Kanna waited for a long time, but Goda did not come. She stared out the hazy window and up at the sky that grew ever brighter over the landscape. Her eyes closed and opened on their own as sleep took her for a few seconds at a time. For awhile, the only thing that seemed real was the inflow and outflow of her breath.
Even through the folds of her robes, she could feel the texture of the cuff key pressing against her from its place deep inside her pocket. It nagged at her with its presence, and reminded her that her passivity had come to an end.
There was no choice. She had to do it. Three days before, her past self had resolved to escape slavery the moment she had a chance. What good would that promise have been if her present self did not honor it?
Still, without any shred of logic to justify the feeling, she wanted to see Goda. The woman’s presence was not comforting, but there was something about that empty space that hovered around Goda that made Kanna feel a strange wakefulness, a relief, as if she were being splashed in the face with cold water. She wanted to see that savage, and to be carried away in her arms—only once more, only for a moment—and then she could pick herself up and resist again.
But Goda did not come.
When Kanna could feel the metal walls of the storage shed radiating the heat of the sun, she decided that she had waited too long, and that she would do something she had never done before: she would seek out Goda. Getting up onto an unstable pair of legs, her inner body still floating faintly inside the shell of her skin, her head still pulsing and disconnected, she shuffled to the doorway and pushed that last barrier open.
The sand outside blew against her more aggressively than before. It made it hard to see without getting dirt in her eyes, and so she pressed her hand to her face and kept her stare at the ground. One foot after another, she watched her toes dig into the sand, the grit falling between the soles of her feet and her sandals, grinding away at her soft skin.
She moved in the direction of the garden. When she ventured to look up, her arm still hovering over her eyes, she saw that small mountain of limbs and hair and dark cloth strewn on the ground right outside the fence. For just a second, her heart jerked with a reaction she couldn’t comprehend; for just a second, she had thought that maybe Goda was dead.
But the heap that made up that woman’s body was still moving. It was rising and falling with the wind-blown sand, with a deep breath that flowed from huge lungs. Kanna was so entranced by that flow, that at first she didn’t fully register the form that had appeared over Goda in the haze.
It was a soldier. She was standing tall, bent back, as if her spine were a slingshot that was poised to strike. In her hands was a wooden post that had clearly been ripped from the fence. It was aimed at Goda’s head.
The wind seemed to grow suddenly quiet. Kanna could still feel it blowing against her face, but the noise stopped and instead Kanna’s ears were flooded with a dull whir. Without even thinking, she reached down into the ground in front of her and felt for the biggest rock that could fit in her hand.
She slammed it so hard into the air that a sharp whistling erupted in front of her and she fell forward from the snap of her muscles in the movement. She had barely taken a fraction of a second to aim, but the rock seemed to know her intention, and it delivered itself with a crack against the underside of the soldier’s ribs.
The makeshift bat fell limply from the woman’s fingers. The woman doubled over and followed it to the ground. She cried out in pain, and then she screamed something when her eyes traced the presumed path of the rock and she met Kanna’s gaze for the first time. She had an ugly bruise on her face that looked half-healed. She was saying something to Kanna, but Kanna could not hear—all that Kanna could sense was the growing empty sound of that whirring, and the rise and fall of her own breath in her ears.
Kanna’s hands were pressed into the sand. She watched as the sleeping mountain began to stir, and the soldier grew spooked, and so the soldier scuffled to her feet and ran off into the plain, until that curtain of haze hid her form and the wind swept away even her footprints.
Goda stared across the sands at Kanna. Her black eyes were fully open, fully awake, without even a trace of the murkiness of sleep. Kanna felt that she was looking at a woman who had never been drunk in her life, a woman who had never fallen asleep, a woman who had simply closed her eyes and pressed her face into the sand so that she could feel the sensation of the gravel on her skin with full awareness.
As repulsed as she was by this, Kanna shifted onto her feet and ran to her—because she had found her finally. She kicked up dirt when she slid towards her, and immediately Goda reached up and took her by the hand to pull her closer.
“We have to leave,” Goda said. “Right now.” Kanna could hear Goda’s voice clearly, even through the buzzing in her own head. In the dim background, she thought she could hear shouting, a growing shuffle of activity coming from the beastly engines nearby.
They both trudged back to the storage shed and grabbed what they could carry, and then they rushed across the plain towards Goda’s truck, avoiding the shadows of the military along the way. Goda’s truck lay alone surrounded by the empty space of the desert, and for a reason that Kanna could not fathom, she felt like it had been waiting for them, like it had been impatient for their return.
