Cut to the bank of a swift river, not very wide. The ﬁve of us, sunning ourselves. And Khaper saying, musingly, “Just what is it that has brought us together, anyway?”
“I can answer that,” I said, over the silken sound of the water. All four heads turned, in a slow, interested way, to look at me—whereupon I told them, in about ten completely unpremeditated sentences, the shape and outline of the task of Opening the Gate.
Where had I gotten it from? Why did I choose that moment to share it? What breath of dark air from some unknown alter context had opened my mouth and spoken through me? And then I realized: Of course, that’s what I brought to this thing. I articulated it. I took the nascent thing hanging in the air between us like a vast luminous cobweb, and gave it form and purpose. They saw it; I said it.
Somehow, that knowledge made me feel better. My good old insecurity had once more been laid to rest, although probably only temporarily. I had done something worthwhile.
And I realized that I had come almost to the bottom of Remembering. Almost—-but there was still one constellation of images waiting to surface.
That face, that same face, burned into my memory. Seen only once in life, but seen again and again in dream a thousand times—- lean, angular, tanned with the slow acid of ancient evil. Eyes almost concealed beneath a cliff of shaggy brow. A ﬁrefall of white beard. That expression of full knowledge of me, who I was, what I was doing, and then dismissal, as if his mind were on other things.
Being dragged into a long, dark cavern ﬁlled with soldiers. Being strapped to something. Masorlin’s throne being dragged, ponderously, over the stones to a place in front of me.
Masorlin seated on the throne, rheumy, unseeing egg eyes staring through me. One hand to his chin, elbow resting on the arm of his chair. Wan, ﬂickering torchlight licking and dancing over his seamed face. In the Remembering, I tried to move toward him, to strike out, to smash that thoughtful, strangely arrested countenance—-and I couldn’t move. My body wasn’t responding to the commands from my brain.
There were others in the room: two other prisoners, and two soldiers standing on either side of me, just at the edge of my vision. Slightly to one side, but well within my vision, an old woman—-
No, not old; Masorlin had instructed her to let slip her cloak so that I could see that she was, in fact, young. She came close, gently stroked my face, and looked into my eyes with an expression of tenderness and caring. She was holding something in her hand—-
Something was wrong with this image. Something in it cried out with such an extreme of revulsion and terror that it slipped away from me. I had a sudden sense that this part of the Remembering was absolutely vital, and I snatched at it as it receded, but caught only tatters of thought; the rest swam out of my vision.
Then I watched it sink back down into the darkness of my unRemembered mind, borne by some weight of fear and pain greater than my need, or the chant, or the skill of the Sybil. The darkness closed over it, and it was gone.
Slowly, the cave came back. The light in the Soul Pool faded very gradually to a dim seafoam green, then disappeared.
I shook myself like a dog coming out of water, and looked around. The others were returning to this moment, as well. Sesounis was sitting on the ﬂoor, chin in hands. Mara was standing, looking at the ﬂoor, slowly shaking her head. Khaper was staring at the wall, an expression of quiet surprise on her face. Li was looking at me.
The Sybil pirouetted in a full circle, held her hands over her head and shook them, touched her toes a few times. “Whoosh,” she said, “That’s one of the hardest things of all. To stand in one place and focus your attention for an hour or so. Particularly on you lunks. Did everybody get what they need? What they expected?”
The other four nodded, their faces a smorgasbord of emotion and wonder and confusion. They were also swinging their arms and walking around, working off the tension and release.
“I’m afraid not,” I said. “I lost something back there.”
Sesounis stopped and looked at me. “What happened?”
I don’t know, exactly. Something important came up. Something involving Masorlin. And whatever it was, I couldn’t hold onto it. I do know, though, that it was important.”
“Do you know why?”
The Sybil came over, and peered deeply into my face. “Can you describe any part of it?”
I did, such of it as I could recall.
They looked at each other.
“Cherna,” Li said.
“What was that?”
A puzzled expression crossed her face. “I don’t know. It’s a name, I think. It just ﬂoated to the surface. It has something to do with what you saw.”
I walked to her. “Can you get anything else?”
She paused a minute, looking off into the distance. “No. No, I’m afraid I can’t.”
I shook off a powerful sense of foreboding, because there didn’t seem to be anything to do for it, and turned to Sesounis. She and the Sytbil came to me, peered at me closely, put their hands on my head.
“She’s not clean,” the Sybil said.
“Can’t Open the Gate without all the prior context, eh?”
“No. When the pressure’s on, she won’t be able to reach deeply enough.”
“What are you going to do now?”
Sesounis sighed. “We’ll just have to wait. Push things back as much as necessary. There’s a certain chance that it will come back after a while on its own. On the other hand, if a fair amount of time passes and nothing has surfaced, we’ll just have to go digging again, won’t we?”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” I said.
“I don’t blame you.”
Sesounis drew a breath, let it out explosively. “But for now, we’ve completed a very hard job. I think that a little partying is in order.”
“What sort of partying?”
She grinned. “Wild, raucous partying. First some general hooraw down on the beach, drinking and roughhousing and general carrying on. That’s to work everybody’s raw edge off and calm this superheated bunch of overly dedicated, overly trained super-primates down.
