Tradition | Teen Ink


January 25, 2022
By nazgul, Coronado, California
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nazgul, Coronado, California
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Author's note:

I am the author of two books which are available worldwide, and a high school senior. I enjoy dancing and painting, and I love writing stories that challenge readers to reevaluate their own morals. 

The author's comments:

Beware of major violence in this story. 

“Two’s too good,” said Adam the baker, chomping on the end of a lettuce leaf. “I’d say four or five’d be better.”

“Nah,” said John the shoemaker, “three’s a good number.”

“Three?” asked Lily the seamstress. “Go on to six or seven.”

“Six or seven?” said Esmerelda the candlemaker. “You want to kill the bonny lad? Might as well go the full twelve.”

The four artisans stood together in the street, pressing their palms to the dirty, cracked glass of a darkeel tank. Around them, the town buzzed with anticipation. Carts shuddered through the muddied grass. Children ran wild and naked across the wide concrete plaza, where hawkers shouted prices and flower-girls scrabbled over loose change. The towering purple guardsmen lurked on street corners with their guns held high. Their silver muzzles flashed in the weakening sunlight. The strap buckles shone in their dark cropped hair, promising perfect silence in the dusk. 

“Well, if the darkeels don’t kill him, I know who will,” Adam chuckled. 

“Obviously me,” Lily said, showing her teeth. They were yellowed and sharp from the cold. “I’m going to rip him apart.” 

“Yeah, you, tiger,” Adam said, ruffling her hair. His other hand twitched over the knife in his belt. Adam was a tall man, sunburnt and calloused from the ovens. He always wore a newsboy cap with a flower stuck in the band. He was kind, but coarse in manner. 

John kept watch with careful eyes; he was technically in charge of the darkeel tank. Every year, the town showcase required elaborate setups, and John—steady-handed and loyal to tradition—made it happen. This year, it was darkeels. John was a shoemaker, not a darkeel-carer, but money was money and rent was rent and the whole thing was no shadier than anything else he had done. Shoemaking was a surprisingly criminal business. 

“Twelve darkeels,” Esmerelda decided. “That’s a solid, round number.” Esmerelda herself was solid and round, a woman of fifty-two years. She held a great love for candlemaking and often sold elaborate wax statues with wicks stuck haphazardly throughout. Possessing an iron will, Esmerelda was stoic in the face of disruption. She hated adventure of any kind. 

“Seven,” Lily insisted. “It’s downright Biblical.” Lily was a pious girl, nineteen and maidenly. Her fine gold hair floated around her face, encircling her head like a celestial halo. 

“Twelve,” snapped Esmerelda. “It ain’t Biblical, but it’s right.” She stepped aside as a bike whizzed by. “Come on now, when is this thing starting?”

“Soon,” John reassured her. “We have to wait for the signal.”

Around the plaza, a few scattered guardsmen stood with their guns, stiff in the face of the rowdy townspeople. Business owners were starting to come out of their shops and stare. In the center of the plaza, the four artisans crowded closer to the tank, trying to hide its slippery contents from curious eyes. Unfortunately, the tank was bolted to the center concrete panel. Grey, repugnant water splashed the ground as four pairs of hands tried to keep the restless animals inside the lidless tank. With a thwack, one darkeel smacked the glass with its thick tail, causing the glass to crack even further. 

Esmerelda twisted her mouth in displeasure. “Signal better come soon. I’ve got soup on the stove.” 

Adam fixed her with a look of disbelief. “We’re about to kill a boy with darkeels and you left your dinner on the stove?” He fiddled with the flower in his cap. Today, it was a limp red poppy. 

“I wanted a piece for the stew,” Esmerelda defended herself. “Might as well have kept it boiling.” She pouted defiantly at Adam, who rolled his eyes in return. 

“I want a piece too,” Lily said, hands on her hips. “I want the ribs.”

John turned away from the tank to check on the guardsmen. “No one’s getting any pieces,” he said diplomatically. “The boy’s body is going up in the plaza. A good reminder for those who disobey.” He glared pointedly at Lily. “You can have the bones when they fall down from the meat.” He rearranged the beads on his wrist, a yellow-and-black bracelet that Lily had given him once. It was supposed to be his name, but since Lily couldn’t spell, the bracelet read J-O-N-N. 

