The truck retreated through the trees. They had already broken through the night before, so the trail was smoother on the way back, and Kanna found that she was less surprised whenever a flickering branch scraped the side of her arm. She could see the trees ahead of time in the growing light, and they seemed more familiar now, like they were offering a friendly tap to see her off.
When the truck reached the main road, the sky was yellow-red like the core of the Samma Flower, and it was too bright out in the open, so Kanna bent down and rested her face in Goda’s lap to avoid the glare. She closed her eyes; she felt the wind coming down around them like a gushing stream, and it felt sharp against her skin, and it felt painful, but the way it flowed seemed to insulate them both from the rest of the world.
Kanna tried to forget where they were going. She took a deep breath of the giant’s scent, which she still found both comforting and disturbing. It always stoked a little bit of fear in her. She could swear she had known its flavor all her life.
“How many months have we been traveling together?” Kanna asked over the rumble of the engine.
“About a week.”
“No. No, that’s….” Kanna racked her brain to try to remember how long it had actually been, because the days had smudged together in her mind—some parts colorful, and some parts gray, but all smeared from the same stroke of a brush, so it was hard to tell when one day ended and another began.
But she knew that it had to have been much longer than a week, even though some of the days felt like she had lived them more than once.
She decided that Goda was lying.
“When people are able to swallow large amounts of Flower and survive it,” Goda said, as if she were responding to something that Kanna hadn’t said aloud, “they’ll often experience time differently. They won’t be able to tell how many hours or minutes have gone by. Some of them will wander around in the streets like time doesn’t exist to them at all—so in a sense, they temporarily live closer to the truth.”
“Yes, you’re lying to yourself. There is no earlier or later. It’s always now. You yourself told me this in the wilderness.”
Kanna huffed. “I have memories that span much further back than right this second. I made them in the past. I’m remembering them now.”
“You made those memories now. You made them by thinking them. Nothing happened before this. You’re making it up. There’s no way to remember something or even look at something outside of yourself without also making it up. It’s an act of creation. It’s an act of sex that you’re always having with reality, but then you convince yourself that you’re pure and celibate like a priestess, or that you’re just a powerless bystander who is only watching.”
The wind rushed past Kanna’s ears and muffled the words, but she still heard them. Finally, she opened her eyes. She stared hard at Goda’s hand on the speed lever. She found that she didn’t know what to say because there was nothing she could really point to that either proved or disproved any of Goda’s nonsense. It was like the whole thing was designed to bypass her logic. She turned her head up to look at the giant. “What, so you’re trying to tell me this is all just my imagination?”
“Yes. You have a poor imagination, though,” Goda replied, looking down at Kanna with a teasing smirk, her face framed by the golden sky. “You’ll want to work on that after I leave you. God thinks you’re bad at sex.”
Kanna pressed her hand to Goda’s thigh and dug her fingers into the warmth of the fabric and the skin underneath. She didn’t know how to even begin to respond to such a bizarre insult. Instead, she turned her gaze towards the windshield, which showed her the colossal human structures that they were quickly approaching.
“So it’s been a week, then,” Kanna said.
“Yes, a week.”
* * *
Kanna had rolled onto her back to look up at the scenery, but her head remained pillowed on Goda’s leg. She told herself not to cower, to receive whatever she saw with no reaction, to submit to the world the Middlelanders had built. All of her resistance so far had made such little difference, she thought, so she lay back to let the jarring image of the towers rain on top of her, and she tried to force the muscles of her mouth into a serene expression.
But instead of seeing the piles of brick and stone and glass and steel, her eyes fell on Goda’s face. She looked at the subtle tendons of the woman’s neck, at the shadow of her jaw. In the bright morning light, Kanna could even see the tiny, translucent hairs that peppered the end of the giant’s chin and looked like speckles of crystalline earth.
From the corner of her vision, Kanna noticed the sky becoming more and more crowded with steel. Light flashed between the buildings as they sped by, but those bursts grew fleeting, because the structures had multiplied and had started to veil the young sun that was still near the horizon.
Eventually, a single colossus sprouted up over them and blocked half the sky, and it loomed over Kanna, crouched over her the way the giant had so many times. She could see some movement behind the dim lower windows of the building, but her mind could not yet make sense of it all. It was the tallest man-made thing she had ever seen in her life.