“Then...we go sky dancing.”
I looked at her, surprised. “Even without all of my prior context?”
“You aren’t ready for Masorlin. Or the Gate. You are ready, however, for sky dancing.”
“I’ll be a good trouper. Let’s go.”
She turned to the Sybil. “Will you join us?”
The Sybil looked mildly startled, then grave. “I’m afraid it’s out of character for Sybils. On the other hand...” —she looked off into the distance—“maybe nobody will notice, if I’m out of uniform. And, I must admit, sky dancing is a hell of a kick.”
“Excellent! Let’s go.”
There were about three hundred women down on the beach, talking and shouting and generally having a good time. We ﬁve, with the Sybil behind trying to look like one of the ’Sta, passed almost unnoticed into the mob. There was a long strip of sand cleared for footraces, a ﬁrepit over which several women were roasting things, and a lot of general horsing around.
Tanis appeared suddenly in front of me. “Where’s your mug?” she said.
“Oh, shit, wait here.” She darted away.
“What’s that about?” I said to Mara.
“Let her go,” Mara said.
In a minute she was back, pressing a mug into my hand.
“Try that,” she said, grinning.
I tasted it, cautiously. I stood dumfounded, then tasted it again.
“Guinness?” I said stupidly.
“As I suspected. A discerning palate.”
“But where did you—-”
“This is a special occasion. We, ah, did some tradeoffs with the Department of Transportation.”
She grinned at me. “After all, this sort of thing only happens to one perhaps once in a lifetime, yes? So some warehouse somewhere is now light a few gallons of brew.” She produced her own mug, clicked it against mine. “Congratulations.”
She tossed hers back in a startlingly professional manner. I sipped at mine, never having been much of a beer enthusiast.
Tanis appeared and grabbed my arm. “C’mon,” she panted, “we need you.”
“Relay races. We need one more body. C’mon, let’s go.”
“Hey,” I laughed, “I can’t run. You know that.”
“Aw, it’s easy the way we’ve got it set up. Come on, try it.”
“Well, what the hell. Just as long as you don’t add, ’You’ll like it.’” We trotted over to the cleared strip where the races had been going on. The others were already there, two teams, jumping around and poking each other and making a general racket. The group that must have been Tanis’ and my team shouted and cheered as we trotted up.
“What’s this about?” I said, breathless already from the short run to get there. “Everybody here knows I can’t run.”
“Forget that,” Tanis said. She handed me a short stick. Someone shouted from in front of us. “Okay,” a woman who seemed to be acting as referee or whatever said. “Ten people each, once up and once back, hand off to the next one. Drop the stick, and your team loses. Step outside the boundary and you’re out. Any questions?” Without waiting, she shouted, “Then let’s go!”
“I won’t run ﬁrst,” I said nervously.
“Oh, come on,” Tanis said.
“No, that’s too much. You do it.”
“Don’t hold it up,” someone behind us shouted.
I pushed the stick into Tanis’ hand. “Here, don’t make a total fool out of me. You take this.”
She turned and handed it to somebody else—Karin, I think it was. “Ready?” Mereth said. Karin crouched next to her opposite number in the next track. “Go!”
Sand spurted from their feet; they were off down the beach. The track was only twenty meters or so long, and they couldn’t do much serious running before it was time to turn around. In a few seconds they were back, Karin whacking the stick into the next woman’s hand. There was a lot of cheering and shouting and people jumping up and down in the ﬂickering, nervous orange ﬁrelight. In a few seconds the next runners were back and the sticks had smacked into the next pair of hands and the new runners were off. Tanis stood, arms akimbo, ﬁsts on her hips, watching the runners with her head cocked slightly to one side. “You’re next,” she said.
“Huh? Oh, yeah.” I stood at the line, nervously, as off in the distance the two runners turned and headed back, legs pumping. The woman in the next lane stumbled, recovered swiftly. The crowd broke into cheers and groans. I leaned out to reach the stick and the woman carrying it sped past me, smacking it into my palm. I made a conscious effort to close my hand on it, and I was off, with no style at all, head down, pounding for the opposite boundary. I ﬁgured what I would do when I got there was to sort of jump at the line to get my body going in the opposite direction, sort of like sliding into a base. Faces ﬂashed by to the side, laughing and shouting encouragement. When I got to the line I forgot to jump, and my momentum carried me on slightly before I could get myself going in the opposite direction, but I started out determinedly to narrow the distance between myself and the woman in the next lane if I could. “Don’t drop the damned stick,” I muttered to myself.
I could see Tanis waiting, hand out. Now if I could only get the damn stick into her hand...Panting, I held it out, at the last minute swinging it into her palm. We connected, but she fumbled for an instant before getting hold of it; then she was off, and I was breathing hard as somebody patted me on the back. I turned around to watch the end; Tanis was last in line, and she was moving like a streak, trying to close the distance that I supposed I’d opened. They came down the lanes side by side, slowly becoming clearer in the uncertain ﬁrelight as they approached, Tanis with her teeth bared in a strained grin, both running full out in the few seconds it took them to get to the line. The crowd erupted into shouts and cheers. It looked like Tanis was slightly ahead, but I couldn’t be sure. Tanis ran into the crowd at the line and threw her arms around the women there, and they hugged her and patted her on the back. “Eeeeyah!” she shouted.
