Goda’s mouth still tasted faintly of smoke. Most of the scent had been washed away when Goda drank from the flow of the river, but as Kanna leaned in and tasted deeply, she could sense an edge of charred earth on Goda’s tongue that hadn’t faded away.
Had she been in her normal state of mind, Kanna might have found it unpleasant, offensive, even. Instead, she swallowed it into her like every other subtle taste. She took in the warmth of Goda’s mouth, the texture. She felt the hard parts and the soft parts; she let the smell of Goda’s skin fill her up.
When Kanna pulled back because it had all begun to overwhelm her, her moist lips felt suddenly cold in the night air. She let out a long breath between them; the air puffed out of her visibly like it was made of smoke itself.
Kanna looked down at the giant. She was straddling Goda’s hips by the bank of the river. Both restless, they had moved from place to place during the night—the flatbed of the truck, the driver’s side of the front seat, the base of one of the huge trees—and each time, Kanna had grown more forward, more insistent, because she knew that time was running out. They were rushing helplessly towards a future that she could not resist.
And still, she knew that every moment could only be now. It was a paradox she always found in the woods. It was Goda’s paradox.
The giant was lying just at arm’s length of the water. She was reaching towards it, her fingers brushing the edge where the pebbles disappeared into the darkness. After Kanna had broken the kiss, Goda had turned her head to gaze towards the stream, which flowed so seamlessly that it looked like a blue mirror in the light of the moon.
Goda’s expression was serene, unbothered as usual. Had Kanna judged only from her face, she would have thought that she was looking at a beast who had no shred of desire for anything in the world, a creature free from want—but because Kanna was pressing herself hard against the spot below Goda’s hips, she knew that some tension was awake in the giant. She could feel the warmth beneath her, their shared pulse. She could feel it even through the layers of clothes.
She had started rocking against Goda. Kanna’s fingers were pressed to the space just beneath Goda’s ribs, so that it felt like she was holding the woman down, which only sharpened the irony that her hands were still bound and the other end of the rope lay loosely in Goda’s grasp.
She watched Goda’s reaction carefully. The giant had not rejected her embrace yet, had kissed Kanna back with no hesitation, but the giant had yet to act on her own—and even then Kanna still wanted Goda to push her, to make her do it, to tear all of her clothes away and open her up to the cold night air and shove her face in the dirt.
But Kanna knew that it was impossible to force Goda to force her. So she had waited. She had gone through the motions of some mating dance that had not been entirely conscious, and she had waited for Goda to act.
Goda hadn’t—and for the moment, the giant seemed distracted by the stream, her eyes falling onto the opposite bank, towards the dark forest that mirrored their own on the other side.
Kanna sighed with some resignation, some frustration. She followed the giant’s gaze and found that the trees looked like a smudge of gray in the moonlight, so instead she looked into the water, which appeared almost motionless even as it was flowing, because there were no rocks to resist the current and show signs of conflicted movement.
“Is this the Samma River?” Kanna asked. The thought had occurred to her only then, but the place looked so deserted that she could hardly believe this might have been the Southern border of the Middleland. There was no man-made barrier, no crossing, no soldiers, nothing that would have stopped her from wading across to the other side. Only the shrine seemed to be any kind of deterrent.
“Yes,” Goda answered, though Kanna had been asking her own self aloud, so hearing the giant suddenly speak had startled her a little.
“So that over there must be the Lowerland.” Kanna peered out into the opposing forest with renewed interest. It looked as hazy as it had before, but if she concentrated, she could make out the gravel at the bank and the messy brush that divided the trees from the water. “It looks almost the same as this side does. I guess I expected it to be different somehow, and seeing it in the flesh is underwhelming.”
“Borders are arbitrary. They’re invisible lines drawn by people, using rivers and mountains as excuses. The Lowerland could very well look the same as the Middleland all over and we would never know.”
“So what’s the difference, then?”
Goda smiled, and turned up to glance at Kanna with some amusement. “You know the difference,” she said. “It’s why you’ve hardly touched the water. It’s why you avoided looking at the other side until now. It’s why you feel an unconscious resistance to crossing, and would probably hold back even if someone was chasing you. Everyone feels it, so the government doesn’t need to guard this border.”
