The last deer in heaven lopes through the desert of shattered towers with a wild expression upon its face. It is one Sestu now understands, or thinks she does, having watched it all this time. The tightness of its jaw, the curl of its beard, its nacreous eyes; antlers sway in the crisp wind of its passage. Sestu presumes it is love in that feral gaze. Love of life.
Sestu, once-godslayer, Thirdmother of Desolant. She tracks with her left eye, the good one. Once, the gods made humanity. Now from their detritus, humanity recreates itself. Soul and flesh take on new forms.
O, but look!—the deer leaps, displaying a luminous mantle of fur. Nothing near so radiant on mortal earth. And so very close, barely thirty chi away. Her heart aches. She bites the inside of her cheek so as not to laugh at herself, at her festering sorrow. O, ain’t it always the penitent who let it all come crashing down?
A tremor seizes her as she suppresses the laugh. Her foot slips, scrapes stone. Too late she remembers to breathe, and gasps instead.
The deer jerks its head.
You must(n’t) do this.
Hissing bitch’s teat under her breath as she scrambles up, unsheathes her horn bow, and reaches into her quiver for cached moonlight—from the corner of her good eye, the deer unspools hidden limbs, elongates, its face kaleidoscopes like so many iridescent petals and then—
the mind is the hand is the bow is the string is the arrow is the flesh is the soul
—Sestu brings her arm around, draws a moonglow arrow, strings it and tightens and aims without sighting, with a familiarity borne only of years of hunt burned into muscle memory, then she fires—
—stabs its haunch, earning a roar—
—but then it’s gone. Though still can she feel it writhing, dancing under the weave of the world.
Weeping sore of sorrow, a buried guilt gone septic. Not yet, it ain’t over yet.
The last deer in heaven flees, and Sestu pursues.
Before, days before—
On the outskirts of the settlement, Thirdmother Sestu visits the young, pregnant Asundra, whose child will bear a deer’s soul.
“My dear, o, I come ya’a,” says Sestu, pulling aside the curtain of beads hung across the doorway.
Incense wafts through the air, fragrant and smoky. Asundra sits on a mat in a trance, chanting aum maan peli muym aum maan pel and so on. Once, mothers sent up prayers for their children; no use for them now. Asundra was born without a womb, like Sestu, and is paler than her, dark brown skin with gold luster. They keep her in solitude so she may concentrate, and preserve the integrity of the child.
“Asundra,” says Sestu.
Aum maan peli muym—the girl is dreamdrunk. But so goes the teaching, to be fair. Void the mind, warm the body, let the soulless child gestate without distraction.
Sestu, however, is not feeling fair. In principle, yes, but not when she is tired and anguished and called upon to do precisely what troubles her once again, without a day’s rest. Nine months, said Secondmother Haaniq when Sestu returned to the village the night before. You’d better bring the girl with you. Sestu would curse her luck if she hadn’t killed the god of fortune with her own hands.
But for a moment, in the quiet, Sestu watches Asundra. She looks at her face, youthful, the skin almost glowing, unscarred by years of war and brittle faith. An expression untainted by the torment of the old world, before the sunder of gods, the incursion into heaven.
O, what a soft animal.
Sestu can’t bear it. She steels herself and slaps Asundra upside the head.
“Aiyi! Yield, I yield, I’ll face day if you let me alone!” The girl opens her bright eyes and pouts, but when she sees Sestu her expression brightens. “Mamá Sestu!”
“Yai. I am she.”
“O, you look so dour, just as always,” Asundra teases. “You’ve been gone, what, a week? I’ve missed you!”
“I’m sure.” Sestu busies herself around the cramped space, gathering midwifery supplies as Asundra rubs her hands into her face.
“Eh?” Asundra waves a hand to get Sestu’s attention. “Not like you to rush so, mamá! Willn’t you even ask me how I’ve been? What’s on?”
“We’re called to the hunt.”
“Really!” Asundra bounds up, clapping her hands. She is taller than Sestu, with slender, ungainly legs. “O it’s so damned boring here sitting all day, an’ the moreso when I’m not allowed to so much as scratch my ass …” Upright, it is easy to see the ectopic pouch lining Asundra’s bare abdomen, fused to the flesh, and through the translucent surface, pulsing in amnion—a fetus molded from clay, the possible-child. “Aah—we?”