“That was hot,” Mereth said, sipping at her mug. Someone was joggling my arm, then grabbing it. I turned to look; it was Sesounis. “Never mind that biz,” she said, “come here a minute.”
“What—” she towed me away, outside the circle of ﬁrelight, and the sounds of excited voices gradually muted down into the sounds of the night creatures. We passed a sentry, who regarded us with surprise, and then we passed behind a large rock. There she threw her arms around me and kissed me, hard, on the mouth.
I was startled, but I closed my eyes and kissed back, trying to do more than my share. As usual when I should be running on feelings alone, my mind was churning, trying to think my way through a simple act. But my body wasn’t paying any attention. I found that I was kissing her so hard that my nose kept getting ﬂattened against her cheek, making it impossible to breathe. After a minute or so I broke, out of breath and gasping for air.
“No stamina,” she said.
“No, you don’t understand,” I stammered, ﬁghting for air. “My nose...”
She still had her arms around my neck, looking into my eyes at close range from the pitch black mischievous depths of hers.
“You have developed a bit more concentration,” she said, grinning breathlessly at me.
“Well,” I said, “since I found out that we knew each other...had common history...whatever...”
“Right.” She poked me with her nose. “Now we can get down to business.”
“I mean the Gate.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, “we’ll still have plenty of time for other things. I just had to kiss you right now, it’s so good to see your face like that, really here, really present.” A burst of shouting and laughter erupted from the direction of the beach. “What I really want to do is drag you off into the hills and do interesting and politically questionable things with you for about a month. But what the hell.” She looked around, in the direction of the beach, then back at me and kissed me again, but this time we scaled it down so that I could both kiss and breathe.
“That’s better,”, she said, when we broke again.
“I told you, it’s my nose...”
She laid her hand on my nose, gently, pursing her lips. “Ssh,” she said. “Don’t make a thing of it. I know.” She leaned in and kissed the tip of my nose for a second.
“So you’re a klutz,” she murmured.
Then she was gone, racing down toward the beach and the rushing waves. No, not quite gone—a breath of her hung in the air behind her, like the last note of Mahler’s adagietto; not a scent, more of a presence.
I looked around at the boisterous chaos up and down the sand, and then raced off after her, breathless, my feet kicking up spurts of sand. A few heads turned as I raced past.
I caught up with her at the water’s edge. The packed sand was glossy and ﬂat, smoothed by the slow wash of the warm water. She turned her head to me, long enough to acknowledge my presence. Still short of breath from the run, I fell into step beside her. We walked side by side down the whispering beach, our path illuminated by pale phosphorescent water and blazing clouds of stars.
I looked out over the water, then back at her. A somberness had suddenly fallen over me, perhaps an echo of the solemn glory overhead. I said, “Have you thought about what things might be like when this is over?”
She didn’t say anything for a minute or so. The tail of a spent wave washed slowly across the ﬂat in front of us, and we started through the newly wet sand, our bare feet sinking deeply. I could feel the tiny shells mixed with the sand grating between my toes. Then she said, in an abstracted way, “When this is over. I guess I must honestly say that I haven’t.”
We walked for another minute. Then she sighed. “It depends upon who wins, doesn’t it? I’ve been so preoccupied with doing the thing that I’ve never stopped to consider the possibilities. I could hope for the best, of course, but there’s no way to tell. Well, let’s do a scenario.” She kicked at a stick, sent it spinning in a ﬂat arc into the water, which immediately deposited it back onto the sand. “Say we win. That’s always nice to think about. I suspect I’ll go home for a while, rest up, before I take on the next thing. If we succeed in Opening the Gate and Masorlin is finally defeated, the metric will change considerably.”
Nobody’s quite sure. With the strain and distortion of Masorlin’s presence removed, Ktahmet could become a paradise. Not in the physical sense, but in the way the Sybil refers to concepts. I don’t understand how that works, and I’ve never gotten around to asking her. Not that I’ve had that much opportunity, though. But at any rate, there’ll be plenty to do, people to train. Call it occupational rehabilitation.”
“Did you recruit the Sybil, the way you recruited me? I mean, after all, she does run the metric, whatever in hell that means...”
“Uh-huh. It’s hard to explain. She does run the metric, all right. But she didn’t create it. The K’a did that.” She shrugged. “Nevertheless, a fair amount of awe toward her seems to be part of the perks of the gig.”
“Well, why didn’t you set yourself up running it? It seems to be the sort of thing a head honcho usually does...”
She snorted. “Head honcho, huh? Well, okay, I admit that this was my idea. But I’d be a total disaster at running the day-to-day of keeping a locus in balance. We’d be upside down with our tits in our faces before we knew what hit us.”
“How about in the other eventuality?”
“If we lose? That’s another eventuality, all right. If that happened—” she turned to face me—“then I will have been honored to have been one of the Five. And to have been able to ﬁght with you at my side.”