Goda quickly fed the tank, then she handed the half-spent canister of fuel to Kanna and told her to hold it in the front seat of the truck. Kanna took the fuel without resistance this time—perhaps because she was in a hurry, perhaps for some other reason—but as she climbed into the rig and threw the canister on the floor, her eyes still scanned the Upperlander script instinctively.
Rava Spirits, it read.
And so she knew that she had not merely dreamt it the night before.
* * *
“I want the truth,” Kanna said. She had not spoken for a long time because the rushing air had filled her ears and she had assumed that they would not be able to hear each other in the midst of it. In time, though, as they had grown further and further from the monastery, Goda had slowed their pace and the wind didn’t seem quite as loud, even if Kanna’s hair was still blowing around violently like streamers on a flag post.
Goda kept her eyes sternly ahead, her mouth a thin, straight line that barely moved when she replied, “The truth about what?”
“Everything.” Kanna turned and looked at her, and she could feel the side of Goda’s gaze upon her. “Seeing my name on these containers of fuel…it’s not enough. I don’t believe what you said to me in the caverns. I can’t believe it. There has to be some other explanation. If what you told me is true, then my own family….” Kanna stopped. “If what you told me is true, then the pain of hearing more of it will make me sick—but I can’t bear the ignorance any longer. Tell me what you know about why this happened to me and why I’m here.”
Goda was quiet for a long time, long enough that Kanna’s mind began to drift, and she started to notice that the landscape was changing around them. More foliage had appeared. Greens and browns had joined the dull color of the sand, and the earth had grown more compact and visibly fertile.
Finally, Goda answered: “Last night, I showed you the truth,” she said, “and there is more to the story than even what I told you—but the story doesn’t matter. It’s just a story. That was your past, and it has no inherent meaning to it. There are deeper truths in the present that you’ll miss if you fixate on what came before.”
“Goda.” Kanna gritted her teeth and reached out and took hold of the side of Goda’s arm. She dug her nails through the fabric until she felt edges of flesh. Slowly, Goda turned to look at her directly. “I need to know,” Kanna whispered desperately. “I can’t just let go of something that defines my entire life before this moment.”
Goda stared at Kanna as strands of unruly hair from the both of them whipped around the space between them, touching lightly here and there, but never entangling fully. Goda turned her gaze back towards the road. “Over the past hundred years—since the first engine roared in the Middleland, since your great-great grandfather sold us the first drop of alcohol—we’ve grown ever more dependent on Rava’s product. Your family became powerful and used the profits to buy more and more land—and to make more and more money, to buy more and more land, and so on, ever closer to infinity—until they had nearly monopolized the entire supply of mok grain on the continent and even your countrymen could hardly eat. It was all being turned into alcohol. Your father was particularly greedy. The price soared because he knew he could charge anything and we would pay.” Goda shrugged. “Eventually, we grew tired of paying it. It’s as simple as that.”
“What, so you just invade a country because the people in it don’t want to give you things for cheap?” Kanna said, her voice rising, outrage already growing in her bones. “Is peaceful negotiation not part of your culture?”
“Do you want to hear the truth, or do you want to play the victim still?” Goda waited and Kanna turned away without replying, so she continued, “The Middleland absorbed your country with the specific intention to nationalize the Rava grain fields and distilleries, and your monarchy allowed it to happen, because your father had grown too disagreeable even for them. He made enemies out of everyone, thinking that he was dominating them, winning some unwinnable game by growing wealthy. He thought that money would be a good enough shield against the hatred of the masses: the Middleland, whom he had gouged; the Upperland government, which he had tried to influence with his wealth; and the Upperlanders themselves, whose lands he had ripped away from them so that he could feed the hungry mouths of countless engines instead of people.” Goda’s brow knotted, as if she were seeing something in front of her, some unpleasant mirage in the landscape. “But he was wrong,” she said. “No amount of money could balm the wounds that he and his fathers had created—because money is a delusion. It will not protect you. You can buy weapons, but you cannot buy your way out of death if the world seeks to destroy you. Money has no power on its own; it has no meaning in nature. Try paying off a tiger who has his teeth around your throat. This is what your father tried to do, and so he faced a rude awakening.”
Kanna stared down at the canister by her feet, the canister that said Rava Spirits and that bounced lightly with every bump in the road. It spat out drops of fuel on occasion as it jostled, and she could smell it if she concentrated enough.
“He was rebellious until the end, though. Your father set fire to his own grain fields with his own fuel before he fled, so that we would be unable to use it. This is why we had the shortage even after we had captured your property.”
