Early on the morning of the 18th David Simiyu opened up La Bel for its first customers of the day – an elderly couple who owned a bookshop next door. The man was well into his sixties, his wife just a smidge younger, but they both looked as youthful as ever. They had an energy about them. And a secret.
“David, how are you today?” The woman asked.
“Fine Mrs. K. But not as fine as you,” David said.
The woman blushed and said, “Naughty boy. I’m a married woman.”
“Mr. K doesn’t mind,” David said. “Do you?”
“As long as I get my doughnuts,” the man said.
“See?” David winked at the blushing woman. He ran up their order and handed Mr. K a box of fresh doughnuts.
“Extra sugar?” he asked.
“Always,” David replied. “It’s a little on the scarce side today but there’ll be more from tomorrow.”
“Is it the 18th already,” Mrs. K asked.
“Indeed it is.”
“Time flies,” Mrs. K said. “We might not stop by tonight, David. We’d made some other plans.”
David smiled at her and said, “Without me? I am hurt.” Mrs. K blushed again. Mr. K rolled his eyes. “No problem guys. You might want to inform Frank though.”
“We were hoping you would tell him,” Mr. K said.
David shook his head a little too aggressively, “No, no, no, no. You know how he is.”
The old man nodded. He looked up at the rafters for a minute before he said, “We’ll talk to him.”
David lit up, “Splendid! Now you have a nice day, Mr. K.” To the man’s wife he lowered his voice and said, “And you, Mrs. K, have a mighty fine day.”
She blushed once more and said, “Stop it.”
He watched the pair leave and his thoughts went to Mrs. K. He bit the inside of his lower lip as he fantasized about the woman’s caramel skin and buxom body. The things I would do to her if I got the chance, he thought. His body started responding to his wayward thoughts. His wayward thoughts led him into his memories.
On the day David Simiyu turned 16, his father and mother threw a party. As with any of his other birthday parties, David expected he would invite his friends over but his father was against that idea. “This party is special,” Frank said. “It’s not every day you become a man.”
“But Dad,” David said, puzzled, “I was circumcised three years ago.”
“This is different. You’ll see,” Frank said.
David’s mother stood by in silence. There were tears in her eyes. “What’s wrong, mother?” He asked.
She shook her head and said, “It’s happening too soon. You’re growing up too fast.”
David smiled, “I can’t help it,” he said.
“I know, son.” His mother said. “I know.”
On that day, Frank did not let David out of his sight. He took him out for lunch where he ordered him steak, brown ugali and local greens. “A man’s meal,” he said. David could have settled for a burger and fries but his dad looked so proud so he didn’t say anything. Next they caught a movie at a nearby movie theatre. Rated R. This one David wasn’t disappointed about.
When they got home, Frank told David to go take a shower. They were going out for the night as a family. David found his clothes already laid out on his bed along with deodorant and a bottle of cologne he’d never seen before. A gift from his mother, perhaps. He got cleaned up and dressed and the three of them drove to the restaurant his father owned. David couldn’t recall the last time he had actually had a meal there. For some reason, all memories of the place seemed fuzzy like walking through a thick mist. He could remember the booths and the large windows but not much of anything else. Odd.
Odder still, was that the place was closed for the day. The lights were off and the doors were locked. Frank parked in the back of the building and he ushered his family through the service doors. “What are we doing here, dad?” David asked.
Frank and his wife were silent. He led them into the basement and into the storage locker, where David discovered was a hidden door. Through the door, down the stairwell, he heard the sounds of reveling. He couldn’t hear that before. Soundproofed, he thought. There was music and singing and loud raucous laughter. When they went down the stairs, David’s heart raced. He saw a large room lit by fires on the wall sconces. It was set like a church but the aisle was too wide and a large round tub sat in the middle of the room. The tub was full of water.
David scanned the faces of the people around him. Again, he was puzzled that he could see them but could not place them anywhere. Their faces were blurred. Obscured by an invisible shield-like frosted glass. From what he gathered, there were ten of them, all dressed in the same kind of robe, all holding up a glass of something golden. They raised a shout when they saw him. David blushed despite himself.
“Friends,” Frank said. “We have come to celebrate my son. The day he becomes a man!” The gathering shouted, raising their glasses. “Has the tribute been chosen?”
The people shouted, “Yes!”
“Man or woman?” Frank said.
