The light dims. Daha looks up from the corn she grinds.
He stands before her, five times dead. He holds the obsidian disc, with its edges worn smooth by his fingers and his prayers. He is her son, and even so, Daha wonders who he prays to. Does he pray to his new name, or to the name of the Fifth whom he will replace? Are there secrets granted only to boys who must become gods?
“I won’t come back to you this time.” He says this as if he has ever cared before. His voice is distant and he is dressed in robes of dyed cotton. Patterns of jagged green pass under and over divine black from his shoulders to just above his sandaled feet. Dust lightens the bottom handwidth of cloth; he walks in the dirt as men do. He stands in the doorway to her little house made of clay and straw and the sunlight silhouettes him so all she can see is his outline and the broad patterns of his clothing. He smells faintly of orange blossoms.
Daha feels a chill pass down her spine, though she has always known this day would come. For him, it is only another prepared moment in a life of rituals; for her, it is a sixth cut to her heart, wider and deeper than any other.
He ducks his head to enter. He resembles her brothers more than his own father, so tall, now, and thin, even though he is fed better than the Berai king. His face still clings to a little fat, for an instant, Daha sees a frightened boy. Then he smiles with easy, cool arrogance and the illusion dissipates.
Daha slides coarse-ground corn into the clay bowl on her left and adds a handful of dried kernels to her stone. Neither of them speak as she grinds two passes, her chest aching with the words she would say. Her oldest, he should be inheriting his father’s home and staying near to her when she grows too weak to grind corn or cook.
When she doesn’t answer, he paces, stepping lightly over hard-packed earth. In days past, she might have rebuked him for leaving his sandals on. Daha looks up again when he is standing near the stone oven and she can see him better. He has let his hair grow to mid-back and laced it through with crow feathers and sparrow bones, with jade beads and copper rings.
In thirteen years, the ways of death have been made his life, and he is the crueler for it. He worries at the obsidian, a hollow where his thumb rests.
“I have waited for this all my life,” he says, finally. A little petulance tinges his speech. He is still young. “I must be freely given.”
Daha first lost her son before he was born.
She had carried him half a year, from the cold dry nights of winter, to the long sunlight of summer. He moved as though running circles in her womb, and she slept many nights with her husband’s hand on the rise of her, fingers splayed to catch the movement.
They were a handful of days from the solstice, and she spun cotton dyed the color of the sun with her husband’s sisters. They were all four unmarried, and lived in the small house morningward of Daha’s home. The day was hot and the air was unusually damp, storm weather. Her clothes stuck to her back and sides and her son moved constantly, as if the coming storm made him restless, too.
Daha was tired, but she still tried to spin more than the sisters as a matter of pride. Only the youngest liked her enough to speak with her, and the other three tended toward silence, or brief conversations in their late father’s tongue.
Alnide was new to womanhood and still fascinated by pregnancy; she had never witnessed a birth. She chattered to Daha like a little bird nesting in the woven-straw roof, but her fingers were so quick that her sisters didn’t pinch her for her words. They waited until she dropped corn or returned from the creek with pretty stones and no water, and then they showed her their jealousy.
Daha knew enough of their father’s words to make out what they said, that Alnide was too dark to be pretty, her skin like newly turned soil in the spring. For all they said, however, it was Alnide’s white teeth that flashed smiles at everyone, and her ears that were weighed down with gold rings, gifts from the metalworker’s son.
Alnide whistled like a hawk screaming to prey. “Daha, you are too fast! My fingers burn just watching you.”
The oldest of her sisters said something sharp that Daha did not understand. Before Alnide could argue, Daha tilted her head graciously. “The heat makes me weak,” she said. “I spin faster so that I can rest.”
“Your daughter wants to spin, too,” Alnide said, laughter chasing her speech. “That’s why she moves so much. She makes you quicker, so you spin enough for two.”
Daha twisted the cotton easy and even, fingerlengths, then handlengths, then armlengths. Before Alnide could chatter off down some other road of conversation, Daha said, “Mehar wants a son, I think.”
It was not a guess, she knew so much from the whispers in her ears, from the loving caresses. A strong son to hunt, to sell pelts and skins and carved bone and obsidian to the men on the coast who lived packed too close in cities to draw back their bows. But she could not simply say this. Mehar’s mind was his own, and Daha should not tell others what she knew of it.
“A son!” Alnide laughed again, but she twisted cotton with more speed and skill so that her sisters would forgive her. “What good is a son? The boys in the village sit around and scratch themselves and throw rocks at snakes to make them rattle. Aheben should give you a daughter so you have help when we’re gone and married.”
