Kanna Rava fell over the foot of the bed. The sheets were wrapped around her ankles and they held her back like tangled vines when she rushed towards the exit, so instead she slid head-first onto the floor. She knocked over the cup of yaw tea that she had left behind. Though it spilled and flooded her nostrils with its bitter essence, now that her face was pressed to the ground, she could finally smell the faint remnants of unburnt Rava Spirits coming from the stove.
The mixture was hard for her to swallow back. She freed herself with frantic kicks and groped for her clothes in the dark. She could not remember where Goda had thrown them, so she crawled around like an animal until she felt her hand graze the rough fabric, then she scrambled to her feet and pushed through the door.
“Goda!” she called. “Goda, goddamn you, don’t do this to me!”
But the giant was nowhere within the confines of the barriers. Everywhere she looked while she staggered through the yard and fought to dress herself in the dark, there were only empty shadows cast by the moon. Not one of them held Goda’s presence. Even when she closed her eyes and searched for the giant within, to see if she could set herself behind Goda’s perspective again, there was nothing; there was only a tangle of snakes dancing in a void. It was as if the immaterial cord between her and Goda Brahm had been snapped in half.
Kanna ran towards Lila Hadd’s house, ignoring a pang of sharp pain that throbbed where Goda had been. Every window in the house was dark, and she could see nothing but her own reflection when she peered into them, so she ran to the huge doors that had shut her out. She banged on them wildly with her fists; she screamed into them as if someone were standing directly behind them, actively holding the locks closed.
“Lila!” Kanna screamed. “Lila, you slave-driver, you glorified jailer! Let me out! Let me out!” She grabbed for the knobs and tried to rattle the doors, but they were so heavy that they barely budged. It felt like they had been barred with a plank from the inside, deadbolted, chained, sealed with every possible padlock.
Kanna jerked her head up when she thought she saw some curtains rustling. On a second floor window, where the moonbeams reached, she could just barely see a crack between the twin sheets of fabric. She could just barely see two small eyes gazing out at her with almost no reaction—with only mild curiosity—and this served to infuriate her further.
“Lila! Lila!” She stepped back to try to better see the woman’s face. “You knew, didn’t you? You knew she was in there and you led me right to her. For what? For what? So that she could abandon me again, and I could be tortured by her absence? So that the one thing in my life that means anything to me could be torn away again and again, taking another piece of me with it every time, until there is nothing left of me? Is this the practice you speak so highly of, Lila? Is this what it means to surrender to the naked idol of Mahara or to that god of yours—that Samma—who lives in the bowels of the Earth with the rest of the dung heaps that give rise to that cursed flower?” Her voice was raw. “Answer me! Stop staring and answer me, you witch! At least offer me that dignity, if you’re not going to free me from this torture!”
But Lila’s eyes glared in the light as her gaze shifted, and she turned to glance at the far wall where Goda’s small paradise lay. Kanna followed the gesture with confusion, but she found that the garden had fallen into the darkness, shaded by the canopy of its single tree, and so nothing stood out to her at all. When she quickly turned back, Lila’s eyes had disappeared and the curtains swung lightly in her place.
“You can’t just ignore me, Hadd! I’ll scream at the top of my lungs! I’ll wake up the whole city! I’ll throw a rock into one of your windows and climb to freedom myself if you don’t open these goddamn doors!” Kanna slammed her hands in fury against the delicate lines of the wood. “You’re no better than a serpent-sucking Middlelander, you hear me! If you let Goda kill herself, you’re no different from that monstrous engineer who wanted to shock her to death in the cuffing room!” When still no answer came, she kicked the frame of the door and turned back to the prison that encased her like a shell.
In the dark, she crouched and felt around the ground with her hands to see if she could find a stone big enough to hurl into any of those mirrors that lined Lila’s house. Warm tears had already started to fall into the grass and mix with the cold dew, and she hated that she cried so easily, because it blurred her vision and made it harder for her to see things as they were. But as she crawled and more warmth began leaking from her nose and mouth, the sensation of her throbbing heart overshadowed all of her experience. The pulse spurted through the hollows of her chest, into her throat, into her ears, into every inch of her head.
