The Festival

            The island of Victory was perfectly round, risen 20 feet from the ocean at any point on its exterior, and about 10 miles in diameter. Our fisherman could be found most days dangling their feet over these cliffs and dropping enormous lines into the infinity below. Inward from the edges, the island was divided into perfectly round sections, like the targets our hunters used for archery practice—except, of course, for the hill that overlooked town on the part of the island closest to sunrise. The outer ring was undeveloped forest. It was here that we hunted whatever the woods provided: mostly hogs, squirrels, and the occasional deer. The next ring comprised of the farmhouses, and inward from there was the residential ring, the schooling ring, and the market ring in that order. At the island’s epicenter sat the pride and joy of Victory, the Colosseum of Remembrance: built from the bones of humans that died in the ancient battle. From here the island’s only road— everywhere else having been navigated by narrow foot-trails— ran up to the mansion that sat upon the hill which overlooked town, the House of Champions, built from the bones of the beast. At the foot of this hill was the medical facility, which had once been a large cave.

            I had only ever seen the beast once; last year was the first year I’d been allowed to attend the festival. I passed all my schooling and survived seventeen trips around the sun, and therefore had finally earned the right to partake in the celebration. Though perhaps “partake” isn’t quite the right word: first-timers could watch, see what it’s all about I guess, and then after that were eligible to participate in the Cleansing itself. This was my first year of true eligibility, though I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to participate. Last year’s Cleansing had been horribly violent, even more so than I imagined when we learned about it in school.

            Schooling started for children on Victory at age seven. We learned about hunting, fishing, farming, medicine and history. At age fourteen we were assigned to the subject in which we were most proficient, then for the last three years of our education we studied only that subject in preparation for the rest of our adult lives. History students became the new teachers, medical students the new immortality seekers, and the other students’ positions were rather self-explanatory. I had been chosen to study medicine myself, and was in my first year of practice as a full-fledged immortality seeker; regardless, I was proficient in just about every other subject—aside from hunting— and had a special love for history. I was particularly fascinated by the origin of the Festival of Cleansing. The story went about like this:

            Victory was once Nature’s perfect paradise. Our ancestors lived in perfect harmony with animals, and the island was itself immune to hardship of any kind. Storms in the sky would part and circumvent the island before a single stroke of lighting could reach the cliffs. Disease and illness were concepts that did not exist, and an abundance of ripe, exotic fruit was always available for consumption; hunger had as little meaning as disease and illness. The sun always shined on the island, and the people lived forever to soak in its glory. Indeed, Death had not yet revealed itself to Victory, until one day it decided to do so in the form of unimaginable terror.

            The entire island was said to have been cast into darkness as the void-black beast passed in front of the sun, its wingspan larger than any cloud in the sky. Its torso and head were the shape of human’s, though it possessed six arms and four legs. Atop its head sat six horns, each larger than a full grown man.  As our ancestors watched in horror, paralyzed by this sensation which was altogether new to them, the beast simply inhaled. The result was utterly devastating; a hurricane tore through the island and into the beast’s soul, tearing with it man’s immortality. There was a pause, a swelling in the beast’s belly, and then a fiery flash of breath that introduced death to the island. Chaos ensued, and only a few dozen humans managed to escape the beast’s wrath, hiding in the cave at the foot of the island’s hill. After hunting down the disoriented humans who never found shelter, the beast approached the cave, only to find it was too big to enter. Instead, it was only able to put his head through the cave’s opening.

            As it creeped inside, our ancestors collectively held their breath. Its eyes were as large as an entire person; its nostrils were half the size and still smoking. One of the humans, whom we remember as Victor the Hero, was the first to find himself face to face with the beast, aligned with its left eye. Before it could react, Victor, driven by fear and instinct, dove into its eye and clawed like a caged animal. He managed to tear through the creature’s socket and grab ahold of its brain. When he emerged triumphantly from the hole he’d burrowed, the rest of our ancestors were still holding their breath.

            Instead of just dying, the beast’s stomach started to glow red hot. Then it burst. From it crawled a new beast, though this one was considerably smaller and less developed. Our ancestors were on top of it in seconds, clawing and gouging, and again it died and was reborn. This cycle continued a few more times before they finally decided to bind the beast’s wings and snout and seal it in the cave. But the damage was done. It had stolen man’s immortality.

            The beast’s original bones were used to construct the House of Champions, its skull hanged over the front door. Our ancestors’ bones were used to build the Coliseum, where Victor’s legendary skull now hung over the entrance. Shortly thereafter the Festival of Cleansing was born.