Careless words from a young girl. The silence stretched long and thin as the thread between Daha’s fingers. She sent Alnide to bring water from the creek, and sweat trickled down her neck and between her shoulderblades, between her breasts. Without Alnide, the stares of the sisters fell on Daha alone.
She was relieved when she heard the far off rumble, like the sound of a hundred drums, and then the sky opened with a deluge that shattered the oppressive heat. After the rain, water sat in shallow pools, baking to dryness in the sun.
Alnide had not come back.
Daha put the cotton thread aside and she looked at each of the three sisters in turn, though they did not look up at her. “I will see what has kept Alnide,” Daha said into the silence.
She slipped out through the open door. None of the sisters spoke until she was outside, and then Daha caught a burst of words in their father’s language. An argument? A discussion? She wished that she had any luck in convincing her husband to teach her the tongue. The few words she knew were not enough.
Steam roiled from what was left of the rain, dissipating small puddles across the land for as far as Daha could see. The puddles were warm and she left her sandals just inside her door.
Daha thought first that she would find Alnide on her way from the creek, but as she neared the dark crack in the land where the creek had cut its way down into the red-stone earth, it became clear that Alnide was still there if she were anywhere.
“Alnide!” Daha called, but not even an echo answered her.
She reached the canyon. It was maybe twice the height of a man, and the creek wound its way through the muddy bottom, racing between large rocks newly dislodged. The bottom and sides of the canyon were still damp in the aftermath of the flood that had flashed through, carrying with it the plants from the base and parts of the walls.
There was Alnide’s jar, abandoned along the top of the canyon while she wandered off. The baby moved again, and Daha cursed Alnide quietly. She bent to retrieve the jar.
A five-legged toad sat against the side, staring at her with wide, bulging eyes. Five legs, the sign of Aheben, the Fifth. Daha recoiled.
She stepped too far and her ankle turned under her. There was a moment when she thought she had only stumbled, and she tried to take another step back to steady herself. Then, she realized that she had turned herself around and behind her was only air and the canyon below.
Daha landed in the muddy creek bed, hard enough that the wind escaped her lungs all in a rush, and she spent the next few moments listening to the sound of the creek, thankfully no longer swollen from the rain. She got her hands under her, fingers digging into thick red mud. Fear made her stomach twist even more than the pain–she had landed on her unborn son. Before she could sit up, a flash of light grabbed her eye.
One hand across her agonized middle, she reached out and pulled the gold hoop out of the blood-red mud.
It was with terror freezing her limbs that Daha called for her husband’s youngest sister, up and down the canyon.
Later, she would not remember the walk home. She would not remember the hours stretching to a day as Alnide did not return, as it was determined that she must have washed away in the flood. What Daha would remember was the first time she heard a woman laugh freely afterward. She thought of Alnide, her hand clasped tight around the gold earring she wore on a thread around her neck, and she had to fight to keep tears from her eyes.
She would also remember the moment she realized she had not felt her son move within her since she fell.
Days and weeks stretched, unending, and she waited to lose a dead child out from between her legs. This release was never granted her. When she slept beside her husband, she cringed from his touch. Mehar grew quiet. He seethed at her avoidance, but he did not raise his voice.
When winter threatened again, Daha gave birth to a living son.
Daha wanted to believe there was nothing strange about her son, that he had been born in the same manner as any other infant, and that she had not carried him through his first death.
She was helped in this by the boy himself. He was not a solemn child. He did not suffer from most of the ailments of young children, and when Daha woke in the night to his crying, he was easily put back to sleep.
When she was tired, Daha was told by the village women that her child was simple to care for, that there was no reason for her exhaustion. She worried, but she could not say why. They would not believe her, or, worse, they would accuse her of seeking favor among the Berai, who lived on the coast, and of claiming to carry their new god.
Mehar loved the boy, but he was often gone, bringing what he had caught to markets where he could sell or trade. The other sisters married soon after Alnide’s death, scattered to the winds, made only three instead of lucky four.
So it was Daha alone who woke one morning of her son’s second summer in an empty, echoing house, the bed beside her already gone cool.
She sat up in the bed, panic making her heart thunder in her chest. She had not yet named him, so there was nothing to call but “boy”. She searched the house, fear making her movements quick and sharp like obsidian knives. Her son had hidden before in baskets, under tables, under blankets, and he was in none of those places. He could not have gone far on the short stubby legs of an infant.
A snake lay in the doorway. It didn’t rattle.
Daha poked at it with a broom handle and the snake did not strike or even move. It was dead.
The day was but newly born, only a pink streak on the morningward horizon. Daha could still see stars to nightward. She thought of Alnide, lost in the raging flood, and was glad that it was not raining. Though, if her son had wandered off into the desert, it was much the same, too much water or not enough.
