The truck coughed, spat some smoke. All at once, the mass of people pushed forward, jostled against the sides of their rig and against each other, because they were all swarming towards the priestess who had appeared outside the train. A roar of voices exploded all around them. There were so many that Kanna could not make out any of the individual words, but the collective tone was one of shock and confusion, like the crowd was a single creature that had let out a unified gasp.
Aside from that, there was a strange stillness that permeated underneath. Kanna realized after a second that it was because she could no longer feel the giant’s breathing. Kanna ventured to look towards the driver’s side, and felt herself seize up when she noticed Goda’s expression.
The giant’s gaze was fixed on the train platform ahead. Her mouth was slightly parted, her eyes widened. Her right hand—the one marred with teeth marks—was still clasped to the speed lever, but the knuckles had started to lose their color. Her left hand was gripping the side of the driver’s door, and her arm had progressively begun to shake, to rattle the metal as if she were unconsciously on the verge of ripping it open.
Instead, Goda leapt over the door. Before Kanna could even think to ask what was happening, the giant was sprinting through the crowd, pushing women out of the way, grabbing men by the back of their robes and tugging them aside.
“What’s wrong with her?” Kanna could hear the giant calling out over the multitude of heads, a panicked cry that burst out of huge lungs and competed with the din of the crowd. “What happened to the priestess?”
Goda clawed her way towards the train, but before she had reached the platform, a pair of soldiers noticed her, and they pushed her back before she reached the military trucks that blocked the way.
“Don’t come any closer!” one of them yelled. “We have an emergency situation here. There’s a priestess being transported to the health administration building.”
Goda didn’t fight them, but she ignored what they said and she tried to use her shoulders to push past them. Another pair of brutes appeared from either side, bigger than the first two, and they tightened the boundary, and Goda was not strong enough to cross any further.
Still, Kanna could see that the giant had stooped down into a soldier’s face. She was shouting, “What’s wrong with her? How long has she been like this? Have they tried to treat her yet? What medicine are they using on her?”
“How the hell am I supposed to know that?” The soldier pressed her hand on Goda’s chest and pushed the giant against the crowd. “Get back! It’s none of your concern! I said get back!”
Even from where she was sitting, Kanna could see that the giant’s spine was racked with tension, like a rope on the verge of snapping.
“I need to see her!” Goda shouted. “Let me through!”
One of the other soldiers, who seemed to make a double-take when she noticed Goda’s face, yelled over the growing racket, “Oh, I’m sure you do! You’re that priestess-killer Goda Brahm, aren’t you? Are you looking to add another one to your list?”
Goda punched her in the face. Even though the soldier fell to the ground, several more swooped in quickly, and they all descended on Goda, some of them swinging their fists and some of them grasping to subdue her.
Goda retreated then, but as she did so, she rammed against the crowd, which sent a wave of uncomfortable movement through the multitude. People bumped into each other violently and took each other by surprise, and as the angry soldiers squeezed their way through to continue their pursuit, the mob grew only more agitated.
One of the taller soldiers managed to reach Goda’s side, and she launched a fist up, aimed for the giant’s jaw; but as Goda was absorbed into the movement of the mass, the solider missed and instead struck a young man who had been trying to shuffle away.
The boy collapsed onto the street. A woman who had been standing next to him—his mother, Kanna wondered—let out a piercing scream.
Chaos broke within seconds.
The mob turned on the soldier and every woman standing nearby showered her with blows and kicks. This wave of anger seemed to flow progressively through the entire crowd, and Kanna saw other fights break out, first in isolated pockets, and then in wider pits as people tried to flee and crashed into each other and offended each other.
In mere moments, the crowd seemed to divide itself between those who were fighting and pushing and resisting, and those who had turned to swim through the crowd and leave the scene.
Kanna looked on helplessly, tugging futilely on her binds, trying to follow the rope to find the place where it was anchored so that she could untie herself. Strangers climbed over each other and rammed against the sides of the truck and made the whole rig shake back and forth. A few women even climbed into the truck and stepped all over Kanna in their haste to get to the other side.
