A Suitable Offering (Part Three) by Shona Kinsella
When she awoke, Amondi was covered with a fine layer of sand that had blown into the hut through the night. Without water, she could not wash; she brushed the sand off as best she could and ate the tubers that she had brought with her. She headed outside and cut a stem from a different plant, a green one this time. There was less moisture than the previous night. Was that because it was a different type of plant? Or were even these hardy succulents beginning to fail?
Amondi went back inside and sat on the mattress, thinking over what her grandfather had said. He had told her to look to her own gifts, but what gifts did she have? Hearing the ancestors was a gift. Is that what he meant? But she had never heard Vash before. Why would He speak directly to one such as her?
Amondi wanted to pace – movement had always helped her to think – but she knew she needed to conserve energy. Instead, she sat cross-legged, hands resting on her knees, and closed her eyes.
It was true that she had never heard the Creator speak, but there had once been a time when that was also true of the ancestors. She thought back to her days as a child, spent at her grandfather’s side in silent meditation, reaching but not grasping the gift that he insisted was buried within her. Over time, she had slowly become aware of a presence whenever one of the ancestors visited. Even then, it took intense concentration and practice before she could hear them speak.
Could the answer be that simple? Was she unable to hear the Creator merely because she had not dedicated herself to trying?
She had little food and no water. She could either travel to the next village and hope for help from there, or she could stay here and do her best to contact Vash directly. She did not have the resources to do both. If she journeyed on to the next village, she may be able to replenish her food and water supplies. Then again, the village could be empty – as her own would be soon if the rain did not come.
If she stayed here and failed to contact the Creator, she would have failed her people. She would have to return to the village with no help and no hope and the chief would almost certainly move them all to the floating city, where her people would no longer be free. The security of the floating city and the help of the Osenai came at a steep price, one that Amondi was unwilling to pay. Her people would only be given food and shelter if they agreed to enter into the faith of the Osenai and dedicate themselves to Hraden, god of war. Everyone between the ages of twelve and twenty-five would be required to serve at least two years in the militant arm of the faith; sent out to fight religious wars in lands far from here. All others would be pressed into service in the bowels of the city, maintaining the system that kept them floating, for a term of ten years.
Whichever path she chose now would be a desperate gamble, so she could only follow her heart and hope for the best. Her grandfather’s voice echoed in her mind and Amondi knew what she had to do.
By her fourth day at the waystation, Amondi was so parched that she felt if she moved, her skin would crack open and nothing but dust would come out. Then the wind would blow her away and she could stop worrying about everything. She lay on the thin mattress, gazing at the heat haze that hung between her and the doorway. She licked her lips, but her tongue was dry and rough, a little like lizard skin. That thought sent Amondi into a fit of laughter, one that was tinged with desperation and left her feeling light-headed.
She had been meditating for days, reaching out for the Creator, trying with every fibre of her being to hear His voice. At one point, she had thought there was something, some hint of a voice, at the edge of her hearing; but it had faded, and her physical discomfort was getting harder to ignore. She had taken as many stems from the plants as she dared – perhaps even too many for them to survive. Her body was weak; she could feel herself fading and growing smaller. She thought she might have one day left before she had to give up and return to the village. Any longer without food and water and she might not make it back at all.
It had to be today. It had to.
Amondi thought of her grandfather and heard his voice in her head – just a memory this time. She remembered sitting at his knee, watching him work and begging him for just one more story. He had told her so many stories; the history and religion and knowledge of her people, all memorised and passed on. That day, he had paused in his carving and looked at her seriously.
“Which story would you like today, little cub?” he had asked.
“The one about the first Emeni!”
“Hmmm, let me see if I can remember that one…” Grandfather had looked at her out of the corner of his eye, a smile teasing his lips.
“Please, please, please, please!”
“Maybe if a certain little cub was to bring me some water, that might jog my memory.”
Amondi had leapt to her feet so fast she nearly tripped over Grandfather’s stool and hurried to fetch him a cup of water.
When she was settled again, the story began.
“Before time, before the earth, before the Emeni, there was Vash, the Creator. He drifted alone, until one day, He came across Okora, goddess of the stars. As is the way between men and women, the Creator sought to impress the goddess, by making a world for them to enjoy together. He made mountains and valleys, deserts and seas, and He showed it all to Okora.
“For a time, they were content to explore this world together, enjoying each other’s company and needing no more. Eventually, though, Okora remarked that it was a shame for so much beauty to be empty of life to enjoy it, and so Vash turned his hand to making life. First came the insects, then the birds and at last the animals. Okora laughed at giraffes with their long necks and was charmed by the chameleon and its changing colours.
“Eventually, Okora had to return to Her home in the stars, where Her own creations waited for Her. She invited the Creator to go with Her, spending time together in Her domain as they had in His. He was so in love with Okora that He would have followed Her anywhere. What neither of them had realised was that Vash had given some of his own breath to his living creations. As soon as He left the world, they all began to die. Although He loved Okora, He could not abandon the lives of those He had created and so He was stuck here.
“Okora could stay no longer and Vash could not leave. So He remained here, but his heart was broken and, for the first time in his long existence, He was lonely. Okora looked down upon Vash from her home and was saddened to see his pain. She soared through the stars, scattering stardust in her wake and allowing it to fall to earth. There, it mingled with the tears of Vash, and from that mix came the Emeni.
“The Emeni people are the unexpected children of Vash and Okora, beloved of them both. Okora returns to visit Vash and the Emeni whenever She can and when She leaves again, Vash is always distraught, but He stays and cares for their children.”
That’s not quite how it happened.
The voice resonated in her bones; she both heard it and did not hear it. She stayed perfectly still and held her breath, afraid that just being aware of it would be enough to lose the connection.
Good day, Nganzu.
“I… I am not Nganzu,” Amondi stammered, her voice barely more than a whisper.
I believe I am the one who chooses the Nganzu.
“Of course, my Creator! I just meant that I have had no training. I do not wish to deceive you.”
No training? What do you think your grandfather was doing all those years?
Amondi was astounded. It had never crossed her mind that her grandfather might have been training her as his replacement.
What do you seek?
“The rain. We are dying, Vash. Please, please bring the rain.”
I have heard your prayers, Nganzu, but I have little power; so few Emeni make offerings anymore. The river of belief no longer flows to feed me. I am becoming small.
“I will give anything, whatever will help you save my people and our way of life.”
Vash was quiet for so long that Amondi began to worry that she had lost the connection. When He answered her, the relief left her light-headed.
You ask me to bring life. The cost will be a life. Yours.
Amondi hesitated for only a second. “Of course, my Creator. Can I go home first?”
As you wish. But do not delay too long, or even this sacrifice may not be enough.
The patch of light from the doorway had moved across the floor when Amondi came to her senses. It was close to dusk. The desert grew cold at night; that might make her journey a little easier.
Amondi packed her few belongings and went outside. She took two last stems from the succulents. If Vash succeeded in returning the rains, then this waystation should recover, plants and all. She sucked up the moisture from one stem and tucked the other into a fold of her dress. She knelt and put her forehead to the earth, murmuring a prayer of thanks for all the waystation had given her, then she climbed unsteadily to her feet and started her journey home.
END OF PART THREE