In the subtle gleam of moonlight against the creek was a dark gash of water dyed red. It was the twilight hour of someone’s life against the shadow of a creekside willow tree. The red traced itself backwards towards a limp wrist, tender and smooth, as pale as the moon itself. The arm connected to that wrist twitched. The shoulder shifted. The neck tensed as a weak smile met by a shallow breath parted to form words. “I’m finally free.”
Something throbbed within her. It wasn’t her heartbeat, but something like a drum, as if ordering her to get back up and run. Her upper arm was shattered, her shoulder dislocated, and every breath had to be shallow or her broken rib would puncture her lung. And still, something in her pushed her — no, demanded her — to live. Run and live. Dying is not an option.
The pursuit party on horseback did not know how far she had fallen from the mountainside, but the hounds would be on her soon. They knew her scent well and they were trained to navigate forests even at night. There came an abundance of noise from above, the clatter of hooves coming to a stop as barks rung like a series of death knells through the night.
“I see signs of a fall here, captain.”
“Dismount. We continue on foot down this way. You and the beholder sorceror remain here.”
Their conversation was faint, but her hearing started to improve as she came closer to death. As her blood continued to drain from her body, she was ready to die and become unshackled from this world forever.
“Don’t die,” a voice shivered in her head, “You must live.” All she had to do was ignore that voice for a few moments longer. “If you die, how am I to live? How are we to exact our vengeance against these men?”
She responded to herself, “How am I to do any of that in the state that I am in?”
The voice grew in intensity, “They have trapped me within you because you are weak. You have always been weak. You are unfit to be a vessel of my power, and yet I live because you are weak and can speak to you because you are weak. But now is the time to be strong. Turn your weakness into strength by obeying me and fleeing.”
“To where shall I go? They shall be upon me soon.”
“You must not die! You may do anything but that! I do not care!”
She scoffed as a stabbing pain pierced her side. She would have to be careful not to do that again.
A man barked orders at his comrades, “Be cautious! The girl’s soul is bound with the harvest goddess! Do not allow her to die, or we shall share her fate!”
The harvest goddess spoke again like a drum beat in her mind, “Do not die! Do not be captured! Flee!”
But all she wanted to do was to finally rest and be done with all of this.
All that she had ever known in her life was to serve the goddess of the earth — the one known by many names, daughter of the goddess of life, wife of the god of the underworld, favored among the gods as the pearl of heaven. She had been told from her childhood that so long as she maintained dutiful reverence and service to the goddess, the people would know peace and prosperity. So why now did she have to suffer at the hands of the people?
“Because that is the nature of mankind. That is why my power belongs to ones such as I. That is why control over the harvest was never meant to belong to men.”
“I am sorry. I am sorry, goddess. I am unworthy to ask for forgiveness or mercy, I know, but if you would allow me to just sleep now and live this life no more…”
A searing pain seemed to burn within her head, “No! You judge correctly in your unworthiness. You too are responsible for the sin of allowing yourself to be used as a shackle to bind a goddess. I shall punish you all the same as the rest unless you listen to me now and get up! My lord husband is the ruler of the underworld! Do you not think it within my ability to find your soul upon your death and torture you for an eternity?”
“Then why is it that you fear him?”
After a pause, the goddess seethed, “Insolent, arrogant child! I do not fear anybody! I am disgusted with him! Enraged by him! His wife had been abducted for ten years and still these men live! Ruler of the underworld with no sense of responsibility! He deserves only my wrath and my scorn, but if you were to die and I return to the underworld with you, we shall fall under his full authority. Then surely he shall never let me leave again! That is the kind of coward that he is!”
The men grew closer as they descended the mountain side in the moonlit dark, cloud cover beginning to slow their movements. There was no safe way to carry torches down with them, and so they had found themselves barely able to move during times of pitch blackness.
“Listen, child, do you know what happens to the harvest without me? Nothing. Neighboring lands outside of your little slice of civilization have been languishing since my capture. I am certain they are praying to me even now, but I can hear nothing. The first year, I was merely horrified as you blessed the fields of your city and yours alone. As you overheard reports of other cities coming to yours for help and being denied. As you all hoarded your wealth and abused your influence to acquire more power, crushing underfoot any who would defy you. Did you know that a war has been fought over you already? In the tenth year, I am now furious!”
“I have heard of these wars… I did not know they were fought over me…”
“And yet still!” she cried out in grief, “And yet still do I love humans! I do not wish to see your kind come to ruin! If I return to the underworld, all of you will die! You would be eradicated for your sins against the gods, and I am trying to prevent that!”
