Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Vessel, Page 2

Sarah Beth Durst

  He wasn’t crying when he left, and she knew the clan would pretend not to notice the puffiness of his eyes or his dripping nose. He could remember the day with pride at his strength—and at hers.

  After Jidali left, it was her father’s turn. He knelt and kissed her palms.

  “It feels strange for you to kneel before me,” Liyana told him.

  “I will honor you every day of my life, as I always have.” He kissed her cheeks and then departed. Her mother entered the tent next.

  Mother halted by the cooking fire pit. She put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips. Unlike the others, she didn’t kneel. Instead, she briskly nodded once. “You’ll do,” Mother said, as if approving a cut of meat for dinner.

  “Of course I will,” Liyana said. “I’m your daughter.”

  Mother’s lips twitched. “A valid point.” Solemn again, she studied Liyana a moment longer. “I am proud of you.” She then swept out of the tent before the tears caused by that unexpected compliment could prick Liyana’s eyes. Liyana blinked fast, sucked in the increasingly hot air, and composed herself to face her family’s midday meal.

  She was given a lunch of sugared dates, flatbread, and dried mutton. Aunt Sabisa added Liyana’s favorite yogurt to dip the bread and meat in, and one of her uncles contributed his finest tea, steeped in mint water. Her cousins draped her in napkins, which turned out to be a good thing since they caught drips of the tea and a smear of yogurt. Every time she thought of anything but eating, it became impossible to swallow. So she focused with deep intensity on the gritty sugar in the dates that stuck to her teeth and the spices in the yogurt that pricked her tongue. Clustered around her, her family ate sparingly. They’d feast tonight, after the ceremony was complete, to welcome the goddess to their clan. The feast would also serve to remind the goddess of what it felt like to eat and that she would need to feed her new body in order to live. Liyana wondered if someone would have to show the goddess how to chew. Or how to perform other basic functions. She doubted that deities in their transcendent form ever had to pee.

  She got herself through the day that way, thinking of mundanities and focusing on the needs of the moment. At times the heat inside the tent threatened to choke her and ruin her careful placidity. At every opportunity she drank water from a silver pitcher that a cousin continually refilled. She did not have to ration herself today.

  At last it was dusk. Talu, the clan’s magician and Liyana’s teacher, came to claim her. Liyana’s knees creaked as she stood—she’d sat for too long. She was more used to scrambling after the herds, hauling water from the well, and helping out with the myriad of tasks that kept the camp functioning. As a vessel, she had no specific responsibilities aside from preparing for the summoning ceremony, so she had poked her nose into everyone else’s business. She’d never had a day like today. But then again, she supposed that no one in the clan had ever had a day like today, at least not in the last hundred years.

  Talu rushed to Liyana and clasped her hands to her own heart. “Oh, to think I am here to see this glorious day!” She hooked Liyana’s arm under hers and led her out of the tent. “I was there on the day you were born. You nearly died. The cord was wrapped around your neck.” She drew a line across Liyana’s neck to indicate where the umbilical cord had strangled her. “I sliced it away. Your first breath was an indignant scream. You were so angry that the cord had dared to stop your breath that you screamed for three hours. Your poor, tired mother nearly put you out with the goats so she could sleep.”

  “What calmed me?” Liyana asked, even though she had heard the story at least a dozen times. Up ahead, she saw that the torches were lit in a ring. Voices drifted through the evening air, as if buoyed by the heat that still filled the breeze.

  “A sandstorm,” Talu said with a chuckle. “You heard the wind batter the tent and the sand wolves howl, and you fell fast asleep.”

  Picturing her mother threatening her with the goats, Liyana was able to smile as she was led to the heart of the oasis. The entire clan waited for her around a bare circle of sand. Her smile faltered as she stepped into the circle, ringed by everyone she knew and would ever know.

  “Breathe, child,” Talu whispered in her ear. “You are strong. You are ready.” She kissed both of Liyana’s cheeks. “Honor us.”

