My God Falls in Love with Me
As with other unwanted attentions, it happens when I’m thinking of something else entirely.
I am in the western chapel, reciting the evening prayers. I kneel on a prayer cushion, hands clasped against my forehead in worship.
As I repeat the holy syllogisms, my thoughts wander. I consider the tiled floor with its hexagons of blue and white. The blue tiles meet in groups of three, but the white tiles do not touch. I try to recall the significance of the pattern. Hexagons are more sacred than triangles, I know that. They are more perfect representations of the infinite.
The setting sun flashes through the window. A scent like lavender fills the air. My lips form the last syllables of the last prayer, the words only breath.
The slanting light takes on a blue-gray cast, and a man appears before me.
I jump to my feet with a noise like a startled mouse. The figure is identical to one I’ve seen in murals: a slender person with brown skin a few shades darker than my own, wide-set eyes, blood red robes, and a fall of sleek black hair.
My god gazes at me, His eyes intense and unreadable. In one fluid motion, He closes the space between us, pulls the scarf from my head, and pushes His face into my hair.
“What are you doing?” I cry, stumbling back.
For fifteen years I have been a devotee, cloistered from the company of men, but my god’s expression is unmistakable. He regards me with hunger, as if He wants to devour me whole.
I scream and run from the chapel.
My god appears in the evenings mostly, during prayers or at supper. The quality of the light changes, a scent like lavender fills the air, and He appears. He says nothing, but watches me in silence, sometimes smiling as if we’re sharing a secret.
Devotees of my god are not prone to mystical visions, and of course this particular vision is sacrilege. I would be thought mad, or a liar. So I tell no one.
One night I wake to the floral scent and a silver light. My god sits at the foot of my bed, haloed in moonlight. He has plainly been watching me sleep.
“Oh, please go away,” I exclaim.
My god reaches a hand across the bedclothes toward me.
I back away, pulling my knees to my chest. “You are the Master of Wisdom.” I lower my voice to a whisper, mindful of thin walls. “You teach order and obedience and the life of the mind. And when I vowed devotion to you, you know perfectly well I did not mean this.”
My god smiles. He bends forward to pull back the bedcovers.
I throw the pillow at Him.
He vanishes, but the scent of Him hangs in the air until morning.
He does not visit me again at night. Nevertheless I sleep poorly, and take to getting dressed beneath my bedclothes.
One morning, the Devoted Jacanda and I sit on the covered porch, solving equations for the district architect. It is a hot day at the end of summer, and we are sharing a pitcher of orange-blossom water.
“Who do you suppose painted our murals of the Holy One?” I ask in what I hope is an offhand manner. “As I was meditating this morning, it occurred to me to wonder if the likeness is correct.”
The Devoted Jacanda gives me a strange look. Lately she’s shown concern for my absentminded silences. “It was the Devoted Helela who decorated the temple. You know, the woman who painted that unfortunate portrait of Prince Ufa in the Rain Palace.”
“I have never understood the murals,” I continue. “Surely our god prefers to reveal Himself in geometric splendor, not in human visage.”
The Devoted Jacanda rearranges her calculating rods. “The Devoted Helela lived a long time ago. In matters of doctrine, she may have been rather primitive. You see similar portraits in other temples of antiquity, and of course we think of them as portraying our Master, but no doubt the likeness is only a folk custom.” She frowns at me. “Have you developed an interest in art?”
No, I’m being pursued by an amorous phantom who is the living picture of our god. “I was wondering if representational art could truly be sacred,” I say. “Perhaps there is a hidden pattern in the composition, or in the choice of colors.”
“I doubt it,” the Devoted Jacanda says. “I don’t believe the Devoted Helela was mathematical. None of her figures are in proportion.”
That night as I lie awake in bed, despair settles on me like a heavy blanket. If the Devoted Helela was not gifted in the sciences of my god, was there another reason she devoted herself? Did my god show Himself to her, and to the women who painted His image at other temples? Did they welcome these visions?
Am I wrong to resist?
My god behaves worst when He finds me alone. I avoid solitude, but it isn’t always easy. One day before evening prayers, I enter the bathhouse and find I am alone.
Rain drums on the tile roof, the prelude to our first autumn storm. It seems that no one else fancied bathing in such weather. I set my towel by the door and consider what to do. I’m supposed to purify myself before I enter the western chapel, and whatever my present feelings about my god, I’m not prepared to break sacred custom.
Steam rises invitingly from the sunken bath. Suddenly I no longer care. If He wants to watch me bathe, what can I do about it? I pull off my scarf and robe, slip off my sandals, and lower myself into the water.
The bathwater warms my chilled skin. I let out a long breath, close my eyes, and begin to lather my skin with soap.
I hear a dripping sound, and notice an odor mingling with the scents of olive oil soap and rain. My eyes open.
The aging bathhouse roof has sprung a leak. A small waterfall spatters against the tile floor, and my god is standing in front of the water. He is naked, slender-hipped as a boy, His chest and groin thatched with dark hair. The image is grotesque, religious pornography. I feel nauseated.
“Go away!” I shout. Still clutching the soap, I shield my body with my hands.