“That’s ridiculous! Why would he do that? What kind of sense does that make?” Then Kanna paused. When she really thought about it with full lucidity, she wasn’t entirely sure that it was impossible. She didn’t know her father well enough to be able to tell if it was out of character or not. “Well, even if he did,” she said, a bit more quietly, “can you really blame him? He’s just trying to protect the family name and the honor of his own country. You people don’t deserve the fruit of Upperlander labor. You can’t just rush in and take it. You act like the Middleland is blameless in all this.”
“I don’t deny that the Middleland shares greatly in responsibility. The motors were invented in the Middleland, after all, and we are by far the first of the nations to industrialize. But in that sense, it is only natural that we’d leverage that advantage. It is only nature taking its course that our government would grow its military and then invade its weaker neighbors to gain even more resources. This is how life works.”
Kanna narrowed her eyes. “Well, if it’s so ‘natural’ for you people, then why wasn’t it ‘natural’ for my family to do the same in our own way, without a military, with only profits to drive us instead of some goddamn machines?”
“Did I say it wasn’t?” Goda smirked, which Kanna found weird. “It’s only that your family met their consequences faster.”
“What, you mean to say that you think that what my family was doing and what your government was doing was equally wrong?”
“Yes. And equally expected.”
Kanna hunched back in her seat, her mind swimming with confusion and outrage yet again. “Then why didn’t you do anything to try to stop it?”
“I don’t know. There has to be some way to resist. You’re a Middlelander, aren’t you? Can’t you fight against your own country’s fate?”
Goda put her hand on a lever and urged the rig to move faster. She tipped her head in the direction of the road before them. “If you stand in front of this truck,” she said, “what are the chances that you could put your hand out and stop it? What are the chances that you could push it back all the way to where it started and force it to start anew in a different direction even as it rumbles against you?”
“I’m not brainless. I know that one person doesn’t make much of a difference, if that’s what you’re saying. Still, don’t you think that out of principle, a person should at least try to—?”
“If you want to gratify your sense of self—to make yourself feel important—then go ahead and stand in front of this hurtling chunk of metal and get run over and brag about how you slowed it down for half a second,” Goda continued, “but if you actually want to make a difference, you can’t resist the natural unfolding of a beast like this; you can’t complain about what it does or where it came from. You can only jump on top of it and move with it and nudge the levers so that it starts to slowly lean in the direction that you want it to go.”
Kanna crossed her arms over her chest, already sick of Goda’s endless metaphors. “Then where do I find those levers for your Middleland, so that I can nudge it in a direction where I can be free?” she asked, though of course it was not a real question, and her tone was sarcastic.
Goda answered anyway: “If it’s freedom you want, then you hold those levers in your hands already.”
“Oh? If that’s so, then why am I not free?”
“Because what you want isn’t freedom. You prefer slavery.”
Kanna gave Goda an irritated look. “You keep saying things like that: that I like to be punished, that I want to be in pain, that I prefer to be a slave. Isn’t it clear to you that I’m struggling to fight those circumstances, that I push back against you every step of the way?”
“You don’t want freedom,” Goda repeated, her tone not exactly dismissive, but still annoying in how detached and casual it sounded, “because you’ve always been enslaved, even if you never called it that until now. Being a slave is part of your identity. Who would you be without it? No one at all. What you actually want is to go back to a different sort of slavery, the kind you experienced in your home country, because it is more familiar and less obvious and easier to deny. But in this world, there is no such thing as going back to anything. You can’t return to where you came from, because by the time you turn around, everything in the universe has changed.”
It seemed to happen more and more that Kanna would find herself unable to respond to Goda’s insanity. Instead of replying, she huffed and leaned back and closed her eyes. She could still feel the weight of the cuff key in her pocket, shifting around with the movements of her body as it all flowed with the momentum of the truck.
Maybe Goda was half-right, then; maybe freedom was already in her grasp—or rather, in her pocket—and she needed only to make the choice.
* * *
When they stopped on the side of a deserted road, Kanna found that they had pulled over beside a patch of evergreen trees that reached up high into the air. After having spent the past few days on the plains, where there were hardly any trees and the few that speckled the landscape weren’t much taller than she was, it comforted her to see a bird or two perched in some branches above her.
Goda leapt out of the truck and, without waiting for Kanna, pushed into the brush and disappeared into a trail. Finding herself suddenly alone, Kanna ran after her, dove into the thatch of trees without thinking, stumbled through the prickly vines and fallen logs.
