I saw the goddess come but I did not see her go. I saw men who looked her in the eyes bleed from the nose and fall on their faces, and I did not try to stop her when she chose to leave us. The touch of divinity comes and goes like lightning, and it has deserted this place. In time, I will go too. I am Dol Demenian Half-Awake. Someday I will truly sleep, and then her path will burn bright through the darkness and it will be impossible not to follow.
Sometimes I walk through her shrine, empty since she left. It has the taste of a charnel house where once the flowers burned and choked me with perfume. I try desperately to recapture those visions, the things I saw while she slept and I watched from the edges of her dream. I lay my face down in the cold brazier and lick the ashes. Men see the soot on my face when I leave and make their handsigns behind their backs, step to the side to avoid my gaze. The closing doors around a servant of the living gods will trap any who stand too near. It’s been very roomy around me of late.
Looking away makes the difference between Awake and Half-Awake. Before she came, I was proud of my open eyes, proud to see the world for what it was, proud of my clarity and certainty and simplicity. I looked away assiduously when the Sleepers walked, and I kept my life clean. They say all men inevitably wake to a day that will shut their eyes. Like all mundane men, I hoped that death would shut mine, and spare me the Sleepers’ terrible understanding. I prayed to the dead gods for a short and blind life. The dead ones do not answer prayers.
To hunt in the jungle, to gather poisonwood and water-lilies, to lie with my breast in the dust and wait like a snake, to hamstring beasts and embrace them as they kneeled into my arms – this was all I wanted. I had drunk venom in my wine for six years when she came. My pack was four of my brothers who could talk by taste and touch. As we tracked her through the undergrowth I thought of her as a deer, a little lame-leg hind limping through my territory, clumsy with fear. I tasted her in the air. I weighed her in her bare footprints and the leaves that bent as she passed. I smelt her sweetness. We caught glimpses of her from time to time, a white thing just out of reach in the undergrowth, swift as youth but lost, lost. I could imagine how her breath would flutter when we overtook her. Her eyes would be dark and depthless, glassy; her hair would glisten with sweat; her lips would be wet. She would stare at me at first, and at the other men. I thought she would be silent when we plundered her, as she was silent in her flight, choked with terror. And at last her eyes would drop, and when I drew my blade across her neck she would sigh through her opened throat one last time, and spill helplessly into my hands. It was certain; it was already done. I only had to catch her.
My heart stomped when I heard her fall. The jungle was my ally in this, my womb and web, my spread palm across which she staggered. I lifted a finger and she lurched into a tree. I curled my wrist and tumbled her into a shallow ravine, the depth of a fingerprint, through which a river ran.
She slumped into the sun, and I caught my breath as reflected day flooded the undergrowth. On the opposite bank of the stream in which she swayed, knee-deep, I saw the subtle movements of my brothers hemming her in. This furless fawn, this white hart – I wanted to paint her red and black. I wanted her golden scalp for a vest. I wanted to touch the inside of her skin.
Trees between us cut her to glaring ribbons as I orbited her. A shoulder, a leaf, a flash of throat fluttering with fear, a leaf, a cascade of water as she stood, a bluewood tree-trunk that came between us. And then – nut-brown, green, bronze, but no white, no yellow, nothing beyond the trees that was not born in this place and known to me. What? Where was the little hart? Had the river taken her? I broke through the undergrowth like a boar, digging my toes deep in black mud. I saw her reflection in the slack, shocked faces of my brothers, and I followed their eyes.
She stood in the river staring them back, and as she stared she changed. A flush stained her face, and another followed it, coloring her all over the same brown as them, the same as my own face. The yellow hair curled as if licked by a fire and burned red-brown. Her flesh drank the river and swelled, stretched skin taut and glossy, made of the hart a woman whose face I seemed to know – whose shape was the shape I saw in my dreams.
It happened in a moment, and my eyes thought they lied, held brief council with my brothers’ eyes to confirm. I saw the same bewilderment there that I felt, and the same recognition. At once, faced with the inescapable fact of her standing in the stream, I began to doubt the chase that had led me. Had there been a white girl? Had she flown, had she fled? Had I dreamed? Venom might make a man see any number of things, but my blood was clear today. Worms might become moths, and fish become frogs, but a hart should remain a hart, and a woman should not shed her skin in the river and take on an entirely different face.
She turned at the sound of my arrival, and for a moment the sun off the water must have dazzled me, for there was no earthbound light like that which leapt from her eyes when they found mine. I who had tried to live a simple life, to pay lip service to dead gods and avert my eyes from living ones – I, I, I stood unmoving and was gutted by her gaze. It came and went like the green-gold flash at the death of a day, and then her eyes were closed and we were falling – I to my knees, she into the shallows far more quickly, and both in silence.
The river might have taken her then, and I, blind, slipped after her as dumbly as a dog, but for the hands of my brothers on my arms. I found my feet, then found my voice, and put both to work to raise her from the water. There was no thought of slaying her now. We were only men, charged to drink clean earthly poison, to lie in wait, to hunt the boar and the blunderer, the hart and the helpless. We carried no blades worthy to sip the blood of a goddess.
Would that they had taken her out of my hands. Given me back my quiet fate, my good, simple death. But she had met my eyes, and laid a brand on me that was plain even to those who were spared it.
