CONCRETE BURNED HER FEET.
Athens engulfed Ariadne in its cacophony of motors, shrieking brakes, blaring horns, clattering footsteps, voices shouting arguing laughing questioning. Hands pointed, lifted, scratched, flicked rattling worry beads. Heat shimmered from sidewalks and streets, sun-glared windows, brick and cement and stone buildings. Walls closed in, hot air choking with fumes. Far above the street, a strip of dirty yellow sky.
The black serpent squeezed her inside, twisting her spine off-center. Her vision was narrowed to glimpses at the end of a dark tunnel. Groping, she stumbled against someone she didn’t see, heard a distant cursing, was shoved to one side, saw an alley opening. She fled down it from the noise and harsh light.
Her feet carried her through a maze of alleys and cobbled lanes. Groping from one curb to the next, she whirled from the blare of a horn, fell against a vendor’s cart, was chased into shadows by sounds of breaking glass and a furious scream. A dog barked, and she ran into the blinding sunlight again to be caught in a tangle of draped fabrics. More cursing. She flailed desperately through, coughing in the foul air.
She kept doggedly on, knowing she had to find it. Trust. Mother’s trust. She didn’t know what it was, or where to find it. But it had to be here, in Athens.
Another twist of an alley brought her out again into the glare of sunlight. Wincing, she caught glimpses, shapes and colors that had only nebulous, nearly-forgotten meanings—an open square of paving stones, women with baskets, vendor stalls, a dirty red and white striped awning and a sign advertising beer, two chipped enamelled chairs. Against one wall in a strip of shade, a bundle of dirty rags and two sticks.
Ariadne pulled herself numbly past. The bundle shifted. A small head in a scarf lifted a grime-streaked face.
The little girl’s pinched face was empty of expression. Then a patched-on smile appeared, and she raised a bowl with a coin in it. “Please, Despoina?” She pulled the rags up to disclose withered legs, calves barely thicker than the crutch sticks beside her.
The choking coils tightened around Ariadne. She stared into the girl’s dark eyes. She dropped to her knees, sucked into those shadows as she grasped the deformed legs. A frightened cry, then only the ringing in her ears as she whirled down the black tunnel.
Pain inside there. Hopelessness ringing off the walls, a black greedy presence opening up to suck it in. Ariadne is the darkness. She is the immensity devouring warped vibrations of stunted flesh and bone, oscillating with their tremor, swelling larger.
Ariadne gasped as the pain wracked her. Burning fingers wrenched her own legs and squeezed, twisting them until she screamed. But the blackness fed on her cries and her pain, feeding her as the coils of the dark serpent writhed in sparks. Electric jolts pulsed from her hands, igniting dormant cells into a madly proliferating dance.
Somewhere far away, a scream of terror and agony. Futile writhing. The crack of splitting and realigning bone.
The flesh beneath her hands swelled and firmed as the shower of sparks danced through her and the hot energy pulsed. In a final burst of backsurging, opposing charges, Ariadne was flung onto the cobbles in the sun. Fire blossomed up her spine, flooding her with a heaviness of release, exhaustion and gratification. She groaned, squirming like a reptile in the dust.
Angry shouts. Cries of alarm.
People were running over the cobblestones. A man gripped a walking stick as if to strike, staring from Ariadne to the girl slumped against the wall.
The girl was gasping, sobbing for breath as tears tracked her dirty face. In the babble of voices, she pulled herself upright, staring at her legs stretched out before her. They were still thin, but the crooked calves had straightened, and there was a normal contour of muscle swelling around them.
“Sacred Mother of God!”
“Do you see, a miracle—”
“Just look at her! Where did she come from?”
Ariadne wanted to crawl, roll her belly over the warm stones, wallow in her lassitude on the sunbaked dirt. From somewhere she summoned the will to pull herself to her feet and stagger away from the frightened eyes and pointing fingers. As she reeled for balance, clawing her snarled hair out of her face, the onlookers shrank back.
Hands made the sign of the cross. A woman spat against the evil eye.
A last glimpse of the girl, staring down in disbelief as two women helped her to her feet and her legs quivered like a new-birthed lamb’s, but held. The heavy, sluggish beat was driving Ariadne on, and she staggered at random into another shadowed alley.
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