She caught sight of Goda again almost immediately. Under the light that was filtering from the canopy and that was bouncing off the golden green of the leaves around her, she saw a flash of the woman’s skin that quickly made her heart jolt.
Goda had stopped in front of a small, muddy lake that shone in the light like a murky mirror. She was already taking her clothes off. More layers of fabric fell before Kanna’s eyes, and as Kanna approached, the details of the smooth valleys and hard lines of Goda’s back became clearer. Because the woman was turned around and could not see her, Kanna allowed her eyes to wander as the robes slid down Goda’s waist and opened the last half of her body to the light.
Kanna took in a sharp breath. Nearly everything about Goda confused her—the woman’s attitude towards life, the woman’s past, and especially the woman’s nonsensical words—but there was one thing that had managed to float up beyond Kanna’s mind, something that Kanna’s body seemed to understand perfectly well. She could accept it now, and so she watched Goda’s nakedness openly.
In time, Goda seemed to feel her stare, so she half-turned and smirked in Kanna’s direction. She didn’t seemed bothered; there was no judgment; she may not have even realized with what kind of gaze Kanna regarded her.
“I didn’t have time to wash as I usually do first thing in the morning,” Goda said. “If you need to do the same, then now is the time. We won’t be stopping again until after sundown.”
Kanna watched the woman wading into the water; Goda had no hesitation, as if she had given no thoughts to any hazards beneath the surface. Because this made Kanna gain some confidence, she neared the pool herself, feeling herself drawn in, like the very path that lay between the trees was pulling her closer to Goda.
Once she had reached the edge of the lake, Kanna crouched and touched the surface of the water with her fingers. She watched ripples etch across the water, but still there was no sign of clarity, and she could see nothing except for the reflection of the canopy above waving beneath her. “How did you know about this place?” Kanna murmured to Goda, who was now waist-deep in the waters.
“I’ve traveled these roads a lot since I became a porter. I know them well.”
Kanna looked up at her, her fingers still lightly grazing the top of the water. “How long have you been a porter?”
“About eight years. Three years of apprenticeship under a guide, and then these last five years on my own.”
“You’re young, Goda,” Kanna said, and this time she had to fight herself to keep from looking away because Goda had turned and her expression had changed into one of attentive curiosity. “Older than me, but still young. Why did they give a job like this to you? You were only seventeen when you started, then, weren’t you? That’s crazy. I can’t even fathom that.”
“The age doesn’t matter. They choose a specific type of person.”
“Did you want to do this job?”
“No.” There was no pause before the answer and there was no shame in the tone.
“Then why didn’t you object? Can’t Middlelanders choose their jobs?”
“Most people do choose their jobs—but I never have. I go wherever the Mother tells me. That’s all.”
The Mother. Kanna still wasn’t sure what the woman meant by that—if it was the Goddess that she spoke of, or the government that represented the Goddess, or both. Either way, she couldn’t understand how someone could be so open-eyed and conscious about being so blindly led.
She did not contemplate for long, though. Her mind kept growing distracted. She kept seeing the shape of Goda’s body and she kept warring with herself, caught between her natural tendency to extract some strange pleasure out of what she was seeing and the touch of shame she had for looking so intently.
Goda did not say anything, but she stared back. She was standing in the water, small leaves and twigs floating close, collecting along her narrow hips as the tiny waves of the pool lapped lightly against her. Kanna’s eyes followed the distinct lines of the bottom of Goda’s torso, down to where they disappeared into the water.
Kanna wanted to get closer, but the water was between them, so she began to pull her robes over her head. She did it slowly because a feeling of hesitation was still burdening her, dragging all of her movements out. It was the usual repulsion she felt towards Goda, and residual embarrassment at making herself naked in front of the woman—but the warm feeling that surged below her belly had grown more urgent, and she wanted to explore it, to understand it.
Putting her clothes aside on a nearby rock, she felt like she was also putting the cuff key aside for the moment. Even if Goda did not know she had it, its presence had seemed to hover between them nonetheless, and Kanna felt like a barrier had fallen when she set it down.
Just for awhile, Kanna thought. Just for awhile, until we come out of the woods, maybe we can look at each other outside these roles of porter and slave.
The woods didn’t care who they were, after all. Whatever might happen in the cover of the trees didn’t mean anything.
Kanna slipped into the lake and waded towards Goda. She found that it was easy to hold herself up, the rush of the water pleasantly passing across her legs, each step a small leap that allowed her to float without gravity before drifting down to the muddy floor again. She stopped three paces short of the woman, when she felt a thick log beneath her. Testing its stability with her foot, she stepped up onto it, and though she was about to get down and continue her journey on the other side, she noticed that the higher ground had afforded her a pleasant view of Goda.
