Sometimes I daydream about the name that my parents would have given me. On good days, I imagine that it would have been something bold and strong—a name imbued with their hopes for a warrior daughter. But when I sit alone in the dark, I wish for a name that is soft and fragile—a word that holds everything precious and dear.
But instead, I am Ife, the two hundredth and fifty sixth incarnation of the living goddess. Still, I have always longed for my own name.
If only I had been born a day sooner or a day later, in a different year, under a moon less full of herself. Then I could have been a simple village girl with parents and sibling and friends and a nice long unpredictable life. I could have been a girl with a mortal name.
But the Children of the Temple knew me before I even took my first breath. (It’s funny they call themselves Children. Most have served several of my incarnations before me.) While I do not know the story of my birth, it is real enough in my heard. Old rituals borrow too closely from one another; the details repeated like the faces of an incestuous family.
My house would have been of stone and thatch, build high in the trees. It was all of one room with a high pointed roof and an annex for sheep and poultry leaning on the east side because our chickens would need the rising sun to start their eggs. The red hard wood floor was scattered with sweet-smelling herbs and tiny browning petals to keep the parasites at bay. My brothers would sleep in the high loft perched like a bird’s nest under the thatched roof and, by the hearth, my sisters would share a single mattress filled with herbs and soft sand molded to the shape of their bodies. There would be tools and handwork and drying foodstuffs lodged in every nook and cranny, but the little room would somehow still feel barren compared to the luxuries of The Temple.
One the night I was born, the sky was have been clear—washed clean by the spring rains, the Great Mother’s weeping over my two hundredth and fifty-fifth death—so that the Lady Moon, shrouded in her own misty veil, was attended by a million of her stars in waiting. My mother was lying in our family’s garden box as peasants do, believing that her waters would grow the bodies of vegetables and berries as they had grown me. I believe I was a quick child, easy, but The Children of the Temple knew the very moment of my crowning. They yanked me from my mother at the exact second the moon reached her apex, checked me over for scars—deformities—birthmarks. This was how they welcomed me back for each of my two hundred and fifty six lives.
My family: mother, father, sisters, brothers, even the sheep and poultry—were led one by one to the temple—blood spilled at the feet of the great golden Mother. The angels who brought me back to earth, sent back to her before they could even give me a name.
The wheel comes full circle every sixteen years. Each year, a spoke in the wheel.
Spoke one: The Year of Rebirth. I am born. My family is given back to the Mother, my life consecrated to the temple and the sky rains upon the thirsty earth.
Spoke two: The Year of Growth. The waters grow as I do—higher and higher. The villagers plant rice, fill the barrels with rain and raise eel high in the trees.
Spoke three: The Year of Joy. I learn to swim with the sacred fish before I see my first cloudless summer sky. As the farmers harvest kelp, The Children of the Temple sit in circles about me, imitating my every gesture in hopes of pleasing The Mother.
Spoke four: The Year of the Hunt. The entire village hunts the snakes from the trees. I ride my barge in front of them all, lighting the path before them.
Spoke five: The Year of Care. I plant the sacred lily before the whole village and spend the next two years caring for it.
Spoke six: The Year of Friendship. The rain stops, little by little. My caretakers ready themselves to leave me forever and I must choose twelve little girls around my own age to wait on me when they are gone. They are meant to be my friends.
Spoke seven: The Year of Maturation. I release the sacred lily. As the waters recede, it falls at the feet of my god-consort. He is taken far away from our village to prepare for our marriage.
Spoke eight: The Year of Earth. This is the first year that I can walk upon the earth. The peasants go back to their fields and the world thrives again. I sit in the temple all day now, forbidden to move, pretending to remember.
Spoke nine: The Year of Blessing. Years of plenty continue. We have pasture land now and flowers grow without care.
Spoke ten: The Year of the Ripening. This is our largest harvest year and the villagers are hardly ever in their trees. I am left alone for longer and longer.
Spoke eleven: The Year of Prayer. While the villagers preserve their goods, I must make myself silent. I must sit in the trees with only the Great Mother Goddess for company.