Then her face became distant. “Of course, there are other eventualities.”
“Well, I can think of a number of them. But we needn’t dwell on the grisly.”
“That wasn’t what I was doing. I was thinking about...” She stopped, and looked for a long time at the glowing waves and the shimmering vault over us. Between the stars the sky was velvet black, shading to delicate violet at the far horizon, and there was a bright planet in the sky. Distantly, a nightbird cried over the water.
She slowly turned to me, and looked for a long time into my face. I could see her eyes very clearly in the starlight. Then she came very close. Still looking into my face, she raised her left hand and trailed her index ﬁnger delicately across my cheek, barely a touch, ending at the corner of my mouth. She touched my lips with the tip of her ﬁnger. Something in me marked the motion, recognized it as part of a dance whose shape I didn’t yet understand.
“Some things that could happen might be difﬁcult. In that eventuality...there may be no way for you, but seek me in the sea... don’t be discouraged, don’t ever abandon hope.”
A rush of apprehension, and an explosion of memory: The Ritual! —Slowly, Khashti, I told myself; you don’t know how the memory ﬁts, how this ﬁts. I reached up, and placed my hand over hers, where it rested against my cheek. “What do you mean by that?”
She continued to gaze quietly at me. Then, without answering, she broke away and ran back up the beach toward the ritual rock. Gone, back to the party.
I stood looking after her, my mind churning. The apprehension receded like the tide, exposing shoals of emotion I hadn’t noticed before; and with a sudden ﬂash of comprehension I realized that I cared, deeply. Cared about this strange, complicated being whom I thought I knew. In that moment, looking after a distant shadow ﬁgure racing away up the beach, I faced within myself for the ﬁrst time what was really going on with me: I, Maramma Khashti, or maybe Diane Rogers, was (may have been? May have yet to be?) in love with Sesounis. I thought of Reese, back in a place that seemed impossibly distant, in a place where the idea of my being in love with a Kerlan named Sesounis would have been utterly alien. And I didn’t care. That was there, this was here; and somehow, on balance, the reality of here was clearer, deeper, more potent to me than the reality of life in New York had been, even at its most intense. The thought was staggering. After all, my life in New York had been anything but dull.
“Huff,” I said, blowing out a puff of air. Things can still speed along somewhat faster than one would like, even if one is ready for a fairly breakneck pace. Since the Ritual I realized that I had been much more aware of the subtle currents that crossed and recrossed among all of the Five. We lived and worked within a deep and complex emotional web, a subtle undertext of caring that was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Without having to ask, I knew that it was true for the others, too.
But between myself and Sesounis was something else. Something of a different quality from the subtle emotional weft that bound the Five together. Something solemn and light and sad and delightful. It made me want to jump straight up and turn cartwheels, there on the packed sand at the edge of the whispering sea. I realized that I hadn’t felt quite so whacked by the two-by-four of love since high school. This is purely nuts, I said to myself... and purely wonderful.
I resolved not to try to sort out the complex of feelings centered around my life “there” versus “here” . Earth-sub-one, as Tanis called it, was still there, somewhere; but I was dealing with my life right now, right here, as I lived it. When I closed my eyes and thought of New York I could see Reese, every bit as clearly as anything I could envision here. And my love for him was also as clear as ever. In my mind it didn’t seem to intrude at all into my love for Sesounis. Inanely, I thought about how I was going to explain this to him— then became overwhelmed and confused in the myriad of reality problems that arose when I tried. After all, it wasn’t as if I’d fallen for someone I’d run into at a MOMA opening. Reese, in his gentle way, would have taken that one in stride; most likely, after absorbing the fact, the ﬁrst thing he’d do would be to negotiate time commitments, try to formalize who was going to see whom and when they could do it.
But there was simply too much that didn’t ﬁt any pattern, too many things to try to explain, if and when. I didn’t think I could handle it. Not now, anyway. But then, I said to myself, I didn’t have to. It would keep until I was ready.
With a great sigh of relief and resolve, I trotted up the beach in Sesounis’ tracks.
We went on with the beach scene until just before dawn, drinking, playing games, telling stories. It was either the ﬁrst uninhibited gathering I’d seen in Ktahmet, or maybe it was the ﬁrst one that I’d been able to see that way. I still wasn’t tired at all, still relaxed in that lazy, alert way that I’d been since the Ritual had started a day or so—a year or so?—ago.
As I watched, the ﬁrst creamy curve of the rising moon broke the grey-on-black slickness of the horizon. I looked across the beach to the long, phosphorescent rollers, thinking of a boogie board, and a fresh breeze brought to my nostrils the tang of salt air and kelp, and my lungs opened to it and ﬁlled with a deep and satisfying draught of it. I saw Li walking toward me, barefoot, rumpled, wearing a leather belt, a cord and a mischievous grin.
“Feeling good?” she said, looking at my face.
“I feel great.”
“Good,” she said, “’cause it’s time for the next thing.”
“The next thing?”
“The next thing.” She waited while I got up. “Come this way,” she said, still smiling.