Kanna was quiet for awhile. When she paid attention, she did notice the resistance. Something about being close to the river had made her want to pull back at first, and she couldn’t clearly picture herself passing through the halfway point of the stream, even if it might have been shallow enough.
“The savages,” Kanna whispered.
“Yes. You’re afraid of them. Middlelanders are afraid of them, too. Even though the Samma River is sacred to the Maharans, most people still avoid the edges of the border as if the place were smeared with a plague.”
“I can’t blame them.” Kanna winced and averted her eyes from the other side. “I heard that the Lowerlanders are cannibals, that they cross the border at night sometimes and steal people and eat them.”
Goda laughed at this. Kanna wasn’t sure what it meant. Perhaps the giant found the words ironic in light of what Kanna had encountered in the shrine earlier; perhaps the giant had seen the same thing. “A lot of people in the Middleland believe that, too,” she said. “I can’t say for sure whether it’s true because I’ve never seen them eating. I’ve only seen them crouched in the brush, picking at wild plants.”
Kanna froze. “You’ve seen the savages?” She glanced quickly over the border again, suddenly alarmed. “Here? Did you see them around here?”
“No. The border here has a huge buffer between us and any settlement. Beyond the river, there’s a thick forest, then a mountain range, then a canyon that cracks through the earth and divides the continent almost in half. It acts as a no-man’s land, but it seems the canyon might be narrower near Samma Valley where I used to work, and I heard rumors that there’s an ancient bridge there. It would explain why I saw Lowerlanders a handful of times while I was gazing down from the mountainside where the monastery is.”
Even with that explanation, Kanna felt a bit exposed to be sitting so close to the savages’ homeland. “What did they look like?” Though she knew it was her imagination, her brain had started to conjure up faces in the lines of the tree branches on the other side. She blinked her eyes a few times and shook her head.
“I never got a close look, so I can’t say much. Some were small and some were bigger. Some were light-skinned and some were more tan. They were always naked, though—not a shred of clothes on them.”
Kanna smirked at this. “Sounds like you would fit right in with them.” Though Kanna had meant to tease the giant, her own words brought up a mental image, and it made some warmth rush to her face, and it made her conscious again of the feeling of Goda’s hips between her legs.
She had paused her rocking, but she began anew, with full awareness this time, with a slow, deliberate stroke. She felt a growing firmness pressing hard against her skin from beneath Goda’s clothes; she felt a growing heat.
Goda’s smile hadn’t faded.
“Why did you go there?” Kanna asked, taking in a long breath, steadying her voice and allowing it to flow out of her casually. “To the monastery, I mean. It must have been strange to live isolated on a mountainside like that. Was it something you would have chosen for yourself?”
“I did choose it. When I was younger, I got it in my head that I should work at Samma Valley.”
Goda shrugged, her face still relaxed and free of any desire, which Kanna did not like at all. “One day, I just knew I had to go there. I don’t know what compelled me, but I felt like I had to, like it was some drive of nature that was tugging me West, towards a valley in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, it was an easy job to get because most people are afraid to live there. My fiancée didn’t want to move with me, either, so I had to break off the engagement.”
“You were engaged?” Kanna tipped her head back in surprise, but she didn’t pause her movements; she pressed a little harder. She felt the rush of Goda’s blood more acutely, felt the shape of Goda’s reaction thickening against her. “But you were so young then.”
“It was an arranged marriage. She was waiting for me to come of age. We had been engaged since I was born and she was twelve years older than me, so she had waited a long time.”
“What happened to her?”
“She went out to live in the desert and I didn’t see her again until after I had become a porter. Because she’s a bit on the abrasive side, she had trouble finding a wife, but eventually she married an Outerlander.”
Kanna did pause then. She stared at Goda’s face without asking the next obvious question, because she realized just before voicing it that she wasn’t entirely certain that she wanted to know.
But then she knew without asking.
“Maybe it worked out better this way. That woman doesn’t suit you.” Kanna resumed her motions, and it was still languid enough that it felt effortless, but it had grown less subtle in its insistence; she had opened her legs a little further; she could feel Goda adjusting beneath her. She hoped that the giant was moving with discomfort. “I can’t really imagine you in a passionate embrace with Jaya Hadd.”
