Fire and Particles
Fire DoorMondo Mecho
Fire and Particles
Fire and Particles
Fire Door Mondo Mecho
Fire and Particles
by N.K. Leullier
Fire and Particles
by N.K. Leullier
Bodies in ecstatic prayer came together, sending ripples of energy across the island and awakening a great slumbering presence. Neither male nor female, the being occasionally paraded as one or the other. As it sought out the source of energy, it fancied itself male, erect and ravenous, and found a way to become so. It became he. Binary thinking was an unnecessary human invention, but he did enjoy slipping into a warm, pliant host to experience a moment of containment. There was very little he could not see or do; he was once hailed a god, but his glorious temple was now a cloister and his powers had much diminished.
The entity now gazed through globes of water and cells, eyes they called these pinpoints of limited sight, and in a small bedroom watched writhing covers hewn of rough and scratchy wool. Beneath he perceived the softness of two women’s skin. One thin and pale, elbows and collarbones. The other was the opposite: brown, plush, and round. Limbs intertwined, there was just enough room in the bed. The current worship was not meant for him. The women worshipped each other. No matter. He could feed off the sheer physicality of any human experience, like a trapped mouse cannibalizing a dead companion. But he preferred willing sacrifice.
As he observed the females, the entity directed his hand to his borrowed body and felt the wetness of sweat on hard muscles. The hands, they stung. He lifted them in the darkness and saw cracks and burns, like desiccated land.
The lone candle illuminating the room was long extinguished; the entity took it before leaving. The women gazed at each other in the moonlight and shivered. A cool breeze had snuck through the open door.
* * *
With mechanical efficiency, Ursula slipped into her dress and straightened the folds of her seventh skirt. She was eligible for new fabric in six more months, but for now the garment would last, wrinkles and all. It was a testament to her skill with needle and thread that she could recycle the remnants of one swath of black cloth so many times. After all, Ursula had been a seamstress in her previous life, but as she assessed the breathing heap in her bed, she could see little that reminded her of her old self. Except perhaps for Sister Etty’s snoring, which sounded not unlike the husband Ursula had abandoned in the city of Gerauvan.
Ursula draped her great-grandmother’s shawl across her bony shoulders, her only possession from the life she had fled, many years ago. It too would be left behind, someday. In the winter light streaming through the glassless window, Ursula’s bare arms appeared translucent, her veins gray as if her blood had run dry.
Each dawn she was drawn to the window, which offered a view of the courtyard where all wings of the cloister met. The cloister was shaped like the spokes of a wheel, a place where single, meaningless parts connected and formed a greater whole. The cloister came alive in its usual fashion: the sisters walking to the refectory, the shepherdess herding her flock to pasture, and the clumsy gardener, Tot, carrying his tools, dropping one every few steps. All lost themselves in daily routines as steady as the stars moving across the firmament, but did these people keep a piece of their hidden self for later, to share as she did? Goosebumps freckled her skin at memories of Etty’s touch. Ursula shrugged away her thoughts of the previous night. The self was an indulgent concept best left to common folk. Part official dogma, part admonishment from Matriarch Arbella, that phrase came often to Ursula’s mind. Sameness was not required to be a Sister of Veritas; individual characteristics were the simple result of the rambling madness of the world. The challenge was to set that individuality aside within the mind, to access Truth and find one’s spiritual home. But in harsh daylight Ursula often struggled to reconcile her behavior with her beliefs.
Ursula returned to Etty and brushed dark locks away from her face to reveal thick eyebrows and full cheeks. The picture of health and vitality, even when unconscious. There must be some Truth to be found in sleep; if not, it was at least a consolation prize. Etty loved her sleep. Ursula quietly left the room and walked the musty stone halls toward the refectory even though she had decided to fast that morning, again. Hot porridge lulled her with comfort, apples from the cold cellar lifted her spirits with energizing sugars. Body emotions were affecting her meditations, and if she needed to choose between food and Etty ... Ursula’s choice had been made. She had felt so close to Truth lately. Many of her fears and emotional excess had been shed along her journey.
Though the nature of Truth was hotly debated among the elders, Ursula was certain it would feel like pure, untethered freedom. A leaf in the wind, no longer earthbound. With every step along the serpentine halls of the cloister she longed to cast away her limited body. She had never felt at home in her ill-fitted sack of skin and bones. Creation was a deplorable seamstress.
Other sisters left their cells. Some like Ursula walked with eyes downcast, while others smiled in greeting. Ursula counted 480 steps from her room to the refectory; counting was a habit engrained from years of knitting. Numbers held a certain purity, perhaps even a hint of Truth. The refectory was a dim, cavernous hall smelling of beeswax and centuries of smoked meats, though meat was seldom served anymore. Most sisters sat at their respective place along dozens of long, rectangular tables. That morning Ursula was struck by the number of empty seats. She knew the sisters’ ranks had waned in recent times, but that reality was only now becoming apparent. Many sisters had been blessed with Truth, leaving behind nothing but footprints in the dust. Even dear Eunice, who became novice the same day as Ursula, had moved on. Ursula felt a pang of loss ... or was that envy?
Despite strict family traditions, females were in insufficient supply. Just a few days ago, Ursula had overheard Matriarch Arbella discussing the issue of low birthrates on the mainland. Just as well for Ursula. The cloister would be that much more peaceful with fewer novices running about.
Ursula retreated to the far end of the hall and stood against the cold stone wall. She stood with two dour-faced women, both older than her. They waited together in silence for first bread to end. Silence was good, a pathway to Truth, and a practically insurmountable challenge for the younger sisters.
As Ursula finally made for the garden door, her stomach roaring, Sister Patricia accosted her in a flurry of blond curls.
“Seen Etty around?” she asked, a grin spreading across her pink cheeks.
Ursula shook her head.
“Sure,” said Patricia. She winked and handed Ursula a napkin filled with still-warm rolls before running off.
