“Goda!” Kanna stumbled through the sand, took off towards the flock of soldiers that had arranged themselves around the truck. Her muscles fired on their own as if they had been shocked with some electric current. Her breath shot out into the cold air like a self-made haze, but the sun nonetheless beat down hotly over her head. This contrast was unpleasant; she didn’t care.
She had to see what had become of the giant. Even as her lungs heaved and her heart pounded and she felt a pair of loud footfalls chasing her from behind, she could still sense the giant’s presence underneath it all. The presence had never left her; she felt it stronger than ever; she ran towards it with all the energy she had left.
But Lila seized her. They struggled together in the gravel. They nearly fell to the ground with the force of Kanna’s resistance, but the woman kept her steady, grabbed Kanna’s face in both her hands, looked her dead in the eyes.
“Stop! Stop! Don’t implicate yourself, you fool!” Lila cried through gritted teeth.
“But they’ll kill her over this! They’ll kill her!” Kanna tried to pull away; she could already feel the soldiers stirring close by, noticing her presence, flickering their eyes in her direction.
“And what are you going to do about that? Calm yourself! Think straight! Goda isn’t even on property anymore, but if you make a scene like this, they might realize who the driver of the truck was!”
Kanna stiffened; it took her a moment to understand what Lila had said because a distracting shadow suddenly came to loom over her and block out the sun.
“What’s going on over here, Junior Hadd?”
In spite of the jolt of fear, Kanna glanced over her shoulder, saw that it was the tall soldier who had been standing at the perimeter of the lot, the one who had been scribbling on the stack of papers.
“Nothing that concerns you. I’m leading my prisoner into confinement and she’s prone to random fits and flailing. The bright sun has induced an episode in her. I’ll take care of it.”
“I thought I saw her running.” The solider glanced down at Kanna’s wrist with a raised eyebrow. “She’s not even cuffed. Why not? Are you having trouble containing her? Do you need one of us to bring her back up to the cuffing room?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Does she look like a flight risk to you? She’s a low security prisoner. Too weak to run, too weak to even wear the cuff. She’s practically falling over as it is; the shocks could induce more fits and kill her. I’m not going to be responsible for that.”
A brief pause passed between the three of them and Kanna felt the soldier’s glance more directly, felt it hitting every edge of her body from above like a spotlight. The eyes were judging, but they did not look perturbed. “Fair enough. I see what you mean. She does look rather sickly—and we have more urgent matters to tend to right now than the health of some slave, anyway.” Her glance returned to the truck in the near distance. Now that Kanna’s vision was less narrowed, as she followed the woman’s gaze she could see that there were half a dozen other vehicles in the same lot, and that there were more soldiers tearing through them all. “That reminds me: I don’t think we had a chance to question anyone on your floor yet.”
“Question us about what?”
The soldier looked at her like it should have been obvious, but even so she lifted her stack of papers and pressed the blade of her pen to the one at the very surface. “Did you see anything this morning out here? Anything at all? Do you know who might have ridden in on that beat-up truck over there?”
Lila made a show of looking, squinting her eyes against the sun, against the kicked-up sand in the lot. “No. To tell you the truth, that truck could have been sitting there for days and I wouldn’t have noticed a thing. I don’t drive, so I never pay any attention to these death machines that people zoom around in.”
“Huh.” The soldier huffed and jotted something down on the form. “There was a porter coming back from the confinement center earlier, pulling six slaves. She said the same thing, ‘I was here this morning and I didn’t see anyone around. That truck could have been here for days.’ But we’re not so sure about that. The motor was still a little warm when we found it.”
Kanna looked across the street towards the offices that sat across from the tower. She remembered the woman who had passed by with the series of ragged prisoners cuffed together. She wondered if it might have been this same woman who had lied to the soldier beside her.
Maybe the porters have a code of fellowship among them, Kanna thought.
Without giving the soldier a chance to pry any further, though, Lila was already dragging Kanna towards the road, away from the scene. Kanna allowed it, if only because now she knew that Goda had not been accosted by the authorities…yet.