“Johnnie, c’mon,” Adam drawled. “Don’t be a politician. The people have to eat. Why not give her a rib or two?” He leaned casually against the glass tank. 

“If I give her a rib,” John explained, “I have to give Esmerelda a hip. Then you’ll want an arm, and then the whole town will come running and we’ll have nothing left for the showcase.” He shoved a darkeel tail back into the water. 

“The showcase is boring,” Adam said. “Ooh, thirty years ago this woman was hung. Ooh, fifty years ago this man was drowned. Nobody cares anymore.” 

“The government cares,” John countered firmly. “Showcasing the bodies of disobeyers is an old tradition, and it don’t stop just because the people get hungry.”

Adam was about to reply, but a siren blasted through the plaza. Immediately, parents gathered their children and shopkeepers disappeared into shops. The guardsmen, muzzled and armed, stood at attention. 

Splattering mud, a wooden platform rolled into the plaza off the main street, stopping at the center next to the tank. Two guardsmen jumped off the engine where they’d been pumping the string and hoisted down a heavy wire cage with the help of the other guardsmen in the plaza, who had marched over to assist. In the cage, a boy cowered and sobbed. 

He was only about eighteen years, younger than Lily. Esmerelda held a sympathetic hand to her heart, even as her hawk-sharp eyes flitted over his body, calculating his weight and what she might get at the market for his limbs.

“Isn’t he a wee thing?” she whispered loudly to John. “One-thirty at the most, not even worth a cow and a chicken.” 

Hearing her, the boy swiveled around in his cage with large-blown eyes. Fear swirled within them. The artisans watched him shake, bitter hunger twisting their stomachs. Across the plaza, townspeople stared through open windows, surprised at the muscle mass on the boy. He looked wiry, but the people knew it was an illusion. They started to whisper to each other. The whispers evolved into vehement debating in the shops. The guardsmen lifted wood planks off the rolling platform and began to build their creation. The townspeople made eye contact across the plaza with the artisans and other shopkeepers. 

The boy breathed harshly. Every puff of his lungs made the townsfolk gasp in tune. They imagined the heavenly scent of stew, fat dripping off the ladle and thick muscle fibres getting stuck in their teeth. As the guardsmen prepared the executioners’ pool, the people silently agreed that this year’s showcase would be empty. 

Bang! A guardsman hammered the final nail into the poolside. They had created a rough square bathtub from watertight oak, big enough for the boy to stretch out in. It was in this tub that he would be strangled by the heavy darkeels—that is, if their sharp teeth didn’t rip him to shreds first. 

“No,” the boy cried out, shrinking into the far corner of the wire cage. 

The guardsmen got to work unlocking the mass of chains and bolts that were blocking the cage door. The boy sobbed in anguish. 

John looked over at Esmerelda, who was watching him ravenously. “No pieces,” he warned her quietly. 

“Suit yourself,” she replied, still watching the boy. “I don’t think you can stop me.” 

John looked at Lily, who was baring her teeth, and Adam, who was tracing the handle of his knife. Across the plaza, townsfolk glared with empty stomachs. Feet tensed against concrete. Fingers twitched over knives, glass bottles, plates. John wouldn’t be able to stop any of them. 

Slowly he turned to the boy. The guardsmen were unlocking the last chains. As a pulsing mass, the townsfolk stepped closer. The artisans were on the tips of their toes. 

Silently, John apologised to the government, feeling his heart swoop dangerously. The bitter twist of hunger shook him too; shoemaking could not keep bread on the table, and there was only so much of Esmerelda’s watery leaf stew a man could eat. John took out his knife, clutching it determinedly. Adam caught his eye and winked, flashing his own knife. 

The last chain fell away and the town was quiet, hearts in their throats, stretching out the seconds like clothes on a line. The guardsmen opened the door. 

With a shout, the boy unfurled and darted forward, ripping away from the guardsmen as they grabbed at empty air, stumbling over the concrete. He sprinted up the muddy street, weaving between abandoned bikes and carts. Disappearing around the corner, the boy had fled with all the swiftness of a rabbit. 

John was the first to snap out of his shock. “Cut him off at the main street!” he hollered, taking off after the boy. 

The townsfolk answered with a roar and poured out of their shops, a river of keen hungry eyes and improvised weaponry. The sunset beamed red on a sea of stomping feet, gnashing teeth. As they surged through the mud, the boy was getting farther away. Desperation pushed the crowd forward. 

