Kanna Rava fell over the foot of the bed. The sheets were wrapped around her ankles and they held her back like tangled vines when she rushed towards the exit, so instead she slid head-first onto the floor. She knocked over the cup of yaw tea that she had left behind. Though it spilled and flooded her nostrils with its bitter essence, now that her face was pressed to the ground, she could finally smell the faint remnants of unburnt Rava Spirits coming from the stove.
The mixture was hard for her to swallow back. She freed herself with frantic kicks and groped for her clothes in the dark. She could not remember where Goda had thrown them, so she crawled around like an animal until she felt her hand graze the rough fabric, then she scrambled to her feet and pushed through the door.
“Goda!” she called. “Goda, goddamn you, don’t do this to me!”
But the giant was nowhere within the confines of the barriers. Everywhere she looked while she staggered through the yard and fought to dress herself in the dark, there were only empty shadows cast by the moon. Not one of them held Goda’s presence. Even when she closed her eyes and searched for the giant within, to see if she could set herself behind Goda’s perspective again, there was nothing; there was only a tangle of snakes dancing in a void. It was as if the immaterial cord between her and Goda Brahm had been snapped in half.
Kanna ran towards Lila Hadd’s house, ignoring a pang of sharp pain that throbbed where Goda had been. Every window in the house was dark, and she could see nothing but her own reflection when she peered into them, so she ran to the huge doors that had shut her out. She banged on them wildly with her fists; she shouted into them as if someone were standing directly behind them, actively holding the locks closed.
“Lila!” Kanna screamed. “Lila, you slave-driver, you glorified jailer! Let me out! Let me out!” She grabbed for the knobs and tried to rattle the doors, but they were so heavy that they barely budged. It felt like they had been barred with a plank from the inside, deadbolted, chained, sealed with every possible padlock.
Kanna jerked her head up when she thought she saw some curtains rustling. On a second floor window, where the moonbeams reached, there was a tiny crack between the twin sheets of fabric. She could just barely see two small eyes gazing out at her with almost no reaction—with only mild curiosity—and this served to infuriate her further.
“Lila!” She stepped back to try to better see the woman’s face. “You knew, didn’t you? You knew she was in there and you led me right to her. For what? For what? So that she could abandon me again, and I could be tortured by her absence? So that the one thing in my life that means anything to me could be torn away, taking another piece of me with it, until there is nothing left of me? Is this the practice you speak so highly of, Lila? Is this what it means to surrender to the naked idol of Mahara or to that god of yours—that Samma—who lives in the bowels of the Earth with the rest of the dung heaps that give rise to that cursed flower?” Her voice was raw. “Answer me! Stop staring and answer me, you witch! At least offer me that dignity, if you’re not going to free me from this torture!”
But Lila’s eyes glared in the light as her gaze shifted toward the far wall where Goda’s small paradise lay. Kanna followed the gesture with confusion, but she found that the garden had fallen into darkness, shaded by the canopy of its single tree, and so nothing stood out to her at all. When she turned back, Lila’s eyes had disappeared and the curtains swung lightly in her place.
“You can’t just ignore me, Hadd! I’ll scream at the top of my lungs! I’ll wake up the whole city! I’ll throw a rock into one of your windows and climb to freedom myself if you don’t open these goddamn doors!” Kanna slammed her hands in fury against the delicate lines of the wood. “You’re no better than a serpent-sucking Middlelander, you hear me! If you let Goda kill herself, you’re no different from that monstrous engineer who wanted to shock her to death in the cuffing room!” When still no answer came, she kicked the frame of the door and turned back to the prison that encased her like a shell.
In the dark, she crouched and felt around the ground with her hands to see if she could find a stone big enough to hurl into any of those mirrors that lined Lila’s house. Warm tears had already started to fall into the grass and mix with the cold dew, and she hated that she cried so easily, because it always blurred her vision. But as she crawled and more warmth began leaking from her nose and mouth, the sensation of her throbbing heart overshadowed all of her experience. The pulse spurted through the hollows of her chest, into her throat, into her ears, into every inch of her head.
“Shut up! Shut up!” she screamed. “How can I save her when I can’t even think? How can I think when you’re being so loud?”
