Tribute

The night was red.

It was all the traveler could think of as he walked the narrow cobblestone streets towards the plaza and the music. He turned the thought over and over, trying to get it to make sense, hoping to find the hidden seam or latch somewhere along an edge, anything that would reveal the meaning of the bizarre and persistent thought. He gave up on it a minute or so later, instead focusing on the sound of his soles as they hit the uneven stones of the road, worn smooth by hundreds of years of foot traffic. The traveler had more important things to worry about than the meaning behind some intrusive, cryptic thought that had been deposited at random in his consciousness through channels unbeknownst to him. The throb of the drums from the plaza began to reach him, a feeling in his chest more so than a sound in his ears. Unconsciously, he altered the rhythm of his steps to match that of the drums, speeding up a little. Not surprisingly, the traveler had encountered no one on his short walk. The doors and the windows facing the claustrophobic street were shut up tight, not even a candle glowing or the sound of conversation sailing out into the night from one of the balconies above.

He was late. The plaza would be full of the collected humanity that made up the town, everyone come to revel in the light of the full moon, as they did every month. The night is red. The thought came again, the difference just subtle enough that escaped conscious recognition. The traveler waved it away, a mosquito dancing around his head, waiting for the opportunity to bite.

The plaza came into view ahead of the traveler, a wide square bordered on the north and south sides by white washed buildings and the church on the east. To the west, the plaza was open to the stark line of the high cliff on which the town was built. Far below, waves threw themselves onto the rocks, adding their own rhythm to the heartbeat thrum of the drums. Red light spilled from the mouth of the the street, bathing the houses and cobblestones in a wash of deep crimson as the traveler drew closer. Realization dawned as he stepped out into the wide, open space. Long strands of red lights had been strung across the plaza, lending their furnace glow to everything they touched. The night was red. Someone must have mentioned it to the traveler in passing. Or he had overheard it in the cafe over lunch, or whatever. He let the nagging thought slip from his mind like sand through fingers and joined the crush of people in front of rickety wooden stage.

They were dancing, a wild and free sea of movement, bodies pressed close together, no one caring about the sweat of their neighbors. Just everyone moving as one giant, writhing organism beneath the red lights and the pulse of the music. The traveler threw himself into the crowd, an opening forming and then closing around him. The collective crush of humanity thrummed and shifted around him, and the traveler gave himself up to the music, eyes closed in sublime release. The music changed and he opened his eyes again, taking in the people in his immediate vicinity. A young woman, poised on the cusp of true beauty, was reaching up towards the night sky. An elderly man and his wife pressed against each other, swaying and gyrating in time with the drums. The music was a ritual thing, awakening instincts buried deep in the townspeople, an orgiastic celebration of survival, another month wrested from the clutching talons of starvation and decay.

The traveler turned to see those who had were behind him. Through the crowd, he saw the man. This other moved with a savage grace, hips bucking, arms thrown up to the lights overhead. His movements flowed together hypnotically, and the traveler was caught in their spell. He felt a deep desire awaken within him for this other, and the traveler adjusted his position among the crush of people to get a better view. The other wore loose fitting pants of black cotton and a shirt of the same color, open at the throat. His bald head reflected the red glow from above, but the effect was not an unpleasant one. This other’s eyes were closed, his expression one of deep concentration.

The traveler felt drawn to the other man, drawn as migratory birds are pulled south with the passing of summer. The traveler longed to touch this other, the lust burning within him a primal hunger. The thought came to him again. The night was red. Red as the other man’s full and perfect lips. The other seemed oblivious to the traveler’s attention, separated as they were from each other by a knot of dancing, exultant townsfolk. The traveler made his way through the press of humanity, taking what felt like an eternity before he was within arm’s reach of the other man. Even this close, the other did not acknowledge the traveler. As the traveler reached out with impatient fingers to touch the man, the other’s eyes snapped open, fixing themselves upon the face of the traveler. They were deep, muddy pools, tinted nearly black by the red lights overhead. The look of deep concentration melted from the other’s features, replaced by a coy smile that drew the traveler closer. The other’s eyes begged the traveler to drown himself within them, and the thought that maybe could do just that flitted across the traveler’s mind. To throw himself over the edge and into that darkness with no bottom. The music changed again, the tempo becoming something much quicker. The two men drew close together, their noses nearly touching. The traveler felt the other man snake an arm around his waist, and they moved together to the thrumming of the music from the stage. The traveler gave himself over to the dance, to the feeling of the other’s body against his, feeling the boundaries between them begin to disintegrate. It was then that the traveler felt something hot running down the sticky skin of his stomach. At first he thought it was sweat, but it was different, somehow. Then came the pain.

The traveler pulled away from the other man, and looked down at where he felt the pain. A stain was blooming on the white cotton of his shirt. He touched the stain, and his hands came back sticky with something that looked black under the red lights overhead. Before the traveler had time to process this, he felt that strange prickle of something wet trickling down the small of his back. He whirled in time to see an old woman slip a triangular blade, its tip slick with blood, his blood, the traveler’s brain registered, into her wide belt. Pain again, in his side. He whirled, and looked down into the face of boy, perhaps twelve or thirteen, a knife with a triangular, bloodstained blade clear in his hand. The townsfolk closed in upon the traveler, and the triangular blades flashed beneath the red lights strung across the plaza. The music changed again, the drums taking on a deep, throbbing beat. The other musicians ceased their playing and descended into the crowd, drawing their own knives. Each villager took their turn driving their blades into the traveler. The crush of people around him kept the poor man on his feet much longer than the blood loss would normally allow, but eventually his body sank to the cobblestones, rivulets of the traveler’s blood running into the channels between the carefully arranged cobblestones of the plaza. These channels were all slightly sloped towards the sea, and would carry the grisly offering over the edge of the cliff and down to the crashing waves below. It was in this way that the townsfolk gave tribute to the sea, for as they took from it, so did they repay their debt. The traveler was far from the first to be offered, and he would not be the last. The night was red, as it had been many, many times before and would be again, when the drums echoed the call of the devouring waves below, and the full moon mingled its cold light with the plaza’s crimson glow.