The scent of Him turns musky. The air shimmers, and a viscous rain starts to fall inside the bathhouse, fat raindrops like milky gold.
Half a dozen devotees are treated to the spectacle of a naked woman running through the rain-swept temple grounds. I spare no thought for their discomfort. I may be a Devotee of the Master of Wisdom, but as a child I heard my share of folk stories. When a god envelops a virgin in a golden rain, there is no question of what happens next.
In my room, I towel off my body with shaking hands until I no longer smell like Him. I pull on a robe but no scarf, slip on sandals, and fill a satchel with my few possessions.
A knock comes at the door. “Nassa, are you in there?”
I open the door. The Devoted Jacanda’s expression is plain astonishment. Gray hair is escaping her scarf. “What are you doing?”
I don’t meet her gaze. “Please let me pass.”
“But something’s happened to you!” The Devoted Jacanda touches my shoulder. “Whatever it is, let me help.”
I want so badly to tell her, but how can I? My shame weighs on me like a stone. No one will believe me. They will think this is some sick fantasy.
“I’m sorry,” I mutter, and push past her. In the hallway I begin to run.
The Devoted Jacanda calls my name, but I only increase my pace. I run out of the dormitory, speed across the terraced garden, and take a flying leap from a stone bench to launch myself over the low wall.
I fall unceremoniously into something large and brushy.
I clamber to my feet, pulling damp leaves from my hair. I am standing in the street outside the temple. It’s coming on evening, and the rain hasn’t slackened. Myrtle bushes line the wall behind me. Across from them is a thorny hedge wall belonging to the Garden God’s temple.
I don’t know the city well, but this must be Little God Street. If I walk uphill, I’ll come to the gate of the Patrician’s palace. Downhill is the rest of the Gods Quarter and, below that, the river market.
Arms folded, I consider my options. Taking refuge in a neighboring temple is the obvious choice, preferably one whose god has no love for my own. But when I think of what god that might be, dread fills me.
I have no better idea, so I begin to walk. Past the clay wall of the Creator God’s temple and the basket-weave fence of the Mother Goddess’s temple, I come to a bright blue plaster wall. It’s covered with embossed gold circles and topped with gold protuberances like spiky phalluses.
I round the corner and stop before an arched entrance. I reflexively begin a prayer before remembering that I have no god to petition. My fate is in my own hands.
As I step through the arch, I feel certain I am making a terrible mistake.
The courtyard of the temple is not so different from that of my own: tiled paths, pomegranate trees, a silver fountain in the shape of a dolphin. Across the lawn is a building with white stucco walls and a golden roof.
I walk up to the entrance. Instead of a door, there is a heavy crimson curtain. The fabric smells like perfume, and I sneeze as I push inside.
“Your health!” says a male voice.
I look around. I’m in a long, windowless corridor. A doorway on the left seems to be the source of the voice.
I go to the doorway. It opens on a lamplit sitting room that resembles nothing so much as the boudoir of a merchant’s wife. There are low sofas upholstered in yellow silk, delicate woodblock prints of garden scenes, pink lanterns hanging from the ceiling beams.
A man reclining on a sofa watches me. “I’d ask if you were a worshiper,” he says in a deep-chested voice, “but somehow I doubt it.”
He’s a young man of about my age, beardless and broad-chested. His looks are not extraordinary, but extraordinary he is nonetheless. He reminds me of a purebred cat, or a sleepy young woman staying up to attend a very late party. His eyelids are painted orange beneath heavy brows, his lips stained pale pink, his thick black braids threaded with silver. His trailing silk robe is a bright vermilion, sliding off one brown shoulder to reveal an intricate tattoo. Another tattoo spirals up his bare foot and ankle. He is, of all things, knitting—something yellow and lacy on double-pointed needles.
I tell myself I will not be intimidated by this decorative young man. “I need to speak with whoever is in charge.”
The votary sets aside his knitting and sits up slowly, crossing one smooth leg over the other. “All business is by appointment. I do welcome you to the temple of the Queen of Delight.”
“You don’t understand. Whoever is in charge of your temple, that’s who I need to speak to. It’s urgent.”
The votary lifts his heavy brows. “You understand that we take the privacy of our worshipers very seriously.”
He thinks I am someone’s wife or lover, come to chase them out of the temple of the Mistress of Ardor. “Oh, are you blind?” I cry. “Can’t you see I’m like you, I’m consecrated?”
He stares at me, mouth open. “Not a devotee of…Reason?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know anymore,” I say, and burst into sobs.
I Take Refuge in a House of Carnality
Eidel has made me tea.
“It’s chamomile and honey,” he says, handing me a pink porcelain cup. “Nothing that would be forbidden to a devotee of your temple.”
I draw the knit blanket tighter around my shoulders and lift the cup to my face. The fragrant steam feels good against my damp skin.
Eidel has ceded the sofa to me. He lowers himself onto a nearby ottoman, silk robe fluttering. “Now, what in Love’s name are you doing here?”
Gripping the cup, eyes half-closed, I let the story pour out of me. I don’t know what drives me to unburden my heart to this strange man, but the truth is I have nowhere else to turn. As my secret shame turns to words, my tears slow, and I begin to feel less fragile.