Ursula sighed. Her relationship with Etty wasn’t exactly forbidden, but it was frowned upon. Some sisters would be thrilled to see men accepted as adepts, but then the cloister may as well become a matchmaking facility. Her feelings for Etty seemed special somehow. Etty had come to the cloister as the fifth daughter of a wheat farmer whose fields had turned barren, a common occurrence in recent years. After tearful embraces, Etty had boarded the ferry and arrived at the cloister not to seek Truth, but to ease her family’s burden. This Etty told Ursula over a hot cup of cocoa and salty tears, the very first day they met, two years ago.
Ursula had not known that such a bond with another female was possible. It was cause for great amusement among the younger sisters, while resulting in glares and sniffs of disgust from the older ladies. Matriarch Arbella had gone so far as to take Ursula aside.
“If you are so concerned with what lays between your legs, then perhaps you should have remained in your husband’s bed,” she had said, her words betraying her kindly smile.
Ursula’s belly turned to lead at the thought of that alternative life.
* * *
The garden was yellow. Not a cheerful hue, but the dreary yellow of parched grass, desiccated flowers, and sawdust. Rain had not fallen for almost two full months. The droughts had been altering each season, turning even the wet winters into something of a new season altogether. Ursula recalled Etty calling it the “little death” because it felt like the end, just until spring proved you wrong with its peacock display. Etty also thought the clouds had become capricious –Etty thought many things– but Ursula found the clouds as patient and yielding as ever. They obeyed the rotations of the planet and the whims of the wind, yet seemed at peace with this arrangement. They owed nothing to the people below. But the dry birdbath at the center of the courtyard served as a daily reminder of the changes creeping upon the cloister.
Ursula watched as a wispy novice no older than twelve holding a large earthenware jug approached the birdbath. Her arms shook as she struggled to pour without splashing the precious content. Renewed, the bath and its water glistened black. When the novice raised her head, Ursula noticed the many scars on her childish features. Ursula wondered if they were self-inflicted –some sisters favored the cat-o-nine in their quest– or if they were a parting gift from her previous life. Ursula felt her own scars tingle. If only they were seams. She would tear them open and step out of her costume.
“The fountain is made with obsidian. I mine it myself, from the side of the mountain. In the crevasse. Did you know that?”
Ursula turned to find the young blacksmith who served the cloister standing near her, smiling. He offered an odd combination of handsome, chiseled features and poor teeth. He smelled of burnt skin.
“Not much surprises me. I have been here some time,” Ursula replied as she readjusted her shawl.
His eyes twinkled black like the obsidian fountain.
“I recognize the experience in your face,” he said, brushing Ursula’s scarred lower lip with the tip of his finger. “But did your Matriarch tell you the crevasse is really a fire pit? Long ago it spat out the guts of the One God, Kolvar. They hardened into mountains and valleys, into this island you walk on and into the ore I collect.”
Ursula took a step back and snorted at the blasphemy of Kolvar as a living planet, but it was a good tale, a very ancient one, and she could easily picture the titanic god bleeding the world into existence. The lore was still spoken of in Gerauvan, but it had long entered the realm of pure myth. Fodder for children.
“Then surely the oceans are pools of his tears,” said Ursula.
The blacksmith frowned and edged closer. His smell overtook her like a wildfire.
“And we are all children of Kolvar, born from Its great body,” he said.
As the blacksmith’s eyes lingered, Ursula wondered if the man had inhaled too many fumes from the smithy.
“Still the Matriarch thinks birds are thirstier than the townspeople,” he continued. “What would Kolvar think of that?”
The fine hairs on Ursula’s arms stood on end. Perhaps the strange blacksmith was sharper minded than she had realized. Ursula offered him a lopsided smile that she hoped looked sympathetic and ran from the flower garden into the shade of the arboretum. Nobody remembered how the people came to be. The age of science had come and gone, in flames. The few remaining thinkers now claimed that one day, in the world’s infancy, humans appeared as if by magic and then reproduced amongst themselves, like rutting animals. Unbelievable, thought Ursula. Yet Ursula existed, and so did the chill in her chest; wasn’t that knowledge sufficient? Besides, such subjects had not been welcome in school and were usually answered with a lashing. Only a simple life and the search for Truth mattered, but Ursula, like the blacksmith, also knew prayer and meditation were unlikely to make the rain fall.
A few days ago the pump had coughed up silt and sand. The barrels storing water were still mostly full, but already their fundamental contents were rationed. The settlements on the mainland, with Gerauvan at the center, served the cloister and did not have the means to store sufficient water for drier times. Any surplus was directed to the cloister. The sisters relied on the peasants for their survival, and the peasants lived to serve, as Ursula once had.
Ursula glanced back at the newly filled birdbath. The garden was teeming with flittering sparrows attracted by water and the bread rolls she had dropped. The Matriarch might agree to let the gardens wither so each worker could take home an extra water ration to sustain their family, but Ursula knew the situation would need to escalate before that decision was made. The gardens were the pride of the cloister, and many of the plantings were centuries old. The blacksmith was gone, but his question followed Ursula like a rain-heavy cloud as she made her way to the three widows on the edge of the sea.
* * *
Ursula chose the middle tower, the highest, called the Weeping Widow. The old tower leaned dangerously toward the cliffs below, bent as if crying and reaching for her husband’s corpse down in the seabed. Men no longer sailed very far, their boats small and only fit for fishing along the shoals near the barrier reef protecting them from the open sea. Seafaring lore was one more casualty of the previous era, but the cloister still attracted widows.
The tower’s entrance, a gaping archway with a crumbling keystone, was foreboding but for the playful carvings visible in the damaged stone. Ursula enjoyed the tactile sensuality they offered. She closed her eyes and felt the outlines of men and women dancing at the bottom of a valley, of abstract lines radiating from below their feet and above their head, and strange animals she did not recognize. To ascend the stairs, she closed her eyes and counted each step. Like breadcrumbs on a forest path, pieces of granite from the ailing structure were strewn about the winding staircase. Ursula recognized the feel of each one as they scraped against her ankles.
Every structure on the island was in a state of decay, but this tower was furthest down that road. For centuries it had been exposed to the harshest winds and salts of the sea. Other structures were vital to the functioning of the cloister, and workers could never be spared for the towers. Mortal and neglected, they aged, letting pieces of themselves fall away. Ursula felt a certain kinship with the towers.
