A single drop fell down from the sky. It hit the back of Kanna’s head coldly, and it broke trails through her hair on its way down the back of her neck. The water sucked the warmth out of her skin, made her muscles stiffen.
It was then that she noticed the curtain of mist that had been falling between her and Goda. The rain had been faint at first, but the longer she leaned into the silence, the thicker it grew, and it both reflected and obscured some of the moonlight that struck the giant’s face.
Even so, she could still see the white of that animal’s clenched teeth. She could see the look of pain.
“Goda…,” Kanna whispered. Several instincts warred together inside of her. She was too shocked to move at first, but the impulse to stretch forward won out, and she reached through the curtain and towards the giant who was hiding behind it. “Look, Goda, I don’t understand. I—”
The giant stepped back.
“Just now, you said….” Kanna found herself blinking against the water, looking closely at Goda’s face, trying to determine how she might have misheard the woman. She watched the tiny rivers trickling down from Goda’s forehead and onto her jaw. She looked closely at Goda’s mouth and tried to envision it repeating the words she thought she had just heard.
Then, there was something else that came together.
The name echoed in Kanna’s head and she found that she was the one repeating it to herself aloud. She felt the familiar shape of the surname on her lips. She felt her breath seize up at the realization.
“Priestess Rem Murau’s…sister?” Kanna blurted out. “Her twin sister?”
Goda remained motionless in the dusting of rain, in that curtain of water that billowed and blew across the side of her face. She let out a sharp breath, a single convulsion that seemed to explode from her chest before it was quickly repressed, but the air blew out from between her teeth, and the droplets that had fallen on her lips burst forward to make her look like some beast huffing steam.
It sounded like a sob, Kanna thought. It sounded like a sob that had been cut short—but it couldn’t have been, because it had come from the mouth of Goda Brahm.
Kanna brought her hand to her chest and clenched at her own robes with nervous tension. She shook her head. “Goda,” she said. “I didn’t hear you right.”
The grimace on Goda’s face grew tighter. Because she was leaning back now, because her chin had tilted up, she looked like a mountain lion offering its fangs. “You heard me.”
Goda jerked her head to the side and spat onto the earth. Her robes whipped as she turned around. She disappeared into the curtain of light rain, into the dim trail that was flanked by trees and shadowed by the crag.
Kanna let her hands drop to her sides. She stared at the emptiness in front of her and she felt the tension in her body break and send shudders through her muscles. Without conscious intention, with only the company of the flailing snakes that were giving birth in quick succession to more of their kind inside of her, Kanna took off through the darkness.
She ran along the foot of the cliff, her feet digging into the moist ground, her heels kicking up the leaf litter beneath her. She listened closely past the sound of her own struggles; she listened for the sounds of Goda’s strides, and before long she had spotted her again near the moss bed where they had lain together.
“Goda!” Kanna shouted through the loud bursts of wind that had swooped down between them. “Goda, wait!” The woman had turned her back, but Kanna reached out to her, grabbed two fistfuls of her robes and pulled back on the cloth with all her strength. “What you said can’t be right! It doesn’t make any sense!” She had managed to make Goda slow down, and so she started craning her head to catch those eyes that—for once—had some emotion in them that was too powerful to fully suppress. “You accidentally killed Rem’s sister? How? Was it with Flower? Did you make Flower brew and she drank it and she died and they blamed it on you?”
The snakes were churning. The stories were twisting in Kanna’s mind, growing more elaborate by the second. She had to make sense of it. None of it made sense on its own.
“No.” Goda kept walking. Kanna stumbled and had to readjust her footing to not start dragging behind.
“Then what? She attacked you and you fought back in self-defense, and because you’re so big you didn’t know your own strength, and you hit her too hard and you—”
“Then she provoked you? She threatened to hurt someone, and so you tried to stop her, but you—” Kanna’s voice was desperate. She did not know why, but she felt like it was she who was being accused of some heinous crime. She was grasping and grasping.
And Goda wasn’t helping her to reach.
“No,” Goda said a final time. She spun around to face Kanna again. The giant’s features were covered in a slick smear of rain or sweat or something else. Her shoulders had grown stiff. Her jaw had grown so tight that her neck was pulsing with tension. “Stop looking for a justification. There is none. I went into her room and I killed her in her sleep. I slit her throat. I slaughtered her like an animal.”