“Shut up! Shut up!” she screamed. “How can I think when you’re being so loud? How can I save her when I can’t even think?”
She pressed her hands hard against the sides of her head, because the throbbing had turned into radiating pain. Her elbows dug into the pebbles on the ground between the sharp blades of grass, and she groaned and writhed and resisted the surge of agony that washed through her. The pain rose and fell like waves in an ocean, with every gush of blood from her heart. It grew more intense at every peak. It felt like the ground beneath her knees was undulating, too—pulsing up and down, breathing in and out—along with every stroke of pain.
She had squeezed her eyes shut to fight the dizziness of this delusion. But then she felt the crack of a drumbeat so hard against the bones of her knees that it rattled the earth around her, and she thought she could hear the windows of the cottage shaking nearby.
Kanna snapped her eyes open. Finally, she looked up from the dirt and out at the path in front of her. She awakened to the rise and fall of the Earth, though she could not understand at all what she was seeing.
The ground was breathing. She had felt it before, during other times when her skin had seemed like it would crack open from all the pain—but the breath had always been so faint and so fleeting, that she had assumed it was her imagination.
This time, though, she could see it. Even in the dark, with only the glow of the dew drops in the moonlight shining on the grass, she could see how the Earth was breathing in and out, as plainly as her own chest swelled with air.
“What is this?” Kanna whispered. She pressed her hands to the dirt to try to rise up, but the rhythmic quaking of the Earth made it too hard to stand, so she remained prostrated with her head held low. “What…is this?”
Still, she knew somehow that it wasn’t a what. She could feel the presence, like a single, infinite, invisible eye that looked upon her, that looked from every place above and below at the same time. It looked at her from outside her skin and inside her skin. It even looked out at the world from behind her eyes.
“Who are you?” Kanna said, louder this time. The pain had started to fade, but her heart still pulsed wildly, and her angry tears had turned into ones born from an emotion she could not name. That river came in torrents because…
The eye was looking upon her with love. It was more love than she had ever felt in her life and it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at all.
And it terrified her. She could not make sense of it. She could not find reason in it.
“Who are you?” she shouted. The infinite stare was like a presence that began to rush up both out of the ground and down from the heavens to fill her, a powerful breath that swelled into her lungs and made it hard for her to find the boundaries of her body against the Earth. The barriers between her and the world outside began to dissolve on their own. Even the barriers that made up her prison began to shake and flicker, as if they had merely been a mirage.
It felt like her body would burst into pieces to let everything outside come inside, to let everything inside rush outside, to make it all the same thing.
“Stop! Stop! Please, I can’t! I can’t!”
But the burst was so powerful, she could not resist it. All of the strength in her body, all of the strength of her will would have never been enough, because every particle of her was loved—even the pieces of her that she hated, even the pieces that had made her feel helpless and trapped within the walls that surrounded her, even the pieces of her that judged and screamed and could not believe that Kanna Rava was worthy of something so unconditional. All of it was swelling, pulsing with a searing love that had engulfed her like a flame and was nearly killing her.
When she thought at last that it would kill her, when she let out her final breath into the cold night and surrendered to her death, the steam from her mouth quickly dissolved into the air—and with it, the presence disappeared.
Death had left her. It had blown through her as if it had been just a gust of wind charging through a hollow.
And very suddenly, she was all alone.
Kanna collapsed fully onto the ground and made mud of the dirt below her face. For the first time in her life, she felt worship for the ground that held her up. She could not kneel low enough. She breathed in the earth and remembered what she had told Goda Brahm centuries before:
“Make me surrender. That’s all I want from you: for you to force yourself on me. My entire life has fallen apart, and all the desires I might have had in this world have been stripped from me, except for this one perverse craving that I can’t shake: I want you to be the animal that pounces on me in the forest, and bites the back of my neck, and pushes my face into the dirt.”