More soldiers appeared around the platform, but now that the sentiment had turned so violently against them, they were starting to be overwhelmed. People from the mob were throwing rocks, bottles, pieces of food. They were screaming epithets and slurs that Kanna only vaguely recognized.
The temple assistants were hurrying away into one of the military trucks, but as they were loading the body of Rem Murau, a handful of citizens crawled up onto the platform to avoid the chaos, and they caused one of the four assistants to trip. The stretcher teetered, and Rem Murau slid towards the edge of the canvas.
There was something like a collective pause among those nearby. This seemed to calm the crowd a bit. The citizens on the platform all froze with panicked tension as the assistant regained her footing and lifted her side of the stretcher just before the priestess could spill into the crowd.
Without so much as grazing any skin against skin, they loaded Rem into the truck.
And as if some bell had been struck as soon as the priestess disappeared, this seemed to be the signal to get back to business, and the aggressors in the horde turned to their fights once again.
Kanna was screaming Goda’s name, but it was lost in the roar of the masses. She was looking and looking through the throng, but she could not find the giant. She felt a wave of fear filling her chest, her thoughts flashing with images of the giant being trampled, but then she felt the truck jostling again.
She turned and half-expected another group of rude strangers, but instead she was met with the empty face of Goda Brahm. The giant ripped the door open and got in. She put her hand immediately on the speed lever and revved the engine and pushed the truck through a parting sea of people. She moved slowly enough to allow pedestrians to dive out of the way, but the sides of the truck nearly knocked a few people over.
Goda’s truck wasn’t the only one. Traffic had started to move again, even with all the chaos, and because the train had already passed, Goda managed to edge her way over to the other side of the tracks. Once the crowd had petered out, they barreled onto the main road. It was deserted enough that they had the freedom to speed.
Kanna did not take her eyes off Goda’s face. The shock had still not worn off. Kanna’s chest was shuddering rapidly even as she noticed that the giant’s own breathing had grown controlled again.
“What…was that?” Kanna heaved.
But Goda did not answer. They hurtled through the streets, the mob growing further away, the road so smooth that it felt a bit like they were flying. They flew closer to the massive towers that Kanna had seen from a distance. Her heart sank; her gut churned with resistance. She tilted her head to follow the lines of those glass and steel bodies, but luckily they remained a few blocks away with other smaller buildings as a buffer, and the truck passed them without even slowing down.
They headed South until they were blocked by a row of woods, the beginnings of a forest.
Goda kept going. She dove into the embrace of the trees, allowed the truck to be swallowed by the thicket until branches were smacking them on either side at full speed. The truck parted a trail for them—or else the plants were bowing out of the way—and in that space, where the headlamps of the truck barely reached, Kanna saw the bank of a river bathed in blue moonlight.
They could go no further. They had reached the border.
* * *
“It’s not your fault, you know,” Kanna said.
Goda had stepped out of the truck, and she had put her face in her hands, and she had let out a loud breath into her palms. She was pacing back and forth among the trees, her body filled again with tension, with the same agitation that had seemed to flow through the crowd earlier.
“That soldier deserved it, and it’s not like you had control over what everyone decided to do next. You’re not God. You can’t act like the entire burden of responsibility for everything that ever happens is—”
“Shut up!” Goda shouted all of a sudden, and it made Kanna recoil. “Shut up.” The giant looked up from her hands, and in the beams that came down between the treetops Kanna could just barely make out the look of rage. “Do you know that woman who I struck in the face? Or the woman who attacked me and accidentally hit that boy and then was rushed by the mob? Do you know them?”
“Well, no, I—”
“Neither do I!” Goda’s teeth were gritted. “They could have wives and children for all we know, and now they’re both seriously injured—or worse. What I did was stupid. There is no excuse for it. Maybe it seems like something small to you—and that I should ignore the rest of what happened because it wasn’t by my hand directly—but everything we do has a ripple effect in this world. I might have caused the deaths of two people just now. I might have caused the bereavement of both their wives. I might have caused the starvation of their children. And Rem, you saw her, didn’t you? What kind of disease did my presence at the monastery trigger in her? She looks infested with snakes.”