The truck stopped not far from it, in a clearing that had been leveled with gravel and sand that didn’t match the rest of the earth around it. A few other trucks were stationed nearby, but no one was in them, and it was still early enough that Kanna could not sense much activity besides the coming and going of birds overhead.
“There’s a mechanical lift that goes all the way up to the top,” Goda said, tipping her head to seemingly gaze at the highest floor. A glare had hit those upper windows and washed them out like the surface of a lake, so Kanna could not see through them. “It’s pulled by slaves sometimes and a generator other times. Lately, because of the fuel shortage, it’s been slaves.” She turned back to Kanna with a smile. “Maybe instead of factory work, they’ll have you do that instead.”
“The punishments you wish on me are creative, but wasn’t it I who was supposed to be working on my imagination?”
Goda laughed. “Fair enough.” She turned and reached into the back and stuffed her satchel with a handful of papers and dried herbs and small pouches that Kanna didn’t recognize—but Kanna did notice that Goda had thrown the old scroll inside before tying it all shut.
“Is the journey on the lift really going to be that long that we need to stock up?”
“We’re not taking the lift. That’s for priestesses and bureaucrats, of course.” Goda glanced at her like it was supposed to be obvious, and she slung the bag over her shoulder before opening the door and climbing out of the truck.
When Kanna felt the door slam closed again, she jerked, as if she hadn’t expected it, even though it had been right in front of her. She watched Goda round the truck. She followed the image of the giant shuffling through the gravel until it was shadowed by the colossus before them.
“Wait!” Kanna called after her. “How the hell are we going to get all the way up there, then?” She looked to and fro to gather up her stuff, but then she abruptly realized that everything she owned was in her pockets, so she jumped over the passenger side door and she kicked up dirt to catch up to the giant.
As she jogged across the clearing, though, she was distracted by some human movement towards the East—the first sign of humanity she had seen all day—on the other side of the main road. It was a group of six or seven tall Middlelander women in brown uniforms, hobbling around with shoes that were so riddled with holes that Kanna guessed they might have been more comfortable barefooted. Their legs and arms were clasped to each other through a row of joined steel shackles, so that they were forced to press against each other in a single file, like a series of electric batteries.
Each one had a cuff like Kanna did. Up front, five paces ahead of the first of them, was a beefy woman with spreading shoulders and a metal baton in one hand. Her other hand held a rope, and it was tied to the neck of the first prisoner, and she was tugging on it to rush the group forward.
Kanna openly stared. She found the sight so consuming that she only turned away because she ran right into Goda. She looked up, rubbing the side of her arm with some annoyance, and she saw that Goda was smiling down at her. The giant’s face was half-painted with the shadow of the tower, half-painted with the light of the sun.
“Mind your own business while we’re here. It’ll make things less painful,” Goda said, but her tone was mild.
Kanna disobeyed immediately. She threw another glance in the direction of the prisoners. “Are those criminals? Slaves? Was that their porter leading them?” She watched with a twinge of sympathetic pain when one of the slaves tripped over a rock and nearly sent the rest of the line stumbling. “Why are there so many together?”
“That’s how it usually is. Most porters carry a series of around four to eight slaves, all connected in such a way that if one of them tries to escape, the others get shocked. In this way, they’re encouraged to keep each other in line, so the porter has less work to do.”
“That’s awful.” Kanna stared across the street with widened eyes, but after a moment she turned back to give Goda a curious glance. She suddenly felt extremely fortunate, and the swell of gratitude surprised her. “Why was it just you and me this whole time, then?”
“Slaves in transport are segregated by ethnicity as well as gender before they are registered with their permanent master. Your father’s wife had already been sent away, so you were the only female Upperlander at the confinement center. I had to take you alone. I get the jobs that no one else wants.”
Some small part of Kanna—the snake that was irked by social rejection perhaps—sent a warm wave of anger up to her face. “But why?”
“Officially, it’s to quarantine you in case you carry an exotic disease.”
“What? That’s ridiculous! That’s—”
“Yes, of course. It makes no sense. If that were the real reason, they would make me wear gloves and a mask when touching you, wouldn’t they? The real reason is simply because most Middlelanders are racist. Even other slaves will not want to touch you. Middlelanders think that both Upperlanders and Outerlanders are dirty, and Outerlanders think that Upperlanders are greedy, and Upperlanders think Outerlanders worship demons, so to avoid fights among the slaves, they separate the foreigners.”
