As it turned out, the boy’s name was actually Preema—and he had a voracious appetite for both food and gossip. He sat next to Kanna on an old log, his arm slung over her shoulder, his eyes still wide and darkened from what Kanna could only imagine were the effects of Flower. With pupils that looked like the mouth of a bottomless well, Kanna couldn’t fathom how he was staring at her so intently, without squinting, with the sunlight beaming down directly on them.
“So, how did the two of you really get to know each other?” he whispered to her so that his higher mother—the one named Kahm—wouldn’t hear. The woman seemed distracted anyway. She was crouching not too far from them, on the other side of the yard, holding a wooden panel up to the hole in the fence while Goda swung against it with a hammer. “Obviously, she picked you up at the confinement center in the Outerland, but I’ve never seen her act like this with a slave. What happened? Did you break through that wall of hers with your feminine wiles? Tell me, tell me!”
He was shoveling handfuls of yaw into his mouth while he babbled at her, and though Kanna couldn’t blame him for being hungry after his long ordeal, it was making it even harder to understand what he was saying. He barely even took a pause between feedings. As soon as he would finish a plate, his lesser mother would magically appear from inside the house with some more.
“Preema, what on Earth are you whispering about? I hope you’re not asking our honored guest inappropriate questions. We didn’t teach you to be like that!” she chided him, though there was a huge grin on her face, and she didn’t seem too invested in her admonishment. She turned around without waiting for an answer and practically skipped across the yard back into the house to fetch another plate. Kanna had never seen anyone so happy to cook for someone else.
More bewildered than before, she tried her best to think of a response that wouldn’t reveal too many details that were none of the boy’s business. Kanna was only just starting to consider the fact that the situation between her and Goda was highly unusual, that Goda must have treated her differently from other slaves and that people were bound to notice eventually.
When did she start doing that? Kanna asked herself. Or did she treat me differently the whole time? The boy had brought up a good point. Kanna didn’t know how the porter typically worked with prisoners, and now that Kanna was no longer Goda’s slave and was only playing out the role—or rather, for the moment, playing the role of a slave playing the role of a wife—she wasn’t sure how to untangle all of the falsehoods.
Her tales had become as messy and intertwined as a writhing ball of snakes.
“I don’t really know how to explain it,” Kanna finally told him. She decided to change the subject. “How do you know Goda?”
“Oh, my lesser mother is good friends with this old Outerlander named Haim who owns a tavern in town. Ever since I can remember, he’s stopped by the house every week and given my mother some wine and me a bag of fruit. One day, when I was around eighteen or nineteen or something, I followed him back and he seemed happy, and so he asked me if I wanted to work for him sometimes,” Preema rambled, then stuffed a huge block of cheese into his mouth.
Kanna scratched her head. She didn’t want to be rude, but the boy seemed to be speaking in incoherent stories and Kanna couldn’t make the connections that he seemed to expect of her. She wondered if that was also an effect of the Flower.
After swallowing, he waved his hand and helped her out: “Goda knows the tavern owner, you see. She buys some of the special products in his basement. That’s how we got to know each other.”
Ah, the bootlegger, Kanna thought. Goda had mentioned him the night before, when she had told Kanna that she had traded a favor for some fuel and supplies. “So you met Goda in that tavern in the alleyway, then.” She thought it was an odd coincidence—but these sorts of connections seemed to keep surfacing, and she wondered if it wasn’t a coincidence at all that they had stopped by there recently.
But an impish smirk came over Preema’s face in reply. “Well, we didn’t exactly meet there.” He cleared his throat, then brought another handful of yaw to his face. “I introduced her to Haim and then the three of us made friends, but I first met Goda…somewhere else close by.”
Kanna tilted her head, confused once again because it seemed that he expected her to understand, and she didn’t. As he pulled his arm from around her shoulders and turned his full attention back to his plate, Kanna decided that she didn’t need to dwell on such unimportant matters anyway. Instead, she turned her gaze back up towards the gash in the fence, which was already halfway covered.
