iii. The Hinder Sea
They said they they pulled me from the water when I began to sink. I'd been out for three days, more dead than alive. I woke to a brilliant blue out the sky hole of the canyon. Ra was succinct in his compassion: "No way we were carrying your dead weight out. We were a day short from leaving you to the jackals."
Silently, I questioned that we, glancing over towards Fas.
"I wouldn't count on it, if I were you," said Ra, reading my thoughts.
Another day of rest and we walked back up the carnelian stairway. I was all for heading back south, but in my lingering weakness, I was in no position to complain as Ra pushed us on north. He had a need for the sea that I had entirely lost. I couldn't say what it I was I needed to the south, but something was pulling me back into the sands.
"You'll burn forever yet," said Ra. "You won't need the practice. Plenty to go around."
I'd lost even the will to hate him. I felt myself gathering him in, as I did the children that topped every rise in my mind's eye. They pulled at my legs, climbed up my back. I staggered under their weight, their importuning. It was a hollow gathering, as if trying to fill the emptiness in my chest. I was sure my heart had dropped like a stone into the pool. Vampire-like, I gathered blood to me, devouring it in my haste to remain - at least on the face of it - human.
Fas was having nothing of it. "We go back. Something you have left down the stairs. I will dive in the water for you."
To my surprise, I felt a desire to kick him. Ra's gleaming smile told me he felt the shifting wind. He relished the impurity of it all, the conquering beast.
The sea was within sight when we saw the woman.
She appeared first as a blue mirage, shimmering in the sea wind. Closing in, her blue robe flapped briskly in the winds, flag to my dying hopes. I had thought not to see such color again. In Chaouen, in my youth, I had walked its streets, dazed by the blue hammams, an entire city radiant in its azure call to my heart, Miriam's blue. I had walked Chaouen's blue arched tunnels, feeling as if I were walking not just the city's veins, but mine as well. I felt Miriam rising in my heart. As with the gathering children, I wondered where that youth had strayed, with his gloom, yes, but it was a gloom borne of what had not been there: there was no malice in the boy's sinking heart, and innocence enough still to weep as he walked his first tunnel, hands caressing the blue walls , right and left. Whether right to accord her this or not, the woman in the distance seemed to embody the Chaouen still dormant within me. My rising pulse reassured me that nothing had been left at the bottom of the stairway pool.
My vile twin tuned to my thoughts: "The woman is trash. But, as you are, too, may you both be happy in your eternal doom. Death has many racks upon which to count."
I found myself running to her, Ra's derisive laughter in the wind behind me. Once, I looked back for Fas, nowhere to be seen.
As I closed in on her for the last hundred yards, I felt sure that I knew her, a madness gripping me as I reached for her shoulder from behind. My hands felt as if I were gripping stone. There was such weight in her, she was impossible to turn.
I knelt before her, as she was seated in the sand. Eyes closed, her face completely uncovered. A straight-lined scar ran diagonally across her brown face, from brow to eyelid and on down across the bridge of her proud nose and her left cheek. So old a scar it now seemed an ornament, the story of the blade that carved it long lost. Or so I hoped.
So still was she that I feverishly wondered if she might be in Ra's clutches already, but then I saw the slightest movement of her nostrils breathing in and slowly breathing out. She paid me no mind whatsoever, deep within her meditations, he face tilted slightly. Bare feet, a small black bowl in the sand before her. Filled with small black stones.
I turned and faced the water. Minutes passed before Ra's stench filled the air behind me. I turned back as he reached for the black bowl. Viper-like, a brown hand shot out and pinioned his thick wrist; she pulled him flat to the ground between us.
"Sister," said Ra, behind his gleaming teeth.
Not a word in reply. Eyes still closed, she did not let go of his wrist.
I tried to seize the hand that raised his scythe-like blade, but filled with fear of the man still, I was too slow. She was not. Black eyes opened as if greeting the dawn - so calmly - as her other hand reached out and seized the blade from his. She tossed the weapon into the sands to her right.
"I beseech you, Sister." Was that fear in his throat?
She stood, seized him by his greasy, matted hair and pulled him to the water. Flung him into its waves.
I looked for her smile, but there was none. She sat back down in front of me, lifted her bowl of stones, and said, "I am mother to them all."