001/That Old Blood Religion
Nabet Acina analyzes Kadenja Toriet's broadcast from The Altar; Ila Acina and Kudoja Ojo bear witness.
Nabet Acina stood on the creaking deck of her porch stoop, watching the last dregs of sunset ooze orange through the black cracks in the Port Haven skyline. Melting into Ossan Holm’s alleyways, baking translucent through hung lines of laundry, dripping through the filthy grates bleak beneath Dawton Street.
Loose, steel toned tendrils of her tightly knotted hair stuck to her face as her adder clear gaze held vigil over their corner, dry herb tinged smoke mingling with sweat in the humid smear of the lower city’s congested evening, the quick tongued voices of her neighborhood’s clans of carrion children clattering between the bricks. Their sharp calls and slide whistle slang folding beneath the crooning old melodies which danced from neighboring windows, the other old women of her block indulging what they could scavenge of their favorite songs from blocky, static-prone radios. All of it stirred into a uniquely familiar waltz of speech and sound in the slamming door of the copper dusk.
As soon as the blistered, cracked egg sun sunk past the buckling roof of Avi Artenin’s laundromat, she knew it was time.
The elder stamped the remains of her cigarette into the porch’s overcrowded coffee can ashtray and retracted her knobby body back into the dim blue dark of her home, screen door swinging shut behind her rustling the threadbare scarves about her sloping shoulders.
The first thing she did was turn on the tv.
Sound crackled into the quiet as the flickering screen bleached her in a pale blue light, advertisements for such and such eye cream and such and such dealership cauterizing the white noise as she snatched her notepad from the clutter of the coffee table. She shuffled over to sit down firmly in front of her tiny, square television, arthritic fingers flipping to a fresh page before popping the cap off of a pen with her teeth.
“You are tired. You are sick. Your doctors can't fix you. They can't find that seed of suffering in your belly, can't fix the decay in your bones. This is your story they tell you. This is how you live the rest of your life. This is how you die.”
The blue light from the screen fogged from cadmium to amber and her ancient eyes narrowed, pen cap crunching a fraction between her molars.
Nabet’s gaze did not waver.
She scrawled in her folded pad of paper by touch alone, coagulating ink snagging on the scoured indentations of the nights and nights and days before this one, older notes and observations scarring the fresh pages through the pulp.
The screen flared red as Kadenja Toriet took to the stage amidst the rabid cheers of his fell congregation, and the elder’s teeth clenched sore with heartache.
With the rage at how they had somehow stood aside over the years as this once proud Ossan prodigy child had abandoned his neighborhood, his brother, his bloodline to devolve into this televised mockery of his heritage.
The pimping of Varaket’s sacred craft spread open on that stage in such obscene ecclesiastics, the eldest son of Ansa and Kirut was always reduced to traitor fiction on her screen.
And yet, she never stopped watching.
She sat there every night it played until her ankles grew sore beneath her folded weight, knuckles blistering against plastic with the force of all her scrawling, slicing apart each action, each word, each frame with her pen, goring so many pages with her dread theories, her scalpel knowledge trying to dissect an unspoken assertion from his exile motion.
She sat hunkered so deep into her muttering notions that she didn't hear the door open.
Reon Acina, more often Ila, granddaughter of Nabet Acina, daughter of Taria Acina (Gods rest her beautiful soul), and keeper of the hottest ass on 83rd and Dawton, burst through the door of the walkup she shared with her eldest only blood relative left in this cruel world. “And then after he took off his pants, he like had a Luchador mask for underwear with his junk hanging out the m--”
That young Acina with her long blonde hair and her skin that reminded the neighbors of the Ossan sun stopped short in the doorway with an extended screeching gasp, that deer in the headlights look in her bright eyes not quite enough to actually freeze time—just the punchline of the rude story she'd been telling to her on-and-off ex-boyfriend.
“It's Thursdayyyy,” the girl inhaled with a sound not completely unlike a balloon losing air at the hands of an unhappy child, not moving a fucking inch.
When it was Nana Nabet's Blood Church TV crazy time, she was Not To Be Disturbed by Ila and her shit taste in men.
Kudoja, the skinny street healer that followed Ila into the Acina home, held no illusions that screwing around with the youngest of that clan put him in any sort of grand company. Unlike some of the other idiots out for her ass he didn't pretend that this was about love, or family, or even about having the best fuck in the neighborhood on his lap at some party. Kudo and Ila worked when they worked—and didn't when they didn't—because they both knew exactly who they were and weren't about to let the other forget it. It had been that way pretty much their whole lives and would probably keep going that way until Kudo got himself killed. Certainly long after Nana got Ila married off to some old family to keep the Acina line going. Though speaking of Nana Nabet...