As the yard grew more insulated and the sun had wandered overhead, Goda had dropped her outer robes. Kanna busied herself watching the bronzed shoulders of the giant as they sprung back and slammed forward in turn. She watched every strike of the hammer against the nails of the fence, watched that same body that had lashed out to destroy her the night before being used to rebuild what they had broken together.
But as soon as the chore had been done, Goda picked up the last of their baggage from the ground and motioned for Kanna to follow her into the house.
“Are you sure we can’t host you and your wife for another night, Priestess?” the lesser mother asked as they brushed against her in the doorway.
“We have pressing business in Suda,” Goda said, slinging her satchel over her shoulder and only pausing slightly to reply. “Besides, it’s bad luck to linger when our purpose here has already been fulfilled.”
When they passed through the house, Kanna noticed that the Goddess had changed places yet again. This time, she was sitting atop a pedestal near the threshold at the foyer. The Goddess watched Kanna and Goda step through the front door for the first and last time; her smile remained the same as always.
Outside, they reunited with the truck, but because Goda and Kahm had pushed it out of the yard by hand earlier in the morning before they had patched the hole, Goda had not yet tried to start the engine, and Kanna couldn’t help but wonder if it would even work. Still, she climbed into the front seat without a word of speculation, and she watched the giant rummaging around in the back.
After filling the tank to capacity, until the fuel very nearly ran over the edge of the mouth, Goda slid into the driver’s side next to Kanna. She flicked through her keys—that holy pendant dangling limply among them—and then she unlocked the ignition to crank the engine.
The truck growled with life. Kanna could feel the pistons dancing beneath her more smoothly than they had been before. Perhaps the long rest had done the beast well.
Goda pulled them onto a side street, seemingly to avoid the crowds, and soon they were bouncing along the cracks in the road at a steady pace. Because the silence had continued between them—and because Kanna was not yet used to the lack of their previous flavor of tension, and because her first instinct was to fill that empty space with new conflict—Kanna found that she had the sudden urge to start an argument over what they would do once they reached Suda.
She was conscious of it this time, though, so she pushed the thought aside. She inched a bit closer to Goda. She reached over and put her hand into Goda’s lap. She was a bit surprised at her own audacity, so she turned her head with some hesitation to take in Goda’s reaction.
There was a faint smile on the giant’s face.
“So,” Kanna began, suddenly a bit tense, a bit uncomfortable. Because she wasn’t being rejected, she didn’t know how to act; she didn’t know what came next. She decided to sit with the feeling for awhile. “It seems that the boy knew you through the bootlegger. All of these small coincidences. Sometimes I forget that you had a life before you met me, that you’ve been to all these places, that you’ve gotten to know people.” Goda hadn’t made any gesture of overt response, but her body was relaxed, so Kanna leaned a little bit further against her until her head came to rest on the side of Goda’s shoulder. “What was the favor that you did for that bootlegger, anyway?”
“This,” she said.
Kanna raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“All of this.” She waved her hand briefly, as if to motion behind her towards the direction from which they had come. “I cured Preema as a favor to the bootlegger.”
“What? Wait, but you said the bootlegger owed you a favor already—and you already saw that the boy was sick before we even went to the tavern. Were you just not going to heal him if the tavern owner didn’t pay you? Did you really heal your friend just to get some fuel? I don’t understand.”
“Yes and no. There is no strict cause and effect here. It just is what it is. I cured Preema in order to get the supplies. I received the supplies in order to cure Preema. We came to that boy’s house so that I could do a favor for the bootlegger. A bootlegger owed me a favor that I had done in the future, and so we came to that house. You can tell the story any way you want.”
“Why does that sound like nonsense to me, and yet that’s exactly how it seems to have happened? All of those things sound like they could be true.” Kanna rubbed her face. “Why do you speak in riddles even now? You’re toying with me, Goda. Why would a bootlegger even care that much if some boy is ill or not?”