Spoke twelve: The Year of Sacrifice. This is the last year of abundance. I bless what I can and spill the blood of my whipping girls at the feet of the Great Mother to carry us through the hard times to come. A parade of angels—men, women, children—are returned to heaven in my name, so that the ones that stay behind might be deemed worthy. It is almost a relief.
Spoke thirteen: The Year of Judgment. Winds of Malice dry the earth as the peasants smoke the bodies of their lambs and ducks and turkeys. The barrels that were once full of eel now hold a stiff corn distillation. Disease and madness come to separate the clean souls from the dirty ones.
Spoke fourteen: The Year of Reunion. My god-consort comes back to the village. The village becomes dryer and dryer. He is forced to keep his face covered until the consummation. I am forbidden to talk to him.
Spoke fifteen: The Year of Seeds. I am married to my god-consort. His seeds are planted in the dry earth, as they are in me.
Spoke sixteen: The Year of Death. My death.
Everything is predictable. Stupidly, boringly predictable. I have ridden this wheel two hundred and fifty five times before. I am supposed to remember each and every one of those times. But I don’t.
I often ask myself what would happen if everything stopped. If the wheel of my life stopped turning as expected.
The day when I set my Lily in the Mother’s receding waters was the first time that I ever really wanted to stop the wheel. For two years, I cared for Lily as if she had been my own child, her pot nestled in the warmth of my lap as Ife’s barge traveled from home to home blessing new life and barrels of writhing eels. I sheltered her with my own hair when the cold winds shivered through the tree tops, her perfume always in my nose.
She became something of a doll, her earthen vessel dressed in jewels to match my own. In her pale white folds, I often imagined a face looking up at me, big eyes regarding me with silent trust. I remember speaking to her, imagining that she would cry for her mother and I was the only one who could comfort her.
She was the only thing I had ever loved.
On the first full moon of the seventh spoke, the Children of the Temple gathered every male under the age of sixteen, outfitted them in long, black veils and led them each into a plain wooden skiff so that they floated in the dark among the trees.
The Children of the Temple lead me to my jewel encrusted barge, candles made from the waxy leaves of tall trees lined the deck so that in the moonlight, it looked as if I floated upon a carpet of stars. My Lily sat in my lap as always, her white petals tinged with blush these past few days. There were tiny glowing bugs nestled in to them. I remember the strange hot winds that blew that night, as if the Great Mother were tossing with fever. I remember a dry ache behind my eyes and the way my hair stood out from my head with electricity so that I could not shelter my darling.
When they handed me the knife and pushed me among the trees that held the bodies of boys veiled in black, that’s when I knew. I knew that I wanted it to stop. I wanted the wheel to stop turning.
The knife slipped out of my hand, plunging deep into the water. I watched it sink to the earth below, every muscle in my body paralyzed. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know what to do. Sitting there on that sparkling raft, every shred of predictability was ripped away. I realized that I had only ever acted on expectation, not on memories borrowed from the two hundred and fifty-five lives I lived before this one. I was not the living goddess. I was an imposter. I did not remember.
High in the treetops, the peasants looking down at the spectacle screamed. A woman went into hysterics and tried to throw herself after the knife, but several men rushed to hold her back. It was a terrible thing I had done. To stop the wheel was to bring about the death of the whole village.
All around me, I could see the shape of chaos starting to take form. A mother from one tree might cast her child into the waters. A brother from another tree might drip poisonous sap among the eels. Knowing and not knowing the possibilities made it hard to breathe. The sounds of panic prickled my spine, so that I was forced to raise my Lily’s stem to my teeth and sever the flower with my teeth.
I cast her in the water and did not bother to look where the hot winds would take her. I could not bear her glassy trusting eyes.
Later that night, I received my ladies in waiting, all girls within a year or two of my age. The Children never took care of the goddess Ife after the Lily Ceremony. The next morning, all of my new ladies in waiting were stripped and flogged on the bow of my jeweled barge. While my body could not be scared, the villagers told me that my deviations would not go unpunished.