Once they were out of earshot, Kanna muttered to Lila, “I know Goda is nearby. I can feel that she’s here. At first I thought it was my imagination—another trick from the shrine—but now that we’re outside of the tower, I can’t ignore it. I feel her heart pounding together with mine. She’s running.”
Kanna closed her eyes as Lila said nothing and only pulled her faster. For a brief flash, Kanna saw the image of a stone wall blurring at the sides of her vision, of hands grasping in the dim light towards smooth, wet rock.
But the image disappeared just as quickly as it came, even if the feeling of having floated up out of her skin took longer to fade and made her nearly trip over her own feet. Lila helped catch her again.
“Let’s go!” the woman said. “Let’s go before you do anything else that might give her away. She may have a chance to escape this still if she’s careful.”
“She’s underground somewhere,” Kanna said. “I saw it. Where is she? What is she doing?” She darted her head all around, looked for anything that might have given her a clue, even as she surrendered to Lila’s flow. She allowed the woman to lead her into the space between two government buildings that lined the street opposite the tower, but as they drew away from that colossal shadow, the feeling of Goda’s presence persisted, manifested as an urge to seek her out. “Won’t they go looking for her once they realize that she owns the truck?”
Lila let out a mirthless laugh. “Ownership. What a strange concept to apply to a slave, who doesn’t even own herself.”
“Fine, fine, but isn’t that the truck they gave her? Can’t they easily trace it back? I’m sure its description is written down in minute detail on some stupid form filed away somewhere. These people document every little thing, don’t they?”
“Years ago, they gave Goda a piece of junk to drive and it broke down not long after, so she sold it for parts and had to quickly source another before her time ran out. She’s been through many trucks ever since. She’ll find an old military vehicle that has been left to rot in a motor graveyard and she’ll scrape the markings off the sides and she’ll fix it up as best she can, then she’ll run it into the ground and move onto the next. They might find a way to trace this one back to her, but it won’t be very easy unless some witness comes forward and tells them they saw her driving it.”
“You mean she stole that truck?” Kanna looked over her shoulder towards the lot behind them once more, but Lila jerked her around a corner so that the scene was quickly obscured by a wall. “You mean the truck they gave her originally was even worse than that?”
“They don’t care how she does her job; they only have to tick the boxes on the form that says they officially gave her what she needed. You already see that they’ve set her up to fail.”
“I mean, I’m not shocked that she stole the truck. She steals practically everything else.”
“Of course she’s habituated to stealing. What else would she do? Even most of the allowance they give her goes to paying the tribute for the cleanses at the monastery whenever she has a foreign slave.” Lila shrugged. She had finally stopped to let Kanna catch her breath. “Most of what she steals—like that truck—doesn’t come from private citizens, anyway. Is it really stealing if it’s taken from a government that probably used slaves to forge the metal that made it?”
“That sounds like a rationalization.”
Lila laughed. “Are you honestly moralizing now? After everything you’ve seen and done?”
“Why can’t you give her money?” Kanna narrowed her eyes as the thought came to her. “She’s your friend, isn’t she? Or at the very least, she’s your wife’s first cousin, so that makes her family, doesn’t it? If you’ve known her for years, why have you let her pick through garbage for her food and ride around in one of your so-called death machines that could break down at any moment? You have no compassion, Lila.”
“As I told you, you have yet to realize the first thing about the giant if you’re saying that.” The woman looked at her with an edge of irritation, but it was superficial. The emptiness, the love still bled out from her stare underneath the surface emotion, and it was making Kanna uncomfortable again. “Goda is happier eating from the garbage than she is tasting the finest of meats. There is nothing I could add to her that would make her happier. She would never accept it even if I offered.”
Kanna sighed. “Yes. I noticed she was happy. It was a disturbing realization one night when we were struggling together in Karo. Even knee-deep in mud, even on the edge of death, she was content to follow the thread of fate as if she had woven this tapestry herself. The worse part was that I was happy with her. I had never been happy in my life until then.”