Of course it was TV day. Why wouldn't it be? It wouldn't have been so bad if it was just soaps or whatever but no, Nabet had to be into Toriet's bullshit sin-eater psychodrama, starring human sacrifice and its good buddy, the adoring masses. It was sick shit and Nana Nabet knew he thought it was sick shit, especially considering the bull he put around healing.
Anyone who wanted some real healing could just meet him at the Llamella, the wandering Ossan underground. He'd show them what their fucking miracle looked like, guts and all.
Either way, it was too late to turn around. Kudo had made a career out of not being afraid of anyone, and Nana Nabet wasn't going to change that now. He may shit on tradition, he may have held nothing sacred as a matter of policy, but at least he wasn't a pussy about it. Maybe the old bat liked that about him, or maybe it was just wishful thinking.
"Doshi, Nana, merry bloodsucking day. " He offered by way of greeting, making his way inside and heading towards the kitchen. "Got anything to drink?"
Kudo’s voice slouched its way into the room as the televised execution began, the blur of the prophet made hangman reflecting in Nabet’s glassy irises. Her lips numb, the furious scrawling of her pen cut short.
They didn't even let that man die with his name.
“...anything to drink?” A needling rash of rage cut into Nabet’s teeth and through her jaw as she swiveled on him, tearing away from her spot before the crackling TV with a surprisingly vicious pace, screen flashing white into a commercial break behind her. “Not for grubby, disrespectful children who bring mud into my house, tell me what to do…” She spat into the space between them, whopping him hard in the shoulder with her TV remote on her way to the cramped kitchenette. "Nata yevaserei..."
The Acina elder clapped the remote down hard enough on the side table to knock the batteries out, stray coins and sewing needles teetering madly with the force of the impact.
Nabet sighed out hard through her teeth as she flicked on the kitchen light, muttering a slow string of curses beneath her breath. “Ila, aratoyeva, why do you bring such distasteful boys in my house, yeah? Plenty of bad boys you know who aren’t so skinny as him too.”
Ila had shit taste in men, but Ila also had commitment issues and shitty men were easier to push off porches at 4am than nice ones were. Mostly because nice ones weren’t showing up drunk on the stoop, hollering into the mail slot about how he’s not really sorry about the thot he was fucking but he could totally make it up to you if you let him in, Ila, and that wasn’t a real life example, Ila was joking, no you’re the one who makes bad life choices.
Careful to be sure her nana was mostly unarmed, she stepped lightly over the threshold, taking great care to maintain a distance that maintained her general safety. She shot like a tanager after a cricket, falling into Kudoja in that cramped kitchenette rife with the familiar smell of nana’s old world spices painted up and down the walls.
The pretty blonde and her warm skin like sunning sand turned to peer at the matriarch from the relative safety of the window cutout that turned the TV room into a show in itself, if you ignored the lovingly sanded and painted 2x4s that were hammered into a makeshift breakfast bar by the underground handyman in 229.
“He’s so persistent though, Nana,” she hollered through the portal, giving Kudoja the side eye for abandoning her at the door like he had. “You always said that you respected the bravery of the cockroach that keep coming despite the examples you’ve made of their friends and family.” She stuck her tongue out at the street healer as she leaned into the countertop, leaving enough room for him to come and watch with her.
Side eyes. Like he hadn't just taken a bullet for her.
Apparently the old woman's blood messiah was acting up today. There was some real venom in the still stinging imprint of the remote she’d just trashed. Not that he'd have said as much, settling in next to his spitfire girlfriend close enough to rub hips and elbows.
"Kudoja, the Bravest Cockroach." Always crawling out of places you'd rather not find him. A slash of a smirk on his lips, he watched Nana work her way around old linoleum and cracked green countertops. "At least roaches can take a hit, a whack like that would have sent any other datomo that come sniffing around your stoop running back home. I keep telling you that TV's not good for your blood pressure."
Maybe familiarity just bred contentment, but more than anywhere else Nana Nabet's house felt like what Kudo assumed home should be. Spice and sofas, cigarettes crammed into empty cans. Jokes. Food. Casual violence.