They rumbled onto a gravel road just outside the town and Kanna’s ears were filled with the sound of crunching pebbles for a long time. Kanna sighed and leaned more of her weight onto Goda, but she turned her head and gazed out at the landscape. The open meadows filled with grass and the thickets of trees seemed to meld and connected with each other; as they picked up speed, it all seemed to flow into one thing.
Then Kanna’s eyebrows shot up. She jerked her head towards Goda again. “That Outerland bootlegger is the boy’s father, isn’t he?”
Just by the tiny smile that had formed on Goda’s face, Kanna already knew the answer. “There are no fathers in the Middleland,” Goda said.
Kanna shook her head, thinking how odd it must have been for the boy to have a stranger love him, and dote on him, and try to protect him without having any concept available to explain why. She could only imagine how confusing it was to be a halfbreed in the Middleland.
And yet, while the boy may have been stupidly oblivious to the presence of his father, his father had been watching over him all the same. Kanna couldn’t help but feel envious. She had grown up with the exact opposite situation—with a father in name, but rarely in practice. It made Kanna reflect on what she had seen in the bath house, and all the children that were being conceived with random men who could never know for sure if…
Kanna’s meandering thoughts came to a stop. Another connection had triggered in her mind. She felt awkward all of a sudden, but she forced herself not to pull away from Goda, and she forced herself to voice the question in spite of her reservations.
“You met Preema at the Paradise bath house, is that right?” she asked. Again, she already knew the answer. It made sense, especially after what the boy had said to her with that annoying little smirk. “I’m not judging you for it or anything. If that’s your local custom, then so be it. It’s just that I have a hard time imagining you as the type of person who—”
“Ah,” Goda interrupted, pointing to some spot far ahead of them with the tip of her chin. “It seems your little friends are headed West, too. What a coincidence.”
Kanna followed Goda’s gaze and noticed two hitchhikers a little ways down the road. They were not yet too far from town, but the landscape had grown deserted enough that these were the only human figures in the distance. As their features became clearer, a small wave of embarrassment trickled up to Kanna’s face.
“They’re not my friends,” Kanna protested under her breath. Indeed, she wasn’t exactly sure what the Bou twins were to her. They had come to her rescue the night before, but they weren’t the first people with unclear motives to have helped her try to escape, and after her realization about Priestess Rem, she didn’t know if she could trust anyone else to have noble intentions. They had tried to hurt Goda, after all—and had succeeded to an extent.
And so Kanna was surprised when she found that the truck came to a stop at the side of the road. Noa and Leina grinned with relief at first, picking up their effects, until their gazes fell into the front seat and they finally seemed to notice who had swooped in beside them.
Leina stiffened with alarm and she took a step back. It was then that Kanna caught sight of the details, of the cuts and bruises that peppered the twins’ faces and matched the ones that Goda had herself. Noa in particular looked more roughed up, her lip swollen, the side of her head sporting a purple, fist-shaped mark.
“Hey, c’mon now!” Noa called out over her sister’s shoulder, once the surprise had worn off. Her eyes fearlessly locked on Goda’s stone face. She had the tone that she was arguing, even though Goda hadn’t said anything. “We did what we thought was best. The girl obviously doesn’t want to be around you. Can you blame us for wanting to liberate a slave? Me and Leina aren’t old fashioned like you porters always are. We have a sense of ethics, of chivalry. If we see an opportunity to throw a wrench in your twisted little system, then we’ll do it!”
Leina’s eyes widened and she turned around wordlessly to grab her sister by the shoulders. She pushed her back with growing urgency, but Noa slapped her hands away and kicked up some gravel as she slid closer to the truck.
“So what do you want from us, huh?” Noa shouted as Goda looked on without an ounce of reaction. “Why are you staring at us all cross-eyed like some stupid cow chomping on cud in the middle of a field? Do you want to do this or what?” She made a pair of fists and held them up over her bruised face. “We were drunk last night; that’s the only reason you got the best of us. Get out of that truck and come over here and we’ll have a real fight this time!”
All the while, Leina was standing behind Noa, waving her hands wildly and shaking her head. She was just about to reach over and make another attempt to subdue her twin, when Goda finally spoke.