When I finish, the votary is staring into his untouched tea. “You think he was trying to… get you with child?”
“It’s like the stories you hear in the country. The god of the tempest, or the lord of the forest, comes to some peasant girl and turns himself into lightning, or a swarm of frogs…”
“Those are country stories,” Eidel says carefully. “Forgive me, but why would the Lord of Reason—?”
My heart sinks. He doesn’t believe me.
“I don’t know why it’s happening to me,” I say. “I never asked for it. I thought your temple would know what to do. Your goddess is at war with my god, isn’t that right? And everyone knows your votaries have sacred visions.”
“Whatever I’ve seen, it’s nothing like that.” Eidel’s colorful mouth twists in a frown. “Normally when people ask for our help in these situations, the pursuer is human.”
“Please don’t make light of this.”
“I’m not,” he says, suddenly grave. “I just…I need to think.”
Eidel sets his teacup on the floor and stares at his manicured hands. I sip my tea, pausing to wipe the corners of my eyes.
“Sanctuary,” he says finally. “I can offer you sanctuary, if you truly feel safe here. That’s my right as a votary. Our priestess may not like it, but she rarely approves of me.”
Sanctuary, I repeat silently, and feel a moment of blessed relief.
Then I remember where I am. My chest tightens. I remember kneeling in the western chapel, His gaze on me. Will this be any different? What have I surrendered myself to?
“Oh, for Love’s sake.” Eidel comes to sit on the edge of the sofa. He retrieves an embroidered handkerchief from his breast pocket and hands it to me. “Isn’t that what you wanted me to say?”
Weeping again, I press the handkerchief to my face. It smells of rosewater. “But…you’re a prostitute!”
Eidel smiles. “Yes, but that’s nothing to cry over,” he says.
The bedclothes and carpet and wall-hangings in my room are the color of light through closed eyelids, peach and amber and carnelian.
I sleep mostly by day. At night I dream of gray towers, and drowning in icy pools, and a scent like rotting leaves. Often my god is my dreams, not embodied, but an unseen shadow. My blood comes, so I know I’m not expecting a child.
My nocturnal habits suit the temple. Its business takes place during the day, the votaries passing the sunlit hours behind closed doors, or in certain gardens I learn to avoid. Evening is their leisure time. Some of the votaries try to be kind to me, but I don’t invite companionship. Their friendships make me heartsick for what I’ve lost.
Eidel is my friend whether I want him or not. After supper, he knocks on the door and asks permission to spend the evening with me. No doubt he feel sorry for me, but I don’t mind his company. Eidel is a gossip, and a funny one. I learn all the business of the house despite being an outsider: jealousies and petty disputes, fierce rivalries with the quayside brothels, forbidden romances among the votaries.
Four weeks after my arrival, Eidel brings a summons to my door. “The Consecrated Tehafa wishes to see you,” he says.
I rise unsteadily, chest pounding. I have never set eyes on the head priestess, who spends her days in seclusion. Will she offer me aid, or ask me to leave?
Eidel leads me along a red corridor to a curtained doorway. He gives me a brief smile and departs. I push through the curtain and enter a windowless room lit by candles. Reclined on pillows is a severe-looking woman with a tight black bun, crimson lips, and a linen robe that is thin enough to be transparent.
“I am the Consecrated Tehafa,” she says. “Sit.”
I lower myself to the ground, feeling scrutinized. I consider a polite greeting but decide that silence is the best option.
“So,” the Consecrated Tehafa says, “you’re Eidel’s pet.”
The word jolts me. “Eidel has been very kind to me.”
“No doubt. But kindness has done little to alter your situation. Unless you’re enjoying your stay here.”
I meet her gaze. “If you have another suggestion, I’d be glad to hear it.”
The Consecrated Tehafa gives me a cold smile and draws a gold chain from beneath her robe. From it hangs a gem, a carnelian carved like a rose.
“I wear this as a sign of my goddess’s blessing,” she says. “Only She has the power to protect you.”
“I can’t join this temple.” My words are a whisper.
The Consecrated Tehafa’s brow lifts in amusement. “I’m suggesting dedication as a worshiper, not a votary, my dear. No doubt Eidel would be happy to conduct the ceremony.”
Images flood my mind: candles, red curtains, bare skin. All the rumors of what goes on here behind closed doors. “No,” I say breathlessly. “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”
The Consecrated Tehafa considers me in silence.
“You needn’t decide today,” she says finally. “Request an audience with me if you change your mind. Whatever you think of our goddess, She would welcome you, Nassa.”
Back in my room, Eidel is lounging on one end of the bed. He’s knitting a shawl, an intricate pattern constructed with stranded knitting and three colors of yarn.
I sit on the other end of the bed, legs folded beneath me, not looking at him.
He glances up. “You survived.”
I expect Eidel to ask questions, but instead he keeps knitting. I sit in silence, grateful he’s not pressing me for details.
After a while, he wordlessly hands me his knitting. I start the next row, following the pattern he’s started.
“How in the world do you do that?” he asks after a time.
“Knit? My aunt taught me.”
