You remember the Rurigena family, right? They are my family’s neighbors not too far from my home with a whole house full of beautiful daughters. Well, just one caught my eye really. Puella Rurigena is the daughter closest to my age. I almost bought her an ossis bead bracelet before asking her for a stroll. I saw her at the play the opening night but never got a chance to talk to her or catch up. In the weeks following the “Return to the Source” play at the Amphitheater, she disappeared. She like me was taking on more responsibilities in her home. That was just our age. One day she was just gone.
“I would like if you would keep an eye out,” her mother asked me with cascading worry flooding her eyes. It had been months now since her disappearance. Her mother was putting up a ‘Lost and Wanted’ poster in the Market. That was how I found out Puella was missing. Where would she go? Could someone have hurt her? Could she have turned into the wrong alley and witnessed a crime and suffered the consequence? I could tell from her mother’s demeanor and shaking hands that she was asking herself these same questions.
“I will ma’am,” I said with as much concern in my voice as I could possibly muster. Mrs. Rurigens gave me one of the posters she was putting up. For some reason as I was walking home, the Pond came into my mind. She had talked in school about being enamored with it. Could she have gone there?
No. Yes. Maybe.
No. Yes. Maybe.
Once I settled on the word ‘maybe’ in my mind, my feet began to walk north towards the Pond. The Pond was beyond North Wellstone Neighborhood. Everyone knew that. I had never been there myself. I heard some of the boys in school talk about going there, but at our age, I thought it was just pomp and adolescent lies.
The Pond is either a remnant of Lake Receding or the Great Quake I suppose. Lake Receding is gradually getting smaller. It used to be much bigger than it is today. I guess sometime in the past the pond was made as the lake grew smaller. What is most significant about the Pond is that it is ruled by the Pond Lords. The Pond Lords are a group of seven businessmen that control the Pond.
Lord Gula has tents that offer food and drink non-stop.
Lord Acedia has a large tent where one can while away the hours doing nothing.
Lord Avarita buys and sells anything for profit.
Lord Luxuria has a large tent full of men and women who sell their bodies for pleasure.
Lord Superbia cuts people’s flesh and arts tattoos to make them more beautiful.
Lord Tristia has tents where people go to die because of sorrow.
Lord Ira sells murder for hire.
The Pond is dirty water and needs lots amount of shine root to make it drinkable. It also happens to be the most addictive water in Receding, and they offer it free. People come to the Pond Lords because they need water and then they get hooked. My mother told me once that one sip from Pond Lords means you are hooked for life. She said that to scare me I think. How could that be true? As I was walking towards the Pond, I wondered if her warning had any ring of truth to it or if it was merely a story to scare her son into right action.
Drink the free Pond water.
Enslaved by them in many ways.
I walked up the east side of Receding until I came to the outskirts of the town. I went out of a gate and walked quickly to the Pond. It did not take long. It was a well-worn path with lamps every few feet from the gateway to the domain of the Pond Lords. As I walked east, I noticed that the light dimmed because of the shadow, but the ever-present lamps helped. There was even less light here than where my house was located. As I approached the Pond, I began to smell, hear, and see the results of the addictions present within. Why would Puella want to come here?! I came to the Pond and noticed there were no walls or anything to keep people out or in. It was just a collection of various tents surrounding the Pond. Some people laid in the open low-light sun and breeze. Others huddled under make-shift coverings. All looked thirsty.
There were some men stationed around the outskirts of the tents at various locations. I walked up to one of the men, I presumed he was a guard or peacekeeper of some sort and showed him the poster Puella’s mother had given me. He barely looked at the poster and shook his head. To my dying day, I will not remember what the man looked like. Black or brown hair? Big or small nose? Facial hair or none? I do not know. Why not? Because there was a large black seven-point crown tattoo on the side of the man’s neck. I will always remember the tattoo. I would come to realize later that the tattoo he was sporting on his neck was the collective brand of the 7 Pond Lords. He was their servant. As I stood there, I realized he would not tell me anything about Puella even if he knew. I stood there for a moment and realized that I would need to go into the Pond area and look for her myself.
I started off into the Pond with a mission.