The words seemed to spread out through the clearing and brush away every sound and movement. Noa’s mouth snapped shut and she lowered her fists. Leina stopped dead in her tracks.
The three of them stared at each other for a long time. Kanna felt like she was disappearing in the midst of that silence. She glanced back and forth between all of them in astonishment, but when the pause had seemed to go on forever, and Noa had coughed a few times, it was clear that it was not only Kanna who felt awkward.
Goda’s face was blank. She was waiting.
“Well, all right then,” Noa said. She reached down into the grass to grab her baggage and she tossed it into the back of the truck. It took Leina a little longer, but after some hesitation, she followed suit. After all, as far as Kanna had gathered, they weren’t exactly swimming in options in the middle of that deserted road.
* * *
“Ahhh, so you’re Goda Brahm, huh?” Noa asked after she had heard Kanna say the giant’s name. Though Noa was sitting in the back with Leina, she was leaning hard over the top of the front seat, her head dangling between Goda and Kanna, the smoke from her cigar wafting in Kanna’s face before joining the whipping wind. “Well, I’ll be! Had I known who you were, I wouldn’t have beaten you within an inch of your life last night. Me and Leina are always on the side of the rebels, you see.”
“Liberate the people!” Leina shouted from further in the back.
Goda didn’t seem to mind them, but she also didn’t answer.
“Oh, c’mon,” Noa insisted, “we heard what you did back in the ancient times. You raged against the system before anyone else ever thought to! You rampaged around like a lumbering beast, squashing all of those bureaucrats under your feet. Our older sister went to work at the Samma Valley monastery last year and she told us all about the rumors she’s heard. Don’t tell us they’re not true!”
“What, you mean rumors can be exaggerated?” Leina asked, her voice filled with indignation.
“Never, never! They’re always completely accurate, or else no one would spread them around.” Noa looked at Goda with expectation and her voice became suddenly subdued, a bit more serious. She leaned in further. “So, Brahm, tell us…what really happened that day in the valley? Only you know for sure, right?”
When Goda still didn’t answer and stared straight ahead as if she hadn’t heard a thing, Noa finally shifted back to give her some room. She sighed and chewed on the end of her cigar, even though it had now nearly reduced to a nub. “Fine, fine. If it means anything, we don’t agree with your punishment. You didn’t deserve it. It’s not like you had any control over what you were doing in that state of mind. We sure as hell don’t take responsibility for what we do when we’re drunk. It’s the same thing, right?”
Kanna raised an eyebrow, looking back and forth between Noa and the giant, but again Goda said nothing in reply. She looked distracted by something else; her eyes were glued to the road and her gaze didn’t flicker even slightly towards any of the passengers.
As the silence waned, Noa seemed to take it as a deliberate brushoff and she backed up some more, until she had shifted all the way onto the flatbed beside Leina. Looking a bit defeated, she pursed her lips and flicked the butt of her cigar out onto the gravel. Kanna watched the ember bouncing in the wake of the truck and she shook her head as she noticed it joining a pile of litter on the side of the road.
“I’m not going to lie,” Kanna muttered to Goda, “I’m shocked you picked these two up.” Even at that point—even when they were asking questions that Kanna’s own ears were burning to hear answered—she had mixed feelings about their presence.
Goda shrugged. “It has nothing to do with me. You owe them, don’t you? So you’re repaying them.”
Kanna merely stared at Goda because she couldn’t find a reason to disagree, even though what Goda had said didn’t sound right, either. It was true that the twins had taken a huge risk to help Kanna the night before, but in doing so they had forced Goda into a fight. Goda never did seem to take anything personally, but in this case, it seemed a little extreme not to, even for her.
And while Kanna liked the Bou twins, she wasn’t sure if she could handle them for many hours at a stretch—especially now that there were private things between her and Goda that needed to be addressed.
Kanna turned to Noa and asked, “Where should we drop the two of you off?” She noticed that it sounded blunt the moment the words had left her mouth, but she didn’t care anymore.
