another year in stories: nine

I like this story a lot. It’s kind of simple and insular but it deals with complex emotions, I think, in a way that feels real to me. I think this gives us a lot of who Guo really is and who she has been. Dealing with children is something wholly different than wandering the world in search of gods.

Tonight in the Temple of Forgotten gods

They followed a stream through the forest and came to a wide beach that spread before them and then a large lake. As they stepped out from the shadow of the forest, the breeze came easy and rolled over their skin. The air lighter and slippery, no longer sticking in their lungs or against their skin. The children wore the same dirty clothes they were buried in and Guo wore the cloak she always wore over loose grey clothes.

Heinrich and Franny jaws hung open as they stared at the water.

Guo stretched her arms and told them to go.

The children ran without taking another glance at the trees or Guo. They threw off their clothes as they ran and entered the water naked. Playing and washing at the same time, the brother and sister splashed and held their noses when they submerged. The waves were gentle, more ripple than anything else.

Guo shielded her eyes from the suns and looked around. The light reflected bright off the glasslike water, blinding her attempts to see the edges of the lake. She turned to the right and left and saw a temple protruding from the trees to the right.

She walked towards it, Heinrich and Franny’s shouts and laughter filling her skull.

Trees and plants grew from the roof of the temple and vines wrapped round its walls. Two pillars stood at the entrance covered in green and past them only darkness yawning. Plants cracked open the steps leading to the entrance and grew over it. Grass and dirt and moss and roots break the stone apart. Whales and leviathans etched into the pillars and walls battled the dirt and growth, giving up clarity to nature.

Guo pulled out the boneflute and played, giving shape to the air surrounding her. She pulled off her hood and entered. The stone floor cracked apart and misshapen. Moving slow in the darkness, she waited till her eyes adjusted to the scattered light from the falling suns. She turned to the roof where roots dangled, where dew dripped. Deeper into the temple she found a hole filled with dirt. Rubbing her hand in the soil, the moisture caused the dirt to stick to her fingers. She closed her eyes and breathed in the musty air.

Heinrich and Franny ran in and out of the water and Guo scrubbed at their clothes.

Go collect some wood for a fire tonight, Guo said. We’re going to stay in that temple over there for the night. We can make a fire.

Their eyes opened wide and Franny said, What gods belong to that temple?

Guo laughed, Gods don’t belong to temples. Nothing belongs to a temple. It’s only a building, and this one is long empty. Hurry now, the sooner you get wood, the sooner I can tell you everything you want to ask me.

The children ran into the woods, laughing and playing still.

The fire burned and they sat in a circle round it. The flames ate away the darkness of the temple as the horizon rolled towards the suns. Heinrich and Franny sat wrapped in Guo’s cloak while their clothes dried beside the fire. Guo roasted two rabbits over the fire.

Granny, Franny’s voice lilted, Why don’t we ever make fires in the forest?

The trees don’t like them.

Franny nodded but Heinrich frowned and said, That’s stupid.

Guo turned to him, The trees are the eldest children of this world. Older than most of the gods. The wolf gods consider this forest their birthplace and the womb of all life on Saol. Their memory spreads in all directions and they see the pattern weaving from the spindle of the child goddess’ dreams.

Then why doesn’t the forest fight back when we cut them down?

Guo uncrossed her legs and stretched them wide, leaning into each one individually. Then she leaned back on her elbows and raised her face to the ceiling, The endless things of this world fight differently than humans do. Their violence is of a different kind. Mostly they’re perplexed by human behaviour and don’t know how to adapt to it. Humans have existed so briefly and we live barely long enough for the trees to know who and what we are. We’ve become an annoyance to them but they don’t see us as a threat yet, though they should. Though the forest has dealt with gods and demons for thousands of years, all of those have longer sight than humans. Because humans live so briefly, so brightly, they’re more volatile and dangerous than even the most capricious gods. The trees don’t understand this.

Franny nodded and Heinrich snorted at her, telling her that she did not know. Franny disagreed and they pushed back and forth.

Guo smiled and turned over the rabbits, They’ll be done soon. What do you really want to ask me?

Heinrich let go of Franny and slumped into his crossed legs. Franny pulled the cloak tighter around herself and said, Why do you look like us?

That’s what I thought you’d ask, Guo smiled. If Heinrich had asked, the question would be different. He wants to know where we’re going, yeah?

Heinrich’s voice cracked, We’ve left Drache.