“That’s not really how Middlelander marriages work. For us, it’s better if we don’t like each other too much.”
“You people are weird.”
“That’s just how it is.” Goda’s smile grew wider. She had let go of the rope and instead her hands had come to rest on the ground near Kanna’s knees. She was touching Kanna’s legs very lightly. “Most couples don’t sleep together or anything like that. Jaya and I are distantly related, too, so we’re naturally less interested in each other, which is the ideal. Marriage is strictly business. It’s for strengthening alliances and raising children. It’s just that I didn’t want any of that, so I had no use for it.”
Kanna’s fingers curled to grasp at Goda’s shirt. She began sliding the fabric up, until she could see some skin appearing above Goda’s waist. She watched the giant’s stomach rise and fall. “Then what do you have use for? And who has use for you? You can’t even have any children, can you?” She didn’t know why she was saying it; she couldn’t tell what snake was speaking for her now or why it was so angry, but she let it speak. “You’re useless, Giant.”
Goda jerked her hips. The giant’s muscles tensed and she lifted herself off the ground and she pushed firmly into that place between Kanna’s legs. Kanna stifled a sharp breath of surprise; she felt the heat directly against her, felt the details of what lay beneath that barrier of fabric between them.
Kanna’s pulse traveled to that place. As her blood swelled in, she felt a fullness and an emptiness at the same time in the same spot. She stared down at Goda with astonishment, but Goda said nothing. The giant’s claws had dug into Kanna’s skin. The giant was grasping Kanna’s thighs to pull herself up, and then she threw an arm around Kanna in a rough half-embrace, and their chests collided so violently that Kanna lost her breath.
That violence flowed into a kiss. Goda’s teeth scraped the outside of Kanna’s mouth. Kanna cried out, but it was muffled, and she moved against Goda entirely on instinct, and Goda met her movements. The rhythm was as brutal as the kiss, but it had a flow to it as well, like a stream filled with gushing, pulsing rapids.
It was too intense. She could feel the texture of Goda’s hot skin as if it were directly against her. A tight feeling had started to accumulate, like a tense wire about to snap. Kanna felt more and more full; it grew more and more uncomfortable every time Goda pressed into her, but she could not stop herself from leaning into the touch nonetheless.
She dragged her hands desperately to the buckle of Goda’s belt. She knew that only the feeling of skin against naked skin would offer any relief, because the sensation had become almost painful, and it was building with Goda’s deliberately hard, deliberately violent thrusts, and it was growing impossible to resist anything.
Something in Kanna felt on the verge of spilling over—a familiar sensation, but not one she had ever experienced with anyone besides herself—and it made her face grow hot with frustration and embarrassment. Still, it had reached a plateau, and it moved no further. She was teetering over an abyss, but death wouldn’t quite take her, because she needed to feel Goda directly, even though the energy shooting through her limbs was making it hard for her to concentrate enough to undo Goda’s belt.
A single throb exploded in her, harder than she had felt before. Kanna tensed up. She gasped.
Then the giant stopped. She dropped her hips back onto the ground, her ragged breaths falling into Kanna’s mouth, her expression filled with the color of tension. She looked at Kanna intently.
“Don’t come,” Goda said.
Kanna’s eyes widened. Her face burned harder; it felt like a jarring contrast against the cold air of the night. She found at first that she couldn’t speak.
“It will drain you of your aggression. You’ll turn calm and complacent, and you won’t have the force of will to fight me all the way up the tower in the morning.”
“I—I wasn’t going to do that!” Kanna sputtered, even though it was a total lie and she knew well enough to sense that she hadn’t been far from that place. Even still, she furrowed her brow in anger. “And so what if I was, anyway? What is the point of doing all this if it’s not—if it’s not to….” Kanna stopped because she could not bring herself to speak as plainly as Goda had about it, because it was easier to act in the moment and then pretend that there were no words for what they were doing together.
But when she really thought about it, it was true that she didn’t know the exact words—in Middlelander or Upperlander—that might have described what had just happened in any level of detail. Perhaps there was no name for what had arisen between them. Perhaps there was no name for what they were doing, because there was no name for what had been pressing so insistently between Kanna’s legs and no name for the sensation inside of Kanna that had responded to it. She wasn’t even sure exactly what Goda might have done if the clothes had been ripped away.