"Bah. How do you know what’s good for an old woman like me? You could tell maybe, if you didn’t spend all the time making up your own ways to see, yeah? Not reliable. Going to get yourself killed one of these days, playing around." Nabet shoved a tall glass of lemon tea onto the counter in front of Kudo, pale liquid sloshing emphatically around the rim. “The old ways are still here for a reason. Me, my sisters, all of your grandmothers kept it safe so many years to protect it, pass it down to you, but that’s not good enough, hm? Think you can fix something that’s not broken, try and be flashy…” She pressed another more gently into her granddaughter’s hand, patting the back of her bare shoulder once before scooting back around to her parlor with a heavy, low slung sigh, picking up her paper pad and empty remote.
The aging viper folded back into the dim glow of her TV, the pale commercial break dissolving back to red across her face, the bloodstone shimmer soaking into the deep crags of her paper bag skin. She began to write.
On screen, the red snake, the familiar of Varonian’s altar, writhed through the audience.
Heretic feet began to beat a blood pulse into the amber hazed concrete.
White women flung their arms high into the air.
Men clapped and swayed with the beat.
The convict’s coagulated blood shone red black on the edge of the altar.
And then, she saw.
She saw him.
For the first time in weeks months years, she saw him.
The staticked volume rose over the room like a tide. Swelled to the low corners of the ceiling, coiled music and drumming hands. The slithering mantra and bloodlust cheer of the audience swallowing any tremor of background chatter as she drew even closer to the screen, close enough to feel the heat of it ringing her eyelids because she recognized someone. There. Tiny on her screen with the pixel silhouette of the sick woman two doors down, her Ossan scarves tied like a flag in her hair.
“That’s Doria. Doria Samat, right there—”
And in the black mirror of Nabet’s gaze, she watched Kaden’s spectre score his wrist and siphon, wake, tear the malignant infection from her neighbor’s sickbed veins.
The crowd noise became a useless smudge of sound in the background of her white hot watching, the pen cramped in her fingers as she watched him step out of that perversion of his power and slip into the old ways, even if for a moment. A glitch. A lapse.
And when the blood traitor’s body fell to the stage, her pen fell with it.
When the red finally flickered back to commercial white, she stayed there motionless on the floor, the narrow silhouette of her shoulders huddled dark before the screen.
“... Is he dead?” Ila was brave to speak in the silence left by Nabet’s shock. Sweeping her blonde hair from her eyes, she looked at Kudoja and immediately decided he didn’t care enough to know the actual answer to her question. He’d probably just say something about his dick and continue that weird cockroach metaphor they seemed to have gotten stuck in again.
She sipped at the tea her elder had given her (since it’d be super disrespectful to waste it, natch) and stood to peer at the woman frozen in the wake of that legit bit of Ossa, that old school Varaket that the Toriet family was charged with keeping.
Ila leaned into her maybe-currently-not-an-ex-boyfriend, trying to keep her words from passing the opening in the wall. “... is she still breathing?”
"You think they'd let a blood prophet waste himself on healing up some old lady?" Kudo was grumbling, rolling his eyes, drinking his tea, and seething.
Something that isn't broken.
The old ways are here for a reason.
What about this wasn't broken.
He wanted to wrap his inked fingers around their bony old shoulders and just shake them apart, just shout until eardrums like elephant skin finally fucking heard him. The old ways weren't broken, they were alive! Alive and whoring themselves out to a crowing audience going bipolar over a sadist playing psychopomp doing death drops for old ladies! They were right there, on the screen, flashing their serpentine tits for their drooling new audience of desperate idiots while old ladies like Nabet sucked their teeth and shook their canes and fucking drank it up! She wanted broken? Talk about the the Ossan fucking high guard getting healed by her 'god', like sacrifice and sacrament were part and parcel! Talk about Doria fucking Samat's blood infection that she wouldn't let him touch because he was too 'flashy', as if a snake of blood and a salivating audience was subtle.
They wanted masochism, not miracles, so they didn't have to feel so bad
Kudo was too disrespectful, using car batteries and donor blood instead of good old-fashioned agony, as if he didn't suffer for what he did. For using his fucking gut instead of buying into their sadomasochistic bullshit.
"Of course she's still breathing." Kudo leaned back into Ila, looped an arm around her waist, tried to refocus. The last thing he needed right now was a fight. "I guess it's not every day your favorite televangelist fixes up your neighbor."
