The Courier Ch. 26bycaligula97236©
Chapter 26 -- Maria Elena's Path in Life
The march continued into the countryside as the route left Danube City and circled around to the east. There were rest breaks to exchange used torches for new ones, to use the latrine, and to drink fruit punch. The punch stained the marchers' lips blood red, and many of the men dribbled punch down their chests to give the appearance of having blood running down their bodies.
Finally daylight came. As the sky lightened in the east, Maria Elena could see the distant torches from the other group of marchers approaching from the opposite direction. The collared servants gathered at a large camp where they would spend the day resting and getting ready for the second night's journey back into the city.
Jason Schmidt called the students together to explain what would happen throughout the rest of the day; that the group needed to eat and then sleep on cots that had been brought in by the Danubian Army. Towards sunset there would be a Church service and touching up of the body paint before the marchers resumed their trek, which would return them to the Temple of the Ancients by sunrise the next morning. He gave the students a quick lesson and some trivia about the Danubian Church and the Day of the Dead, ending by teaching the group a simple hymn. Everyone noted that he talked very naturally, with no arrogance whatsoever, but in a manner that compelled his listeners to pay attention to what he had to say.
A few minutes later the others went into one of the tents to find cots, while Cecilia and Maria Elena stayed outside. They walked to the edge of the camp, appreciating the total silence of the countryside. Finally they broke the quiet by talking about the march. Cecilia abruptly changed the topic:
"I think this is the last time we're gonna be doing this. The march, I mean. It's gonna be our last Day of the Dead in Danubia."
Maria Elena glanced over at Cecilia's painted face. Noting the surprise in her companion's eyes, Cecilia continued:
"Jason was kinda depressed this morning when we finished walking. I asked him what's wrong, and he told me that he knew where we were gonna be next year. We're gonna be back in Chicago. By the next Fall Equinox we're gonna be home."
"And he's upset about that?"
"Yeah, real upset, 'cause he doesn't wanna leave Danubia. He was kinda hoping that we'd stay here, but...I guess he got this dream telling him it wasn't gonna be that way...that we're gonna have to go back to the US."
"Did he tell you why?"
"Yeah. He said we've got a lot we have to accomplish in our lives, but in Danubia we've done what we need to do, so there isn't any point in us staying past next summer. He told me that's when we're gonna have to go back, next summer."
"What about your collar?"
"It stays on until we leave. He told me that whenever the Priestess tells me it's time to take it off, he'll buy airplane tickets. I asked him, 'but what about Mega-Town?', and he said a year from now they won't give a shit about us any more. There's only a couple of guys on the Board of Directors who still want to get us, and they're gonna be laid-off the next time the company restructures. When those two go, they'll toss our records and forget about us. He saw all of that: it's in the future, but he already knows what's gonna happen."
"What's your thought about all this?"
"I've never told this to Jason, but I wanna go back. He's not happy about it, but I am. There's people in Chicago that I miss, who I wanna see again. I mean, there's things here too that I'll miss a lot, but this isn't where I wanna spend the rest of my life, and I don't really think Pedro ought to grow up here either."
"But, Jason's OK with it?"
"No, but he's the one who told me that it's our Path in Life to go back. He's not happy about it at all, but he says it's the will of the Creator..." Cecilia flashed a sarcastic smile under her face paint: "...and I'm not gonna argue."
Maria Elena pondered the pending change in the lives of Cecilia, her fiancé, and her nephew. She realized that the departure of Cecilia and Pedro would leave her alone in the house with Victor.
"I'm wondering something. Do you think...maybe part of the reason I came here was so you could leave? I mean...you were taking care of Victor, and now I'm going to replace you. I'm the one who'll be running the house..."
"You'll be taking care of Victor, and his household, and you're also gonna have some kids with him. Jason told me he saw that too; you with Victor's kids...and you runnin' Victor's business. Someday that'll be yours also."
"But...I don't want to run his business..."
"And if you've got kids, just how are you gonna feed 'em? What's gonna happen to the business if you don't take it over? His sons don't want it, 'cause they've got other careers."