“Child’s coming on ready.” Asundra makes a face at her. Sestu continues, “We’re short for time. Need you by me so the soul won’t blow away if I have to come back.” She takes a deep breath. Her chest is always tight. “So. Hold your mirth. You’ll listen to me an’ do as I say.”
“Yai, yai …” The girl rummages for her kitsack and what few possessions she calls her own: a woven doll, several immortal peaches plucked from a god’s garden, a scroll for practicing her logograms. “I’ve not seen deer but for the other huntermothers an’ their yarnings—o an’ the drawings if they do any justice—but not anything you’ve told me, o mamá seamlipped.”
“Bolt it,” says Sestu, bag of resins and aromatics in hand. “You don’t hunt with words.” She takes the birthing knife too. Poised on the threshold of the doorway, beads pushed aside, she offers a reluctant concession: “How’ve you been.”
Asundra ignites: “You wouldn’t believe what Fifthmother Eshut said to me an’ Kinu the other day when I visited the mothers’ hall—”
Outside, Sestu hushes the girl for a brief, futile moment, and they pull from the fog catcher to fill their waterskins. “Are we visiting the citadel?” Asundra asks.
“You’ve been tracking it long?”
Sestu nods. The deer’s tracks are unmistakable, its spoor radiant, westbound. Ruin of gods lies there, forbidden. Old earth-myth said evil was birthed and buried in the west. “Past that, fog desert.” With any luck, they need not venture that far.
Asundra nods, shifts her weight to accommodate the claychild. “Cain’t I farewell my sisters?” The latest generation of siblings, born under the same moon.
“We’ll be back before they can tell,” says Sestu.
This hunt, as it was arranged—
The night before Asundra is roused, Sestu and Haaniq of Desolant, the once-godslayers, converge at their hallowed pavilion in the settlement’s center. Here where the bodies of gods were cremated, their husks cast into new tools.
Lit by the hearthlight’s charnel glow, Haaniq leaned in. Come, Haaniq said, and her voice rattled. She leaned against her gnarled staff. Let’s not be frivolous, and she spoke high tongue, you know it’s to be done. For the girl’s child.
Just so, Secondmother. Sestu hefted her bow in hand, considering it as she might a newborn, dripping ichorous light. Her horn bow, alloy of god and deer, which pulled moonlight and sharpened it good and deadly. But I ain’t assured as you are.
There might be more. You really scoured the whole of heaven?
Sestu balked at her skepticism. It’s the last. I know it. Been days on end beyond, an’ but for that one, only silence talks back.
Haaniq sat back. A little endling, o, this deer. Shadows embroidered the seams of her face. Well, why not? The promise is twofold, my dear—beginnings premised on ends.
Not theirs—the gods’. You saw some fawn sat on a throne over us?
They’re of godly flesh! They don’t deserve our pity or sentiment.
I don’t pity them. A lunar sliver thrummed through the bow. She set it down. So I do it. None more children anyway.
An’ peace is made, we’ll make this heaven good and proper. Firelight suggesting a wet sheen over Haaniq’s eyes, like the sweat against her skin, but Sestu has never known her to shed a tear. You’ll do it. And her tone was certain.
“Have you ever seen someone die?” says Asundra. “Say, besides the gods.”
“Many,” says Sestu. “Enough.”
“What’s it like?”
Sestu sips from her waterskin, not because she thirsts—she hasn’t for years—but to wet her chapped lips. She’d held Ninthmother Shoholl’s hand in her dying seconds, after the lightning-sage god’s halberd had divided her body at the torso. “Like a long sleep—nai, you’ve no idea. Like a flame goes out. Night waxes. An’ you rest easy, for you know the sun’ll never come up again.”
Three days into the journey find the two along a promontory, following the low rush of a river that feeds into a lake. Dragonflies alight on swaying reeds. Sestu guides Asundra across uneven land as she balances the weight of her pregnancy. Reposed at the lake’s edge is the husk-ruin of gods, looking the same as it did years ago: the citadel.
Asundra gnaws thoughtfully on an immortal peach. A drop of juice clings to her lip. To an earthborn once-mortal like Sestu, or the rest of the Desolant, heaven’s delights are tasteless, dust in the mouth.