“Woman,” a solitary voice said. The figure stepped into David’s line of sight. He still couldn’t make out her face but her body radiated a tangible heat. Frank appraised the woman and said, “Approved!”
The people hooted and hollered. Frank signaled for them to settle down. He motioned for someone to bring a glass of the golden liquid. He handed it to David and said, “Drink it all.” David did as his father said. As the liquid went down, he felt warmth fill his body. He felt his mind clear up and could suddenly see the faces of the people around him. David was scared and wanted to run but he was also relaxed. So relaxed. And hot. His clothes felt too hot against his skin.
Frank produced something from his jacket pocket. It looked to David like a dried leaf roughly the size of a thumb. Looking closer he saw that it wasn’t actually a leaf but a piece of skin. Dark and leathery. Frank raised it above his head, “Three years refined,” he said.
“Praise be!” the people said.
David fidgeted in his now too hot clothes. Frank went to the front of the room and started a flame on the altar. He placed the piece of skin into the flames and everyone’s eyes were transfixed on the fire. When it died down, Frank scooped up the ash and said, “There is no greater sacrifice than that of a son. I now share with you his flesh.” He blew the ash into the air and the people clamored to have it touch them. “Tribute, come.”
The woman who had spoken up before went before Frank. He touched her face with the remainder of the ash and whispered something to her that David couldn’t hear.
“It is time,” Frank said.
The woman bowed and walked toward a now sweating David. He saw her face clearly now. “Mrs K?” he said.
She smiled. She kissed him full on the lips and the crowd shouted and suddenly David was naked in the tub with Mrs. K writhing under him, sharing his heat and when he was done the people shouted, “Praise be!” and jumped into the water.
David jumped out of his reverie when new customers arrived. He welcomed them with a smile.
At 8 pm, La Bel closed its doors to the public. In the thirty minutes following, the staff cleaned and tidied up. A few went home but most stayed. At 8:45 pm, cars that were parked in front of the building, seemingly abandoned, let out their owners. Most of them were young (and young-looking like Mr. and Mrs. K), rich and hungry. Patrick led them into the back entrance, through the meat locker, and down the stairs into Temple. They stood by the metal lockers and disrobed, each into his and her own birthday suit, before putting on the blood-red robes provided. Patrick and five others ushered them into their seats. It was a full house today, all 36 places were occupied. At the front, right at the altar, David sat to the left of his father, his aunt, Eunice, sat to Frank’s right.
Frank stood and gave a reading from one of his books. “Friends, today we celebrate with a holy feast. As we partake of flesh and blood, let prosperity be ours!”
“Riches! Honor! Life!” Frank continued.
He motioned for David and Eunice to join him. David removed the shroud from the body on the altar. The man’s eyes were open and full of fear but his body was paralyzed and he could not speak. Frank produced a dagger from his robe. David put his palm on the man’s head, “It will be over soon,” he said to him and Frank sliced into his neck.
When the life was gone from him, Frank cut the body lengthwise from the neck to the genitals, splitting the body into symmetrical halves, the blood flowed freely from the altar to the canals. The people closest to the flow scooped up some of it and smeared it on their faces. Frank did the same as did Eunice but David did not. Next, the fire was lit. The body burned and released its fragrance around the room. The people let out a shout. Music started playing and everyone apart from the three on the altar danced.
And they ate of the meat and drank of the canal and when each one was full, they paired up. David found Mrs. K and indulged in his fantasies of her. She received him with pleasure and as they rode their ecstasy train, he looked around at the orgy around them. He felt the people’s joy and satiety. He saw his father looking down on the scene from his spot on the altar. His glasses reflected the red and orange light from the flames. The remainder of what used to be a man called Leon turned to ash, his remaining bones would be crushed and pulverized as well. Behind his father, David saw a shadow that he had seen only once before. A massive black mass with the head and horns of a bull. He wasn’t sure how he knew it but the shadow was smiling, and Mrs. K was smiling and they were all smiling as the ash rained down on them.
Later that night, after they had cleaned themselves in the tub, the parishioners left. Each carried with him or her a small jar of ash – a reminder of what they had participated in and of course, if a person was so inclined, a potion that could work on virtually anyone. Some used it on themselves mostly by putting it in their food or drink for youth and health. Like extra sugar. Other more nefarious people used it on others to influence decisions. David picked up a jar for his mother. He would give it to her the next day. And on that day, he would meet Molly, his future wife.