They gave us support groups after they brought us down. We’d expected death, but they said we’d been punished enough. That was true. And there were too many of us who were still well-liked among them, even if they had decided we needed to go. So they gave us support groups, and they gave us decent apartments, and they trained us to do jobs like the rest of them. We took to it all quickly enough. Thousands of years may tend to make you inflexible, but they don’t make you stupid.
My support group was in a deconsecrated temple. The priests had stripped all the holy places of their power in the first strike of the war. I didn’t know who the temple had belonged to. It looked local—modest, with simple stone walls and only a few places where small idols might once have rested. Those pedestals and niches held leaflets and books, now, with titles like “Modernization Classes” and “A Guide to the National Reparative Agency.” I ignored them. I’d been granted clemency, and cell phones were easy enough to use. Whatever candles or braziers had once lit the columned space had been torn out and replaced by sterile fluorescent lights. The others were there already. Some of them smiled at me. Most of them ignored me. A few looked away in disgust. The usual, then.
The facilitator, Paize, smiled at me as I sat. “Would you like to start?” she asked. She knew I hated starting. I couldn’t tell if she was doing it to bring me out of my shell or to taunt me. Humans were inscrutable like that. I shrugged.
“Good evening, everyone,” I said. “My name is Nemaishe—”
“Hello, Nemaishe,” everyone droned, in the only thing approaching a supplication I’d heard in seven years. The same dull words of impotent prayer, every time, twice a week, for seven years. I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes and pushed forward.
“—and I used to be a goddess.”
We’d just finished the meeting when I saw her slip into the room. That was her style. Slipping. Always furtive, always underhanded. We’d hated each other the moment we met, and we’d come to blows more than once. Our fights were legendary.
Literally, to be clear. When gods rode to war, humans noticed.
I considered turning her in. She was taking credit for a meeting she hadn’t attended, in reparations for crimes too numerous to count. It was ridiculous that they hadn’t killed her when they brought her down. I suspected they’d been too afraid to try.
It wasn’t worth it, I decided, as I watched her carry over a tray of cheap, store-bought cookies. I didn’t pity her, though she looked pitiable—sallow skin clinging thinly to an emaciated body, limp hair the color of wet hay, dull eyes in a narrow, haughty face. Seeing her reduced to humanity was very nearly satisfying.
I didn’t pity her. She simply wasn’t worth my time.
I was almost out the door when I heard her voice. “Vung-Ta?” It was quiet. Soft. Almost pleasant, if you didn’t know who she was. She’d never needed to be aggressive. She’d always known she could simply wait.
“It’s Nemaishe, now,” I said. I didn’t turn to face her.
“I’m sorry. I’ve been living with some Gelungi, and—”
“Why are you talking to me, Sortang?” I asked. I turned around then, against my better instincts, and was gratified to see her flinch back. The war must have brought her down a few pegs. She glanced away, then back at me, all the while wringing her spindly fingers in a fluttery dance. The silence stretched.
“I was wondering if you’d like to get some coffee?” Death asked me.
It was a nice coffee shop. Relaxing music flowed from hidden speakers, and for a moment my thoughts flowed back to old Takeni Po, with its fountains and gardens. Sortang ordered a coffee with pepper and honey. The woman behind the counter turned to me.
“Black tea, please,” I said.
“You want cardamom and ginger with that?” she asked.
“I… yes, please,” I said to the woman behind the counter. “But how—”
“Everyone knows who the goddess of life was. You were one of the first. We leashed you in Takeni Po. You look Takeni. My roommate is Takeni.” She shrugged carelessly. “Figured you might like tea the same way.”
“I would. Yes. Thank you.” I fumbled with the credit card; she waited patiently for me to swipe it through the reader.
“I’ll bring the drinks out to your table.”
Sortang was already at the table and looking at everything that wasn’t me. I sat down. She flinched. “How long do we have to do this?” I asked. Her eyes widened slightly. “Don’t give me that look, Sortang. You sneaked in late to the meeting. You need credits. So we’ll sit here until you can lie and say you had a nice, long talk with me. I’m doing this because Paize asked.”