Goda had not pounced. She had not sunk her teeth into Kanna’s skin, she had not pressed her claws into the back of Kanna’s skull, but still Kanna’s nostrils were filled with earth all the same. She laughed into it. She coughed.
Is this what it means to be alive? she thought to herself. Does it mean to resist the world around me so that I can be separate from it, so that I can cough out the dirt with prejudice instead of letting it become part of me? When I die, does that mean that I will go back to being the dirt, the trees, the stars, and everything else I’ve resisted all my life? When I die, will I become Goda, too? And Goda, when she dies, will she…?
Kanna lifted her head up towards the sky, no longer timid, no longer afraid to see that the world was still lightly breathing against her.
“I must go to her,” Kanna said.
Whether she lives or dies, I must be there to witness her. Because I love her, I must witness her no matter what she does. I must see her finally for who she is and what she is. Though we separated a long time ago and it may be longer still until we are that One Thing again, I must accept the truth I’ve resisted from the beginning: I am Goda. And I deserve to be loved as I am.
Because all her thoughts had been exhausted, Kanna stood up without thinking that she couldn’t. She ran through the grass, her feet naturally falling along the trail that she had cut through the yard with Goda hours before. She followed the path to the giant’s paradise. She straddled the tiny fence and jumped over without using the gate. Once she was inside, she raced past all the fruits that called out to her hunger, and she pressed herself hard against the trunk of Goda’s tree. It too was breathing; she could feel it rising and falling against her hands like a beating heart. She could see little sparks in the ridges of the bark, pulsing streams of light that flowed like veins.
“How could I have made an idol out of you, Goda Brahm?” Kanna whispered against it. “There’s too much of you to fit inside a carved block of wood, or stone, or bronze. There’s almost too much of you to fit inside me.”
She felt a presence again—a pair of eyes. This time, they were all too human, all too simple and material. When she turned to look, she saw that it was the stare of the wooden Goddess coming out from behind the tangled brush. It was the statue that had watched as she and Goda had coaxed each other towards the edge of death at the base of the tree.
“Even still, you’re a shameless voyeur, Goddess,” Kanna said. “Well, I’ve given you a show. You’ve seen the world through my eyes and experienced human pain and bliss and sensuality. Now pay me in kind: show me how to leave this place, or I’ll knock you off your pedestal like I did for the giant.”
When the Goddess didn’t respond and offered nothing like the presence she had felt before, Kanna huffed. Though her snakes were still oddly silent and the undulating ocean had calmed, she had access to some of her frustration, so she stalked over to the statue and kicked it right in the base with gritted teeth.
“Useless idols,” Kanna began to say—but between her own words, she heard an echo rising up inside the wood.
It was because the Goddess was hollow.
Kanna’s eyebrows furrowed at first, but then the realization hit her all at once. With a sharp breath, she beared her feet down on the earth, and she pressed her hands up against the Goddess’s face. It took most of her strength, but she was able to shake the statue’s foundation, and with one final push, she tipped the idol off its pedestal.
It fell onto its side and rolled along the ground until it hit the fence.
All that was left before Kanna’s feet was a bottomless pit where the Goddess had been. And though the passage was too dark for her to see much more than the first few rungs of a ladder dipping into the ground, she saw that the hole was just wide enough to accommodate the shoulders of a giant.
So it was true what she told me, Kanna thought. The Goddess was the pathway out all along.
Though her snakes writhed with fear at the prospect of descending into the unknown, Kanna neither obeyed them nor suppressed them. As she turned and crouched and dropped her bare foot on the first ledge, she offered the serpents the same love that the All-Seeing Eye had given her. Some of them accepted it and died, while some of them cowered from the light of Kanna’s presence and hid in the recesses of her mind, but either way she was able to keep them from paralyzing her.
Rung by rung, she descended into the Earth. As she did so, she felt the cord of energy that flowed through her spine grounding itself deep into the unknown below her. She also felt it rise up above her like a jet shooting into the sky, even though the moon and stars had already begun shrinking into a smaller and smaller point of light overhead. It was as if she had become a giant and nothing that surrounded her could contain her anymore.