A gust of wind came through a wide crack in the wall and took hold of Ursula’s skirt, threatening her delicate balance. She stood still, took a deep breath, and moved along. The cold stung her face and numbed her fingers, but she barely noticed. In ascension she began the early stages of her meditation: the counting, the rhythmic breathing. Finally, she reached the tower room with its expansive, gaping windows and peered at the raging body of water surrounding the island. So many tears must have Kolvar cried.
Ursula sat cross-legged on the bare, dusty floor and let her mind fly.
* * *
Ursula floated above endless fields of blue-green grass. A warm summer breeze caressed her hair, and she welcomed it. She imagined her body dissolving into particles as small as the dust visible in a slant of light. In this form she could travel. Ursula of wind and light observed Hurvid, her once husband, burying the pale blue box in their garden, sweat glistening off his meaty back, while past Ursula lay in bed in their one-room cottage. She harbored a secret smile, which she pressed deeply into her tear-stained pillow. That was the day she chose to join the Sisters of Veritas and abandon a life of production and reproduction, a cycle that gave her no joy.
This meditation once took Ursula to many places, from a childhood she could fit into the eye of a needle, to the day her body became her jailor. But she had shed those memories, traveled through them until they dissolved into her own inner light. Only Hurvid and that wretched box remained. The usual banishing techniques never seemed to help her resolve the emotional contradictions present in that particular memory. Beyond, she was certain Truth awaited.
This time, she buried herself in the meditation. Hour after hour passed. Hunger and thirst had been left at the foot of the tower. She could wait forever. Finally, through closed lids, Ursula made out the soft brilliance of a distant sunset and the first blinks of the Horizon Star, a star so low in the sky it appeared to skim the ocean surface. The present seeped into Ursula’s meditation. An image of Etty came to her. She would be waiting for Ursula. Etty, so simple and cheerful in the best of ways, who had never been forced to marry and bear children. Etty’s soft body made Ursula forget about her own. As Ursula became distracted by thoughts of Etty, she could still see the image of Hurvid hunched over a hole that would never be deep enough, the painted box cupped within four dirt walls. The garden was a patchwork of filled-in holes. Hurvid moved his lips, perhaps saying a short prayer, as his calloused hands wielded a shovel. For the first time in Ursula’s visions, Hurvid turned and looked straight at her, the real Ursula, sitting on the floor in the empty tower room. His eyes were black when they should have been brown, and his mouth flipped into a smile with as many secrets as her own.
“What do you want, my wife?”
“Just let me be,” Ursula replied.
“There is something more you desire. It radiates from within you. You are as hungry as I.”
He spoke in no way like the Hurvid she had known. Ursula rubbed her eyes, but Hurvid with his lumpy, plain features was still there, superimposed onto the real world. Ursula stood, sensing her moment had finally come. Fear was no more than a fly to swat, but anger was a beast to harness.
“I want you to lay in that hole, too, and be gone forever,” she said.
“Then do something about it,” he said, dropping his shovel and taking a step toward Ursula.
Ursula placed her hands on Hurvid’s slick chest; he felt as real as any man. She pushed hard. Hurvid grinned with all teeth and gave no resistance. He flew out from the tower window, laughter trailing behind as the earth at the foot of the tower opened into a red, fiery maw. Ursula stumbled backwards and came down hard on the stone floor. She covered her face with trembling hands and waited for Truth, for some glorious moment of release, but it never came. Instead, a wisp of smoke found its way through the crack between her fingers. Her throat convulsed, and she rushed to the window for air only to find the tower engulfed in flames, and the fissure from her meditation still open like a wound in the earth. The cliff top was ablaze, and she could still hear Hurvid’s laughter along with shouts in the distance. Ursula stood frozen at the window, swallowing smoke. Her eyes filled with tears.
“Sister Ursula! Come!”
Ursula turned to find the young blacksmith in the tower room, waiting near the stairs. She wondered at his sudden appearance and knowledge of her name, but that seemed a trifle compared to what had just taken place. She lifted her skirt with one hand and took the blacksmith’s crusty hand with the other. Heat radiated from the walls as the two practically tumbled down the tower. They exited the stairs into a cloud of opaque smoke. The blacksmith pulled and guided her, not once stopping. Ursula closed her stinging eyes and followed him blindly for what seemed like eternity. She heard shouts of terror and of purpose. She heard the rumble of carriages and the clash of equipment. The peasants fought the fire, but in the pitch black of Ursula’s mind, it was all, far, far away. Just another meditative nightmare. She finally smelled fresh air, felt grass under her feet, followed by the ringing of ceramic tiles.
Ursula opened her eyes, and before she could regain her bearing, the blacksmith had pulled her down an unfamiliar flight of stairs. At the bottom was a massive bronze door, and next to it, a dangling rope. The blacksmith pulled the rope, and a bell resounded through the thick walls. The door swung open to a dark, low-ceilinged room filled with furniture and strange shapes covered by white sheets. Matriarch Arbella, stiff as a statue, sat at a desk covered in parchments, a roaring fire at her back. She removed her reading glasses and studied her guests.
“Sister Ursula, I hadn’t expected you. Come closer.”
* * *
Arbella pointed to a chair. The blacksmith pulled Ursula’s arm and pushed her into the seat. Ursula tried to speak but fell into a coughing fit. The Matriarch bent behind her desk and disappeared from view; Ursula heard a drawer open, glasses clink. Arbella resurfaced with two oblong crystal glasses and an obsidian decanter. She poured an inch of rosy liquid into each glass.
“Have some fire wine, won’t you dear. It will help clear the smoke from your lungs.”
Ursula accepted the glass and poured the wine down her throat. It tasted of honey and charcoal, and something else entirely unfamiliar. She had never tasted alcohol before. It was said to be a lost art, the making of fermented beverages.
“Good, isn’t it?” asked the Matriarch. “The recipe has been perfected over the years. My best batch yet.”
When she smiled, her jowls quivered as if some intense energy was contained within that expression.
“Where are we?” asked Ursula. “Is the cloister burning?”
“You’re in the cloister, child. In the lowest level, where I keep my office and records. The only fire here is the one heating my old bones.”