“Goda, you’re insane! You can’t put all of that on yourself! We can’t be—you can’t be blamed for any of that!” Kanna ranted. She felt a wave of guilt filling her own chest, and something in the back of her mind knew that she was resisting Goda’s words because of what it meant about her own self and all the things that she had done in her own life. “Why do you have this fixation on flagellating yourself for everything? It’s irrational. It’s arrogant and megalomaniacal, even. It’s the reason why you’re still tied up in your guilt for something that happened nine years ago, even though that priestess that you stabbed to death deserved what she got!”
Kanna only realized that her mouth had grown too slippery after the last few words tumbled out. She shut her mouth quickly then, but it was too late.
Goda was staring at her. The look was one that made Kanna wonder if she was about to become a third casualty for the night.
Like an animal pouncing out of the brush around them, Goda jumped into the truck. She came upon Kanna, she pressed Kanna to the seat. Her teeth were bared and her breaths were rushing out of her in thick clouds of steam that looked like smoke in the cool air.
The hot sting of fear rushed through every one of Kanna’s limbs. In just a matter of moments, her brain wiped clean every memory she had of everything that had happened between them. Kanna felt like her body was reacting to the giant the way it had the first night they met; she was filled with raw discomfort, fear for her life, dread that drenched every particle of every bone.
But Goda did not hit her. “You’re a fool,” she huffed instead. “One day you will see for yourself the pain you’ve inflicted on the world, and it will tear you up inside. But until then, you will foolishly keep destroying yourself and those around you, crying to the heavens when you run yourself full speed into a boulder, begging the Goddess to save you from what you’ve done. You did it. It was you. And it’s only you who can stop doing it.” Kanna stared up at Goda, not knowing what to say, only a small edge of her mind growing awake to the implication behind the words. Then Goda finally said, “Hundreds of thousands of people have suffered or died so that you could live in a house in a grassy meadow in blissful ignorance. What are you going to do about it now, Kanna Rava?”
Kanna would have preferred a blow to the face.
When the giant pulled away, she grasped the other end of the rope and began untying it. She yanked Kanna out of the truck and led her through the brush, but Kanna followed without daring to ask where they were going.
Not far away, in a clearing by the river bank, Kanna could see a shallow den carved into the side of a mound. Even in the relative darkness, as she peered inside she could see that it was little more than half a dozen paces deep. The ceiling looked low enough that the giant would certainly have had to crouch to go in, so Kanna gave Goda a bewildered glance as they approached it.
Then Kanna came close enough to see the etchings on the outside of the threshold. They were more plain than the ones she had seen before—as if they were a primitive version of the ornate carvings she had noticed in the desert and in Karo—but there was no mistaking the image of a swan surrounded by snakes.
As soon as she saw it, Kanna turned to run. The slack of the rope was short, though. She came to an abrupt stop when she reached the end of her leash and she fell onto the ground with the force of her resistance. The leaves rustled as she dug her hands into the dirt. Her fingers uprooted a dozen weeds as Goda dragged her.
“No!” Kanna screamed, tears bursting from her eyes. “No! I don’t want to see it! No! No!”
“You’ve seen my guilt and my shame,” Goda said, her stride slow but consistent. “You’ve seen your own, too. But you’re hardened to guilt. Your mother tried to control you with it, so now it means nothing to you. It’s something you can dismiss, or shift to someone else as if it’s their fault. You can even swim in guilt to make a show of how sorry you are. You can suffer yourself as if you’re paying a penance for the suffering you caused—but of course that does nothing. You cannot buy forgiveness with guilt. Guilt is a mask. What you’re trying to avoid with it is responsibility, which is something else altogether.”
Goda took Kanna by the back of her robes and pulled her the rest of the way. She dropped her just outside the entrance of the shrine.
“Don’t go in,” Goda said. “It will be too much for you. This shrine is very powerful, in spite of its looks. Don’t go in, but if the Goddess sends out one of your snakes, then obey Her intention and look the snake in the eyes.”
Kanna pressed her face into the dirt because she didn’t want to look up at the gateway in front of her. Still, she could feel the ground vibrating beneath her as it always did, and the familiar whir that rushed through her ears.