She was still not as tall as Goda, but she could look more directly into her eyes, and the woman did not need to tilt her head down so much to meet Kanna’s glance. So Kanna stayed—unsure of what she was doing, unsure of what that gaze and their mutual silence even meant.
“I saved your life this morning,” Kanna said finally.
Goda laughed. “Maybe you did.”
“I know I did. That was the soldier you got into a fight with yesterday, wasn’t it? She would have broken your skull open. You might have deserved it, too.” The added height had given Kanna some confidence, so she said it in a steady voice without looking away.
“Then why did you do it?”
“I don’t know, to be honest. Before I even knew what I was doing, I had already thrown the rock. There’s no good reason for it; I don’t even like you that much, so it wasn’t worth it.” Kanna studied Goda’s face in the light that filtered down from above, and she noticed the small lines that had formed at the edges of the woman’s eyes, the faint smile in them that seemed to mock her. “Maybe I was just afraid that she would ruin you, that she would make you even uglier than you already are, and that I would have to look at that unattractive face all the way to the Middleland.”
Goda’s ghostly smile grew more obvious, and she took a step forward until she was close enough that Kanna could feel a pocket of heat rushing towards her through the cool air. Just that alone made Kanna afraid, made her heart start racing again, but she stood her ground and tried not to make her anxiety obvious.
But it wasn’t only anxiety.
“You must be a masochist after all, then,” Goda said with amusement. “I’m so painfully ugly to look at, and yet you still look at me with such intensity. You must love to be repulsed.”
“Yes, I love to hate you. Everything about you is ugly—even your personality. There’s nothing redeeming about you at all.”
“And yet still you look at me.”
“Yes, I still look at you.” Kanna let out an unsteady breath and reached out before she could stop herself. She pressed her hands to Goda’s chest, where she could feel some moisture that had splashed up to coat the skin. The droplets were cool, but she could still sense the warm skin underneath. She ran her fingers down to Goda’s torso, where the texture grew harder, more muscular, less tempered by the softness that lay at the edges of Goda’s chest. But Kanna liked this, too. She traced a path lightly down until her hands grazed the waterline near Goda’s hips. She hesitated to go further, to slide her touch down to the space that she couldn’t see beneath the water, but her curiosity broke through her fear after a moment because she suddenly noticed—or thought she noticed—that Goda had leaned a bit into the touch.
But before she could follow through, a pair of hands appeared around her wrists. The touch was gentle; the fingers had wrapped around her forearms very slowly, and the light pressure that stopped her movements only came once Kanna’s hand had brushed lightly against some skin beneath the water, some skin that was etched with what felt like a sparse patch of hair.
Kanna didn’t fight Goda’s grasp, which pulled her hands out of the water. Kanna stared down into her own reflection, her breaths coming hard, her chest heaving. Both her and Goda’s image rippled with the movement of the water, but she tried not to look at Goda’s expression.
“I…had hoped to God that you hadn’t noticed, because it’s embarrassing to me,” Kanna confessed, her voice ragged. “But you did notice, didn’t you? Even before just now.”
“Yes, I had noticed.”
“Since the second or third day, perhaps.”
“I’m sorry,” Kanna blurted out, though it didn’t feel like the phrase she had been looking for. There were no words in Middlelander for what she was feeling. “It’s so stupid. I don’t know why I feel this way. I’ve looked at other people before with this sort of gaze, and sometimes I’ve even found their naked bodies to be mildly pleasing to me, but….” She shook her head at her own reflection. “But it’s different with you. I’ve never been so pleased to look at someone’s body. It pleases me entirely too much. It captures the whole of my attention. I keep wanting to look. I keep wanting to touch.”
Kanna ventured to look up into Goda’s eyes once again, though it was very difficult. To her surprise, the eyes that regarded her held no pity, no annoyance; even the vapid emptiness of her usual stare was swirling with something else this time, though Kanna could not tell what it was.
“There’s no reason to apologize.” Goda very gently let go of her wrists, and so Kanna’s hands came to fall limply at her sides, unsettling the water once again. “I can’t give you what you want, but there’s no reason to be ashamed for wanting it.”