            I really loved that story, and would oftentimes find myself trying to imagine the original beast: even more so now that I’d seen what had become of it hundreds of years later. The beast at the festival was still fairly large, its wingspan at least twenty feet, but nowhere near the epic proportions described in the legend; it was difficult to picture the beast as capable of the destruction ascribed to it. The beast at the festival looked as if it wasn’t capable of anything anymore. In fact, it was hard for me to discern who the real monsters were in the Coliseum’s pit.

 

I had never been more anxious or excited for anything in my life than the night of my first festival. Not for the feast—I could hardly eat anyways— but for the Cleansing. For the beast. I was among the front row of people crowding the road, waiting for the march. After the feast the door to the medical facility was opened and the beast lead from the cave’s mouth by the previous year’s champion, who carried proudly the ceremonial axe.  Its wings and jaws were bound with ropes, and it hunkered out slowly with its head down and eyes cast at the ground. It looked scared. I don’t know what made me think that—after all, I had no frame of reference—but I could feel the fear radiating from the beast. More than scared, though, it looked defeated. It knew what was coming; it had been here before. The crowd met its appearance with waves of cussing and hissing and spitting, as well as the occasional rock throw. I, however, was both silent and motionless; I was petrified by something like angst.

            After the beast entered the Coliseum, the crowd shuffled into their seats. Those who wished to participate in the Cleansing made their way to the pit. Several of them pumped their fists in the air or let out high-pitched war cries. I looked for my father among them, and when our eyes met he winked at me. He looked ferocious: he was hungry to be Champion. When the noise subsided to a manageable level, last year’s champion began to bellow out his rendition of the traditional speech:

            “In an age long gone, yet anything but forgotten, our ancestors were stripped of their greatest treasure and devastated by an unspeakable horror. That horror now sits before you, bound by man’s superior might!” At this the audience cheered. “Let us never forget the consequences of this beast’s wrath, as we sit upon the bones of our people, and let the beast never forget the superiority of man, as we unleash upon it wrath of our own!” The crowd went wild, then died down once more. “Now, as is customary, I shall reiterate the laws of the ceremony: as it was in the ancient battle, so too shall our brave competitors fight unarmed. The goal of the ceremony is simple, though achieving it is not so: whoever plucks the beast’s left eye from its head shall be named champion. Anything, apart from the use of weapons, is allowed among competitors, and the ceremony shall not be interrupted for any reason until we have our champion. Whoever emerges victorious will have the honor of slaying the beast, and their entire family will be permitted the luxury of living work free in the House of Champions until the next festival. May Victor smile upon these brave competitors, and happy cleansing!” The crowd erupted as the champion sealed the arena and joined the stands. What followed could only be described as chaos.

            Immediately the beast flung itself against one of the Coliseum’s walls and simply cowered there, still completely bound. The two dozen or so competitors flew after it, or so it seemed at first, but instead clashed in a pile at the center of the arena. They bit and scratched one another, screamed and howled in pain and insanity, and bled like stuck pigs. I wanted to close my eyes, but instead found them searching for my father. When they spotted him I was horrified: he was rolling on the ground with our neighbor, Sam the fisherman, with his teeth sunk deep in the man’s throat. I could see Sam screaming, but couldn’t hear him over the roar of the crowd. They were loving every second. Down in the pit it seemed as though the competitors had forgotten about the beast altogether, until someone finally broke away from the horde and starting sprinting for it. It was Angela the huntress, and for a second I thought she might actually end the whole ordeal then and there. My father, meanwhile, had finally released Sam and left him lifeless on the ground. Out of the corner of his eye he had seen the runner. As she approached the beast, the beast lifted its head as high as it could in anticipation. She was crawling up its neck when my father reached her, and he threw her to the ground by her collar. In the next instant he was on top of her. He hit her again and again and again and again, until finally her guard lowered and she lay motionless. In real life they were friends. By now the other survivors, about six of them, had assembled around the beast. They were beating each other senseless right there against the beast’s flank, as it tried and failed to scramble further up the wall. Somehow my father managed to escape the pile and scramble up the beast’s back. Dangling from its neck, he plunged his fingers deep into the creature’s eye socket. It unleashed an ear-shattering shriek, then collapsed to the ground, writhing violently. My father held his hand in the air, triumphantly clasping his trophy. The other competitors bore a look of defeat similar to that of the beast’s. Around me the crowd had all but lost their minds. I just sat there petrified, staring at the poor beast crying against the wall.

            Last year’s champion reentered the pit, and exchanged smiles and the axe with my father. The beast had settled down, and now lay outstretched across the arena floor. It was anxiously awaiting its destiny. My father only needed two strikes to decapitate it, and then the Festival of Cleansing was over. There would be a parade afterwards, in which my father would be carried by the surviving competitors (those who could walk and carry a man, at least) up the hill to the House of Champions. I didn’t stick around for it though. My career as a medic was to begin immediately following the festival, and even though I was technically exempt from work for the next year, I couldn’t stomach the notion of meeting with my father just yet. The other medics and I (there were about thirty of us) swiftly flooded the arena, hoisting the beast’s body above our heads and rushing it to the medical facility before the parade could be organized. The fallen competitors would be tended to after the parade: the beast was priority.