The administrative spaces were in the same building as the refectory, not in the lower level. At least, that is what Ursula had believed. She had been there on many occasions, notably on her first day as a novice, as a frightened woman-child. She had never set foot in such a grand building. But the office Ursula knew had been filled with cheerful flower arrangements, and the midday sun shone through the curtains. She had eaten toast and jam with the Matriarch and cried tears of relief. That moment now felt as distant as her life in Gerauvan.
“From the tower I saw the land burning. We ran through the smoke.”
“Hmm, yes, the towers and their surroundings are burning to the ground as we speak. But I’ve already taken the necessary actions to ensure the destruction won’t spread, haven’t I, blacksmith?” Arbella said, turning her smile to the blacksmith. He gave a curt nod.
The Matriarch nodded in return, her chin a spike that stabbed the room, and flipped a lever near her hand on the desk. The bronze door opened as if by magic, and the blacksmith bowed his head. As he walked away, he held Ursula’s gaze, and the flames from the fireplace reflected in his eyes. Ursula remembered her husband who was not her husband.
“Tell me Ursula, what makes you special?” asked the Matriarch.
“Excuse me, Matriarch, I don’t understand. Should we not be helping with the fire?”
The Matriarch’s smile was gone, but the jowls still quivered, and her eyes, which had been wide and languid, had become small and alert.
“Do you think it’s because you have taken a lover? Do you think that is new and unexpected? Many sisters enjoy the moistness of another woman or lift their skirts for the gardener to plow. If I had a piece of gold for every such occasion, why, I could hire enough mercenaries to build my own army. I could make real changes with an army at my command.”
Matriarch Arbella gulped the rest of her wine and poured herself another measure. Ursula was more disoriented than when she had walked blindly through smoke.
“Tell me, what did you see up there, in the tower?” asked the Matriarch.
“I was working through my meditation, the last memory that has plagued me. ...”
The Matriarch lifted her hand.
“I did not ask what you were doing. What did you see?”
“I saw my husband, and he spoke to me.”
“Interesting. Did he say what he wanted?”
“He ... he wanted to know what I wanted.”
The Matriarch laughed and spittle ran down the side of her mouth.
“Really? You must have misunderstood. Everyone knows what you want, Ursula. You want the same thing all these stupid women want. Peace, freedom from pain, Truth with a capital ‘T.’ Your lives are made so miserable that you have but two choices, become a mother or a Sister of Veritas.”
Ursula clenched the armrests with hands as tense as eagle talons. She may not have understood much, but she knew when she had been duped. Matriarch Arbella spoke like the administrators from Gerauvan, with contempt for the people. The same administrators who arranged marriages, executions, and beatings. The same administrators with their long-fingered healer who prodded her before her wedding night. He spread her legs and tapped her buttocks the way you would pat cattle that needed moving along. Good girl. But she was never a good girl, and the mainland shot her out with more violence than when she had left her own mother’s womb.
“I’m sorry you’ve lost your faith, Matriarch,” said Ursula.
“When God spits on your face, losing your faith is the least of your worries, child.”
“There is no God, only Truth.”
The Matriarch’s face relaxed and settled into a weary expression. For a moment she looked like the kindly old lady who had handed Ursula a napkin when she had smeared jam all over her blouse, that morning long ago, in the other office.
“The truth is, I have failed, and God is waking up. Can’t you feel that faint tremble below your feet? Kolvar is awake even as we speak. It’s hungry. I can keep it satisfied for now, but not much longer. Then ...”
Tears had crept into the Matriarch’s voice, and Ursula found herself pitying the older woman, that staunch example of what a strong female could be. She could barely fathom the secrets and deception surrounding Arbella, but she could see them outlined in the loose shape of her once full lips. Words half-formed, screams held back. It was a look Ursula recognized.
“How can I help, Matriarch? I’ll do anything to save the cloister.”
Arbella straightened her shoulders and passed a withered hand over her features. She smiled.
“I know you will, Ursula, I know.”
* * *
The blacksmith lay prostrate in filth, his face mere inches from his fire pit. All the smithy’s doors, vents, and windows were closed. The air was thick with smoke and the tang of unprocessed ore, but the blacksmith was used to rank air. Of late, he often found himself nauseous when out in the open. Like a fisherman feeling unease upon the immobile earth, the blacksmith coughed in the face of a fresh breeze. Earlier that day, the burning towers had invigorated him. He could not recall what he had been doing before finding himself at the top of the Weeping Widow, beckoning to the sister, Ursula.
He lifted his head and gazed at the dancing flame. His handsome features spread into a smile as the heat pierced him. Sitting up he wiggled his fingers, then shook his arms and shoulders. Soot fell from his garments. He reached for the ground and sifted through piles of ash and sharp bits of clinker. Something about his movements, his very own body was unfamiliar, delightfully so.
“These bodies we take for granted,” he whispered in the dark.
“Bodies that beat and breathe and twitch. Yet you notice none of it.”
“Now, you notice.”
Two different voices had spilled from his mouth, but the blacksmith did not feel divided. He felt more complete than ever. He stood and walked over to one of many workstations. Each worktop was heavy with tools and ore samples. The blacksmith was more than a craftsman; he was an artist. His favorite creation had been the obsidian bird bath. The Matriarch had acquired the bird bath, created in Kolvar’s honor, and placed it at the center of the cloister.
For months the blacksmith had searched the mountain for another such obsidian fragment. Every evening after work, he took his supper of bread and cheese and made the ascent to the top of the mountain, followed by the long descent into the mountain’s crevasse. All for slivers, skinny glass needles unfit for a masterpiece. He had never been much of a thinker, but then ideas had suddenly found him, appearing in his mind like holy gifts. Just the previous night he had collected a dozen larger fragments, guided by these new thoughts and a candle stolen from the cloister. He awoke the next morning scraped and battered, but with a sense of purpose.
The blacksmith grabbed a pair of heavy iron tongs, opened them and reached toward the flames.
The blacksmith lowered the tongs and lifted a questioning eyebrow. A singed eyebrow.
“You have all that you need.”