“But I don’t even like you. I can’t stand you, to be honest. I don’t even think you’re a very good person. Isn’t it wrong for me to then ignore all of that simply because I think you’re…?” Kanna stopped. She wasn’t sure what she thought of the way Goda looked. It hadn’t really been a thought at all; it had been more like a reaction. Goda wasn’t conventionally beautiful, like other women that Kanna had found attractive before, but something about the shape of Goda’s frame, the angles of her face, and even the woman’s particular smell made Kanna want to stand closer to her. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Goda looked amused again. “These sorts of things aren’t meant to make sense. They simply are what they are.”
“Doesn’t it bother you, though?” Kanna whispered, because even voicing it was embarrassing. “Doesn’t it bother you to know that I look at you that way?”
“No. Why would it?”
Kanna made a face. “So then you find it flattering.” She found this notion also distasteful.
“I don’t. The things that make us take pleasure in one body over another are so random that it hardly warrants my feeling flattered. How silly.”
For some reason, hearing this irritated Kanna more than even Goda’s rejection had. “Don’t you take any pride in yourself at all? I’ve just paid you a huge compliment that you don’t deserve, and you won’t even accept it.”
“So you would prefer that I let some chemical reaction in your body—a reaction that you cannot help—feed some self-image of mine, even though I have no intention of satisfying you? Odd that you wouldn’t find such a situation insulting.”
Kanna raised an eyebrow. Once again, she did not know how to answer this strange woman. Goda had waved away Kanna’s shame, but at the very same time, she had laughed away the idea that Kanna’s opinion about her could be worth anything at all. This, Kanna thought, was more insulting.
“Your rejection is more savage than I could have imagined,” Kanna said, looking down.
“Then you have a piss-poor imagination.” Goda touched her face, pushed her chin up until they had met eyes again. She was smiling, her eyes a bit impish. “But I’m not rejecting you. That implies that your feelings are something that I can accept or reject. They are what they are. I’m merely telling you that I have no intention of having sex with my own prisoner. It’s not a good idea.”
“I didn’t ask for that,” Kanna said immediately. “How presumptuous. Now you really are flattering yourself.”
“Oh? What sort of end did you have in mind, then? What did you want to do with those feelings of yours?”
Kanna’s first instinct was to contradict her, but before she could speak, she stopped herself because she knew that Goda was right. When she thought about it, even for just a few seconds, she found that she couldn’t dismiss her desire—in spite of her personal dislike for the woman, in spite of everything.
“Though you say that you don’t really like anything else about me,” Goda said, tilting her head and looking up at the tree line serenely, “I can’t say for sure whether it’s safe to believe you. If it really is strictly physical, then that would make it all easier, and then maybe we could resolve this tension between us right now and go on with our lives—but you might be lying, or you might be mistaken, and in the case that you like me more than you claim, indulging you would just make the situation worse. You’ll get attached. You’ll like me even more. That’s what sex can do.”
“Again, you’re presumptuous.”
“Maybe so, but it’s better not to open that box of snakes. It’s good for both of us if you hate me more than you like me. It’ll serve to discourage me as well.”
Kanna stared at her in silence for a long moment, not quite sure how she should interpret what the woman had just said. She hadn’t really considered Goda’s feelings, she realized; the idea that the woman might look at her the same way made her suddenly uncomfortable. It all seemed too human for Goda. Kanna shifted awkwardly in place, feeling the slippery surface of the log beneath her moving a bit; it was less stable than she had originally assumed.
“What do you mean?” Kanna finally asked.
Goda laughed again. “If you’re asking that, then you’ve already guessed. You’re not imagining things, and the tension isn’t only on your end, of course. I find you nice to look at. I’m just less obvious when I look.” She pushed the tips of her fingers against Kanna’s shoulder, enough to knock her off balance, enough that Kanna fell splashing into the water.
Kanna waved her arms around in a panic automatically, as if her body had fallen into some watery abyss that she needed to fight her way out of, which made the splashing worse. Luckily, the distance to the lake floor was negligible, and so she caught her footing quickly and she only got a bit of water in her nose. Kanna coughed and looked up at Goda with distaste.
“Always a dramatic performance,” Goda said with a wild grin. She did not clap, but she nodded her head once, as if she were offering a bow.
After they had finished bathing, they crawled lazily onto the big rocks near the edge of the lake, so that they could dry in the light of the sun that was shining down through the canopy. Goda was half-sitting, half-lying on the flat top of a boulder, her body propped up on her elbows, and Kanna had settled onto a ledge beside her. In spite of everything that Goda had said, Kanna had laid her head on the woman’s thigh and had watched Goda’s expression carefully to see if she would object. She had not.
They had talked for a bit about unimportant things—the weather in the Middleland, the landscape around them—but Goda did not seem very good at keeping those sorts of conversations going, and so they had quickly fallen into silence. Without the distraction of small talk, Kanna found that she couldn’t stop the thoughts that echoed in her mind.