Before Maria Elena could think of a response, Cecilia added:
"You know, after talkin' to Jason, I realized something. Kim's making a mistake by havin' a problem with what you're doin' with Victor. I'm gonna tell her that she needs to lay off, 'cause now I really do think your Path in Life is gonna be with him."
The two women stood silent for a few more moments, listening to a cuckoo calling from a nearby tree.
"That's one thing about here I'll miss, hearin' those cuckoo birds. We don't have 'em in the States."
Cecilia turned towards the tents to re-join the rest of the group:
"Let's go. We gotta get some sleep. It's gonna be a long night, and we'll be fucked if we're not rested."
"OK...I'll be there in a second. I want to get a drink. Could you hold a cot for me?"
A few moments later, Maria Elena saw Carmen taking a second helping of fruit punch. As they sat under a tree and sipped their cups, the two women chatted in Spanish. Carmen seemed very worried.
"I had this dream...I was going to the airport...and I was just like I am now, you know...with nothing on...and my family was getting off the plane...and they were real nervous and embarrassed...because I was totally nude...and I told them I couldn't help it."
Maria Elena thought about her own family, who still didn't know what had happened to her.
"I wish I could talk to my family...apologize to my mom...but I couldn't face her like I am now. There'd be no way. She'd die from humiliation if she knew what's gone on in my life."
"My parents would die too...if they saw me...but the weird thing about my dream was; it was several years from now. My little brother was...a lot older...a teenager...and he's just 11 now. And my mom was fatter and my dad's hair was sort of gray. I mean, in my dream I knew they had to come to Danubia because it'd been such a long time since they'd seen me."
Maria Elena thought about the significance of Carmen's vision.
"I'm wondering if it means something's going to keep you here. If...maybe you won't be going home next year."
"I'm wondering the same thing. I suppose I shouldn't have taken that oath to stay collared as long as Cecilia stays collared. I suppose that'll be what keeps me here."
"Was Cecilia in your dream at all?"
"That won't be the reason. It won't be because of Cecilia. It'll be something else."
Maria Elena was surprised at her own answer, because she was totally confident about what she had just said. There now was at least one detail of her life that she knew with certainty. Carmen would not be returning to the US next summer.
Late in the afternoon Maria Elena was woken by the forlorn-sounding bell of a nearby Church. The ringing was accompanied with a series of whistles around the encampment, letting everyone know it was time to get up. She actually felt well-rested after having slept the entire day on a cot. Getting up was followed by a trip to the latrine, a meal, prayers, and having her body paint re-applied. The marchers assembled on the side of the camp facing the main road linking Danube City to the eastern provinces. They faced into the sunset, knowing that soon enough the road would be pitch-black and the only light in the entire city would be the fires coming from their own torches.
Still somewhat shaken from her experience the night before, Maria Elena reluctantly took a torch. She took her place in line behind Carmen and waited for everyone else to take their torches and get ready to move. She felt apprehensive as she watched the first marchers at the front of the two lines light their torches and move forward. The line became longer and longer, until it stretched into the darkness and looked like a fragile bridge of light stretching into the void. Finally the members of Jason's group moved forward. One by one they lit their torches and started walking, plunging forward into the darkness.
Several hours went by and Maria Elena could tell that her group had been walking through Danube City for a while. The buildings were totally dark, but she could make out street signs and trolley stops reflecting the dim light given off by the torches. She also could feel the presence of thousands of black-clad civilians, even though the worshipers were absolutely silent as they knelt and prayed in the darkness. She began to wonder if she would be spared any further visions. As curious as she might have been to know what the Creator would want to reveal, she knew that anything she would see that night would be unpleasant, to say the least.
Eventually she realized that she was looking at white powder, a dry sea of cocaine that extended in every direction as far as she could see. It fell like snow and blew in drifts like sand in the desert. She saw nothing but endless powder in the pitch black night; nothing but black above and white below, stretching out to the horizon.