“No, you ridiculous woman,” he says, settling back against the cushions. He’s dressed casually this evening in a baggy tunic and trousers, eyelids painted gold. “How do you follow the pattern when I haven’t taught it to you? Those stockings you finished for me are flawless.”
“I’m good at patterns. It’s what I did at the temple.”
There’s silence. “No doubt you miss it,” he says finally.
I knit to the end of the row, let the work fall in my lap. “I can’t miss something that never was. The god I worshiped is not the god who showed Himself to me.”
“Tell me about the god you worshiped,” Eidel said. “What drew you to Him?”
I pick up the knitting and start another row. “Why does it matter?”
“Whatever you felt, it still belongs to you.”
I pause to recover a dropped stitch. “If you must know, I devoted myself to avoid marriage. I was betrothed to a herdsman, a man twice my age. What I felt toward my god was mainly gratitude for saving me from an unhappy life. No doubt I earned my disappointment.”
“Funny,” Eidel says, “I consecrated myself because I couldn’t marry the village ostler. Well, the ostler and his wife. It was the most terrible scandal. My parents were respectable farmers, so my choices were the army or the temple. For all that, no one has ever accused me of lacking devotion. At least not to my face.”
“Maybe I’m the one who lacks devotion.”
Eidel looks disgusted. “For Love’s sake.”
I set down the knitting. “You don’t understand. You want to give yourself to your goddess. But my god asks for duty, whatever we feel. How do I know I was right to leave?”
“I don’t give myself to my goddess.” Eidel regards me with lowered eyes. I realize I’ve angered him. “When I receive supplicants, I am the Queen of Desire. I am the one who is worshiped, and the encounter happens on my terms.”
“I didn’t know that.” My voice is small.
There’s a pause. “Why would you?” Eidel says, gentle now. “You’re a stranger here.”
Silence settles over us. I pick up the knitting again, but before I can knit one stitch, Eidel says abruptly, “I would conduct your dedication ceremony.”
I spring to my feet, the work falling from my lap. “Oh, not you too!”
Eidel rises, hands extended palm out. “It’s not your heart’s choice, I understand! But I know that’s what the priestess discussed with you, and I wanted to make the offer.”
“I can’t!” I say, my voice a sob.
Eidel stares at me. “Oh,” he says, realizing. “No, the ceremony isn’t, it doesn’t have to be… I mean, you would be in control of what happens. It doesn’t have to be what you’re thinking.”
I realize I’m trembling. I sit back on the bed. “I misunderstood.” I say, not looking at him.
Eidel comes to kneels beside me. He picks up my blanket and wraps it gently around my shoulders.
“I just want you to feel safe,” he says.
I Witness an Act of Worship
Three weeks later, I kneel in a dedication chamber.
The room is small, candlelit, with crimson walls and soft rugs piled on the floor. Incense smolders in one corner, but it doesn’t hide the scent of what this room has been used for.
I kneel in a robe of soft sheepskin that laces to my throat and wonder, not for the first time, just what I am doing.
For three weeks I’ve learned about the goddess. The Queen of Delight, Eidel calls her. I’ve read the prayer-book he lent me and endured a frightening hour of theological instruction with the Consecrated Tehafa.
In my favorite prayer in Eidel’s prayer-book, the goddess is compared to a mother hawk who teaches Her young to hunt and afterward watches them fly away. For You love that which changes, and do not desire possession.
I know I will never worship the goddess as I once worshiped my god, with a singular trust and belief. I hate myself for bargaining with divinity. But if Eidel’s goddess is who She claims, She will never resent me for not giving enough of myself.
Behind me, the door opens and closes. “Her blessings on you,” Eidel says.
“Her blessings honor me,” I recite.
I hear the flutter of his robe against the floor and keep my eyes trained on the opposite wall. Eidel has offered to remain clothed for the ceremony, but I don’t think it’s right to ask for the protection of his goddess while breaking Her customs.
I hear him settle behind me. “I have oil,” he says. “Would you like some for your hands?”
“Yes.” The word comes out as a squeaky question.
Eidel makes an exasperated sound. “This isn’t about pleasing me. It’s rosehip oil. Do you like the smell of rosehips?”
“I like rosehips.”
“I know you’re nervous. It’s all right.” Eidel’s arms appear on either side of me. He anoints my hands, tender and efficient as a parent rubbing ointment on a child’s chapped skin. The oil smells like dry grass.
“I’m going to anoint your face,” he says. “Close your eyes.”
I wonder if the closed eyes are part of the ceremony, or if Eidel wishes to preserve my modesty. I close my eyes and hear him come to sit in front of me. He draws the oil across my eyelids.
“For eyes that see beauty, Goddess, I thank you.”
A slick finger brushes my lips. “For lips that shape beauty, Goddess, I thank you.”
Last, he draws a curving shape on my forehead. “For a mind that conceives beauty, Goddess, I thank you.”
I hear him walk behind me. “Open your eyes,” he says. “And try to relax. You’re jumpy as a cricket.”
My eyes open, and I exhale. “What next?”
“Don’t sound so excited.” He pauses. “You’re supposed to experience pleasure,” he says in a rush. “Sometimes it’s a certain type of pleasure, but there aren’t any rules. I thought I could brush your hair.”