I looked around. It was growing lighter by the minute as the moon rose over the sea, casting a sword-sharp tongue of white ﬂame across the water to us, and people were beginning to straggle toward the base of a cliff a few hundred meters down the beach. Looking up, I saw a ﬁgure silhouetted against the gradually lightening sky at the top of the cliff. I couldn’t see who it was at this distance, but she was facing the rising moon, her arms lifted over her head in a ritual gesture.
I followed Li toward the place where everyone was gathering.
When we got close enough to the cliff to be able to see in the ﬁrelit darkness, I was able to make out a cleft in the rock below where the woman atop the cliff was standing. It appeared to be two meters or so high, and a meter or so in width at the center, tapering at either end. For a few minutes, the gathering crowd stood or milled around near it, and then, ﬁrst a few and then a pause and then another few, they began climbing through it. Women began lining up to pass through. Li beckoned me into the line, and I noticed that almost immediately the mood began to change, to grow more somber. Not grim, but no longer boisterous. People were becoming hushed, expectant.
When it was our turn, Li motioned for me to step through ﬁrst. I peered in, and saw nothing, except perhaps a vague grey illumination on the other side. I grasped the sides of the cleft to steady myself, and stepped through. I found myself in a rough stone passageway, not very long, illuminated vaguely by the thin grey luminescence from up ahead. The ﬂoor was smooth enough, though natural rock. I followed the woman ahead of me, moving slowly and keeping my hands up to avoid any protruding knobs of rock.
I saw her move off to the side out of my range of vision, and in a few more paces I stepped out of the passage through an opening similar to the entrance. Someone standing by the cleft helped me through, reached behind me for the next to arrive.
I looked around. We were in a huge natural chimney within the cliff, perhaps forty meters across, with nearly vertical walls ascending into the darkness. The grey illumination came from starlight and a broad reﬂection from the rock near the top of the chimney, where the rising moon painted it a bright, chill silver. The ﬂoor was smooth, packed earth. The others milled slowly around the circular space, talking in hushed tones.
I realized that it was too dark to ﬁnd Li by her features in this crowd, which swelled by the minute as more women arrived through the cleft. I walked to the center of the chimney and looked upward. As near as I could tell, it was simply open at the top to the sky. The night was warm, windless, utterly still except for the low murmur of voices. I tried to get a sighting on the moon’s path from the band of light on the rocks above and my memory of its path from preceding nights, and decided that it would pass directly overhead in about three hours. Then, thinking about the excitement and general foofaraw we’d just been through down on the beach, I wondered whether anyone would be awake in three hours to see it pass overhead. I needn’t have worried.
People began clearing the center of the area as if by common impulse, and I turned to ﬁnd Khaper standing behind me, hands raised, turning slowly around, motioning people to be seated. I got out of there, feeling like a clumsy tourist, and joined the crowd. We jostled for seats on the packed earth. The atmosphere was expectant but relaxed, amiable; no tension, except for me.
Khaper began speaking to the crowd, slowly and easily, without raising her voice. “Many years we have come to this place,” she said, her voice picking up a measured cadence. “Many years of preparation. Time and again we have come, and done the work, and observed the celebration. Time and again we have joined our hopes and our dreams and our sorrows and our losses; time and again we have gone forth to continue the work and to return again to renew our commitment. Now we are come to the time for which we have worked, for which we have given so much. This time is not like other times. This time we celebrate the approach of the end of Time. This time we meet at the threshold of the Opening.”
She spread her arms, turning slowly as she talked, but the curved walls of the chimney kept her voice audible even when she was facing away. “But whatever the outcome of our labor, whether the Opening is a reality we are about to achieve or whether it is a dream to which we can only aspire, we have done our work truly and well. We have faced our challenges and we have prevailed. What lies ahead is the culmination. Not that we can rest, for much remains to be done. But what we have already set in motion now moves on its own. What we have begun now gathers its own momentum. That which we have sown, we move now to harvest.”
As she turned slowly again to my side of the circle, I got a good, long look at her face. She had, in some indeﬁnable sense, come alive, in a way that I’d never seen her do before. She glowed with a dark, subtle force that seemed to come from far depths, hinting at vastly greater forces still within. Yet hers was that same quiet, kind face I’d seen since we’d met, those liquid eyes that held such sadness and compassion. I now saw that behind the compassion was granite -- the same granite that'd been so obvious the very first time in that prison tower in Merien, when we'd had the bumptious temerity to “rescue” her -- but deeper than I’d yet been able to see. I felt stupid. What Khaper possessed that the rest of the Five did not was time and distance, enough to permit perspective not possible for the rest of us.
She went on talking, in that same, almost conversational way, but with the measured cadence, the soft, rhythmic assurance, of a mother soothing a small child. She said more of the same things, but after a time I lost track of them. Instead I fell into the rhythm of her cadence, almost nodding in time with the measured periods. The content seemed unimportant, already assured.
From the corner of my eye I saw women moving slowly through the crowd, stopping and bending to each person for a moment. I couldn’t make out what they were doing, so I returned my attention to Khaper and that wonderful rhythm. Presently someone moved into my ﬁeld of vision only a few meters away, and I saw that she carried strapped to her back a large skin bag that sloshed as she moved. She held a small cup in her hand. As she passed each person, she paused, drew a cupful from the bag through a long spoutlike thing, and handed the cup to the seated woman. They whispered something to each other, and the woman on the ground drank the cup and passed it back.