She looked down at her fingers. She was wringing her hands again. “I’m not part of the reparations program,” she said. “My former priests intervened on my behalf.” I stared at her, and she drew herself up slightly as she met my gaze. “I was always impartial.”
“Yes, you were just as happy to take young and old alike.”
“I—” Sortang started, but she snapped her mouth shut as the woman who’d taken our orders delivered our drinks. “Thank you,” she said quietly.
“Thanks,” I muttered. Neither of us got a response as she went back to the counter.
“I just wanted to see how you were,” Sortang said. She went back to twiddling her thumbs.
“Will you stop that?” I hissed. She jumped slightly in her seat. “That is so annoying.”
I took a sip of my tea and hated how good it was. “I’m supposed to believe you suddenly have a vested interest in my well-being?”
“We were always close.”
I barked a short blast of laughter. “Close? We were close?”
“Life and death are close,” said Sortang.
“Life and death are enemies,” I said scornfully. “When did you ever free one of the souls you took and let them live again? Not reincarnation, not rebirth—as themselves?”
“That was never in my power,” she said. “I would have done it if I could have.”
“Bullshit. You craved souls. You loved reaping them.”
“That’s not true,” she whispered.
“Name one time you turned your back. One time you showed mercy. One time you let a person live.”
There was a long period of silence, and if I hadn’t been letting myself enjoy the look on Sortang’s face I’d have gotten up and left. Which is why I nearly choked on my tea when she said, sadly, “You never came to visit my halls.”
It took a moment for me to recover from my coughing fit. “Of course I never came to—why would I visit the halls of death?”
“You have worshipers there.” Some of her coffee had spilled on the table, and she was drawing something in it with her finger. It was one of my sigils. My Gelungi name: Vung-Ta. The one who brings life into hardships.
“Our sigils are forbidden now,” I said, nastily. She hastily wiped it into a smudge with her fist. “Of course I had worshipers there. And you kept them there.”
Another long period of silence.
“You really never thought about me after the war?” she asked.
“I spent a year worrying that you were going to shoot me in the back. Then I heard you’d gone to Gelung. So I came here.”
Sortang smiled weakly. “On the opposite side of the planet. Why not Takeni Po?”
“I’m barred from entrance,” I said, without any emotion. “Don’t give me that look. The seeds of the war were sown in those universities. None of us are allowed there.”
“I’m sorry,” said Sortang, which was entirely too much. I set my tea down hard, and she pulled back in her seat, eyes wide.
“Stop. Stop with the fake act. Stop with the sympathy. Stop with the sneaking around—do you know how much I’ve always hated your sneaking? You’ve always been so, so… so furtive.”
“You always scared me,” she said quietly.
“You rode to war against me in a chariot of night and in armor of bone.”
“You were going to destroy Gelung.”
“They sacrificed children to you on those ziggurats, Sortang. Children. Did you think I didn’t notice? Did you think I’d let that continue?”
“They stopped,” she said.
“Because I cut off your hand.”
She shook her head. “I intervened.”
“Yes, Sortang. After I cut off your hand.”
“No, Nemaishe,” she said, and there was a bit of heat in her voice. The anger looked strange on her face, but it was satisfying to see. Her features were drawn and pinched, but the scowl almost looked regal. “I appeared to the high priest. I told him to stop, or I’d withdraw my favor. And I did that before you decided to maim me.”
“You grew it back,” I muttered.
Sortang rolled her eyes. “Nemaishe, I can’t grow things.” Then she made a face I’d made uncountable times in the past seven years. A small wince.
It was a familiar pain. Humans did it, too, when they spoke of the dead as if they were still alive. “He loves those flowers,” they’d say, and then they’d make that face, and they’d continue, “I mean, he loved those flowers.” I understood that about them, at least.