I first came to a set of large long blue rectangular tents. They were full of long wooden tables and benches which stretched from one end of the tent to the other. Each one looked the same. There were four large tents in all. I came to the first one, and it was full of people chatting and eating and drinking. They were drinking heavily and clanking their mugs together loudly and often. There was a band in each tent playing loud live music at a fast pace. It was lively. Every so often they led people in a song, and the eaters and drinkers would imbibe along with the song. It was a constant party among the tents.
I went to the serving bar in the nearest tent.
“Excuse me,” I shouted so that the attendant could hear me over the cacophony of music.
The man turned and looked me straight in the eye.
“Have you seen this girl,” I asked as I pushed the poster into his field of view.
“I dunno,” the man said. “If you are looking for someone,” the man instructed with a pointing finger behind me “you should go see Lord Gula. He is in charge.”
I turned behind me to see a man standing on the other side of the tent with watchful eyes. He was watching all the eating and drinking as though he were watching over his kingdom.
“Gula?” I asked, pointing a thumb at the man.
“Lord Gula,” the man nodded in affirmation and moved on to the next patron who had saddled up on a stool beside me.
Lord Gula was perhaps the baldest man I had ever seen. Not one hair on his head. No beard. Not even any eyebrows. He had no shirt on and had no chest or arm hair that I could see. He had one large hoop earring in each ear. The bottom half of his body was clad in loose-fitting silk purple pants which were tucked into high black leather boots. He looked like a pirate from a children’s story I heard once. All he needed was a hook for a hand.
He saw me approaching and gave me only a quick glance. “What do you want?” His eyes continually scanned the tent.
Just as he asked me that question, a man at one of the tables fell out of his chair. He looked as though he had eaten three suppers as his stomach was distended before him. His face was full of bits of food, and he had half eaten plates in front of him. Gula pointed, and three servants rushed to get the man back into his seat and began to feed him. The man did not resist, but opened his mouth and ate. He looked awful. He drank pints of pond water, and the water spilled out down his chin as he slurped the water non-stop.
“Have you seen her?” I asked turning back to Gula and placing the flyer in his hand.
“No,” he said immediately after barely glancing at the picture. As soon as he said no, the music in an adjoining tent stopped for a moment. His head turned in that direction. A moment later the music picked up again and his attention came back to the tent I was standing in.
“Are you sure?” I asked in a polite, but firm tone. “Please look again,” I asked.
“I have not seen her,” Lord Gula replied over the competing loud music with an annoyed tone. “My business is food and drink in excess. If your girlfriend or sister or cousin has a thirst to quench I would know her. If she doesn’t, I don’t care. Either drink or get out!”
He threw the poster back at me, and I backed up a few steps in response. As I backed up, I bumped into three men who were standing, talking, and drinking large steins of pond water. All three of them toppled over onto a nearby table. I had barely touched them and yet they fell into the table! All three of them were the drunkest I had ever seen anyone.
Gula pointed at me with an accusing finger, and I knew I had to get out of there. I dashed out of the tent and away from all the others that looked like they were owned by Gula. Three men with folded muscled arms watched me leave the tent area.
I am here in the Pond with a mission.
I did not have to walk far before I came to an area that had one tent. It was a large black oval tent with all of the side flaps down. The peak of the oval tent had an opening from which a steady stream of smoke was flowing. There was only one way in. I ducked into the tent. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the low light in the tent. I looked, and there in the tent were people sitting and laying on pillows in various places. Each one of them had a long pipe in their hand, and they were blowing smoke from their mouths into the air.
A man immediately came up to me after I entered.
“Hello,” the man said with a polished accent and practiced finesse, “welcome welcome! My name is Lord Acedia. I offer the finest wares to while away the day. Here you have no cares. Here you must do nothing. My special blends of shine tobacco will help you with what ails you. I have anything you need.”
Immediately two ladies came up to me and took me by the hands; one lady for each hand. Neither of them was covered much by clothing. They pulled me further into the tent to an open area with pillows. The plush pillows made for an inviting place to sit and rest and sleep. They eyed me hungrily. They escorted me to my seat and sat me down gently, but firmly, letting me know they were in charge.
As I was sitting, I pulled out the picture of Puella.
