Friday, April 13, 2012

The Day of Sacrifice

I die today.

Albert woke to this thought. For a while, he just laid there in the dim room, listening to his own breathing and dwelling on the fact that today was his last day on Planet Earth.

The room gradually lightened as the hazy morning sunlight glowed through the window. He surveyed the small room, already starting to miss it — the private dining area, the painted walls, the large bed, all the extravagant accouterments he alone had enjoyed for the last twelve months.

As usual, his door was open. Albert stood, stretched his legs, and stepped out into the cool morning air.

The only grass that remained in the compound lay in the shadows under the three raised barracks that stood across the barren brown yard. All the rest of the foliage had been stamped to dust from decades — possibly centuries — of bare feet.

Albert looked back at the Cottage in regret. Because he had been Chosen a year ago, he had been granted sole use of the building, a place where he could eat, sleep, and just be alone whenever he wanted to. Unlike the rest, who were crammed together in those tight wooden barracks. They had no privacy, no personal space except what was right beneath them, no personal belongings besides their own thoughts.

In addition to the Cottage, Albert the Chosen had been given a surplus of rich, delicious foods, while the un-Chosen others were forced to fight over chicken scratch. (He had really packed on the weight, too, and was now more than twice the size of the largest of them.) For a year, Albert had pitied the others, but on this day, he would trade places with any of them.

He watched them now, wandering without direction. None of them would look at him. He could feel them not looking at him as clearly as if they were covering their eyes.

Then, unexpectedly, one young lass — he couldn't recall her name — shuffled over to him, eyes averted toward the ground. Hesitantly, she raised her face to meet Albert's gaze, lifting her head almost straight up to make eye contact. When they had locked eyes, she bowed to him in religious deference and thanksgiving.

Albert, with the dignity of someone twice his age, bowed back. She shuffled off again, eyes to the ground.

The sun cracked the horizon. Albert stared through the tall rusting fence at his final sunrise. They said being Chosen was a great honor, and that he was now part of a long, proud, honorable and honored line of the selfless Chosen. It was a great honor for the Chosen to sacrifice himself and thus guarantee the safety of those left behind for another year.

That was why such luxuries had been heaped upon him for the past twelve months. It had always been this way, and it would always be this way. No one still alive knew what might happen if the sacrifice weren't made, and no one questioned it.

Albert examined the fence. Even in his younger, fitter days, scaling that fence would have been difficult, but now, the idea of heaving his hulking form over it was nothing short of comical.

Through the fence links, he saw the main building, where the Keepers lived and the Choosers chose. Albert saw the door slam shut before he heard it. Herman the Executioner had descended the steps and was walking slowly toward the compound, his instrument of death resting on one shoulder.

Albert's pulse quickened, his breaths puffing out of him in a steady stream of tiny clouds. Did it have to happen so soon? Without thinking, he backed out of sight around the Cottage and pressed himself as flat as he could against the wall. He heard the gate open and close. The others silently migrated to the edges of the compound, away from the Executioner.

"Albert!" Herman called. "Albert! It's time!"

Albert frantically looked for solace, for aid, or at least for a friendly face. He found none. No one would even look at him.

I don't want to die. This, now, was his only thought. He wanted to live, but his choices were few. His only way out was to either overpower or outsmart the Executioner. He had heard stories of other Chosen ones trying to effect an escape on the Day of Sacrifice, but none had succeeded.

But perhaps he might.

Albert took a deep breath and then ran for the gate.

Herman stepped through the gate and let it slam shut behind him. He had spotted Albert warming himself in the morning sunlight from the house. Albert had looked straight at him when Herman had stepped out and then ran off.

But Herman wasn't worried. He would make his kill, in one way or another.

He hefted the axe from his shoulder, dropped the business end of it into the dust, and folded his calloused hands on the handle like it was a cane.

"Albert!" he called. "Albert! It's time!"

The air was unusually still. Herman had just wrapped his fingers around the axe handle again when Albert exploded from behind the cottage in a flurry of sound and movement. Startled, Herman dropped the axe and watched Albert streak past him toward the closed gate — straight at it, and then right into it. He bounced off the fence and attempted to change direction, but his lopsided snood had gotten caught in the fence. He flapped helplessly against the gate, throwing dust and feathers in all directions.

"Stupid animal," Herman spat. He wrapped one hand around Albert's neck and set about disentangling the snood with the other. "Come on, Albert," he said. "We can't have Thanksgiving without you."

Herman freed the turkey from the fence and, in one quick move, flung him into the air by his neck and then yanked him back down. Albert's neck snapped loudly, but his wings continued to flap.

Herman held him tightly by the neck until all movement subsided. Then he reached for the axe, glancing at the chickens who had clustered at the edges of the pen. They had all turned their backs on this violent scene.

(To be continued)