The taste of my Lily’s sap burned the inside of my mouth so that the salt and iron of my blood mixed with her bitter and fragrant chlorophyll. I got my first scar that night in a place I could well hide it. The roof of my mouth was torn to shreds.
My god-consort rides in under the full moon. He rides in a liter carried on the backs of the same boys who sat beside him on that feverish night. Tonight he is wearing a veil the same color as the full moon. If he is nine years older than me or if I nearly seven years older than him, I do not know. From his size, I can only guess that that we are close to the same age.
I have stitched a crown of jewels and flowers for him.
He kneels before me.
I place it on his head which is still covered so that I can not see his face.
He presents me with a bag of seeds that he has collected on his journeys.
And that is our first meeting. Not one word is exchanged.
In the days that follow, he is by my side always, sharing the wide dias that is my throne. His face never moves under the white cloth pulled tightly around his head. I have never heard his voice and he has never heard mine. But I do not care. After all, he was always a stranger. I do not remember him.
Then, one day when no one is looking, he stops the wheel.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watch him lean down to touch the ground beside our liter. When he straightens up again, he is holding something long and metallic. The glitter of jewels is still apparent under a coating of grime.
The knife. The one I had dropped in to the water so many years before.
He looks through the veil as if he really sees me. Then he leans towards me and presses it into my hands.
“Your mother wanted to call you Cay.” He whispers behind his veil. “Our fathers were best friends. We were betrothed anyway. My name is Xur.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I want to berate him for bringing doom upon us all, but the scar on the roof of my mouth throbs as if to tell me that I am not the goddess and we are all doomed anyway. When I look down, my hands seem so small in his. There is something beautiful about it.
“I want you to know.”
I study the tangle of our finger and the texture and colors of our skin. Then I realize what he’s given me: my name. The word dances in my head. Cay.
A name for a baby’s laugh. The quickness of a trickster’s mind. The way that seagulls ride an errant wind up to heaven.
And I want to tell him something too. I lean in so close to him that the silk of his veil caresses my cheek. My voice is buried so deep inside of me, but I whisper anyway.
“I don’t remember my other lives.”
We are walking a wire. For every word we say to each other, I expect a crack in the ground to open up and swallow us whole. It becomes so that I must keep my eyes closed when we speak, as if by keeping my eyes closed, I can stave off destiny’s wrath.
While my body grows thin and pale with dread, Xur takes a contrary pleasure in talking to me. He pushes liberties further and further.
“Let me see your scar.” We sit coupled on my throne, alone as always, the village caught in disease, madness and preparations for the future.
“We’re not supposed to,” I mumble. He strokes the side of my face with his large warm hand. It silences me.
“It never stopped us. Close your eyes.” Xur places a soft warm hand over my eyes and my breath catches in my chest. “I just want to see. We’re not doing anything wrong.”
I hear the silk slide from his face and he tilts my head back and gently pries my mouth open. The heat and bigness of him make me want to run away and collapse into his arms at the same time.
“You know what they did to me when they took me from my family, so many years ago?”
I knew a little. I knew he wandered the earth collecting seeds. I knew that he went into the world and learned things. But I can’t risk moving, so I hold still and silent and his hands wander over my blind face.
“They taught me how to please a woman and all the ways to grow her belly,” he whispered so that I knew his face was close to mine. “Because that is all I am, a planter of seeds.”
My eyes fly open against the palm of his hand. Between his fingers, I see him: thick lashes, shining hair, his face like a carved jewel. The pressing warmth of his body leaving me dizzy, disoriented.
Our eyes meet and his palm slides from my face and eases me back into the dias. Without a sound, I say: “Bad things are going to happen.”
His body feels hard and almost restless over mine, but he looks at me with a strange kind of pity. “Do you know what is going to happen on the first moon of the fourteenth spoke?”
“Do you know what that means? I know you don’t have her memories, Cay.” I swallow hard. His body twists above me. He only calls me that when we are alone.
When he sees that I am too overwhelmed to say anything, his hands begin to wander my body, pressing through the thin silk of my robes and then under them. He leaves a trail of heat from my breasts to my thighs.