The blacksmith raised his hands. Cracked and burned like desiccated land. He reached into the flames, searching. The fire could not match the power of a volcano, and yet the shards had merged and become one mass of malleable obsidian. The blacksmith cradled the mass in his hands; it was smoother than clay. He began shaping it in quick motions, creating curves and straight lines. Delicate angles formed the limbs and torso of a woman. An imperfect shape, perfect in its imperfection.
Heat beyond belief, flames licked at the blacksmith’s skin, and he marveled at the strength of his body and of Kolvar’s will. At the strength of the one that he held in his hands.
* * *
Ursula was pushed down a forgotten, never-ending stairwell; at least, that is how she felt when Arbella dismissed her with one disdainful flick of the finger. Dazed and dehydrated, Ursula followed the destructive momentum of the day and returned to the edge of the cliff, where the peasants battled the fire. Her watery eyes stared ahead; she barely noticed the complex system of pulleys used to carry buckets of seawater to the top of the cliff, much as the peasants appeared to ignore her presence. An errant sister was none of their concern. The peasants covered their mouths and dowsed their own clothing before emptying their buckets onto the burning earth. Ursula walked among them, her skirts billowing in a breeze that only fanned the flames.
The land around the towers was fallow and abandoned, filled with tall grasses that scratched at Ursula’s legs and burned with the intensity of fireworks when the smallest spark ignited, but that did not seem sufficient to explain the tall plumes of smoke that arose from the ground, tunneling the sky. Had she caused this destruction with her meditation?
Passing through a wall of smoke to approach the towers, Ursula thought she saw two sparkling lumps of coal, observing her. The blacksmith. She felt an urge to pluck his eyes, but then they were gone, surely imagined, and the towers were within reach. They were permitted to burn; the flames would starve once every bit of wood had been consumed. When the final retainer beams crumbled, so would the towers.
With eyesight that no longer seemed impeded by such things as smoke and ash, Ursula could see other sisters watching at a safe distance, near the steadfast stone walls of the cloister. Sad specks of black, gray, and white. They mourned the loss of the towers, as did she. But Ursula also mourned something of a different magnitude: her remaining shreds of innocence. How could she have been so naive?
Time passed, as diffuse and impenetrable as the blacksmith’s eyes, and Ursula finally stirred, thought of Etty. Decisions must be made; she could no longer let outside forces carry her along when she could not even identify friend from foe. She left the site of the fire, let the cries and the crackle diminish in the distance. The cloister sat gorging on silence as the sisters made themselves scarce. Ursula assumed they were either outside still watching the destruction or laying prostrate in one of the many prayer rooms, plush spaces filled with embroidered pillows and incense, though like everything else in the cloister, the pillows were old and faded.
When she reached the bedroom shared with Etty, Ursula was surprised to find her piled under the covers as if she had remained in the room all day. Ursula sat on the edge of the bed and shook her beloved.
“Wake up, Etty. We must talk. How can you be sleeping?”
“I’m not sleeping. I’m hiding,” Etty said, peering from behind the blankets. “You smell like smoke.”
Etty’s eyes were red-rimmed and her nose rubbed raw. Ursula grabbed her hand, but Etty pushed it away and leapt out of bed. She was fully dressed and her hair had been woven into a thick braid, from which dozens of strands had fallen out. She looked as disheveled as ever.
“I was so worried, what with that awful fire. I ran around the cloister calling your name, but I didn’t dare go to the towers. Now I’m crying for a whole other reason.”
“Please don’t be angry. I came to you as soon as I could. I just left Matriarch Arbella, and I have so much to tell you.”
“You can’t have just left off with the Matriarch, because I was just with her. She called me to her office. She told me you were safe.”
Etty tilted her head like a confused puppy, then a big, lone teardrop meandered down her cheek. Ursula reached up and cradled Etty’s face in her hands.
“So warm,” said Etty.
“I left Arbella, then watched the towers burn. I’ve never felt such heat.”
And now she listened to Etty recount her day. Out of bed, Etty flitted to and fro, between the window and the door, like a captive sparrow. She told of her late breakfast, her work at the stables—even the sisters helped with chores—and her terror upon realizing that Ursula was meditating in the towers when the fire had ignited. Ursula listened, seated on the bed, wanting Etty to find a modicum of calm before she shattered her reality once more.
“And now this,” Etty said, wringing her hands. “I’m not sure I’m ready.”
“Ready for what, dearest?” asked Ursula, reaching again for Etty’s hand. This time Etty let her take hold.
“The Matriarch told me I was ready. For Truth. I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy, then I was immediately sad. Because I thought we would find it together, you and me.”
Truth could be found in many ways. Alone in meditation, through a powerful dream whisking you away in the night, or communing with nature down a wooded trail. Particles, that is what they became. These solitary spiritual raptures bore no witnesses, and after her conversation with the Matriarch, Ursula now gleaned their meaning: women vanishing into thin air, taken, as other sisters foolishly rejoiced. Taken, yes, but the where, how, and why, Ursula could not fathom.
There was, however, one more path to Truth. A time-honored tradition.
“To walk down the crevasse and find Truth without you, Ursula. I don’t know that I can do it.”
Ursula felt her blood drain, her bones reach for her skin, turning her a whole new shade of pale. But bones were also strong, and Ursula needed a carapace of sorts to shield Etty from this doom that paraded as Truth. Etty’s greatest sorrow, the parting from her family, had seemed a great gift to Ursula, who had never known such joy. For Ursula, the word family invoked want, and hunger. Family was akin to a famine of the soul. But when the two women embraced, Ursula often found herself saying a silent prayer: that Etty may remain untouched by grief. The wish was not selfless; when Ursula tasted Etty’s lips, something of her innocence escaped, and alighted on Ursula, ever so briefly. A brightness, a kiss from a firefly.
“Anywhere we go will be together, trust me,” said Ursula.
* * *
That night in their room, they spoke little and nursed empty stomachs. Not a soul sought them out. This was a relief and yet an immense, unspoken anomaly. With barely a footstep to be heard in their corner of the cloister, no nosy tapping at the door, Etty and Ursula seemed mercifully forgotten.