“Tell me about the deer. No one ever talks about them. You’re the hunter, you know them inside out.” Asundra leans in. “What’s it like?”
“Careful now,” says Sestu, reaching out. “Don’t trip—” Lithe Asundra bounds over a wide crack in the stone. Sestu decides to indulge her, scowling: “Of all divine beasts, deer’s closest to us. We rhyme.” Close enough to the truth, that deer’s souls are the only ones stable enough to sustain a human vessel. She tries to find the words. “They shimmer. Soul glows bright in them.”
Asundra waits for more, then huffs when none forthcomes.
Sestu had hunted several souls for the girl’s siblings, though their names escape her. She hadn’t hunted Asundra’s, though. The credit for that went to wondrous Seventhmother Saddhinyat, once better with bow and arrow than Sestu has ever been. Saddhinyat—Farthest Death, they’d called her in the sunder—in her glory and compassion, before she chose heaven’s vast empty instead of their victor’s burden. I shuck this curse an’ stride forth for nothing, she had said, in spite of Sestu’s protests.
You wouldn’t know, Sestu observes Asundra’s maudlin expression, the way a new human soul looks. The green an’ swirling before it settles. A soul’s absence is a carnivorous void; no body survives without. They’d overlooked that most originary link between the divine and earthly. From where did their souls once come, but the gods themselves? And after their sunder …
“A last question! What’d the gods look like?”
“You," says Sestu at last, "talk too much.”
A flare of light catches her eye. She points and drops to one knee. “Look.” Down on the lake surface, a series of ripples shimmer like parhelion. “Watch close.” Asundra follows her gaze.
Over several minutes, the ripples wend towards shore and city. As they near the sand, four slender legs resolve into focus before the body, as if the deer is sculpted from light. “There it is,” Sestu breathes.
“Wow,” Asundra whispers, and the awe in her voice hurts Sestu. “Is it a girl?”
“Nai. It doesn’t”—but no, she has never wondered this before, if the deer gender themselves—“that is, I don’t … know. They’ve never spoke.”
Not in any language she had ever learned to understand.
The deer, fully materialized, steps across the last chi of water and onto shore. A flurry of movement—it jerks its head to the side and cocks an ear, revealing one glossy, alien eye—and for that moment Sestu thinks they’ve been spotted. Its beard flows like pale moss. But it turns and strides away, into the city, into the ruin of heaven.
Really, there had been two sunders. First, the gods: heaven gone empty. Second—
It’s peacetime, the exhaustion and small joy in war’s aftermath. Their settlement was tiny, still thought to be a temporary thing before they would occupy the citadel. Sestu was gone seven months when her waters broke early, for she had nurtured that ectopic claychild, sculpted out of the loam of heaven, well. She felt oddly proud that she would be the first to bring a child into this bright, newly emptied world. The others steadied her—the survivors, the foremothers, the last of the Desolant. Of them, it was Secondmother Haaniq and Seventhmother Saddhinyat’s faces that swam in her direct vision. They made a small incision in the ectopic pouch to drain the amniotic fluid. Then it was Haaniq holding up the birthing knife, sterilized in boiling water. Ready? Sestu hurt but not much, holding on to Saddhinyat—who would flee, who would wander away from the Desolant—who kissed her on the cheek and the forehead and the lips. Yai. She was quiet, resolute. That’s never changed.
Haaniq made a clean slice against the lining. She peeled away the ectopic pouch, the seat of birth, and Sestu felt the novel absence, the untethering. Saddhinyat said I love you—o anything but that now. And Haaniq was unfolding the pouch and pulling out the baby, cut the spirit umbilical—and she could no longer intuit its presence—washed it, and placed it in Sestu’s hand. Yes, the clay skin had softened in the womb, and they cooed and admired, and Sestu thought this is my child. A moment of relief and shared smiles passed before Sestu realized there was no pulse, no pulse? and the child’s eyes were dark and crystal and unseeing, and a heavy and odious thing settled in Sestu’s stomach before she knew it. The thing, which has no name, would stay there for many many years to come, while lying there, her soulless child in her arms, a scream crawled out of her throat why doesn’t it breathe why doesn’t my child breathe?—
Under the fugitive moon god’s light, while Asundra meditates, Sestu idly scrimshaws an old deer’s shoulder bone by the lakeshore. She carves from memory the profile of a minor wind god. Those serpent heads arching back in spasms when she’d cut it down on the promenade, gilded its robes with godsblood.