Goda is attracted to me. She felt her face blushing furiously against the woman’s skin. She didn’t know why she was fixating so strongly on the thought. It had pushed everything else out of her mind. For the moment, she had forgotten all about her situation, all about the cuff key, all about the world outside the small patch of forest that they found themselves in.
Perhaps Goda’s intention had been to point to the obvious, so that the tension could finally dissolve and Kanna could find some relief. In a sense, Goda had indeed broken through some of the unspoken discomfort between them—but she had also given rise to new tension, and so Kanna did not know if she would ever find relief at all.
She looked down at Goda’s hand where it rested against the rock. She studied the thick knuckles, the cuts and scratches and translucent scars that etched the skin of her fingers. She thought about what that hand would look like touching her.
It’s stupid, Kanna reminded herself. It’s stupid. I can’t let myself get distracted. I need to remember that there’s a world outside of this and that I’m going to be running away from her—maybe even fighting her—in a day or two at the most.
But something about Goda always made her forget about what was coming next and what had come before. Something about Goda pushed her into this long, spreading, present moment that never ended. Everything about Goda was always here and now.
“What if we do what we want right now, here in the forest,” Kanna murmured, her hand coming up to lightly touch the space where Goda’s hip met her thigh, “and then never speak of it again. We can act like it never happened. It doesn’t really matter anyway, does it?”
The truth was that their connection would be cut short soon enough, even if Goda did not realize exactly how soon that would be. It’s a waste, isn’t it? Kanna thought to herself. There’s no good reason to hold ourselves back now. Kanna had never been so physically attracted to anyone in her life, and she realized that she had nothing to lose in indulging it at that point. It really didn’t mean anything. It made sense to put Goda’s body to use while she still had the chance to use it.
“Indeed, it doesn’t matter,” Goda replied, her voice soft, “but no, we can’t act like it never happened, so we won’t do it.”
“Wasn’t it you who said that the past is just made up of stories? You implied that my life in the Upperland was just a delusion and that I couldn’t hold onto that if I wanted to carry on, but now you’re giving whatever we do in here actual importance, even though this will also become the past the moment we leave. Why do you have these double standards?”
Goda smiled down at her. “So you were listening to me earlier after all.”
“And are you listening to me now? Or are you evading my question?” Kanna said crossly, already so frustrated that she could hardly keep herself from thinking about punching Goda right in the face.
The woman turned away after a moment and looked off into the distance, into the thicket of the forest. “What you want,” she said, “is a container for reality, which is very different from letting go of the past. You want to compartmentalize what has arisen between us, and you want to pretend that you can manage it and control it—that you can keep it in this forest—so that you can say that you haven’t completely surrendered to it. But you can’t do that. It’s not possible; it would only be pretending.”
“I haven’t surrendered to anything.”
“Exactly. So don’t delude yourself that sex with me would be anything short of surrender. You either surrender to it, or you don’t. You are either hot or you are cold, but don’t make yourself lukewarm; you’ll put me off my appetite.” That was when Goda finally pushed Kanna away, then jumped down from the rock.
Kanna lifted her head up and looked Goda squarely in the face, her jaw clenched. “Then 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.” Her face was burning and her fingernails were digging hard into the surface of the rock, but since she had already forced herself to be much more honest than before, she decided that she would lose nothing in baring herself completely.
But Goda rejected even this. “Fool,” Goda said. “You don’t know what you’re asking for. It’s not enough to surrender your body. I won’t accept just that. The surrender would have to be so total that you would become an empty shell that only serves to have me inside of you. But you are already full of Kanna Rava, so there is not enough room for me to be inside of you as well. You cannot have both, so stop pretending. You’re too enamored with resistance and I can’t make you surrender—only you can let yourself go, and you won’t. There’s nothing to discuss.”
Kanna stared after her with a confused expression, but the face of the woman who glanced back was characteristically blank, except for an edge of aggression. “If you’re trying to turn me off by blabbering nonsense,” Kanna said, “then I’ll have you know that your plan is working.” As she said this, though, she could not tear her eyes away from Goda’s body even still, from the tension that had come over the woman’s frame, from the posture that looked like it indeed was about to launch that animal towards Kanna so that it could finally break her. Everything that Goda said had made her want the woman even more for some inexplicable reason that she couldn’t understand.
Goda did not entertain her anymore, though. She turned and headed back to her pile of discarded clothes and began to dress herself without looking at Kanna again.