“Have you seen her? Puella?” I asked the girl on my left as she was starting to massage my arm. As her hand brushed against my chest, she shook her head no. She took a drag on the long pipe she began smoking and blew the smoke into my face in a slow, steady stream.
“Have you seen her?” I asked the other girl on my right as I coughed a little. She was laying out several options of pipes for me to try. She shook her head no but looked away as soon as I showed it to her. Odd.
Lord Acedia quietly walked up to this newly occupied area of his establishment. “Is everything to your liking?” The girl on my left moved behind me to massage my shoulders, and I could smell more of the smoke being exhaled around me. The smoke cascaded down around me like mist in the morning.
“Have you seen this girl?” I asked. I offered the poster to him. Surely someone with such refined taste would know what is going on around this place. He looked at the poster. I could not tell in the low light, but I thought I saw recognition in his eyes.
“Why don’t you lean back for a while and let your cares go away,” he suggested as he folded up the poster and put it in his pocket.
“Have you seen that girl?” I asked. I tried to rise from the pillow. My head was feeling a little woozy as I tried to get up. My vision was a little blurry. I could see different colors. Acedia looked strange. I felt like my legs were made of rubber. I had never felt like this before. I stumbled back down to the pillows. Each of the women giggled. The one blew more smoke over me.
I felt strange, but I liked it. Oh, did I like it! What was in those pipes? He had said shine tobacco, right? I looked around me, and the world was colored with blues and greens and some colors I could not even identify. The girl to my right put a pipe in my mouth, and I inhaled deeply. The smoke and taste of the shine root rushed into my lungs. I coughed. The girls giggled and instructed me to take another big breath.
I have to admit that the smoke felt good in my mouth and throat and lungs. It made me feel strange and good at the same time. I felt my cares about… about… what was her name… fading away. Wait, what was her name? All of a sudden, a thought popped into my head: I am here in the Pond with a mission.
I stood up as best I could. I made my way towards the entrance to the tent. My stomach was feeling queasy like I had eaten something rotten. My vision seemed blurry. My skin felt sweaty and clammy. I just wanted to make it to the open flap of the tent. As I was going, I heard the rush of feet behind me.
I heard from behind me Acedia’s voice say: “Let him go.”
I stumbled out of the black oval tent in a daze. I got outside, and the light seemed brighter than when I went in. The music from Gula’s tents seemed louder and closer than I remembered. As I was trying to get my bearings moving alongside the tent, a side flap of the tent quickly popped open. One of the girls from the tent grabbed my hand and led me away from the tent quickly. She practically dragged me away. I stumbled as we went along.
“Breathe in and out deeply,” she said as she was hurrying me along. I began to breathe in and out in as many deep breaths as I could muster. My lungs were burning. My throat seemed to be closing up. As I blew out, smoke came out of my mouth. With each exhale, I felt better. My head cleared and my eyes again became normal as each breath of smoke volcanoed from my lungs.
“Listen,” she said in a quiet and hurried voice as we got some distance from the tent, “Rurry was here, and she served Lord Acedia like me. But she isn’t with us anymore.”
“Rurry?” I asked as I was coming out of the fog. Who was she talking about? Was this the girl from Acedia’s tent? My brain was still a little foggy.
“Yes, Rurry… Puella… whatever. Lord Acedia sold her a few weeks ago to another Pond Lord, but I don’t know which one. You will have to find her. She took to the Pond water like no one I have ever seen. She was so very thirsty. She is way addicted. We all are, but she is in a bad way. Lord Acedia told her, like he tells all of us, that he will take care of us.”
“What do you mean addicted?” I asked. Surely Puella would not be addicted to Pond water. Her parents like mine would have told her to stay away. Obviously, she did not listen. If Puella had been with the Pond Lords for months, there was no telling how addicted to the water she had become or what she had done to be able to stay here. She had not returned home. She must still be here.
“All of us come here because we are thirsty. The Pond Lords give us water for free. All of this is free. All of this water, filled with shine root, is free. Well, the first drinks are free. Now we are all enslaved to the Pond Lords. We all now need to stay here. All of us. All the people who serve the Pond Lords and all those just lying around in the open air. All of us. We need the water.” She spoke in a hushed tone trying to hurry our exchange of words. She kept looking around as if she were in trouble.