Ursula said nothing of the Matriarch’s cruelty, of the possibility of the god Kolvar. Possibilities were malleable bits of reality, so of course Ursula had said nothing, not yet. Ursula had believed truth to be a simple thing, like good or evil, clear as day and night. But how to judge a night sky obscured by smoke? As she lay next to Etty, counting cracks in the plaster ceiling, she failed to grasp the scope of it all. Instead, she let part of her mind go blank, and on the outer edges of this mental eclipse, she accepted one simple truth: they must flee.
When the night had taken hold long enough that silver moonlight streamed through the curtain Ursula had fashioned from a torn sheet, she woke Etty. Her eyes opened at once. Ursula understood that Etty had also lain awake, sensing the coming of some action before daybreak. Ursula busied herself about the room, while Etty, unusually placid, patted her braid and waited.
Ursula retrieved her sewing box and balls of yarn from under the lumpy mattress. Etty owned a cracked leather satchel, some blue ribbon she never wore, and a pack of faded cards. Two long wooden matches and a pewter candlestick, but no candles. The clothing they wore. Not one coin, nothing fit for trade, and yet Ursula knew they had to run with whatever they owned. They owned nothing. And still she could not bring herself to tell Etty the reason why they must steal a boat and row to Gerauvan.
The two women crept through the crisscrossing halls, then at the second intersection stopped in front of a niche carved into the wall, where the stumpy remains of an ancient statue stood guard. Ursula reached behind a pair of legless marble feet and brought out a wax stub tipped with a sad wick.
“Never waste,” whispered Ursula.
She always kept the ends of candles, to illuminate her late-night meditations. Hid them here and there. Her devotion had led to resourcefulness, if nothing else. Ursula placed the stub into the candlestick and lit one of the matches. As Ursula pulled Etty down the bitter cold halls of the cloister, faster now that they moved by candlelight, she willed a smile onto her face. A pretension of excitement, of adventures awaiting.
“Won’t they be worried? Even angry?” asked a panting Etty.
Ursula veered to the left, down a narrow service hallway used by the cooks to move goods between the storeroom and the kitchens. The hall was encumbered with empty burlap sacks once filled with grain. Ursula gently pressed Etty against the wall, took her hands in hers.
“We will write the Matriarch a note.”
A lie can be sweet as honeysuckle when the lie is a kindness accepted by both parties. As they entered the kitchens, Ursula was struck by other sorts of lies. On the surface, the signs of a busy kitchen: copper pots and utensils hanging from hooks, a row of cast iron stovetops and ovens, and shelves stacked with enough dishes to serve hundreds of hungry sisters. But then, a meat cleaver jutted from a butcher’s block, rusted, forgotten. Upon closer inspection, most surfaces were caked in oily grime and dried bits of food. Little piles of brown dirt in the rooms’ corners turned out to be ants and cockroaches, belly up.
On the one clean countertop was a bushel of apples and a handful of jars filled with beans, rice, and wheat, along with a few leftover bread rolls from that morning. On one stovetop, a pot of congealed porridge with the consistency of cement sat as if waiting to be reheated. For how long had the sisters been reduced to this? Ursula did not partake in rich foods; that was her choice. During each pregnancy she had been force-fed every fatty, salty, and sweet item her husband could put his hands on. She was like a sow, round bellied with protruding nipples. But Ursula held no grudge against the sisters who indulged, or who, like Etty, needed the sustenance. She noticed Etty eyeing the apples.
“Take some, hurry.”
Etty opened her satchel and filled them with the fruit. In the colorless room, the apples were a shocking red. If they could speak, they would speak of life, of a simple existence without need for illusions. Ursula grabbed one out of Etty’s hand and took a bite, the crisp, juicy sound resounding in the desolate kitchen.
* * *
Ursula threw open the kitchen door, and the two women fell onto a mound of trash. Rotten cabbages like severed heads, potato skins like something from a shedding reptile, and underneath, a mossy stone path. The path was on the outer edge of the cloister, a liminal space meant for the peasant workers; Ursula was confident it would rejoin the dirt road leading to the docks. As they ran, the candle blew out. It seemed an ill omen, but the moonlight was sufficient and more discreet, so Ursula let the wax stub drop. The candlestick she could sell. They ran until distracted by an unnatural shift in the air and a sound neither women could ignore, but Etty was the one to let go of Ursula’s hand, drop her satchel, and dart through a stone doorway to the right.
Ursula pursued her and they quickly found themselves in the garden, back at the center of the cloister. They were surrounded. All the sisters were present in their drab outfits, their features equally drab, their figures obscured by the night. In unison, they hummed a single note that resonated from within their chests. All seekers of Truth were taught to recognize the simple song used to guide a sister to the crevasse. Ursula had never witnessed the rare ceremony used when the individual quest for Truth became a group endeavor. Her breath was taken away by the note, round and thick in her eardrums. Etty next to her shivered.
“They’re calling to me. I couldn’t help myself, Ursula,” said Etty, her eyes lowered.
But Ursula did not blame her. Etty could not know the danger, and even then, Ursula ached to be wrong. The tension in her belly was a mix of fear and hope.
Was that Sister Patricia, staring at them with void, unrecognizing eyes? And who was that squat sister next to her? Ursula realized that what she had mistook for sisters were often just shadows on the ground or shrubs swaying in the breeze. Ursula counted only twelve women of flesh and blood. But where were the other sisters? Only twelve left out of dozens.
The Sisters of Veritas had dwindled, Ursula knew this, but had not understood the extent of the loss. She had been busy with her inward journey of prayer and meditation, and had stopped noticing the details of things. As Ursula reached back through the cobwebs of her memories, they felt like thick pudding. She came up with moments of ecstatic prayer, the beauty of the towers, the splendor of shedding her pain and of sharing her pleasures. The closeness of her sisters, but no, she was never close to them, only to Etty. The others were tall spindles encased in yarn, unraveling, bringing along their past and their entanglements. Ursula had avoided them.
“How can this be?” said Ursula.
She also remembered an intoxicating floral scent, like the one she smelled now. White roses and cold rainwater. A swoosh of fabric and Matriarch Arbella was at Ursula’s side, holding a silver incense burner. Its clean smoke wafted forward and enveloped Ursula and Etty.
“A year in prayer is like ten in the real world. You never did pay much attention to your surroundings, sister Ursula. This is what remains of the cloister.”