            Not only was the festival the most important day for our history, but also for our medicine. The beast was only allowed to be killed once per year, so he’d be the right size come Cleansing time. Thus, he was only reborn once every year. It was widely agreed upon among us doctors that somehow the rebirthing process held the key to immortality. We were in such a hurry to get to the facility that no one questioned my presence. Once we arrived we laid the body out on the floor. The head immortality seeker and two of his most experienced colleagues immediately began cutting open the beast’s belly, and I gathered from the murmurs around me that this was not usual procedure, that usually they waited until after the rebirth to examine the new and old bodies side by side. When its insides had been exposed, the scene going on in its stomach left us all in awe. The beast’s blood was floating and transforming, restructuring itself into bones and tissues and organs, then eventually scales. When the new body was completely reformed, the beast opened its eyes, and a hot bright light exploded from it, tossing me and my colleagues against the wall. When we recovered from the initial panic, we arose to see the baby beast sitting on the floor, mouth agape and tongue flailing about carelessly. Its tail was wagging, and if I didn’t know better I’d of thought it was smiling: happy to be safe for another year, I suppose. Before I could react the other seekers were already binding the creature and tying it to a leash. Soon afterwards the injured competitors were brought before us and we set about suturing their wounds and applying herbal medicines. By the time I got home my father was already asleep. The Cleansing took a lot out of any person, much less the Champion.

           

The next morning I’d planned on being gone by the time my father was awake, but his voice caught me just as I was stepping out of the front door.

            “You’re not even going to congratulate your old man, eh?” He looked worse than I’d ever recalled him looking before. I could see where he’d been scratched and bit and beaten. “Where are you off to anyways?”

            “Dad, sorry,” I stammered. “I was on my way to work. I didn’t want to wake you.”

            “Work?” He laughed. “Boy, didn’t you watch me win last night? We ain’t gotta work. We ain’t gotta trade. We just have to take what we want and enjoy my being Champion.”

            “I’m grateful, dad, I really am. Don’t think I’m not grateful. But I’m excited to go to work. The other medics seem to think we’re on to something big after last night, and it’s not like our work is hunting or anything like that.”

            “You got a problem with hunters?”

            “Of course not dad. You know I didn’t mean it like that. Every job is important. But we could really be on the brink of reclaiming our immortality and—“

            “—And so you can’t appreciate the risks I took last night out there? Even after your mom died trying to become Champion?”

            I lost it. “What’s the fucking point of any of it, anyways? What did mom die for? What did you kill those people for? So we could live inside of a skeleton and eat other people’s hard work for a year? Is that the most a human life can hope to amount to?” I was shouting by the last question, and he started shouting back.

            “What do you know, boy? It’s about being the bravest and best of our people, it’s about remem—“

            “Remembering how evil the beast is? I didn’t see that beast even try and fight back. It’s not about being brave, it’s about being greedy. The only evil I saw in that pit was in the way our people treated each other. I bet it wasn’t the beast that killed Mom. I half a mind to believe that we’ve been trying to steal immortality from the beast all along, that it was never ours in the first place. Nothing as disgusting as what I witnessed last night deserves eternal life.” At this my father hurled a nearby bowl at me, but I was already out the front door. I heard it thud against the bones behind me.

            I thought a lot about what I said on the way down the hill to work that day. Surely I didn’t believe any of it. Of the course the beast was evil. I was just sensitive from my first taste of the violence that naturally accompanied the festival. It was necessary, I tried telling myself. The beast breathed this evil into us, and the festival was our chance to let it out—our chance to pay the beast back for bringing death into our lives. It was the beast’s fault my mom was dead. It was necessary. It was necessary. It was necessary. I almost had myself convinced, too, before I got to work.

            I was the first one to the facility, seeing as I had the shortest ways to walk, and when I got there the little beast (little being a relative term, though it was almost as big as me) flipped up on its legs, grinning with the same dumb look on its face as the day before, tail wagging furiously. I noticed it had shaken off its muzzle in the night. Very cautiously, I picked up the bindings and approached the creature. When I reached over its head to tie the topes, it opened its mouth wide and revealed three rows of jagged teeth on either jaw. I closed my eyes and flinched, then felt something sticky on my hand. The thing had gone and licked me! We stared at one another for a moment, and then the thing jumped up and licked me again. I couldn’t help but laugh. I wanted to hate it, to believe it was evil, but how could I? It could’ve easily taken my arm off, but instead it merely licked me and kept wagging its tail and flopping around its stupid tongue. I remember thinking it was kind of cute.