She resisted and resisted, but the valve was opening and she could hear all the snakes rushing out. In time, she felt a single tongue flickering against her arm, then against her face, tasting her resolve. Because it had been dormant for so long, Kanna could feel the snake’s naiveté. It was curious about her; it was wondering who she was. It only grew afraid of her once she found the strength to finally lift her head and look.
And by then it was too late for it to escape her gaze.
* * *
Kanna was running through the grassland on a bright summer day. The sun was like a burning spotlight overhead, and so she tried to dodge it by slipping into a grove. She had left the boundaries that her mother had assigned to her, but she had told herself the reasoning was justified. Her father was somewhere out in the field, she had heard—a rare occurrence since he always hid himself in the offices of the distilleries—and she wanted to catch a glimpse of him while she could.
But the fields were hot, and they stretched wide across the property. She was small enough to duck behind the shadows of boulders and trees and bushes, but the long, thin stalks of mok hardly cast a silhouette at all.
Most of the fields had been empty, but when she heard some voices shouting in the distance, she pushed herself with some of the last bits of energy that the sun hadn’t sapped, and she ran out of the thicket. Just over the hillside, she saw a row of workers harvesting the pods of mok, their bare hands closing around the tips of the stems and ripping off the tiny bits of grain in one sweep.
Kanna sat and admired a few cycles of the motions. She wondered how they could reap the fruits of the plant without blistering their fingers on the spines. She thought they must have been chosen because they were talented enough to know how to avoid them.
The voice of a man standing off to the side shattered through her daydreaming, though. She hadn’t noticed him at first, but he was taller than the rest of the workers and he wasn’t busying himself with the grain that thickly surrounded him. He was ignoring it actually; he was staring fixedly at the row of people instead.
“Don’t bother wiping your hands! You can do that after; we don’t have the time!” he shouted at someone. He was holding a clock in his hand and he was busy winding it with the same effort that the workers were stripping the grain.
Kanna looked around for her father, but she didn’t recognize anyone within a reasonable distance. For a second, she wondered if she had just forgotten what her father looked like, but she shook her head at the thought. She had seen him only the month before at his house and his face couldn’t have changed that much—in her mind, or in reality.
As she was scanning the landscape, her eyes landed on a nearby worker who looked smaller than the rest. He was young, gangly. His arms and legs looked too long for his trunk; he must have still been in the midst of growing, not quite as ripe as the mok yet.
Kanna smiled a little because she thought he was cute and he reminded her of one of her half-brothers. Because he looked a bit underfed, she wondered if he tended to forget to eat the way her brother did, so she reached into her pocket where she had kept some fruit. She couldn’t remember the name of it, but her tutor had brought some over from the Middleland, and Kanna had found it too sour, so she had planned to offer the exotic gift to her father.
Now that her father hadn’t shown—he could have easily been in any of the vast fields and Kanna wasn’t about to keep searching in the hot sun—she shrugged her shoulders and rolled the fruit in the boy’s direction, until it collided with the back of his heel.
Confused, he looked down. He raised an eyebrow and paused his work to look up at the source, and even though Kanna smiled at him, his face immediately took on a nervous expression.
“Hey, hey you!” the man with the clock shouted. “What are you doing? You’re holding up the whole line! Strip the grain and pass it down!”
The boy quickly turned back to his work, but his fingers were fumbling now and the grain in his hand spilled in every direction.
Kanna watched the older man drop the clock on the ground and exchange it for something else that had been lying close by. The thicket of mok had obscured it, but as he held it up, Kanna could see that it was a long piece of wood tipped with leather.
“Are you looking to get fired, boy? What the hell are you doing?” He trudged down the line of people, and each one of them twitched and stiffened as he passed, but they kept working. They worked faster. It was only the boy who recoiled openly when the clock-winder reached him. “Are you trying to slack off and make everyone work harder to make up for it? Do your job! Do it! Who do you think you are?”
The boy tried to turn back to his work, but the presence of the supervisor who was mouth-breathing beside him only seemed to make him clumsier. In his frantic attempts to rush, he kicked over a bucket of grain that was lying on the ground nearby.