She pressed her hands hard against the sides of her head, because the throbbing had turned into radiating pain. Her elbows dug into the pebbles on the ground between the sharp blades of grass, and she groaned and writhed and resisted the surge of agony that washed through her. The pain rose and fell like waves in an ocean, with every gush of blood from her heart. It grew more intense at every peak. It felt like the ground beneath her knees was undulating, too—pulsing up and down, breathing in and out—along with every stroke of pain.
She had squeezed her eyes shut to fight the dizziness of this delusion. But then she felt the crack of a drumbeat so hard against the bones of her knees that it rattled the earth around her, and she thought she could hear the windows of the cottage shaking nearby.
Kanna snapped her eyes open. Finally, she looked up from the dirt and out at the path in front of her. She awakened to the rise and fall of the Earth, though she could not understand at all what she was seeing.
The ground was breathing. She had felt it before, during other times when her skin had seemed like it would crack open from all the pain—but the breath had always been so faint and so fleeting, that she had assumed it was her imagination.
This time, though, she could see it. Even in the dark, with only the glow of the moonlight shining in the dew drops on the grass, she could see how the Earth was breathing in and out, as plainly as her own chest swelled with air.
“What is this?” Kanna whispered. She pressed her hands to the dirt to try to rise up, but the rhythmic quaking of the Earth made it too hard to stand, so she remained prostrated with her head held low. “What…is this?”
Still, she knew somehow that it wasn’t a what. She could feel the presence, like a single, infinite, invisible eye that looked upon her, that looked from every place above and below at the same time. It looked at her from outside her skin and inside her skin. It even looked out at the world from behind her eyes.
“Who are you?” Kanna said, louder this time. The pain had started to fade, but her heart still pulsed wildly, and her angry tears had turned into ones born from an emotion she could not name. That river came in torrents because…
The eye was looking upon her with love. It was more love than she had ever felt in her life and it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at all.
And it terrified her. She could not make sense of it. She could not find reason in it.
“Who are you?” she shouted. The infinite stare was like a presence that began to rush up both out of the ground and down from the heavens to fill her, a powerful breath that swelled into her lungs and made it hard for her to find the boundaries of her body against the Earth. The barriers between her and the world outside began to dissolve on their own. Even the barriers that made up her prison began to shake and flicker, as if they had merely been a mirage.
It felt like her body would burst into pieces to let everything outside come inside, to let everything inside rush outside, to make it all the same thing.
“Stop! Stop! Please, I can’t!”
But the burst was so powerful, she could not resist it. All of the strength in her body, all of the strength of her will would have never been enough, because every particle of her was loved—even the pieces of her that she hated, even the pieces that had made her feel helpless and trapped within the walls that surrounded her, even the pieces of her that judged and screamed and could not believe that Kanna Rava was worthy of something so unconditional. All of it was swelling, pulsing with a searing love that had engulfed her like a flame and was nearly killing her.
When she thought at last that it would kill her, when she let out her final breath into the cold night and surrendered to her death, the steam from her mouth quickly dissolved into the air—and with it, the presence disappeared.
Death had left her. It had blown through her as if it had been just a gust of wind charging through a hollow.
And very suddenly, she was all alone.
Kanna collapsed fully onto the ground and made mud of the dirt below her face. For the first time in her life, she felt worship for the ground that held her up. She could not kneel low enough. She breathed in the earth and remembered what she had told Goda Brahm centuries before:
“Make me surrender. That’s all I want from you: for you to force yourself on me. My entire life has fallen apart, and all the desires I might have had in this world have been stripped from me, except for this one perverse craving that I can’t shake: I want you to be the animal that pounces on me in the forest, and bites the back of my neck, and pushes my face into the dirt.”
Goda had refused her. She had not sunk her teeth into Kanna’s skin, she had not pressed her claws into the back of Kanna’s skull, but still Kanna’s nostrils were filled with earth all the same. She laughed into it. She coughed.
Is this what it means to be alive? she thought to herself. Does it mean to resist the world around me so that I can be separate from it, so that I can cough out the dirt with prejudice instead of letting it become part of me? When I die, does that mean that I will go back to being the dirt, the trees, the stars, and everything else I’ve resisted all my life? When I die, will I become Goda, too? And Goda, when she dies, will she…?
