by Sandi Leibowitz
Forty-five. Forty-six. I hope I’ve counted the steps right; it’s easy to lose count, as you’re going up. Nine hundred steps. Twenty-seven syllables. Why are the gods so in love with numbers? There are no railings and at my age—a few years older than the number of steps I’ve climbed—even this first portion of the task doesn’t come easily.
One hundred. Over the past month I tried to work out the words to form my prayer, but not all of them. I’m hoping that the act of climbing will bring enlightenment.
“Ahsness,” I say aloud. Desire. I use the old tongue, the one these dead gods will recognize. My voice is strong. If anyone notes my figure ascending, they will never guess that I come seeking love. They’ll think me too old for romance, certainly too old for desire. But they’d be wrong. I still burn for him.
Dennen is a widower now and free to seek another wife, if he so chooses. He may not choose. I have no reason to believe that he’d choose me. So, I climb.
I have loved him since we were young, when I was, if not beautiful, then pretty and considered a good catch. When he chose Saranel, I still loved him. My old friends will remember how I wept my eyes sore and swore I’d see her dead. They laughed at me for it, so I learned to love and hate in silence. I loved him when I married Lev and when I bore Lev’s children. More than thirty years of fruitless loving. At last Saranel is dead indeed and I’m a fool still yearning to capture Dennen’s eye. A wide-hipped grandmother with fat calves and sagging breasts, I still hope to stir Ahsness in a man who even unwed maidens flirt with.
The sun is fully out as I reach the two-hundredth step; I started in the almost-light, so I could begin my journey in the coolest part of the day. My breath comes hard and I must rest.
“Bevnaria,” I huff. Friendship. Love cannot last on mere desire. Saranel and Dennen had desire but not friendship. Soon after they wed, he regretted his choice, although you could tell he still cherished her body, the way he looked at her when she walked past, her skirts tight and clinging. She ruined that whenever she opened her mouth. She had a trivial mind, an ear tuned only to gossip, and a mean spirit. Cherished her body, yes, but anyone could see he did not like her.
It grows hot as I ascend. I carry two water-skins with me, one over each shoulder. I take a few sips now. It’s a challenge to keep the count. Each step looks like another, a dusty golden color. Some are more cracked than others. Some more worn, dipping towards the middle. Others are loose and you must be careful not to stumble.
I never stumbled in my marriage. Though I didn’t love my husband, I never cuckolded him. In the early years there were men enough who wished to be my lover. But I was not made for falseness.—Be honest, Byna; there are other kind of stumbles. Harshness was mine. It grew over me like a crab-shell. My rough tongue scraped Lev raw, harping on every flaw. People call me a shrew, though they say I’ve grown gentler in my widowhood. “Work harder, you’re lazy,” I’d admonish Lev, always pushing. It wasn’t that I wanted nicer things. I wanted Dennen’s admiration, and Saranel’s envy. Lev’s real flaw was simply that he wasn’t Dennen.
Eventually, it was Lev who truly stumbled. Odd that he attracted so many lovers over the years, since he was plain to look at, and a simple man. People didn’t laugh at his stories the way they do at Dennen’s, nor seek him out for his advice, no matter how much they complimented him on his clever wife. Why did those women want him? They must have been the types who get bored without some new diversion. Besides, he was the sort that people call A Decent Man. (If you discount the infidelities.) I suppose that was enough for them. Why did he want them? It wasn’t as if I shunned his bed. No, I know. Every time he touched me, he could tell I didn’t love him. He sought in other women the warmth he never got from me.
Or maybe he was just a man.
Three hundred. I sit my rump two steps above the spot marked by my feet, making sure my left hand doesn’t relax the three curled fingers that hold the hundreds in my mind.
“Lakia,” I say. Trust. I have spoken nine syllables now.
I continue upwards. My mind goes blank a while, concentrating on keeping the count. The heavy water-skins begin to take their toll. They pound against my back and chest with every step. Thump, swing, thump. Thump, swing, thump. At least the beat helps me maintain momentum.
Four-hundred. “Myttaleen,” I say firmly. Fidelity.
Will the gods hold faith with me when I am done?
The Kaleem conquered us when I was a little girl. They banished our gods, declaring them dead. The old folks wept for the loss, but most of us didn’t care. We welcomed conquest—at least war ended, which also meant an end to famine. I would have worshipped any god that gave me bread. I was not alone. For a few years, you’d hear of tiny factions that met in secret to worship Nyn and the old gods. Everyone knew where to find them, even the Kaleem. Wisely, the conquerors didn’t seek out the backsliders for punishment. If they’d persecuted the faithful, our people would have risen in opposition. Instead, the need for the old gods faded over time. Our people, visiting the Kaleem temples at first for form’s sake, realized the new gods were no less reliable than the old. Now it’s as if we always had three gods instead of nine. An economic race, the Kaleem.