Sortang made that face. Sortang continued. “I mean, I couldn’t grow things. Xatl carved me a hand of wood, and I kept it.” She reached across and took hold of her left hand. There was a soft popping sound, and then she placed the hand on the table. I stared. She laughed. “Haven’t you seen a prosthetic before?”
“A… a what?” I managed. “How did you do that? How isn’t it bleeding?”
“It’s fake. The humans make them to replace lost body parts. It’s not surprising they brought us down, really. They’ve grown very clever.”
“But you move it.”
“Yes, I can move it.” She took the flesh that was not flesh and reattached it, raised the hand that was not a hand and waved it, then looked at me with a strange expression on her face. “I would have thought medicine interested you.”
“Healing wasn’t my domain, any more than plague was yours.”
“I’m very nearly certain that at least one incarnation of healing grew from your hair.”
“Yes, and your hand birthed Pentyi, but you avoided being blamed for disease.” The rot of Sortang’s severed hand had spawned the goddess of plague in Gelungi myth, just as strands of my hair caught in a willow’s branches had given birth to the goddess of healing in the tales of a tribe that only we remembered. The silence stretched.
“How is Pentyi? Have you seen her?” I asked. It was less that I cared about the former goddess of plague and more that I needed to fill the growing silence. Sortang always liked silence. I couldn’t stand it.
“Oh. She’s… well, she’s… difficult.”
“She fell as Malkutaurii. The devouring child. And she’s a teenager now.”
I frowned. “Does she not remember?”
“Oh, no. She remembers everything. But, uh…well, she tells me I don’t know what it’s like. Hormones. Puberty. Growing up.” Sortang paused. “I’m not sure I do know what it’s like. She’s growing so fast. She’s at a boarding school, but they let her stay with me on the weekends. I’m registered as her parent.”
“I suppose that makes sense, since she came out of…” I trailed off. I’d been bringing up her hand too much. Why? It angered her. She said she’d been scared of me. I’d never liked her, but I’d never been scared of her. Why was I so insistent on making her hurt? I coughed to break the silence that had slunk in like the night. “She came out of one of your limbs.”
Sortang touched the prosthetic. “Well, no. Not as Malkutaurii. Malki was the, uh … vomited worms.”
“Oh, right. When I went to the underworld and tried to bring you back.”
Another long pause.
“Sorry,” I offered.
“For the worms or for the teenager?” Sortang asked, with a slight smile, and I surprised myself by laughing.
“Both, I suppose. She’s changing, you said. What’s she like now?”
Sortang sighed and looked away. “She wants to be a doctor.”
“Well… ” I sucked in air through my teeth. “She isn’t the mistress of plagues or the devouring child anymore. You disapprove?”
“I don’t know. She’s at that school, and I don’t know what they’re teaching her. She’s going to spend her life in reparations no matter what she chooses to do. I don’t mind if it’s her own idea. I just hate the idea of them…making her hate herself.”
I frowned at my tea. “Do you think they’re doing that?”
Sortang rolled her eyes. “It’s what they’re doing to all of us. But she’s a child. She might believe it.”
“She remembers everything, though.”
“Remembering things and feeling things are different, Nemaishe. And Malki always was emotional.”
“You said the same thing about me.”
“And I was right. Oh, don’t give me that look. You know it’s true. Remember that time you made the tundra bloom for seven years, after that prophet of yours died? The decade without a winter. It’s been over six hundred years, and they still talk about it.”
I snorted. “In textbooks, maybe.”
“In art, Nemaishe. In paintings, in poems, even in textiles. I’ve seen that flowerscape embroidered on a hundred jacket-sleeves. They love you. They always have.” I didn’t know what to say to that. It was true. Sortang saw my expression and gave me a tired smile. “You want to know if I’m envious.”
“I don’t know what I want to know, Sortang.”
“I’m not. Not really. Most of the people who came to me were appreciative. That was enough.”
“Appreciative of the queen of skulls and bone?”