She saw pellets, similar to the ones she had swallowed in Panama before boarding the fight for Frankfurt. The pellets where not clean at all: they were soaked in blood and feces. A knife was cutting away at skin and intestines to expose more pellets, and a gloved hand was picking them out of a horrific mess that had been a young woman just a few minutes before. The most awful detail was that the woman was still somewhat alive. Her handlers had not even bothered to kill her before cutting her open. They counted the pellets to make sure they had them all, before leaving their victim to die alone in a bathtub. Others would come along in an hour or so to dispose of the body.
The dying woman was having convulsions as her soul separated from her body. She turned her head towards Maria Elena. She was staring into her own face. She realized she was looking at herself, seeing a different alternate reality from the one she had seen the night before: the death that would have awaited her had she completed her trip to Germany. She wondered why they would have killed her instead of simply letting her expel her pellets, but the fact remained that she now knew with certainty that she would not have survived her trafficking effort. The only reward awaiting her in Germany had been her own death.
Maria Elena came back to reality of the black night and the line of torches, barely able to breathe from the fright of her vision.
When Maria Elena's senses returned her to the Realm of the Living, already she could tell that morning was approaching. The sky was no longer pitch black. As the marchers continued their journey, more and more of Danube City was becoming visible in the increasing light. Church bells began ringing, breaking the dead silence that had shrouded the entire country over the past 36 hours. Minutes later the marchers were crossing the Plaza of the Ancients and retracing their steps through the Temple and the forest park that lead to the East Danube River. Following a 3,000-year old tradition, the marchers tossed their torches onto a huge bonfire before stepping into the river to wash off their body paint. The bath was cold and totally unpleasant, but the marchers were obligated to clean themselves as best they could, to wash off Death and return to the Realm of the Living. Before they could return to the Plaza, they had to have the paint completely removed from their bodies and faces.
When all of the marchers had disposed of their torches and cleaned-off their paint, they assembled in the Plaza for a final hymn before being released. The Grand Duchess stood in front of a microphone at the top of the steps to lead the singing and to close the ceremony. Her attractive figure contrasted with the black-clad Clergy members surrounding her. Unlike the naked crowd in front of her, the Grand Duchess was not shivering, because she had been treated to a hot bath in the Temple instead of a cold plunge in the river outside. It was a tiny privilege the Clergy had allowed her, but one that put her in a much better mood.
The Grand Prophet handed Anyia an announcement to read: that all criminals currently serving sentences had to report to the Central Police Station and talk to their Spokespersons to pick up their winter capes and boots. People serving Public Penance would have to remain at the Temple and write down their names and shoe sizes to be issued winter boots from the Temple. Once she finished the announcement, Anyia quietly stepped away from the microphone to join her husband and her parents, all of whom were wearing black prayer robes.
With that the naked crowd began to disperse as the collared criminals drifted towards the Central Police Station to pick up their winter clothing. Jason's friends from his Church group departed, along with Cynthia Lee and her husband. Jason rounded up the students and led them into the Temple, because that morning Penance would end for 12 of them, and also for Victor Dukov.
The students gathered in the area were most people began wearing their Temple collars. The fire-pit where people had to toss their clothing was lit and the students were grateful for the heat it put out on that chilly morning. Jason organized the others into two rows and moved to the front with Maria Elena and Victor. Once everyone was properly kneeling, Jason left to summon the Priestess under whom he was training, the one member of the Temple staff who spoke fluent English and who was the most comfortable working with foreigners.
The Clergywoman showed up with two Temple attendants carrying prayer robes and a set of keys to unlock the collars. Jason knelt as she took his hands and smiled warmly. A twinge of jealousy rose up in Cecilia, because she knew that the Priestess had been a very important part of her fiancé's life over the past four years. In a way she considered the Priestess a rival, because she had assumed a central role in her fiancé's life as his mentor, a role that years before Cecilia had expected to fill.
Jason explained that 12 of the students, along with Victor Dukov, were satisfied that they had pleased the Creator and felt ready to resume their normal lives. The Priestess asked Criminal # 101025 to stand in front of her friends and thank them for the personal sacrifice they had made on her behalf. She was genuinely grateful and made sure the others knew it.
