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When it came time to carry her father’s soul down from the mountain, she had nothing to carry it in. The bowl her mother had carved from heirloom ivory, fitted together like a puzzle mosaic and watertight without needing glue, had been shattered that morning in an argument with her father’s retainer. No other bowl had been carved with the requisite love for him. But her father’s soul couldn’t be left up at the temple on Mount Ossus, so she went with the pilgrims to claim him before the sun did.
She stood in rank with them as the soul-preparers poured distillations from the cleaned skulls of the dead. When they came to her, a girl whose name was soon-after forgotten, she set her jaw and cupped her hands like a beggar. “Give me my father,” she said.
They did. She took him down the mountainside cupped in her hands, tightening her fingers until they ached against every drop, until the piercing blue sky gave her terrors because it, too, was the color of soul water and it had spilled across the horizon, out of her hands.
Three times she stumbled. Three times she caught herself and looked breathlessly at her father’s reflected face. The third time found her on her knees, staring into his dead green eyes, halfway down the mountain. She was choking back tears.
What could she have done? Her task was to bring him down for burial in the sea that had buoyed his mother’s hips. Continue like this, though, and he’d spill into the damning dirt of Mount Ossus. Her hands were numb, and the last descent in darkness was the most treacherous. The sun was already sinking.
What else should a dutiful daughter have done? She put her lips to her father and drank.
When her feet touched the roads of her town, her countenance was already strange. She looked about as though she hadn’t seen this place since her father was a boy–as though the sprawling streets had grown while she was away, and the huts dotting the hillside should have been goats and goat-herders. She walked the path to her home, ignoring the stares at her funeral garb, and her hand was on the door when her father’s retainer grabbed her.
It was a shock that the retainer was so tall–as tall as he’d been since she was born–and she looked up into his cragged face, his watery eyes. His familiar cedar complexion looked strange and pale.
He hit her. His ringed knuckles rang against her nerves, and she looked down as a dutiful daughter should have.
“Where is Ouris?”
She looked at her feet, bare and blistered, and the dirt. She was a girl, and couldn’t contradict him. What could she say that wouldn’t compound that anger?
Her father’s retainer stood up straighter. His hand tightened on her shoulder and his voice rose, calling for witnesses against the girl who’d betrayed her father’s soul. “Where is Ouris!”
“I didn’t bring him,” she said.
She had a vision of him going back for his whip, the same whip he cracked at the shoulder of oxen; she imagined him flaying her open with it, blood to the cold air. At the same time she had a vision of him on his knees before her, and when his rings cracked against her cheek again, anger and not shame brought tears to her eyes.
“Girl, why haven’t you brought your father from the mountain?”
She looked up to see if the wrinkle of his nose and the squint of his eyes still made him look like an incensed hog.
“You broke the bowl.”
She saw his lip twitch, and the corners of his eyes twitched, before he raised his hand to strike her. The anger which had lit her vanished and she cowered as his hand came down. More, though, she cowered because that anger had not been her own.
She felt the shocks ring through her body, and imagined that she’d be the bowl stricken from her mother’s hands. She’d hit the ground and shatter, and who would pick up her pieces?
When the retainer stopped beating her she ran to her mother, buried her face in her mother’s apron, and cried until her tears ran dry.
The retainer came back with a priest at each side. Their hoods put their faces in shadow, and their breath jostled the stillness of the air. The girl climbed away from her mother’s arms to stand before them, knotting her knuckles, her head bowed.
“This is the girl who forsook her father?” one asked, and stepped forward. The girl’s throat burned, but a girl had no place addressing priests who had not directly addressed her. Behind them, with his eyes wide and angry, the retainer stood with his head bowed.
“I sent my daughter up without a bowl to carry him in,” the girl’s mother answered for her.
“You are wealthy enough,” another priest asked. “Why was a bowl not provided?”
“The bowl was provided and lost,” the retainer spoke out. “The crime is this girl’s. After leaving her father she was sullen and disobedient. Not a fleck of contrition surfaced in her. Who in this family loved Ouris as they should have?”
“And what became of the soul?” the second priest demanded.
The girl looked at the ground. A girl was not allowed a voice to speak; without knowing her duty on the mountain, mother could not, and the retainer would not speak for her.
The priests turned to each other, conversing in liturgical tongues. Then they turned back.
“Leave this place,” the foremost hood-priest said. “Walk alone in the world for two days before coming back to our city, and we will have decided what your punishment is to be.”