But for the low rush of the waterfall, everything now is always quiet. No lilting birdsong, no cicada cacophony; heaven’s last creatures are regal phantoms.
Once, she said: No gods, no names of gods. We ain’t come to supplant, but to repudiate their vision. Ain’t that right? The Desolant, the women of power, knew she spoke true. Secondmother Haaniq in particular.
The deer bone sits heavy in her hand, half-carved. We had a vision, hadn’t we? Of heaven gone empty of divinity? All this world has to her the quality of an old, healed wound that still smarts with the ghost of injury. What are they now, and what do they seek to do? We need something new.
Something moves in her peripheral vision. Her body is up and crouching low and ready before her mind catches up. Standing in the center of the lake is the deer, again, bright as a sun. It’s taunting me! And yet, and yet—it watches her for a moment with a cryptic expression, light refracting into rainbows within its eyes, before bowing its head and shedding its skin like petals. The deer blooms; its ribcage becomes a prism of light.
Stricken, awed, she skips back. My bow—she moves her hand and the deer jerks its head, pupils dilating, before it sidesteps and vanishes. Sestu’s eyes take a moment to adjust to the return of darkness.
Distracted, you fool, she thinks. Hadn’t it been the case that, when they first started hunting, she killed without remorse, in service of life? Regret cuts close to repentance, and repentance favors only the gods. Cain’t afford this.
This? This awe. This love, borne of too much time spent watching, observing—and this grief too.
Sunrise glistens on the lake, and Sestu is curt. Her cataract feels irritated, a remnant from the war before eternity marked her.
“Up with you.” She does not slap but firmly prods Asundra, who complies with a deep sigh.
They pack the tent. The deer haunts the waking light, its patience and mystery demanding something from Sestu. She can’t give in. But o, how it reminds her with its delicate gait and poise of something beyond, no, before heaven, before the gods were sundered, down below, the faintest nostalgia—
She bites her lip until she bleeds so that the pain overrides reminiscence. “Here, girl,” she calls Asundra over. “Hold still, hold.” She has her sit down and makes busy dabbing aromatics on her skin, massaging her meridian points.
Her flesh is supple and warm and smells of sage. A younger Asundra used to tug on the loose skin on Sestu’s knuckles and laugh when it stretched and did not snap back. She’d pinch the underside of Sestu’s upper arm and dart away when Sestu snapped at her. “Give me just—ouch!—one more question. Why’s the city in ruins?” says Asundra.
“They linked the stone to themselves,” says Sestu, pressing her thumb hard against Asundra’s neck, “sank their congealed qi in it. When they died, so did the city.” Tactical speculation, received gospel, and postmortem study. But spend too long in the dead citadel and you approach something like melancholy and even—this one dangerous—penitence.
“Ai …” says the girl, lost in the thought. She twists and turns under Sestu’s rough care.
“Hold, now—stop squirming,” she snarls, butting her forehead against Asundra’s. It burns. “You’re hot.” She presses a thumb to the crust in the corner of Asundra’s eye and picks it away. “Rheum.” The girl writhes in Sestu’s grip, but she holds on tight. “You’re sniffling. You’ve run sick on me.” Nine months, said Haaniq.
“It’s not my fault,” Asundra says, twisting away to stare at the ground. “I—we’re on the hunt, ain’t we? I didn’t want to say nothing.”
“No excuse. You know the danger, full as you are.” A child ripened but without soul is a loveless thing, and it will lash out at its mother.
Grimacing, Asundra says nothing. Sestu pinches the bridge of her nose. “No tarrying. But a moment’s pain an’ you tell me. It hurt now?”
“Back aches,” she mumbles. “That’s it.”
“A bit.” Quick enough that Sestu thinks she imagines it, bitterness flicks across her face. Below, against her stomach, the swell of the ectopic pouch and the amnion glistening. The child’s shadow peers through. A distant part of Sestu recoils. O, my dear …
“Just follow, yai?” she says.