  Seated north of the circle, the elders beat drums with the heels of their palms. Slow and even, the drumbeats spread across the darkening desert. With measured steps, Talu walked in a circle around Liyana. Liyana rotated with her, watching as Talu dragged her toes to etch a line in the sand, symbolically separating Liyana from the rest of the clan. As she turned, Liyana saw familiar faces. Cousins. Aunts. Uncles. Friends. She lingered on a boy’s face, Ger’s. He’d also been born in the Year of No Rain, but his dreamwalk had showed only desert horses racing across the sand. He’d been apprenticed to one of the riders, and she’d heard he rode well. Beside him was Esti. She and Liyana had been friends as children. They’d chased sandfish lizards in the shade of the date palm trees, and they’d made necklaces of woven dried leaves for each other. Liyana noticed that Esti held tightly to Ger’s hand. She’d heard they planned to announce their claim at the next festival. She should have remembered to wish them well. Continuing to turn, she focused on other faces in the crowd, family and friends. She wanted to shout over the drumbeats. She regretted her silence during the farewells. There were so many things she hadn’t yet said! She’d thought she’d had time before, but now it didn’t seem like she’d had any time at all. Days had slipped away. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to think of one day, an ordinary day, and fix it in her memory: waking in her sleeping roll in the cold dawn, breathing the scorched air of the afternoon, playing ball with Jidali by the goat herd, taking lessons with Talu, sharing the evening meal with her family, tasting the night tea. She imagined holding that day inside her as she opened her eyes.

  Talu had completed her circle.

  Oh, sweet goddess, I’m not ready! Liyana felt her muscles lock. She’d trained every day. She knew the steps in her sleep. But she looked into her mind, and it was a void, as if the memory of one sun-drenched day had seared away all her training.

  In the center of the circle, the magician lowered herself to her knees. She crossed her arms and began to chant. “Bayla, Bayla, Bayla. Ebuci o nanda wadi, Bayla, Bayla, Bayla. Ebuci o yenda, Bayla, Bayla, Bayla. Vessa oenda nasa we.” Around the circle, the clan joined in the chant, repeating the ancient words to summon the spirit of the goddess Bayla. Their voices didn’t matter, though. Only a magician’s voice could reach the Dreaming, the home of the spirits of the clan gods. “Come and breathe the desert, Bayla,” the words said. “Come and be. Your vessel is ready for you.”

  The drums beat louder.

  Listening to them, Liyana felt her muscles loosen. Her feet, encased in the soft shoes, rocked forward and then back. She lifted her arms, and her sleeves fell to her shoulders, revealing the markings. She flicked her palms toward the darkening sky. The air was still hot on her skin, sucking out moisture and wicking away the sweat left over from a day inside the stifling tent. She swung her hips.

  Thud, thud, thud. The drumbeats were footfalls. She matched their pace. Forward two steps, back one, she danced around Talu. The woman’s voice was as strong and clear as a herder’s horn. “Bayla, Bayla, Bayla. Ebuci o nanda wadi . . .” Liyana spun, and her skirt spun with her, spreading like a bird’s wings. Blue, red, and green flickered in the torchlight, and the gold thread glittered. Forward two steps, back one . . . forward and back. Arms raised, she spun faster. “Ebuci o yenda, Bayla, Bayla, Bayla!”

  Her clan, her family, cried to the sky. “Bayla, Bayla, Bayla!”

  She was the dance. Her body knew it; each step had been drilled into her muscles by hours of daily practice. Her legs whipped beneath the skirt as she spun, arms open wide. Her feet flew over the sand.

  Faster . . . Thud, thud, thud. “Vessa oenda nasa we!”

  Overhead, the sky deepened to
azure, and the desert darkened. Stars materialized as if someone were flinging shimmering droplets across the sky. Liyana’s breath burned in her throat, and her lungs ached. She felt her muscles strain, but she welcomed it. She’d danced to this point and far beyond in her training. She had only begun to dance.

  The bells in her hair sang between the drumbeats. Her feet beat staccato on the sand as her arms beckoned the goddess’s soul. She sang the summoning words with her people. “Ebuci . . . ebuci . . .” “Come! Come! Your vessel is ready!”

  As the hours passed, her feet felt the sand cool through the soles of her shoes. She had ceased to notice the faces outside the circle. The drums continued to beat, and Talu continued to chant.

