader read the little dark-haired girl’s fortune; a carpenter built a coffin; a writer wrote this story; and an architect designed an asylum. Again, the shoe was thrown onto the fire; the tarot cards burned; the coffin burned; this manuscript burned; the blueprints burned. They all burned, until everyone had burned a piece of their soul and there was nothing left to throw onto the flame. All that was left was the waiting.
Once the moon had taken her place high above the relentless fire below, the shape of a ship could be made out offshore. The boat was a humble schooner, and it carried a single passenger well known to everyone waiting near the beach. The little dark-haired girl curled her knees close to her chest in fear, but she’d made herself a promise, and she wouldn’t pull her eyes away from the approaching ship. The craft eased its way toward a plain dock located a short distance down the shoreline and came to rest. No one knew exactly how many miles that ship had logged in making the sole journey for which it had been built, but it didn’t matter where it came from or where it was going; what mattered was that it had arrived.
The man emerged from the cabin, and tied a thin rope from the mast of the boat to a single cleat on the pristine dock. Dressed in a magnificently tailored black three-piece suit, but no shoes, he paced slowly along the wooden planks of the dock. As he came closer to the inferno, his gait began to quicken, and it became more deliberate. This was no ordinary evening stroll in the moonlight; the man knew exactly where he was going and what he was doing. And, as much as he enjoyed the task at hand, he didn’t want to stay on this beach any longer than was necessary to complete it. His lips were pursed in the crooked grin of the truly insane, and his face, now lit a vibrant orange, exuded maniacal joy unlike anything the little dark-haired girl had ever seen.
As he crossed between the villagers and the flame, the man ignored the stares and scowls of the townspeople and headed directly toward the inferno. After gazing into the depths of the flame for what seemed like hours, his long, slender fingers reached into his back pocket and returned holding a thin rectangular sheet of white paper.
On the paper were two long blank lines preceded by the words “Pay to the Order of” and “In the Amount of,” the former situated above the latter. The man began to write, but then paused and looked out over the villagers, scanning his eyes back and forth, before finally settling them on the little dark-haired girl and smiling. Not the grin that he been wearing up until this point. The grin had been merely sinister, but the smile was pure evil – all hideous rotting teeth and exultant satisfaction. He pulled out a gold pen and inscribed “The Empire” on the top line; below that, he wrote “Innocence.” He then turned, walked toward the flame, and deposited his check in the inferno. Within minutes, he was off on his boat, not to be seen again for another year.
When he was out of sight, the villagers began to rise and head back toward home, but the little dark-haired girl began to dance. Slowly at first, but increasing intensity with every step she took. Her legs became springs, and her arms became wings. She moved with grace and precision unparalleled by even the most learned ballerina. She floated along the beach as if entranced by the inferno itself. Her feet kicked up the sand like so many gold specks as the villagers continued their exit without her.
The little dark-haired girl took no notice. She continued to bound and frolic with thoughtless indulgence, focusing only on the delicate footfalls of each step. The fire was moving her now. She was gliding to the rhythm of the flame. With one final step of resignation and resolution, the little dark-haired girl took off on a dead sprint and bound herself into the inferno.