Miracles of Ris
an episode from the novel Dreams of the Compass Rose
by Vera Nazarian
There are fables, and then there are histories, passed from old to young, that take on the pungent flavor of fable, of the many-hued rainbow, after being re-shaped so many times.
Such is the story of Ris, the Bringer of Stillness and Water, the Bright-Eyed Liberator, the Mad Sovereign of Wisdom.
Incidentally, it is unknown whether Ris is god or demon, messiah or trickster, man or woman or child....
If you were to follow the Compass Rose directly East, across grand stretches of the whiteness that is sun upon sand, you would come upon a place that was once Golden Livais -- a town sprawled like a god's mistake in the middle of the desolation.
No rivers flowed for a hundred miles around, no rain had spilled from the incandescent skies, not in a hundred years. And yet the original settlers had seen scorpions burrow deep, and fat snakes slither, skim the surface of the dunes. And this told them there was to be found a source of water.
When struck eventually, the well pumped cool black water like blood upon the sands, permanently discoloring them with life. The town germinated from this oasis, and after several generations affluent trade routes were established through the desert to the far outlying cities of the South and West of the Compass Rose.
Down one such route, in the wake of a caravan bearing salt and sandalwood, came an old woman and her two children. After an absence of forty years, she was coming home.
"How much longer this desert, Grandmother?" a girl complained. She was slender, with radiant hair the very shade of persimmon in the sun, and with pale freckled skin that was peeling from sunburn. She huddled in the swaying wagon, leaning wearily against the cotton-draped knees of an old woman with nearly black parchment skin.
"Stupid Caelqua," a young voice said. "You know this desert will be all around us forever. It is called Hell."
On the other side of Grandmother, the speaker, Nadir, had attached himself with a grip of misery to the old one's elbow. Nadir was a dark precocious boy-child no older than seven, while Caelqua was possibly fourteen, and they were unrelated, children of two different races.
Grandmother had rescued Caelqua, who had been drudging in a work-board house within one of the distant great cities.
"I take you because of your pretty bright hair, and nothing else," the old woman had said to her, while the smile of her eyes denied the harshness of her words. This implied smile had pierced Caelqua and bound her with ties greater than blood.
When Grandmother had come upon him, Nadir had no name. She had leaned down to pick up a fallen purse from the filth of a city gutter, and had noticed him there, black-skinned as a little demon, crouching against the brick alley wall. The boy had made no attempt to take her possession, and instead watched her with a remarkably clear and wise pair of young eyes.
The old woman left the purse lying, and stared back at the young swarthy thing.
Eyes had met eyes. And after a rich moment of silence, the old woman merely said, pointing to the purse, "Come with me, and bring that with you."
And he followed her like a shadow.
"I take you because you need something," Grandmother had told him as they walked. "And my curiosity will be the end of me if I don't find out what it is. I'll call you Nadir, because we first met at the very bottom -- unless you have a better name?"
But the boy didn't.
He thought only for a moment, then shook his head, and followed her from that day on. For the first time acknowledged as an entity, he had been led by this vertigo-filled instant to his first real stab of self-awareness....
And now, here they were. Their wagon jostled over the sands, the last one behind the protection of the caravan. Scalding dry wind came inside through the torn flaps of the canvas, scraped their faces, and took away the precious moisture that endlessly beaded their skin.
"Not much longer now..." Grandmother said to her two charges. "Soon, when the sun starts sinking, you'll see the dark shadow of Livais -- directly there, on the opposite horizon."
"And then we'll have enough water, Grandmother?" Caelqua said, staring at her with dull ever-parched eyes.
"As I remember, the well is great, and has enough for everyone, child."
"I can wait for my turn after all the caravan drinks," Nadir said proudly, disengaging his grip on Grandmother's elbow. "I don't need water."
"Everyone needs water, even the sand beetle," Grandmother said. "But you are brave and stoic, my Nadir, and I know you will indeed wait for as long as you must."
And thus it was. When evening began to fall, the shape of Livais imprinted upon the dark Eastern horizon, and the caravan moved with the fading sun at its back. Eventually, in the indigo dusk, the many fireflies of gold and amber that were the lights of the town grew into shape.
Soon they were at the gates, were being allowed within, past bored sentries, into a well lit thoroughfare. At the center of Livais was that famous well.
Grandmother stood next to Nadir and Caelqua, among the last in line. When their turn came, surrounded by the loud animated voices of the dispersing caravan folk, orange flames of torches, and vaporous twilight, the old woman stepped forward. With reverence she glanced past the stone rim into the abyss of the well.
She stared, noting the coarse rope of the water bucket. She dipped a pail in the bucket and first lifted it before the muzzle of the animal that had pulled their wagon. Then, smiling, she offered the life-liquid to Caelqua. For the first time in weeks across the desert, the girl was allowed to drink to her content.
When she was done, the water pail was passed on to Grandmother. The old woman took several sips, made a show of having satiated herself, and then deposited the pail into the small hands of Nadir, saying, "And here it is, Nadir, your turn, for you are truly the last."
"Thank you, Grandmother," the boy said with dignity, and then slowly lifted the water to himself and drank in moderate proud swallows.
"Good," Grandmother said. "And now we shall find a place to sleep. Let us go, my children, and find the old house that might still stand, and that was once the place of my birth."
The town was small. After wandering through a dozen streets, turning here and there, they stopped the wagon before a prominent unlit structure. Apparently the old woman's memory or instinct was still intact, for she had found her home.
Grandmother promptly knocked upon the gates, and after several minutes a moving candle shone through the windows.
"Who is it?" came a groggy voice. "Who disturbs the Temple of Ris at this ungodly hour? Begone! Or, if you must, return in the morning."