No longer do you hear anyone mumbling Nyn’s rites. Come to think of it, it has been years—decades— since I last caught sight of some fool climbing these steps. For a while you’d see the occasional crone attempt it, limping upwards to pray for a dying husband or child—always too frail to reach the top—but those days are long past. The new gods don’t grant wishes, just accept offerings to their greatness, much like the Kaleem themselves.
My climbing is an act of faith. Or desperation. Who will grant me the love of my youth, if not the gods of that same youth?
Five hundred. My leg cramps. I must sit. I look down over the city of Radalesq. That was the name it had when I was born, the name it wore for centuries. Charedi, they call it now. Here and there I can make out the ruins of the old temples, mere rubble. The Kaleem did not raze them to the ground. No, they just neglected them, until chipped paint and weeds growing through cracked stones became a symbol of our gods’ desertion. Indeed it was our own people who first pilfered bricks and stones to repair their houses. Here and there you see the old stones with traces of lapis and ochre, but the thieves stole blindly, so the patterns are disturbed, making no sense. That is what our city is like: an isolated piece from some giant mosaic, fitting into nothing. The desert still smothers it—that’s one thing the Kaleem could never conquer. They thought they’d make Charedi flourish, transform it into a city of gardens. It is a city of dust and sand.
The hot wind blows sand into my mouth, as if to agree. I spit it out.
One must have the perseverance of the desert to survive a marriage. Each one has its trials, times when it seems permanent separation can be the only option. I have seen it in other marriages, even those founded on love. You must be strong to decide to stay. To endure.
Oh, I have felt like a desert all these years and yet I yearn for flowering! I could yet be a woman who wakes a man’s desires. Can I not? My love blows hot as the desert wind! And like the desert, it endures.
I resume my climb. I have to swat my hand away from the water-skin.
At the six-hundreth step, I gulp at the skin like a baby at its mother’s teat. Slowly, Byna, slowly. The sweat trickles down my face. When I sit, the sun-heated stone burns my rump and legs, but the need to rest’s more urgent. I sprinkle some precious drops of water onto my loose scarf and wrap it around my head to protect it from the sun. I chose bridal red today, a hopeful choice.
Why are you so thirsty for love? I ask myself. Others live without it.
But others have not found the one they’re meant for! The one whose heart beats like their second heart! To go without him is indeed like being thirsty all my life, a pitcher of cool water just out of reach.
I drink again from the skin. Not as much as I’d like.
What are my next syllables? When I’d tried to prepare, the count would never come right—always one or two syllables too long or too short. That was why I decided to let the journey teach me the rest. But now, in the sun, so tired, I find it difficult to think.
“Tenehay.” Laughter. For that’s the thing about Dennen I love best of all. Despite the throbbing of my head, the picture of him gladdening those around him with some droll tale makes me smile.
Lev lacked humor. Maybe that’s what turned me so sour. No, Byna, be honest. Maybe ‘twas the other way around: my coldness made him less likely to laugh. Even as mere friends and neighbors, Dennen and I always laugh together. He coaxes out what remains of the young Byna. Head thrown back, my mouth opens widely, as I give myself up to the moment’s pleasure. When he’s near, my wit blossoms and other men and women relish my company. I am less full of care, my better self. If we were married, how easy-going I would become! No one would call me shrew behind my back. Byna the Clever (the name they say to my face) would become Byna the Jovial.
I finish the last few drops in the first water-skin and force myself to rise.
The journey up grows harder. At least the first skin is light now. I must save the second for my descent.
I have stored the next two words in my mind. I must not forget them.
Seven hundred. So close! Yet I can’t see the top. All I see is step after step. They waver with the heat.
“Bazzem.” Tears. A strange choice. We would tire of each other, Dennen and I, if our life together contained nothing but placid ease. After all, unsalted meat has no flavor. So I think that our love must include tears—but, I pray, not too great a sorrow. Besides, are there not also tears of joy?
There is nothing but steps. Sun. Thirst.
When I turn to sit, I reel with dizziness. I’ve won the vantage point of the gods. No wonder they so seldom think on us—we are so small and far away. My head pounds. I drink. Spill some precious drops to wash my face and douse the head-scarf again. My hands shake.
What was the next word I’d meant to use? Ah, yes. Cracked and dry, my lips barely open.