“Then you know after all. And now the thread is twisting in a different direction. Be like Goda and learn to follow it—to surrender to it—and you will learn to be wealthy in the midst of the worst squalor.” With that, Lila took Kanna by the hand and began weaving through yet another labyrinth; this time, it was one arising from the natural corners of the buildings and alleyways around them, and it felt different from the corridors of the tower because Kanna could still look up and see the openness of the sky. “I, too, live every day knee-deep in the mud, you might say.”
Kanna took the words for their surface meaning at first, and when they passed some broken-down shacks, she half-expected the bureaucrat to take her inside.
They kept moving. They crossed dirty streets and stepped over litter in front of houses with rusted roofs. Kanna tried to keep her bare feet from grazing broken glass, tried to keep the overgrown vines near the road from pricking her ankles.
As they carried on, though, the streets grew cleaner. They walked over bridges that spanned across the fountains of small public gardens. The shrubs all around were thornless and well-trimmed, covered in tiny buds that were ready to burst in anticipation of the coming spring. For a long time, Lila seemed to guide her where there were few people, and so they were able to avoid the stares at first, but eventually—as the gardens grew more elaborate and numerous, and seemed to flow into privately fenced yards—the number of people who paused to watch her also seemed to grow.
By the time they had reached the archway to another private garden—one that served as a trellis for a plant that carried both spines and flower buds—she could feel many neighboring eyes on her, though when she would turn to look, the women would politely glance away. Lila pulled her through the gate, into the garden. Kanna found herself looking up at a modestly-sized house made of polished stone, the front door seeming more like a framed window of frosted glass.
“This…is your home?” Kanna asked, stupefied. It wasn’t as big as the others she could see surrounding it, and it lacked some of the ornamentation, but the blocks of stone that made it up had been carved into perfectly smooth planes that shined in the afternoon light. The front garden—decorated with many different plants—ended at a thick stone barrier that flanked both sides of the house. This fence was so tall that she could barely see the tips of evergreen trees peaking out from the enclosed backyard. It appeared to have no gate at all, to be shut out from the rest of the world.
Kanna knew it had to all be expensive, even taking into account how her foreign eyes could bias her. She blurted out, “Why on Earth does your wife refuse to live here?”
“Oh, she’s just stubborn.”
“She’s insane,” Kanna muttered as Lila brought her to the entrance.
“If you really must know, it’s because she’s enamored with Parama Shakka. Since he was staying in the desert, she would make any excuse to live there, but as I already said, Middlelanders suppress these sorts of feelings and won’t talk about them openly, so I didn’t realize her affliction until we were already married. Maybe now that his circumstances are different, she’ll change her tune.”
“Wait, but…wasn’t it you who helped place Parama at the desert monastery in the first place?”
Lila gave her a pained grin. She turned the handle of the door. “Indeed, it’s ironic, isn’t it? Jaya met him because I placed him there, and I met Jaya because I had stopped by to check up on him.”
“That’s terrible. She’ll sleep with—” Kanna stopped. “She’ll spend time with that oblivious boy, but not with her own wife?”
Though Kanna had stumbled over her words, it seemed to lighten the woman’s spirit. She laughed as she ushered Kanna into the house. “I didn’t say that she doesn’t spend time with me. She does. Once she saw that I was open to it, she started waking me up at midnight every time I would visit. We like each other very much, actually. It’s just that she pretends otherwise, just as she pretends that she has nothing to do with Parama because he’s a slave.”
“But why would she need to hide what she’s done with her own wife?”
“Sleeping with one’s wife to a Middlelander is only slightly less uncouth than sleeping with any other member of one’s household. A lot of people do it anyway, but they act like they don’t, and since I’m a foreigner I’m not very discreet about it. It makes her uncomfortable because her mothers would frown upon it if they knew. You’re only supposed to seek partners outside the house.”
Kanna shook her head. “For God’s sake, these are a twisted people,” she began to complain—but then the door shut behind her and suddenly the taste of the inside air filled her nose and mouth.