Because Goda had started walking again, Kanna followed her without replying, her hands coming up to grasp the giant’s robes, the crunching of their footsteps filling up the quiet morning air. After a few beats, though, Kanna made a face. “But Outerlanders do worship demons,” she said. “That’s not a prejudice. That’s just the truth.”
Goda let out another laugh, though Kanna didn’t think it was very funny. Kanna may have not believed in any gods, but her mother had told her all her life that the Outerlanders were demon-worshipers, and Kanna had seen drawings of some of their idols with her own eyes, and the idols had looked like demons to her. In fact, the images had haunted her nightmares for awhile when she was young.
“Not everything with a scary face is a demon,” Goda said. Her head was tilted back again; she seemed to be staring up at the tower, whose looming figure was growing ever closer, and in the glass windows of the bottom floors, Kanna could see the giant’s faint reflection.
“You say this,” Kanna mumbled, pressing her cheek to Goda’s back so that she could no longer see the tower or its spreading mirrors, “but here you are, a perfect example of exactly that.”
“Very true, very true. Shall I turn around and bare my teeth and stick out my tongue and breathe fire at you?”
Kanna shut her eyes. “You’ve done that enough times already, I think.” She knew it was silly, but some primitive side of her shuddered at the mental image of Goda’s head twisting around and transforming into the mask of a maneater.
The feeling was mostly unpleasant, but not entirely. She still felt the tension from the night before, and it was heightened enough that it seemed to respond to Goda’s wrath in any form. Her fear and curiosity still danced together. That feeling that she wanted Goda to devour her still buzzed like electric energy in the background of her senses.
Kanna felt the shadow of the tower overtaking them, even though she could not see it. She felt the warmth of the sun being swallowed by the shade, by the cool air that had not yet noticed the dawn. They turned what felt like a corner and some light leaked into her left eye, but not her right. She opened both of them only when she felt Goda stop and she heard a creaking sound ringing through the space around her.
Kanna looked up to find herself at the base of the colossus. They had come around to the other side of it, the side where some of the sun speckled against the windows and made the building seem like it was looking at her with dozens of eyes.
There was a door in front of them. From Kanna’s vantage point, she could only see some dim shapes inside because the outside sun had grown so bright. She couldn’t parse anything she was seeing beyond the threshold.
Goda ducked her head to go inside and Kanna started following her.
But then Kanna pulled back a second later. A strange rush of resistance jolted through her bones as the smell of the place hit her nose.
It smelled empty, like the inside of a cavern. It smelled like moist stone.
Kanna took a few shuffling steps back, and this was when Goda turned to smile at her again.
“Ah, there it is,” she said, her tone filled with an odd pleasure. She approached Kanna in that moment, and she tightly grabbed the rope just below Kanna’s bound wrists. The rope had been trailing behind Kanna like a tail, but Goda began lifting it up off the ground, sliding it between her fingers like she was wrangling a live viper, until she grasp the very end of it.
“What?” Kanna said, some irritation bubbling up in her immediately, because she did not like Goda’s expression. Kanna stood there with her hands pressed against her own chest, her muscles hardened like she had become an unmovable statue.
“You’re ready to fight. You’re already fighting and you don’t even know what you’re in for yet.”
Kanna raised an eyebrow, confusion melding with her annoyance. “You’re making it sound like you expected this. Last night you even told me to preserve my energy so that I could struggle. At first I thought you were just teasing me, telling me not to satisfy myself with your body because you were some kind of sadist, but now you’re looking at me with expectation. Wasn’t it you who told me over and over again to surrender? Isn’t that what you want from me, anyway?”
Goda’s expression turned cryptic. “I want exactly nothing from you. There’s nothing you could ever give me that I could possibly want. It is true that it would make your life flow with a bit less violence if you gave into me—which is why I told you to surrender—but you’re not going to do that, are you?” The giant seemed to float backwards, to make some space and give Kanna the chance to follow. Kanna stayed put. “There are many ways to commune with naked reality,” the giant said, “but you like it violent, don’t you?”
She jerked the rope and Kanna stumbled forward with a cry of surprise.
“So that’s how I’ll give it to you, Slave. Come get it.”
Goda’s face had changed again, because in the broken light coming off the prism of the windows, for a split second Kanna thought she really did see a demon staring back at her.