When she reached the bottom rung, she could not see or feel anything below her. There was no ground, no wall.
She let go.
She heard the metallic ring of the ladder crying out in the darkness as it lost the burden of her weight. The moment her feet grounded themselves on wet stone, she knew exactly in which direction to go. She had been possessed by a spirit and every movement flowed without effort or thought.
Kanna could feel the walls breathing before she could see them. She could feel the Earth’s heartbeat even still. As she walked into the pitch darkness on faith, following the sound of her own footbeats, the serpents soon began to light her way.
They appeared on the walls in glowing streaks as they had the first time she had seen them in the shrines. They came one after the other, dozens, then hundreds, shooting like comets everywhere she looked. In time, she felt them rising up under her feet, too, like the swell of a coming flood. But because she was part of that same flow, they all moved through her and around her without resistance, and she kept walking without questioning their presence.
She kept going with her eyes trained on the end of the tunnel, where she could see a tiny, growing point of light.
The serpents had begun to surround her more closely, to crowd her, to seek her gaze and attention. She sensed some of them spiraling up her legs, but instead of feeling like they held her back, she used the force of their movement to lean onward, until it seemed more like she was hovering in the air rather than trudging through them.
A pair of twin serpents wrapped around her arms, and finally she glanced down at her many children. She had given birth to all of them. She looked between her legs where a small pulse of pain still lived from what the giant had given her, and she saw that she was giving birth to the snakes every second, with every step.
Because she could see her demon children and because she loved them and because she could use them to carry her forward, a single thought of self-judgment birthed itself as well and slithered around in her mind.
What does this make me? she said.
But she knew already. She was conscious enough in the moment to surrender to what it meant.
I’m a witch.
The point of light at the end of the cavern had grown brighter and sounds began to echo overhead. A swell of warmth—of steam—struck the side of her face and joined the cold mud that had painted it.
I’m a priestess.
I’m a witch.
They’re the same.
The power had not come from Kanna Rava, but Kanna Rava could channel the power into snakes. The snakes had come from The Eye that had watched her in the garden, from The Presence, from the true Goddess, from that One Thing that had filled her and stretched her open with love.
And so Kanna Rava was a witch, a vessel for the snakes to be born into the world.
They carried her closer to the end of the passageway, and as they did, they grew more and more numerous. They appeared from the walls because they knew they could trust her to let them live and die without judgment.
By the time the mouth of the cavern had grown large enough that she knew it would soon spit her out, she found herself blinking against another haze of steam. She felt heat rising up from the Earth, a moist warmth that surrounded her like a blanket. Voices rumbled above, so she looked up. She could see tiny spots of light while the warm water dripped on her face. Flashes of skin danced through the drain holes above, and she could hear the sounds of hushed conversations, loud confrontations, even the soft echoes of passion that awakened a desire that lived in her still.
I’m underneath a bathhouse, she realized.
Overwhelming this faint cacophony was a noise that rang much louder in Kanna’s ears. The cries drifted against the walls and unsettled the snakes; the agony of the weeping made blood surge in Kanna’s heart.
“Oh Goddess Mahara, forgive me! Forgive this insect unfit to crawl the Earth! Forgive me for turning from your grace and sympathizing with a demon! Oh Goddess, oh Goddess! What have I become?”
The sobs filled the tunnel more and more. They reminded Kanna of a twisted mantra, of a corruption of Mahara’s Birth, and they flowed in a heavy torrent from just outside the mouth. As Kanna grew closer, the cries grew louder. She saw a lone, tall figure in a patch of moonlight, knee deep in the muddy ditch that opened up at the end of the cavern. Even as Kanna began to shift into that light, the snakes did not leave, only multiplied, until they squeezed her from every angle, and her muscles writhed and tensed upon that final push—a rumbling contraction—that expelled her with all her snakes into the open air of the outside world.