I had become engrossed in what Khaper was saying again when I realized that a woman with a bag was standing in front of me. She pulled on the spout, which I could now see came out of the bottom of the bag and seemed to work like a teat, and I could hear liquid gurgling into the cup. She bent close to me and extended the cup, and as she did so she whispered something. By this time I was at full alert, but I still didn’t think well in Leria, and I didn’t get it.
She waited a moment, and, getting no reply, she whispered it again. I felt like an absolute fool, but this time I strained my ears to the limit and got it. What she said was “Alana, Ktahmet, moi senyo, sei m’nara nui janusso.” Once I heard it, it was crystal clear—she pronounced the iota subscript on “senyo” in the ancient style, and she made the slight exhale after “janusso” an entire rounded word. It was a phrase I’d never heard spoken before, but one with which I was more than familiar. It was an expression I’d heard in moments of high ritual, and, very rarely, as a salute between warriors and intimates. Translation was damn near impossible. Roughly it meant “My sister, the warriors return to thee in love and power.” But in K'tahmet'i, language is deceptive. That phrase actually contained several paragraphs of stuff, including allusions to movement, initiation of dialogue, statements of respect or love. To show you what I mean, another, also quite valid, way to translate the same phrase is “The act of making myself naked before you is not repeatable.” But whatever it means and however it translates, when it’s said between equals it is one of the ultimate things one can say to another. It is reserved for highest ritual and deepest affection.
At any rate, there is a ritual answer. I rummaged in my store of K'tahmet'i phrases for a few nervous seconds; I realized that, while they were all there, it would take time before an answer in such a situation would be automatic, before the connections between my newly restored Khashti-awareness and the top-level me that did the talking were deep and strong enough to permit intuitive access. Then I got it: “Sei m’nara kei jaheris, sei m’nara s’kei janusso.” Or roughly, “As thy love and caring enfold me, thus do I return thy highest unto thee.”
She nodded, and pushed the cup gently into my hand. I eyed it nervously. Alcohol? Psychedelics? Who knows? And this isn’t the time to ask. Oh well, I thought, it’s a nice night, I’m among good friends, we’re protected in here; what the hell. I sniffed the cup brieﬂy. The odor was slightly fruity, not unpleasant at all. I sipped, and it was thin and vaguely sweet, like banana mixed with coconut. There wasn’t much of it, about two thirds of a cup, and I quickly drank it all, then handed the cup back. She nodded again, and moved on.
I returned my attention to Khaper. Vaguely I realized that her cadences were taking on a syntax of their own, some metalanguage thatI couldn’t yet grasp. But there was no doubt in my mind at this point that the message in her speech was now contained in the subtle and complex rhythm rather than in the words. And as she murmured and paused, murmured and paused, I found myself swaying with the sentences, and realized that everyone around me was swaying in the same way.
Gradually it grew brighter, until I could clearly see the women seated on the far side, could easily make out each tiny line in Khaper’s beautiful, inﬁnitely textured face. With part of my mind, I realized that the moon was about to appear over the chimney. The rest of me, far and away the greater part, was slowly swaying and pausing, swaying and pausing, to Khaper’s chant. I don’t know exactly when her words ceased being a monologue about our task and slipped into something else, but at this point it was unquestionably an incantation, a chant in which we were all caught up, with whose peculiar, irregular rhythms we all resonated.
A sickle of brilliant silver cut the circle of women to my right as the moon rose over the chimney. How long had we been sitting, swaying to Khaper’s words? The tiny part of my mind that wasn’t quite absorbed in the chant thought: Must have been at least three hours. That’s how long you calculated it would be until moonrise above the wall. Three hours! I had had no sense whatever of the passage of time; it had been one continuous, timeless word spoken by a loved one, like one of those highest moments of love when you relinquish either-or altogether and settle into total stillness.
A motion caught my eye. I looked, and immediately had that impartial-observer thing again, but this time there was no impassioned dialog, merely a sense of “Oh, well, here’s something completely inexplicable; this time, let’s pay attention.”
Across the circle from me, women were slowly, slowly rising into the air, rising like a drift of autumn leaves filmed in slow motion. They didn’t appear to move by their own volition, but followed some unseen currents in the air, so that their bodies formed long, swirling patterns as they rose. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see others rising gently nearby, not everyone at once, but a few here and there, then more and more.
I felt myself growing lighter. It was a delicious sensation, without volition, as when you have approached orgasm closely enough to slide down to it. I could feel my arms ﬂoating near my sides, everything hovering on the lip of weightlessness. The bright sickle on the ﬂoor expanded to a fat slice, continued to broaden. In front of me and to the sides I saw heads slowly descending. My viewing perspective gradually changed from within the seated group to slightly above it, like a camera crane smoothly rising. Distantly, effortlessly, I felt myself lift from the ground, momentarily hover. Then I was rising quickly, riding the river of Khaper’s beautiful voice, as the moon rose completely clear of the walls and poured the glorious milk of her light directly down on us.