She turned her head and saw a foyer spreading out in front of her. The walls were made from the same stone that had lined the outside, and it was just as polished and clean. The ceiling was high, adorned with both ethanol lanterns and electric lights that burned with a warmth that reached her. The floor was covered in stained wood; it felt soft against her feet as Lila led her beyond that small entryway and into a wide room arranged with wooden furniture that looked brand new and ancient at the same time.
“They have their way, you have yours, and I have mine,” Lila said. “There are many different paths in this life. If we were all the same—or if our only differences were in how we looked and spoke—it would be rather boring, wouldn’t it?” Leaving Kanna near the door, she skipped on ahead, kicking her sandals off into a corner, pulling a folded stack of papers from her pocket and throwing it onto a long dining table. “Though I’ll admit, I was as confused as you were when I first came here. I studied the Middlelander culture all my life, but no amount of schooling could prepare me for what I found when I arrived on this side of the continent.” She plopped down into a chair at the table, pointed to the one across from her with an insistent hand. “There are many unspoken things, things you could never find in a book because the Middlelanders themselves would think they’re too obvious to transcribe. In a sense, these are also the most important things.”
Taking in her surroundings—scanning the shelves and cabinets that lined the walls, admiring the stonework of the mantelpiece and what looked like carved bone artifacts that sat on top of it—Kanna slowly complied, slowly lowered herself into the seat across from Lila.
“So you’re saying you wish they had taught you what it was actually like before you came all the way here?” Kanna asked when she finally turned to look at her again.
“No, not at all!” Lila smirked. “I’m saying that they can’t teach you what it’s actually like. You can’t teach an experience—you can only experience it. Even if you could, that would rob you from experiencing it for yourself, which is where all the fun is anyway, isn’t it?”
Kanna made a face. “I don’t know if I would have called all of this…fun, exactly.”
“Would you have chosen your old life over it?”
“No,” Kanna admitted. She brought a hand up to rub the back of her neck. “I even told my father that. I didn’t choose this life, but I don’t know what else I would have taken in its place. And if I hadn’t gone down this path, I would have never met….” Kanna closed her eyes again for a moment and tuned in, tried to search for Goda inside of her. She could still feel Goda’s presence, and this gave her comfort, kept her from losing herself in her mind again, even though she could not make herself see what the giant was seeing. When she opened her eyes she found that Lila was smiling at her quietly, an edge of expectation on her face.
“Yes?” Lila said.
“You have a lovely house.”
“Why thank you.”
Kanna stared at her in silence. She placed her hands on the table, looked around the room again, not sure how she could word the next flood of thoughts. She didn’t know how to even begin. “You know something,” she said at last. “You know a lot of things that I don’t.”
“This is true.”
“You’re waiting for me to ask. You won’t just tell me. You’re not that easy.”
Kanna paused for another moment—and then she decided that it was as good a question as any. “Who is Goda Brahm?”
The answer was just as plain, came out of Lila’s mouth as if she were offering a bit of casual small talk: “Goda is a member of the Flower Cult.”
Kanna took in a sharp breath, stared at Lila wide-eyed, couldn’t help but lean across the table with alarm. “The death cult? The one that came out of the Outerland? Are you sure? How do you know?”
At this, Lila’s smile grew wider. “I’m the one who converted her, child.”
“Yes. Goda converted in the desert shortly after she set out on her own as a porter. She had discovered a pre-Maharan shrine on accident and had been spooked by its power. The experience of seeing the Nothing underneath the snakes changed her so profoundly that she wandered in the wilderness for days, unable to eat or sleep. She stumbled into a nearby town, where I happened to live at the time. Since I was the only one there who could speak her language and the villagers were afraid of her, they sent her to my house. She was sick because she hadn’t had yaw in many days—the Middlelanders have to eat it, you see; it’s a medicine to them as much as it is a poison to us—and luckily I had some to offer her. When she recovered, I told her the truth of what she had seen.”
“And she trusted you? Just like that?”