  Stars watched cold from the sky above. The torches threw their light into the circle. Her feet stabbed the cold sand, worn from the pattern of her dance. She heard whispers between the drumbeats, voices from beyond the circle.

  One carried itself to her ears. “She hasn’t come.”

  Liyana’s feet faltered. Quickly she caught the step, and she twirled and spun in time with the drumbeats. But the words wormed themselves into Liyana’s mind. By now, the goddess should have come. Her soul should have filled Liyana’s body, and Liyana’s soul should have been displaced. She should have been drawn to the Dreaming while the goddess breathed her first breath with Liyana’s lungs.

  Talu’s voice was hoarse, but still it echoed across the camp. Liyana noticed that someone had draped furs around the old woman’s shoulders. The night wind whipped past the tents and chilled Liyana’s skin. Her bells continued to ring, and she continued to dance, but each move felt stiff. She hasn’t come, Liyana thought. She should have come!

  The moon etched a path across the sky. Still, Liyana danced. And still, her goddess did not come.

  Chapter Three

  At dawn the drums ceased.

  Liyana collapsed forward into the sand. Sky serpents circled above her, their glass scales catching the rose and gold rays of sunrise, and scattering them like a thousand jewels onto the desert below. Songbirds called to one another from the tops of the date palm trees. Chest heaving, Liyana tried to swallow. Her throat felt raw from breathing so hard for so long. Her braids were plastered against her cheeks and neck with her dried sweat. On hands and knees, she dug her fingers into the sand. These were still her hands. This was still her body.

  Talu’s voice died, and Liyana raised her head and felt the first kiss of sunrise on her face. Dawn dyed the sand dunes red as it had yesterday. She shouldn’t be here to see it again.

  Around her, the clan was silent. She noticed only a few children remained, and young men and women had replaced the old as drummers. Their hands rested limply on the skins of their drums. A few covered their faces with their hands.

  Someone in the clan keened.

  Liyana looked at her parents’ faces. Her father’s was ashen, his eyes sunk deep, dried tears etching his cheeks like scars. Her mother’s face was frozen, as if she had forgotten how to feel.

  “She didn’t come,” Liyana whispered. “Talu, why didn’t she come?” Her body was shaking like a palm tree in a windstorm. She wrapped her arms around herself. Every muscle screamed, and her bones felt like liquid. She wasn’t supposed to feel anymore. “Talu . . .”

  “My children, my children!” a woman wailed. She was the master weaver, a woman with five daughters and three sons. “You have killed their future!” Two of her children huddled behind her skirt. Eyes wide, they looked like spooked horses.

  Liyana could find no words in her throat. Once a century, the goddess of the Goat Clan walked among them and ensured that her clan could survive the next one hundred years. She used a human body to work the magic that would fill the wells, revitalize the oases, and increase the herds. Without this infusion of magic . . . In an ordinary century, this would be a disaster. But now, in the time of the Great Drought, it meant death. Already this oasis was a tenth the size it once was. Others were worse. Many of the desert wells held only a few buckets’ worth of undrinkable salty brine, and most of the others had dried up a full month earlier than they used to. Half the herd had sickened over the last season. Children were too thin, and they had lost far too many of their elders to illness. They needed Bayla more now than they ever had.

  Others took up the master weaver’s cry. Liyana felt each voice as if it were a whip on her skin. Talu raised her arms in front of her face as if to ward off invisible blows. Shoulder to shoulder, the clans people pressed forward, crowding together outside the circle that Talu had drawn in the sand. Their shouts overlapped until Liyana could not distinguish individual words. Startled, the birds fled the trees, darkening the sky with their bodies.


  The word rolled over the clan.

  All voices faded, like wind falling in the wake of a sandstorm. All eyes fixed on their chief, Chief Roke. It was his bellow from a chest as broad as a horse’s that had cut through the cries.

  Chieftess Ratha, his wife, drew herself up to her impressive full height. With her headdress of feathers and leaves, she towered over those around her. She spoke into the silence. “Talu, tell us what has occurred.” Her voice was soft, yet it carried across the oasis like a rumble of thunder.

  “I sent my words to the Dreaming,” Talu said. Her voice cracked and splintered. “Bayla should have come!” Tears poured down the wrinkles in her ancient cheeks.

