The goddesses are so suicidal anymore. We lost Jemma and Iwahana in one day last week, Jemma to poison and Iwahana to self-flagellation. None of us were trained in seeing the signs of self-flagellation. Now we are. There is so much to learn.
We also made other changes. Alana is now my only responsibility. In some ways, this is easier than being one of the other handmaidens. I can concentrate on just her, just now, right in front of me. But, of course, she is far wilier and older and determined than the younger goddesses.
I sleep very badly.
But I sleep with great joy in her arms, the little I'm able to rest. She is never far from me. She is never beyond my reach.
This sometimes makes her hostile.
Today she kicks me when I'm trying to bathe her. So much about baths is gloriously impossible. She is a goddess. I am beyond in love with her. And here she is, naked in my arms, slippery, warm—and trying to slide under the surface forever.
She means the kicks to incapacitate me long enough to allow her to drown. I know she doesn't want to hurt me.
“Halia,” she moans. “You have to just leave me. It is all I want.”
It breaks my heart that she wants me to leave her, but it mortally wounds me that she wishes it so that she might die.
The others—out there, in the world—they think we do this for the world's sake. So the crops will keep growing and babies will keep being born, so wars will end as soon as possible. That is their reason. Our reason is that the goddesses are everything to us. They are fragile diamonds in a furnace—shining their cold light into the creation of the universe.
We love them.
Of course, the truth is that I love Alana more than the others. To me she is the only treasure in a box of cheap jewels.
The other truth is that the wars and plagues do threaten us. On a breezy day, we can smell the burning flesh from the pyres of soldiers. On those days, Meres slams the windows closed. It is not just smoke that can enter our temples. Humors from the rotting corpses swirl and look for entry. When they get in, they kill us, and they kill goddesses.
It can't be risked.
The battles have gotten closer. Meres doesn't talk about it, but I see her pinched lips as she gazes out over the plain to the east, where the spires of Angal are now hidden by black smoke. We all hear the rumors. Arncourt has fallen. The goddesses there—slain.
We are the last hope, we who protect the goddesses. We cannot prevail without their divine help. If they fall, we all fall; the invaders will be upon us and there will be no mercy or hope.
I sometimes think of the cycle of it all: we keep the goddesses alive so that they can keep us alive. Is it only self-preservation then?
When Alana kicks me, again, I wince and I draw closer so that the madness inside her doesn't win, not today. I hold her and wash her and croon nonsense to her until she stops wailing and lets me put her under the silk sheets.
Yes. I said madness. We who keep the goddesses alive know that it is not what they truly want, suicide. They want to live and love. Madness coils up inside them and lashes at them until they cannot bear it any longer and they must end everything.
It is caused by the enemy. We figured that out. They know that we only win because of the goddesses, and this is how they've begun to fight us: madness. They make the goddesses no longer wish to protect us.
No, that is not true. The goddesses are mad.
It is terrible even to think that they wouldn't want to protect us.
In the morning, Alana seems to remember little. We go to painting and then to ceramics, both activities that the goddesses used to love. Meres tells us to keep the goddesses focused on the future and to sit in a circle every day with them so they can discuss the demons that assail them in their madness. Goddesses do not like to discuss demons, or madness, or circles, or paintings. Goddesses like to clutch their stomachs and wail at circle time, and they only like the kinds of ceramics that can be thrown and shattered.
Once, before the madness, Alana painted beautiful landscapes, alien creatures of light and love. Now she likes to paint small profane naked people on large canvases. She prefers to giggle and talk about their genitals during the circle time, or rant about the rotting corpses that litter the battlefields until Meres tells me that I can keep her from circle time if I choose, because it disturbs the others. What does it really hurt, though, when they are all as mad as she?
Meres sells the canvases outside the temple. One of Alana's brought so much money that we are all rich, even after the huge military expenses. Meres says that the faithful would buy a monkey's painting if we told them it was from the goddesses, but Alana's—her little naked princes with the bird-shaped phalluses, trying to keep them out of golden cages, or her cherubs bouncing on a bed of two hundred upright tits—these sell, and sell, and sell. Meres says people buy the paintings as talismans against the invasion. She scoffs at that. The invaders will burn a house down, divine painting on the wall notwithstanding. They will slaughter a man even if he holds a scrap of Alana's work. They are not charms.
The only thing that ever saves us is the goddesses themselves.
Maybe Alana would paint today. It has been a long time, but every now and then she will still try. I give her kava, as much as I can convince her to drink, and then I bring her into the great studio.
Alana is such a witch. She lunges for the brushes and tries to jam the ends into her nose. But it is an old trick and I put the brushes out of reach.
“Remember when you were small? You painted with your hands. Would you like to try that?” I open cartons of paint and set them on the floor before a large canvas.
“You are not fooling me,” she says. She hisses it. She always sounds so vicious when she is thwarted. “You are a stupid vile slit of a girl. All you are is your girlhood, and you are wasting it on paintbrushes. You will not have any children, because your girlhood is almost used up on paintbrushes.”
She puts both fists into paint cartons and pounds them onto the canvas. Scarlet flies everywhere. “They are eyeballs,” she says. “I would smash your eyeballs like this.” She slams the canvas again, and again. She snarls like a predator and looks at me as though I am prey.