“I noticed what mattered most. I thought,” Ursula said, and her eyes flicked towards Etty.
“On that account you are correct. Etty is important to us all, and it is her turn to find Truth.”
Arbella smiled; a toothy grin that shone like a beacon. She placed a hand on Etty’s neck, rubbed her downy skin with the tip of her fingers. Etty’s mouth twitched between a smile and frown.
“Come Etty, your sisters are here to guide you. They are your family,” said Arbella.
At the word family, Etty’s features relaxed. Arbella wielded the word as a weapon; the blow struck Ursula out of her stupor. She should not have hesitated earlier, should have trusted Etty with all that she knew. Ursula braced herself, ready to scream, but two hands hard as marble grasped her arms. A red mouth appeared at her temple, smelling of earth and minerals.
“I’ll do anything to save the cloister.”
That is what the mouth whispered, the mouth attached to the blacksmith, but they were Ursula’s own words, pronounced only hours ago in the Matriarch’s special office.
“We heard you. We have been watching you.”
* * *
From a distance, the mountain was formidable, but Ursula could compare it with no other since it was the only mountain she had ever seen. Gerauvan was settled on a landscape flat as a hot cake, dwarfed by the rugged island where the cloister presided. The mountain was simply called “Mountain,” and up close, it looked tamer, eroded and collapsed at its peak.
The humming sisters, led by the Matriarch and Etty, began their ascent, with Ursula and the stealthy blacksmith closing the line. The way he walked along the spiraling path, with long strides and a playful jaunt, the blacksmith seemed a young man on a quest. But Ursula knew better. It was the unnatural symmetry of his movements that gave it away, the way his arms and legs swayed, the way his hips jutted from one side to the other. And yet, the creature inhabiting the blacksmith managed to convey a casualness, something Ursula herself could not achieve, even within her own body. She hugged herself, feeling oddly reassured by her familiar lines and curves.
The Matriarch’s incense spiraled along with the pilgrims, carrying its floral scent and languid effect. The relaxed feeling in Ursula’s limbs and deep in her chest was unnatural, but she did not care. The acute sense of panic she had felt in the garden was gone. She remembered the panic, the way her blood seemed to burn and sizzle behind her eardrums, but memory of an emotion was not the same as the experience. She recalled many emotions that she no longer carried with her, so she marched forward to meet whatever fate awaited her and Etty.
After they had gained sufficient height, Ursula glanced downhill and saw that fires continued to burn along the cliffs. The peasants had failed, she thought. The blacksmith stopped and looked back at her, the fires reflecting in his eyes.
“The peasants succeeded. They are now keeping vigil.”
He reached for Ursula’s cheek, but he was too far from her and only caressed the air. Ursula recoiled at the intrusion. He had read her thoughts.
For hours they ascended the mountain and then began the descent into the crater. Ursula saw bright spots along the crater’s inner walls, like eyes blinking in the dark. She let her hand drag along the wall and felt the jagged edges of obsidian fragments tear into her skin. She flinched, and for a brief moment felt in control, then found herself vaguely wondering if birds at night became confused, thinking there were stars below as well as above.
“The birds are smarter than you think” said the blacksmith, still stalking Ursula’s mind. “But however much they fly, they cannot escape me. In time, they land again.”
“Some land on water,” said Ursula, thinking of the great white birds that floated near the shore every spring and fall.
“Sister, sister.” The blacksmith frowned, shook his head in disappointment. “Water and earth are but textures of my body.”
He stopped his ascent and took Ursula’s hand, running a finger along the lines of her bloodied palm.
“Your hands are calloused while your breast is soft as lamb’s hide. Both are skin. Your encasing is small. Mine is of the scale of your world.”
He placed a sliver of obsidian in her hand, a piece of himself. Ursula looked down at her hand, at her feet, at her filthy sandals standing on the body of Kolvar. She felt a great wave hurling towards her, a nauseated understanding. But the feeling subsided, perhaps thwarted again by the effects of the incense.
“No, Ursula, it is your strength that keeps you standing,” whispered the blacksmith. His mouth had not moved, yet she had heard him. Kolvar, not the blacksmith, spoke inside of her.
“The blacksmith is an avatar, a faithful servant who treated my body with the reverence it is due. But he is failing me now. Look closer.”
Ursula stepped closer so that she could feel the blacksmith’s breath, and even through the gray tones of night saw blood red cracks appearing along his features, from the corner of his eyes and mouth to his jaw and hairline. A puppet whose puppeteer had a hand much too strong, breaking the poor puppet along the seams. She had never noticed how young the blacksmith was, barely twenty and with high cheekbones and full lips that made him appear girlish despite the razor-sharp jawline.
“The journey continues,” he said, pointing to the line of sisters disappearing around a bend in the path.
They walked side by side, ever closer to the bottom of the crater. The blacksmith’s jaunt gradually turned into a limp. His legs flopped with each step, and at times he stumbled, but the blacksmith simply smiled at Ursula and urged her on. She obeyed, because what else could she do? The world itself asked this of her. Without fanfare, the procession reached a platform. They could walk no further, no deeper. The crater was dry and hot. It offered a climate different from the one beyond the mountain. Ursula used the edge of her shawl to wipe dust and sweat from her face.
The sisters stood before a dais made from a large slab of stone, not unlike a toppled headstone, elevated upon a bed of rubble. The setting was as mystical as an abandoned cupboard. Why had Ursula expected more? Tradition, ritual, all of it a game they played at the cloister, and now the veil had been lifted from her eyes. The signs had been there, only she had not known to look.
The Matriarch began scrambling up the platform, pulling at her skirts and flailing with the frustration of an old hag. That straight back of hers was now bent and the blue veins of her legs glared like angry welts. Etty stood by, her eyes open and vacant, a beatific smile carved into her soft features. Pearls of sweat beaded down her face, and the smoke from the incense burner she had been tasked to carry wafted into her eyes and mouth. She was fully subdued. The other sisters moved about, hesitant, like sheep lost in an unfamiliar field. Some continued humming, others fell silent in a torpor.