“Why can’t you leave? Where are the Market Managers? This is wrong!” I said the last statement a little too loudly, and the young woman’s stress level went through the roof. Her voice became more hushed. Her eyes more frantic. Her hands shook.
“No one cares about us. The Lords meet our need for water. The Pond Lords provide for the thirsty and no one else has to. The Market looks the other way because they don’t have to pay for us. We become out of sight and out of mind by our own action.” She said this last part with a look of knowing. With that, the young girl put something in my hand and dashed away back towards the oval tent. I looked down, it was the folded poster of Puella.
I turned around and noticed that ahead of me was an area with three large tents. The first tent had a sign above it that said: “Avarita Buys All.” People were lined up outside the tent with clothes in their hands and what looked like bags of merchandise. The line came out of the tent and wrapped itself around as far as I could see. Most of the people looked like they had not bathed or eaten in days.
I walked up to one of the people in line. He looked to be a few years older than me but was about the same height. His blond hair was so dirty it looked brown. His eyes were a little sunken, and he had a general look of vacancy in those eyes. His lips were dry and cracked around the edges. His face was reddened by constant exposure to the light. His skin was as dry as the desert sands outside of Receding.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
His brow furled and he answered me as though what he was doing was common knowledge. “I am here to see Lord Avarita. She buys everything and anything people want to give her. She wants it all. She don’t give good prices, but enough so I can go see Luxuria’s Ladies.” He pointed to the tent just a short distance away. I began to stroll over to the tent.
The tent just a short distance away was a bright red tent with two guards out front. The men were well muscled and looked like they could handle themselves in a fight. They almost looked like twins as they stood there with their arms crossed. Their uniform was simple. Black pants. A black vest with a white goat’s head stitched on it. A heavy scowl. The scowl was the scariest part.
Beside each of the guards were two little men with what looked like restaurant menus from the inn my family had celebrated at some months ago. They were rushing back and forth like two hummer birds as people passed by. They would go up to one person, “Hey you want to see…” “Hey, we have what you want.”
I walked slowly over to the tent.
One of the menu-men stuck the paper in my face. On the menu were pictures of girls, names, and activities. I will not relay to you the activities listed, but needless to say, as I think back on this event my stomach turns. At the time, however, I shocked myself by being equally repulsed by the menu and curious. “Hey you want to see,” he said to me in a high pitch fast-paced voice. “We have what you want.”
I pushed the menu out of my face, but just as I did, I noticed a familiar face on the list. My eyes grew wide with surprise at the recognition.
“You see someone you like,” the man questioned with raised eyebrows seeing my change in expression.
I pointed to the very likeness of Puella on his menu.
Was that her?
I thought it was.
“Oh,” he said with enthusiasm, “she is new to our tents. She is fresh. She will be enjoyable for you. Smooth skin. Silky hair.” He put his hand on my shoulder and led me into the tent. I walked down a part of the tent without partitions. To either side of me were partitioned private areas. As I passed, I could see in some of them.
Women dancing with no clothes.
Men touching women.
Women touching men.
Men forcing women to do things.
I am here in the Pond with a mission.
My attention snapped back as my guide led me to a partitioned area and motioned his hand for me to enter. He gave me a large jug of pond water and led me into the partitioned room.
“Drink drink,” he said encouragingly as he left. His hands made a jug-swigging motion as he walked away. I turned towards the door and put the jug to my mouth. The man waved and exited. I did not drink anything.
I turned around and there she was sitting naked on a bed. It was Puella Rurigena, but I could hardly recognize her. Her hair was a different color. Her face was different somehow. Her face looked like an artist had colored her eyes and lips and cheeks. As soon as she saw my face in the low light, her eyes recognized me. She rushed and grabbed the sheets from the bed she was sitting on and covered her nakedness. I moved closer to her.
“What are you doing here,” she asked defensively in a low voice as I sat down on the edge of the bed. I could not tell if she was hurt. I could not tell much about her.
“I came looking for you.”
I looked at her with a knowing look.
She looked at me with the same look.
We both knew my unspoken youthful feelings for her.