“Is this how we consummate?” The words are nothing but air leaving my mouth.
He shakes his head. “Do you want me to stop?”
“We shouldn’t be doing this. The Great Mother will abandon us.”
He asks me again: “Do you want me to stop?”
“No.” I say, arching towards him. His hands fly back to my face and he holds it still for one baited second. I hold his eyes with mine. “Don’t stop, Xur.”
He presses his lips to mine, mining me for something desperate. I suckle him until it feels as if my whole mouth is swollen. The press of our mouths is the only thing in the world. We have left our bodies and become two hungry entities set on devouring each other. There is no doom, no wheel, no god-consort, no living goddess, no Great Mother.
He pulls back and set me upright again. Before he arranges the veil back over his beautiful face, he says:
“The scar in your mouth is bone white, in the shape of a perfect lily.”
When the consummation finally comes, it is a strange, clinical affair.
We are taken to opposite ends of the village, shaved, polished and painted in metallic dust under the noon day sun. A hundred women glue jewels down the length of my arms and legs.
At nightfall, litters take our naked, painted bodies to the center of the village square. They position us back to back, a veil still drawn over Xur’s face.
I am led to the dias first. A woman pries my legs open and tells me not to move.
The elders of the village come one by one, each placing a hand on my belly with their eyes closed reverently. They have done this for many of my incarnations before me. The women come up and then the men. Finally the children come to ask a blessing from my womb. They bring flowers, carefully preserved from the Year of Blessing. It is fitting. After all, it is their future we are ensuring tonight.
When the last child has prayed for my womb, the people climb back into the trees. The flickers of candles appear like stars above me. No one will sleep tonight. They will sit and watch the turning of the wheel.
My legs grow stiff holding this open position and the cold night breeze makes me feel as vulnerable as prey waiting for the feel of teeth. But before long, the moon is high.
Without a word, Xur rises from the dias. There is something not quite right about his body under the veil. He looks misshapen; strange growths protrude from his back and shoulders and arms.
He stands before me and lets the veil fall to the ground. I gasp. Not because I am captured once again by his raw beauty, but because a dozen large horns have been glued to his body. The largest sheaths his male organ. Someone has painted strange symbols on it.
He leads my hand to this horn and I hesitate.
Go on, he says with his eyes.
I pull the horn off. He is painted there too. But he glistens with something slippery and wet.
With one hand he takes the horn from me. Inside there is a small packet of seeds. He sprinkles them over my belly. Then he kneels between my legs and reaches for the horn one more time. Taking a gloop of slime from the inside, he works it into my opening with his fingers. The effect is immediate. The cold breeze is gone.
Xur keeps going, until the horn is scraped clean and I am writhing beneath him. Then he balances above me, face inches from mine and I know the wheel is about to turn.
“I am sorry I have to open you like this.”
And the wheel keeps turning. Less than one moon later, Xur puts his hand on my belly.
“I am thickening.” I say to him.
He doesn’t say anything. But since we are alone on our dias, he moves the silk of my clothing away and presses his lips to my skin.
“It is hard knowing that she’ll already be here when the sixteenth spoke comes.” I have never been told what happens to the child of the living goddess if she comes before the hour of my death. Maybe it was supposed to be something I remembered. “But I’ll get to hold her and know her for a little while.”
“Do you think that this child belongs to us, Cay and Xur? Or do you think it is the little godling of Ife and the god-consort?” Xur’s voice sounds lost in a dream somewhere. His body is hot and dry against mine.
“It doesn’t matter. The wheel will turn anyway.” I know that I will have to lose her. That I will have to lose Xur. It feels as if I just found them a second ago. The scar in my mouth throbs. Everything that I love will always be sacrificed.
Xur sits up and takes my face in his hands. There is something new in his eyes. I have said something terrible.
“No.” He says. “This child lives. We will live. We are Cay and Xur. This wheel will not turn for us.”
