Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. My first year in the Novitiate House was a time of great learning, but also a time of sorrow and death …
Girl is kneeling, about to pour yet more tea for the foreign trader, when he slips from his cushion and slumps against her.
The other traders jump to their feet, exclaiming loudly. The priestesses of Wisdom and Truth rise more elegantly, quietly worried. Unmoving, unmoved, old skinflint Dhanash, who invited himself to the negotiations, demands to know if Master Jin is dead.
Girl tries to remain calm, supporting the trader as she sets the tea-kettle down, then carefully lowering him to the devdar-wood floor. She touches his throat, seeking the pathways of his life force, but finds only clogged and stagnant channels.
A priestess kneels beside her, considers the man’s harsh breathing, his rank breath, then presses a point of confluence at his neck. “I fear it’s the honeyed disease. Fetch a healer, Kalpana. Go your quick way.”
Girl runs from the Teaching Hall. The proper way to the House of Healing is down the four storeys of the Novitiate House, then through, across, along and past the many courts, open alleys, covered passages and buildings winding their way around the monastery. But the roofs of the two Houses are connected. It’s a simple climb even in formal robes, and she knows which window shutters open easily from the outside.
For Girl is no stranger to the House of Healing. She lost Sukhbir there.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, the child you named Kalpana, though in my heart I always remained Girl. In the Postulant House I learned of your first aspects, but I didn’t truly understand until the township and the pilgrim hospitium …
Girl stands by the prayer flags, several yards from the hospitium door, and not only to ready herself for the stench of illness and death. She’s accompanied priestesses of Compassion and Benevolence on many occasions to comfort the dying, but always alongside other postulants. This time she’s the only one.
Girl has learned a great deal in her six years in the Postulant House, not least that it’s more than a place of teaching, it’s a place of assessment, and not every applicant is accepted into the Order. She’s determined to become a priestess, but first she must progress to the Novitiate House, and she’s sure the hospitium is where she’ll be tested and the decision made.
One deep breath and she takes a step forward. Then stops dead. Inside the hospitium a woman’s voice has risen in a screech.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, the unhappy girl in the Postulant House. It was there I ran away from you for the first time. It all began with my name …
“What’s your name?” the tall girl asks, and the floodgates open.
“How old are you?”
“Where are you from?”
“What’s your caste?”
“Is it true you can’t talk?”
Girl is dazed, flustered. Nearly a month she’s been at the monastery, but until now her only company has been Shanti, a slow, sweet dumpling of a serving girl who was surely a water buffalo in her last life. Shanti looked after Girl, sleeping alongside her, bathing, eating and praying alongside her, and never once asked any questions or made any demands. Gradually, under her placid care, Girl learned to trust and to speak again.
But Shanti has other duties now and Girl must live with the young girls in the Postulant House, and they’re crowding about her with their shrill voices and insistent questions, and her head is spinning.
“I’m called Girl,” she finally stammers.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. Your priestess brought me to the monastery. There I saw your statue for the first time. There I turned away from you for the first time. But before you, there was another …
“Here, little one. Sit here.”
Sukhbir, the older of the priestess’s guards, points to a broken wall well away from the crowd. Girl sits. She likes Sukhbir. He’s kind and gentle and makes her laugh. He’s her friend, and she’s never had a friend before.
The young guard, Lal, is nice enough, but smells of rice wine and raksi, reminding her of Aprakash. The priestess is beautiful, but far away somehow, as if always thinking important thoughts.
And Sukhbir is the one who bought clothes for Girl – new clothes, not ragged cast-offs – which keep her warm as they climb higher and higher into the mountains. He’s the one who holds her when she’s sick, which is often, as she isn’t used to having such rich food and so much to eat. And he’s the one she rides with, sitting before him on his great horse, while he tells her about the monastery and the priestesses, who she mustn’t call “lady” but “honoured one”, because the Lady is the goddess, the Lady of Six Aspects, though Girl doesn’t know what an aspect is. But whatever Sukhbir says to do, she does. So when he says “Sit here.” she sits.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, your little mouse. You sent your priestess to free me from my cage …
“I shall come for you.”
Girl whispers the words to herself as she rides a water buffalo home from the steep terraces of the rice fields. Many, many days have passed since the goddess made the promise, but Girl knows she will keep her word.
But how will she come? In a chariot, drawn by white buffaloes? Riding a great golden yak? Or a tiger? Yes, a tiger. And the goddess will let it eat Naala.
Girl has more weals on her back and legs nowadays, as Naala finds any excuse to lash out with her bamboo cane. For Aprakash has gone, and not to his auntie’s. Gone without the golden horn-caps, but Girl is sure he’s taken other things, for Naala has spent hours searching her coffers, sometimes weeping that he’s left her, more often cursing his name.
