|Photo credit: Marc Roberts, flickr|
It is happening today, Pietra-nin, the climb of the high mountain. Mother woke me at dawn, looking at me the way the mertha ailaks look at geldings. She has looked this way at me since the Nastas first chose me for the gods. She handed me my womb belt and said, ‘This is an honour, Jola-nin. A gift. Your womb should be bursting out through your ears.’
I wrapped the belt around my waist. It prickled.
‘They will know, Jola-nin, when they prepare you. You must speak now if you have ever been unclean.’
Did I ever tell you, Pietra-nin, what the chief Nastas, Perlos, said when he gave Neesa-nin and Mara-nin’s womb belts to Aramayas? He said, ‘The fathering upon sisters makes for long limbs and strong teeth.’ I remember because Mother wept and wept, making a horrible sound from behind her throat. She made that sound for three days and three nights. That was before Father took to her back with his strap, making the sound of a herdas beating a foal. ‘They were nimachu,’ Father said. ‘That is why they were not chosen.’
‘I have never known a man, Mala-nin,’ I said, and she looked at me again like a gelding. I wish I understood that look.
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I thought I would feel excited when the servants of the Nastas fetched me and led me to the temple. Because of me Father will be able to walk among kings. Because of me he blessed Mother’s hands and feet. But it wasn’t like when we used to play, Pietra-nin. None of them would meet my eyes. They did not sing my praises, but kept touching me with their feathers, robes and belts, then stowing these items away as if they were blessed.
I still recall your excitement when you said, ‘Imagine if they pick you, Jola-nin, this path will be yours.’ I never told you but your smile then was warmer than the sun. ‘I will boast to all the Morlas and every Judes that I meet that I knew Jolas before the gods.’
It hurt when I had to say, ‘No, Pietra-nin. You must never tell them that.’
‘Then I will tell them you are my sun-sister. Because they will choose you, Jola-nin.’
And I saw the tears in your eyes.
Inside the temple they washed me with water so hot it made my skin sting. It wasn’t like the bathhouse; it smelled of lemon and balsam. They scrubbed and buffed until my skin was raw. It has been a while since you have seen me, my sun-sister, but my body is much the same. I have no breasts like yours, no woman’s hair, like my sisters’, nothing to make me nimachu.
Afterwards they stood me beneath the window to the sky and patted me dry with ailak wool. It stank of myrrh, jasmine and sandalwood. Can you believe they used kings’ oils on me? They gave me red robes, too, and sandals for my feet, then stuck feathers in my hair which sits below my waist now. They did not touch me with their skin, only fibres.
No one will ever touch me again.
The old Nastas came then and looked at me, but his eyes did not see me. They saw my robe, my headdress, my shoes. He asked the servants, ‘Is her body pure?’ He had already been told this. He knew I had bled but once. He knew the precise season of my body. Still he asked.
They nodded, all three of them. ‘Yes, Nasta-nan, she is pure.’
He nodded in return, eyes still upon me. ‘Take her to the low place.’
|Photo credit: Ryan Ward, flickr|
As we walked the sun rose and watched us from the centre of the heavens. It was the exact time of day we used to hide in the caves so no one could ask us to carry wool or fetch water. I miss how you used to braid my hair in the dark, the tickle as you tugged it and twisted. I felt your breath upon my neck when you sat with your legs wrapped around my hips. Did you feel the same when I braided yours?
The servants did not need to lead the way. It was the path we walked many times over, as slowly as the beasts. I was sweating beneath my robes, the draught like snow against my thighs.
At the low place another Nastas was waiting. He called me Jola-nan, as though I was already of the gods, and began the ritual to test the purity of my thoughts.
Does Jola-nan worship the gods, he asked, and which ones? I pictured him as Father, testing me. He even looked like Pala-nin. And I pictured you beside me, whispering the answers.
‘Does Jola-nan believe in the heavens and in the afterlife? What does she know of each?’ There were more questions, and still more. Finally he asked, ‘Does Jola-nan know the true path? Has she ever lusted after a man?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, and, ‘Never.’
I was tired and sore and it must have shown.
‘Jola-nan will know paradise,’ the Nastas said. ‘Such an honour, a gift, to join the gods.’ He was almost weeping, but with joy, and I knew I had passed.
He said these words but it was your voice I heard, looking out from our cave, your smile like the moon. I touched your hair, just below your shoulders, so much fairer than mine. I wept for you when they cut it, but I was glad, too. I could see where the gap had grown noticeable between your front teeth and the hardness of your breasts that meant they would not choose you. I pictured what only you and I knew, that your womanly hair had already begun to grow, soft as ailak’s wool. Did it grow dark and coarse like the Nastas said it would?
‘Paradise, Jolas,’ you whispered to me. ‘Up there, all the way to the mountain top.’
I looked from the mountain back to you, and knew that Paradise was that moment, in the cave. I did not need to climb to find what was already there.
The Nastas sent me on my way again, this time toward the top of the mountain. In parts it touched the heavens, hiding behind her fibres as they settled, carrying water, ice and snow. The cold in my toes, in the bones of my legs, dulled to an ache. They did not give me food or water, only shifflan leaves which made my cheeks and tongue numb and my fingers tingle. By the fourth wad of leaves I stopped feeling the cold, but the sky seemed brighter, sharper, as though everything far was now near, and everything near was now far.
Ailaks and lambs trailed beside us, herded by a train of young slave boys with white skin and blue eyes. They were almost naked and must have felt the cold more than I. The Nastas were kinder to the herd beasts who wore blankets over their wool.
It was just like when we used to climb, Pietras; the closer we got to the mountain god, the more my chest ached and the more the thirst stabbed in my lungs. We stopped once, twice, three times, and the others ate, even the slaves, but none was given to me. This was the second to last test. This would reveal the purity of my will.