Though Kanna stumbled forward and she was shocked by the cold and the discomfort of freedom, she did not fall into the mud. The snakes held her up and spread out behind her, came to hover over her shoulders, glowing around her head and casting shadows on her at the same time.
The figure—the huge woman who had been crying into her hands—turned to her with surprise. In less than a second, the surprise had transformed into utter terror, and the woman fell down into the mud, her throat erupting in a guttural sound that came off as an aborted scream.
Her eyes were wide in the dark. They shined like those of a cornered animal, and Kanna could feel every shred of fear radiating from them as if it was her own emotion—though she too was surprised, because it appeared that the woman could see her snakes.
“Who are you?” the stranger shouted.
Kanna could not keep focused on the woman’s shadow-smudged face for long. She saw an angry, glowing serpent twisting around the woman’s heart, a heart that pulsed and bled and drained into the mud beneath her.
“I am no one,” Kanna said.
Again, as if she flowed without any effort or power of her own, Kanna hovered together with her children over the waters of the ditch. She did not ask the woman’s name or care who she was. While the stranger lay frozen in shock, Kanna reached between two of the glowing ribs that caged the snake, and she caught the serpent by its head, and she ripped it out into the moonlight.
“Stop hiding!” She pressed her mouth to its face, but it shuddered from the touch and struggled in her grasp. “Don’t you see that I forgive you?”
The snake danced so wildly with pain that it broke free, and it dove back into the woman, who jerked with a startled gasp and fell into a fit of shudders.
The glow of the snakes went out and Kanna fell into the mud. When she wrenched her head up, the inside of the woman’s chest had sealed again from Kanna’s perspective, and she could no longer see the serpent. Instead, she only saw a huge hand with bony knuckles pressed hard against a bare breast where the bleeding heart had been. In the heart’s place, pinned with that pale hand, were a set of iron keys that were strung around the woman’s neck.
“How…did you do that?” the stranger said, her mouth agape. Her deep voice broke before she could say anything else. She seemed to regain her senses a second later, but she crawled backwards in panic, and her back hit the wall of the ditch until she could go no further. “Witch!” she cried, though the effort made her cough. “Demon-summoning witch!”
Because she had slid out of the shadows and found a spot directly under the moon, Kanna could finally see her face with absolute clarity.
It was the engineer.
Kanna mirrored the woman’s surprise. The more base emotions had begun to return in earnest, and she found that she was suddenly a bit afraid of her—but it was nothing like it had been before. Even without being able to see the snakes directly anymore, she could see that there was nothing in the engineer that would ever harm her.
Though the ground was sticky and unstable, Kanna let her legs sink into the mud so that she could start pushing her way towards the woman. She wanted to get a hold of the keys; she recognized one of them as belonging to Goda’s cuff and she instantly knew she could not leave without it.
“Good God,” Kanna muttered as she swung her hips to carve her way through the muck, “you even sleep with them around your neck, don’t you?”
It took a moment for the engineer to find her voice, but as soon as she seemed to realize that Kanna was human, that it had all been a hallucination, her face melted into an expression of defensive anger. “What the hell are you talking about, boy? Who are you?” she demanded—but Kanna knew that this, too, was only fear.
Kanna trudged further into the light.
“A girl? A…foreigner?” Once she was close enough, and the woman had studied her face with intensity, it seemed to finally trigger recognition. “The Rava kid? What on Earth?”
Kanna paid little attention to her words. She reached down towards the shining metal cuff key that had eluded her for so long—but before she could graze those steel teeth, the woman caught her by the wrist.
“What are you doing?” The woman’s chest was still heaving; there was terror in her eyes glowing beneath the anger.
“Give me the key to Goda Brahm,” Kanna said. Her voice was flat. Her words were a raw command. She did not have the time to play Middlelander games.
“I’m….” The engineer swallowed. “I’m losing my mind, seeing visions, seeing nightmares! But even in the midst of this darkness, the last thing I would ever give up is my life’s work!” She threw Kanna’s hand back towards her in rejection, and she pressed her palm once again to her heart, over where the keys had fallen. “Get back, demon! Get back!”
