When she fell in her mother’s palm during the Motherhood Ritual Night, she didn’t know she was destined to be a curse that would break another curse. Her mother, the queen, was in a gray cloak, the colour of storm clouds, and like the other women, her palms were clasped above her head, the joint of the wrist touching her forehead. The women were in circles surrounding the high priestess who was chanting and twirling like a top. The women chanted for heaven to bless their wombs with a star. Just a star. Not that the occurrence of twins was common anyways. That happened once in a millennium. Only seven of them were ready that night. At the Shooting Stars Hour, the priestess’ chants intensified, and a rataplan of drumming erupted from the temple that stood behind them. This blessing of a curse found herself falling into the queen’s palms and the thought of living a princess life thrilled her such that she sparkled brighter. She settled in the hollow of her mother’s palms like a big proud firefly. Then the priestess stopped chanting and ordered the women to conceive. The queen brought the ball of light to her stomach. And the light seeped in through the skin like water through clay and gathered in her womb. These were are her earliest memories.
In the darkness of the womb where she was moulded into flesh, she learnt the language of humans through her mother’s thoughts. And sometimes her history with others. There was always a conversation between the two personalities trapped in her. There was the one who loved the crown and then the one who wanted to run off from the burden. But she was happy that they both wanted her. One would see her mother sitting on the glass throne smiling at all who brought their complaints but only she knew the chaos boiling inside. Sometimes, when she had grown a throat, she tried to hum comfort into her system. These days, the two personalities listen, and a serenity flushed through the queen’s veins. A fear began to blossom in the queen’s heart when it was the ninth month and her womb won’t release its fruit. Other women who received stars the same night as her had given birth and the expected air of festivity was polluted by the delay in the queen’s birth. Something was wrong and the priestess knew this. So, she took her to the mystic orchard behind the temple. Perhaps this birth required the essence of mother earth. The wailing queen was held down by seven apprentices to a brown wooden chair with white paint patterns, and her feet were buried in earth. In front of the temple were citizens of the kingdom, women in brown wrappers, kneeling, with their foreheads on the ground and whispering soft prayers into the ears of earth. The priestess was walking around the queen, putting an Oak tree leaf in a clay bowl and whipping the leaf towards the queen so that droplets leapt onto her.
The baby didn’t understand why the wall of the womb gripped her tightly, why the gates in her mother’s loin won’t open. But she knew it was more out of protection than imprisonment. The baby asked why, and the walls whispered of a deadly fate, of haggard agony. The womb was afraid. But she told the womb she would survive anything human-hood threw at her, that she had been preparing in the constellation for this. And the walls let her go reluctantly.
As her head popped out into the priestess’ hands, the sun was immediately overshadowed by heavy indigo clouds and the breath of earth became a soft storm. She was pulled out and cut off her mother. As her cries began to rise to a thunderous echo it started raining. It was not the usual drizzles that teased them for three centuries. It was a sudden shower! Everyone hurried to find shelter in the temple, the priestess carrying the baby wrapped in a woolly shawl and the apprentices helping the queen. The temple was filled with gasps of awe and all eyes were transfixed on the transparent crystal adorned walls, staring at the silvery strings shooting rapidly from the sky. Only the queen was worried about the baby whose cries rivaled the rain’s. She ordered the apprentice beside her to bring the baby to her. The priestess gave it away absentmindedly. The queen smiled as she took her baby into her arms. quite oblivious to the spectacle around her. She pulled out her a breast and fed the baby to stop it from crying. It went quiet and the rain stopped abruptly. Everyone suddenly became aware of the queen and bowed, except for the priestess who was a vessel of the gods. The priestess walked towards mother and child and gazed at them for a moment before raising her hands in the air for a divine proclamation. “Our saviour has come. Her cries are our rain. We shall call her Asojo, the Rain Bringer.” The people had no idea how to react, to cheer or cry. The queen’s body was stiff on the chair and her eyes shot fury at the priestess. She understood the power of the proclamation of a priestess to the people. The words would sink quickly into their minds and become hungry bodies to be possessed by their faith, their firm faith in the gods. The priestess could have done more consultations before making an announcement with irreversible effects. The queen knew she did it with spite. And no one dared challenge the high priestess, especially not the crown she had ordained with the help of the gods.
There were secrets the queen wanted to reveal about the priestess that she couldn’t because it was an abomination. One was about how she had created the drought curse that had plagued them for three centuries. The queen had been friends with her since childhood because their mothers, also queen and high priestess then, were best friends. So, it was natural they continued the legacy of their mothers. But unknown to the queen, the priestess had fallen in love with her. So, when she announced her life partnership with another during her coronation, her friend was struck with bitterness. And after attaining priesthood some months later, she hexed the sky right in front of the queen. In fact, the queen believed the priestess had orchestrated the accident that later took her soul mate’s life. But no one dared challenge the conduit of the gods.