This seemed to be the last straw. The supervisor lifted the flat stick high over his head and Kanna watched in shock as he brought it down against the boy’s neck. The boy screamed in pain and fell to his knees. “How many chances do I have to give you, son? Every morning, it’s the same thing! Are you looking to starve to death or what?”
Kanna wanted to turn away, but she couldn’t. Even as the boy cowered and shrank into the mass of grain around him, the clock-winder struck him hard on the outside of his thighs, on the back of his arms, on the little bit of meat that lined his bony shoulders. Welts appeared on the skin that Kanna could see, and small trickles of blood seeped out into the thin cloth of the boy’s shirt.
Kanna wanted to yell for the man to stop. She wanted to dash into the field, but she knew that she wasn’t even supposed to be there—that maybe her own beating wouldn’t be nearly as harsh, and it wouldn’t leave any marks on her skin, but that she’d have a beating nonetheless.
After the boy had fallen onto his side, twitching with pain, the clock-winder finally seemed to notice the ball of fruit that had rolled onto the ground. He picked it up and glanced up the hill, and he met eyes with Kanna.
His expression turned severe. He was shaking his head. “Get out of here, girl. You’re bringing shame to your parents staining your clothes with that dirt.”
Kanna turned and ran away.
She ran without even thinking about where she would go. She passed through empty meadows and fields, and she rushed through thickets that hadn’t yet been cleared by her father’s fires. When she found a safe spot near a tree, she sat down beneath its shade and cried. She lingered there, away from everything she had seen, until the sun had finally started to wane, and it wasn’t too hot to wander the open grassland again.
She headed home. She knew that her mother must have been wondering where she was, and she knew that she would have to find some elaborate explanation, or else hide under the kitchen table to dodge the blows of her mother’s wooden spoon. Luckily, she was far enough away that she would have time to make up a story.
On the way back, as the pink sky began to morph into twilight, she passed through a field, and that was when she finally heard her father’s voice. It seemed to come from overhead, but then she realized that he was perched on a nearby hilltop. It was far too late and she didn’t want to be caught, so Kanna crouched as best she could among the sea of mok, while still turning her gaze up to watch what her father was doing.
There was a truck nearby and a heap of something in it. Kanna froze in place when she noticed that her father was speaking to the clock-winder, who was leaning against the side of the truck at the bottom of the hill.
“I don’t know, I don’t know!” the clock-winder was calling up to him. “He just collapsed in the sun in the middle of the day! I told him to have some water, but he refused me! What am I supposed to do with that?”
“Ah well,” Kanna’s father said with a light chuckle. “He was one of the weak ones, I suppose. Couldn’t take the heat! Sure, it’s sad, but what are you going to do when someone won’t take responsibility for their own life? You couldn’t force him, so don’t blame yourself.”
Kanna crept a bit closer until she could see what was lying in the bed of the truck. She covered her mouth to stifle the gasp.
It was the boy from earlier, the one to whom she had gifted the fruit. But now the fruit was in the clock-winder’s hand and he was talking with his mouth full.
“That’s all fine, but what do we do with him now? The parents aren’t going to want the body. It’s too expensive to deal with and they sent him to us because they wanted to get rid of him anyway. They’re just going to try to give him back to me if I show them what happened.”
Kanna’s father shrugged. “Grind it up with the rest of them, then. Throw it in the compost pile. He may not have been good at working the mok with his hands, but the rest of his body can help it grow. It’s the circle of life. He’ll do his job one way or another, right?”
The clock-winder laughed weakly, as if he wasn’t sure if the last few words were meant as a joke. Kanna could sense pain in the man’s expression—guilt perhaps—even as he hardened his face and mounted the truck. He took another bite of the fruit and barreled through a path near the hillside, the boy’s body bouncing along in the back.
The smoke of the engine struck Kanna in the face and filled her lungs with poison. She looked up at the shadow of her father at the top of the hill, but he didn’t see her.
* * *
Kanna coughed against the ground, as if the smoke had been real, as if she had inhaled it all over again. She felt drained, but the snakes had disappeared, and she couldn’t even feel them writhing in the earth when she turned to look up at the sky between the canopy of the trees above her. She noticed then that even Goda had gone.
She was alone. The wilderness spread out around her. The wind blew between the trees and made everything seem hollow.