Borne in our hands to the village, she slept and threw no dreams in our path. In the time to come I would return to that journey many times. I would sniff my palms for years, searching for her scent. I would stroke her skin raw in memory. For though she scourged me nightly with her visions, though she tore my skull open each morning to stuff me with the day’s revelations, she never permitted me to touch her again.
There was silence in the village when we arrived, no one walking or working in the sun. Someone had run ahead – ? No. It was Lo who came to greet us, his eyes open. He would have needed no messenger to herald this.
Boldly he laid hands on her temples and looked down into her face. I looked away.
“You brought home a thunderstorm, Dol,” he said to me, his voice smiling. “I didn’t know you were so skilled a hunter.”
I babbled something of harts and hallucinations, off my guard. Should a man be proud of hooking a universe when he fished for a meal?
In the blazing afternoon Lo walked before us, roused hands from their huts to work. I and my hunters stood or knelt, never taking our hands from her, never letting her lie on the ground or any inferior surface. My wife brought me water, her eyes black with fear at the fate already written on my face. It was easier to look at the burnished skin under my fingertips, easier not to resist. Behind me, a new foundation of piles and rods was being laid. By sundown, the walls were raised and shored up with mud. Still we held her, and she never seemed to grow heavier as a load does – minute by minute I was bewildered by how light she was. She was shaped like my wife, lush and soft, but her bones must have been hollow, like a bird’s. My arms never wearied of her.
Finally the men dropped from the roof to carry in a great slab, blue wood from an ancient tree, raised from the bottom of a sinkhole after a hundred years of slow drinking. They laid it with red cloth, and as we relinquished her to lie upon it, they plucked their gold and bone from ears and wrists, stripped shining shells from their hair and piled them at her feet. Her first offering was ours to give – our prize for finding her. Then they left, and so did I. The last time I would entirely depart that hut – the last time I would sleep.
It was poor rest. The first true sleep always is. A waking man touched by a Sleeper is drowned by his next night, dragged under and held beneath the surface of sleep for three days. He thrashes and weeps, fights his doom as if entangled by vines. He steals the dreams from every house around him, leaving them wakeful. His wife and children suffer the worst – they may never dream again, unless they know well enough to leave him before it begins. My wife was wise enough for this. I found her gone when I returned home that night, and knew what she knew even as weariness not my own cut my legs out from under me. Then the goddess opened my heart at both ends and drew through me everything there was to know about my people.
I saw so much I should never have known. Another reason that men refuse to meet my eyes now – they know that I have seen their depths, the hidden caves beneath their still waters. I know the secrets they do not tell their wives, and the secrets their wives whisper into their babies’ ears for safekeeping, and the secrets their babies will become as they grow to act out everything they were not supposed to know. It has all run through my veins, tainted my blood, crueler than any poison. I sweated it out through every pore that night, howled the true names of strangers in my sleep, and though I could no sooner remember any particular of it than keep from knowing, I hold it all within me even now. I was the conduit. I was the reed through which she drunk us.
Lo woke me, his old body slack for the sleep I had stolen from him. He didn’t speak to me – he would speak to me again in the years to come, a few times, but rarely in his own mind or his own voice. Pressing a skin of poisoned wine into my hands, he dragged me to my feet and then staggered as I borrowed my balance from him. His eyes were dark and resigned, the same look I had seen when first we returned to the village – a long look down the years ahead, a look of pity.
I thought of my wife for the last time. I couldn’t say what became of her now. Perhaps she lives, somewhere. Perhaps she escaped before night fell and kept her own mind. When the goddess stretched out through our minds and shook the village like her own limbs, perhaps the lovely young woman I had loved had simply turned away. On that morning, I loved her still, and missed her. For the last time. There would never be room in my soul again for any human thing.
Lo took me down to the river, and at its verge I hesitated. The world already had begun to crack around me, as stone breaks apart under the tender, prying fingers of roots. The goddess had ensnared the village and now was working her tendrils into the land around, and I looked down into the water and wondered if I too would change when I stepped in. Was it she who transformed the river, or the river that transformed her? There was power everywhere… but if it had not been there before she arrived, did that make it hers? Or was she only its messenger?
Lo was kind. He did not push me in; he did not speak. He let me grip his wrist, though it worked one old bone against another with the force of it, and let me lower myself into the water as if I were the old man, not he. I went to my hands and knees there, feeling the warm, familiar mud between my fingers. There was no reflection to meet my fevered gaze, and I was glad of it. The running, moving surface brought me a moment’s fragile peace. I plunged my face into the water and considered staying there.
I drank, almost drowned, in silence. Not until I raised my head again, broke the surface with my ears, did the dreams return. Still holding my breath I touched this nascent, blasphemous revelation: she could not reach me under the water. In the space of a heartbeat I plotted escape, imagined becoming a fish and swimming downstream to another village, one not tangled in a god, where perhaps my wife had gone. Where I could live like a man. But before Lo laid a hand on my shoulder to pull me upright, the goddess was in me again, the river forbidden me. I leapt from it as if fleeing piranhas, and when I stood on the bank I felt as securely held in her palm as I had thought her trapped in mine.