“But I do not care… let them be eradicated.”
“What?” the goddess expressed a genuine bewilderment.
“We deserve to be punished for the evils we have committed. Humanity has failed to respect the gods, nature, or our position in world. We are a disease meant to be purged, a curse that is meant to be exorcised.”
“Again, arrogant child, you are so very wrong. As a single human being with the limited perspective of a set of eyes looking up from the base, you do not know the full scale of the mountain itself. You have no reason to be confident in what you see or believe. I truly hate nothing more than adults who refuse to mature and accept responsibility for their actions. If you wish to believe that humanity must be punished, so be it. I judge you and all of mankind guilty for your sins against me and against nature. You are sentenced to work and restore that which you have destroyed. Is that what you would like to hear? Have you run out of excuses, lazy child?!”
She did not respond, instead lifting her still unbroken arm towards the moon, now fully visible. The sound of men’s shouts drew near.
“You borne also from the mother goddess,” came a woman’s voice from thin air, “How unexpected to find you here. You seem to be a rather noisy center of attention.”
She looked towards the direction of the voice, spotting a lone bear, staring hungrily, perhaps drawn by the scent of blood. Was it the bear who spoke just now?
“Oh, holy maiden of the hunt,” the harvest goddess addressed the bear in relief, “Conditions have aligned for us to meet, I see. I’m not sure if either of our legends have us ever crossing paths. It matters not. Although their beholder sorcerors have used my legend against me, there is a beholder here as well. She can observe a new legend between you and I. Whisk her away to safety, I beg of you. She is someone who must not die.”
“Pathetic,” the bear scoffed, “To be reduced to asking for my assistance implies you are not worthy of my assistance to begin with. I am the goddess of the untamed. I operate according to one thing alone, and that is my whim. Nothing controls me.” It turned to leave, adding with one final statement, “Have you not also noticed that this woman wishes to die? Perhaps before requesting others heed your wishes, you heed the wishes of others.”
Her demeanor warped quickly, what little patience she had disintegrating into dust, “All I have ever done was heed the wishes of humanity! Those same humans that worship you are fed by me and only me! You have long since turned your back on providing them a means of sustenance so they have no choice but to seek my help! Irresponsible goddess with no sense of duty! Your dereliction could very well be the reason why they have captured me in the first place!”
“Girl,” the wild goddess addressed her serenely, a pointing visage of a woman wrapped in multi-colored furs appearing above the bear, “What do you wish for? I am in a generous mood tonight. Ask and you shall receive it. Is it a gentle death?”
She stared back up at the bear that began to approach her. It felt calming in an unexpected way.
“Have you forgotten your sister priests?” the harvest goddess asked the woman in desperation, “Those who have raised you and loved you since your birth?”
Her heart rate began to rise. No, I don’t actually want to die, she thought, every cell in her body protesting against her. Still, she quenched that desire and laid still, silent.
The harvest goddess continued, “Abandon them then! When they die and come to the underworld you can tell them yourself why you decided to give up!”
“Hmph,” the hunter goddess grunted in amusement, “Are you resorting to emotional threats to get your way? You truly know nothing of people. Typical of a goddess who treats people as subordinates or children instead of equals. Listen to me, wheat-brained goddess, they do not need our help. They can figure things out on their own given time. If anything, there will come a point when we must shortly go to war with them ourselves. That is what makes them so terrifying. Do you not see already how they have humbled you? Tricking you into this shackle? I had thought it impossible unless… Ah, unless…”
The harvest goddess said nothing, but the silence felt like she was glaring.
The hunter continued, “It seems to me that you do not wish to have this woman die precisely because it would expose you for what you really are. It has been bothering me for a while now. You see, there is no true means by which to imprison a goddess, for we exist solely in mystery. To see and understand who we are is the same as killing us. Girl, the people believed they summoned a goddess, and so you fabricated one in your own mind, did you not? One that is a mixture of your idea of the goddess of the earth and your own psyche.”
The harvest goddess growled, “What?! This is outrageous… To suggest that I am a figment of a crazed woman’s madness is utterly blasphemous!”
The woman was indeed confused. Is that truly what she had done all of these years? The voice in her head was merely a delusion?
The hunter continued, “I am a true goddess, unbound and unchainable. The one in your head is not. Indeed, the only reason why we can converse now is because you are dying. I remain shrouded in the bubble of plausible deniability. But the one ‘shackled’ to you? A deceitful mind playing tricks on itself.”
“Prove it! Prove that I am not a real goddess!” the harvest goddess was enraged to the point that the woman on the ground had started to feel heat rising from her chest.