I put my hands over his. Our skin glows in the setting sun. Around us, the branches of aloe plants look so much like green spiky teeth that I feel as if I am sitting in the Great Mother’s mouth. Their pulp was the slimy stuff in the horn that night. Xur found them on his journeys. I want to break one of the leaves in my hand and forget this talk of the wheel.
“The wheel will not turn for us,” Xur repeats.
I don’t want to tell him that it will, so I try to look away.
“Look at me. You’re going to live. Say it.”
When I don’t say anything, he throws me over his shoulder and hauls me to the dias in the center of the village. It is too early and no one is watching.
“Tell me you want to live.”
“I can’t!” I cry. In my head, the form of chaos starts to take shape. The night I dropped the knife into the water comes back to me. Mothers kill children, husbands kill wives, sisters kill brothers, the sky turns black and earth opens up to devour us. “You don’t understand what will happen.”
“Then tell me you want me to live. Tell me you want our child to live.”
“What?” I look at him. “I’m the only one that has to die in eleven moons.”
“We’re angels aren’t we? The child and I? Only tools here to get you to this point. Insignificant players in the drama that will make the almighty Mother cry.”
“What are you saying?”
“Angels always have to be sent back when their work is done, right? Cay, the child and I will die, moments--days, at the most--after you.”
I shake my head, uncomprehending, even though it made sense. This was never something I predicted. I truly had not known.
“You know what, Cay? I don’t even believe in the Mother.”
I squeeze my eyes shut, not wanting to see the Mother’s havoc. Seconds go by. Nothing happens.
“I’ve walked this whole world, Cay. Other villages don’t have wheels. They don’t have years of flood and drought and disease. We created the Mother and Ife and the damned god-consort because we chose to live in this sort of hell, Cay. It’s all made up. Superstition is the only way we can explain our insanity.”
He keeps talking. Overhead, the sky is still blue. The birds sing in the trees as if they do not hear him. The earth does not tremble. Death does not come. Nothing happens.
“It’s all made up?” I say tentatively.
“Everything.” His words promise me the world. “No one ever had to die. You don’t have to die.”
“But they’ll kill me anyway.”
“No, we’ll run away. You and me before your belly grows too big. I can survive out there, Cay. It’ll be the three of us. We’ll walk from village to village trading seeds the way I did before I came here.”
“Now. We were betrothed before you were born and I’ve been planning this for a long time.”
Xur has stores planted in a cave high in the mountains: seeds, silks, wool, jewels. There are buckets for raising eel and an annex for our sheep and poultry. A loft for our sons perches over head and a bed of sand and roses lies by the hearth for our daughters. There is even a raised garden where I will give birth and grow the bodies of our plants the way I grew the bodies of our children.
Xur calls me Cay and Ife finally seems like someone else. Aloe plants grow in profusion here.
As the moon rises, I realize that our new home looks down upon the village. It is strange. After all of those years of spending my life being watched from on high, I am the one now looking down upon them.
We sit outside all night, lost in each other. The sky at dawn is brilliant red. If we were in the village, the old ones would say that there is a storm coming.
It is the cold, stinging drops that pull us out of each other. I look at Xur. His face is streaked with blood. We raise our hands to wipe away the gore falling from the sky.
Then I realize that something is very wrong. I pull him into the cave. Our skin has died where the drops of blood have fallen.
I sit in the corner of the cave with my eyes closed. Xur scrubs my body clean before doing his own. We are covered with scars. I do not want to see any of it.
After an hour, maybe two. Xur gets up and leaves. When he comes back he says.
“It stopped. Everything is going to be okay. Come outside and see.”
I keep my eyes closed, knowing that this was my fault, knowing that I was the one that stopped the wheel.
Xur picks me up in his scarred arms and carries me outside. Through my closed eyes, I know the sun is high in the sky. It is almost like a beautiful day.
“Open your eyes. It’s okay.”
I can’t hide from what I have done any longer. I open my eyes. The world is still verdant and green. Xur pulls my face to his for a kiss.
“What did I tell you? All of it was just made up.”
But just before he presses his lips to mine, I find the valley where our village lies.
It is a lake of blood.