She called for him, “son”, and “baby”, and “little Mehar,” as she had been thinking of that as a name for him for days.
A stiff breeze blew from summerward, and in the haze of shadows, she passed a bird dead on the ground, its feathers ruffling in the wind, its feet hooked as though it had died on a perch. Daha stepped around it, heading for the small mud hut they kept tools in. A few feet further, another bird, also dead, this one an owl.
Dread grew from the silent place in her heart where fear had crawled to stay. Around to the far side of the toolshed, she found him, laying still and motionless in a ring of dead snakes, stretched out like the marks on copper coins Mehar sometimes brought from the cities. Aheben’s five-legged toad sat just above her son’s head, its throat puffed out as if it were mid-croak.
In the new day’s light, Daha could see more clearly, one limp snake in either of the boy’s hands, his face purpled from poison, his neck and back arched. He was not breathing.
When she stepped within the pattern of dead snakes, Aheben’s toad turned and hopped away, trailing its fifth leg in the dust.
She rushed to him and picked up her son. The weight in her arms was so familiar, but it was wrong. Too stiff and too still, more like a doll made of clay than a child. She carried him to the doctor, who laid him out to be prepared for funeral. Daha was summoned a day later, weeping, to find her son awake, alive and hungry.
Men from the cities came, clothed in silks and other fabrics they must have traded for, wearing silver. They poked and prodded Daha’s son, still unnamed because Mehar had not returned from his latest hunt and Daha would not guess at his agreement with the name she’d chosen.
They left. Time passed, and Mehar returned. Daha knew, though she would never have told it to another, that he knew about the Berai visitors long before she spoke with him.
Daha’s son played outside in the dirt when Mehar entered, the smell of smoke thick on his clothing. His hands were rough on her shoulders, but still gentle. She remembered that afterward.
Mehar glanced at the boy. Daha thought that perhaps they would talk about the boy’s name, but Mehar said only, “The Berai believe he is the Sixth.”
Daha pulled away and went back to her weaving, a blanket she had begun with her son in mind. “They could be mistaken.”
“I was told of the snakes,” Mehar whispered. “That he died and lay dead an entire day and a night. Do you fear him?”
Daha gripped cotton thread tight in her fingers. “He is our son,” she said.
“I have agreed to send him,” Mehar said. “I hoped you would share my thoughts.”
Daha did not. “He is too young.” There was a desperation in her words because she knew that no matter what she might say to him, Mehar had acted before even speaking with her, acted with the certainty that he could know her heart and mind.
Mehar looked back at their son. The boy picked up handfuls of dust and dropped it, sneezing. He babbled happily at the sun and the sky, at the earth and the dust he dropped in billowing clouds. “I have already agreed.”
The choice was taken from her. Daha did not give her son to the Berai, but she endured his taking. Without speaking with Mehar, she named the boy Neiri, sorrow, and held the name in her heart as a symbol of the child she might have raised.
One time, Daha killed her son by her own hand.
When Daha’s son was nine years old, she was allowed to reunite with him in the city by the sea, where gods and governments lived and died. He was not the small child who had played at her feet any longer. He had grown thin and serious and when he looked at her, his eyes were windows to worlds Daha never wished to see.
He met her at the gates to Aheben’s palace, and his manner was studied politeness. “Thank you for coming, Mother.” He spoke the language she had taught him at her breast, but the words tripped out of his mouth as though the city and the god had cut out his own tongue and sewed a new one in its place.
Daha gathered him into her arms, disappointed when he remained arrow-straight, his arms at his sides. He did not embrace her until his keeper barked something at him in Berai. He responded, the words coming easier to his lips than the Thoyei he had left behind. She could not understand those words, but he hugged her, a quick acquiescence.
She released him reluctantly and he stood to the side, looking at all the world but not at her.
His keeper brought Daha before Aheben, where he sat on his golden throne. Neiri followed behind, but stopped just outside the doorway. Daha wanted to comfort him, but he did not expect or wish such contact. She wanted to believe this was another boy, not her son, but she could not, no more than she could wish Alnide back from the dead.
Aheben was older by far than even the oldest names in the family songs Daha knew. His body appeared the same age as Daha herself, but he slumped in the throne as though he had grown tired of his position. A five-legged toad the size of a coyote sat by his feet, eyes each the size of Daha’s fist.
“Thoyei,” he said.
The stories said he could both summon life and crumble it into dust. Daha did not speak. She stood straight as she could, shoulders back far, far enough that she might have looked Berai to an unpracticed eye.
He spoke softly and in his voice, Daha could hear the sound of waves breaking against cold stone cliffs.