Guo nodded, I’ll answer both now, since the answers are linked. I come from far to the east. So far to the east that the land has a different name and different color. We call ourselves Xuè and our land is called Xīnzàng. Our name means blood and our land means heart. The heart needs the blood to flow and the blood needs the heart to give us direction. So it is there. We come from a more ancient people. A people now splintered and a kingdom swallowed by the power of gods held in hands ignorant and unworthy. We call the place where we once lived the Scar. Some day I will tell you about what happened in that ancient place but not tonight. People fled there, though. They sailed away in all directions. My people stopped on an island and became islanders. Others travelled farther. They travelled all the way to this continent. The Garasu. They came and settled here. They built a kingdom of glass and power to fend off the dragons to the south and the wolves all around. Your people and mine are the same, though separated by hundreds of years and half a world of space. I’m taking you there. To meet others like you. I don’t know why you were in the Land of the Dragonlords but I believe you were adopted by your family there. Do you know what that means?

Heinrich said No but Franny only stared.

It means the mother who gave birth to you gave you away. You were brought to the mother and father you knew and they raised you. They chose to be your parents. That is a powerful thing. A beautiful and rare thing. They treated you as family and family you became. You will always be their son and daughter, even after all of us die and the wolf gods play with our bones. But for now, I bring you to the land you were probably born to.

Mommy wasn’t my mommy? Franny’s voice came as a whimper.

Guo raised her index finger, Your mother became your mother as you became her daughter. She did not have to love you. She chose to. Every day. Every minute. She loved you more than any woman could ever love a child.

Heinrich stood, I don’t want to go to this new land.

Guo blinked, her expression becoming hard and then softening, her eyebrows bending upward in sorrow, I cannot keep you. I cannot raise you.

His fists clenched, his voice came strained and he kept his eyes on his feet, You have to.

Guo took the rabbits off the fire and ripped off their legs, handing two to each of the children. She warned them that they were still hot.

They ate. The light of the suns disappeared and Guo put more wood on the fire.

This temple, Guo said, belonged to ancient gods we no longer know. The people native to this continent worshipped the water. I don’t quite know who they were or why they worshipped water here. I believe it was thousands and thousands of years ago. I think the people far to the north who call themselves Sami are the natives to this place. Your ancestors, the Garasu and the Drache, probably drove them away and so they ran north.

What gods are worshipped here?

Guo smiled and her eyes wandered over the cracked walls barely visible past the flames dancing reach, I have no idea. We’ll likely never know. There are images of the gods or the creatures that were once worshipped here, but I’ve never seen them. They may have all died or ran away or simply faded out.

Gods can’t die, Heinrich’s voice was hard.

All things can die. Some things just don’t do it often. Yes, the gods can die but most are killed or choose to give life up.

Why?

Guo fingered the rabbit bones, I’ve known many gods but I don’t think I understand any of them. They live too long. They live so long that they forget more than we’ll ever know or experience. They don’t remember their births or their origins. They remember so little about the things I want to know. For them, Time doesn’t march on but sort of meanders and slips by. Centuries disappear while they nap and daydream. Many have lived so long that they don’t seem to understand life any longer. It’s like they’re stuck in a dream. Guo smiled, her sharp canines peaking between her lips.

Why did it happen? The voice was quiet and soft, the pitch high.

Guo raised her face to them. They sat across from her with eyes underwater, their lips shipwrecking. She opened her mouth to speak.

They watched her stare openmouthed at them and then lowered their eyes, wiping their noses and sniffling.

Guo motioned for them to come close to her and they crawled around the fire, still naked.

Guo dropped the bones of the rabbits into the dirt. She mixed them up and then pulled out the straight ones and collected them on her lap. She tossed the rest into the fire, except for the skulls and pelvises, which she pushed to the side. With her finger she drew a star with eight points. She connected the points in a circle.

Heinrich to her left and Franny to her right, she caught the eye of both of them and they kept their eyes on her left hand.

Guo scooped up the bones in her hand and held them loosely, shaking them back and forth. With a smile, she tossed them onto the star.

There, she said and pointed. What do you see?

The children stared, their brows furrowed. Heinrich leaned close and Franny imitated him. She squatted and put her face close to the bones, then straightened and said, A storm.

Guo turned to Henirich, And you?

He cleared his throat and wiped his wet eyes, I don’t know.

Guo touched his leg softly, What do you see?

His lip quivered and tears rolled down his cheek, I don’t know.

Franny began to cry and Guo stood, placing her palm on Heinrich’s cheek.

What is it, child?

Heinrich stood, naked, the sweat beading on his forehead, his arms limp at his side, his body wracked in silent sobs.

What is it?

Franny walked past Guo and threw her arms around her brother. He did the same. Franny pushed her face into his chest and he lowered his head to rest on top of hers.

Guo stood, her hand reached towards them. She brought it back to her side and turned to the bones on the star in the dirt.

Scattered over the image, none of the bones bisected any of the lines she drew in the dirt. She picked them up and tossed them in the fire and then brushed out the star.

The children cried standing beside her in the broken temple for forgotten gods as night thickened and the fire cackled.

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