Noa grinned at her. “Oh, we’ve got some special business South-West of here, along the bank of the Samma River. We’re going to a city called Suda. It’s the capital of the Middleland!”
Kanna sighed and pressed her hand to her face.
Even though no one had asked, Leina chimed in from the back of the truck, “If you must know, we’re drug smugglers and we’re taking a couple of sacks of product to the capital. That’s what we do for a living. That’s why we live such an adventurous life. We’re only telling you because the both of you are hardened criminals like us.”
“That’s right,” Noa said, “and criminals keep each other’s secrets. All of your business is safe for our ears. We keep our mouths shut no matter what happens.” She paused heavily. Again, she leaned a little closer to the front seat, though there was a small edge of hesitation this time. “So, c’mon, Goda Brahm! You can tell us: What was going on between you and that priestess at the valley, anyway? I heard that the two of you broke the Oath of No Contact—and broke it pretty damn well, if you know what I mean. Is that true? I heard you were contacting each other quite a bit by the time that she—”
The truck swerved over to the side of the road. It all happened so abruptly that Kanna had to cling to the door to keep from banging around. Before Kanna had even realized, Goda had kicked the driver’s side door open and hopped out of the truck. The giant reached into the back towards the Bou twins, and though the two of them recoiled, Goda grabbed hold of their luggage instead.
She tossed the bags into the dirt.
She walked back to the driver’s seat and slammed the door behind her.
“Hey!” Noa shouted, once she had recovered from the shock. “You know how much product that is? It’s months worth of income!”
Goda’s hand fell over the speed lever. “Then get it.”
“Oh, right, so that you can drive off without us and leave us stranded?”
But after only a few moments, Noa seemed unable to watch the goods just sitting discarded on the ground, and her greed got the better of her. She nervously jumped out of the truck to rescue their contraband, but surprisingly the truck did not move at all as she reloaded the luggage into the cargo area.
Noa huffed, apparently just as confused as she was offended. She balanced her foot on the back bumper of the truck and started to swing herself over the tailgate—and that was when Goda yanked the lever.
The truck jerked forward.
Kanna heard a heavy thud smack against the pavement behind them.
Indeed, Goda drove off without waiting for Noa. She sped down the road so quickly that Leina—who had remained on the flatbed, completely bewildered—had to grab at the sides of the truck to keep from spilling out of the back.
In this way, Kanna discovered at least one thing that the giant took personally.
* * *
Since it was already evening, and the edge of the sky was growing pink again, they didn’t get very far before Goda had pulled over beside a crag that looked to be made of porous rock. When Kanna looked up at it, she could see the sides of a doorway carved into one of the higher ledges, and she wasn’t at all surprised by it.
“A shrine?” Kanna asked.
Goda nodded slowly. “It kept talking, louder and louder. It was making it hard for me to drive earlier. We might have to stay here for the night until it’s done unloading what it wants to unload.”
“Is the message for you or for me?”
“So far there has been no difference.”
Kanna turned her gaze back towards the roadway that they had left behind. She wondered how many times Goda had received a message alongside her, but had said nothing about it. What kind of nightmares had haunted her? Were they the same as the ones Kanna had seen, or were they tailored to Goda’s own specific demons?
She pressed her palm to the back of Goda’s hand and she took a hard breath to steel herself for the nonsense that she was about to offer. “I want to go into the shrine,” Kanna said. She mirrored Goda’s serious look. “Running away and avoiding it obviously doesn’t work; you have more experience than I do, and even you admit that it’s futile to evade it. Let me face it head-on. Maybe this will satisfy the Goddess.”