At the city’s edge stands the grand meridian gate, its two arms crumbled into slopes of rubble. As they pass under the central arches into a courtyard, the double-eaved pavilion above them creaks and mutters with vanished support.
Beyond lie desolate streetways. Towering many-gabled temples and pagodas flensed of their bright scales, lion statues reduced to dust. The celestial orgy arrested, mildewed in cloying amrita. Even Asundra feels the pressure to quiet, to be—not reverent, but wary. “Don’t wander your mind,” says Sestu, curt. She spits on rubble. “Into the alleys.” Narrow passageways weave like capillaries through undestroyed sections of the citadel. Small courtyards for godlings visible through intact moon gates. No pity for the sycophants.
They step through a ruined mansion. Inside a banquet hall, food and drink that will never rot remains piled high on long tables with colorless tablecloths. Peaches in porcelain bowls and sweet wine in jugs, all arranged like art, everlasting. Sestu drank the wine once, ate the fruit. Bore the curse of immortality ever on.
Asundra reaches for a peach.
“Nai,” says Sestu. She remembers the grit in her mouth, the celebration meal. They’d felt the change in their bodies, the onset of immortality, when they no longer needed food or sleep. Before they knew it would wither their minds with time.
“Don’t. Let this place alone.” Sestu does not fear the dead. No, this place reeks of undying miasma. They could never bear to live here. “Give me your hand.” Asundra offers it uncertainly. “Spit.” The girl spits into her palm, and Sestu unsheathes her antler knife and wipes the blade on saliva. A setting ritual: the deer will know the mother of the one who will carry its soul.
Outside the banquet hall, nothing stirs. Weathered and bleached walls no longer protect their charge. Old godsblood still glimmers like streaks of sunlight on all surfaces. "Every last one of them … gone?" Asundra says.
“Just about.” She nods. “Most gone.” Saddhinyat had shuddered at the quiet, too—a sympathizer’s piety she’d buried deep, for the war and its aftermath.
“Did they deserve it?” Asundra’s eyes are wide and innocent, expression genuine.
She could say yai, or I hope so. Or I don’t know.
“I don’t know about deserve,” she says. “We tried to remake the world. In our image, a kinder one.” As the gods had made humanity in theirs.
“I hope we do better than they did,” says Asundra, resting a hand on her swollen belly. “The way we’re living on now.”
Before the city fell, most deer lived in the imperial gardens, languid and pampered and safe from predation. Some haunted the gardens long after, unwilling to leave. They had been shot carelessly in the war’s aftermath, and their souls wasted.
“Were you ever with child, mamá Sestu?”
She looks down at Asundra, who picks fuzz off her half-eaten peach. Never has she spent so much time with one of the daughters. “Fifthmother Eshut’s done you in enough with Desolant poesy, hasn’t she?”
“Well …” Asundra clambers beneath the slant of a fallen pillar, and Sestu follows. The citadel is labyrinthine and dotted with hidden groves that attract the deer. Even as they have grown quiet, and the greenery cascades. “Most of it ain’t very detailed, an’ you never speak at the mothers’ hall. So I was excited to join you, for the hunt. O, an’ to see what the rest of heaven looks like. They always talk resettling, but we never get to really come out here an’ be here.” She wrinkles her nose before sneezing at the dust in the air. “Anyway. I was wondering. What was it like for you?”
She means nothing by it, but Sestu can’t face her. “It was never dead, because it never lived.” Dreams of raising children without the gods. Strange possessiveness, for it to be her child, yes, borne of her, suckled by her flesh. “Nothing like what you have. You know the honor it is.”
And she is startled by Asundra’s cry, the unlanguaged resentment in it. “Don’t tell me that too, I can hardly bear to stand it.” There are bones here, the bones of some godling, crushing underfoot as Asundra stamps her foot. “It means nothing to me, mamá, I just want it over with—”
“Girl, you’re bearing your, our future—” She bites her tongue. Seventhmother, who walked away, Saddhinyat, traitor and seed of failure, Farthest Death, who fell farthest: Saddhinyat, who would shake her head and say, do not sacrifice now, which is not yours to give away.