The mother’s hands tightened on her daughter’s shoulders, but the girl stepped forward, eyes still on the ground. On her way out of the door and onto the red dirt path she reached for her father’s walking-stick, her hand aching for an imagined familiarity, but the retainer slapped her hand away.
It was late already when her stomach pained, and she crouched and lifted her dress to relieve it. She dug her toes against the dirt, she gritted her teeth, and then she broke open: the stream broke out of her, too yolk-yellow and burning like a brand between her legs. She shoved both hands against her mouth to hold in her screams.
When the last drops had passed, she put her hands to herself and they came back glistening with blood. All she felt was skin. Only skin, and the raw heat of her body.
The crack of an iron drum split the air. She leapt away from the hole in the earth, for a moment possessed by the thought that the crack had come from between her two legs, but it was the priests’ drum, the god-drum. She ran three paces toward the town before she caught herself.
Crack–the iron drum called again. This time another one from far off answered it: a deeper drum carrying from overland; one which leapt, too ponderous, into a dance. After some time the iron drum answered it, two cities conversing in a language only the gods and priesthood understood.
She looked into the bled-out blue of the sky. What have you done with your father’s soul? was its question.
I have it, was the answer.
I have it, because the stuff which had come out of her was yolk-yellow and more vivid than the sky, but not the blue of the waters of soul.
I have it, somewhere nestled in the pit of her stomach, and as the drums sped into an argument, she rested her palm beneath her navel. She felt that the argument concerned her, and this reticence to tell them was foolish. In fact the foreign anger burned her stomach again, yearning for the sharp tones of argument the men of her household had used.
Her legs were hard to goad, but when the drumming of the far village turned abruptly to iron, her feet found the path and she ran toward her home.
She would ask her mother first, she thought; her mother, who could argue her widow’s right to speak if the retainer would release, for a moment, his status as a man of their house. Her mother could go to the priests and not be surrounded by them, not be stoned for audacity. She resolved to do this, but when she reached the door to her house and looked in, she saw her mother on her knees.
Her mother knelt and called the retainer My Lord, and her voice was smooth and low. His was rough. The girl watched from the doorway for only a moment, her heart beating out an argument and her jaw trying to split her teeth. This was her mother, hers, kneeling to a man who was not her father Ouris, and she ran in and seized the retainer by his shoulder.
He knocked her to the ground. Her mouth split on the dirt and she spat, she howled “How dare you!” But when he reached for his belt in lieu of a whip, the anger was swept away and she protected her head in her hands and told him “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” instead. The world danced around her; fears and impulses and the anticipation of the lash crowded her nostrils, clogged her ears.
The retainer wrapped the belt around his hand, fingers on the leather. “What makes you think a girl like you,” he said, “who left her father damned on the mountainside, has anything to say to me?”
The girl rolled over and got her knees underneath her, spitting out dirt.
Her father had chewed bitter herbs. For health, he’d always said. Nothing good in life comes without a bitter edge. The dirt was dry and choking, but nothing about it was good.
“What makes you think,” she said quietly and, like a tide advancing and ebbing, the fear receded again from the shore of anger. “What makes you think a man like you, who was charged to look after Ouris’ family, should take off your belt and lash them?”
“What’s this?” The retainer’s hands became tight on his belt. “What’s gotten into you, girl?”
“My father,” she said without meaning to. “He should have told you this.”
The retainer raised his hand to whip her.
“Go on, then!” she yelled. The yelling was harsh in her throat; her voice was the rough path down the mountain. “Go get the priests. Aren’t they your refuge? Go pay them to stone me!”
“Jamind,” her mother said, calling the retainer by name. Her voice was bruised, though also sweet, like a fruit with a hard pit. “Can’t you see the girl is driven mad by this? I beg you: go, and let me handle her.”
Jamind, Jamind, jangled the name between her ears, and she raised her chin. He pulled on the belt, tighter and tighter around his hand.
“This girl is exiled,” he said. “Woman, what will you do about her blasphemy?”
“What have I been begging you for, Jamind?” Her eyes were still lowered. “If you have compassion, leave me what I’ve not yet lost. Leave me my daughter.”
Jamind glowered, but he turned away. The girl’s lip curled. Who was he to walk away at her mother’s urging and not at hers? Even that question made no sense to her.
“Daughter,” her mother called.
Her fingers itched. She could already feel the linen of her mother’s apron at her fingertips, how her hands should already have clutched to her, her voice should have said Mama, what’s wrong with me? Should have said Ouris is here, here. They paid taxes so the priests would watch over their souls. So a girl’s steps would be light across the floor until she came of age, and then graceful, not the deliberate tread in which she walked to her mother and helped her to rise.