A complicated expression had come over Goda’s face. “You are right—but there’s more to it than that. Going into a shrine to deliberately fuse with it is not easy. Remember that even when you resisted, you found a small hell. Surrendering entirely and letting the snakes unravel on purpose is much more intense.” Goda looked past Kanna and up at the high threshold whose entrance was bathed in some of the dying light. The animals carved into the stone seemed to dance with the rays of the sun. “Ever since I accidentally discovered what they do, I’ve dragged myself in and out of more shrines than I can count—gnashing my teeth, screaming from the sensation of being ripped apart inside, crawling through the dirt to reach the light at the entrance again—just like you did on that night at the monastery. I did this hundreds of times, until there was hardly anything left of me. The only way I could bear to kill myself was a little at a time, and even this was painful. Make no mistake, it is a death, even if it’s a small one. You may still be walking and breathing, but the person who you were before does not emerge from that cavern ever again.”
Hearing that, Kanna felt a small shudder running up her spine—but she wondered if it was merely the twitching of a snake. She looked away from the shrine for the moment; something told her she would have to face it eventually, but she couldn’t be certain when.
Before she could tell Goda this, though, a loud sigh emerged from the back of the truck and puffed through the space between them. Kanna turned to see that Leina had cowered in a corner of the flatbed, her knees pressed against her chest like some unborn child, her arms wrapped around her legs.
“What in the ever living hell are you weirdos talking about?” she demanded.
The voice sounded a bit jarring because Kanna had momentarily forgotten that they had an audience in the first place, and that their words might have been nonsensical to anyone who had never experienced what they had. She tilted her head at Leina, suddenly pensive.
Everyone had different experiences in life, though, Kanna thought—so perhaps every word she had ever uttered in her life had been misunderstood in this same way.
* * *
By the time Noa had caught up to them, there was barely any sun left. When Kanna and Leina first noticed her in the distance, she was heaving and coughing and stopping by every other tree to lean and catch her breath. Kanna wondered with some amusement if the woman had sprinted most of the way there and then run out of steam at the end.
When she finally approached the group—which was now spread around a fire—she made a beeline to stand next to Goda. She gritted her teeth. She kicked some dirt in Goda’s direction.
“Who do you think you are, Porter? You could have killed me! I could have hit my head on the pavement and died in a bloody mess! The buzzards could have been picking me to pieces right now!” Noa rambled on and on with her story, but Goda merely sat and stared into the fire; and because the giant had offered her nothing, and Noa was already exhausted, the rest of her energy dissipated quickly.
She sat down by the fire with a thud. “Consider yourself lucky that I survived and none of that happened! If it had, then I really would have run over here and beaten you without an ounce of mercy, let me tell you!” She only paused for a moment, as she seemed to realize how little sense her statement had made, but before long she had shrugged and scooted over towards Leina. “So what’s for dinner?” she asked everyone.
Leina shook her head. “To hell with you, you imbecile. You don’t deserve to eat. You almost lost all of our product!”
“Me? It was that oaf who did it!”
“Well, it’s your own damn fault! Why do you always provoke people?”
But somewhere in the midst of their argument, Leina reached into the side pocket of one of their bags and produced a handful of roasted yaw. She shoved some of it into Noa’s mouth while the woman was hurling abuse at her—which shut her up quickly—and then she tossed another piece into Kanna’s lap.
Kanna touched it gingerly. She had started to grow used to the taste, but the mood to eat hadn’t struck her in awhile.
“Hey Giant,” Leina said, nodding in Goda’s direction. “Do you want some?”
This made Kanna look up, a bit surprised. She had privately been calling Goda a giant in her mind ever since that initial dream by the priestess’s cottage, but it was the first time she had heard anyone else refer to Goda that way.
Goda waved away the offer. “I’ve been fasting since sundown yesterday,” she replied.
“Oh,” Leina said, “you need to keep your stomach empty for something? Or are you really that religious?”
It was the first time Kanna had heard any of this, too, but Leina’s words made her turn and look back up at the shrine entrance at the top of the rocks. There was hardly any light, but some of it still struck the religious carvings outside, and from the angle of where she was sitting, she could barely make out the neck of what looked like a swan as well as the flowing lines of twisting serpents.
These figures always seemed to follow her. Lately, her visions were swimming with them.