“For the future, for the future, aum maan peli muym an’ all’s good and right, I know.” The girl sighs and sinks to the floor, the brief fight gone out of her. “Yai, yai …” For what choice has she? The daughters must bear their own daughters. The Desolant must make good on their promise, to fill the heaven they emptied.
What can Sestu say? She yields nothing of herself—not now, not yet, forgive me—but offers a hand. After a moment, Asundra takes it, rises, and they resume their search.
They do not find the deer in the citadel. It is in a rare moment that Sestu meditates, opens her third eye, and then catches a glimpse—
Hoarse call into cold air. No reply. Wind sifts sand.
A drip of spittle catches light. Frosted breath, mist rises from its back.
Standing stoic in the fog like a final emperor, crown of bone upon its head.
They leave the collapse behind them for the fog desert ahead. Six days in, Asundra sickens.
Cold sweat marks her calves and she has to sit down and rest her head in her hands every hundred chi or so, slowing their progress. Sestu swallows her worry. It’ll agitate the world elements, make an impression the deer will notice—if it isn’t already watching them regardless. As if it delighted in play, a joy forgone in the struggle to build a new world.
They make nine li and reach an outcropping of stone that looks like a pavilion swallowed by the dunes before Asundra is unable to go on—she gasps and falls face down into the sand. Sestu pulls her to the shade of the wreck and props her against a sunken wall next to her kitsack before hunching down herself, her knees flaring with ache.
The girl lies supine on the sand and radiates an unnatural heat, flesh scalding to the touch. Sestu grasps the girl’s head by the back of the ear and temple, lolling it back, and then presses their foreheads together, to feel the pulse of qi inside her. “Fuck above.” Her claychild thrashes about. Without soul and thus without mind, its body spasms. If Sestu does not deliver it soon, soul or no, it will burn itself out and take its mother with it.
The pain lances Sestu’s own flesh in cruel sympathy. Headstrong girl damn you. “Drink,” she says. She feeds Asundra from her waterskin. Water dribbles down the girl’s cheeks and Sestu pats them dry with a cloth, then dampens it and places it across her forehead.
“Cain’t …” the girl moans, voice phlegm-thick. Sestu leans in to hear. “Cain’t breathe …”
Sestu folds Asundra’s arms over her abdomen, above the ectopic pouch. The sight of the child’s silhouette in amniotic glow is staggering. “Breathe in through your nose,” Sestu says, “two counts, an’ breathe out your mouth four. Deep breathing, don’t overextend. You want air circulation.”
Asundra does as told and gradually subsides into trembling calm. She looks past Sestu, her eyes unfocused. “The deer …” she mumbles, “beautiful, glowing thing …” Sestu slumps to the ground, dips her head to rest against the girl’s chest.
Asundra’s feverish warmth, and her haggard, rattling breath. The child she was given to bear, shackled with it, for the future.
For the future.
Sestu listens to Asundra’s terrible delirium-babble until she can bear it no longer. “Stop talking,” and for a moment her voice is ragged. “O you fool child, willn’t you listen? This world ain’t made for you an’ I, this loathsome place, an’, fuck above, I try an’ I’m trying to deliver you a future, killer that I am, I, I,” and even here, on the verge of it, she doesn’t break the oath against shame and regret, “this is all that I can give you.”
Moonlight above reminds her of certain escapes. Its pale glow turns the desert into a gray sea. The moon god had pled amnesty at the end of the war—thinking of blackened night, they’d granted the request. So it continues to shine above, a beacon of loss and remainder.
Once, the Secondmother said to her: You absolve us with each soul you bring back for the new kin. Make us whole again, o my dear, that we might heal from the death of our faith. Her ironic recital of high tongue, a language that only flattered divinity’s arch taste.
And again that night, in the pavilion turned charnelhouse where she spoke with Haaniq: Remember the catechisms.
Made for wartime! Sestu willed herself to not tremble, looked past the Secondmother to the wall where their old weapons hung, their ravaged armory. Look there at their pride and glory! Hers was the obsidian jian, Haaniq’s the cerulean dragon halberd.
I fought alongside you in sundering, Haaniq. Took godsblood in my mouth with you. Still warm off the blade, saccharine like overripe peach. Shouldn’t they give it up, the old grudge, the passion of godslaying?
You’ll do it, said Haaniq. You won’t choose the beast over the child.