“Amut-amut,” I croak. Balance. This is the last word I know in advance. From here on, the gods must guide me. I thought of it when I thought of tears. Too much laughter and you degenerate into foolishness. Too many tears—no. Work and play, laughter and gravity, labor and love—a good life must combine all these things. So I, who have suffered an immoderate love for thirty years, now ask for balance in the years to come.
My steps slow, a slavish trudging. I count quietly aloud, despite the energy required to summon even that wispy sound. I’m afraid my attention will wander.
The nine-hundredth step. I have arrived at the last pause. The temple is above me, columns of the golden stone open to the sky on all four sides. The orb atop the pediment, visible throughout Radalesq, is so close I can see the designs engraved on the metal. I shiver. Such work was meant only for such as me who finish the ascent. Who were the others who came before me? What wishes did they hold close to their hearts? Were their prayers answered? And if they were, did it bring them peace?
A hot wind blows, stirring the poppy-red scarf. I hope the color pleases Nyn. Even though it’s not cool enough to be fresh, the breeze gives me renewed hope.
My mind is empty. What is the last word? What did I learn from my life with Lev? I did not bring him joy, and for that I’m sorry. Oh, Dennen, object of my prayers, my desires and discontent. I hope that, if I succeed here, my love does not burden you! Let me bring you joy, as I hope you bring it to me! I think of Saranel, dying pocked and bloated, crying in anguish from the blood sickness. All my curses shriveled in my throat when I looked on her then, and I was sorry for all my ill wishes.
“Yarashnath!” I cry. The word slips from my mouth before I can think. Forgiveness. I would beg of all three of them forgiveness.
I climb the short flight of steps that lead to the temple. Nine-hundred and one, nine-hundred and—but counting is no longer necessary. Did I lose it all in blurting out that last word? How many syllables? Four! Then I have named twenty-seven syllables! But whether I have phrased my prayer aright remains to be seen. No white doves float about my shoulders offering assurance. No immortal hands help me forward, wafting me with fans or offering me cool water. I let myself take a few sips from the second skin. The trip down will be lighter. Faster too, without the counting. Will I be lighter as well?
The temple is beautiful. The short wall that surrounds the roof is decorated with friezes honoring the gods. I walk the perimeter, savoring them. For this work was built solely for the pleasure of those few with the strength or faith or stubbornness to climb the steps. They exist for me, and I will take my due. It may be my only recompense.
Winding trails of white lotus blossoms against bright indigo frame the pictures, making this place a mummified version of the city of my childhood—such patterns appeared on all the old temples. There is the god of the sun, planting his spear in the earth, his hair aflame. I have forgotten his name. Purdah of the Waters, finned and bare-breasted, swims in a bold band of blue, overpainted with white swirls suggesting waves. So faded, she appears a ghost.
Next, the leafy face of the goddess of vegetation peers at me from her tree. And here is Sumeray, Goddess of Beasts, gamboling with her herds and charges. My little sister Rais feared her toothy, leonine smile, but she was always my favorite.
I turn the next corner. Singers, dancers, potters, and a host of others make their offerings to the god of the Arts. He smiles my way, and I cannot help but feel cheered that someone notices my presence and sees fit to bless my accomplishment. The goddess of Industry, a woman, of course, oversees a multitude of tiny laborers.
I move quickly past the god of Victory, brandishing a sword and hissing menace at some unknown foe, bristling with aggression like a man in a tavern brawl. Beside him, posturing with equal male arrogance, the giant god of Government presides over a miniature, painted Radalesq. Where were these gods when the Kaleem murdered our people and set their rulers over us?
I have toured the entire frieze and don’t need to count to recognize that one god is missing. Where is Nyn?
There. A statue of the Mother of All sits enthroned at the very center of the temple. You would have thought they would have created something more spectacular than this, a towering figure to inspire awe. This puny object comes to only about my height. Maybe it was meant to be intimate, as if the successful supplicant has earned the right to speak directly to the goddess.
Why did they employ so poor a sculptor to depict Nyn, when all the lesser gods were so well rendered? But no, it isn’t that the statue isn’t beautiful—it is very life-like, masterfully carved. It’s the goddess that disappoints. She’s not young and voluptuous, but about my age and spare, as if she lived through the Famines and still starves. Look, how her ribs show through the folds of her gown. Shouldn’t the supreme goddess look bountiful and fair? The winds have pitted the sandstone, turning her into a wrinkled crone, a beggar in ragged finery. I feel ashamed to think she represents the greatest god of my people. Perhaps the Kaleem were right to conquer us.
Nyn’s face looks not stern but sadly vacant—perhaps preoccupied. My heart doesn’t leap with the certainty that this goddess has the power to grant my wishes; or even that it would give her joy to do so. Her hands lie heavy on her thighs. She does not gaze on the city, as a protectress should, but directly at me. She—
The right hand quivers.