Higher and higher. Wondrous, supple, languid movement, sailing and hovering in a light of such exquisite texture that it was palpable to the hand, a subtle, liquid sensation in the palm, at the ﬁngertips. Underneath, the swirls and eddies of Khaper’s chant, like the riverbed within whose embrace we swam. And now, less carried by the current, with increasing volition, with mounting joy and abandon, we swooped and soared, looped and turned, higher and higher, until we breasted the top of the chimney and shot like projectiles into the brilliant diamond sky. How had this beach, these waves, ever seen the like of us before? We were hundreds of ﬂaming comets riding brilliant moonbeams, leaping and turning with the sheer, bright joy of movement, the ecstasy of total abandonment to this moment of ﬂight.
There was no fear, no hesitation. As I cleared the chimney I found myself facing upwards, toward the scattered stars, as if I were ﬂoating on my back in water at body temperature. Without thinking, I shifted my weight and rolled, stopped the roll when I was face downward. Below me, the round mouth of the chimney grew slowly smaller as I rose, and the rock formations of which it was part unrolled into view. Beyond them stretched the beaches, as far as I could see in either direction, sand white and water silver streaks in the brilliant moonlight. The warm wind blew directly down on my back, ﬂattening my shirt and lufﬁng my pants, indicating to me that I was rising faster than it seemed from the rate at which the ground was shrinking.
I extended my arms, in joy or experimentation, and embraced the air. Then I stretched them out, shifted my weight again and discovered that I could rise more rapidly merely by tilting my body upwards. I zoomed, and the beaches tilted past, were replaced by a moving hemisphere of black sky and stars, which turned majestically about me as I tilted one way and the other. The sensation of freedom, of giving myself over completely to the simple, profound act of rising, was overwhelming.
I began to experiment. Let’s see...ﬁrst dive to pick up speed...I performed a motion somewhat like leaning forward, and immediately tilted down into a dive. The wind whistled by loudly, lending a startling auditory aspect to the feeling of sinking. I panicked, leaned back, and discovered that I stopped diving at once, with that tugging at my midsection from the centrifugal force of the pullout. I zoomed in a wide, ﬂat arc above the beaches, arms out in front of me, seeing the terrain ﬂicker past, the edge of the ocean rush toward me tilted edgewise and pass behind, replaced by ﬂat, ﬂeeing sea. It was as if I were lying face down on a swing.
Well, I thought, you can dive, and you can pull out. So let’s try something.
I leaned back and rose swiftly at ﬁrst, so fast that I thought of simply going over backwards into a loop; then my rate of ascent slowed, and I ﬂattened out somewhat to get more speed. Below, the beaches receded again, and for the ﬁrst time I began to notice the others, above and below and all around me, turning and rolling and swooping and tumbling, tucked into balls with arms around knees, or ﬂat with arms and legs out like starﬁsh, or with arms extended forward and legs together. Distantly, almost lost in the wind and the vast airy space, came their shouts and shrieks of joy.
I dove, remembering this time to see if anyone was below, building up speed and seeing the beach rush to meet me; then leaned quickly back, rose toward the bright moon in a high, glorious arc, arms out, over backwards while the sky and beach spun past, and then I was completely around and rising again. I had done it!
I heard someone applaud, looked around to see Mereth sitting in the air, legs crossed tailor fashion, a big grin on her face. Then, “Follow me!” she shouted, leaned forward and dove away, curving off toward the ocean.
I dove to follow, ﬂattening my path as she did, the beach and rocks unrolling beneath me like a swiftly moving carpet. The sensation of speed was heady, thrilling. We headed out over the ocean, the wind roaring past, and as I looked around I saw others swooping toward us. In a few seconds we were a formation of ﬁfty or sixty, ﬂying fast close together in a cluster with twenty or so out in front in a single line.
The leaders rose in a wide arc, and we followed; up and up, toward the smiling moon. Our climb became near vertical, then over backwards like my loop had been, and through it, effortlessly, we kept the formation, so close together as to almost touch ﬁngertips. The entire group rolled, as a formation, the outer women increasing their angular speed to keep the pattern stable; and then the leaders dove, a sloping, graceful dive, and we followed them down, the stars wheeling about us, to pull out barely inches from the waves, the spray rising to our faces. We skimmed the surface, the expanse of sea hurtling past, swells blurred with the speed; and threw ourselves headlong into the air again, heads back and hair streaming, climbing so fast that my ears popped. The sea and rocks shrank beneath us, shrank still smaller, distant and silent and lost in our altitude, and the stars reached out to gather us in. And as we reached the apex of our climb, our speed nearly exhausted and the air noticeably thin, the group spontaneously disintegrated, each of us falling and tumbling away like a great holiday starburst.
I rolled and fell through the dark air in utter ecstasy, abandoned myself to it, then ﬂattened once more and swooped away over the rocks. I was lost in the motion, lost in the ecstasy of soaring comradeship, lost in the glory of space and wind and brilliant darkness.