Kanna lifted her head up towards the sky, no longer timid, no longer afraid to see that the world was still lightly breathing against her.
“I must go to her,” Kanna said.
Whether she lives or dies, I must be there to witness her. Master and liberator, saint and murderer, Goddess and Devil, I must fearlessly witness her. All of her.
Because all her thoughts had been exhausted, Kanna stood up without thinking that she couldn’t. She ran through the grass, her feet naturally falling along the trail that she had cut through the yard with Goda hours before. She followed the path to the giant’s paradise. She straddled the tiny fence and jumped over without using the gate. Once she was inside, she raced past all the fruits that called out to her hunger, and she pressed herself hard against the trunk of Goda’s tree. It too was breathing; she could feel it rising and falling against her hands like a beating heart. She could see little sparks in the ridges of the bark, pulsing streams of light that flowed like veins.
“How could I have made an idol out of you, Goda Brahm?” Kanna whispered against it. “There’s too much of you to fit inside a carved block of wood, or stone, or bronze. There’s almost too much of you to fit inside me.”
She felt a presence again—a pair of eyes. This time, they were all too human, all too simple and material: the stare of a wooden Goddess coming out from behind the tangled brush. It was the statue that had watched as she and Goda had coaxed each other towards the edge of death at the base of the tree.
“Even now, you’re a shameless voyeur, Goddess,” Kanna said. “Well, I’ve given you a show. You’ve seen the world through my eyes and experienced human pain and bliss and sensuality. Now pay me in kind: show me how to leave this place, or I’ll knock you off your pedestal like I did with the giant.”
When the Goddess didn’t respond and offered nothing like the presence she had felt before, Kanna huffed. Though her snakes were still oddly silent and the undulating ocean had calmed, she had access to some of her frustration, so she stalked over to the statue and kicked it right in the base with gritted teeth.
“Useless idols,” Kanna began to say—but between her own words, she heard an echo rising up inside the wood.
It was because the Goddess was hollow.
Kanna’s eyebrows furrowed at first, but then the realization hit her all at once. With a sharp breath, she bore her feet down on the earth, and she pressed her hands up against the Goddess’s face. It took most of her strength, but she was able to shake the statue’s foundation, and with one final push, she tipped the idol off its pedestal.
It fell onto its side and rolled along the ground until it hit the fence.
All that was left before Kanna’s feet was a bottomless pit where the Goddess had been. And though the passage was too dark for her to see much more than the first few rungs of a ladder dipping into the ground, she saw that the hole was just wide enough to accommodate the shoulders of a giant.
So it was true what she told me, Kanna thought. The Goddess was the pathway out all along.
Her snakes writhed with fear at the unknown below, but Kanna neither obeyed them nor suppressed them. As she dropped her bare foot on the first ledge, she offered the serpents the same love that the All-Seeing Eye had given her. Some of them accepted this and dissolved, and some of them cowered from the light of Kanna’s presence to tangle themselves deeper into the caverns of her mind, but either way they could not paralyze her anymore.
Rung by rung, Kanna descended into the Earth. As she did so, she felt the cord of energy that flowed through her spine rooting itself deep into the unknown below her. She also felt it rise up above like a fountain-jet shooting into the sky, even though the moon and stars had already begun shrinking into a smaller and smaller point of light overhead. It was as if she had become a giant and nothing that surrounded her could contain her anymore.
When Kanna reached the bottom rung, she could not see or feel anything below her. There was no ground, no wall.
She let go.
The metal ladder cried out with an empty ring as it lost her. The moment her feet landed on wet stone, she knew exactly in which direction to go, as if she had been possessed by a spirit that moved with no effort or thought. On faith, she slid into the embrace of pitch black–and soon enough, without even a beat of hesitation, the void had embraced her in return.
There were thousands of them, coiled around her. Hundreds of thousands of serpents, emerging from the nothing, and yet painting every surface, weaving themselves in glowing streaks to form the solid walls of a tunnel. With bewilderment, she watched how they constructed every mortared brick and every mossy stone to lay a path before her; she looked down at her hands and watched how they emerged from inside her and built every shred of her skin in twisting spirals of endless depth, brick by brick, cell by cell, particle by particle, deeper and deeper, forever.