A mirage, brought on by fatigue and heat. I drink from the skin, shaking.
The hand moves again, unmistakably this time. It lifts in the familiar gesture of benediction before wearily falling back to the thigh. She still seems stone and yet—
“Your prayers,” the voice begins. It is a croak. The statue stops, clears its throat as any person would do who hadn’t spoken in a long time. “Your prayers will be answered.” My eyes fix on the moving mouth of sandstone. The lips part slowly, with great difficulty, into a faint smile.
My heart pounds. Eventually I remember myself and fall to my knees. I hide my head in my lap. Isn’t that what one must do in the presence of a god?
“Rise,” she says. She speaks sparingly, as if each word pains her.
“They say the old gods are dead.” I stumble to my feet.
“They are,” she answers, surprising me. “The others—” she gestures toward the friezes. “Gone.”
“Even the gods require love. Only I remain. I hear my name sometimes, whispered at babies’ cradles or at grave sites. It’s what keeps me here. No one has walked the Steps, though, in many years. My rites are forgotten. You came. You prayed to me and woke me.”
Nyn can scarcely move. I remember the mosaics of the Great Temple and the little idols each household shrine maintained. In the old images, the Mother appeared younger, more beautiful, possessing an undeniable energy. My eyes witness how feeble is the faith of the Radalesqi.
She gazes at me thirstily. An emptiness waiting to be filled. Is that how I look at Dennen?
“Daughter, your prayer is granted,” she says. But the look is one of pleading. She wants payment of some kind for this gift. I fear for a moment. There are tales of dark gods who extract payment in blood. Are they true?
“I ask,” the husked voice scrapes like a boat on the bottom of a dry riverbed, “that you remember me in return. Now and then, offer thanks to me for the gift of Radalesq…” Her hand gestures, palm outward, toward the city below us. “For I did build this city once, raise it from the desert.” The gesture comes before her gaze shifts from me to the city. A look of pained longing overspreads the weary face.
“So changed…” The voice trails off. Has she re-petrified?
“Nyn,” I say.
She jerks alert, eyes intent on mine.
“I do promise. I will wear poppies in your name, spill milk before the doorsill, recite the prayers. I will remember.”
“Go in peace, then, Byna,” the goddess says. “And in love.” She smiles. “He is yours.”
My heart flutters like a netted bird.
I bow before the goddess, then move toward the stairs. As I set my foot on the first step, I turn around. She has already subsided into stone, asleep once more.
I pity her. So full of the need to be loved that she has withered and dried and all but died for the want of it. Have I become like her? Did I waste my life in wanting what I could not have?
I will have faith that my prayer will be answered. If so dry a husk of a goddess has it in her power to grant it. And I welcome the life ahead with Dennen. If truly that is to be.
But if it’s not, it is no small thing to be a woman, healthy, still strong enough for labor, still open enough for friendship and—yes, desire! And love!—if they should come to me. It is no terrible thing to wash and weave and spin and sell but also to swap jests in the marketplace, to visit my children, and have grandchildren to spoil and teach and hug. Can that not be enough?
The sun beams harshly on the pale-colored steps. The first look all the way down makes me gasp. Easy, Byna. You came up slowly and didn’t fall, you will go down the same way. I welcome the ache in my knees and back, the thirst that parches my throat, the sweat the trickles down my thighs. For it means I’m made of flesh, not stone, and I’m alive.
“Yarashnath,” I say, this time asking forgiveness of myself.
Sandi Leibowitz is a school librarian, classical singer and writer of speculative fiction and poetry. Her work appears in Liminality, Stone Telling, Inkscrawl, Mythic Delirium, Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year 5 and other magazines and anthologies. A native New Yorker, she has ridden in a hot-air balloon over the Rio Grande, traveled in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims to Santiago de la Compostella and visited with Arthur in Avalon.
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
I have always loved words. I was the nerdy kid who relished English assignments like making up sentences that used a given list of adjectives. As a pre-teen and teen I used to type out favorite poems and passages from novels on my mother's old manual typewriter. I love the look and sound of words, the way they can move you to tears, incite you to anger, or simply render you breathless. I have always loved story. And I have always wanted to be a writer. It is indeed hard, sometimes, to keep at writing. I'm beginning to publish a fair amount but it wasn't always so (and in fairness, I didn't submit much; it was hard enough to find the time to write!). Even so, the rewards are not life-changing. People do not toss roses before my feet as I stroll down the street. I don't even think they do that for the likes of J.K. Rowling or Steven King. What keeps me going is the desire to write the sorts of things I'd like to read--to give the inner dreams life and maybe even wings.