“How did you do that?” Goda’s voice grew louder. Her eyes spread open even more, and they were filled with fire. Her expression became suddenly pained.
No, not pained—offended, Kanna realized. Goda was offended. It was Kanna’s turn to be surprised, because she had never seen that look on the giant’s face before, and she didn’t even know what she had done to deserve it.
“Witch!” Goda shouted at her. “What black magic have you cursed me with?”
The words had the shape of a sneer—a hiss—and they had an accusing tone that Kanna had never heard coming out of Goda’s mouth. As soon as Kanna had loosened her grip on Goda’s body in confusion, the giant sat up and slid away, until her back was pressed against the bark of a tree.
“Get away from me!” The giant had recoiled like some defensive animal, like Kanna’s touch had been laced with acid.
Kanna looked on in shock, but she did not fight it and she let the giant’s legs slither out of her grasp. She saw Goda’s expression twist and change with effort, with resistance. The giant braced against the tree, and she turned her head to the side, and the whole of her body heaved, as if she were about to purge. Nothing came out, but her body shook violently and went through the motions of an expulsion nonetheless.
But the moment did not last long. Goda’s eyes blinked as if she had just jerked herself out of a paralyzed sleep. After a few deep gasps, her face lost its conflict and it returned to its stoic default. A hard sigh flowed through her. She grew limp against the tree. Light from the heavens began sprinkling over them in earnest, giving a rainbow sheen to the sparse droplets that were still dribbling from the sky.
With one of her long arms, Goda took hold of the collar of Kanna’s robes. The instinct to fight was the first reaction to jerk through Kanna’s bones, but something about the touch made her surrender; something more intelligent than her mind loosened her muscles for her, and the giant dragged Kanna across the ground, then pulled her up until they were face to face.
Their mouths connected imperfectly. Because Kanna had not known what was happening, she did not turn her head until the last second, and her nose smashed hard against the edge of Goda’s cheekbone. It was only once she had relaxed into it, once she felt the fervent movement of Goda’s lips against hers that she realized the giant was intending to kiss her.
It felt like it was the first time. Every time felt like it was the first time. And just like every time before, Kanna opened her mouth on reflex because she wanted some of Goda inside of her. She suppressed her confusion; her mind turned itself off.
When they broke the kiss, Kanna let her head fall onto Goda’s shoulder, and she let her mouth brush lightly on the woman’s neck instead. They sat there in silence for awhile as the sun grew brighter on the horizon and the rain all but disappeared. Their breathing began to flow in sync; Kanna felt like she was floating in a vast ocean with steady waves that rose and fell and made her body dance softly above the depths.
“That was the snake speaking to me, wasn’t it?” Kanna asked after awhile. “You called me a witch. It called me a witch.”
“Yes. It doesn’t like you.”
Kanna huffed, only partly amused. “Oh? I didn’t notice. It was too shy about its displeasure.” She could feel the muscles of the giant’s neck stretching with a smile. “You’re lucky I’m not offended.”
“You don’t get offended; only your snakes do,” Goda murmured, though Kanna was already opening her mouth to object to such a preposterous theory. “Mine was curious about you before. All creatures are fascinated by death, even these parasites. But then it saw that you were willing to touch it, to acknowledge it, to accept it. It wasn’t just gazing over the edge anymore; it was falling because you tried to pull it into the void with you. Now it really hates you. It’s afraid of disappearing.” Goda looked down at her. “You’ve surprised me. I may have been wrong this whole time about why you showed up. Who are you?”
Kanna still felt the residual stirrings of energy vibrating through her. She blushed and she didn’t know why. She reached up and touched Goda’s face boldly, and the giant did not flinch.
“I’m no one,” Kanna said, and the giant laughed at this. Kanna lowered her hand, but not her gaze. “I’m serious. I can be no one for you the same way you were no one for me. I can be that void and scare your snake, the same way you scared all of mine. I can carry you the same way you carried me. It doesn’t make you weak.”
“Be no one for yourself. It doesn’t work any other way.”
“You say that, but look at what just happened between us. Even though I ultimately had to untangle my own snakes with my own power in that cavern, you whispered in my ear to help me on my way. And out here, I touched something in you. Even just touching helped. The snake isn’t gone, but it’s different; I can feel it. We both gave each other something that we couldn’t give our own selves from our own vantage points.”
Goda inclined her head and her lips brushed the side of Kanna’s cheek, which somehow felt more intimate to Kanna than their earlier frenzied touching. It made some more blood trickle up to her face.