“I got so tired of living day to day in Receding,” she began to say. She pulled the covers tighter over her body as she spoke. “Receding is a dying town. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that. We got older, and we took on more responsibilities. You started at the Market. I started making clothes to sell for my family. Life is so pointless like that. Life in Receding is one big lie. I will grow up and live and die, and there is no point to any of it. I came here to find that there is more to life than any of that. I want more out of life than sitting in a room making clothes all day.”
I looked around the small partitioned room. I tried not to stare at the uncovered parts of Puella.
“I don’t understand,” I said in an equally low voice to hers. All I had were questions with no answers. The one foremost in my mind was: How do I get you out of here? I did not voice that question but rather voiced others. “You and I both come from good families. We can have good lives in Receding. Why are you here? Why are you staying here? What do you have here that isn’t out there?”
“I told you. I am tired of living day to day with no point. Everything is meaningless. Our schooling was meaningless. My job with my family is meaningless. My friends,” she paused and looked at me, “are meaningless. I want more from life than meaninglessness. I asked my parents, but they didn’t have anything to say. All they said was one day I would understand.”
I looked around the small partitioned room. “And this is it?” I asked. “This is your grand plan to find meaning and truth? This is what you want for yourself?” Again, all I had were questions with no answers.
“Here,” she said, “I get pleasure. I can give pleasure.” With that, the hold on her covers began to loosen. She began to move on the bed towards me. “I came here because the Pond is full of excitement and life. You saw it out there! The Pond Lords give eating and drinking! The Pond Lords give music! When I first got here I started working for a man named Lord Acedia who showed me that doing nothing can be profitable and fun and pleasurable.”
“I met him.”
“After I was here a little bit, I met Lord Luxuria. She showed me the power I have in the curves of my body. She promises me that I can do anything I want here and I can have anything I want. The girls here are my family now. We are family together.” As Puella was talking, she moved even closer to me on the bed. You may not believe me, but I was paying attention to her face and eyes, but not to her hands.
Puella let the sheets covering her go. She slowly crawled towards me as she was talking. “I really didn’t find what I was looking for initially, but pleasure is fun. Pleasure is giving me all that I need. It is all that I want now. Lord Luxuria is showing me so many things. I could show you what she showed me.”
I found myself captivated by this girl more than I ever had been before. This was the same girl that grew up down the street from me all these years, and yet now she was more, and now she was also less.
She was more aggressive, more sensual, and more determined.
She was less… Puella.
She was lost to her desires of pleasure, and that was her only goal.
I stood up straight as her hands reached out for me. She sat up on the bed surprised that I had stood. She reached out to me and took the jug from my hands. She lifted it to her mouth and began to drink heavily from the ewer. She drank and drank until it was only half full. Her eyes seemed to glaze over a little from the water.
“You should have some,” she said to me. “Your life is meaningless too. Market day. Market day. Market day. You are a glorified messenger boy.” Her words began to slur a little, but she was not completely wrong. I had found my new job exciting at first, but over these months I had seen little potential or personal fulfillment in it.
Nothing in my job had brought any meaning to my life. It did seem to be a meaningless pursuit at the moment. There had to be something else to bring meaning to life in Receding. All those men and women in Gula’s tent sure seemed to be having fun, but they were addicted to the Pond and slaves to eat and drink repeatedly. They were stuck here. That young man my age was standing hopelessly in a line to sell some trinkets so he could satisfy his physical urges.
Is this all there is?
Was pleasure the way to make it all make sense?
Was buying and selling and amassing wealth going to make life in Receding make sense?
Was eating good food and drinking fine drink going to make life make sense?
What was the purpose in life?
Puella Rurigena, the girl who had grown up down the street from me, was now a willingly naked servant of the Pond Lord Luxuria who offered her body to pleasure. She held out the half drank flagon to me. If I drank, I would be admitting that all meaning in life came from the pursuit of pleasure and greed and physical things.
“Drink,” she said getting up from the bed. She moved towards me. I backed away.
“Drink!” she said getting louder and more forceful in her words. She moved towards me. I backed away all the way to the entrance to this partitioned room.