The early years of the princess was bearable for the queen as she cried often, and it poured just as much. But when the princess grew older and cried too little and later not at all, something had to be done. And the high priestess had the perfect idea, to use fire oil on the poor child. Only the queen and her sister, the princess’ godmother, had the gut to object. And with their objection came a dire punishment. The priestess summoned and sent the dreaded Amaza Warriors, the enforcers of the gods who wore armours mountains would heave under. They snatched the princess from the palace and brought her to the temple where she was locked in a dungeon where they could visit her once in a blue moon. The priestess had said to the people, “the princess ensures our survival, so she is ours. And empathy towards her is a taboo.”
The glass throne became hotter each day for the queen as the thought of the pain her daughter was going through silently drove her to madness. It tormented her that she couldn’t share in her agony because her visits were very brief and monitored by Guardians. This trauma led to a fight between her two personalities. The crown lover and the other. The other desired to break Asojo out and run off to the wilderness. But the crown lover wouldn’t agree to leaving her royal responsibilities. In the end, the former won. So, during a visit, she knocked out the Guardians with the scent of sleep she came with, wrapped in leaves. And she took off with Asojo, hidden by a cloak spell. She had forgotten about the soul path reading skills of the Amaza Warriors and soon, they were sniffed out.
The priestess was so furious that the sleeping volcanoes at the boundaries of the kingdom woke up and threw out small tongues of lava, coughing clouds of smokes that turned the sky ashy. Without hesitation, she charged the queen with treason and ordered her execution. And this reaffirmed the law that ordained no empathy. If no one felt Asojo’s pain, no one would be moved to help her.
Asojo grew up being rubbed with Fire Oil every seven days so that her cries climbed up to heaven to impregnate barren clouds. The oil as blue as a clear sky sank into her pores and set up a blanket of fire beneath her skin. At her screams, lightning flashed in the sky and the clouds swelled to fluffy darkness and exploded to a deluge. She was 33 now and her body had become a museum of suffering. She just sat there on her flat feather bed waiting for the priestess and her apprentices to come. She didn’t flinch or struggle anymore when the apprentices held her arms with hand-gloved hands while the priestess rubbed the oil on her body, her chest, her legs and hands. And they left her when she went wild like a turbulent sea, in a magical circular drawing at the center of the dungeon from which she could not leave. They always came back about an hour later with a pot of snail slime. The priestess would murmur appreciation to the gods as she rubbed the ointment on her skin. And Asojo went still like an antelope caught in a headlight. The fire stopped burning and a velvety relief crawled over her. Then Asojo noticed a new face among the apprentices. She was dark skinned like her, a tone of loam. Suddenly, for reasons she couldn’t explain, the relief drenched her soul deeper. She was guided to her bed where she sat, leaning back on the marble wall, her breath now trickling water. “Shanom, give her Prana,” the priestess said to the new girl. And she hurried forward with a tiny bowl. She bowed as she presented it to Asojo. The princess took a glowing red tablet from the bowl and swallowed. Energy reverberated through her and she quivered for a while. This was her food, pure energy extracted from nature through a complicated spiritual ceremony by the priestess. While Asojo wailed and it rained, she was busy drawing essence from the rain in the lush mystical orchard. Before Shanom stood to leave, within a split second, their eyes met and exchanged infinities. They knew they needed to see again.
Shanom did come back for her in the night. Asojo jerked up as the door clicked open and watched in a bit of dread as a yellow garment slid in. She sighed and smiled when she saw it was Shanom and she didn’t understand why. Shanom was holding a piece of clothing, like a handkerchief, with blue flowery embroidery. She approached the princess with a certain uncertainty. “I have come to bear your buried pains with you,” she whispered and showed Asojo the piece of cloth. Asojo flinched. This stranger she has just seen this afternoon had come bearing a forbidden gift. She had stitched her empathy into deep blue petals, and she had broken the law.
“Who are you?” Asojo asked.
“Do you not remember me?”
Asojo’s blinking eyes held no conscious recognition.
“We shared a cocoon as a star before the Nova,” Shanom said.
Asojo could only recall the explosion of their constellation. Her years of drifting to earth sky were blurry images until she found herself falling into the Queen’s hands.
“I don’t know.”
“When we fell into the ether of a thousand prayers, before we could absorb any aching womb, we collided with a dark sacrifice, a black cracked comet. And you broke me off you as the curse of the comet consumed us so that we may survive somehow. While I drifted on to earth sky, you were delayed and immersed in amnesia.”
“You are part of my soul,” Asojo said, her eyes twinkling with luminous delight. Shanom smiled and spread the piece of cloth on her left palm. The threads gleamed and brought the blue flowers alive. She put Asojo’s right palm on the cloth and then pressed her right palm over it. As she closed her eyes, Asojo felt a cyclone she wasn’t aware she housed breaking loose inside her, a cyclone the haphazard shape of insanity. This meant the snail ointment didn’t take away the pain. It only suppressed it to create an illusion of peace. Shanom closed her eyes as she began to draw part of it. Her veins bulged, her teeth gritted, she welcomed pain into herself. When her breath became a boat caught in a rapid, Asojo tried to break free. But Shanom’s hands were like magnets. Then the cloth blazed but they were not burned. And the clothes silvery ashes faded off like dying stars. Shanom drew back with a sharp gasp. Right now, all Asojo felt was calmness, true calmness with an unfamiliar whiff that she would soon come to identify as happiness. When she asked Shanom how she was able to bare so much pain, Shanon told her that being an apprentice meant learning the language of pain and speaking it to nothingness. She said pure magic was the expulsion of all agony as a consciousness that knew no pain was the heart of the Source. For a while, before she left, they sat still beside each other and listened to silence.