How long we continued I have no idea, but there came a time when we heard Khaper’s inﬁnitely gentle voice calling us back, like a mother calling her children to a warm and loving home. It was a summons no one thought to question. Slowly, gradually, each of us relinquished our hold on the sky, on the moonlight. Slowly, our movements became less those of our own wills, more those of Khaper’s gentle cadence, those of the soft, slow, autumn-leaf swirls of the beginning, but now in reverse, now gradually downward, toward the mouth of the chimney far below.
Imperceptibly, the chimney's mouth grew larger as we sank. I had the presence of mind to look around, to see for one last time the tumbled upthrust of rock which contained the chimney from high above, to see the beach where we’d raced and scrapped with each other for fun now deserted, lapped by the waves that glittered like moonstones from this height, height that lent preternatural slowness to their motion. Then, beyond to the horizon, along the coast with its volcanic upthrusts, inland to the desert regions where our battlegrounds lay. And as always when at height, I thought, How insigniﬁcant it all seems from here; how unimportant in the face of such beauty. Knowing, as I did so, that that thought was only possible to those who could live forever in the air; knowing that shortly I would again be facing the trials and conflicts of life on the ground.
Down, down we drifted. The chimney opened wider, wider, to embrace us. Presently its curved mouth rose beside us, then above us, and blocked out the landscape. As we descended within it, we swirled and swam in a great circle around the walls, and, as I watched the rock sides of the chimney pass in slow review, I saw that there was a hollow place like a shallow cave slightly below me, and that Sesounis sat in the hollow, beckoning to me.
The next time around, as the hollow swam past me, I pushed myself gently out of the ﬂow of the crowd and the susurrus of the chanting, and alighted on the ledge next to her. Gradually I settled to the rock, and some weight returned.
There were skins and fur heaped on the ﬂoor to form a soft, spacious sleeping area. I looked around, concerned about being able to ﬁnd a way down once full weight returned, but still for the most part ﬂoating in the cadence of the chanting, which had now been taken up by all the women and was reverberating within the chimney like the song of the sea.
“There’s a way down,” Sesounis said softly, anticipating my thought.
I sat down quite slowly, still bouyed by my lack of weight, and we looked at each other. This time there was nothing to distract me from her eyes. This time there was nothing to keep us from drinking, as deeply as we cared, of each other’s essence. And so we looked into each other’s souls, and looked, while time passed and the distant chanting continued and we slowly ﬁlled ourselves with each other. What was happening? What were we exchanging? What subtle ﬂuid, electric and powerful, ﬂowed between our beings in those minutes? I’ll never know. But eventually we had had enough of it, and then in one liquid motion we reached slowly out to each other.
At ﬁrst it didn’t matter whether we touched each other physically. My essence rose from the skin and ﬂesh of my body and hovered next to hers, so that we touched along an unimaginably thin interface. The contact, barely existent, was exquisite ecstasy and exquisite pain. It was as if our souls were trying, in some inexplicable fashion, to anneal to each other, to form one surface of higher dimension so that we could be in contact between all points at once. But eventually, we also needed the physical touch as well.
There was no sensation of movement to mark the time. Her nipples were brieﬂy soft under my tongue, then crenelated. From the soft swelling of her breasts to the whorl of her navel, my mouth drew contour lines, marking out the touch, outlining what needed no outline. Her hands on my head, insistent. The delicate fur of her, with its assertive odor, its dark ﬂavor; the search, brief but prolonged by a desire for breadth, for the tiny swelling. And then my tongue was urging her onward as she arched in the air, a low, guttural sound of pleasure in her throat.
I hadn’t known what to expect, how to pace, and was taken by surprise by how quickly she tightened her grip on me, sighed, then relaxed. But I didn’t have time to dwell on it. She shifted her weight and we rolled in the air like mating porpoises, her hand searching until it found the place and I cried out with the shock, then the pleasure of it. Her touch was compelling; my whole being poured itself into the place where her hand was and I went slack and weak, unable to move. It panicked me.
“It’s okay,” she said, “okay to let go.”
Maybe for you, I thought; but I tried anyway, tried to relax and pour myself into nothing but the sensation of her hand touching me. And found that the experience of surrendering to it was so exquisite, so hypnotic, that I was rushing toward the precipice of orgasm before I was fully aware of its depth and subtlety.
In my fantasies I had seen our ﬁrst lovemaking, and in my fantasies it was inﬁnitely extended, almost elegiac, our movements slowed by our altered sense of time. Now that the moment had arrived, we both discovered that we needed each other too much, at ﬁrst, for pace or balance. We merely wanted to envelop each other, to burrow into each other like a couple of gophers as quickly as we could. So much for romanticizing. Still, we were ecstatic. Whatever shyness had kept us apart had evaporated. We were free to explore each other’s bodies as gently or sportively as we wished, as quickly and uninhibitedly as being embodied allowed.
And so we did.
And, as we might have foreseen had we been rational, eventually the urgency receded (although the ﬂoating did not, leaving us free to do things that would have been impossible at normal weight) and we did, in fact, become able to make serious love, whatever the hell that is, slowly, gently, and with inﬁnite breadth and caring.