It’s just a trick of the light, Kanna thought, just a trick of the light.
Nonetheless, Kanna stared at the giant with astonishment, not knowing what to do. She had fallen against the edge of the doorway and her hands had caught her just before she went inside. She felt her chest tighten, felt her muscles grow even stiffer, felt all the heat rushing to her throat and legs.
Then Goda wrenched the cord. She did it with such force that Kanna felt the bonds squeeze the blood out of her wrists, and she found the doorway whipping past either side of her and she found herself swallowed into the stone chamber beyond it. Her heels dragged against the floor, but it didn’t help, and it scraped up a sound that made Kanna want to gnash her teeth.
“No!” Kanna screamed, even though she didn’t even know where they were going. She just knew that she did not want it. She did not want to be dragged to the place of her bondage; she did not want to be enslaved for ten years; she did not want to be separated from Goda and forced to live every day under the hand of a stranger who would crack a steel rod against her back the same way her father had done to others. “It’s not fair!”
Her voice echoed in what felt like a chamber that stretched up forever, never reaching a ceiling, never ending in a plateau. She didn’t want to look up to see how tall it was. She did not want to stare into the emptiness, so she shut her eyes to see the black instead. She fell to the floor as soon as the musty smell of cold stone filled the space around her.
Goda dragged her. She pulled Kanna by the hands the same way she had done on the side of the crag the first night they had met—except this time, there were no jagged rocks. Instead, Goda was hauling her up a set of ledges whose corners dug uncomfortably into Kanna’s side as she writhed and kicked.
“Look! Open your eyes! There’s lots to see here, and you’ll miss all of it!” The giant’s voice echoed up the chamber and seemed to coil all around Kanna’s body, like it was bouncing off the sides of a twisting helix.
When the pain grew too much, Kanna finally opened her eyes to look, to see what she could do, what she could grab to fight the giant off.
But then she saw the endless spiral above her. The pain stopped because the giant had paused as soon as Kanna had seen.
“What is this place?” Kanna rasped. She looked down to find a few steps below her, then looked up past Goda and found dozens more. On the walls that formed the stone cylinder that encircled them, there were windows of painted glass filled with all kinds of images: flowers, insects, trees filled with birds, huge lions with opened maws, water fowl floating atop scenic lakes—and of course, serpents carved into the gray stone that framed them.
One of the images—the one set high on the wall in front of her, in a way that looked so obvious to her now that she wondered how she hadn’t noticed it from the outside—stood a massive icon of the Goddess Mahara, one hand holding her breast, the other holding an unripe fruit. Light from the sun filtered in and colored half the stained window, while the other half remained a bit dimmer, since it was angled away from the East.
As she looked around, the rest of the chamber was bathed in a similar duality. Half was in shade, half was not. The support structures that made up the interior seemed to give it this division, but Kanna couldn’t tell which beam cast which shadow.
She looked up the stairs and finally noticed the central column that held up the entire spiral. Coiled around this spine was a carving of a huge serpent that started at the floor and seemed to reach up all the way to the ceiling high above her. She could not see its head from where she was—only the tail end, which rested on the stone at the bottom center of the space.
Still lying stretched across the stairs, Kanna tipped her head back to look up at Goda, who was standing on a vantage point just a few paces above her.
“Ah, so you like it,” Goda said.
After all of the tugging and screaming, the giant’s words seemed so ridiculous and besides the point that Kanna didn’t know what to say. She only gave Goda an irritated glance. She rolled over onto her stomach, so that she could make herself stable against the steps on her hands and knees.
“You haven’t answered me!” Kanna yelled. Her voice made the glass of the windows vibrate with energy. “What is all of this?”
“It’s a spiral staircase.”
“Yes, I can see that, but where are we going?”
“Yes, yes, I can see that, but—!” Kanna jerked her head around as she began trying to lift herself, but she could find no banister to grasp onto, so she had to use the step above her for leverage.
One side of the staircase was pressed to the wall and the other side was largely open, with wide gaps between the support beams that jutted out from the central column and fused into the stairs. This made Kanna a bit wary as she hobbled to her feet, even though they were barely a few paces up and a fall would have hurt little more than her pride.