You forget Asundra, Sestu thinks now, an’ in haste foreclose the ones alive now.
Beast, feral thing, Haaniq continued. Septic with the gods’ decadence. Who’ll lament its death? We promised to take all that they withheld. This stronghold of the sky, our birthright. An’ you repudiate this?
Nai, nai, nai, and Sestu stood, and lunar dew dripped from her fingers, wet from oiling her bow. I would’ve died for this. I would still die, that our freedom be won.
Baleful Haaniq, augur and witch, who Sestu loves—the Secondmother blinded by her own fury, which time cannot cool. For wasn’t it her who saw her birth children sacrificed to the gods for harvest? Wasn’t it her who witnessed the immolation of their Firstmother, her body consumed by holy flame?
Haaniq mothered her, those faraway years down on mortal earth. Haaniq, who transcribed to stele the catechisms uttered by the Firstmother, first heretic.
Haaniq: Remember your child, Sestu.
She had nothing to say to that, the cruel prod poised as sympathy. A child without a soul is no child at all. Not like Asundra, or her sisters Kinu, Usheba, Itol, and the rest. Their deers’ souls breathing life into them, these vibrant children gamboling in empty heaven.
Gods and their empty proclamations of order and goodness. Nai, Sestu will never regret their sunder. The empire of heaven met its due in extinction. But how could you could not ache, killing your origin? Left behind, the wayward children of divinity: humanity and deer alike.
O, the parts of yourself that you close to make yourself into what your people need.
Sestu centers herself in the present. Below the stars, the remnant moon glows. Sestu no longer knows what a prayer is, has forgotten the ancient forms. She tries the mantra—aum maan peli muym—but it does nothing for her, for this. It is rage, maybe. Or grief, despair, fear, joy, relief, surrender, embrace. Or all and none.
So: she sings instead for the first time since entering heaven a lifetime ago—hums a quiet, wordless song, whose melody is pregnant with memory and sentiment. She sings until her shortness of breath betrays her. Beside her, a smile ghosts Asundra’s face. The possible-child shifts in sleepless sleep.
On the cold floor of heaven, Sestu finishes her prayer in silence, unruptured by memory or premonition.
Just before dawn, she heads out, leaving the girl by the sunken pavilion. Her passage disturbs a constellation of beetles licking dew from the early fog. Such fragile, immortal life, and so quiet underfoot.
She knows the deer is near. Almost as though it led her to this point and now expects her to make her will manifest. An inscrutable mind—and what a mind! She knows it has one, refuses to deny it. An’ what is your will? Her body trembles with a suppressed energy she can’t name. Her body knows already. Her mind will catch up.
But first, the deer wants to play. She senses it, the elegant bones of the creature. Effervescent with joy. And she is still a hunter, the last one. Her knife, sharpened. Her bow, strung with lunar essence, the moon god’s tears. She leans into her instincts and watches the sea of fog roll into the desert. Watches as daylight breaks and scatters long shadows cast by shards of towers stabbed deep into the sand, their glinting crowns set afire by dawn.
Then there it is, loping across the desert plain.
Now finally back here, in this infinite suspended moment—
The last deer in heaven flees, and Sestu pursues.
Under the surface of the world it writhes. Though it has gone away from her, it can’t be far, with moonlight shot through its haunch and a river of ichor bleeding forth beautifully, horribly.
Sestu’s body roils with adrenaline. She breathes in, out. Once more. She licks her finger and tastes the air, peers through the fog, channeling a heightened sensorium. She tastes—
—this is what she tastes—
the salt of water element and sourness of wood element suffusing sky and land
—closes her eyes to concentrate, feeling the quickening sensation behind her eyes—
—fights a sudden unfamiliar, gut-churning nausea—
fitful threnody shot through with blood’s perfume
—stay the path, that’s Haaniq’s voice roaring in her head, know the warmth of a fallen god in your hands learn it firsthand an’ never forget. The soul is an easy thing to grab if you truly will it.
The soul, an’ the soft animal it wears.
Then there it is, right in front of her.
Hear the deep, rasping bleat. See the deer stagger to one side, how it favors its hind leg, gold gushing from the wound. Return its wise gaze, eyes shimmering like mother-of-pearl, filled with other worlds you can never hold. Do you know you’re the last? She doesn’t know if she means the deer or herself.