Kanna felt the bones in her hands lose their warmth. She dropped the tail of Goda’s robes. She stared up at the giant in disbelief and couldn’t stop herself from shuffling backwards on reflex. The fear that she had fought so hard to hold back was rising up again. She winced. She shook her head. “No,” she whispered. “That can’t be true. Only a monster would….” She clenched her hands and found very suddenly that she felt uncomfortable in the giant’s direct stare. “It can’t be!” she screamed towards the ground, her voice erupting from her much more loudly than she had intended. “You’re not like that, Goda, you’re not like that! I know you!”
Goda huffed. “You don’t know me, Kanna.”
After a long, spreading moment where the rain seemed to grow harsher, where the tiny wisps that licked Kanna’s face had started to feel like the points of a hundred needles, Kanna looked up again. Her bones were shaking. The mirthless smile on the giant’s face made Kanna shrink back further, made her chest tighten with horror.
“You only know this,” Goda said. “This is all that’s left of me. I’m a cold-blooded killer.” Her eyes were narrowed as she peered at Kanna through the dark, but her face had once again become expressionless. “Days ago, I warned you that the moment you found out, your feelings would waver. Has that not come true? Now that you see what I am, are you still so eager to lie down with me? Do you still want a killer’s hands on you, a killer’s mouth on your mouth?”
Goda finally took a step forward and she loomed over Kanna in the dark. The frame of the monster’s shadow blocked out part of the moon. Indeed, Kanna could not fight the urge to recoil. She stumbled back, nearly slipped into the mud.
Goda laughed and leaned into another heavy step. “Ah, yes, that’s what I thought,” she said, stalking forward to make up for the space that Kanna was putting between them. Her shoulders had stretched out into a broad silhouette. “You’re thinking back to what you did only a day ago, to the life that you spared by risking your own. Would you have done that if you had known I had taken a life myself? What if you had known that I had been responsible for the deaths of more than one person? Now you question yourself, don’t you?”
Kanna opened her mouth to protest even as she stepped back—but then she noticed the thoughts that had been bubbling up in her, the snakes that had been agitated by Goda’s words, and she found that it was true. She was questioning who Goda even was. She was questioning everything. She turned her eyes away, like some hapless prey animal averting its gaze from the monster who was poised to strike.
“There, you see? You see it now?” Goda told her. “That is what your love is worth. It was strong and burning and powerful yesterday, wasn’t it? You were willing to jump out of a train for it. And now, what is it like? What did it take for your love to turn into fear? A different story. A story that changed your image of me to one you didn’t like. A story that was enough to make you forget your direct experience of me and replace it instead with my identity: a killer.” Goda reached for her face and grabbed her by the chin. “Look at me. Stop evading. Open your eyes and look the devil right in the face!”
But Kanna smacked Goda’s arm away, and it sent droplets of rain splashing wetly off the back of the giant’s hand.
Goda only laughed some more. “This is your unconditional acceptance, is it?” Her tone was mocking. “Now now, I’m not blaming you. Everyone is like this. Everyone has their limits. I don’t expect you to accept a murderer, especially one who kills for no reason like I did. That would be ludicrous.”
Still not recovered from the shock, Kanna inched back further, faster. She needed space to think. She needed to understand what Goda had said, to make sense of it all. It simply couldn’t have all been true, it simply…
Kanna looked up again. Some tense energy had shot through her body and stiffened her neck and altered her gaze. She saw the dark, widened eyes of the beast staring down at her—and in those bottomless voids, she caught sight of a small image. She could barely make it out at first, but then it began swirling, writhing, pulsing. It was the only color she could sense in Goda, and it was rearing up, baring its fangs. It was the most hideous snake Kanna had ever seen.
She turned and ran.
She ran and ran through the sopping earth, even though she could hear that Goda was not chasing her. She ran until she had exhausted the limits of the cuff and she was standing somewhere near the side of the road. She felt the first twitch of current, and it was painful, but she shook it off and took a step back to ease it.
Kanna looked down at her wrist.
The rain was pelting softly. It had not been as strong as the other times, and though the clouds overhead were dark, they had left enough space for the moonlight, and so she could watch the way the tiny drops bounced off the metal of her cuff. Things were a little clearer than before.
Priestess Rem was right, she thought. The truth was that Kanna hadn’t known anything all along. She had trusted her own eyes and ears and gut over someone who had known Goda for far longer than she had. She had even judged Rem right after she had realized that the woman had intended to kill the giant. But now, knowing the full reason why Rem had offered her the key, it struck Kanna that the priestess had actually shown much restraint, considering what Goda had done to her sister.
“She will hurt you the way she has hurt countless others if I don’t put a stop to it now,” Rem had told her the night Kanna had crawled out of that first cave. “She does not care about you. Her intentions are morbid and obscene, and you are too innocent to realize what evil looks like. Don’t be fooled by that neutral face. Underneath that calm demeanor is a devil, and it is time that the world is rid of it.”