Kanna had been acting without thinking, like some ignorant savage who had no language, and she had been going along with the wordless sensations in the air, making herself drunk with desire. It made her feel shame, but when she looked upon Goda’s blank face, the shame quickly fell away, and instead she was furious.
“We can’t all be such high-level masochists, Goda!” she yelled. She reached down between their joined hips and squeezed Goda tightly, harshly. It made Goda wince with what looked like pain, and this satisfied Kanna a little, because she herself was in pain as well; she herself had swollen up beyond the confines of her shell and could not crack it open.
Kanna lifted her bound hands and pressed them hard against her own face. She started to cry. Her tears burst out as a violent spurt. She let out a loud groan of anger that echoed through the forest.
“Why is it always like this between us?” Kanna cried. “Why do I always feel like I’m on the verge of something, on the edge, like I’m about to be born into something new, but I can’t break my way out? I pound and claw against the walls of that womb, but I can never be born, because somehow I’m inside my own belly, trying to give birth to myself, and I can’t break my own self open and be free of all of this! That’s the paradox, isn’t it? Why can’t you just be inside of me instead, Goda? Why can’t you just break me open with your thrusting, then? Why do you tantalize me with these tastes of death, but you won’t just kill me?”
She was screaming. She had jammed the heel of her palms into her eyes and her fingernails were scraping her hairline, pulling on the little wisps that were growing there.
Goda took her by the wrists and wrenched her hands away. Kanna’s breath hitched. She stared at Goda with tightened lips, with tears the flowed fatly down her face.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t touch you so much,” Goda said. “And Rem was right, too: I fan the flames. I’ve played with fire all my life, lived just on the verge of death. That’s exciting at first, but over time you burn through the fear and everything in the world becomes mundane. It’s different with you, though. I don’t know why that is. You don’t remind me of anyone I’ve ever known; there’s nothing I can see that I’ve projected onto you—yet everything about you is tempting to me. It’s not desire I feel; it’s just a primitive drive, like I’m some animal who has stumbled upon a receptive companion displaying herself in the wilderness. It’s clean and wholesome and there’s not much baggage to it. It’s hard to control myself because of that. There’s no impurity to latch onto, so I’m washed away in the natural flow of it.”
Kanna swallowed a shaky, irritated breath. “You make what we have together sound so simple.”
“It is. It could be. Why are you adding so much to it?”
“Because it means more than that.” Kanna took a handful of Goda’s shirt and tugged on it in frustration, but then she gave up and slumped forward, and pressed her face to Goda’s chest. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry about everything, about the way I dismissed your whole story. Even seeing what you did with my own eyes, I wanted to bury it away—but you were in love with the priestess, weren’t you? Even if I couldn’t hear your thoughts in those visions, I could feel your body, your desire for her, your arousal. She looked so beautiful, and I could tell I was seeing her through some skewed lens that came from that. I can’t imagine the pain, Goda, I can’t imagine it. It would be like if I had to jam a knife into you and watch you bleed to death. I could never do it. It would kill me.”
Goda was quiet for a long moment. Over time, though, she leaned back. She brought her hand to Kanna’s face and forced Kanna to meet her gaze again. Kanna fought it at first, because the stare was as intense as it was warm, because it undressed her as it so often did and she had lost the impulse to be naked.
“Just because it is simple,” Goda said, “and just because I don’t feel a lot of attachment to you—or to anyone—doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be with you. It doesn’t mean that I don’t wish you could stay with me and we could travel together through the desert and catch snakes at night and fall asleep side by side. It’s just that my life will come to an end soon and so we can’t live in that kind of world. You know it.”
Kanna opened her mouth to begin objecting, as she usually did, to tell Goda that there was no use in fortunetelling, to complain about the chaos of the reality around them—but she didn’t. Something about Goda’s tone nudged a part of Kanna’s mind, or perhaps something beyond it. Kanna felt the blood in her hands running cold even though they were pressed to Goda’s warm chest. Kanna swallowed.
“I’m going to kill you, aren’t I?” She was surprised at what her own mouth had said, but she knew it was true anyway, because she immediately wanted to take it back.
The giant nodded.