“Our lesser mother used to always tell me that fasting through the morning keeps the snakes away,” Noa said, chomping on the yaw. Kanna snapped her gaze across the fire as soon as she heard. “But really I think it makes them show up more. I turn into a straight up monster when I’m hungry.”
“Snakes,” Kanna whispered. She had kept hallucinating them everywhere and Goda had mentioned them in a few of those nonsense speeches, but now Noa was talking as if they had been real. “The snakes,” Kanna said a little louder, so that the entire group could hear her. “You know them, too? What are they?”
Leina and Noa exchanged a glance, then burst out laughing seconds later.
“Oh, it’s just a superstition!” Noa said, waving her hand dismissively before reaching into the bag to fish for another pinch of yaw. “Maybe most Middlelanders like to indulge in mystical garbage, but we don’t believe in all that crap.”
Leina nodded enthusiastically. “That’s right, we’re enlightened people! We don’t take that story literally.”
“What story?” Kanna insisted. She leaned closer to the fire, aimed her stare at the twins with expectation. From the corner of her eye, she could feel Goda’s gaze upon her all of a sudden.
“The story, of course.” Noa was smirking at her. “Don’t tell me you’ve never heard the story! That’s the first load of crap that they make you swallow at the temple!”
“She’s not a Middlelander, idiot. When would she have heard it?”
Noa turned to Leina at first with an offended look, but after a moment she scratched her chin to consider it. “Damn, yeah, I guess that’s true.”
So with this, Noa cleared her throat dramatically and slid herself forward until she was hovering closer to the small fire. She paid no mind to the strange face that Kanna was giving her. The flames danced in Noa’s wild eyes. The woman lifted her arms high in the air so that her fingers dangled creepily in the dark above her.
“A long time ago, back in the ancient times before the Goddess had crafted the surface of the Earth,” she began, while Leina started improvising some dramatic singing in the background to go along with the narration, “the world was just a spinning white egg in the void, empty of life, empty of spirit, empty of song!”
Kanna briefly turned to throw Goda a incredulous glance, but she found that the woman was merely stretched out on the ground, watching the twins in silence, her chin propped up on her hand. The amusement on her face was evident even in the relatively dim light.
Noa continued, “And so the Goddess used Her beautiful fingers to lovingly craft a vast paradise that covered every inch of the Earth. It was a garden filled with plants, and rocks, and animals of all kinds.”
Once again, because the word for “paradise” and “garden” were the same in Middlelander, Kanna wasn’t sure when Noa meant one or the other, so Kanna found herself mentally inserting it where it seemed to fit best. At any rate, the story may have possibly explained all at once why the words were the same in the first place.
“But not all was well, oh no!” At this point, the mood music that Leina was providing grew darker. “Not every creature in the universe was happy with what the Holy Mother had created. In that void, causing the Earth to spin every day with the breeze from his flapping wings, there was a huge swan that had always accompanied the Goddess. When the Mother grew distracted by the world of forms that She had created on the crust of the Earth, the swan descended from the heavens to be with Her and the Earth stopped spinning.”
At the mention of the swan, Kanna found herself leaning even closer to the fire, until a few temperamental embers flicked up to her face and made her recoil. Even still, she had grown interested. “Then what happened?” she asked.
“Well, the swan loved the Goddess so much that he wanted to become one with her, and he was dismayed to find that the Goddess had disappeared—but, when he looked closely, he was shocked at what he saw!”
When Noa took too long of a dramatic pause, Kanna shook her head and dug her fingers into the pile of cool Earth and ash in front of her. “What?” she said. “What did he see?”
“The Goddess had become the world! There was no longer a separation between Her and the many trees, and rocks, and animals! Because he had only cared for Her when She was as formless as the void, he couldn’t accept all of the many masks that She had come to wear, and so he landed upon Her and made love to Her body one last time before flying back up into the nothingness.”
Kanna winced. The image that the story had conjured was a little strange—but then again, it wasn’t the strangest thing she had envisioned lately.