The moment they stepped out of the forest a short while later, Kanna felt some of the tension drop away immediately. The air was different—less humid, more open—and though she knew that her frustration was still there beneath the surface, she could suddenly ignore it better. She stared down the long road that lay ahead of them and tried not to look at Goda directly.
* * *
“What happened to me?”
Kanna had been holding the calligraphy textbook up to her face—to stave off her boredom and to ease some of her still-lingering embarrassment at Goda’s bizarre rejection—but now it had grown too dark to read. The sun was waning, turning blood-red over some mountains in the distance. Kanna was surprised that the fuel had lasted this long, though granted she had no idea what kind of energy was contained in those canisters, or how it translated into the turning of an engine.
“Hm?” Goda murmured, and that was when Kanna realized that she had blurted out the question in the first place.
Kanna sighed. It was the first thing she had said since they had left the forest hours earlier. She felt a little awkward even still, but all the thinking and ruminating had left her in a renewed confusion.
“What happened to me in the caverns yesterday?” she asked. It had struck her a few hours earlier that there was something different in the air, but she had quickly realized that the difference was in herself. “I’m still not the same. Something changed in me, and when I sit here now in silence, I can feel it more than when I distract myself. It’s almost like…there’s a pocket of nothing where some of me used to be. I don’t know how else to describe it. I’m trying to remember which part of myself was there, but I can’t; I can just feel that it’s missing, like some habit that I’ve forgotten how to do.”
“I told you already. You began to die—not physically; a different sort of death, a letting go of your old self. Maybe that small part of you will never come back to life ever again, and that’s what you’re sensing now.” Goda stared squarely ahead at the road that was quickly growing dimmer. She flipped on the headlamps of the truck and the gravel right in front of them was suddenly flooded with light. “It’s not an accident that the shrine was built where it was. Many ancient shrines are like this—carved into caverns that have strange, magical properties. Maybe it’s some vibrating energy that comes from the rocks, or maybe it’s some fumes coming up from deep in the earth, but early Maharan shrines and even some pre-Maharan sites have this effect on certain people. They do something very similar to what the Samma Flower does. No one knows why.”
“It bothers me. The worst part is that I don’t even know what changed.” Kanna took a deep breath and looked down at her hands. It was then that she noticed that something about them looked different too, but she couldn’t tell exactly what. “I guess it’s not all bad. Just strange. Maybe it’s only my imagination, but it feels like part of a load I was carrying disappeared. I don’t know what it was, so I’m still grasping to find it.”
“The load is you,” Goda said. “Just being yourself is a burden because it traps you in old cycles and keeps you from growing beyond where you are. You cannot be the self you are now and also become the self that you were meant to be. You must change again and again, but most people resist the process at some point and get trapped, especially when change happens fast enough for them to notice, because change is the same as death, and death is not pleasant. This is why those shrines were built, and why the ancient people probably used to eat the Samma Flower in the very cave that we visited. They wanted to face death, to see life through the eyes of the Goddess instead of through the eyes of their limited selves. That is the true face of our Holy Mahara, a thing that no priestess will ever admit to you: the Goddess is actually nothing at all. She is the lack of self. She is what happens when you’ve surrendered everything and have become no one. She is not an untouchable idol in a temple; anyone who is no one can become the Goddess.”
Kanna looked at Goda in silence. As usual, what the woman said made no logical sense, but at the same time the words themselves reminded her of their conversation in the forest, and something in those words snapped together very suddenly. “But I’m still here,” Kanna whispered. “I still haven’t surrendered, and I’m still full of Kanna Rava.”
Goda turned to gaze at her, and her eyes gleamed with the diffused light that was still left in the sky. “Yes. The more you resist destroying Kanna Rava, the harder it will be for you to experience your true nature, the part of you that never changes, has no name, and cannot die. As long as you cling to this identity, you will also be unable to move on with your life. You will forever be the Goddess pretending to be Kanna Rava.”
“You ask too much of me,” Kanna said, but the truth was that she knew that Goda had asked for nothing, that the woman wanted nothing from her—and that the woman may have even been free of desire in general.
She knew now why the priestess had warned her: Goda was a dangerous person. The woman truly was empty and had nothing to lose. Every moment with her, this became increasingly clear. Kanna had to run away or else she would not survive even being transported.
She looked away, out towards the darkness that now faced them. A few lights peppered the horizon. Kanna narrowed her eyes and she thought she could see the shapes of machines. A low rumble began to travel through the air around her. “What is that out there?”
“The crossing,” Goda said. “We’re about to go over to the other side.”