She called her mother by her name.
“Mousa,” she said, “are you all right?”
Mousa looked down at her, scrutinizing the angles of her face.
“Listen to me,” her mother said. “There are things in a household that the father never knows. And just like that, there are things about him that the children never know, that only the mother knows. Leave your father’s retainer to me.”
The daughter shook her head slowly.
“Go out of the house now,” her mother touched her forehead and said. “And don’t come back until you’ve prayed. Pray to every god you remember the name of.”
“I have something to say,” she said, attempting that peach-pit hardness to her voice.
“Tell the gods,” her mother answered. “They can help you better than I.”
She watched her mother with a strangeness about her eyes, one which manifested in her mouth as a noise unlike a laugh. She turned and walked out of their house, measuring the deliberation in her tread until it felt foreign again.
Outside the door the hood-priests watched her. She turned her back on them. They followed her when she walked toward the spot in the foothills which had taken her yolk and blood, and she ran when they didn’t fall away at the edge of the city. She looked up at Mount Ossus, stalwart against the sky. When it faded to a silhouette, she curled by a bush and slept.
She dreamed that night of ancestors who had died when her father was a boy, whose faces she had never seen. She saw their faces as she dreamed of them dying. She dreamed of carrying their souls down from the mountain, their eyes watching from the water. She brought them down toward the hills where huts were just joining goat-herders. Every time her dream-step faltered she woke with a start, listening for the retainer coming to berate her.
She woke in the morning without being rested. Now her chest ached, too, and her hands and feet felt out of proportion; her bones were heavy, her muscles tight.
It was still early; off in the town she could see the smoke from the bakers’ ovens, and her mother would be off with the oxen. A fog hung on the mountain, making the air and horizon chalky. She went to the crack in the earth to relieve her swollen bladder, and when she unwrapped her skirt she saw something hanging down between her legs.
A roll of flesh. She touched it and her hand leapt back–the skin was soft as a newborn, and the roughness of her fingers and nails shot to the pit of her stomach.
Her head swam. The sky dipped on all sides to press against the horizon, press all around the bulk of the mountain, to hem her in. She tried to leap back from her own body, but it followed with her and allowed no escape.
She tried to run to the village–to the comfort of home, her mother’s arms–but the priests found her first.
Her steps were uneven, her mouth and throat dry, and the eye of the sun burnt the air. The hood-priests surrounded her; her ribs surrounded her heart. Uncaring of how it might pound, they provided no escape.
They said, “You are a girl who has transgressed too far to be forgiven by the artifice of man or the grace of the gods.”
Their voices rose to drown her.
They said, “The stones of Ossus will take your body.”
She searched their hooded faces, looking for a lenient one, a compassionate one, but all she saw were shadows.
They said, “Let it be done with,” and closed around her. While she screamed they tore off her clothes but then they paused; they looked at her body, at the flatness of her chest and belly, at the set of her shoulders, at what descended from her gut. While she kicked they took her wrists and turned her palms toward the sun.
“These are the bowl,” one murmured. “Look at how these lines reflect the sky. Look at how these fingers curl together. Do you see the scoop of her palms? These hands here were the bowl.”
When she closed her eyes they took hold of her jaw and opened her mouth, smelling her breath, staring into her throat, listening to the breath which had abruptly stilled from screaming. As their hands loosened she felt a great solidity, and an eagerness which anticipated the name.
One by one they released her, the name moving from mouth to mouth like a snake.
Ouris is here. His soul stands just before us.
The girl backed away, one step, three, until her feet were stilled by that same anticipation. Her heart still thundered, fear and uncertainty and an anger which was still not wholly hers. The foremost hood-priest followed and stretched out his hand as though to a supplicant, and though she willed her hands to stay her own, she reached out and took it.
The priests led her to the sea.
They walked into the lapping waves, sun-warmed and forming a mirror to the sky. It was their hands that buoyed her, that washed her, that brought mens’ clothing to the edge of the shore. It was their hands that dressed her as they would have dressed her father at birth: a child, a boy, precious in the light of the sun.
The sun watched by the side of Mount Ossus.
She was dressed in her father’s clothing and standing on her own two feet. Her feet at least remembered the passage down from the mountain, the blisters of long walking. Her shoulders had forgotten the cramps of sleeping on the slope.
