The wail of a far-off conch shell woke me from my already broken sleep. I wanted to wail in response, in grief, in terror.
Dogs began barking on the outskirts of the city. Unfamiliar drum rhythms pounded in the distance, echoing off the stone walls of our temple. I rose, blood rushing through my body as I swung from my hammock. An answering conch blew thrice from our own warriors. Three cries for peace.
Delu and Zeri stirred. I knew they were in Dreaming, their bodies struggling to pull them back. I kissed them each softly, Singing a small waking Song, my voice breaking. Delu, two years older than me, opened her eyes first. Zeri, the youngest of us, began her languid waking stretch, but her eyes flew open as she realized what was happening. I reached to her, pulling her small body up from her hammock and into an embrace. Delu joined us. The conch horns were louder, the drums a steady beat, closer, closer, closer. The three of us held each other in silence. For all we’d prepared, we weren’t ready.
A temple worker rushed into our chamber, a lit torch in her hand.
From within the walls of our own temple, a human wail began. All of us froze. The temple worker began trembling.
* * *
The small, familiar rituals around preparing our bodies for ceremony didn’t calm me the way they usually did. As we had done countless times before, we tied on each other’s sashes. I held Delu’s thick braids in place as Zeri inserted the combs. Delu knelt—she was the tallest of us, born into a body that wore strength, muscle.
“Indir.” Delu handed me the necklace she wanted to wear. She’d chosen carved bone jewelry to contrast her damp-earth brown skin. I held Zeri’s thin braids in place as Delu pinned them up. I knelt as they did mine. We painted each other’s faces with pigment mixed in rendered animal fat. The temple worker held out a reflector, and we examined ourselves in the polished and oil-lacquered wood. Our bodies were shaped differently, but we had similar faces: wide jaws, dark eyes, our lips full and wide. We looked like our mother, our aunts, like Dreamers. Our black hair rose in braids twisted into the shapes of the Twin Serpents who protected us. Zeri’s mouth was, as always, relaxed. She was the serene sister. Delu’s mouth constantly curved as if she were about to tell a joke or flirt. My lips were pressed together.
We gathered in a small chamber adjacent to the main gathering chamber at the center of our home, the Temple of Night. The entire city of Alcanzeh was awake, waiting. The drums grew closer. Our temple was lit for ceremony, sacred Ayan smoke hanging in the air, all of us dressed and waiting for him to come. Our mother, Safi, entered. Her two sisters followed.
“We’re ready for him.” Our aunt Kupi grinned. Her twin, Ixara, reflected her grin. They looked like smaller, wilder versions of our mother. All three were long-limbed with abundant hips. They had the same sharp nose, wide lips, and brown eyes that missed nothing. Kupi and Ixara were identical; the only way most could tell them apart was by Kupi’s broken front tooth. She was always tonguing the sharp edge.
“Safi, if there was ever a time to be bold, it is now.” Ixara snapped her fingers. Our mother inhaled, her wide nostrils flaring. She seemed to bite back her response, her lips pressed together into a thin line. Safi was the cautious one of the three. Ixara spoke her mind freely, while Kupi always tried to keep the peace between her sisters.
“He isn’t the boy who was taken screaming from Alcanzeh anymore; we don’t know who he is.” Kupi’s voice was gentle.
Safi flashed her dark eyes at her sisters, then at me.
“Sisters. My daughters,” Safi spoke to all of us, but her eyes focused on mine. “We’ve been preparing for this. It was part of the peace agreement. Outside of anything else that happens, we are Dreamers. We keep our promises.”
To my right, Delu looked as regal as our mother and aunts, her posture straight and grounded. Zeri looked as if she was a girl dressed in the robes of an elder, shifting her weight from one foot to the other the way she did when she was nervous. I was somewhere in between. Delu and I had the same roundness of hip and belly as our mother, but I was shorter so it showed differently on my body. Zeri was still growing into her body’s shape and appeared younger than she was. She was born into a body of thick legs; even as a child, her thighs had rippled with beauty as she walked. We wore ceremonial tunics, embroidered with the creatures of earth, sea, and sky; dark red sashes tied beneath our breasts. All of us were crowned by our own hair, our black braids wound around our heads and pinned up in styles sacred to Dreamers.
A runner came in and whispered into Safi’s ear. She inhaled sharply.
“He demands we join him at the Temple of Memory.”
I looked at Safi. My mother appeared calm, but I could see the tension in her jaw, the way the vein in her throat flickered with her heartbeat. She was as frightened as the rest of us.
An Avex warrior came into the room then, her body painted with the symbols of the Twin Serpents who brought forth the waters Alcanzeh was built over. Avex protected us and the rest of the sacred city.
“We understand he refuses to meet you here. We were prepared for this and are ready,” she said. “Tavovis has us standing ready at each temple; there are Avex dispersed throughout the city and watching the water canals. We have guards with Lal and Naru.”
My sisters and I exchanged small smiles of pity for the warriors who thought they could guard Naru.
My mother gestured gratitude and beckoned us close as the Avex left.
“We are Dreamers,” Safi said. “We are Her wisdom keepers, carriers of Her wishes. Blessed with knowing that cannot be taken, no matter what else happens. He cannot take that from us.”
“The people, the beasts, the land awaken. Outside the Dream, the living is long,” my aunt Kupi murmured. Her twin Ixara picked up the refrain, my mother and sisters joining in.
“What she gives cannot be taken. We are One, a weaving, a Song.” My voice was barely above a whisper.
I swayed at the words, darkness flashing at the edges of my vision. My mother, my aunts, my sisters, they didn’t know what could be taken. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them what had been taken from me.
We emerged in a line from the Temple of Night. My mother went first, as she always did, flanked by her sisters. My sisters and I followed, Delu to my left, Zeri to my right. Avex warriors, the painted lines on their bodies shining in the torchlight, flanked us. We descended the main temple stairs. It was deep night, a time for sleeping, a time for solitude or rest with chosen beloveds. I wanted to be back in the safety of the temple, behind stone walls where curious eyes couldn’t see or judge me. Every time I left the temple, I felt exposed, watched. But I was a Dreamer. I had responsibilities, even in my fragile state. I couldn’t disappoint my mother; there had already been so many disappointments.
The Water Temple, which faced ours, was lit with torches. Lal, the council member for the Litéx, emerged, dressed for ceremony, her hair coiled high on her head, her wrists and ankles adorned with seashells and corals. She wore a tunic the same color as her skin, brown like ours but with a different warmth of color. She was from an island. Her round face was serene. She glanced my way and took in a deep breath: her way of reminding me to breathe. She saw my chest expand and gave me a tiny nod and inhaled again deeply. I followed her breath, but the calm wouldn’t come.
Lal was the main healer at the Water Temple and knew I hated leaving the Temple of Night. She joined our procession, walking with my twin aunts. I felt safer with her present.
As we walked down the carved steps that led to the Temple of Memory, we saw the city was crowded with onlookers, people who had left their homes to witness the arrival of Alcan, after years of his absence. Everyone was curious as to what sort of man he had become. The people remembered his screams as he was dragged from the city as a boy. How he had cursed his father as the warriors carried him from the only home he had ever known.
Naru waited for us, gleaming in oil and furs, the bones and teeth decorating her body stark white against her jaguar-mottled skin. She was of the Ilkan, though she had lived among us as long as I had memory. Most in Alcanzeh seemed to be equally terrified and fascinated by her.
Copyright © 2022 by Lizz Huerta.