“Oh no, of course not. Have you met her? She has a stubborn personality, so she didn’t believe me at first. In fact, after she was back in her right mind, she left in a huff, thinking that I had been playing with her, that I had been making light of the terrible experience she had. It took several more incidents where she was drawn into a shrine before she finally came back to my village and sought me out. I waited for her. I knew she would come.”
“I’m a witch,” Lila said, her voice still casual, much too mundane for Kanna’s taste. Kanna wasn’t sure whether to take such a comment literally or if it was yet another one of Lila’s metaphors. “Besides, I knew she was meant to learn the truth. I recognize a member of the cult when I see them, even before they’ve converted, even before they realize it themselves. If you have enough experience, it’s plain as day.” Lila’s eyes grew a bit relaxed, like she was watching a pleasant memory play in her mind. “Goda was particularly hard to crack, though, as you might imagine. She had a very big Self—a very vast tangle of serpents—and so it took years of practice to wear her down enough where she could see her own snakes without the crutch of a shrine. Eventually, she leaned towards the truth, and she took the practice seriously, and she learned the breathing techniques and the mantras that had been passed down by the cult’s lineage over the centuries.”
“Mantras….” Kanna, too, found herself reminiscing—but she reached for a much more recent memory. “That chant she whispered in my ear, in the room with the factory woman who was to become my master—earlier, you called it a mantra. What did it mean? What were the words she was saying to me? I couldn’t understand them at the time.”
“It’s called The Mantra of Mahara’s Birth and Rebirth and it’s in the Ancient Middlelander tongue, so I don’t blame you for not being able to parse it. It means: ‘Samma begets Mahara, Samma begets Mahara,’ and so on. It calms the serpents. You chant it when they are writhing, to keep you from slipping out of lucidity and forgetting that this is all a dream.”
Kanna stared at the woman. That familiar dread from before resurfaced; she saw that one of her snakes had stirred, the one afraid of death. “What do you mean by that?” she asked. “Goda said something similar to me. She made it sound like I had dreamt this whole world up, like all of existence had come out of my imagination, and so everything that happened in it was my fault. It drove me crazy. She’s crazy.” Kanna gritted her teeth, shook her head. “I may love Goda, and I may have seen things that I truly cannot explain inside of those shrines, but I don’t understand all this mystical nonsense even now. Where does all of this even come from? What do you mean by ‘Samma’? You certainly can’t mean just some tiny Flower that grows in dung like everything else on this Earth. How is that worthy of worship? How can that give birth to a goddess?” Kanna paused when she noticed Lila’s odd expression. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to insult your religion. It’s nothing personal, it’s just—”
“You haven’t offended me.” But Kanna immediately doubted Lila’s words because the woman had started to rise from her seat. She turned her back to Kanna, shuffled over towards one of the cabinets that sat against the wall. When she looked over her shoulder and saw that Kanna had not followed, she offered a reassuring smile. “Let me show you something.”
Kanna stood after a few seconds of hesitation, though Lila had not conveyed any impatience. Careful not to mar the floor when she pushed in her chair, she rounded the table and reached Lila’s side, watched as Lila pulled open the door of the cabinet and musty air hit them both in the face.
Inside, rows of small, thin slats lined every shelf from left to right. At first, Kanna had thought they were books, but as she leaned closer she could see the subtle ridges of the wood knots on the spines. Lila pulled one out from the middle and the others clacked as they settled. She held it lightly in her hand for Kanna to see.
More intricate than the veins of the tree that had birthed it were the sharp lines etched over the surface of the wood. Though man-made, some quality in the artwork appeared so natural that it took Kanna a moment to realize she was looking at a scene carved onto a wood block.
“What is it?” she asked. She could see a vast valley with grasses and trees and sky—and a river in the distance with mountains behind it. In the very foreground, a flower stuck out from the plain. Many human figures of many sizes surrounded it, as if the plant had captured the focus of each one of them.