“That’s why….” Kanna had turned away. Her eyes had widened and she couldn’t stand to look right into Goda’s face anymore. She felt an uncomfortable moment of lucidity wash over her, as if she had awoken from a dream. “That’s why the shrine showed me those things. That’s why I had all those visions.”
“Yes. It showed you my past so that you could come to terms with your future—so that you could forgive me for what you would eventually do yourself, so that you could learn not to judge it. Judgment gets in the way of life’s natural unfolding—and you were naturally meant to kill me.”
“No…no, that can’t be right!” Kanna felt panic swelling up in her, a denial more intense than any other she had felt. “How? How would I even kill you? My hands are bound. What am I going to do, strangle you with the rope? It’s preposterous!”
“You’ve already killed me. But in that sense, you’re no different from everyone else. Every particle in this universe has conspired to end my life, and it’s nothing personal. It’s only that you were the last piece, the cog that made the rest of the machine run its course. Don’t worry about it. You’ve already fulfilled your role without realizing. It’s done; it just has to play out, and you will already be free of me by the time it happens, so you won’t have to watch.”
Kanna was shaking her head. “No!” Her breaths were coming in hard, but she leaned against Goda again and her tears soaked into the giant’s shirt. “I don’t believe you! You’re always lying! You’re a liar and a thief and a killer! Why would I ever believe you?”
Goda held Kanna in a firm embrace, but it still felt loose enough that Kanna could have broken out of it if she wanted, and Kanna did not like that at all. She shuddered against Goda for a long time, until the giant teetered back, and they both fell into the grass together once again.
Kanna pressed the side of her head to Goda’s chest. She listened to the giant’s beating heart. She felt Goda’s breath swelling, the subtle flexing of the woman’s legs, the heat of the arousal that still pulsed against Kanna shamelessly.
The edges of the sun were starting to color the sky and leak onto the surface of the water, but because it was still dark, Kanna could feel some snakes writhing in her with total clarity. One of them—the most prominent one—was a constrictor, and it wanted to wrap itself around Goda in a desperate, suffocating embrace. It wanted to hold onto her. It was afraid of losing her. It was the one that had wanted Kanna to make love with the giant before it was too late, as if the act could serve as a window into some eternity between them.
But then Kanna noticed that some infinite presence was already there, swimming around and inside both herself and Goda Brahm.
They had already been making love. In fact, it happened all the time. It happened from the moment they first met—or even before that. She felt almost like she could remember knowing Goda when she was younger, even though that was impossible.
It confused her. She could not point to when it had started or what it even was. It had no time. It had no beginning and no end. There were no words for it. It preceded any of the physical contact between them, and the touch had merely made what was already there more obvious.
She and Goda could not be separated, Kanna realized, though it made no sense to her mind. It was just that there was no such thing as separation. They had always been together. Always. Goda’s presence had always hovered around her and within her.
The only thing that had given her the illusion of some division were the snakes—especially the one that desperately grasped to keep Goda from running away, ironically enough—and so that meant…
“I am you,” Kanna whispered. The words had taken on a deeper meaning from the last time she had said them. Every wave of lucidity brought with it another shred of truth, but she knew that in mere moments the lucidity would wear off, and she would forget what she had seen just then, and she would start resisting the circumstances again.
Goda smiled up at her. The golden glow that had started to paint the leaves reflected in her eyes. “I am you,” she responded in kind.
* * *
Once the sun had floated high enough that Kanna could see its disk shining between the trees, they both emerged from their shared stupor. They had not moved from the side of the river; they had stayed breathing against each other in silence and Kanna had nearly fallen asleep.
Goda turned and allowed Kanna to gently fall from her, to roll into the bed of grass and leaves beside them, away from the stream. Kanna gazed at the giant helplessly, no longer sure of herself, her body feeling amorphous beneath her.
But Goda stood with purpose, as if some universal clock had sounded the alarm. She looked awake. She picked up the other end of Kanna’s rope and coaxed Kanna onto her feet.
“Let’s go,” the giant said, her smile just a ghostly presence, not fully-formed. The wind was blowing lightly through the trees, making the leaves sway with a pleasant rustle. It also sent Goda’s hair dancing across her face. “Today, the world ends.”