The Starless Sea

Now the door opens.

The acolyte who enters holds a ring of brass keys. He offers his other palm to her. On it sits a small disk of metal with a raised carving of a bee.

Accepting the bee is the next step in becoming an acolyte. This is her final chance to refuse.

She takes the bee from the acolyte’s palm. He bows and gestures for her to follow him.

The young woman who is to be an acolyte turns the warm metal disk over in her fingers as they walk through narrow candlelit tunnels lined with bookshelves and open caverns filled with mismatched chairs and tables, stacked high with books and dotted with statues. She pets a statue of a fox as they pass by, a popular habit that has worn its carved fur smooth between its ears.

An older man leafing through a volume glances up as they pass and recognizing the procession he places two fingers to his lips and inclines his head at her.

At her, not at the acolyte she follows. A gesture of respect for a position she does not yet officially hold. She bows her head to hide her smile. They continue down gilded stairways and through curving tunnels she has never traversed before. She slows to look at the paintings hung between the shelves of books, images of trees and girls and ghosts.

The acolyte stops at a door marked with a golden bee. He chooses a key from his ring and unlocks it.

Here begins the initiation.

It is a secret ceremony. The details are known only to those who undergo it and those who perform it. It has been performed in the same fashion always, as long as anyone can remember.

As the door with the golden bee is opened and the threshold crossed the acolyte gives up her name. Whatever name this young woman was called before she will never be addressed by it again, it stays in her past. Someday she may have a new name, but for the moment she is nameless.

The room is small and round and high-ceilinged, a miniature version of her contemplation cell. It holds a plain wooden chair on one side and a waist-high pillar of stone topped with a bowl of fire. The fire provides the only light.

The elder acolyte gestures for the young woman to sit in the wooden chair. She does. She faces the fire, watching the flames dance until a piece of black silk is tied over her eyes.

The ceremony continues unseen.

The metal bee is taken from her hand. There is a pause followed by the sound of metal instruments clinking and then the sensation of a finger on her chest, pressing into a spot on her breastbone. The pressure releases and then it is replaced by a sharp, searing pain.

(She will realize afterward that the metal bee has been heated in the fire, its winged impression burned into her chest.)

The surprise of it unnerves her. She has prepared herself for what she knows of the rest of the ceremony, but this is unexpected. She realizes she has never seen the bare chest of another acolyte.

When moments before she was ready, now she is shaken and unsure.

But she does not say Stop. She does not say No.

She has made her decision, though she could not have known everything that decision would entail.

In the darkness, fingers part her lips and a drop of honey is placed on her tongue.

This is to ensure that the last taste is sweet.

In truth the last taste that remains in an acolyte’s mouth is more than honey: the sweetness swept up in blood and metal and burning flesh.

Were an acolyte able to describe it, afterward, they might clarify that the last taste they experience is one of honey and smoke.

It is not entirely sweet.

They recall it each time they extinguish the flame atop a beeswax candle.

A reminder of their devotion.

But they cannot speak of it.

They surrender their tongues willingly. They offer up their ability to speak to better serve the voices of others.

They take an unspoken vow to no longer tell their own stories in reverence to the ones that came before and to the ones that shall follow.

In this honey-tinged pain the young woman in the chair thinks she might scream but she does not. In the darkness the fire seems to consume the entire room and she can see shapes in the flames even though her eyes are covered.

The bee on her chest flutters.

Once her tongue has been taken and burned and turned to ash, once the ceremony is complete and her servitude as an acolyte officially begins, once her voice has been muted, then her ears awaken.

Then the stories begin to come.

The boy is the son of the fortune-teller. He has reached an age that brings an uncertainty as to whether this is something to be proud of, or even a detail to be divulged, but it remains true.

He walks home from school toward an apartment situated above a shop strewn with crystal balls and tarot cards, incense and statues of animal-headed deities and dried sage. (The scent of sage permeates everything, from his bedsheets to his shoelaces.)

Today, as he does every school day, the boy takes a shortcut through an alleyway that loops behind the store, a narrow passage between tall brick walls that are often covered with graffiti and then whitewashed and then graffitied again.

Today, instead of the creatively spelled tags and bubble-lettered profanities, there is a single piece of artwork on the otherwise white bricks.

It is a door.

The boy stops. He adjusts his spectacles to focus his eyes better, to be certain he is seeing what his sometimes unreliable vision suggests he is seeing.

The haziness around the edges sharpens, and it is still a door. Larger and fancier and more impressive than he’d thought at first fuzzy glance.

He is uncertain what to make of it.

Its incongruousness demands his attention.

The door is situated far back in the alley, in a shadowed section hidden from the sun, but the colors are still rich, some of the pigments metallic. More delicate than most of the graffiti the boy has seen. Painted in a style he knows has a fancy French name, something about fooling the eye, though he cannot recall the term here and now.

The door is carved—no, painted—with sharp-cut geometric patterns that wind around its edges creating depth where there is only flatness. In the center, at the level where a peephole might be and stylized with lines that match the rest of the painted carving, is a bee. Beneath the bee is a key. Beneath the key is a sword.

A golden, seemingly three-dimensional doorknob shimmers despite the lack of light. A keyhole is painted beneath, so dark it looks to be a void awaiting a key rather than a few strokes of black paint.

The door is strange and pretty and something that the boy does not have words for and does not know if there are words for, even fancy French expressions.

Somewhere in the street an unseen dog barks but it sounds distant and abstract. The sun moves behind a cloud and the alley feels longer and deeper and darker, the door itself brighter.

Tentatively, the boy reaches out to touch the door.

The part of him that still believes in magic expects it to be warm despite the chill in the air. Expects the image to have fundamentally changed the brick. Makes his heart beat faster even as his hand slows down because the part of him that thinks the other part is being childish prepares for disappointment.

His fingertips meet the door below the sword and they come to rest on smooth paint covering cool brick, a slight unevenness to the surface betraying the texture below.

It is just a wall. Just a wall with a pretty picture on it.

But still.

Still there is the sensation tugging at him that this is more than what it appears to be.

He presses his palm against the painted brick. The false wood of the door is a brown barely a shade or two off from his own skin tone, as though it has been mixed to match him.

Behind the door is somewhere else. Not the room behind the wall. Something more. He knows this. He feels it in his toes.

This is what his mother would call a moment with meaning. A moment that changes the moments that follow.

The son of the fortune-teller knows only that the door feels important in a way he cannot quite explain, even to himself.

A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.

He traces the painted lines of the key with his fingertips, marveling at how much the key, like the sword and the bee and the doorknob, looks as though it should be three-dimensional.

The boy wonders who painted it and what it means, if it means anything. If not the door at least the symbols. If it is a sign and not a door, or if it is both at once.

In this significant moment, if the boy turns the painted knob and opens the impossible door, everything will change.

But he does not.

Instead, he puts his hands in his pockets.

Part of him decides he is being childish and that he is too old to expect real life to be like books. Another part of him decides that if he does not try he cannot be disappointed and he can go on believing that the door could open even if it is just pretend.

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