Stars Reflected in Every Drop | Kathrin Köhler

7 Aug

(Artwork by Carrion House)

I want to tell you about his ship—how it glittered with space dust, how it shuddered into dock, hull colder than the middle of the Season of Night when both moons slide across the sky, bare and lonely as shattered bone.

I want to tell you of Khalladan—how his eyes were darker than the skies during the Season of Storms, darker than the dreadest clouds that gather their bellies swollen with howling winds, darker than the deluge of bursting black rain that saturates the air so that when you breathe you breathe in the rain and you see nothing.

I want to tell you of fate, and that it is not what you think.

We do everything to tempt the planet into generosity, for a growing season to last long enough that the fibrous roots will grow and mature, and long enough that we can harvest them before night sets in for months. Patterns such as Ghaya, sense of purpose and unity, Skulla, the movement of wind before a storm, and Wirp, as water flows so should all things, and other intricate designs are woven into every aspect of life—into cloth and pottery, architecture and crop placement, into language and rituals of greeting, eating, and cleansing—all for the purpose of enticing the planet to produce one more dram of water, to grant us one more drop. We only travel over land, but our shipbuilders spend years building ships ornate with carvings and filigree, only to sink them in the One Sacred Sea. We offer ourselves and each other. No one remains exempt. Everyone, anything.

The day I met Khalladan was the day of my Passage. Yes, even royalty must walk it. Remember, nothing is exempt. The names of my ancestors had been sung and I set out to walk four hundred eighty-nine paces in the Desert—one step for each Water Prayer in the litany. If the ground held, I would return and be allowed to take my place as Sovereign. If the Desert swallowed me, it meant the planet preferred me for its own. My name would have been sung during the Season of Storms that year and the water in the aquifers would have borne my name until they ran dry. My blood to the planet, the planet’s to our People. It is never called sacrifice. It is only called Fate.

At the four hundred and seventy-first step, at the prayer for purpose and exploration that results in compassionate abundance, a mouth opened beneath me. The planet had chosen. It was not the fate I would have chosen for myself. But the decision had been made.

They would not want me to tell you that he strode right past them as they sat on their mats woven in patterns of appeasement, Sukl, and reverence, Qui’i. They sat as a Great Mouth of the Desert opened beneath me. Dirt crumbled beneath my grasping hands, shifted beneath my legs as I was pulled, with the inexorable patience of a planet, down. My mother and the priests sat as I struggled to accept this fate they calmly watched devour me. For some it is much easier to accept a choice not of their own making. And though I had been taught to revere this moment, my death—my being chosen—there in the desert, the soil shifting beneath me, I did not want to die. But Khalladan strode past my mother, the priests, past all of them, and up to the lip of the Mouth.

Here is something else they will not tell you: Feeling can also be purpose.

The wind brought his scent to me first—over the arid exhaustion of inevitability I caught the bright smell of space and stars, cold and vast. The soil shifted again, hungry, but this time I kicked and scrambled and raged. I would not let my will or my fate be buried there that day. I could smell change and possibility in the air.

And there, over the lip, a hand reaching for me. He stretched his arms. Then there it was—clearer than the One Sacred Sea, and deeper, and worth more than all the water held therein—our bond. And when I took to my own fate, when I reached out to him, when he fastened his hands about my wrists, when his shoulders and neck strained, his bare feet digging for purchase in the crumbling soil, when I pulled myself free of the Mouth, I knew we had forged something new, something fathomed from aphotic waters and deepest space. Our fate. Another fate.

Standing together with Khalladan I felt regal in a way that stripped the pageantry of royalty to desiccated bone. With Khalladan, I held waterfalls within me, my breath was dew, flowers that only grow in the trickling water of springs bloomed on my skin. I was overflowing with impossible dreams. And in that fecundity, we created you.

They would not want me to tell you, you have a choice. You always have a choice.

Tradition would have let the Desert claim me. But tradition kept me alive, as well, for if the Desert had chosen me, then Khalladan, who belonged to the sky, having come down from it in his ship, chose me as well. The Weeper cannot be denied. Though we worship the planet that gives us life, it is the sky whose tears give us water. The priests say that since the sky will not let itself be seen by our mortal eyes we cannot revere it directly. It would be blasphemy. Thus, Khalladan could not be challenged directly and I lived. Thus, I am here to tell you because I have right over what you know, and I want you to know anything and everything.

The day you were born the priest let drop seven drops of your blood onto the bare ground so the planet could know you. This pattern of spilled blood spelled your name. They praised your symmetry and each family member blessed a part of you claiming the right of godparent to your left arm, your intestines, your eyes. Even at birth we are not wholly our own.