Kanna saw it now. She could see the devil that Rem had seen in Goda, and indeed it seemed just as real as every other image that Kanna had constructed of the giant. She stared down at the cuff and, if she looked closely, she could see a dim reflection of herself. It was just a shadow projected on the metal, like the puppets behind the curtain at the bath house, like the silhouette of the monster who had not chased her.
She put her hand on the latch.
The Goddess wouldn’t blame me for this, Kanna thought. It’s not killing. It’s not killing because it’s not my fault that it’s the only way to be free. And besides, does a killer deserve to live? Who could blame me? Even the monster herself doesn’t blame me.
Kanna looked a ways down the road at the truck, and she noticed that a tarp was now draped over the back, like a makeshift tent. I could uncuff myself now, she thought, and I could take the truck and leave with the Bou twins on some other adventure. I doubt the Middlelanders would ever catch me. I doubt they would care enough to look for me. I could follow the Bou twins back up to their hometown. I could pretend I was some undocumented Outerlander and marry some cute, desperate woman and live the rest of my life out in some boring little house in some small town in the North.
Kanna’s fingers trembled against her wrist.
But if I did that, a voice inside of her whispered, I would never really know.
I would spend my life wanting, but never having.
I would catch glimpses of it, but never hold it steady in my gaze.
I would hear others talk about it, but I would never see it.
Not with my own eyes.
“See what?” Kanna said aloud. She shouted the question into the wind, into the rain. The answer didn’t come from outside.
It was a realization that made her drop her hand from the cuff. She jerked her head towards the shadows that surrounded the crag and the curtain of rain that shut her out of it. It was the cage that held back the devil, but she knew in that moment that it held something else, too.
Knowing for a fact that she had gone insane, she turned herself around, shuffled hard against the gravel with her bare feet. She felt that strange feeling again, where her spirit was loose in her body, where her sense of self had begun to fuse with the dirt beneath her. She felt her heart beating, but she felt it in a chest that was not her own. She felt it pulsing together with the core of the earth.
She thought, I want to see the Goddess for myself.
She ran back towards the mouth of the beast. Surely, the voice told her, the spirit of the Goddess lay behind those bared teeth.
* * *
Kanna found Goda slumped beside a tree. The giant was still breathing, but every inhalation was shallow, stiff, broken by the shudders that were racking that huge body. She was on the ground. She was pressing her hands to the mud, pressing her face to the wet moss. She was awake.
Kanna felt like she was catching sight of what Goda looked like when she was alone. For the first time, Kanna could see the giant with both eyes at the same time—with the one that saw divinity and the other that saw the devil—and though both images fused together, she wondered what Goda looked like underneath it all as well.
She knelt down in the dirt next to the monster. Her heart still pounded with fear, but she could see the emotion in herself without reacting. Something else had erupted in her, something more powerful.
As soon as the giant noticed her, she turned towards Kanna with a look of surprise. But most of her face was painted with sorrow that was only half-suppressed, and so Kanna knew then that she had been right to come back.
There was more to Goda’s story. Kanna had judged too soon and run off in a fit of fear—but more importantly…
“It’s you, isn’t it?” Kanna said.
Goda merely stared at her. The rain fell softly down her face, like the trickle of a pleasant stream, even though it accumulated under her eyes relentlessly.
“It’s you,” Kanna repeated, searching that face for some reaction, some confirmation. “You’re the Goddess. This whole time it was you.”
Goda blinked. Her breaths were shaky, suddenly human, more human than they had been before—and yet Kanna was making the most inhuman accusation yet.
Still, Kanna held to her stance. She was more sure of it now than ever. “You told me that I was the Goddess,” Kanna said, “that I wear many masks and try to hide from myself. Well, here you are. You’re the thickest and scariest of all the masks. If I wanted to hide, where would I go if not in you? It’s the perfect place. I would never notice myself there. I would never want to look. I would insist that everything in you was too ugly to be me. I would never want to admit that God and the Devil are made from the same thing.”
The surprise on Goda’s face grew into bare astonishment, but she didn’t reply.
Kanna continued, “All my life, I’ve tried to separate myself from everything else in the world. I’ve tried to say ‘this is good and this is bad.’ Really, I was saying ‘this is me, and this is not me.’ Even the first night we met, when you almost caught me ready to bash your head in while you were sleeping, I told you, ‘I’m not a killer.’ I told you this and I believed it. I convinced myself that I could never do that—but of course, I certainly could have killed you if you had given me half the chance. I almost killed you again last night by nearly taking off the cuff. And again just now. I could have done it without shame, too, because I had convinced myself that it wasn’t really killing, that you deserved it, so I wouldn’t be a killer like you. Morals didn’t stop me; I could just rationalize them away. It was something else that stopped me dead in my tracks every time.”