“Ah, but you see! Her body was the Earth, and so the swan had impregnated the world! And because the crust of the Earth was like the shell of a giant egg, it split open at the seams and his countless children hatched out of the ground, and they came to cover every corner of the world with their evil! These were the snakes, and though the swan claimed that the snakes were not his children—that they had already been writhing inside the Earth the whole time, and that he had merely brought them up to the light—anyone who loves the Goddess knows better. To this day, all the people and animals have to be careful not to get tangled in those twisting knots of scales and fangs!”
“That’s why Middlelanders always take a bath every morning, and why devout Maharans are so obsessed with water,” Leina added in a flat voice, after ending the dramatic music abruptly. “It’s to wash off ‘the snakes’ that got on you the day before, since people believe they come out of the dirt, and that they can possess you if you don’t splash them off. Silly, isn’t it?”
“Water…?” Kanna murmured, some new connections snapping together in her mind. It was true. Even the first day she had been at the temple, they had soaked her the first chance they had. “The priestesses cleansed me, too.”
“That’s right,” Noa told her, nodding a bit too eagerly. “I mean, it has a dual purpose: they’re trying to bust you for using drugs, but the cleanse is also supposed to agitate ‘the snakes’ and bring them to the surface or some crap like that.” Her eyebrows flicked up. “Oh, and if you’ve ever seen the inside of a temple complex, you might have noticed the running water and the garden. We plant a lot of gardens. It’s a religious thing, too. It’s suppose to please the Goddess because we’re following her example, but even the tax offices do it, and I doubt they please her much.”
Kanna stared at Noa. The myth had confused her with its strange logic, but she couldn’t deny that it did explain a few things in a way that appeared to bypass her rational mind altogether.
“The gardens are altars in and of themselves, then,” Kanna muttered. She wondered if this meant that she had completely misunderstood the importance of Goda’s previous job. Had Goda’s occupation actually been more religious in nature? What did it really mean that she had been stripped of her position as a gardener in a monastery?
She didn’t bother asking these questions of Noa, though, because the woman had already broken into a laugh. “All of that is made up, though, of course. The Maharans borrowed the story from the pre-Maharan religions, and they borrowed it from who knows where. Those are just old customs and so there has to be a story to bring it all together, to explain why we do it. People can’t really deal with the idea of a senseless and chaotic world where things happen for no reason.”
Her heart still beating a little faster, Kanna turned her gaze back up towards the shrine. The sun had died down, though, and the ornate gateway had disappeared into the shadows.
* * *
“We’re going to sleep somewhere private, right?” Kanna asked, when she noticed that the Bou twins had claimed the back of the truck.
“‘We’?” Goda appeared to be amused, but Kanna didn’t return the look.
“You know why I’m asking. Don’t make me explain it.”
And so they found a place by the silhouette of the crag, among a few sparse trees for cover, away from the direct view of the road.
Goda lay down and stretched herself out on what looked like a patch of moss in the dim moonlight. Hardly noticing the dirt on the ground, Kanna dropped herself onto the moist earth as well, and crawled over to bury her face against the giant’s chest. She felt Goda’s half-embrace encompassing her as it had a few times before. She still wasn’t used to it yet; a blush had smoothly settled on her, though the giant couldn’t see.
“I don’t know what to say to you now,” Kanna whispered. “The words won’t make sense, even though they’ve been burning in me all night.”
Kanna tightened her jaw, squeezed her eyes shut. “We can’t go to Suda. We just can’t. There has to be another way. Won’t the shrine tell us what to do?”
When Kanna finally looked up, she found that Goda was gazing down at her with a faint smile. The giant tipped her head down. Her mouth brushed very briefly against Kanna’s lips, and then she let her head drop back into the leaves and she closed her eyes.
Kanna couldn’t look away, even as Goda seemed to fade into unconsciousness. The giant didn’t touch her again, so eventually Kanna laid her face back onto Goda’s breast and tried to fall asleep to the rhythm of her master’s heart.
She wasn’t sure how long she had been dreaming—or if she had been dreaming at all—when a sound from the void above awoke her.
“Goda, Goda….” The whisper seemed to flow from between the trees. “Goda….”