“I wasn’t their queen. I just…I just made things comfortable, as best I could. Warm rooms for the cold. Cool rooms for the hot. Water and wine for the thirsty.”
“You make it sound like a hospital.”
“No,” Sortang said, with a shake of her head. “Nothing like a hospital. People get better at hospitals. My realm was… permanent.”
“Until they leashed you.”
“Until they leashed me. But people are still dying. Their souls are still going somewhere. Maybe when I die I can…” She trailed off and looked down at her lap.
I felt a strange sense of pity. “You aren’t going to get your powers back when you die, Sortang. They’re gone. The humans dispersed them throughout creation.”
“I know. But I still know how the realm worked. Maybe I can help things. Fix rooms. Build new ones. It’s all stone, and I’ll have eternity.”
An old-fashioned clock on the wall chimed. It had been thirty minutes. Sortang’s eyes darted from me, to it, and back to me again.
“An entire half-hour spent together,” I said, with a crooked smile. “Will you be telling Paize I was a lovely conversational partner?”
“I don’t lie,” she snapped. Her jaw was clenched.
“Of course you don’t,” I said calmly, and I drained the rest of my cup. “Well, Sortang,” I said to her. I stood and gathered my purse. “That was a surprisingly nice cup of tea.”
I turned and started walking away from the table. “Wait!” she called, and I turned and tilted my head. Her face was small and pale beneath her ratty hair. She pointed to the door. “What are you doing? The exit’s there.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” I said over my shoulder, as I walked to the counter. “I’m getting us another pair of drinks.”
The wind had picked up while we were talking, and by the time we left the cafe the cool night felt sharp and icy. Sortang walked next to me. She’d put on an old, threadbare hoodie, though she’d left the hood down. I glanced at her as we rounded a corner. “Where are you going?”
“Uh-huh. Nobody takes this route.”
“This is the way to the orange line,” she said. “Where are you going?”
My lips thinned. “The orange line.” She looked at me nervously. “Where do you live, Sortang?”
“With some Gelungi—”
“Where do you live?”
“Thistledown and Camellia.” She backed up, hands raised. “I didn’t do anything, Nemaishe.”
“Then why are you apologizing?” I said.
“Because you look like you’re about to commit murder. I didn’t do anything. Truly.”
I glared at her. “I live two blocks from Thistledown and Camellia.”
Sortang paled. “I didn’t know, Nemaishe. I swear. Scout’s honor.”
“What does that even mean?”
“I don’t know. It’s something the humans do. Send their children off and have them form little warbands, except they don’t fight.”
“Warbands that don’t fight?”
“Mostly they just go live in the woods over the weekends. And, uh, tie knots.”
“Knots? As a symbol of honor?”
“I guess so.”
“Fine,” I said. “Whatever. You shouldn’t walk home by yourself anyway.” I didn’t like the idea of leaving anyone to walk the night streets alone. Even her.
“What about you?” she asked.
“Sortang, I have a solid foot of height over you.” I smirked. “And I’m apparently terrifying.”
She blushed and jammed her hands into her pockets. “I wasn’t terrified,” she muttered. “Just cautious.”
“You said I scared you.”
She muttered something under her breath. We were coming up on the subway station that would take us to my neighborhood. Our neighborhood. The entrance to the station gaped wide. Sortang stopped at the top of the stairs. It took me a few steps to notice, and when I turned, I saw her illuminated in the fluorescent light against a cloudy sky. I thought of the cold, and snow-topped basalt pyramids.
“Do you remember when you came to rescue me, in the early days?” she asked. “When I had died, and you dug below the earth to find me?”
“That’s the worms story. Malkutaurii.”
She ignored me. “You came and you found me and you dragged me out into the sunlight. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why I’m so often underground.” The pause. “Why I was so often underground.” She started down the steps.
“I remember,” I said, as she reached me and we continued downward. “As soon as the sun touched your skin, you started screaming. And then you started vomiting—”
“What is it with you and the worms?” Sortang asked me irritably. “Yes, I threw up worms. Yes, it was unpleasant.”