But that was enough. She furrowed her brow and glared at the giant, who held the other end of her leash with a loose grip and now looked even taller standing above her. Some of Kanna’s initial resistance was starting to waver—to oscillate like a pendulum as it usually did—and she found herself in a calmer pocket of emotion because the kicking had tired her a little.
“Stop tugging me like that.” Her tone was a bit more neutral, though her chest was rising and falling heavily still. “You don’t have to be so rough with me.”
“I don’t?” Goda’s eyes were alight with mischief.
Kanna gave the giant a twisted face of displeasure, but this didn’t seem to make the smirk fade at all. “Look,” Kanna said, “we’re about to separated, all this bad stuff is about to happen, and I’m in this weird place that’s putting me on edge. Even the paintings on the windows are creeping me out—and let’s not even mention that ridiculous snake. Can’t you take this a bit more seriously?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, to begin with, you can wipe that stupid smile off your face.” Kanna looked around at the iconography with a few more wary glances; it felt almost like the animals were poised to rise out of the images and strike at any second. “Is this some kind of temple?”
“No. It’s the staircase that the priestesses once used to get up this building before there was a mechanical lift. Nowadays, it’s for the laypeople to climb up into the tower.”
Kanna looked above, at the seemingly endless spirals that coiled up into a distant peak that she could barely see from where she was standing. “People use this to get to the offices? Doesn’t it take forever?”
“Yes. It’s why no one except bureaucrats and clergy frequent this tower, since regular citizens can’t use the lift. Technically, the laypeople are allowed to come in and meet with administrators and report problems and complain about government services and ask for help and so on—but all the important offices are on the upper floors. Who the hell has the time and energy to make this journey, besides slaves who have nothing better to do and nowhere else to go?”
Goda turned and began stepping onto the next ledge, and the slight nudge of the rope signaled Kanna to follow.
“Originally, this special staircase was built so that the priestesses could perform a walking meditation on their way up, so that they could be in a state of oneness with the Goddess when they had to do government business and face important decisions. It’s a tedious walk, though, so most of them started taking the lift once that was built. The lift had been intended for everyone to use, but because priestesses kept having to wait to avoid being in the same gondola as the citizens—to avoid accidentally touching them—eventually the administrators banned the presence of laypeople in the lifts altogether. So now it’s the opposite of how it used to be.”
“Strange how that happened,” Kanna mumbled. She tried to avert her gaze from all the eyes on all the images, but even when she looked down at the ground beneath her, she could feel the staring as if it were coming from living beings.
“Not really. This is the usual pattern of religion. It’s probably similar in your culture.”
“What do you mean?”
Goda glanced over her shoulder, her smirk still evident, her eyebrow raised. “You start out with a really vague set of beliefs and superstitions, then someone figures out how to contact the spirits and they spread it to others. As with any job, some people are better at it than most, and those become advisors to the group because they have a wider perspective and might even see the future. Over the centuries, they make a religion out of it and those spiritually gifted people form a priestly class, and they go to live on mountaintops and they dedicate themselves to a life of humility and God. Then, people come to the mountain to seek their council—but because it’s so high up and hard to get to them, the priestesses descend and live a bit lower. They aren’t as close to God, but they’re close enough, and at least more people can see them and they can give those people advice.” Goda faced forward again as the spiral began to turn ever sharper. “But people don’t want advice.”
They stepped through one of the shadowy patches, and Kanna thought she saw a snake slithering out of the corner of her eye, but she realized quickly enough that it was simply the rope that had grown some slack and was sliding along the floor.
“The only advice worth listening to in this life is the kind that helps you become the Goddess, and people don’t like that because it means that they have to give in to Her, give into death. So instead of becoming the Goddess or being like the priestesses, they decide to worship them instead. A priestess sees this and—because she’s only human—it strokes her self-image. But the Self gets between her and God, so she starts making up reasons why she’s better than everyone else. She comes down further from the mountain so that more people can gaze upon her greatness. Instead of teetering on the edge of an abyss in the sky, she sits on a altar just off the ground, just high enough to be above others, but not so high that the Goddess can whack the side of her head with a thumb. It stops being about connecting with the Goddess in humility—in oneness—and it becomes about splintering herself off and making herself part of a class of people who stands above us mere mortals. And eventually, she stops walking the staircase up to her ivory tower. She takes the lift instead.”