When Goda still said nothing, Kanna dipped her head down to meet the woman’s gaze better. Kanna felt a rush of heat swelling up behind her own eyes. She did not fight the tears. She let them fall without shame this time; she let them fall with the same surrender as the rising of her own breath.
“I love you,” Kanna finally told her. It felt like she was confessing to a murder, but she didn’t resist it anymore.
Goda heaved a deep breath and pulled away, pressed herself hard against the tree. She put her hand to her face. There was a look of conflict that Kanna could still not fully comprehend, but Kanna continued nonetheless:
“For the longest time, I didn’t even know what that meant, so when I felt it towards you, I had no idea what it was. I always thought love was some overpowering feeling of infatuation, of fancy, of attachment. That was all I had ever felt for anyone before. Then when I saw you for the first time, in the light of the sun on that first morning, with your hands shoved deep in a puddle of mud, I loved you. It terrified me—I’m terrified of you even now, especially knowing that you’re all these things I’m supposed to hate. But at least now I know what it means to love.”
Kanna reached out towards the giant. She laid her hand on the back of Goda’s shoulder, roughly on the spot where she had punched her days before, and though the giant jerked a little, she didn’t move away.
“It doesn’t mean that I like you,” Kanna said. “It doesn’t mean that anything about you pleases me at all. It simply means that I am you. The good and the bad. I can feel that I am you; I can experience it directly. When I’m around you—it’s like you said—the ‘I am’ is enough. That feeling is love. I don’t feel it only for you, but for everything. It would be hypocrisy for me to say that I love you, but that I don’t love everything else that comes with you, which is everything else on the face of this Earth. Remember when you told Preema’s mother that it was idolatry to hold one part of the Goddess’s creation as sacred, and another as profane?”
Kanna broke into a laugh, and it sounded crazed to her own ears.
“I love all of it,” she continued. “I do. I would never change any part of you. I’m so happy to be alive that I don’t even know how to put it into words. I just pretend so much that I’m miserable because I’m thirsty for punishment and I find pain stimulating and I like telling stories. Sometimes I pretend so much that I forget what I am. But you always remind me of the truth. Just being close to you reminds me. Being cuffed to you is my freedom. I never want to leave your side for the rest of my life.”
As always, Goda’s eyes were an enigma when she finally looked up. The only emotions that Kanna could read in her face were a faint curiosity, and a faint twinge of pain. The light rain had fallen for long enough that it had soaked through the giant’s hair, and so the hair was sopping, sticking to the skin of her neck.
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Goda murmured. The breath came out like steam and struck Kanna’s face lightly.
But Kanna didn’t accept this. “Maybe I’m ignorant, but this time I know exactly what I’m saying. In fact, this is the only thing I know,” she said. “Everything else I’ve seen could be some vast delusion. All of it could be just a bunch of stories like you said. My memories could all be false. I could have remembered them wrong, or else some demon could have implanted them in my brain. But you and me—right now—this experience right now, is real. It’s the only thing that’s real.”
The ghost of a smile had appeared on Goda’s face, but the pain did not recede. The two extremes existed together. “Then now you see,” Goda said.
“Yes, I see.” Kanna reached out and touched the side of Goda’s face, and the skin felt hot, so Kanna knew that her own hand must have been freezing, but the giant did not recoil. “I know you’re not a murderer. And even if you are, I don’t care.” Kanna paused to gauge a reaction, but the giant gave her none. “It’s just some story from your past, and even though it’s time for you to tell me this story—and I’m demanding it from you once and for all—you’re clearly not that person anymore. You might have been a murderer at some point, which I still don’t believe, but you aren’t one now. Maybe you don’t forgive yourself, but I forgive you.”
Goda let out a deep sigh and her gaze began to fall back towards the ground in front of them. “It’s not for either of us to forgive.”
“Then what? Are you going to hold yourself hostage to Priestess Rem forever? If we’re all the same creation of the Goddess, then isn’t Priestess Rem part of that whole, too? Aren’t you the same thing as she is? Why won’t this part of yourself forgive the other part? And you called me stubborn, you hypocrite!”
Goda’s eyes snapped up to face Kanna abruptly. She stared for a long time, her expression morphing from startled emptiness to confusion to pain to something Kanna could not read anymore.
And then Goda laughed.