But as she stared into the scenery that grew ever brighter, at the image of the trees and the rocks and the cliff that had emerged from the earlier shadows, she couldn’t help but remember the whole of what she had seen in the visions. The dreams had slowly come together, had finally started to make sense.
“From my vantage point, I can see how much you’ve tortured yourself,” Kanna whispered, “worse than I’ve ever tortured my own self. You don’t deserve this punishment.” An uncomfortable, sour feeling had settled in Kanna’s stomach. “Rem Murau gave me the cuff key, did you know that? She did it because she wanted you to die, but she didn’t want to be the one to kill you. Her sister manipulated you the same way. She set you up to sin in her place. She sacrificed you so that she wouldn’t have to face Hell, but she left you with a hell on Earth to face instead. She was selfish.”
Goda was already shaking her head. “She had no ill intentions. She was merely ignorant and desperate. She didn’t realize what it would turn into—and, besides, the final decision was mine. She did not make me do it. I did it to end my own suffering, because back then I felt her suffering as if it were my own. I had never felt anything like that before. I went to the temple and begged the Goddess to take away every shred of empathy that had suddenly awakened in me, but She didn’t, and so I killed Taga.”
“From the moment she met you, that priestess told you to kill the pests in her yard, told you that it was your role as a layperson to sin for her. She groomed you from the beginning to slaughter her like those rabbits. Why can’t you see that?”
The giant grew silent for a long time. “Because,” she finally said, “my eyes are different from yours. I will never see it the way you do. I felt things for her that will always blind me to anything but an image of her as the Goddess.” The giant’s frame seemed to grow stiffer with some other rush of memory. “But that’s not the worst of it. I’m responsible for more than Taga’s death. I’ve created much imbalance in this world with my actions, something I have to live with every day.”
“I accept this, too,” Kanna said without hesitation. “Tell me.”
Goda sighed. For the first time, she seemed to struggle with the words. “Before, death had just been an idea…but then she was there, lying on the mattress, lifeless, all the blood draining from her. I had never seen a dead person before, and it struck me all at once that it was I who had done it. I felt this empty feeling inside of me; a part of me had died, too.” She brought her hands up to rub her face. When she dropped them back down, her eyes grew unfocused and she stared up at the cliff, towards the shrine. “I ran to the stream to wash the blood off before anyone could see. Maybe then it would be like it didn’t happen, I thought. Maybe I would wake up from the dream with a splash of cold water.” Goda’s jaw grew tight again, as if she were holding something back. Her breaths became shallow.
Kanna thought back to the vision she had of the giant crouched over the creek, and the surface of the water that was too washed with light for her to see any reflection. She remembered the accusing voice that she had heard shouting through the forest, the voice that had cried, “Goda, what did you do?”
“Priestess Rem saw you,” Kanna whispered.
“Yes. She saw me and somehow she knew what I had done. She ran to Taga’s cabin, and so I fled without so much as putting my clothes back on. Even then, I knew that if the soldiers caught hold of me before the administrators arrived, that they were likely to torture me in secret because I had killed a priestess. It made me grow cowardly. I went to my room and found the vial of Flower brew that I had made for Taga—the medicine that she had refused—and I swallowed as much as I could. I thought that it would just kill me, which it nearly did; but in the end, I didn’t hold down enough of it. It sent me on a journey instead.” Goda’s hands clenched and her body shifted in place, and it seemed to all happen below the level of her awareness. “Most people—those who survive to tell about it—see paradise on the other side of the Flower. I went to some other place. I saw things that I wouldn’t wish on the lowest of people. The Flower shows you your true self, a glimpse of what awaits you when you die—and I’m a killer, so that’s what I saw. I’ve spent the rest of my life fearing and avoiding that place, because that’s where I’m going in the end. To die means to look into the eyes of that final snake; it’s the only thing that stands between me and the Goddess, but it is Hell. I can’t do it.”
Kanna was stunned into quiet. After a few moments of pause, she nudged against Goda’s neck, and Goda jerked a little at the touch, as if her mind had drifted to some far off place. The giant seemed to take a moment to recover. Her gaze grew a bit sharper, but there was still a milky quality to her eyes, as if she were fighting to rise up out of a dream.
