Less interesting than the oldness of this place but perhaps more important; no one was smiling.
The woman pulled me down a dirt road rutted with grooves the width of bicycle tires, past a hundred faces and as many identical expressions. Seriousness was the convention in this place, it seemed.
Everyone was walking in the same direction, the two of us not excused of this sheepish behavior. The woman pulled me quickly, between people, around people, once or twice through people. We rounded a corner, walking down another dirt road. In the distance, above all of of the berets and bonnets, I saw something that towered over its flanking structures. Something that didn't belong.
A temple of sorts, not matching any modern or ancient religious gathering place I'd ever seen. But I was sure nonetheless that it was a temple. Encircling the structure, thirteen red spires rose from the ground like hell-flames licking the sky. The central tower, elaborately bedecked with gems of all colors and angry stone faces, leaned precariously toward the crowd like some hulking bully trying to intimidate.
A hundred or more people gathered in a courtyard around a gray, rectangular stone structure at the front of the temple that might have been a stage.
The woman pulled me into the midst of the crowd and then stopped.
"Voir." She nodded to the structure. See. See what? I looked back to my escort, curiosity on my face.
"Voir!" She repeated, and then watched the empty stage. So I watched, too, among all of the gathering people.
Ten minutes of waiting and still I saw nothing. The crowd had begun to settle; the majority of the people coming had arrived and found a place to stand; the muffled footsteps of the tardy few turned but a couple of heads. Most eyes were directed at the stage.
Hushed voices surrounded me, all of them sounding like light conversation. I hope this doesn't take long, I'm baking a cherry pie, perhaps, or maybe did you hear that lightning last night?
Everyone spoke quickly and quietly, and it was unintelligible to me except for two repeating syllables that emerged from many mouths: Elise.
I looked back to my escort. She felt my stare, and turned her head to me only long enough to nod in the direction of the stage.
The quiet chatter quickened for a moment and then stopped, and through the silence I could hear slow footfalls on a hard surface. Some one was approaching from beyond the stage.
At first I saw only the hat as a figure climbed what was probably stairs on the other side of the stone stage. The hat was an ornate debauchery; a large white cone with fragments of onyx dangling on white strings on all sides. Stones and gems adorned the sides of it, and a gold shape which looked like a crooked Y stood atop it. If that gold ornament was on the end of a spring it may help with public relations, I thought. By the look of the crowd right now, this guy needs it.
Below the hat was a black space; the person's face was entirely in shadow below a deep hood, or perhaps it was covered with some kind of black cloth. The cloak he wore was white and looked to be made of silk. It was as ornate as the hat.
The person walked to the center of the stage and looked slowly over the crowd. He then retrieved a rolled up paper, tied with a thin red ribbon in the middle, from inside the robe with a gloved black hand.
The chatter in the crowd, though quiter now, had begun again. Someone said Elise. Someone said non!
The decorative person on the stage pulled the ribbon and opened the paper with one swift, practiced movement.
He began reading quickly; too quickly for me to understand. I caught only bits and pieces.
"...pour l'assemblée..." For the assembly.
"...toujours avant, toujours ensuite..." Ever before, ever after.
"...la mort pour la vie..." Death for life.
He spoke for ten long minutes and then ended with a short chant of which I understood nothing. He repeated it a dozen or so times. Some in the crowd appeared to be moving their lips, mouthing silent words at the same rhythm as the chant. When the chant stopped, so did every other sound. It was deathly quiet; everyone seemed to be holding their breathe.
The figure atop the stage looked over the crowd.
"Ava, approche" he said. Ava, approach.
A quiet gasp erupted from all around even as a woman but a few bodies away from me began protesting loudly.
"Non! Non! Elise!" She screamed.
"Ava, approche." he repeated.
A tall man behind the woman shoved her shoulder and she stumbled forward. She looked back at him, tears welling in her eyes. Her expression was a mix of anger and hurt. She mouthed a few words at him that I could not hear; he continued looking down at her without expression or emotion.
Soon others had followed suite and began pushing, shoving, forcing her to the front of the crowd. She screamed desperately, the man now forgotten, and flailed her arms and fought futilely against the strength of the mob that now surrounded her. Mob, I thought. That was right, too. They were a crowd, but not anymore.
The woman, pushed ever closer to the stage, repeated a desperate plea over and over.
"Pas je! Elise! Pas je! Elise!"
Apparently she thought they had the wrong person, though her pleas did nothing to help her. The mob continued pushing her closer to the stage, and the closer she was to the stage the quieter she became. By the time she was within a few yards, her struggling had ceased entirely. She whimpered quietly, walking of her own accord towards whatever what about to happen.
I heard her say one more thing before she reached the stage: Il n'est pas juste. It isn't fair.
She cried quietly as she climbed atop the stage and took her place next to the man with the cloak and hat. She sobbed as that man tied something around her neck. Some sort of thin cable hanging from a pole above the stage I hadn't noticed before.
A few people in the crowd turned and began walking away. At this point it was only morbid curiosity that kept me watching. And, perhaps, the woman who brought me here looked as though she could destroy me with the snap of a finger.
The man in the cloak turned, walked to the edge of the stage, and then began descending the stairs; soon he was out of sight. The crowd around me thinned further. Nothing more to see here.
I had to admire this woman on stage before me; her arms remained lax at her side and she struggled not anymore. She seemed to have accepted ...being hung, by the look of it, with dutiful acquiescence.
Suddenly the cable pulled taught, squeezing into the woman, creating a deep groove around her neck and throat. She opened her mouth as if trying to scream.
I still think that's what she was doing right then. Trying to scream.
Soon her feet had left the ground, and an ever thickening outline of blood formed around the cable where it touched her skin. Then, suddenly, the cable disappeared entirely and with its disappearance came forth a rush of blood which soaked the upper half of her shirt almost instantly.
She was not simply being hung; the cable was going to decapitate her if it got any tighter.
The woman who had escorted me here pulled at my shoulder, and by then I required no convincing. Apparently I had seen what I was suppose to see, and I surely wanted to see no more. I turned and followed her away from that place.
I never wanted to see it again.
As we walked away, I heard a sound that I will never forget. A dull thud sounded simultaneously with a smack that reminded me of belly flops in the lake.
I didn't look back; I knew what it was.