The village gossips think he’s gone for good. Girl hopes so. The goddess said not to fear his threats, but Girl does fear, and she repeats the goddess’s promise over and over to herself like a holy mantra.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. I was six years old, no one, nothing, but you found me. Girl was my name …
Girl doesn’t respond, only crawls further into the gap beneath the house, deeper into the shadows. She’s done nothing wrong, but Naala screaming for her like that means a beating.
“This is how I’m repaid for my compassion and benevolence,” cries Naala as villagers gather. “But it certainly shows I lacked wisdom, taking in the orphaned babe, caring for her for five long years. In truth, she’s as wicked as her feckless parents. But I’ll have judgement-giving and justice before the god. As Temple Elder, I demand it.”
Girl doesn’t understand all the words, but some make her tingle inside. Then Aprakash stumbles from the house, half-drunk on rice wine and raksi.
“Why all the shrieking, Mother?” he demands. “What’s the brat done now?”
“Theft! Theft from my own house!”
“Old story, new story…”
Softly, mournfully, Akiowa sang the Storyteller’s call to herself, but the rest died on her lips as she reached the brow of the ridge and gazed down over the land. A sparkling river ran alongside a birch forest, overlooked by a white rock shaped like a wolf howling at the sky. A rock she’d first seen as a babe, when her father had brought her to be blessed by the village totem. A rock which had watched, impassive, as the tribeless men carried her away.
Home. After the long years of slavery and wandering, she was home. She fell to her knees, one trembling hand at her mouth holding back her cry of joy, tears pricking her eyes.
Then joy turned to sorrow; the tears fell. For this was no longer home, since she was no longer Akiowa, young daughter of the tribe’s noblest man, his dwelling hers as long as she lived. She was the Storyteller, an old woman with no family, who would stay only a night or two before leaving.
Akiowa sat with her back against a fir, looking out over the vast lake and its islands, occasionally brushing ants from her skirts, wishing she could push her thoughts away so easily. But the ants kept coming back as well, so perhaps there was no difference after all.
The spear had led her to so many villages, stirring so many painful memories of a lush valley – fruit trees, earth lodges, well-tilled fields. Memories of loving parents, a revered rock totem, an unhappy girl walking alone at dead of night. And beyond memory, the haunting vision of grief for a lost child. At each village her sorrow had grown. And guilt. So much guilt.
She’d never told the spear how she’d come to be enslaved, but perhaps it knew, and that was why it had brought her to this place, with its dark firs and thin soil and no people, where there was nothing to recall her reckless, inexcusable folly.
But no. There were people. A bull-boat came into view from behind an island, a woman paddling steadily towards the mainland away to Akiowa’s left.
The spear sent its thrill into her hand. “Must I?” she asked. The thrill came again. With a sigh she got to her feet.
“Welcome, Storyteller,” said the woman, as laughing girls and young children danced around Akiowa. “I am Nadie. Forgive my man for not greeting you, but the menfolk are all out hunting.”
No, not all, for a boy of perhaps twelve years stood watching, a scowl on his face. His left leg was withered, wasted, and he leaned heavily on a stick.
“Siki, come meet the Storyteller,” called Nadie, but the boy turned away. “Take it not ill, Storyteller,” she continued quietly. “Sadly, my son thinks less of himself because of his leg. But come, be welcome at my home while we wait for the men.”
Baskets full of beads stood outside her lodge – stone, shell, coral, bone, turquoise – and after bringing spicebush tea and plum-bread for Akiowa, Nadie took up her work, stitching beads into strings. Another basket held finished necklaces and amulets. As Akiowa was admiring them – they were the finest she’d ever seen – the boy, Siki, appeared before her.
“My father,” he said, “is our greatest hunter.”
“And your mother is a wonderful beadworker. You can be proud of both.”
“And I’m a cripple,” he said defiantly, as if they’d argued over it. “I cannot hunt with him.”
Akiowa stood gazing at the totem. Remembering. Grieving. It was blue-grey stone fashioned like an eagle, nothing like the white wolf of her clan, its festival decorations sprays of spring blossom not the colourful craftwork her people would have enjoyed making. Yet its spirit was the same, and memories of the last time she’d seen the white wolf rock threatened to overwhelm her.
As though summoned by the memories, a young girl, her face creased with worry, hurriedly approached the totem. There similarity ended, for she touched the rock with hand and forehead, pushed something under the blossoms, then rushed away, all without noticing Akiowa.
Satisfying curiosity, Akiowa uncovered a scrap of painted rawhide, an eagle’s vivid essence soaring in brilliant colours. Wonderful work. But puzzling. Why had the girl left it there in such a strange manner?
Spring was ever a busy time – clearing, weeding, re-making the long mounds for the crops, burying rotten fish to improve the soil, planting seeds of maize, then beans and squash. Yet the women of Akiowa’s village still found time to talk or paint, while men boasted of old hunts and children played. Not here. Everyone worked, in fields which stretched as far as Akiowa could see. She wandered through the village, past mounds of thick-skinned squash – the mainstay of winter’s diet, but enough still remaining for the rest of the year – but no one noticed her until she gave the Storyteller’s call.