Then she puts her head to one side. I hold my breath, waiting for her to lunge towards a window or a flame or whatever new trick she is thinking of.
“The spatter is so fascinating,” she says suddenly. “Did you know that it obeys the laws of the oceans and moons? If you pound your wet fist, droplets will fly out from it, every time the same. Every droplet the same.” She takes my hand, gently. “Try it.” She plunges my hand into pale purple. “You shouldn't do red. It's too bloody for someone so peaceful.”
This is my Alana. I can hardly breathe still, from the joy of her. The madness is lifted, for a few moments at least.
I am clumsy with the paints. While I am making nursery handprints, Alana is busily painting leaping demons in ocean waves. She looks at what I'm doing and laughs. “Halia, you must learn how to feel it.” She puts my hands into the paint as though they are brushes. She paints with my hands, holding onto my wrists with steely fingers, and erases all the childish handprints. “We made fiery lava to wipe out the silly hands,” she says, smearing gray and orange over every handprint I made, but she is trying to be gracious at least.
Then she paints with my fingers one of her bird-phallus princes, pointing and laughing at the demons. She is radiating light and love, and I am bespelled.
The painting doesn't end with a return to madness. She lets me lead her to the tub and gently wash all the paint from her skin. She has managed to cover herself with as much paint as the canvas, like a child would. Like she did when she was a child.
She puts her hand out to my face. “You have paint on your nose,” she says. Her eyes are clear. She puts bubbles on her other hand and washes my skin with her fingers.
I am frozen in the moment. Goddess tends to handmaiden.
Over her wet hair, I can see the dim flamelight of distant battle. As I watch, men are dying, I think. I just can't see them.
I carefully dry her. More than once, she has taken this opportunity to bolt for the window. Once she was able to break it with her shoulder and grasp a terrible shard in her hand. I caught it before she could bring it to her neck or face, but we both bear the scars.
Goddesses have many fresh scars, as do their attendants.
Once she is dry and wrapped in a cotton gown, we go to bed. For once, she doesn't fight it when I tuck her against my belly so that my chin is on the top of her head and my breasts are pressed up against her back. Good, I think. It is the safest way to rest, and I am so tired.
At some point in the darkest hours, I wake for some reason and she is limp and cool in my arms. I shake her, screaming for help. She is alive, but barely. She has pushed the cotton deep into her throat so that she can't draw air.
It almost worked, but we push on her heart and breathe for her and we bring her back for the hundredth time.
This time, though, she is damaged, badly. After many days waiting for her to recover, Meres tells us that Alana might not speak again, that she was without breath long enough that her words flew far from her. They don't usually return, she tells us.
But Alana eats, obediently, and when I bathe her, she doesn't kick me or try to slide under the surface. When it is time to sleep, she turns to me, arms around my neck, and falls into a peaceful sleep. At first I stay awake, to see if it's a trick, but it isn't. She is not trying to leave this world, at least for tonight.
Nor tomorrow, nor the next night. She is quiet and calm, all the time. She rests and laughs, without words.
She sits in the circle, she listens to the musics. She doesn't want to paint, but she doesn't fight me when I put a brush in her hand. She just looks at it and then puts it down.
Meres purses her lips as she examines Alana after her monthly flow. “She is healthy,” Meres says. “And the madness?”
I think back. “The madness hasn't returned,” I finally say. “The words may have taken the madness with them when they flew away.” I look down at my precious charge, my diamond in the furnace. She is on Meres' examining bench, giggling at the pictures on the ceiling. She is joyful.
“Take her back and let her have a nice dinner,” Meres says. “She is fine.” She looks distant, thoughtful.
That night I hear shrieking from another wing, and then a few hours later from another. By the next week, many of the goddesses have tried to suicide using the cotton in their throats. Only one succeeds. But the rest, their madnesses have gone to wherever Alana's went.
Meres suggests that I don't have to watch Alana all the time now, but when I try to leave her the first evening, she screams and cries until others come in to see what is wrong. “I'm afraid the madness will return if I leave her,” I finally say to Meres.
She nods. “Stay with her,” she says.
The crops are thriving, growing higher than a man, and more small goddesses, new sparkling rubies and sapphires, with vicious cutting edges and a wily drive to launch themselves out of windows and into fires, have arrived for us to care for. Their madness doesn't last, though. There are shrieks in the night, and Meres emerges, vomit-covered cotton in her hands, and then the goddesses are content, even the most murderous ones. They don't even search for their words. It is as though they don't notice they're gone.
Alana snuggles into me tonight. She hears one of the attendants start to shriek and it makes her giggle. I shush her with a kiss on the forehead and she goes to sleep.
One morning the smoke from the spires of Angal is lessened, and by the next, it is completely gone. Meres is almost cheerful, and the rest of us are giddy. The invaders are vanquished. I show Alana the sky. The windows are no longer a danger to her, so I fling them open. “Look!” I cry. “Look what you have done. You have saved us all.”
Alana looks incuriously at the trees in the courtyard, as though I am showing her a bird or a frog. But she smiles and coos. She is happy, with me. She doesn't try to climb out on the ledge or lunge for something to break the glass. I close the window and settle her in front of a canvas with fingerpaints. She giggles and splashes color onto the canvas. It is utterly nonsensical, but she is peaceful, and that is what matters.