Ava smiled wryly. From her vantage point high on the hill she watched the village burn. Bright ochre flames gave way to plumes of thick black smoke as the acrid stench filled her nostrils. The fire spread amidst a thundering growl yet the children's shrieks of terror pierced it's fury carrying deep into the night.
People filled the streets, some frantically searching out family, others desperately attempting to escape the labyrinthine inferno. Ava caught sight of one man on his hands and knees in the middle of the confusion. He must have lost everything; she could sense his anguish as he rocked back and forth, furiously beating the ground and cursing the sky.
She had no pity. This was justice.
After her father had died, rumours began to spread through the village that he had been poisoned. That her mother had killed him. That he had been struck down by the gods for daring to oppose the village elders. Every theory ricocheted around her head, yet not one hit upon the foul truth: He had been ill for some time. He would never let it show in public, of course, and there were many nights Ava lay awake, listening to him retching uncontrollably. For hours, she would curl up into a ball, close her eyes tightly, and pray that she could take some of the pain for him. He had done enough, she felt. Every night, her prayers went unheeded. Until one night, her father never made a sound. The house gradually became alive with the murmur of hushed voices and the shuffling of shoe leather on the old wooden floors. Then her mother had told her the awful news of her father's death. Ava felt as if an important part of her soul had been ripped from her belly, leaving only a dull ache in the pit of her stomach to fill the void. She had sobbed for weeks after, every day, relentlessly. She resolved never to ask the gods for anything ever again.
Months passed, and life resumed to some measure of normality. The stream of well-wishers and local gossips reduced to a trickle, and Ava began to notice some visitors were more persistent than others. Rico, a portly local businessman, had taken a keen interest in her mother. Every few days he would arrive, always unannounced, and manoeuvre his not inconsiderable frame onto a chair in the kitchen. Genial, yet strained, conversation would ensue, punctuated by Rico's habit of wiping his brow of sweat every few minutes. As usual, he set the sodden kerchief on the table until he rose to leave. The smell of stale sweat and cheap tobacco lingered in the air for hours after. One afternoon, as Ava headed home from the market, she heard the catcalls from the other children.
"Rico! Rico!" Ava kept walking, her face burning beetroot with shame and rage. One boy started walking behind her, yelling loud enough for the whole street to hear.
"Your mama loves Rico!" Ava turned wildly, flailing her right arm through the air, her fist clenched, her knuckles white. It connected. She felt the boy's nose give way as it cracked loudly. He fell back, bright red blood spewing from his nostrils, into his mouth and down his chin. "She hit me!" he cried, and began crying with a pathetic whimper. Ava looked around. The entire street had come to a standstill, save for a few women rushing to the boy's aid. She was beginning to shake, and the familiar ache in her belly returned. She turned and ran home.
As she opened the front door, she was roughly bundled out of the way as Rico stormed out. His face was a pink fury, with a fresh, deep scratch glistening across his left cheek. He marched angrily down the road towards the village square. Ava picked herself up, and ran inside as the front door strained on it's hinges.
"Mama?" She was panicking. "Mama, where are you?" She ran into the kitchen, where her mother stood, head bowed, hands clenched on the counter. "Mama!" Ava's mother turned to face her. Her face was ashen, her nose red and her puffy eyes streamed with tears. Her left eye was swollen and her lip was split. Blood was smeared across her teeth. A lump formed in Ava's throat. She threw herself at her mother and held on tightly. She wailed until she felt sick, and had passed out through sheer exhaustion before sunset.
Justice was meted out swiftly. Rico had reported Ava's mother for attempting to lead him into adultery. He alleged that when he fervently rejected her advances, she had become violent, leading to the scratch upon his face. Her injuries, he claimed, were a result of his defending himself. As Rico was a respected man within the community, his allegations were taken seriously. So seriously, that Ava's mother was presumed guilty, and sentenced to death by stoning almost immediately by the elders. Ava tried to stay with her mother, refusing to let go. Her face was a mass of hair and tears, and she screamed as they were torn apart. As her mother was dragged away, Ava heard her voice calling.
"You must live! Ava, my sweet, you must live!" And then she was gone.
Ava did the only thing she could think of. She ran. She ran to the forest in the hills overlooking the village, racing through the trees with reckless abandon, stumbling often, but never stopping. Eventually, she came to a clearing and threw herself at the dewy ground. She wanted to cry, but none came. Only the fear, rage and hatred remained. So she decided to dole out her own justice. She'd rob the village of everything they had robbed of her. She set about her plan to burn the village to the ground.
And so, she stood on the hill, watching the flames consuming everything in their path. Suddenly, the scent of a spring orchid made her turn. The image of her mother stood beside her, observing the events below.
"Hello, Ava." No marks or cuts on her face. No tears. Just a warmth and radiance Ava hadn't seen in a long time.
"You beat me to it, Mama." said Ava. "Why?" Her mother smiled broadly at her.
"Because this is my vengeance." She looked out at the village again. "You must live, Ava. Not just survive. Live."
Ava turned back to face the village. The man in the street was no longer swearing and yelling. He lay on his hands and knees, motionless. Ava ran down the hill. The blistering heat tore at her face and the smoke choked her as she raced towards the man. Finally, she stood in front of him. She gently touched his shoulder, and he raised his head. His mouth was frozen into a scream, the sorrow in his eyes unbearable. Ava knelt down, and taking his cheek in her hand, she pulled him close, allowing him to bury his forehead in her shoulder. As the flames dwindled, the embers glowed, and two lost souls reached out. And they cried.