“Brush my hair?”
“Never mind. We’ll think of something else.”
I am getting exasperated at Eidel treating me like a glass ornament he might break..”Is that something you do with your supplicants?”
Eidel laughs softly. “No, it is not. But my grandmother used to brush my hair when I was a child. It’s a nice memory.”
“It sounds fine.” But as I say the words, I remember my god pulling the scarf from my head.
“You don’t sound enthusiastic,” Eidel says. “It’s supposed to be something you enjoy.”
“I don’t enjoy you hovering behind me like a ghost. Come where I can see you.”
There’s a long enough silence for me to regret my words. Then Eidel comes around and kneels in front of me.
He’s wearing gold bracelets and nothing else. His eyelids are painted the color of garnets. He smiles as I frankly survey his clean-shaven body, the serpentine tattoo twining from shoulder to ankle. He’s even more broad-chested than I realized, long torso and short legs, muscular but a bit soft in the belly.
“Well, this is pleasurable,” I feel brave enough to say.
To my surprise, Eidel’s cheeks color. “Thank you,” he says, gruff but obviously flattered.
We sit there in silence. I continue to look at Eidel, and find I understand the point of his loose, draping clothes. I imagine him taking them off, like unwrapping a present to reveal smooth brown skin.
Eidel is still waiting for me to tell him what I want. I am not used to wanting, and Eidel is my friend, and I want to be careful. I don’t understand why looking at Eidel feels so different than seeing my god in the bathhouse. For Eidel this encounter is sacred, but that knowledge doesn’t disgust me.
I observe with embarrassment that Eidel is becoming aroused. “Ah,” he says, seeing me noticing, light brown cheeks rosier than ever. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t mind,” I say, and find that it is true. My pulse is racing, I feel mildly intoxicated, and no, I don’t mind at all. This thought is followed by another thought that does not seem to belong to me. It is an alarming, alluring thought, and it must be spoken at once or perish.
“You could pleasure yourself, that would give me pleasure,” I say in a single breath.
Eidel’s expression changes to almost comical disbelief.
“Only if you want to,” I hurry to add.
“I…” He looks hard at me. “You’re in earnest? You’re not just—”
“I’m in earnest.”
“You don’t want to me to touch you?” he asks softly.
I shake my head. “I just… I want to see how you worship.”
We consider each other in silence, and I wonder if I’ve crossed a line. I’m afraid that Eidel won’t understand why I want this, that he’ll think I’ve mistaken his tenderness toward me for attraction. It isn’t that. I don’t want Eidel for my own. I just want this one pleasure, the pleasure of looking.
Finally Eidel nods, giving me a brief, warm smile. His dark eyes close, and he lowers an oil-slick hand to his sex.
I feel as if I am watching a thunderstorm, my body tensing before each thunderclap, shivering with the reverberations. Eidel shudders, and his lips part, then press together as he swallows a moan. When his moment comes, he cries out in a brief, unintelligible prayer, eyes still closed.
Then it’s over, and he’s breathing hard. He looks across at me, and starts to laugh.
“What?” I demand, rather breathless myself.
“The expression on your face,” Eidel says, still laughing, “is quite wonderful.”
I Question My Faith
It’s Eidel who finds me a job. One of his supplicants is the Patrician’s tax collector. When Eidel tells him about my training, I am promptly offered a position in the city Treasury.
As a devotee, I performed calculations for imperial architects and engineers. Calculating taxes is not quite as interesting, but it’s a living. The tax collector is a stout man with a sleek black beard, fair-minded but prone to bluster. When he irritates me, I amuse myself with the thought of him worshiping my goddess in the form of Eidel.
For a while I dress like other unmarried women, in a sleeveless dress and two long braids. But the clothes feel like a costume, and I get tired of men showing me attentions on the street. I ask my seamstress to remake my dresses with sleeves, and I buy headscarves from the Khadazi woman who sells garments at the river market.
“Would it be wrong for me to wear these?” I ask her, concerned they have some meaning I don’t understand.
“All women wear them in Khadaz,” she says. “No wrong. You will look very beautiful.”
The scarves are sheer silk, with bright colors and patterned gold edging. I love how they drape over my back and shoulders. One of the women clerks asks me if I have joined a cult, while another informs me I will never find a husband if I cover my hair. I tell her I am not looking for one. Men still harass me on the street, but they don’t seem to know what to shout at me.
No one pays me attentions when Eidel is with me. One evening a week, we go down to the river market and visit the yarn-sellers from Talbard, or share a meal at the tavern across from my apartment on Lapidary Street. Eidel wears simple clothes and no makeup, and I can tell he enjoys being anonymous. When people mistake us for husband and wife, I say that we are brother and sister, just to make him laugh.
Sometimes I dream of my old god, a shadowy presence in a dark room, or dead hands holding me beneath icy water. But I never see him in the waking world. When I feel afraid, I touch the carnelian stone at my throat and remember that I am loved.
At the height of summer, a festival is celebrated in Valatira. The occasion is unmemorable—the birthday of a dead emperor—but people look forward to it for months. The gardens of the Patrician’s palace are opened to the public, musicians perform continuously, and vats of mead and wine are provided by the city’s trade guilds. Neither Eidel nor I have ever attended. He’s not expecting supplicants on a holiday, so we arrange to go together.