The shadows retreated again as the both of them stepped into a band of light. Kanna was looking down at her feet, comforting herself with every slow footfall, every tap of left and right. “Maybe something like that happened in the Upperland. I don’t really know. My mother was religious, but I could never make any sense of it. It all seemed like a bunch of stories. All the priests looked strange in their funny clothes, waving around their magic amulets, burning herbs that smelled so foul I had no doubt it scared away evil spirits because it would scare me off, too. It just seemed like some kind of theatrical performance to me.”
Kanna glanced up to face the Goddess, because they had spiraled around in Her direction again. Because they were a little higher, they were a little closer to the image, even though at first it had seemed like they were only moving in circles. “Why do they even bother, then?”
“Maybe it starts out with good intentions, but the world grows more complex and the people grow more numerous. As the crops of yaw and mok and whatever else turn rich enough that no one starves, people need rules to organize themselves. They need bureaucracy. They need that stack of paperwork that you hate. But of course the Goddess knows nothing of human rules, or standards, or morals, or ideas, or words. The Goddess just is. There is nothing else to Her. People get lost in the words and forget the Goddess.”
“You’ve spoken a lot about Her this whole time we’ve been together, and while I feel like I have some inkling, some vague feeling in the back of my brain, I still don’t have a good idea of what you mean by all of that.”
Goda shrugged. The rustling of her robes echoed through the chamber. “It’s not an idea. It’s an experience. There’s no way to truly relay an experience with words.”
“I guess it’s like…my experience at the shrine.” Kanna lowered her gaze when they passed by the Goddess. “I can try to describe it, but either someone like you hears it and says, ‘Ah, yes, that’s right,’ or someone like the Bou twins hears it and says, ‘You’ve lost your mind.’ But there’s nothing I can say that could ever convey what happened to me there. All my words fall short. My ideas fall short. My mind falls short. I have fallen short.” Kanna felt a sudden burst of warmth come over her eyes. She jerked her head around to glance at the Mother again. She swallowed. “I’ve fallen short of the Goddess.”
“You are the Goddess.”
“You keep saying that, but….”
“What you think you are falls short of Her glory, that is true. It is only but a small piece of Her, and to say that this small piece is the whole of Her is idolatry. She is the highest of high. She is the one who provides, the one who heals, the everlasting, the almighty. And She is you.”
“That still makes no sense to me. Even now it makes no sense.” As they came around the spiral again, the patterns of shadow were shifting while she and the giant moved through them, because the sun had started rising further in the sky. Kanna lifted her head again to stare into the eyes of the Goddess. “I suppose I would have to experience being Her. I would only know then. Words are not enough.”
Kanna took a breath. It felt like the right question to ask, but something in her was afraid of the answer. “How…do I do that?” she said. “How can I feel what it’s like to be the Goddess? How many shrines do I have to visit?”
Goda was quiet for a dozen paces, for enough distance that they had turned again to face away from the main window. “That’s not enough, either,” Goda said. “A shrine will show you what you’re not—which is an important step—but it won’t show you what you are. For that…you take Flower.”
“So everyone who takes Flower can see the Goddess?”
“No. You have to take a lot. An enormous amount. So much, that very few people can see the Goddess without being poisoned to death. Many people use tiny amounts of Flower to cure disease, but they never see the Source from where this cure flows because it will drown them. When they do see it and somehow survive, they turn away from religion and they disobey the law, so many of them end up executed, especially if they are vessels, which they usually are.”
The two of them phased into yet another round of darkness, a shadow that whipped across Kanna’s face and felt almost as uncomfortable as the glare had. When Kanna turned towards the core of the chamber, she noticed that the snake’s coils had grown tighter along that spine, and that its body had grown fatter—even if there was no sign of the head yet.
Looking at the carved loops of its endless scales made Kanna shudder. She had felt her own snakes starting to rise up in her as soon as she and Goda had dipped into that dark corner, and the vipers only seemed to grow more active at the sight of their larger brother. Perhaps that huge snake was an idol itself—the equivalent of the images of the Goddess, except for the serpents within her instead of the Goddess within her.
She felt the snakes moving with every one of her steps, like a ball of squirming parasites in her stomach. She began to slow her walk and the rope grew less slack, until it was finally taut, and this meant that Goda was pulling her again as a matter of course. Kanna gritted her teeth and jerked her hands, but the giant did not react.
