We keep our men chained in the attics. We tie them to wooden chairs with thick coarse rope. We don’t care if the rope cuts into their skin and makes them bleed. We tie shawls and scarves around their faces, fill their mouths with handkerchiefs then cover their faces with black hoods. Then we take the chains and wrap them around their torsos, arms, legs and necks. We bolt these chains to the floor. The men cannot move, cannot make a sound and cannot hear. But they will.
As we leave the attics, we make sure the curtains are drawn and the windows locked. We lock the doors behind us and make our way back downstairs. We sit in our living rooms, we face the east, we stare out our windows and we pray. Because, despite our locked doors and windows, despite the chains holding our men down, despite our sacrifice; each year, many don’t make it through the night.
I sit closest to the window. Behind me Meg, the baker’s wife is trembling so fiercely she’s making the planks beneath her chair shudder. Maud, who always has a story to tell, is, for once, silent. She sits at the edge of her seat staring at her empty hands. Julia sits at her feet tears already streaking down her cheeks as she rocks herself back and forth. My mother and my sisters huddle together weeping and shaking.
But I cannot feel for them for long. I cannot bring myself to care about their fear.
Each year, on the winter solstice, they come. They can walk tonight, and they will walk.
Pressing my hand against the freezing window, staring out, I can see the waves break over the snow-covered beach. I watch as the mist over the ocean moves, quickly towards our village. Then, as it breaks the shore, our lights go out. The lighthouse is dark, our candles have been blown out and cannot be re-lit. The silver light from the moon replaces them and the mist continues up into our village. I watch as it engulfs each house, as it surrounds them, tightens its grip around them, ever moving closer towards me. Then, suddenly it’s upon us. It paces around our house, searching for a hole to seep into. But it cannot find any. In its wake, the earth is frozen, icicles clutch to the blades of grass and the windows. Even inside, our breaths come out in visible puffs. The air has now been contaminated by a sweet-salty scent. It dives deep into my chest and urges me to stand up, open the door so I can breathe more of the sweet saltiness. But I resist it.
Above us, I hear the men groaning, the chairs scraping against the wooden floors. Despite our scarves and handkerchiefs, the scent has reached their noses and they cannot resist. I find my hands curled up into fists, as I uncurl them I discover my nails have planted neat holes in my palm. I stare as my red blood pools and trickles down my arm.
“Gwendolyn!” my mother’s voice hisses. I spin around. The women stare at me in complete horror. Slowly, my sister hands me a handkerchief, silently I take it and turn back to the window. I press the handkerchief against my bloodied hands; although it may already be too late. The scent of my blood may have already reached them and this whole household may already be doomed.
But I don’t care. I cannot care. I continue to stare. My breath is caught in my throat, my heart skips a beat as they appear. Even to me, they are irresistible. Even from this distance, their eyes call to me, their sweet, salty scent reaches out and pulls me closer. Behind me, the women begin to wail as they feel the tug, above me the men moan and scream. I hear the chains being shaken and the chairs scraping the floor, toppling over as the men battle to free themselves and lose themselves into the night.
I continue to stare. They move out of the water slowly, emerging, barely breaking the water’s surface. They step onto the sand, naked with their long, salty hair hanging down their backs. One in front pauses taking in the bright moon, then faces the village, her white hair glints silver in the moonlight. She starts softly. But we can all hear her. Her song. Her sisters join in with her and their voices drift lightly through the streets. Like the mist, it prods each house trying to find a way inside. It fills my head, the soft rhythm, the salty tones, the sensuality of their song moves deep into my body. I feel it between my legs, a longing, it’s almost painful, it’s so pleasurable. My heart races in my chest, my body sweats, my blood roars in my veins and I want only to rip my clothes off, to open the door and run down to them. But I know that my legs will not bring me there fast enough. Because now all I want is to wrap my legs around their perfect bodies, to feel them, cold, wet, salty against me. I want to feel them everywhere, all of them, on me, inside me.
I let out a moan, I cannot help it. But it goes unnoticed among those of the women behind me. They hold together, holding each other and themselves back. Above us, the men scream. I know their pain is worse. But I cannot feel for them either. I can only hold my hand down between my legs, trying to stop that growing, hot feeling from taking over me.
They move towards us, singing softly. They move slowly, their movements are awkward and yet elegant. Perfect. Their pale naked bodies glisten in the moonlight. They walk in the same direction. On top of a hill, there we have left him.
There is no way to stop them from coming each year. But each year, we can delight them with a sacrifice. They like them young. Almost men, but not yet. So this year, we sacrificed my brother.