There was no surface to fall on. The vision was bottomless. Kanna could no longer take a single step forward, because it would have taken her an eternity to traverse even one cobblestone made of infinite snakes.
Fighting the instinct to panic, fighting the infinity that nauseated her, Kanna squeezed her eyes shut and listened for the hum of her serpents. They were speaking to her–they were always speaking–but now she knew what their voices sounded like, even if their language was still incomprehensible.
Show me the path forward, Kanna said to them. Show me what you have been hiding from me all along, everything that I refused to see, everything that you know to be true.
Don’t be afraid. I won’t punish us anymore.
I have laid down my cuff.
I am not your master.
I am not your slave.
“I am you.”
Her voice echoed. The path stretched endlessly and her demons stirred from her shameless incantation.
She listened for the sound of her own breath, and soon enough the hum of the serpents rose and fell with her. When she tore her eyes open, she stared deeply into the ground, and the world became whole and finite again as she focused her eyes.
They had answered.
There was nothing else to see besides herself. The floor was swimming in a faint, wet reflection, a dancing portrait of her own face mirrored back to her. She thought it was a standing puddle at first, but then she noticed how the waters rippled against her ankles, flowing down in tiny streams from the sides of the tunnel’s throat, from somewhere behind her. It did not match the cold air that blew into the hollow from above; the water was tepid, almost warm–and along with it, a raft of tiny white petals had come to crash at the shores of her feet.
Kanna stiffened again, but this time with the tension of surprise–and of knowing.
It was Death who was waiting for her at the other end.
And she could not let her wait any longer.
Kanna grasped at the slippery walls to half-amble, half-climb her way deeper into the stream, away from the source that had birthed it. Her serpents were still breathing, their hums like drumbeats against her hands and her spine. She hummed back to them and, hearing their master’s voice, they undulated to help push her further downstream. They crowded her more closely, coiled around her more tightly, until it was her own demons who carried her onward, more than even her own motive force.
She walked, then crouched, then crawled, then slid along her belly in the dark as the ceiling dropped lower. The walls grew wetter, too, then hotter. Her snakes contracted, pushing her into the ever-narrowing passageway, but she felt no fear as she surrendered to them, because far at the end of the cavern, she could see a small point of light.
The river gushed around her, growing warmer and warmer the closer she squeezed towards this shining star. Rising hot water had come to fill the small hollow in front of her until it was sweltering, the growing rays of light painting its vapors as fleeting blue ghosts. When the water rose up to her neck, it smelled of more than steam; there were Rava Spirits mixed in, a faint scent that was quickly overwhelmed when a gust of freezing outside air hit her in the face.
Looking out, she could see the waters pouring in from a dozen drain holes on the ceiling, and a wide opening beyond them that framed a blue-black sky. She could see little else–only a single, tall shadow looming, robes rippling in the wind as it crouched, seemingly to deliver her.
Kanna stretched an arm out desperately, but she was still too entrenched in the darkness to reach the end. She clawed her way closer to the opening, wading against the growing rapids of the stream and the serpents, even though pushing against the mix of currents had started to exhaust her.
She slipped back.
Before she could cry out the giant’s name, chaotic human voices broke the harmony of rushing waters and humming serpents. Motors revved in the near distance, enough that Kanna could feel the vibrations in her chest. Pipes rattled louder and louder, drowning out her voice in their swelling, as if they were filled to the point of bursting.
And Kanna, too, was bursting.
Her serpents had multiplied a thousand times. They oozed from the walls and birthed themselves out from her pelvis in torrents. They pushed against her painfully with every rapid contraction, each snake giving birth to more snakes, and each of those to more still until she could not hum against them anymore because their embrace had strangled her.
She gnashed her teeth when searing water filled her mouth, and she clawed at the sides of the cavern to try to drag herself out into the air–towards the giant shadow that had begun to eclipse the light–and out of the mass of snakes that had engulfed her. Her fingers slipped along the metal rim of the cavern’s opening, but as she felt the cold beginnings of freedom against her fingertips, more and more serpents slithered out from deep within her and joined their sisters in drowning her.
Just as she felt them crushing her bones in their roiling grind, they gave one final, painful, heaving push that swallowed the last of her breath.
And then Kanna Rava, with all her blood and guts and serpents, burst into the outside world.
To be continued…