“In spite of our common name, the Flower Cult is not a religion. We do not worship Flower. Most of us don’t worship anything, actually—though there’s nothing wrong with doing so, of course.” Lila pressed her hand to the wood, ran her fingers along the texture of the carved flower, which Kanna realized only then was so detailed that even the tiny veins on the stem were evident if she leaned closely enough.
“We’re simply a group of people carrying on ancient wisdoms and technologies that originate from long before any modern religion, long before the Maharans. We recognize a supreme god-head—the namesake of the Flower, of the Valley, of the River—as the source of all things, and we call this entity Samma, as the ancients once did. In truth, Samma has no name, but it is what gives birth to everything that does have a name in this world. In this way, Samma begets Mahara, and Mahara is one of the many faces of Samma. Our cult encompasses every faith that has ever existed—even yours.”
“I have no faith,” Kanna said. Her eyes fell on the distant hills in the carving and she thought she could see a lone human figure standing atop one of the peaks—but of course it couldn’t have been etched to scale because that person had to have been a giant to be visible at such a distance.
Lila chuckled, though Kanna didn’t know why. “Samma encompasses your lack of faith as well. Belief, non-belief; god, goddess; devil, angel; life, death. All the polarities and all things between the polarities. It is the Nothing and the Everything. It is what exists beneath the snakes and begets the snakes. It is the true Goddess, the true God, beyond the idols of Mahara, although our Holy Mother is certainly a manifestation of it. Mahara is the pure feminine aspect of Samma, but she is only one half of the story. Before there was a cult for Her, the people of the valley—the Middlelanders—worshiped all aspects of Samma indiscriminately, which is to say that they worshiped all things.”
She pulled out another wood block, and on it Kanna recognized an image of the Goddess floating over a mountain with a cratered peak. She was hovering cross-legged, and between her legs sat a coiled snake with its mouth wide open. Her face looked a bit different from all the other images that Kanna had ever seen; it was more angular, more androgynous. Her breast was full on one side of her chest, but on the other it was nearly flat. The asymmetry of the landscape beneath her was also jarring: hilly in the foreground, a grassy valley closer to the mountain, a river flowing between.
“It’s something no Middlelander will ever tell you. Most of them have forgotten because this was tens of thousands of years ago, but those who have an inkling are ashamed of it: the Middleland people and the Lowerland people were at one point the same culture. They survived by farming in the Western valley, and together they revered a presence that lived deep in the ground and gave birth to the world, which they came to call Samma. This is where the modern Middleland people come from. It is only fairly recently that they’ve spread themselves across the continent and lost all knowledge of who they once were.”
Kanna stared at the river in the carving, at the border between the Middleland and the Lowerland. “You mean to say…the Middlelanders are related to the savages?”
“Yes. And, if you spin the clock back even further, they’re related to the Southern Outerlanders as well—and probably the Northern Outerlanders and the Upperlanders in all likelihood, though we can’t really know for sure. We’re all related. It’s just that we dispersed eons ago and the Middlelanders were isolated for tens of thousands of years, and so by the time they emerged from the valley and bumped into the rest of us again, they were unrecognizable.”
“I don’t believe this. How can this be true? If we’re all just variations of the same race like you’re implying, then how did we become separated like this? How did we come to have rivers and valleys and deserts and forests and mountains between us? How did we come to have different facial features and body sizes and mating rituals? Why do we speak so many different tongues?”
“No one knows. It is one of the mysteries of life because no one back then knew how to write anything down to tell us the tale of what happened.” Lila sifted through some more of the wood blocks, pulled another out. “We have some artifacts here and there, but even these carvings I have—some of which are thousands of years old—are still rather recent in the grand scheme of things.” She offered Kanna another scene, and this time Kanna took it delicately into her own hands and studied the images. “You see?” Lila said. “Even on this artifact that dates back many centuries, all three sexes of the Middlelanders are apparent in the image, which is one of the glaring traits that sets them apart from the rest of us.”
Indeed, there was a naked woman standing on the left side of the carving who was shaped not unlike Kanna, except for the fact that she towered over the man who was standing next to her. On the right, leaning against a tree to the young man’s other side was a bigger woman, also naked, clearly displaying some of the features Kanna had noticed on Goda Brahm.