Ila simply watched the elongated space between his two very separate answers with a thoughtful pout. She liked to imagine what he was bitching about in his head as his face grew angrier, more sour. Car batteries then meat processing factories then Doria didn't let me fix her infection and that makes me mad to fuck the government to Ila I really don't want you to go to work today blah blah blah.
When the grouchy healer wrapped his arms around her, she nestled against him, happy to ease the incessant chatter that riled him up with her love affection.
The old woman hit the button to cut off the TV, infomercial chatter snapping back into silence. She traced her pen back over the grooves cut into her notebook, waxy, arthritic knuckle pressed to her muttering lips. An urgent theory pounded in her pulse, all dizzy inkling optimism crackling in the heartsick tremble of her grief. The dazzling high of seeing one’s suspicions confirmed melted back down into the greater reality of doubts and cross reference, and by the time she stood, the same old pins of regret started to simmer hot in her chest.
“Don’t look like that.” Nabet spat her fury into the space between them, disappearing as she rounded the corner back into the kitchen, back to the children. “Smug. Dark under your eyes.” Her paper pad snapped down against the mint vinyl countertop, black tarred hypotheses stuck to her tongue, pushing wordless against her teeth. “You say everything in your body. Ila is brave enough to always say the first thing which comes to the top of her mouth, and you do the same thing. Just say it with your body instead. In your eyes.” The leash around her words unspools into a sigh, wrinkled brown hands braced against the countertop. “When you are young, easy to think you are right. You sit up on the shoulders of all of our mistakes and think it gives you perfect vision. That there are things you will never do.”
She shoves a charm into the street healer’s hand. A nearly identical one already dangled on a thin red string around her granddaughter’s wrist.
It was not much, but it was the best effort she could make in her tiny means from their tiny home against ever having to see either of those kids brought up onto that TV set and bled. A tangle of old magic and gut drawn utility, a barter of broken glass in her belly traded for an attempt at their safety, to dampen their scent. Those Ravagers, avireproso, always prowling, patrolling their streets, and any unlucky Ossan picked up was offered little option: a lifetime of servitude at best, locked up in a box somewhere and used up like any other machine, or being bled dry for charlatan sacrifice and unholy consumption.
Anyone here could be a criminal, depending on what they said on the TV. They were already outlaws by virtue of their illegal bodies, too expensive and too risky to sponsor by the law of Amstead, and it was a quick dive from there into any word play which could convince the public that they’d earned their death sentence, just as they did for Fuya’s son who just died on national TV.
She snatched up her notepad again, folded like a deck of cards in her hard palm, marble gaze hard edged and dark in the seasick kitchen light.
“And do not crawl under my roof, do not speak to me in the street if you think that I enjoy this.”
With that, the elder stepped out into the tangled heartbeat of her swirling thoughts, disappearing into the back of the house like a wounded hound dragging the empty victory of its kill back into a distant hole, a smattering of old world speech trailing in the wet dark behind her.
In the silence left in the wake of Nabet’s whirlwind of elderly truth bombs, Ila bit her lip. She'd spent her entire life watching her Nana’s fire rage on, unrestrained and adamant. The elder always burned a direct path to her objectives, no matter the size of the obstacles in her path or if it would be easier circumvented,
Nana Nabet razed all things to the ground.
Eventually, the stun wore off and the only thing Ila could say was:
“...oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooh, you got fuckin’ tooooooooooold~”
What was there to say to that?
Anything he could have offered, any explanation he had would have fallen to the floor like the guts Nana Nabet tortured to make her charms. It hummed in his hand like a little song, hot and sad as the pins of an old woman's conspiracy theories.
Of course she didn't enjoy this, he wanted to tell her.
That was the point.
The Ossa were old friends of suffering. They'd married themselves to it so long ago that to them it was a currency and power all its own. Of course Nana Nabet and the others didn't enjoy this wicked world of stolen bloodwrights and media-sensation sin eating. They suffered it, and in their suffering grew hard and hot and powerful like little feudal neighborhood lords. It would all have been well and good, if it actually accomplished anything.
Kudo's fingers were tight around Nana's charm as he forced a roll of his eyes. Ila was always good for a reminder of the now, no matter how fucking childish it could be.
"No. She sounded super fucking pleased with me." His eyes rolled, but he stroked along the hot little line of her hip with a thumb. The empty tea glass hit the counter—he didn't bother to clean it up—as he tugged Ila along towards the house's innards.
Nana's charm already hung at his wrist.