However much the woman’s face hardened, Kanna still remembered the tears, the sobs she had heard echoing through the drains. She could sense the woman’s pain and guilt underneath it all, a flood of emotions that had opened just a crack of compassion.
There was humanity in this stranger.
“Why are you out here all alone?”
“That’s none of your business, foreigner!”
Kanna glanced briefly over her shoulder, at the building perched up on a small hill above the drainage channel. Warm light bled out from cracks in the curtained windows, but unlike the paradise of Karo, the fabric was too thick for her to see a shadow play beyond them.
“Were you in the bathhouse?” Kanna asked.
The woman was naked, after all. Perhaps she had been bathing and had run away for some reason, though Kanna couldn’t fathom how she had ended up rolling around in a ditch.
“Maybe. What do you care?” The engineer had set her jaw and managed to stand up by pressing herself to the side of the channel. She reached up with her fingers, looking towards the edge above, as if to find a way that she could climb out. “It’s not weird to go to the bathhouse at midnight. It’s my usual habit. Lots of people do it.” She tried to hop up onto the side of the ditch to boost herself up, but she slid back down the slippery dirt wall.
“Is it normal to take a mud bath, too? Is that part of the ritual?”
“Foreigners who know nothing about us should shut up about our rituals.”
Kanna watched her struggling, and though she knew that the woman was too big for her to fight over the key, it appeared that the woman was also too big to dig herself out of the muck on her own. Kanna jumped up onto the slanted wall of the ditch. She slid down the first time, but it didn’t deter her. When she jumped again, she reached her hands out with expectation, and the Goddess filled her grip with a pair of stones that she could use to pull herself up.
Because they were embedded deep in the side of the channel, and Kanna was light and small, the stones held in place as she hoisted herself towards the edge.
“Hey, how are you doing that?”
“Magic,” Kanna said. “I’m a witch, remember?” It wasn’t easy, but she managed to hook her fingers around the top of the dirt wall and use her former handholds as footholds. Clinging to the side, she glanced over her shoulder and said bluntly, “You’re too huge to get out of here on your own. You’ll cause a landslide before you get yourself on high ground. Once I get out, I can lower a long branch or something to you, but only if you throw me those keys around your neck.”
The engineer huffed. “Oh sure, I’ll just hand over the extra keys to all the custom cuffs so you can let a dangerous convict loose. Great idea!” She looked around. “I can just go back through the way you came from, can’t I? Where did you come from?” Her gaze landed at the opening of the tunnel, and she took some tentative steps through the thick mud, but she stopped when Kanna said:
“There are demons in there. That drain is riddled with serpents.” She watched as the engineer’s neck tightened in a wince. “You saw them, didn’t you?”
“I saw nothing, I saw nothing!” She wiped the mud off her arms with a frantic brush, as if she had all of a sudden noticed that the filth was there. “I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I do know there’s no such thing as invisible serpents. It’s all a delusion, a superstition. Maybe someone spiked my glass of spirits with Flower.”
“Is the Goddess a superstition, too? Is that why you were crying and praying to Her earlier, because you want to believe, but you have no faith to spare?”
“I was not crying!”
Kanna looked back up towards the edge of the ditch where she could see a few small trees greeting her, and with a grunt of effort, she dragged herself over the side. She dug her fingers into clods of grass and pulled herself further. The wet earth smeared on the front of her robes, but she didn’t care, and she didn’t stop until she was safely on high ground.
A small courtyard surrounded her, and it had an open gate that led out into the street. She noticed, too, a tiny greenhouse with some gardening equipment nearby.
Kanna popped her head over the side of the ditch. “There’s a hose up here. I could tie that to a tree or something and you could pull yourself up.”
“Right.” The engineer had crossed her arms. “And in this darkness, how can I trust you? How will I know for sure that you’re lowering a hose and not a venomous snake—or a live wire, for that matter?”