Her hand twitches.
Catechisms. When they climbed the pillars that hold up heaven: we will never repent. As they broached the seals of heaven: may we be ever recreant. As they cleansed the empire of gods: an’ heaven will go empty.
How many years has it been, how many deer hunted, how many souls torn from their first bodies? How the killing makes a ruin of her. Will its eyes look out through the child’s gaze? She brings the birthing knife in hand, its curved, vicious blade. Even though it is short, it is heavy like her obsidian jian, heavy like that obsolete blade steeped in godsblood. This knife that cuts the tether between body and soul.
The deer watches her raise the knife to her chest. She has watched it in turn. Up close, she sees that it’s different from the others, as they differ from each other: a pale birthmark around its left eye, puffs of breath rising above its sleek head, faint amusement in the way it licks its lips, even as its body sighs with a certain exhaustion and pain. In time with its breathing, its fur pulses across the spectrum of color, each as natural and right as the last. She can’t even begin to imagine what she looks like from its perspective.
Or was it ever so inscrutable, ever so alien? A creature of earth, a creature of heaven, and between them both, a thread of blood. Even immortal, they can be killed. Left alone, could it mold its own children one day? Breathe life into them, souls that need not know divinity?
O, there’s no victory in this, nor penance. The child Asundra carries will be of nothing, with nothing, if Sestu must deaden her own soul to deliver it.
She will not midwife this lonely world into being.
Sestu sighs deeply, exhales all the breath from her chest, her whole body seizing with tremors. The knife loose in her grip. She even laughs a little, laughs at her body, this weak vessel for her soul. What a relic I am. Asundra would understand what she finds so funny. At last, you’ve found a sense of humor, mamá!
She wonders if she ought to cook something for the girl when she gets back.
The deer licks its lips and sniffs.
O child, forgive me, thinks Sestu, for what I cain’t bear.
For I choose another sunder.
She drops the birthing knife.
I choose it, thinks Sestu. I choose this sunder of our past.
This is what she wills—
Asundra, by the pavilion. The fever, the child, overtaking. By knife, Sestu will open her ectopic pouch, remove it, and nurse Asundra well. They will bury the child, unnamed, once-possible, there.
Do you hate me? Sestu might ask. For how I failed?
I want to love, Asundra may say. I want to love this world an’ everything in it. Her deer’s soul pulses inside her. She may ask, o mamá, do you love?
Everything I do, child, everything’s been for it.
Again, the promontory. The lake’s cool waters. The dead citadel of gods. And the moon god, last of its kind, smiles its sad smile.
A girl’s profile, chin raised in thought, is regal, a promise of benevolence and compassion. In her left hand she rolls the pit of a peach back and forth. Winds cast her hair into a billowing crown.
Child of heaven, what is the nature of your love?
Sestu, Thirdmother of Desolant, the women who disobeyed the gods. Gripped by some terrible, ancestral instinct, she moves to bow, but the girl turns and is Asundra once again, her head cocked in question, and she laughs and asks, “Mamá Sestu! Are you tired?”
Yes, child, I am so tired. But Sestu says instead, “Let’s not tarry. They’ll get worried for us.”
“An’ you’ll bring me back out here again soon? Do you think there’ll be more deer by then?”
Deer, anew. Will they spring from the soil as new shoots? Or will one split into two? And if this could be so, could the Desolant and their daughters not also be otherwise? Could they not find some way to live on outside the shadow of violence, the gods’ greatest invention?
“But … really, what happened in the desert, between you an’ the deer, mamá?” asks Asundra.
And so it will come to pass, that the seat of divinity is made anew by surrender, not ruin.
And so it came to pass, look!—
Her knife lays abandoned, shrouded by fog. The sun casts great spears of light upon them. Before her, the deer lolls its tongue, pants heavily, collapsed upon the sand. It looks at her, and its gaze is a deep well of clear water.
Sestu thinks she can taste it, crisp and sweet on the tongue. It asks for no apology, offers no forgiveness, merely returns this single mercy.
Sing a hymn for all harm done, now. Sing it so quiet that only you might listen. Sing it so quiet that the old towers of creation must bend an’ fall to hear your low song.
Then the deer is gone.