“There were a lot of worms,” I said.
“Of all the stories to take hold, it had to be that one,” she muttered. “Couldn’t have been the one where I helped the grieving mother rest. Couldn’t have been the one where I took souls out of this world when I heard you crying because there was no more room for life.”
“Yes, except that story wasn’t true,” I said, with a smile. There was another long silence. I looked at Sortang. My grin faded. She looked away, and I saw splotchy pink bloom on her pale face. I felt my ears burning. The silence stretched intolerably. “I wasn’t crying,” I lied through my teeth. I remembered. I’d been sobbing like a child.
“Oh, bullshit,” she said. “You were wailing like a grieving parent.”
“You could have said something,” I muttered.
“You could have asked,” she shot back. She sighed. “Honestly, Nemaishe? Yes. You terrified me. You terrified me even then. I wanted so badly to let you make more things, but part of me was afraid you’d do something. Something…” She trailed off. “You were always so implacable. Fire would bring a forest to the ground, and there’d be new growth within the season. The humans would war with each other, and when peace came they’d make even more children. Sometimes with each other. Frequently with each other.”
“They always called you the implacable one,” I said.
Sortang shook her head. “Everything I was, I was because of you.” My eyebrows lifted. Her watery eyes widened slightly. “I mean, I was trying to keep up,” she said. “With you.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. We boarded the train. And then, because I knew it would make her uncomfortable: “That was a date, wasn’t it?”
“What? No. Making people die? How was that a date?” Her voice was squeaky.
“The coffee shop, Sortang.”
“It wasn’t a date. We’re former gods. You cut off my hand. It wasn’t a date.”
I started to laugh. “You asked me out on a date.”
“Stop,” she said, her face crimson, and my laughter died quickly. “Just stop. You don’t—you don’t have to be like this, Nemaishe. Constantly trying to win a war that only ever existed in your mind. Whatever you thought—it’s over, now. It’s been over for seven years. Please.”
“I’m…I’m sorry,” I managed, and then we sat in the awful silence that she had always loved. It didn’t seem to cheer her up this time.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, several stops later. “I was surprised. You never were romantic.”
“How would you know?” she asked. She jammed her hands into her pockets and stormed out into our station. I hadn’t even noticed we were there. It took me a few moments to catch up with her.
“Just because I missed something important about you doesn’t mean I missed everything important about you,” I said.
“You missed a lot of things about me,” she said. We climbed out of the station and into a miserable drizzle.
“No,” I said. I looked at her strange, narrow nose, her violently sharp cheekbones, her limp and sodden hair. “I really think I only missed one.”
Sortang pulled her ratty hoodie over her head. It was almost quick enough to hide the flush in her cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” she said, in a quiet voice.
She glared at me. “Of course you’re not. You’re going to hold this over my head, and everyone will laugh, oh, how funny, look at the stupid littl—”
“Sortang,” I said. I reached out to take hold of her shoulder gently to get her attention. Self pity was one of her uglier traits, and she’d keep ranting if I didn’t make her notice me. “I told you I spent the first few years after the war worried you were going to try and kill me. This is an improvement. A big one.”
“Sure,” she said. “Great rapprochement. Diplomacy for the ages. ”
“If it had happened ten years ago it would have been,” I said, quietly.
“They still would have brought us down. They still would have leashed us.”
“Yes, but they’d have a final story to tell.”
“They have their war stories. The gods humbled. They don’t need anything else.”
“Your hood’s embroidered with flowers blooming in the tundra,” I said softly.
A long pause. She slipped out of my grip. “It was on sale.”
“I meant what I said,” I told her. Anything to avoid the sullen attitude. “I really am glad we drank together peaceably.”
“Weight off your shoulders?”
“We’ve only got one life to live, now,” I said with a shrug. “Better to live it unafraid.”