Eidel meets me at the palace gate. He’s dressed for the holiday in red linen, a matching ribbon woven into his black braid. I’m wearing a new gown of yellow silk paired with an orange scarf. We compliment each other on our good looks and start up the hill.
It’s a still, cloudless day. Graceful shade trees dapple the Patrician’s lawn with light and shadow. City folk in their best clothing wander in laughing groups, lutes and drums fill the air with rhythm, and children dance with colored streamers.
Neither of us drinks alcohol, so I buy cups of cherry water from a vendor. We walk among the performers, choosing favorites. I like the mother and daughter singing country ballads, but Eidel prefers the troupe of dancers accompanied by a single, skillfully played tabor drum.
After a while, we find an unoccupied bench and rest. Two young women walk past us, hands clasped, eyes only for each other. Someone’s escaped lap dog sprints after them.
Eidel lifts his gaze to the clear sky. “Paradise.”
I laugh. “It’s certainly a beautiful day.”
“It’s not just the day. It’s the feeling of belonging to myself.”
“You do belong to yourself,” I say gently. “I know you enjoy slipping away like this, but devotion is a choice.”
“Yes.” Eidel twists one hand in the other. “The truth is, I’ve been thinking it’s time for me to make a different choice.”
My smile falters. “You would leave our goddess?”
“You left your temple. With my background, I could find work at a brothel, work on my own terms. I could be a wealthy man.” He looks at me. “What I valued in the temple, I’ll still value. Can you understand that?”
I hear his words, and I understand completely.
“Eidel,” I say, “I think you’re an atheist.”
Eidel looks pained. “That’s not the word I would use.”
“I’m using the word that fits. You don’t really believe, do you?”
“What do you want me to say?” Eidel regards me sadly. “When we first met, you asked me if I saw visions. The answer is no. I’ve never seen anything. I’ve never seen my goddess.”
“Then you don’t believe what I’ve seen. You don’t believe me.” I am suddenly rigid with anger. “My dedication, what did that mean to you?”
“My work is sacred to me. It’s not a matter of belief, Nassa. I wanted to help.”
He reaches for my hand, but I turn from him.
“Please go away,” I say.
After Eidel is gone, I sit for a long time on the bench. I finger the carnelian at my throat and think about the goddess Eidel has worshiped with such outward devotion.
The goddess who makes him feel trapped.
Why won’t the Queen of Delight show Herself to Eidel? The answer that occurs to me is the simple one. She doesn’t value his devotion. His happiness means nothing to Her.
Are all gods and goddesses the same? Promising us superlatives, wisdom beyond measure, ecstasy beyond desiring, but in truth desiring only one thing.
I stand and unfasten the chain that hangs around my neck. The bright carnelian falls to the ground, a lucky find for some festival goer. Then I begin down the hill.
Halfway to the gate, a shadow falls over me. I look up, expecting a cloud concealing the sun.
The sun has disappeared.
Around me the world has gone gray and silent. My god appears out of the gloom. He wears a long robe patterned with hexagons, blue and white, the white hexagons never touching.
I can’t feel my body, can’t move. My god walks toward me, arms outstretched. His cold arms close around me. One hand presses my head forward and pushes His mouth against mine.
His lips taste like dead leaves. I feel myself contract. The lips part around me. Suddenly I’m a speck traveling down a dark tunnel…
My god has swallowed me up.
In the Godhead
I am nowhere, but my mind creates substance out of formlessness.
I am in a courtyard. Everything is black or gray, and it is easier to touch things than to see them. The yard is filled with geometric statues, each of them a mathematically significant shape studied by my god’s holiest priests. There are one-sided surfaces, and complex knots, and assemblies of rods and wires that resemble topological puzzles. Above, ragged gray banners hang from nothing I can see. Occasionally the banners wave, and I am showered in fine dust.
The courtyard is surrounded by a stone wall. In one corner is a staircase. I climb it and come to another stair. I climb four staircases, but at the end I find myself back in the courtyard.
“I don’t recommend that,” a woman’s voice says. “He enjoys it when you try to solve his puzzles.”
The woman sits at the base of a statue. She is the only colorful thing in this courtyard, her skin a rich brown, her eyes amber. She wears nothing but the long black hair that falls over one shoulder and a gold chain around her waist studded with carnelians. She is tall, and muscular, and very beautiful.
It takes me a long time to find words. “You’re…here?”
“For a thousand years,” the Queen of Delight says. “Come sit beside me, sweetheart.”
Dazed, I sit beside the goddess. She smiles at me sadly and takes my hand in Hers. I accept the touch, the first comforting thing in this unreal landscape.
“It was my own fault,” my goddess says. “He’s such an intriguing creature, quite attractive when he chooses to be, and I wanted to help him. You see, he had measured the universe and decided it belonged to him. I tried to teach him to love without possessing, but he never understood me. He learned to desire me, and after that he grew hungry. He overpowered me, and consumed me, and here I have been ever since.”