Only one priest stayed behind, and as night drew its hood across the world, he put his own hood down and spread his hands over and before her. He spoke: liturgical words, words said to the dying, and let his hands fall.
His face was strangely human, she thought. Darker than Jamind’s. Like her mother’s.
“Daughter of Ouris,” he said, “your sins are forgiven. Depart this world gladly in your father’s name.”
As he left, she put a hand to her heart. Its beating had slowed, but pressed steadily onward.
The name Jamind rang in her ears–the breaker of the bowl, the father’s retainer. She had never called him that, but her lips wanted to form the name, and her gut wanted him to turn to see her, for his face to smile, for him to go on one knee. Her heart thought he might, and was sickened. If her body had been her own, she might have dashed it against Mount Ossus herself.
She went home.
The retainer slept on his cot in the main room. She walked to him, listening to her drum-like steps, muffled as though they came from a great distance away. She put her hand across his mouth.
On her palm she could feel the warmth of his lips, and she felt his body jerk as he was startled from sleep.
She looked into his eyes. Her own burned in the dark; the pressures of accusations and unrealized tears tore the corners, and she held onto the strength of anger and the sense of her own heart.
“Listen,” she said, catching his hand as he tried to push her off, forcing his wrist down against the bedroll. “You listen to me.” Her voice was not her own. “There’s nothing in this family for you. Ouris’ wife tolerates you. His daughter hates you. And Ouris, your master, the father, has died.”
The retainer raised his other hand to push her off, but she lifted her hand and caught it. For a moment his lips parted to shout but she shifted into the window light, and when it caught her eyes, he stopped.
They were green eyes. Not cat-green but not Mousa’s or the daughter’s brown, and they watched him. And when the sliver of light cut her mouth, that mouth was hard and taut. The illuminated cheekbone was high and sharp, where hers had been generous like the curve of a bowl. Now the retainer’s lips parted in wonder.
“Leave me what is mine,” she begged him, and the part of her which begged disappeared. “Jamind,” she whispered, “leave.”
He rose from his bed, studying the face before him. “How is this possible?” he asked, breathless; he added, “I swore to serve your family.”
“You can no longer serve it,” she said.
“I would serve you,” Jamind whispered.
Not me, rang inside her head. Never me. “Go.”
In the darkest part of the night, her eyes watched the retainer pick up his things and go.
Outside, she could hear the pounding of an iron drum. Far-off, from another city, a drum was beginning to answer.
In the darkest part of the night, the daughter disappeared as well.
Mousa woke and went to tend her oxen, as Ouris and Jamind had. She found them already tended. Her hands went to her mouth and she saw him.
His face was young. His clothing was large on his narrow frame; the wrists had yet to grow heavy, the jaw had yet to beard. Yet he was unmistakably a man she recognized; he sat on the back of an ox while it grazed, just as he had when her parents had brought her to him. After a while, he turned and saw her.
“You were always beautiful,” he said.
She let her hands drop, her voice quaver. “I’ve grown old. I’ve lost a husband and a daughter I loved dearly.”
“Your husband has come home to you,” Ouris said. He spread his hands; she shook her head.
“And for what?”
He watched her, waiting for the first tears to fall. “Am I such poor consolation?” he asked, and Mousa fought the give of her knees.
“Ouris,” she whispered, “where is my daughter?”
“Our daughter,” he said. “She saved me. I never asked her to.”
“As any of us ask to be born?” Mousa yelled back. “As she asked to be a girl for me? As you asked that I should love you, despite my loneliness, despite Jamind?”
“And you were one to talk of things only a mother knows?” Ouris asked. He stepped down from the ox and took her by the shoulder. “I gave you a child. And I loved you beside that, even if only as brothers love their sisters. I didn’t choose to die, or to be brought back into this world. What would you have me do?”
Mousa watched him with wet and asking eyes. “I would have you be buried in the sea,” she said. “And give me back my daughter.”
“I can never,” Ouris said.
Mousa pressed her lips together. Still, they shook.
“Then I would have you leave.”
The sun of the dead season bled out along the slopes and the foothills, and in the town beneath, a man stepped out of a household with his walking stick in hand. In that city where a girl had disappeared, where her name would be soon-after forgotten, Ouris shielded his eyes from the sun and looked overland.
Jamind had walked to a different town, he knew; perhaps to a caravan town where many lives converged and then went their separate ways; perhaps to the town whose drums spoke to this one on nights when men died or were born. Ouris, in the body of his daughter, walked after him.
Behind him day came over the city, over Mount Ossus and the lapping sea.