Kanna handed the block back to Lila and blushed. “Yes, yes. I see,” she murmured. Suddenly bashful, she switched her focus to another, smaller stack of carvings, one at the end of the cabinet. She ran her fingers over the edges. “What are these? More of the same?”
“Yes, along similar lines.” Lila said, already pulling one out. “It’s only that these are pornographic.”
“What?” Kanna felt more blood rush to her face. She took a step back without thinking.
“Oh relax, they’re not that explicit. They’re just a bit…taboo by modern standards.”
After hearing that, Kanna couldn’t help but lean over to look with morbid curiosity in spite of her hesitation.
This time, it was the image of a smiling young man lying belly-down on some sort of bed and a large woman who was standing just behind him. Kanna tilted her head. “I don’t see what’s so taboo about—” Kanna paused as she looked more closely at the image. “Oh.”
“Yes, indeed.” Lila’s smile matched that of the man in the carving. “This was a common practice in those days—in fact, it still is—but in modern times it’s considered wasteful for a robust woman to do this to a man, so they tend to do it in secret, without the consent of his mothers. In fact, although there are many religious blasphemies in the Middlelander tongue, there is only one profanity associated with sex in the entire language, and it is a word that refers to this act you see right here. The Middlelanders really do have an interesting culture, as much as I may be baffled by it still.”
Kanna turned away from the cabinet completely that time, rubbed her face with her hand. “Yes, you could call it that. Interesting.” She stepped over towards one of the windows to try to quiet her mind with the view of the back garden, but she couldn’t stop herself from asking, “Why do such women exist in the first place? Women like Goda, I mean. Robust women, as they call them.”
“Why do more typical men and women exist? Why does anything exist? Don’t take the things you’re used to for granted; they are also miracles. Nature does whatever She wants.” Lila shrugged. “But if you’d rather a mundane, human answer, then I’ll tell you: it’s almost certainly the yaw.”
Kanna looked at her with alarm. “You mean eating yaw will make someone become like Goda?”
“No, not on an individual level. You have to be born that way. It’s just that the Middlelanders as a whole are highly adapted to the plant. There are substances in yaw that probably used to be meant to deter predators—to disrupt the reproductive cycles of those who consumed it, to reduce the population of animals who had developed a taste for it—but nature has no inherent intentions and can evolve into anything. Over time, the Middlelanders developed an equal partnership with yaw as it was domesticated, and what was once poison to them became a necessary nutrient. But there were many consequences to this. The women cannot become pregnant without eating it—and actually, if they forgo yaw for any extended length of time, they become sickly and their bones turn brittle as well. All Middlelanders are highly tolerant to the effects of the plant, much more than you or I, but robust women are so insensitive to one of its key substances and so sensitive to another, that they cannot have any children at all. You might say that women like Goda represent an over-correction of nature. But again, nature is not wasteful. Eventually, robust women came to fill important social roles in this society—farmers, soldiers, porters. They are a normal feature now. No one remembers any time when they didn’t exist.”
“I remember when they didn’t exist.” Kanna stepped further towards the window, peered out at what seemed to be a tiny cottage in the fenced backyard. The light was waning enough outside that she could see some of her own reflection in the glass and she noticed a wry look on her own face. “Just a week or two ago, they didn’t exist to me at all.”
“Just a week or two ago, most of the world did not exist to you, child. You were ignorant to everything that you helped give birth to on this Earth. It’s good that you know now. You’ve become conscious of your own creation. From here, you can transform it with intention.”
Kanna’s gaze remained on the quaint little building outside. Her eyes followed the lines of the mortar between the bricks as if she were deciphering a maze, and she noticed tiny weeds and moss growing out of cracks in its outer walls. “You live with someone else,” she said. For some reason, she could not turn her attention away from it. She became fixated with trying to peer through a crack in the door frame at the front of the cottage.