Shanom henceforth sneaked into the dungeon every fortnight with a weave of empathy and she taught Asojo how to stifle the pangs of agony through mindfulness so that the rain cry hurt less and less. Once, Asojo pulled Shanom into an embrace and the fluidity of time was heated to gas by their passion. It hovered about and inside them. And they became time themselves. Hearts pounding rhythmically and fingers wandering like blind spiders’ limbs, they dissolved into one another. They were perfection. That night, Asojo pleaded that Shanom help her witness the annual Shower Festival the next day. Shanom showed a hint of fear for the first time. Sneaking in during daylight was too risky and breaking her out was literally suicide. But she would do anything for her. She had mastered the architecture of the Temple and the Temple shared the Mystic Orchard with the Palace where the festival would take place. Also, the Temple would be empty since everyone partook in the festivity. So, she said she would take her out.
The next day, Shanom brought a yellow garment with her; the apprentices’ uniform. She told Asojo to wear it so that she could blend in with the other apprentices. Asojo was giddy with excitement as she put on the cloth. The garment had a hood which uninitiated apprentices always put on. She drew it on, and a part of her face was painted shadows. When they heard the distant drumming and chanting of god dancers from the palace, they knew the event had begun. “Let’s go,” Shanom said and led the way. But when they got to the entrance, Asojo froze.
“I can’t move,” she said.
Shanom came back to examine her. She frowned, a realization. She should have expected that the priestess had enchanted the dungeon to prevent the princess’ escape. She inhaled and began murmuring all freedom spells she knew. But the princess couldn’t move. The repulsion hex she always broke to sneak in wasn’t as strong as this.
“You have to flee,” Asojo said.
“No!” Shanom said and wrapped her arms around her. To her surprise, Asojo felt her love melting the chains binding her so she could return the embrace. And she was free. Soon, holding hands, they were climbing up the dark narrow stairs to the Temple floor.
The Temple was just as Asojo remembered it. A vast pyramidal hall with giant golden pillars at the corners. The walls were adorned with crystals and the floor glistened like a mirror in the sun. There, at the center is the All, surrounded by seven lit candles, each a colour from the rainbow. The All was the circular space they formed. The All was nothing. The All was the god of all gods. They scurried off to the back door and ran a wide path into the Orchard. The drumming and chanting became louder.
The Mystic Orchard had all the fruits in the land. Everywhere was green like the scent of god. Filtered sunshine danced on bright colourful flowers and wore sights the glitters of paradise.
“It’s so beautiful.” Asojo halted and stared around in awe.
“I know. But there’s no time to appreciate nature now. We must keep moving. I have to return you in time.”
The drumming and chanting stopped, and the chirps of birds and insects came alive.
“How often do you come here?” Asojo crouched to pick a dark blue flower.
“This is where we do most of the training.” Shanom was gazing at her. “The mind floats here.”
“Indeed.” Asojo stood and caressed the petals.
“We have to go now!”
Shanom took her hand. And just then, they heard footsteps approaching them and they went stiff from terror. They couldn’t move. They waited.
The priestess in a flaming red robe came to view and there was a crowd behind her.
“Oh Shanom!” she lamented. “What have you brought upon yourself?”
The crowd was mute.
“Please, let her go. It’s all my fault,” Asojo cried. Shanom knew her fate was sealed so she fell to her knees.
“I’m sorry princess. But there’s only expulsion for traitors,” the priestess said.
“Aunt Kowad, please,” Asojo pleaded to the reigning queen just behind the priestess but she looked away. She remembered her, her godmother. She used to visit.
Three apprentices went to seize Shanom and brought her in front of the priestess. Asojo still couldn’t move. She watched helplessly.
As the priestess brought out a vial from her robe, she said, “Ye all witness the return of Shanom to the Universe.” And she poured the black content on Shanom’s forehead. And Shanom fell instantly.
The dark blue flower fell from Asojo’s hand and broke. Then she screamed and a gale gushed out of her. The orchard trembled and everyone present was shaken out of balance. The priestess attempted to rush to her and calm her, but a force field held her back. Asojo kept screaming and built a wild whirlwind around herself. Soon, dark clouds gathered, and a downpour began. Thunders boomed. The Guardians took the Queen away and the apprentices fled with the people. Only the priestess stayed rooted in the storm, chanting so fast that her lips were blurred. She didn’t know this was beyond her. She was thrown off by a gust of wind into a puddle of water where she fainted. Asojo’s wails didn’t just tear heaven open but earth too. The pain Asojo felt was destructive, unearthly. And so was the rain. By nightfall, the land was a sea of floating bodies.