“I guess you don’t. But maybe it helps to know that I’m not like you, and I don’t like to torture people because it always feels like I’m torturing myself instead.”
“Whether you’re like me or not, and whether you like to torture, I already told you you’re not getting the keys anyway, so stop trying. Just leave me here to wallow. I don’t want an Upperlander’s help.”
But Kanna had already decided that she would not let up. The Goddess had led her into the mud for a reason, and it couldn’t have been a coincidence that she had found the engineer who held a copy of Goda’s keys. Kanna glanced at the open gate when she heard a truck pass by, then she looked back down at the helpless woman below her.
“All right,” she said. “If you don’t want to give me the keys, then at least give me this: Why were you crying?”
“I told you I wasn’t.”
“You don’t have to pretend. I cry a lot, so it doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s as mundane as breathing, to be honest.”
The engineer made a strange face. “I wasn’t crying. I was just…shuddering from the cold. And I was angry at myself because I had not been paying attention and had fallen into this hole in the dark. My eyes hadn’t adjusted yet because I left the bathhouse in a rush.”
“Why did you do that?”
The woman was quiet for a long time, but since Kanna stared at her patiently and with the openness of no expression, eventually she sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “I had a nightmare, if you must know. This past week, I’ve been having strange visions at night sometimes when I close my eyes—terrible things, like the one I thought I saw when you came out of that drainage channel—and none of the usual pleasures seem to numb them at all. Tonight I went to the bathhouse to find some company, to see if I could soothe myself in the warmth of a young man or two. I did find one. I did all kinds of things to him—things that disrespected his mothers—but even after that, the pain had not gone. I felt exhausted, spent. I fell asleep and had a terrible dream.” She sucked in a breath, seemed to hold back some convulsion in her throat. “I dreamed that your porter had died. I dreamed that I had killed Goda Brahm.”
Kanna’s eyes spread wide open.
“We were fighting, and she had her hands around my neck the same way I had mine around hers—but we were an equal match, so we fought for what felt like hours. It was like wrestling my own shadow. Then finally, I had the upper hand. I put all my weight so hard into her throat that she let go of me, and within moments I had strangled her to death. I grinned down at her lifeless face because I had won, I had won! But that only lasted for a second, because when I looked closely at her open eyes, at her nose, at her mouth…I suddenly realized.”
The woman was shaking her head, staring into the wall as if she were trying to rid herself of the vision. She looked up into Kanna’s face. “I had been strangling myself. It was me. She was me. And then a strange feeling swelled up in me that I had never felt towards her before in all my life, in all our years together, and it made me want to vomit. As soon as I opened my eyes to the world, I ran out of that bathhouse and into the fresh air—but it made no difference. I fell in here and puked everything inside me like I had swallowed a truckload of Flower.”
Kanna stared down at the woman, their gazes locked in some timeless space that had formed between them. When she felt another truck speed by, though, and the ground shook hard enough that she glanced up with curiosity, she caught a mass of soldiers bounding down the road and disappearing into the distance.
We don’t have time, she thought.
“I’ll throw you a rope.”
She unraveled the garden hose, which was heavier than it had looked. Seeing that it was well-anchored to a water pipe that came up out of the ground, she decided not to moor it to anything else, and once she had a good grip, she threw it down the side of the ditch where it could reach the lesser giant.
Just in case, she pressed her weight down to the other end of the hose and she tensed it as best she could as she felt the slack disappearing, as she felt it tugging against its source. The engineer reached the edge, huffing and heaving with effort. Though she almost slipped, she managed to fall forward into the grass and she let out a loud groan of apparent relief.
When she had risen and steadied herself onto her feet, she looked towards Kanna as if she were about to say something—but then she stopped. She said something else instead: “All right. What do you want?”
Kanna had already begun making her way towards the open gate. “I don’t want anything.”
“No.” The engineer grabbed her by the shoulder, jerked her back around. “What do you want from me in return? I owe you a favor. I also owe you a bribe so that you don’t tell anyone what you saw here.” Before Kanna could reply, the woman added, “Don’t ask for the keys. I won’t give them up. Not even for my life.”