“Drink!!” she yelled with a voice that rang out all through the tent. She thrust the half-drunk jug at my face. I turned to run. She caught me by my cloak and said, “Drink and come to bed with me!” But I left my cloak in her hand and ran out of the tent. I would like to say that I did so confidently, but I ran realizing that Puella was lost in life trying to find meaning in pleasure and hurtful things.
I went from there dimmed by disillusionment. That poor girl is not the one I knew from school. Tears filled my eyes. That poor girl was wild and exciting and addicted to water filled with shine root. I wiped the tears from my eyes. She never acted like that before… I would have noticed! My thoughts turned to her mother and father and sisters.
What would I tell them?
Should I tell them?
How could I share this tale with them?
In my disillusionment and sadness, apparently, I walked back towards the tent of Avarita. On the back side, a side I had not seen, there were several round tables with people around them. They all had cards. They all were throwing money into the middle of the table.
One of the men at the table nearest to me looked up and waved me over. “Come on young man!” the man said in an inviting tone, “join us! We will deal you in, on the next hand.”
I sat down at a table with three men already seated.
The first man, to my left, was a heavyset bald man with a large shine root calabash pipe in his mouth. He puffed every minute or so, and a slow trickle of smoke came from his nostrils. The expression on his face betrayed nothing of the cards that were in his hands.
The man directly across from me, the one who had called me over, wore a white shirt with a velvet-looking vest. He had some of those old people glasses perched at the tip of his nose. He looked at me over his glasses and down through the glasses at his cards.
The person to my right was a kid way younger than me. Her face was dirty. Her hands were dirty. She also had the largest pile of money sitting in front of her. Her eyes darted quickly from me to the other players to her cards and to her money pile. I noticed her fingers were nervously tapping on the table.
Once the hand was finished, they all looked at me.
The bald man questioned, “Have you anything to put up for some betting?”
“It can be anything,” the young girl encouraged.
“Just give it to me. I will exchange it for funds,” the well-dressed man said informatively.
I wasn’t sure what to give him. Maybe this wasn’t for me. I went to get up when I remembered what was in my pocket. I dug my hand into my inner pants pocket and brought out a genuine ossis bracelet. I put it in the middle of the table.
“Nice!” the young girl said.
The bald man whistled his approval.
“That will do nicely,” the well-dressed man said approvingly.
With that, I was in the game. I now had a little money with which to bet and play the card game. The well-dressed man played the part of the dealer and instructed me in the rules of the game. We would get 6 cards. We could return as many cards as we wanted during two rounds of betting. We could opt out of the hand at any time. The person with the most matches or highest valued matches wins. There was a little more to it than that, but you get the drift.
Well, it was the “little bit more than that,” that I should have figured out because within an hour I had gambled away all my money. I was not bad at the card game in my estimation, but the other three seasoned card players at the table were advanced in their skills.
“Do you have anything else to turn in,” the young girl asked. She still had the largest amount of money in front of her. In fact, most of the small pile that once sat in front of me now mounded in front of her.
“We’d love for you to keep playing,” the bald man said as he exhaled smoke into the air.
“Just give it to me. I will exchange it for funds,” the well-dressed man said informatively with a knowing smile.
I felt adrift in my emotions and in my thoughts.
I felt guilty.
Guilty because I gambled away a gift.
I felt sad.
Sad because Puella was lost to her family and me.
I felt foolish.
Foolish because Puella had never been mine in the first place.
I felt lost.
Lost because I did not seem to be acting like myself.
I felt scared.
Scared because I was starting to like it here at the Pond and I didn’t want to.
I felt useless.
Useless because Puella was right that I was a glorified errand boy.
I got up from the round gambling table and ran from that place back home.
On the way back, I began to pray. I know that is what it is called now, but back then I just was trying to reach out to the Ancient of Days with my mind and emotions. I sort of felt like I was talking to the air:
Ancient of Days,
If you are there
I am so sorry I went to that place.
I feel so useless.
Puella is in that place, but I don’t think she is ever coming out. What do I tell her mother? She is addicted. She is so different. I feel like I just live here, but she is part of the dark place now. I need You to show me what to do. If You are there, show me.
I promise I will not do things I did back there again. Please get Puella out of there!
I will seek you with all my heart. Starting now.
I am going to end saying out loud, “For sure I will do this!” I hope that was ok.