John skidded around the corner, righting himself in a second and crouching down behind a cart. Catching his breath, he surveyed the pavement. The townspeople thundered behind him; they hadn’t yet reached this section of the streets. John looked around. There was nothing but a guardsman’s silver muzzle, abandoned and filthy in the dirt. 

John looked closer. The muzzle’s straps were buckled, as if someone had taken it off their face in a huff. It seemed out of place. The guardsmen were government-controlled; disobeying the slightest wishes—even removing parts of their uniform—was suicide. 

A small thump made John raise his knife protectively. From behind the cart, he could only see the shadowed doorway of a nearby shop. Someone’s legs were barely visible inside the muddied hut. Deep purple skin dripped blood. The red shoes gave it away—it was a guardsman, unconscious or dead, stuffed into a tiny shop door. 

John crept closer, leaving the cart behind. The little thumps continued. He pressed himself against the door, then got brave and stuck his head inside the hut. In the gloomy corner, the boy stood over another guardsman, slamming his limp head into the wall. 


The boy snatched the gun out of the guardsman’s holster and pivoted, centering John in one quick motion. “What?”

John raised his hands, dropping his knife. “I’m not going to hurt you…” 

“No,” said the boy, chest heaving, “you’re not.” He stepped closer. 

From outside, the cries of the townsfolk grew louder. John could feel their pounding feet through the shop’s floor. 

“The town’s almost here,” he said to the boy. “If you shoot me, they’ll make your death much more painful.” 

The boy clicked off the safety. “Want to bet?”

It was too late; the townsfolk had reached the shop. The crowded parade swirled to a stop outside the door, freezing when they saw the gun. Esmerelda stood at the front of the mob, holding Lily’s hand. Lily looked on curiously. Next to her, Adam tucked his knife into his belt, ready to de-escalate the situation. 

In the hut, the boy stepped even closer. “Outside,” he said quietly, nudging the barrel of the gun into John’s shoulder. 

John went without argument, keeping his hands up. Don’t try it, he mouthed at Adam. Adam nodded and moved backward, putting himself in front of Esmerelda and Lily. 

“This is your leader?” the boy asked the mob, still in that frightfully quiet voice. 

Several of the people nodded. It wasn’t entirely true, but John sensed that the townsfolk would agree with anything. 

“You’re all hungry,” the boy stated. “I understand. I too have felt the sting of hunger.” The mob stayed silent. “You were going to kill me,” the boy said suddenly. “You were going to put me in a tub of darkeels, and eat my dead body.” He shook his head in wonder. 

The townsfolk looked nervously at one another, then back to the boy. 

“Can you blame us?” Adam spoke up. “You’re a disobeyer, and we’re starving.”

The boy laughed in disbelief. “Do you people even know what I did? Do you know what your government demands? Or do you listen senselessly to anything these foolish guardsmen tell you? To whatever this stupid man says?” He pushed the barrel of the gun into John’s temple. 

“What did you do, then?” John asked. 

The boy smiled a watery smile. “I just wanted to feed my family,” he said helplessly. “Just like the rest of you, we were hungry. So I stole a loaf of bread.” 

The mob murmured and shifted, their anger wafting away in the breeze. John felt a stab of empathy, but the gun dug into his head and the blood of the guardsmen smelled bright and crimson on the walls. 

“A loaf of bread,” John chuckled. “Bread.” 

The boy narrowed his eyes. The mob looked between them, faces struggling to hide their emotion. John could feel the tension dissipate above the crowd. 

“He’s just hungry,” Adam said. “So are we.” 

Lily stepped out from behind Adam. “We should eat the guardsmen,” she said. “You”—she pointed at the boy—“can be part of our town, if you want.” 

Esmerelda yanked Lily back. “No. I want a piece.” 

“Take a piece of him,” the boy said, shoving John forward. “He’s the one in charge of this whole thing, ain’t he?”

The mob went deathly still. Muttering to one another, they seemed to debate. 

Adam turned to John. “He didn’t want us to take any pieces at all,” he said slowly. 

“He wanted the government to have their precious showcase,” Esmerelda added. “He’s so full of tradition. So loyal to all that government bull.” 

John tried to stay calm. “I changed my mind, though,” he said, willing away the quaver in his voice. “I chased after the kid, just like everyone else.”

The mob began to press closer. 