“There is corruption,” he said. “Among my people. You have not seen it, Thoyei, so far are you from the city, but it is there. I tire of them. Long before you were born, I had already tired of this age. With permission, my people have grown strong and apart from me. They do not need me, except as something to worship. They believe I am lazy, tired, and disinterested, and I become so. I have no more interest in this Fifth age.
“Thoyei,” he said again, as though he were tasting her mind when he rolled the word over his tongue. “Your people worship me out of habit or of fear, but you do not teach the stories. You are unprepared. A pity.”
Daha said nothing.
“Do you know of the fourth god? Heaqika. His death was of love.”
“You’ve brought me here to kill my son,” she said. The words were truths as she spoke them. Did Neiri stand behind her?
Aheben laughed like a tree cracking in high winds. “The one who loved me most was my brother. Even he paid little attention and my leg tangled in the fishing net just before he released it over the side of our boat. The weights pulled me down until the water grew dark and when I screamed, the water burned my lungs and my death tasted of salt. It was necessary, my fourth death.”
Daha clutched her hands one in the other. “Why have you brought me here?”
“I have never been a patient god,” Aheben said. “And you love him most, even if you primarily know him as only the idea of your son.”
She wanted to refuse. She asked the question she knew should never be asked easily of gods, “And if I were to refuse you?”
His laughter was stifling and thick. “One day, your heart will wander, caught in the eyes of your younger children. I will find another who loves him more, and I will be unable to promise that his death will come as painlessly as you might give it.”
When she looked back, Neiri’s expression was one of pleading, the desire of a child to do as he has been taught by those who raised him. He could have no thoughts of what it might cost her.
Daha used poison in the night. She held him for the first time in seven years, smoothed his hair while he gasped, his arms and legs gone limp when the paralysis set in. She stayed with him an entire night and day, waiting to see him breathe again.
“Mother.” When he begs, his accent is so thick that Daha thinks it must fill his throat and she expects to hear him choke.
Daha grinds the corn more fiercely. Her elbows ache and she should not give vent to her frustrations, but eleven of these thirteen years have been for her like wind on rock, and she cannot help if her voice is sand thrown in his face. “And when I say yes,” she asks, “then what will you be? A new god for the Berai, to be worshipped and loved until I am not even a memory? Until some new Thoyei mother must give up her first son to a faith that gives nothing in return?”
Her son, he-who-will-name-himself, Dei’itaqitaq in Berai, says nothing.
Daha looks up and she sees a small round face, eyes wide. It is Mehar, her second son, now five years old. He peers in the doorway at his older brother, a stranger to him. Dei’itaqitaq does not look anywhere but at Daha, his lips pressed tight with the anger of one who has been given everything, but also nothing.
He worships as the Berai do, constantly, and Daha watches the obsidian disc slip between the fingers of his left hand again.
“No,” he says. “I am Thoyei. I will be a god for the Thoyei, and everything the Berai have can be ours too.”
Daha wants to laugh. He was Thoyei for the first three years of his life, perhaps, but in the cities they hammered him like copper into some new shape that she is afraid to hold. He belongs in a world where it rains half the year instead of only when the air wills it. Looking at him again, everything is wrong. He stands with Berai posture, he wears their clothing. The beads and copper and bones and feathers in his hair are affectations. He would look strange if stood next to his uncles whom he resembles so much.
“Your father,” she says, though she knows full well the choice is her own.
“He has given me up. You are the only one left who must.”
“How can I give what has never been mine?” Daha asks.
There. A pain in his dark brown eyes, a flash of visibility in the raging sandstorm of godhood. She hadn’t thought to see that. He has been raised to be anything but her son.
“Aheben waits to die.”
Daha has ground enough corn but she does not want her hands to stop moving. She keeps busy. “I have no love for Aheben. If it is true death he longs for, then let him suffer.” She tries not to think. The only decision she has ever had to make for her son is how and whether to hurt him.
Dei’itaqitaq looks toward the door and sees his younger brother. There is no recognition in his eyes. “What will I be if I am not the Sixth?”
“A man,” she says simply, “Like your father.”
Daha is silent a moment. Little Mehar has left where he stood in the doorway.
Dei’itaqitaq crouches just before the stone. Light from the doorway shines from the copper in his hair. “I have died five times,” he says. “You hold tight to your dead.”
Daha’s fingers stray to the earring she still wears around her neck. It is familiar as grief. Had she chosen earlier, would the decision be less painful? She unties the sunlight-yellow thread, and coils it over the gold in her hand. “I hope that the dead remember,” she says. “That they spare a moment to think of the living sometimes, of what is and might have been.”
She gestures until he holds out his hand, and she presses the gold hoop into his palm, gentle but firm.
“Go,” she says.
Spread the word!