His even foot falls echoed in the cold hallway outside my room. My throat tightened, and I ran my hand over the flawless, white cotton cloth I wore. I didn’t mean to dirty the other gown. I only wanted to breathe air that smelled of flowers and damp earth.
Before light, I had slipped out of the stone structure that confined me for the past year. I kept the skirt of my gown high so it wouldn’t brush the grass that tickled my ankles and sprinkled them with dew. I hadn’t felt grass since last spring when I turned thirteen. It might soil me, and a Vessel must be spotless. If the gods were going to use me as a way to cleans the sins of an entire village, I must be pure.
I walked toward the dirt road that lay a few yards away, but stopped once I reached it. Following it home would do no good. My family would be horrified that I’d shamed them by abandoning the most honored position in the village. Besides, I didn’t want to find out what kind of cleansing process I’d have to go through after walking in so much dirt, even if it only touched the bottom of my shoes.
I turned away from the path to go inside before anyone woke. Bright yellow flecks lit the grass. It was a small patch of buttercups—nothing like the fields. I remembered walking barefoot among the tiny flowers and making them into rings to decorate my head and wrists while father looked after the sheep. I plucked one of the flowers and held it in the palm of my hand. I couldn’t keep it, but feeling its light petals against my skin made life right again.
I dropped it. He was standing in the doorway.
In a cool, controlled movement, the Guardian of the Vessel turned partially and swept his hand in a welcoming gesture. I shuttered. The blank look that masked his face made me more nervous than any look of anger. I dropped my gaze and hurried forward. I tripped on the hem of my gown. I’d dropped it along with the buttercup. When I stood, there was a smudge of brown marring the cloth.
My handmaid performed the cleansing ritual, making sure I soaked in the bath for the proper amount of time and recited the words of cleansing the correct number of times. I was given a fresh white gown. The old one was burned.
Now I sat in my room, waiting for the Guardian to come and tell me my punishment. The last time something soiled my gown, I wasn’t allowed to eat for the day to clean my insides as well. It may be days before I would be allowed to eat this time.
The Guardian walked in holding a club. He shut the door and stood beside it, staring at me. My chair creaked as I shifted.
“What do shepherds do to a wandering sheep?” He stroked the club.
My insides began to quiver.
He took slow steps forward until he was in front of me.
“They break the leg and carry the sheep across their shoulders so the sheep will learn to stay where it’s supposed to.”
Wetness trailed down my face.
His lips formed a smile. “You have no need to look for flowers outside. You are one.”
His fingertip brushed a drop from my face. He looked at his wet finger.
“But showers must fall before a flower will bloom.”
I closed my eyes.
The blow sent twinkling buttercups dancing behind my eyelids.