“You’ve been in charge of every showcase,” someone shouted. 

“Maybe he wants us to starve!” another person called out. 

More indignant cries flooded the crowd. John’s heart beat wildly. He had underestimated the town’s loyalty to tradition. To him. 

Esmerelda fixed John with an unrecognizable look, eyes filled with a strange light. “A piece for the stew,” she breathed. It was so quiet that it seemed only for herself. 

In the eerie red sunset, the townsfolk circled John like prey. The artisans, at the front of the mob, exchanged a glance. The boy loosened his hold. 

“I want the ribs,” Lily hissed, lips curling back over her yellowed teeth. 

John ripped out of the boy’s grasp and leapt over the concrete, dashing back towards the plaza. Emboldened and bloodthirsty, the mob stampeded after him. Knives flashed in the gloom. Jaws snapped with excitement. 

John raced past the shops. His body felt feverish with adrenaline and desperation. The darkeels writhed in their tank at the center of the plaza. They gnawed on the glass, black and glistening, satiny skins rolling over each other in trapped harmony. John stopped and looked at them. Their sleek, wriggling mass seemed to mock him: hungry, hungry, hungry. 

The mob swarmed into the plaza, surrounding John and the darkeel tank. The boy led the charge without hesitation, tackling John to the ground. Hazy and wispy, the sunset had faded into the night. Stars began to shine over the town in glamorous indifference. 

John cried out as his head slammed into the concrete below, kicking at the boy’s strong hands. Brilliant red sparks clouded his vision. The mob dove in; mad with want, carnivorous with need, the townsfolk wrestled with each other to get closer to John. Through the sudden ringing in his ears, he could hear the darkeels thrashing. They are hungry for me, he thought. I am hungry too. 

John’s heart rose up and pushed him to his feet, bloodied and vibrating with anger. All external thought melted away. His pulse thudded steadily in his head, a constant thrum. John snatched the boy’s wrist, and another person’s elbow, and with his foot viciously kicked someone else in the knees. He whirled with a roar and shoved through the crowd. Left and right he pummeled the townsfolk, relishing in the hot heavy thump of his heart and the cracking of bones. Dimly he heard Lily shout “I’ll just take a piece of you!” which was followed by a scream. It might have concerned him, if he was not deeply entrenched in that hazy, ethereal mindset which eradicates all worry for anything but one’s own survival. Behind him, the townspeople turned to each other. Knives slashed, fists pounded, and teeth snapped on paltry flesh. He was almost out of the fray—nearly there—when a hand grabbed him by the neck and dragged him backwards. 

The boy wrenched John’s head back by the hair. John dug his nails into the soft skin of the boy’s hand, feeling the slippery warm blood ooze out and drip into his scalp. The boy screamed wretchedly and shoved John against the glass tank, snarling with a feral rage. That terrible red encroached on John’s vision. The glass wall pressed into his spine. Answering the boy’s rage with his own, he seized the boy by the neck and with his other hand delivered a crushing blow to his skull. Instantly the boy went limp. John let go and his body slumped woodenly to the concrete. 

Around them, the townspeople fought obliviously, a whirlwind of mud and torn hair and crunching bones. The town beyond the plaza stayed silent and eerie. The soft dusky breeze carried the scarlet tang of blood. 

John stood over the boy, an electric pulse thrumming under his skin, steady-handed and loyal to tradition. He stayed statue-still, in the screaming masses of the town, in the plaza where the concrete was drenched beneath his feet, and listened to the silky thrashing of the darkeels and smelled the bloody sweat of combat and felt his heartbeat settle, finally, calmly, into a low, constant buzz. 

John heaved the boy’s body into the tank. The boy didn’t move, even when his pale skin was shadowed by the great ebony darkeels. In a flash, the animals separated muscles from bone and bone from tendons, splashing fervently over the glass. The townsfolk kept on whirling in a frantic ochlocracy, lost to the simple, primal madness of desolate hunger. 

John took a last look at the glittering cold stars. His heart was rising, floating high above the town, disappearing into the intangible atmosphere. The breeze turned over, bringing the fresh scent of divine lavender fields from beyond the town walls. It was beautiful. Peaceful. 

John tipped himself backwards into the darkeel tank. As the creatures’ teeth tore him to shreds, as the deep gray water blackened with gore, he kept his eyes on the stars. 

Perhaps, sometimes, traditions could break.

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