Kanna was sick of it. She squeezed her eyes shut; she felt some tears leaking from the sides, but her hands were drawn too far in front of her to be able to wipe the water away. When Kanna unwound the muscles of her jaw and slackened her mouth, the words came out on their own:
“Give me the Flower,” she said.
She could not tell that time if it was a snake who had said it, and she could not tell why. Her entire body tensed up against the rope. Goda’s stride had paused slightly, as if she had been taken by surprise, but she said nothing, and she didn’t even turn around, and she started walking again only a split second later.
Kanna lifted her wrists as high up as she could, and then she yanked them down with all of her strength until a sharp pain shot through both her joints. The force had been just enough to throw Goda off. The giant teetered back slightly, not quite stumbling over her own stride, recovering quickly enough to stand motionless in the center of a single step. She said nothing.
“I know you have some,” Kanna called up to her. “I don’t know why you did it, but you packed some Flower in the satchel before we left the truck, didn’t you? I saw you rummaging back there. I know you have it. Don’t lie to me. Give me the Flower. Open my mouth and put it into my throat. I want to swallow Flower and see the Goddess.”
Goda turned slowly, her face empty now, serious. After a moment, she shook her head. “You don’t want to see the Goddess. What you want is to be free of your problems. You want to escape from the opposite of the Goddess—from the devil—which is different from wanting to be in the divine presence. It’s also impossible because you can’t escape from yourself. You are the devil.”
Kanna ripped the cord back with all her strength, but because Goda had expected it this time, the rope hardly gave way at all. “Give it to me!” Kanna screamed. In a matter of seconds, her snakes had grown from stirring slightly in the pit of her gut to shooting through every limb all at once. “I’m sick of this, can’t you see? I’m sick of all these oscillations! I’m sick of being angry and then sorrowful and then happy and then lustful and then fearful and then angry again! I’m sick of thinking about the past and fearing some unknown future! I’m sick of thinking at all! Give me the Flower! Let me live without these burdens, for the love of God! I’m done with it!” Her voice was shooting back to her own ears, each word bouncing strangely around the spirals and loops that surrounded her, each volley sending the snakes into more of a frenzy.
“No,” Goda said. Her voice boomed through the entire chamber, smoothing over Kanna’s shrieks, though an edge of fury had entered the giant’s tone. She looked down at Kanna with narrowed eyes. “Do not blaspheme the Goddess in this chamber, and do not blaspheme the Flower. Our Mother did not put Flower on this earth so that you could use it to escape some petty emotion and trade it for a different one. You’re missing the point. You’re so close to the truth that you’ve grown arrogant and strayed infinitely far from it. You’re not ready yet. You haven’t climbed up the spiral far enough yet, so shut your mouth and keep climbing.”
Goda pulled on the rope and started ascending again, but Kanna dragged her feet. She made herself rigid against the ledge in front of her, she cried out, “I want to be free! Isn’t that what you’ve been telling me the whole time, that the levers of freedom are in my hands already? My hands are bound right now, but even if they weren’t, and even if I were still in the Upperland in my comfortable house in my comfortable bed living a comfortable life, I would still have been a slave to my father. And if I had been born a Middleland citizen, I would have been a slave to your government and clergy. And if I had been born in the Outerland, I would have been a slave to their norms and their demon-worshiping priests!” She clenched her fists. The joints of her elbows locked against her sides. “Even if I had been born in the wilderness and known nothing of culture,” she shouted, “I would have been God’s slave instead! I would still have been bound to this meaningless cycle of waking in the morning and stuffing dead things into my mouth until sunset, just so that I could live to do it again the next day! For what? For what? Why am I even alive? Why am I even awake and aware? Why do I even have thoughts? What is this all for, Goda?” She had grown too angry for tears, but her body was racked in dry sobs nonetheless.
Goda stared down at her without a shred of pity, so Kanna leaned forward to press her face to her hands, and she collapsed onto her knees on the ledge above her.
“I can’t live with myself anymore!” Kanna’s breaths had grown so quick she could barely force out the words. “Just give me the Flower! I want it all to be gone! I want to be gone! If I can swallow some plant and lose who I am and be suddenly fine with what I will see at the top of this tower, and not care one way or another if I’m forced to break my back in a factory or forced to watch you leave me, then that’s what I want!”