“Not usually. It’s a separate unit that came with the house—probably meant to hold a son once he’s aged beyond his typical use—but tonight it is where you will be staying.”
Kanna turned to her. “What? Why?” she blurted out. Then she let out a sigh because she felt that she wasn’t worthy enough yet to be picky, especially considering all of her good fortune already. “Is it warm in there at least?”
“Oh yes, it will shelter you just fine. It has running water, a nice little bed, everything you need. It’s just that officially I can’t have you stay in my house. I have to put you somewhere in isolation where I can completely confine you. This is the only reason the administrator even agreed to let me take you.”
“You’re going to lock me in there?” Kanna asked. “What if there’s a fire?” The conversation was starting to sound very familiar. She had resisted Goda’s restraints in the desert under a similar premise.
“You’ll be all right, child. I’m confining you within the stone walls of the backyard, so in the unlikely event that the cottage becomes a raging inferno, you are still free to step out and get some fresh air. Just don’t try to climb the barrier. Besides the fact that you’ll likely fail, it’s tall and dangerous and there’s a steep drop on either side.”
“What, are you suddenly like your wife now? Why can’t you just let me stay in the house and not mention it to anybody?”
“I’m also locking you out of the house because it’s much too easy to escape through the front door. Don’t think I’m stupid, now; I know that the moment I’d turn my back, you would go looking for Goda.” An impish expression formed on her face. “Unless you want me to chain you to a piece of furniture—but I was aiming to spare you from that sort of indignity again.”
Kanna gave the woman a defiant stare, but Lila did not even blink. After a few moments of nothing—of no shred of resistance from the woman—Kanna finally nodded, defeated. “All right. I won’t fight it. At least I’ll have a view of the heavens, which I know I won’t get at the confinement center.”
“Yes, this is true.” Lila gave her a strange look and Kanna could not interpret it. “Be sure to enjoy what you have in the moment—however small, however fleeting—and remember that you can always find a kernel of beauty inside even the most troubling of circumstances, behind every closed door that faces you.”
With that, she made good on her word. She led Kanna down a small hallway and towards two beautifully carved double-doors that led out into the garden. The light had waned to the point that Kanna could not make out the details of the darker corners of the fence.
“This will be your paradise for now,” Lila murmured, smiling serenely as the wind picked up and blew around her hair. “Good luck tonight. Remember not to wrestle too much if you discover a snake in your midst. It’s best to learn how to slowly charm it, to enjoy the process of its unfolding, to feel its fullness inside of you, because even though snakes can be dangerous, they can also point towards your bliss when you become aware of them. They can help you create new forms in the world. This process is one of making love with God.”
She shut the door. Kanna froze in astonishment because what Lila had said was nearly exactly what Goda had told her that morning. She fixed her gaze on the pair of doors—on the abstract, spiral lines of their design—as she heard the deadbolt locking inside, the footfalls of the woman who was leaving her to her own devices.
After awhile, Kanna gave in. She turned and looked around the garden. She found that it was indeed encased with an impenetrable stone barrier, entirely gateless and inaccessible from the outside. The last bits of sun—and the first bits of starlight—lit her path as she walked among the thorny shrubs and the bushes speckled with winter fruit. Even though it was still cold, so many small things were blossoming, and the collective fragrance made her yawn, made her draw more and more of it into her lungs.
She found a walkway that led up to the entrance of the cottage, and pressing Goda’s satchel to her chest, she surrendered to the bricks that had been laid out before her, and she did not deviate into the messy grass out of rebellion, even though a part of her wanted to dance aimlessly in the night.
She put her hand on the knob. It felt a little warmer than the air and she wondered then if her premonition about the fire might have actually been true.
When she ripped the door open, indeed, there was a flame. It swayed on the wick of a candle with the wind that she brought in; it danced to the sound of her roaring heart and it lit up a pair of black eyes that shined at her through the shadows. That ugly woman with a beautiful face looked up from the top of a book, nodded towards her in stoic acknowledgement.
“Kanna,” the woman said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Kanna fell hard against the border of the threshold and cried.