“But I had Your protection…”
My goddess shakes Her head. “Oh no, sweetheart. I do watch over my followers, but I have no power to act. You humans have a certain virtue of your own. It was love that protected you, my darling. I’m sorry it couldn’t last.”
Tears wet my cheeks. “Please forgive me,” I choke. “For casting away the carnelian.”
My goddess puts an arm around me. I lean against Her. “Hush. You have paid the price, a punishment much higher than suits the crime. My heart breaks for you, but I am with you now. It will be easier for you than the others, because you know me. I will never leave you until the end.”
“What end? Why does He want me? What is going to happen?”
My goddess’s silence tells me the answer will be horrible.
“He has taught himself to find great pleasure in siring life, and then destroying it,” She says finally. “You will bear a child for him, and birth it, and he will vomit it out, and then devour it. You will bear many children for him this way, until your spirit wears to nothing. He takes one woman each century to satisfy this appetite, generally from among his followers. I do not understand why he does it. How can a being who can contemplate such complexity take pleasure in adding and subtracting, adding and subtracting? I would gladly suffer in your place, but I cannot bear his offspring.”
I feel stunned, empty, as if I have already been extinguished.
My goddess’s arms tighten around me. I close my eyes, and for a moment She is everyone who has ever loved me. “I refuse,” I say, clinging to Her. “I won’t let him near me.”
“Sweetheart, it’s too late,” my goddess says. “You are inside him, and he is inside you. Life already stirs in your belly.”
And when She says that, I can feel it. It is not a physical sensation, but an awareness of something tremendous inside me, like a cloud bearing lightning. I am carrying power.
I slip from my goddess’s arms and look at Her. “Do you have any power of Your own here?”
“Nothing to speak of. I’m sorry, sweetheart, but it’s no good fighting. He’s done this before.”
“Please—anything You can give me, it could help. I think it’s different this time, because I know You. If the others were devotees, they wouldn’t have known You.”
My goddess touches my cheek and shakes Her head. “If you fail, I’ll suffer for it. Any hope I have of leaving this place will be gone forever.”
“I understand,” I say, but my heart beats faster, because this mean She does have power to give me. “It’s a terrible risk. But if I succeed, I’ll save both of us. Please believe in me as I believe in You.”
“I always believe in my children,” my goddess says.
She stands to removes Her carnelian belt and fastens it around my waist. Then She bends over me and kisses me on the lips. Her mouth is hot, and sensation floods my body, spreading out through my limbs, down to my vulva, and deep into my belly.
I become aware of many things. The power I carry in my belly becomes visible, distinct as the embryo inside an egg that is held up to a candle. It is composed of three distinct parts: my god, my goddess, and me. Like strands of yarn, like braided light, we join in the hollow space in my body.
My god is a strand of oxidized iron, ancient but strong, sharp enough to draw blood. Beside him, my goddess is a long scarlet ribbon, glossy, sinuous, easily frayed. Then there is me, a length of olive branch, evergreen, brittle.
But braids can be twisted and yet remain themselves. I follow the strands in my mind’s eye, and I understand that our entanglement is an illusion. We are completely free.
I twist away from the other strands. My god bends after me, but with my goddess’s strength in my limbs, I’m faster than he is. In the next moment, I fold not only myself but my goddess’s red ribbon. We join in a two-stranded braid.
We look across to see my god lying alone, a tangled scrap of rusty wire. Pieces begin to flake off him. He is turning to dust.
The goddess reaches out Her hand—for while all this is happening, we are still embodied, side by side in the courtyard—and touches him. He unspools to a silver mesh.
I lift him up, as if he were a length of gray cloth, and pull him around my shoulders like a shawl.
I Unleash a Wild Divinity
I float above the Patrician’s gardens, one with the clear blue sky.
I am not certain who “I” am, exactly. I wear the rags of my god around my shoulders, and my goddess’s belt around my waist, but I understand that these symbols of divinity are instruments, like the telescopes in the temples of high priests. They are ways of looking.
Beneath me, the festival goers move in a stately dance. The lutes bend the air with exquisite complexity; the drums rap out their algorithmic patterns. Everything marches in time to the two-beat rhythm of the human heart.
I take off my god’s cloak and let it fall over the earth. It settles over the crowd, a net of beauty worn thin by confusion and time, and becomes part of their intricate design. Laughing, dancing, drinking, kissing, they slip into the web my god has left behind and begin to knit it anew.
The festival day is not like festivals in years past. Everything is richer, deeper, charged with meaning. The lutes sing in wild improvisations, and the drums beat against one another in complex syncopations. Young people dance in circles, never holding the same hands twice, and old lovers entwine in private retreats, familiar joinings charged with new energy.
The tendrils of the weaving push down into the city. They slip through windows and scale walls. The temples are infiltrated, and the watchtowers, and the dungeons below the judicial courts.
Denizens of the city fall into unwonted mathematical reveries. A devotee of the Garden God, weeding a flower bed, contemplates the arithmetical concept of the golden spiral as expressed in the petals of flowers. An overworked cooper’s apprentice, rushing to complete a tardy order, pauses to daydream about the barrels that might exist in higher spatial dimensions.