Kanna dragged the ends of her fingers against her own face, and it stung a little, but because her nails had been worn down from resisting Goda that first night on the stone of the crag, she did not break any skin. When she looked up at Goda again, the giant was perfectly still. Light had come down through one of the windows to bathe parts of the woman’s face, and there were many colors because it was filtering through one of the more elaborate images.
“You want it?”
Kanna sucked in a breath. It made her chest convulse. It made the snakes swirl and ooze inside of her.
“So come get it!” Goda said. She pulled the satchel from her shoulder with her free hand and dangled it near the ledge right above where Kanna was kneeling. “See for yourself how well grasping works.”
Kanna reached up, but of course Goda quickly jerked the bag away and Kanna found herself grasping at thin air. She felt a wave of fury building inside her, even as the light was changing on its own without her moving and some of the shadows had started to fall away. The warmth of the sun disk only fueled her.
She launched her body up towards the image of the giant. “Give it to me!” she shouted, so loudly that her ears pulsed with pain. She rammed herself into Goda’s side, but Goda was fast and her stride was long, and before Kanna could take hold of the giant’s robes, the giant had dashed up three steps and left Kanna clawing at emptiness once again.
Bewildered even in her rage, Kanna found that the giant had a faint smile on her face again.
“Come,” Goda said. “Maybe if you’re faster, you’ll get what you want.”
Kanna let out a growl and jumped forward, quicker this time, her feet sliding harshly against the stone and turning pieces of it into gravel—but as before, Goda moved just beyond Kanna’s reach. With the strength of all of her coiled snakes erupting at once, Kanna broke into a sprint, bounding up the steps, trying to gain on the giant who was running ahead of her, twisting along the spiral with such speed that her robes waved as if they had been caught in the wind of a storm.
But no matter how many turns around the corkscrew they took, not matter how many corners Kanna slid into, Goda was just ahead of her, just beyond her grasp. Even though Goda still held onto the other end of the rope, that lifeline didn’t seem to help Kanna get closer at all. And it did not dull Kanna’s fury and frustration when the giant called back to her:
“Come! Maybe if you take two steps at a time, you’ll get what you want! Come, come! Maybe if you cut this corner, you’ll catch up to me! Come on, hurry! Maybe if you latch onto the tail of my robes you’ll be able to slow me down!” The giant was laughing, and it made Kanna want to give up in a fit of rage, but she knew that if she stopped running, she would get dragged along painfully, because Goda was rushing up the stairs like a fast-flowing river.
So Kanna had to run after her—even if it was like chasing her own shadow.
When they approached the top, Kanna was heaving and gasping and nearly out of breath. They had passed by many doors on their way up, but they had all blended into the scenery like a blur because Goda had dashed past them and paid them no attention.
But then as they came closer to the final door, and Kanna realized that the staircase was running out, and that her playful dance with Goda was about to come to a close, she felt the angry tears finally bursting from her eyes. She felt the full resistance of the moment. She pulled back and let the rope nearly yank her hands from their sockets.
“No!” Kanna cried.
She stumbled forward onto the final landing out of pure momentum. She shuffled precariously close to the open edge. When she stretched towards Goda, her bound hands swiping at the air to strike the giant—or to grasp at the satchel, or to reach up desperately for help—she was spooked by the sound of rattling metal, and a powerful gust of breath that sent her hair flying in every chaotic direction. She jerked her gaze to the threshold of the door, even as both her closed fists made contact with the giant’s chest.
The light bursting from the windows of the chamber bathed the doorway just as a figure emerged from it. Within that light, a pair of clear eyes formed themselves from the nothingness, gold like the disk of the sun. They were looking upon Kanna, only upon Kanna, a raw awareness beaming from them, flowing like an energy.
Kanna’s jaw immediately slackened. Her muscles gave way and her fists dropped down from the giant. She lost her will to fight. Everything was drained from her except a sense of peace. She only stared.
The face she was gazing into was beautiful, smiling the divine smile of a goddess—but when it seemed to rush forward as if to touch her, she grew startled by it. She jumped back and her feet slipped over the ledge. Losing her balance, feeling that there was too much slack on the rope and that it was sliding along with her, she turned to look over her shoulder to grab at anything else.
She reached, but her hands grasped thin air. She stumbled into the core of the chamber. She fell towards the open mouth of a huge stone serpent, its fangs bared and ready to consume her.