“When I came back to this reality,” she said, “the administrators had found me collapsed in my room. Because it was obvious that I had Flower in me, they misunderstood the situation. They told the story as if I had swallowed Flower and then lost my mind and killed a priestess in a crazed rampage. Samma Flower doesn’t work that way—it doesn’t make you go insane—but they were too shocked to believe that I had done it coldly and soberly, so they needed an exaggerated story to explain it. They made the plant out to be more dangerous than it really is. Flower was already illegal at the time, but thanks to this scandal, the more religious legislators grew hysterical, and the law quickly changed to require a death sentence for vessels and distributors.”
“You mean…?” Kanna grasped the edges of Goda’s opened robes and twisted them in her fingers. She felt the giant’s tension flowing into her. She looked away. “It was you, then.”
“Yes. It was I who made them afraid.” Goda swallowed; the tension deepened. “Who knows how many people have been executed for handling Flower since then? In this sense, I killed many more people when I killed Taga. I’m responsible for the deaths of thousands because of this singular decision.”
Kanna closed her eyes tightly. She pushed her face harder against Goda’s skin, and she felt that throat seizing with every one of the giant’s shaky breaths. Kanna listened to the pulse, a faint rushing sound that was quickly filling up the natural silence of the clearing.
“You can’t put all that on yourself,” Kanna said softly. “You were only sixteen. You were trying to help.” But then Kanna paused, another connection surfacing abruptly. “And Taga was a vessel, wasn’t she? She would have been the first person you awakened, if she hadn’t resisted you.”
Goda nodded. “Though we can’t be certain now, she probably was. I didn’t fully realize it at the time because I had no experience, but looking back she had many of the symptoms. They had been accumulating most of her life, until she was in agony, and no one knew how to help her. I was drawn intuitively to the idea of giving her Flower brew. I don’t know how I knew, but I was certain that it would not kill her, that it would offer some relief that wasn’t physical death.”
“But she refused it. She chose her religion over her life.”
“Yes. The Goddess would not save her, and I couldn’t save her in the end, either—so I delivered the death blow myself.” Goda caught Kanna’s gaze. Her eyes shined in the red of the morning light, like the surface of glass lightly tinted with blood. “And I’ve paid very much for trying my hand at playing God all those years ago. I’m paying for it to this day, and so is everyone else.”
Hearing that, Kanna gritted her teeth. She shook her head and pulled away and, after a bit of stumbling, she managed to rise up to her feet. She looked down at Goda. “Stop it,” Kanna said. “You’re wrong. You’re just wrong about everything. I haven’t lived your life, so I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be you, but I do know that you’re wrong in the way that you see it.” She stooped down to grab Goda’s arm, which was heavy and limp. She pulled hard on it, trying to coax the giant to stand up with her. “Let’s get away from here. This place must be cursed. It makes you act strangely and I can’t take it anymore.”
But the giant didn’t move. Instead, she looked up at Kanna with faint amusement while Kanna tugged and tugged and grunted with effort. With one final jerk, Goda’s arm slipped from between Kanna’s fingers and Kanna fell backwards onto the ground with a thud.
Kanna slammed the earth with her hands in frustration. “God, why did you have to be this unmovable oaf?” she complained. “Why did you have to be the size and temperament of an ox? Back when I was younger and I imagined my first passionate embrace, my first kiss—all those childish fantasies—I had always pictured some soft, elegant woman with a beautiful face and a graceful demeanor who would sweep me off my feet. Instead, I got you.”
Goda’s amused smirk only seemed to widen. “Reality has ripped you off, it’s true. Maybe you can pretend that the next person is your first.”
“The next person?” Kanna looked at Goda with disbelief. “There is no ‘next’ person. Are you too blind to see that, too? Who on Earth could I be with after all of this?”
“There’s nothing wrong with living a spiritual life, but don’t you think celibacy is a bit extreme?” Goda’s head had fallen back to rest against the tree trunk and her face had grown relaxed, which Kanna did not like.
“Stop teasing me like that, pretending that you don’t hear me. You know exactly what I’m saying. I’m not leaving your side, whether you want me there or not. Make no mistake, Porter: We will escape together. I don’t know how, but we will, even if I have to rip that cuff off your wrist with my bare hands.”
Goda let out a soft laugh. “I told you before that it wasn’t a good idea to get attached. Now you see why. I’m not going to be around for much longer.”
“Bullshit,” Kanna snapped. “You don’t know the future.”
“Maybe I don’t know, but I can see some of it. There is a path carved out for us, even if it seems on the surface that we stumble through it on accident. And you—you saw it, too, didn’t you?”