We were nearing her apartment. “What about living it alone?” Sortang asked. I stared at her, and she met my gaze fearlessly. “I know I messed everything up, Nemaishe. Especially tonight. But you shouldn’t be alone. I wouldn’t be able to make it without Malki.” Her face was crimson.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I have the group meetings.”
“No,” she said. “You’re not fine. I know you.”
“I’m fine, Sortang.” She looked at me for a moment that stretched. “It’s starting to rain.”
She sighed. “I hope you change your mind. You’d make someone happy. More importantly, you’d be happy.”
“I’ll take that under advisement,” I said stiffly.
“I didn’t—I didn’t mean me. Like I said. Tonight was a mistake. Just…look, just find someone you care about. And text me when you’re home.” She handed me a small, stiff paper card. My expression must have given me away, because she scowled at me. “Oh, by the depths, Nemaishe. It’s just a business card. Delete the number from your phone after you do it, if you want. Burn the thing. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s a nice gesture,” I said. And then: “You’re an accountant?”
“I’m good with numbers,” she said. “Good night, Nemaishe.”
“Good night, Sortang. Um…I appreciate you reaching out.”
She gave me a strange, tight smile before she climbed the stairs to her apartment and vanished inside.
I stood there, utterly baffled, until the chill started seeping into my bones. Then I walked home, sent a short message to the number on the card, and went to bed.
Of course I couldn’t sleep. I got my phone and added Sorhang’s number to it, then lay in bed browsing the humans’ Internet. A library to put Takeni Po to shame, though it had taken me some time to realize it was almost entirely uncurated. Still, there were documents that were more or less trustworthy, and it wasn’t like the Takeni scholars had never had their own agendas. Gelung hung in my thoughts. I couldn’t believe she’d ever intervened to stop the sacrifices. She’d only ever cared about her own well-being. I thumbed past various artifacts before stopping on a song written by a High Priest Xatl some eight hundred years ago. It was a bunch of nonsense about the goodness of death. I scoffed as I read it again. A link at the bottom caught my eye: “Dream-Visions of the Prophet Xatl.” I scanned though them. Halfway through I found a fragment about the practice of sacrifice, and the goddess herself appearing to demand its cessation.
“Shit,” I said, to nobody in particular, and stared up at the ceiling for a long time.
After a while, I sent off a letter through the phone apologizing for my behavior at the coffee-shop—I couldn’t reasonably be expected to apologize for what had happened eight centuries ago—and felt a little better. A few minutes later, my phone beeped in my hands. I jumped and dropped it on the bed. My message application was blinking. I pressed it and saw a message from Sortang. The message read:
She probably didn’t know how to message. I called her, so it would be easier for her. She picked up immediately.
“What are you doing?” she hissed, which was typical. She never liked admitting she was ignorant.
“It’s called messaging,” I said. “I thought you were sleeping, so—”
“Of course I was sleeping!” she said in a fierce whisper. “The novel you texted me woke me up! Why are you calling in the middle of the night?”
“Oh. Sorry.” There was silence. “Uh… I was reading about Gelung.”
“Nemaishe, it is three in the morning.”
“I found Xatl’s dream-record—”
“Yes, you told me about three paragraphs into your apology text,” she interrupted. She sighed. “Look. Nemaishe. I appreciate it. I know you mean well. It was nice of you to send the apology. But it is very late—”
“I was wondering if you’d like to go out for coffee again,” I blurted out, before I could stop myself.
I’d lived through eternities. This one—this stupid, shameful, mortal eternity—was the longest I’d ever experienced.
“Go to bed, Nemaishe,” Sortang said at last, and she ended the call with an abrupt beep. I looked down at my phone with dismay. It beeped again, and this time I yelped as well as dropped it.
“please learn how phones work,” said Sortang’s text, completely devoid of any propriety or skill in writing. As I was frowning at it, another message popped up.
Elizabeth Loupe is a transgender writer and lawyer who lives in Louisiana.