I was afraid, Pietra-nin. If I failed, it would be Mala-nin’s skin that Father would take to, and I did not have you to see the throb behind my eyes that meant I needed to stop. I did not have you to say, ‘Come, sit. Let me take away the burning,’ when the bite and shudder of my muscles got too much. I did not have you to smile and say, ‘It is the mountain god calling you on, calling you higher. Do not let your spirit waver; you are stronger than that.’ More powerful than shifflan, I followed that smile. I would follow you anywhere.
I never told you, but when you said these things I used to wonder if it should have been me whose teeth had grown crooked, whose body began to ripen before my menses, rather than yours.
When we passed the highest point, Pietra-nin, I wanted to turn and look behind me, to see if you were near. Inside my head I could hear you. ‘Not far now, Jola-nin. Paradise.’
My legs trembled as though the earth rumbled below. My throat was dry, and I saw lightning before my eyes. The servants passed me wine and more shifflan. I shook my head, no. I could not swallow. Damp prickled at the nape of my neck, in the pit of my arms and behind my knees. I stumbled. The servants threw a blanket on the ground before I fell. I lay on softness, aware of the slope, the uneven rock underneath, and waited for the blackness to pass, to be able to see again. Wet stung my lips, and ran down the side of my cheeks and neck. Wine. I opened my mouth and let them pour. The ground spun for a while but afterwards I could see.
We were touching the sky, Pietra-nin. It was white and grey and damp. You were right. We were almost there.
Another thing I never told you, Pietra-nin, about why I stopped coming to see you after the Nastas cut your hair. It was something Mother said to me.
‘Your father does not want you always visiting with Pietras, Jola-nin. She is nimachu.’ She looked frightened when she said this, but also sad.
I tried to tell her you were my sun-sister, but she said, ‘She was your sun-sister. You must think of the Nastas and your purity. You do not want to end up like Neesa and Mara-nin.’
I balled my fists and wept, Pietra-nin, and I shouted. What did it matter that you were nimachu? What did the gods care? What did the Nastas care?
I remembered what you said to me when the first of your hairs sprouted, that it was just a bunch of rules the Nastas made up to give a reason for choosing one girl over another. You shrugged then, but your lashes were clumped and moist. I pulled you close and you wept upon my shoulder until it was wet, too.
To Mother, I said, ‘I understand why so many rules, but why these rules? Why not any others?’
She replied, ‘One day, Jola-nin, you will understand.’
I was afraid, Pietras, for me, but also for Mala-nin and what would happen if she failed to birth even one pure child.
|Photo credit: Eric Miraglia, flickr|
The entrance to the high temple was just a dug out hole. Inside it glowed with fire, and the light hurt my eyes. Still I could see Perlos, standing, waiting, looking at me not as an ailak, but as a herder looks at the girl-child who is to be given unto him.
‘Jola-nan has passed the tests of body, thought and will. This is the final test, the greatest test, the test to reveal the purity of her soul.’ He gestured to the blankets laid out for us, to the wine I was to drink. The servants and slaves crowded around.
Perlos grinned, the grin of the herder who will take his girl-child before she is ready, before she is willing, and take pleasure in that.
I was his girl-child.
When he took me, Pietras, I pictured the way your cropped hair framed your face, the line of your legs wrapped around mine. It was the only way I could bear it. You are the reason I have never known a man.
Afterwards he rolled off me, gasping and grunting. ‘A pure soul. The purest,’ he panted as I bit down upon my fist and wept.
To me he whispered, ‘You will take my son with you to the gods.’
Mother was right, Pietras. I understood.
The last time I saw you your smile had faded. I thought you knew they had forbidden me to visit. Instead you told me that your menses had begun and that they had taken your belt to examine its purity. ‘I am to be given unto Jericos.’
I tried to tell you that Jericos was a good man, kind and handsome, though I wanted to claw out his eyes and neuter him.
You looked as though you would cry, but you didn’t. Instead you said, ‘Come to the caves with me, Jola-nin. One last time.’
I remembered your words as they lined up the slaves. Their feet were bound and their knees brought up to their chests, as a child inside its mother’s womb, with their hands bound around them. The servants took curved knives, grasped the slaves’ chins and cut out their tongues. This was so that in Paradise they could not question me. Their gargled screams made my gorge rise.
The Nastas beckoned me to a flat stone. In places it wore the same colour as my cloak. Perlos looked at me then as you did that last time.
My head spun from the shifflan and the wine. I had drunk it all. Somewhere nearby I heard chanting, and always the putrid scent of god-fire. They pulled my knees up to my chest, bound my wrists and my crossed feet. I wore the same pose as my slaves. Then they placed a nail upon my forehead.
‘This is an honour, Jola-nan. A gift. Paradise waits.’
I saw the faces of the slaves, of the servants, and of the worshippers. I did not want to look again upon the Nastas. I studied each one in turn. I looked for Mother, for Father, for my sisters. They were not here. They could not have made the climb. I looked to my slaves, took in their bloodied mouths, forced into silence, their frightened eyes, unmoving, uncomprehending. I looked to the servants who had tended me and tested me.
There you were. Not a slave, nor a servant, but a companion, chosen for me. Through the haze you smiled your nimachu smile. The smile I would always follow.
I was aware of someone raising a hammer, holding it in line with the nail.
I looked again. Your image blurred and shifted. I wanted to reach out for you, but I could not move. Your smile faded and then I knew. This time it was you who would follow me.
‘No!’ I screamed, choking, wanting to stand, to run, to flee.
The hammer came towards me.
I was not pure. Not of body, of thought, of will, nor of soul.
‘Pietras!’You could not follow me. Just as I could not leave. There was no Paradise, not for me, and certainly not for you.