Ursula perceived a dull beating coming from the ground. A feeling more than a sound. She turned to the blacksmith and found him on his knees, tremors shaking his flesh the way Ursula used to shake the one rag doll she had owned as a child. The blacksmith was failing, but those black eyes remained steadfast like the beating heart of Kolvar’s life, underneath her feet. Kolvar was real. Ursula’s love for Etty was real. Two truths she could hold onto as she faced the lies.
Ursula pushed through the sisters and pulled at Arbella’s cape. The older woman fell back with a grunt.
“The Truth you peddle is a lie,” said Ursula. “I know that now, but in the tower, something was within reach. Something real. Do you deny it?”
“Are you still searching for redemption, Ursula? A payoff for your pains? You will find none,” said Arbella as she gripped the platform once more. “I have been holding broken eggshells together with the force of my will. The pieces were bound to fall apart someday.”
“Then why bother with this elaborate charade?”
“Could you send your sisters to death for the greater good? You, with your feelings and your self-obsession. I offer them a kind illusion.”
Ursula pondered this in silence. She was no longer surprised; she and her sisters were nothing special, after all. Arbella sighed and took Ursula by the shoulders. Her touch was cold, lizard-like, yet Arbella readjusted Ursula’s shawl with the gentle touch of a mother.
“You are unlucky to have been born when you were. Born a woman. But let’s see if we can fix this broken world once more. Long enough for you and I to live in peace, and let another generation deal with Kolvar.”
“That is a cowardly position.”
“What’s cowardly is you wanting to save your lover, above the well-being of others. Not just these remaining ragtag sisters, but also those who dwell in Gerauvan, and ... others.”
“This world is larger than you know, sister. Be thankful for your ignorance.”
Arbella turned her back to Ursula and with one final heave managed to scramble onto the platform. She swung her arms at Etty, who dutifully clambered up after her without even glancing at Ursula. Their bond was broken, but Ursula could fix it. At the back of her mind she still held an image: a small house made of timber and yellow framing, adorned with flower boxes. On the inside, so many colors. Rugs and upholstered chairs, cheerful curtains, and silky sheets. Everything soft and comfortable where Ursula and Etty could be together, with no other expectations.
Ursula looked up at Arbella.
“I can expose you to the sisters,” shouted Ursula.
Arbella glared at Ursula from her elevated position. Her mouth twisted into a smirk.
“They will not listen to a tale that does not suit them. You only took notice because you found yourself at a disadvantage.”
Ursula looked at the sisters, huddled together and no longer humming. Their fretful whispers crawled through the crater like insects. Sister Patricia, at the head of the pack, had clear eyes once more; the incense burner had been tossed to the ground when Etty had climbed the dais. Ursula saw confusion creeping up behind those eyes as Patricia noticed the blacksmith for the first time. A strange man kneeling upon the ground. Until then he had been but a shadow to the other sisters.
“In this sacred space, the luckiest of sisters stand and await Truth. Today that sister is Etty,” declared Arbella, her voice booming from the platform.
The Matriarch raised her chin and straightened her back. She offered an indomitable figure, and yet Ursula could feel the weakness beneath. The sisters gasped and stared at their leader, awe illuminating their features. Arbella gave them a reason to focus, dispelled their confusion. The power of the incense was no longer needed, and Ursula understood that Arbella had been correct. The sisters would follow whatever path the Matriarch set for them.
Ursula would not let Etty be taken, but she needed one final answer. She had endless questions, of course, but only one of them mattered. She knelt in front of the blacksmith.
“Why do you want us sisters? I must know, please.”
Silence. A silence that overwhelmed Ursula’s senses. Had Kolvar vacated the blacksmith’s body? Then a voice, a low chuckle, escaped the blacksmith’s parted lips.
“Your people have made our transactions complicated. My needs are simple: willing sacrifice, worship. In exchange you may harvest my bounty. Your cloister is nothing to me.”
The blacksmith’s head tilted. His eyes found the obsidian shard still clutched in Ursula’s hand.
“But the Matriarch, she follows your orders,” said Ursula, pointing to Arbella, who continued her oration.
“She follows the orders of many. I have but one.”
“Willing sacrifice. Then you don’t want Etty? Don’t need to kill any of the sisters?”
“Your predecessors knew to converse in terms that held more texture, more nuance. Sacrifice is not murder. Murder is the realm of men, surely you see this now.”
Ursula thought of her meditative encounter with Hurvid in the Weeping Widow. She realized that Kolvar had come to her in that recognizable form for a reason. To test her, to tempt her as well. Ursula had said she wanted Hurvid to die; she had followed through and pushed him off the tower in an unforeseen show of outer strength. Strong in the way of men, but foolish in its simplicity. That violence was hard to escape, it was all around, in Ursula’s own thinking process and in the way she and everyone else ripped apart creation and threw the pieces into separate piles. Truth or lies. Male or female. Mine or yours.
While Ursula no longer wished to tear herself from her own skin, something of that violence lingered in her, but if violence could render the world asunder, then surely it could be turned upon itself to mend the greatest fissures.
Ursula pressed the obsidian deeper into her palm and relished the pain, the trickle of blood mingling in the dirt.
“I will give myself to you. Be your vessel. If we free the sisters.”
For the last time, the blacksmith raised his head and smiled.
“That will only be the beginning, Ursula. Beyond the beacon you call the Horizon Star, an entire world exists that has been hidden from you. There is much to do.”
The blacksmith’s body sagged to the ground.
Ursula wondered at Kolvar’s intentions, whether they would prove helpful or destructive to her people. But her people were already being destroyed through despair, drought, and starvation. Kolvar’s bounty was failing no matter how many women were funneled to the cloister. The changes had been incremental, but they were noticeable, even to one like Ursula, who gazed inward rather than outward. Bit by bit, like a sandcastle collapsing in the rain. At first the water appears harmless; there are so many grains of sand. Soon, a tower is lost, then another. The moat fills with water, the gate topples, and then the walls crumble. Ursula thought it was time for a storm to wash it all away, for a new castle to be built. She would keep the highest tower for herself and Etty.
Ursula stood next to the fallen blacksmith, let her shawl drop to the ground, and waited for Kolvar to claim its vessel.