Kanna was quiet for a long time, her mind dropping all the words in the midst of her bewilderment. That memory from the future that she had experienced in the shrine—the vision of Goda surrounded by pounding boots while Kanna screamed at her—was still fresh enough that it made Kanna’s chest seize up.
“How…do you know what I saw?” she said. Goda merely stared at her with that same smile, so Kanna figured that the giant wasn’t going to answer, and she asked instead, “You know what that vision meant? Was it something that happens in Suda?”
“Then tell me!” Kanna demanded, pushing herself up from the ground. “What was that? What were you doing? Why was I begging you not to do it?” She staggered onto her feet again and offered Goda a gaze of expectation.
“I can’t tell you.” The serenity on Goda’s face had not faded, and her tone was cryptic, closer to her usual self; this unnerved Kanna more than the words.
“What is it with you and all the mysteries, even now? Why the hell can’t you tell me?”
“Because,” the giant said, “then you’ll try to stop me.”
* * *
The sky was wide and entirely clear when they trudged back onto the gravel of the main road, even though the wind was blowing some of the dust around and making a light haze on the path. Kanna walked in front of Goda because she didn’t want to look at her, but she could still feel the giant’s presence like a rush of energy raining down over her shoulder, stronger than before.
The feeling of connection to the giant had not worn off. It had become like a pulsing chord of heat that flowed back and forth between them, and Kanna could not shake it. She could not rip herself away. She could not numb herself to it. It was raw and uncomfortable and she found herself wishing that she didn’t have to live with it.
Kanna approached the truck with resistance still in her. The twins were smiling and sitting on the tailgate with their legs dangling over the ground and a plume of smoke encasing them. They gave her matching grins. They sucked on their cigars and waved their hands in welcome as soon as they had seen her.
“Hey, hey! You two disappeared for a long time, there. What were you up to all alone on the other side of the cliff?” Noa asked once Kanna was close enough. Her tone was suggestive; even through the language barrier, Kanna could hear the implication clearly. “Fine, don’t explain it. I already saw anyway. Last night, I got up to do my business in the bushes, and I noticed you two wrapped around each other like a pair of kittens. It all makes sense now. To think we tried to rescue you from this brute in Karo, convinced that she was abusing you, and all along it was some twisted role play. Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Shut up,” Kanna said. She climbed into the passenger seat and slammed the door.
“Sheesh! Kind of grumpy this morning, aren’t you?” It was Leina who was yammering next. “Did you have a nightmare or something?”
Kanna clenched her teeth. It took all her inner strength to stop herself from spinning around to yell in the woman’s face. She could handle all the misunderstandings so far—all the creative stories about Upperland culture, all of the bureaucrats shortening her name, all the lies she had told on purpose—but for some reason, she couldn’t bear to hear stories about what had happened between her and Goda. The experience had been so far beyond any words, that she doubted even telling it herself would be any closer to the truth.
The truck wriggled when Goda climbed inside of it. She busied herself with the controls as if nothing had happened. Kanna gripped her own knees to keep from reaching out and striking Goda’s handsome, hideous face—the face that was already etched with scratches that had barely had time to begin healing, the face that Kanna wanted to take between her hands and break into pieces in an embrace of affection and malice.
“So, Giant,” Noa asked, aptly changing the subject after she seemed to read the foul mood in the air, “how long do you think we have until we get to Suda?”
But Kanna was having none of it.
“We’re not going to Suda,” Kanna answered for Goda.
Noa twisted her face, raised her eyebrows in confusion. “Hah? But I thought you said that you were—”
“We’re not going to Suda!” Kanna cried, jerking her head around and staring Noa directly in the eyes. “Ride with us if you want; we’re not going to the capital if I have anything to do with it. I don’t care if I have to grab a rock and knock the giant unconscious and drive this piece of junk off a goddamn embankment, but we’re not going anywhere near that godforsaken place! It’s cursed! It’s cursed! There’s nothing but death waiting for us there!”
Noa recoiled, looking at her with speechless astonishment. The tip of her cigar burned in her pause, and the ash fell into the bed of the truck.
Adding nothing to the conversation, Goda turned the truck on and pulled back onto the road. Almost as soon as they had steadied their course, Goda veered to the left and headed down what looked like another major path.
There was absolute silence for awhile, except for the rushing of the wind. Goda’s unkempt hair flew up and danced around with the hood of her robes. They flashed past a wooden sign on the roadside, and it was so quick that Kanna barely had time to decipher it.
Going South, it had read.
2,000,000 paces to Suda.
The wheels crunched onward against Kanna’s will.