As mother I had the right to first claim and I chose your mind so that I could oversee your education and your dreams, so that I might fill your mind with wonder and possibilities. Traditionally mothers choose the stomach or the heart. SalaDahar had chosen her child’s blood, a more rebellious act than mine since blood is claimed by the priests for the planet. Tradition demands that hubris be denied all water, even the moisture from our breaths. But SalaDahar, your great-great-grandmother, survived her Passage to become Sovereign, and so we must incant her name during ceremony. This is why it is only ever hissed and never spoken with full mouth, never given full breath.

When the priests took you to your naming and the midwives removed the birthing basins filled with the water from my womb, it was then, alone in the birthing bed that I made another choice. I stole a vial-full of your birth water. I wrung it from the sheets which had not yet been collected. Seven drops. Seven full drops of water my body had created for you. So little compared to what you’d just known. So much compared to what you’d come to know. Unless you travel to the One Sacred Sea, it’s the most water you’ll ever see at one time, those first nine months.

The priests take a foot, then a hand, for every drop of water stolen. At five they deprive you of the ability to have children. With six they take your eyes. And at seven they simply behead you, all other things worth taking already gone.

The body can be generous even when the planet is not. A person can be generous when others are not, even if she has to steal in order to give.

They brought you back from the ceremony to suckle from my breast. Your blind hungry mouth latched on, and in the pain of my sudden milkflow I almost dropped the vial, exposing my theft. But I held on, and so did you. You ate heartily. I thought, now I am a planet. And I told you of how you were born.

Only once before had I heard screams like the ones that flew from my throat during your childbirth—on the day I met Khalladan, the day of my Passage. The day he extended me his hand and, grasping it, I climbed out of the Great Mouth of the Desert. The planet screamed, shrill and indomitable, penetrating everywhere. The One Sacred Sea boiled and then froze. The air shattered and killed every bird in flight. Having given birth to you, feeling the cave where you’d grown shrink back to emptiness, having given of myself, I now understand. But still, I would change nothing.

That day in the Desert, my mother unfolded herself from her seated position on the mat and she spat at Khalladan’s feet to appease the planet, to ward off bad luck and retribution. She denounced his actions, his betrayal. But he was the sky’s and I had become Sovereign.

I made a second betrayal. I chose Khalladan there and then. I blessed the hands that had gripped me, the arms and shoulders, his neck, his thighs that had braced against the hungry soil, his cracked and bleeding feet. I had never seen a man wear hair as short as his, dark curls close to his scalp. His eyes more prominent for it. His eyes the color of rain-filled sky. Men have always worn their hair unhindered, letting it halo their heads like storm clouds or letting it fall long like rain. Anything to tempt the planet. But his hair was as short as the Season of Storms. His time with me all too brief.

He sold his ship to pay his water debt, but the moment you were conceived he bore your debt as well. The marriage hand or the loins of a child are traditionally claimed by fathers so that they might direct the future of their lineage. I chose Khalladan without my father’s consent, thus you are not of my father’s lineage, thus, he was not responsible for your debt. I live in the palace, am responsible for the wellness of all beings, have unimaginable wealth at my command, but it is all in the name of the People. I have no water of my own—that is for the men to pay. Having nothing left to sell and no ship to get off planet so that you might inherit his water, Khalladan walked the Passage to let the Desert decide.

The year of your birth the waters were named Khalladan. He fell from the sky. He filled the aquifers to overflowing. Khalladan, Khalladan, we sang his name, Khalladan.

I tell you all this because he and I agreed—we want you to have your own dreams. When you look up at the stars and the vastness of space he wanted you to see nothing but the unknown waiting for you to know it, nothing but wonders waiting for you to unfold. When you walk upon the planet seeking a path, I want for you to see your own way whether it is a path already hewn into the stone, or one you have to etch footstep by footstep. No matter where it leads, no matter what others say—go where your feet take you, go where your hands grasp.

And this vial—a princely sum, a princessly sum—this vial is for you. It was yours already, as it is mine to give, no matter what tradition says. You may choose to return it to the planet; you may choose to create with it any number of fates; you may give it to the needy; you may let it evaporate into the air and breathe of it deeply.

Our dearest child, born of sky and earth, you belong where you will.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

 

Kathrin Köhler is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop and the University of Wisconsin – Madison. An immigrant interested in intersectionality, the interstitial, and ideas interdisciplinary, they are most comfortable writing in places “between.” Favorite topics include the power of narrative, and how people conceive of and interact with nature. Their work has appeared in InterfictionsStrange Horizonsthe Book Smugglers, and other fine places. More at https://theliteratecondition.wordpress.com

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