But the hunter remained as cool and unconvinced as ever, “Nonsense. Proof is our poison. No deity would ever suggest such a thing.” The hunter waved her hand in dismissal, turning to the dying woman, “Girl, I do not know your story, but I can see that there is guilt in you. The goddess in your head manifests as vengeful because you are vengeful, and you do not know how to handle this for you are a gentle soul. Vexingly tragic. Tell me now, and I shall do it for this has fascinated me.”
“Do this? What do you mean?” the woman croaked.
“I shall slay your pursuers, and then lay you to rest. That is the cost of vengeance. What say you?”
“Get up!” the harvest goddess yelled, “Please!”
The woman summoned the strength to lift herself off the forest floor using the arm that had not been broken, staring up at the bear gazing peacefully back. “My entire childhood had been spent in the company of my sister priests. I never knew my mother and father. I studied day and night in the temple, worshiping and praying, learning the stories of the gods and goddesses that governed all of nature. When I had been chosen to become the vessel of the harvest goddess upon my coming of age… at the time, I had thought it to be a high honor, but since then, I lost my rights as a human being. I was no longer allowed to speak with anyone. No longer allowed out into the light of day without a squad of guards. I was fed and taken care of, sequestered comfortably in a dungeon beneath the earth as if I were buried in a furnished coffin.”
The goddesses listened intently, awaiting her decision.
And so she continued, “In my loneliest hour, I began conversing with the harvest goddess, who, to my surprise, spoke back to me. I don’t know if she ever taught me anything I myself did not already know, so I started to have my doubts. I don’t truly wish to die, but I don’t see any other way out of this miserable life. I don’t want a goddess in my head as my only companion. I don’t want to be the cause of conflict. All I ever wanted was a peaceful life where I could laugh and enjoy time with my fellow sister priests. If I could have that, I would give everything else up, but I know that will never happen again. So all I ask is to be free of this, and if death is the only way, I’ll take it. As far as I’m concerned, I can’t muster the will to care anymore about anything.”
“Oh, child,” came a third voice, distinct in its tone and emotion from the other two. The harvest goddess was angry. The hunter goddess was serene. This voice was soothing. “You determine correctly that we three are no more than voices in your mind. Our sovereignty over the world ended the moment your kind became aware of story-craft. We retreated to the space of mystery because that is all we have left.”
“Mother…!” the harvest goddess gasped.
The hunter narrowed her eyes. “To manifest now? What makes this girl so special?”
The mother goddess continued as if ignoring the other two, “For you see, we exist as absolutely real in stories and legends, but stories do not exist in objective truth. They are themselves subjective structures that are generated in the minds of men in order to simplify a complex world. Beginning, middle, and end are no different from landmarks designated for convenience in a vast forest.”
“I don’t understand…” the woman muttered, “What are you saying?”
She was not visible, but the mother goddess seemed to give off the feeling of a smile, “Just that you are like us. Flee not from these men and command them with the authority of a goddess. We reside in you, my child, and our story is yours, but only if you choose to make it so. We goddesses might only exist in story, but you are a human with the ability to write one. There is no hopelessness so long as there is a narrative.”
With that, the three goddesses disappeared. The bear eyed the darkness behind her warily at the sound of approaching shouts and clamor. Men with bindings appeared at last from the cliffside wall, exhausted from their climb down.
“There she is! Capture her!”
“Hold!” she shouted with a force so powerful it hurt her chest. The men froze in their tracks. “You are in the presence of the goddess of the harvest! Kneel and beg for forgiveness!”
The bear roared in response at the men, causing some of the less experienced ones to crumble to the ground. Moonlight from behind the clouds seemed to make her glow radiantly against the water. The captain stood his ground, “My goddess, we must have you return to the city at once.” In his own mind, he was no longer certain what he was seeing. A woman — no, a deity commanding a wild animal. Moonlight and a willow — both, sacred images of the goddess of the hunt. Her very visage appeared transformed from the scared girl that escaped from the temple grounds. Has the goddess within her somehow awakened fully?
“I have finished what I have needed to. Do not harm my vessel further and do not dare disobey my commands. Consider well that the lives of you and your families depend on my providence. It is merely my whim that you all have the blessings of the earth as you do now.” The words truly seemed no longer her own. Something like hope seemed to drive her forward, “Let us return then at once. Grant me audience with the king of the city for we have much to discuss.”
“You heard her!” the captain barked, wanting nothing more than to return home without any more trouble tonight. Surely, he would be receiving a commendation for this. “Our mission is complete. Let us draw this out no further!”