Tears rolled down either side of her face. It was a steady stream, and the consistent flow almost calmed her. For a second, she thought that she could accept it all without resistance.
Yes, this is it, she thought to herself. It all seemed so mundane at that point. I have eaten grain nourished with the blood and sweat of slaves. I have tasted bread made from the bodies of men. I’m the devil, hungry for the flesh of others. I am insatiable. It’s why I tried to eat Goda Brahm.
She thought she was fine with it. Now that she knew, it wasn’t so bad. She thought she was fine, until she rolled over and wretched every piece of fruit that she had still remaining in her stomach.
A long time passed and she didn’t move, but the moon did shift a little overhead.
And the smell of smoke had not disappeared. It wasn’t the exhaust of an engine, though, so once she had gathered her strength and picked herself up, she followed the wisps that she could see and staggered through the brush. Not far from the clearing, she rediscovered Goda’s truck, still tucked between some trees. It wasn’t rumbling anymore, though; it wasn’t burning any Rava Spirits.
Instead, Goda was sitting at the end of the tailgate, one of her long legs pressed to the ground, the other bent and resting on the edge. She was leaning against the inside of the truck, her muscles free of tension, her face oddly relaxed.
To Kanna’s complete surprise, she found that the giant was puffing on the end of a cigar. When Kanna emerged from the trees and stepped into the moonlight, Goda looked at her. There was a long pause between them, a stare that meant nothing, and yet carried some hidden significance that Kanna could not yet process.
“One time,” Goda said, breaking the gaze and looking up at the low branches that hung above her, “I bought some fertilizer that had been imported from the Upperland. The plants grew twice as fast.” She pressed the end of the cigar against the floor of the truck and its light died with a moist hiss. “But at what cost? I turned the priestesses that I had been serving into cannibals.”
* * *
“I don’t have tears anymore, Goda. They’re all dried up.”
“I don’t blame myself—because I just didn’t know any better, and neither did my father, because it’s all he was ever taught, and all his father was ever taught—but after seeing what we’ve done, I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, either. I can’t pretend that it’s fine. I can’t pretend that it doesn’t have to change.”
They were stooped by the bank of the river, and Goda was dipping her hands into flow, and she was bringing handfuls of water up to her mouth. Kanna was sitting cross-legged beside her, her bound wrists resting in her lap.
“But what can I do? I’m just a slave. I’m helpless in this world.”
Goda turned to her, pausing with her fingers hanging just beneath the surface of the stream. “You are a slave, that’s true—but you’re not helpless. At any moment, there’s always at least one thing you can do.”
“What? What can I do now?”
“You can surrender.” Goda’s eyes looked like the dark threshold of the shrine, and it made Kanna lean a little closer with fear. “From that place of surrender, then you will know what to do. It will be so obvious you will think your past self was insane—but it won’t show itself until you surrender to fate.”
Kanna sighed and stared into the waters. It was too dark to see much past the surface, and though she saw a few bubbles emerging downstream, she could not make out any fish or any sign of life at all. The darkness had obscured everything more than a few paces away.
“That’s easier said than done,” Kanna said. “It’s hard to trust what I can’t see. And by what you say, it sounds like I won’t see it until I trust it. It’s a futile cycle, a paradox.” Kanna stretched forward and tested the water with her fingertips, and found that it was cold. “I’m stuck. I’m a snake eating myself.”
When Goda stood a moment later, Kanna thought she heard the giant huffing with amusement. She was looking down at Kanna, blocking out some of the moonlight.
“You’ll face that paradox soon enough. Tomorrow morning when we head to the place where I will give you away, you will resist me again, even if you know in the back of your mind that you have only one choice. It’s also the best choice. You couldn’t have chosen anything better for yourself than to become a slave.”
Kanna felt her jaw tightening, but she closed her eyes and listened to her breath, and this smoothed out some of the tension. “I want to believe that you’re wrong. If all of that is true—if I’m just a vessel for fate, for the Goddess to do what She wants—then what’s the point in having been born? Why does Kanna Rava even exist?”
Goda turned and disappeared into the shadows, which had come to swallow almost everything.