  Murmurs spread around the circle. Talu could not heal a broken body, but she could ease its pain. She could not summon water to the wells, but she could sense how little remained. She couldn’t work miracles, but this . . . this was a small magic. She could not have failed.

  Chieftess Ratha turned to Liyana. Her face was as expressionless as the sand itself. “You danced true. Yet the goddess did not fill you. Why did she not come to you?”

  Unable to explain, Liyana shook her head.

  Talu’s voice was broken. “Liyana, what did you do?”

  Liyana flinched at her teacher’s words. She had done all she’d been asked! She had eaten only the food Talu had approved, she had strengthened her muscles every day, she had protected her unblemished skin from the scorching sun, she had preserved her purity, she had perfected the summoning dance . . . But it hadn’t been enough. Bayla hadn’t come. Her eyes hot with unshed tears, Liyana could only shake her head again.

  “She was unworthy!” a woman cried.

  The clan erupted into shouts. Each shout felt like a spear hurled at her body. “Unfit! Unworthy!” Pressing closer, the clan crammed together at the edge of the circle. One hand—Liyana didn’t see whose—threw a rock. It smacked the sand beside her.

  Louder than them all, Liyana’s mother roared, “My daughter is more than worthy! Bayla has judged us! We, her people, are unworthy! Bayla punishes us!”

  Another rock hit the sand.

  Talu cried out. And then a rock smashed into Liyana’s back. Liyana dropped onto the sand and curled into a tight ball as rocks rained around her and Talu. One hit Liyana’s shoulder. Another, her thigh.

  A high-pitched shriek split the angry shouts, and a small form darted over the line in the sand. Liyana felt a warm body hurl itself on top of her. Her little brother wrapped his arms around her, covering her body with his. “Stop!” he yelled. “Stop, stop, stop! Don’t hurt my sister!”

  The rocks stopped.

  The clan fell silent.

  Liyana unwound herself, and she embraced Jidali. “I am sorry, Jidali,” she whispered into his small shoulders. “I failed you. I am so sorry.” For the first time in weeks, she cried. Her tears fell into his hair. Holding him, she rocked back and forth.

  “People of the Goat Clan, your elders will discuss this matter,” Chief Roke said. He strode to the council tent, and he raised the tent flap. Slowly the elders filed into the tent.

  Chieftess Ratha addressed the clan. “Leave here and begin your day. You have tasks that will not complete themselves.” She fixed her formidable glare on each of
them, as if her eyes could burn them like the noonday sun.

  Slowly the clan dispersed.

  Rocking Jidali, Liyana listened to the footfalls as her people retreated from the circle. Ordinary noises returned. Above, wind rustled through the dry leaves of the parched palm trees. Across the camp, the herd bleated for breakfast. Inside a tent, a baby cried.

  She lifted her head and met the eyes of the master weaver. The woman spat into the circle, and then the weaver’s sister forced her to leave. On the opposite side of the circle, Ger led Esti away, and Liyana’s childhood friend kept looking back at Liyana. At last only Liyana’s family remained.

  Checking right and left, Aunt Sabisa scurried across the line in the sand and into the circle. She pried Jidali’s arms off Liyana. Liyana let him go. Clucking to the boy, Aunt Sabisa led him beyond the circle and away toward the family tent. Liyana’s cousins, aunts, and uncles trudged after them.

  Her parents did not move.

  Liyana couldn’t bring herself to speak to them. She laid her cheek against the sand. Talu still sat cross-legged a few feet away. She hadn’t moved from that position, even when the stones were thrown. Liyana wondered if she sat by choice or if her old bones had betrayed her. As her student, Liyana knew she should help her mentor stand, should fetch her cane, should seek to make her comfortable. But Liyana felt as if she had melted into the sand.

  Talu didn’t speak. Neither did Liyana.

  Overhead, the sun bleached the sky. As it rose higher, the heat soaked into the sand and rocks. Liyana felt it searing her skin, the skin she had been so careful to protect because it wouldn’t always be hers. She let it burn until her father brought a makeshift shelter, a blanket propped up on two sticks, for her and Talu. He also pressed a waterskin into each of their hands.

  “Drink,” he said.

  Talu let the waterskin drop from her fingers.