            I apologized to my father, and he said he forgave me, but after our fight he mostly avoided me. He barely left his room, in fact, and most days he just slept and ate. So, for the next year I spent as much time as possible at the medical facility.  I was the first to enter and the last to leave, and whenever I was alone with the beast I would take off its ropes. I would stroke its scales sometimes, or throw a stick around the cave and let him bring it back to me. Sometimes I would just sit and talk to it, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t nod along like it understood me. It could’ve killed me at any time, but it didn’t. The worst I got was a slimy tongue.

            The experiments themselves were rather brutal, and often involved drawing blood from the beast since we had seen the rebirthing process live. At first we tried to regenerate wounded squirrels or hogs by force feeding them the blood. Then we tried to apply the blood to wounds directly, but nothing seemed to work. The beast, on the other hand, healed his own wounds overnight. One night, after a particularly severe surgery on the beast’s stomach, I was sitting next to it stroking its scales, and venting about our lack of progress. Out of nowhere, it leaned over and sunk its teeth deep into my arm. I let out a scream and froze in fear. The beast proceeded to bite one of its own arms, and lifted it above my head. When I looked up a drop fell into my eye. It burned like lightning, and I wailed in agony. My whole body felt hot. I tried standing up, but collapsed and fainted. When I awoke my arm had healed itself.

            The next day I persuaded the head medic to let me drop blood in the eye of a squirrel whose arm we had removed. The next day it had grown back completely, and we tried it again with a hog, then finally a deer. One of our scientists even cut his own hand off—anything in the name of discovery. It too grew back by the following morning.

            We started using beast blood to cure anything and everything. At first it felt incredible: we truly were on the brink of claiming immortality for ourselves. However, I noticed the beast suffered immense pain every time we drew blood. Even more curiously, it seemed to be hurt more drastically whenever the blood was actually used, as if its own life-force were being stolen and used to mend ours. When the night before the festival finally arrived, the beast looked as defeated as ever. It seemed to be more than just its awareness of the upcoming events, however. It looked physically ill, and I wondered what cost our immortality would have on the beast. I didn’t think any human was worth this creature’s life. I had grown to love it. Plain and simple. The beast had grown on me more than it had grown in size the past year. That night, while petting its scales, it raised its face and looked me in the eyes. It was crying. That made me cry.

 

The following night the crowd was as lively as ever for the Festival of Cleansing. My father led the beast to Coliseum, looking more vigorous and triumphant than he had at any point since the previous year’s festival. He was wearing the old beast’s eye around his neck. I felt guilty for a moment, questioning my intentions, but quickly shook the feeling. This was bigger than either one of us. When I entered the pit after him, his expression was one of astonishment, but brusquely subsided to one of pride in his son. He is going to hate me, I thought. So be it.

            When the ceremony started I didn’t budge, instead letting the rest of the contestants rush one another. I had never been so overwhelmed by fear in my life, not even when the beast had bit me. The other contestants comprised of mostly hunters, and the largest ones at that. They were the strongest, most well-built men on the island, and their eyes carried the weight of murder; they had killed men before. I had not. The beast was simply cowering against the wall, same as last year, until it caught sight of me. We sprinted along the wall towards one another, and I clambered upon its back and brandished a knife I’d been concealing in my pants. The crowd collectively gasped, but I was undeterred. In a couple strokes I had freed my friend’s wings. Just as the rest of the contestants collapsed on us, I managed to free its mouth. It let out a terrible howl, and everyone stopped in their tracks. It started to flap its ferocious wings, and I was knocked from its back.

            As it took flight, the entire Coliseum fled in terror. Everyone ran, except my father, who I noticed staring at the spectacle with as much petrification as I had experienced during the previous festival. Suddenly, the beast flew at him with blinding speed, pinning him to a row of seats by his arms. I had made a terrible mistake, and now it would cost my father his life. The beast opened its ferocious jaws, lowered its mighty head to my father’s face, and gave him the slimiest lick I’d ever seen. Then it turned and looked at me for and ephemeral second, nodded, and took off over the forests and out to sea. I ran out of the Coliseum to try and follow it, to watch as it crossed over the horizon, but there was a crowd waiting for me outside the entrance.

            “Traitor!” Someone yelled. “You’ve damned us all!” cried another, followed by “Get him!” and “Let’s pluck out his eye instead!” In seconds they descended upon me, clawing and kicking and biting me. A few of them actually managed to tear out my eyes. I knew I had made the right choice.

            “Stop!” my father cried out, “Stop this madness at once!” I felt the crowd being pulled off of me, followed by my father’s embrace. The noise of the crowd and my father faded away, as if coming from the end of some distant tunnel. I swore I could hear my mother’s singing.