Kanna thought about it for a moment, but she found that thinking didn’t clear much up. She gazed at the iron that had fallen between the woman’s naked breasts. “I don’t want anything from you,” she said finally. “I want all of you. Give everything up and follow me.”
“What on Earth is that supposed to mean?”
“I’m on a journey tonight and I don’t know yet where it will lead, but I know that we met for a reason, or else I wouldn’t have run into you. I escaped Lila’s cage, if that wasn’t already obvious, but now I’m alone in an unfamiliar place, which isn’t good at all, especially since where I’m going there are bound to be soldiers.” She reached for the woman’s hand and clasped the last two fingers in her own. She began turning again towards the gate. “Come. Let’s find your uniform. It’s lucky that I have a government official to be my escort, since it’ll keep people from asking questions. We don’t have a lot of time.”
The woman took a few tentative steps, though her weight felt heavy against Kanna’s tug. “But aren’t you afraid of me? Aren’t you scared to have someone like me stalking behind you in the dark? I saw your face and I heard what you said when I forcefully subdued Brahm. I’m not a total idiot. I know that porter must be your lover, and I know you must hate me for what I’ve done to the person you love. No matter how you look at it, we’re enemies.” The woman had come to glance over the roof of the bathhouse, and Kanna could see the lights of the faraway tower reflecting in her eyes.
Even still, those eyes were swimming with fear.
“No,” Kanna said. “It is you who is afraid of me. You have no power outside that labyrinth you work in, and as much as you pretend to subdue other people, it’s only because the hand above you subdued you first, and so you had no choice. Why would I hate you for something you can’t help? You don’t hate Goda, either. You only see the parts of your own self that you hate in her. You could have easily been her in different circumstances, and she could have easily been the one shocking you with a prod. The system doesn’t care about you or who you are; they only care that you succumb to the pleasure and pain that they try to control you with, and it just so happened that you succumbed to it while Goda did not. It’s why you make such a show of hating Goda when obviously you love to touch her. You love to touch her because she is you—and you feel guilt in touching yourself because you hate yourself, like I once did.”
The engineer stared at Kanna, dumbfounded. A jet of steam escaped her mouth and her eyes were wide with a mix of emotions, with a mix of aroused snakes. “You are a witch.”
Kanna shook her head, then glanced very pointedly towards the hole she had pulled the woman out of. “I don’t know what I’ve become. I’m afraid of it, too. I feel like I’ve awakened from a long dream for the first time, and I don’t know what I’m doing or how long this lucidity will last. But I have to act quickly. It’s a matter of life and death. If you’re going to repay the favor or give me the bribe so I won’t gossip to your neighbors, then follow me. That’s all I want.”
Very slightly, the engineer leaned towards her, as if to better hear what she said—but Kanna did not repeat herself. She brought the woman through the gateway at the end of the garden and they both shuddered from the open wind as more military trucks rumbled by in the dark. The trucks were filled with soldiers seemingly too blinded by each other’s headlights to notice the two of them in the shadows. Wooden boxes of cargo bounced on every flatbed that Kanna could see.
“Where are we going?” the engineer asked.
The soldiers had disappeared around a brick building in the far distance, though Kanna could not make out many details with the maze of houses in between. Nonetheless, a weak, orange flame caught her eye, like a lighthouse burning a path.
“To the fire,” Kanna decided. She squeezed the engineer’s hand.
“Are you sure? That’s the incinerator where they destroy all the contraband—and the bodies. It’s not a place you’ll want to lurk, trust me. It smells awful and it’s hotter than hell.”
But what the engineer said only made Kanna more certain that it was where she was supposed to go. She let out a long breath to soften her own resistance. She said, “Tonight, I’ve already seen paradise. It’s time to accept the other thing that comes with it.”
So she walked down the side of the path hand in hand with her enemy, and she looked up towards Hell, where the Goddess was leading her.
To be continued…