After a hymn and a brief prayer, the Priestess asked the students to step forward one by one. She unlocked each collar and handed it to one of the attendants. Once the students were de-collared, the other attendant laid 12 prayer robes at their feet. The students dressed together, with Cecilia and Carmen casting sad, envious glances at those who were resuming their normal lives. Within a couple of hours the others would go home, get properly cleaned up, and go back out dressed in their regular clothing.
The Priestess de-collared Merchant Victor Dukov separately. She grabbed his hands and commented:
"You see that the Creator answered your prayers and safely returned this young woman to your household. I expect you to spend the rest of your time in the Realm of the Living appreciating what the Creator did for you. I also expect you always to treat Criminal # 101025 with respect and love. Your task is now to teach her what you have learned about life and to assist in her redemption. Take this robe and return to your house."
With that Victor put the robe over his head and knelt. The Priestess ended the brief service and abruptly left to attend to other worshipers in the Temple.
As soon as the ceremony had ended, the norteamericanos asked their Colombian classmate to accompany them in the Plaza to have some tea, and from there the group would walk to the Central Police Station to watch Maria Elena pick up her Ministry of Justice boots and cape. The students wanted to go with her partly out of curiosity, because the capes were considered an abomination of fashion and were the source of numerous jokes. The students were curious to see an infamous winter cape up close.
Criminal # 101025 took her place in line, waiting for Spokeswoman Lee-Dolkivna to hand her a garment bag. Her reaction was the same as nearly everyone else who had ever picked up winter clothing from the Ministry of Justice. The first thing she pulled out of the bag was a pair of boots, which were the same shade of orange used for road construction warnings. Bright orange boots. That definitely was not a good sign. Sure enough, when Maria Elena opened her garment bag she pulled out the most hideous piece of clothing she had ever laid eyes on. It was a bright orange top that looked something half-way between an army poncho and a cape. It had a hood and a sewn-in wool shirt underneath. There was a yellow stripe running up the middle of the cape and blue reflective strips sewn around the edges. There were several drawstrings to tighten the hood and waist. On the back was a large patch of Velcro.
Kim handed Maria Elena a white Velcro patch with # 101025 embroidered in thick black thread. She commented:
"You'll need to wear your criminal number attached at all times...that is, IF you want to wear the top. The Ministry will let you wear the boots without the cape during the winter...which is what I always did when I was serving my sentence. If you keep your feet warm and stay moving when you're outdoors it's not so bad. Not bad enough to wear this."
The norteamericanos passed the cape around, impressed by what a ghastly-looking item it truly was. Maria Elena, like every other criminal, would avoid wearing it as much as possible, but at least she did have something to put on during cold snaps.
That night, Cecilia invited Maria Elena, Victor, and Carmen to accompany her and Jason to the Socrates Club. The night promised to be special, because Kim and her group would present several new songs. As always, the club would be the first to hear the newest music from Socrates' Mistresses; the raw and unrefined versions of songs that later would be recorded and sold throughout Europe.
Jason cuddled Cecilia as they were sitting at the table. Cecilia had a nervous look on her face, because her fiancé was gently stroking her breasts and thighs. Every so often he traced one of her nipples with a fingertip or reached between her legs. Everyone at the table pretended not to notice. It was very strange to see Jason and Cecilia switch roles. For the past four years she had teased him, whispering to him what a naughty boy he was and how much he deserved to be spanked. Now it was his turn to do the exact same thing. He continued to tease her, warning her not to become aroused until he gave her permission. If she dared to disobey him, she would pay for her disobedience with a very long spanking. She resisted as best she could, but both of them knew that Cecilia had very little control over her own body and her impending punishment was inevitable.
Sure enough, she became aroused. He put his finger between her legs and showed her the wetness. He placed the wet finger against her lips, forcing her to lick her own juices. With that he took her upstairs. He carried her to one of the intimacy rooms and laid her on the bed. As always, before spanking her, Jason would make love to her, because there was no point in wasting a good orgasm.