Meanwhile the Patrician’s personal calculator, an elderly man who professes to no longer enjoy holidays, drowses over his sums and dreams that the variables in an algebraic equation have decided that they are in love and will share the same value, though there is no possible solution to the equation that allows this to be so.
Voices, music, movement, embracing. The net is densely woven now, a shimmering silver web. My goddess and I stand side by side above it, and I see what it could become: a multidimensional palace, an intricate mind.
My goddess takes my hand. “I’m smaller, you know. Part of me has gone into this weaving.”
“You did what you had to, my darling. It’s good to be free after so many years. And he is free, in some sense. You saved what you could of his works, though he could not be saved. That was nobly done.” She turns to me. “And what will you give of yourself?”
It would be easy, I think, to give everything. To become the silver mantle, and weave beauty. But I shake my head. “I won’t be worshiped.”
She nods. “It’s your choice. Though I warn you, the power you’ve loosed today won’t rest. A wild divinity is a dangerous thing.”
“It will find its shape,” I say. For I have changed too, and I comprehend my creation with a lord’s pragmatic wisdom, and a priestess’s wild intuition, and a human woman’s open-hearted love.
I wake to the afternoon sun on my face.
Wincing, I sit up. I’m lying on the bed in my apartment, feeling as if I’ve run a footrace. Two women sit across from me. I stare stupidly at them, wondering if this is another vision. The women are the Consecrated Tehafa and the Devoted Jacanda. They are watching me with a wary interest, as if I were an unusual variety of spider.
“How did I get here?” I ask groggily.
“We found you on the grounds of the palace,” the Devoted Jacanda says. “One of the brewers, kind man, lent us his hand-cart to bring you home. That was an hour ago. We were not certain you would wake.”
I look between the two of them. “You know what happened?”
“Every holy person in Valatira knows what you did,” the Consecrated Tehafa says flatly. “The city has been flooded with divine power.”
“The temple is in total upheaval,” the Devoted Jacanda says. “Several of us danced for hours to music no one else could hear, the Devoted Irdul solved the Bilutab Conjecture, more than a few couples declared their passion and barricaded themselves in the dining hall, declaring it a Rational Temple to Love and Friendship, and I myself spent most of the day re-tiling the bathhouse roof in a manner that will certainly not keep out the rain but possesses most interesting arithmetical properties. All of little importance, considering our order must necessarily dissolve after today.”
“My dear friend…forgive me…”
She shakes her head, her eyes suddenly bright. “You could have told me, you know! It’s why you ran away, isn’t it? If I had only known…”
And then both of us are crying, and the Devoted Jacanda sits beside me, and I put my arms around her, and say again and again, Forgive me, and the Devoted Jacanda says, No, no, you were so brave. I know what it costs her to say those words, this woman who loved our god with a deep and profound love. Who deserved better.
Both of us are drying our eyes when the door opens and Eidel stumbles in like a sleepwalker, bleary-eyed, his braid coming undone.
“You.” He stares at me. “You’re all right!”
“I told you to stay at the temple, Eidel,” the Consecrated Tehafa says. “None of this concerns you.”
Eidel doesn’t seem to hear her. “Your belt.”
I touch the carnelian belt. I hadn’t realized I was still wearing it. “It was a gift.”
“From our goddess?”
“Yes,” I say, holding his gaze. “And it wasn’t your fault, or Hers, that She never showed Herself to you. She was imprisoned.”
“But now you’ve freed Her,” Eidel says. “And what else did you do?”
“Eidel, go home,” the Consecrated Tehafa says wearily.
“Eidel will do as he chooses,” I say loudly.
The priestess stares at me. I boldly meet her gaze.
“Eidel has made vows,” the priestess intones. “He will never belong to you.”
“I don’t want him to belong to me! Have you never heard of a friend?”
For a long moment I think the Consecrated Tehafa will curse me dead. For all I know her curses work, now that our goddess is free.
But still she doesn’t say anything. I wonder when someone last contradicted her.
Eidel bows to her. “My pardon, Holy One. I’ll be happy to discuss my vows tonight. But it is my day off.”
He steps forward and offers me his arm. “I think I owe you a walk,” he says. “I think I owe you a lot more than that.”
I squeeze his hand. “A walk will be fine.”
The Devoted Jacanda follows us down to the street. She embraces me again. “Be well.”
“Come see me soon,” I tell her. “I’ll get you a job.”
When she’s gone, Eidel begins to laugh. “I thought the priestess would wring your neck.”
“If you leave, she’ll never forgive me,” I tell him.
“I don’t know if I will leave,” Eidel says. “I don’t if staying is the right way for me to worship Her, but I think I want to try.”
We walk toward the river. It’s coming on evening, and sunset paints the city in vivid light and deep shadow.
“Whatever you choose, She’s lucky to have you, Eidel,” I say.
Eidel’s arm presses against mine. “And we’re all lucky to have you,” he says lightly. “But you really have some explaining to do. I have been knitting the strangest things all afternoon.”
About the Author
Rebecca Schneider is a reference librarian and graduate of the 2019 Futurescapes Workshop. A native of New England, she currently lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she spends her days listening to podcasts, attempting to identify trees, and writing three novels at once.