"What's this?" the old woman said. "Since when have the doors of this house become the doors of a temple? Open up, for it is Ris. I have returned home at last!"
In the ensuing silence, they could hear the night cicadas, and the sharp drawing of breath on the other side of the gates. And then, with a scraping, the gates opened. Nadir and Caelqua saw shadows and a cowled form of a creature, who stared back at them with shocked eyes glittering in the dark.
The old woman stepped forward, saying, "I am Ris. Daughter of Kharaan. Daughter of this house. After traveling the world, I have returned to spend my last days here. Allow us in, for the children and I are weary, and we have come far."
The priest continued gaping. But Grandmother took his silence for a yes, and walked past him into the gated courtyard, leading the pack beast by the ropes, the two children following.
"But --" he stuttered. "But you are --"
"I am a woman, yes. And an old one. But I am Ris, the one who everyone knows keeps the well filled and the waters flowing. Isn't it true, monk, that most recently the water level in the well of Livais has dropped below the normal mark by about the height of a man? That is why I have returned."
"How did you know?" the hooded man whispered. "No one knows this except for three men -- myself, Lord Rigaeh, and the old well-digger! Then you are Ris indeed, the Bringer of Water!"
Grandmother chuckled. "How gullible you are. That alone is not difficult to surmise for anyone with eyesight. Anyone who looks closely could see the fresh new length of rope added to the well-bucket. But only Ris the Wise would know that the very nature of the ground water source beneath the well has been compromised. At the rate of fading, there will be no more water left in Livais before two moons pass."
The cowled one stared in the darkness, eyes glittering. "Gods protect us..." he whispered, "If what you say is true, then we are doomed. You must speak to Lord Rigaeh immediately! You must tell him of this, if you really are Ris the Wise...."
"You will direct me to this Lord tomorrow," the old woman said. "But for now, allow us to rest in this house."
"As you wish, Wise One...."
The man made signs of obeisance and, bending his old back, preceded them into the shelter of the great dark house. Inside, he took the single thin candle from the shelf where he'd left it to light their way, first within a grand front hall, then up a wide staircase.
The old woman, with candle-born shadows falling all about them, followed him, looking around her with what might have been a look of old wonder and yet a hint of a mischievous smile. Caelqua came immediately after, wary of the flickering shadow-shapes which at times looked like bird-beasts, at times like demons unfurling. And in back of them all came Nadir, seeing the same grotesque forms but somehow wanting to howl with joy at their undulating free expression, sensing the same wildness of spirit unexpectedly within himself.
They were home.
In the morning, the white sun arose with a fury, and began another desert inferno. When the shadows were shortest, and no one dared to linger in the open, the old woman who called herself Ris walked out to the center of town, and stood before the well, wrapped in white cotton to shield herself from the blaze.
She stood heedless of the sun, her exposed skin already blacker than black, her eyes an unusual shade for someone of her race -- blue like the remote lapis-lazuli waters that reflected back at her from the long distance down in the stone well.
For over an hour she watched the waters. And exactly three times throughout that time, at even intervals, the mirror surface of the waters distorted, then bubbled, as though gases were rising from the bowels of the well.
And then, satisfied, she simply turned and walked away. She continued walking in the direction of the most affluent side of town. And possibly she didn't even see the small shadow of a boy following her.
At the house of Lord Rigaeh she paused (and from his distance Nadir could see an inexplicable smile pass her wrinkled lips), then knocked, and was allowed within. It seemed word of her had spread -- word that Ris had returned to right all wrongs in Livais.
"You claim, old woman," Lord Rigaeh said, "that you are Ris, whose Temple stands within this town?"
Ris observed a man attired in fine silks and wearing wrist- and arm-bands of gold. She did not like his face, nor his unblinking eyes.
"I do not claim. I am Ris," she replied in an overly soft voice, using the semblance of old age to her advantage.
Lord Rigaeh leaned forward in his elevated seat, and stared down at her. "Apparently you know more about the well than you should. Who are you really?"
The old one smiled. "Of course," she said, after a slightest pause, "you of all people do not believe in Ris, at least not in the Ris that people savor like an amulet on their tongue."
"Come, both of us know you are an impostor, and that Ris is a figment of my people's imagination," said the Lord. "Let's not lie. Tell me rather, what do you want, now that you are here? What would it take to keep your old mouth properly sealed?"
Besides the surety of death. ... She could almost hear his thought.
She watched him, unblinking, with her uncanny blue eyes. "Why was the House of Ris made into a Temple?" she asked softly then. "I must know."
"Why?" he retorted, stroking an arm-band of liquid gold. "Are you drawn to the idea of deity?"
At which the old woman laughed, a true cackle.
She is merely insane, it occurred to him then. A crazy old lizard who would sun herself on my gold. Well, let her hiss all she would, no one would believe her.
But then Ris spoke words that stilled him. "Why was the House of my father turned into a Temple of Gold? You keep it there, don't you, turning to your advantage an abandoned house with no master? All the bulk of it that you've made off the very life juices of these sad people! Gold, guarded by your minion in the guise of a priest. Gold, made by denying them water periodically. And, only after they pay you their last, you pretend to call upon my name, the true name of Ris, to end the charade of water shortage!"
"What madness do you croak, old hag?" Lord Rigaeh exclaimed. "Have you any proof? Who would take the word of a vagrant over the Lord of Livais?"
"Oh, I have proof enough," she replied, her own eyes sparkling angry blue. "Proof of an outlet chamber dug alongside the well, that siphons off the water by means of a clever contrivance of machinery and piping. Whenever you choose to strike fear into these simple people by threatening their water, their very life, you lower the water level."
"Enough!" the Lord cried, his face gone livid. "I will have you thrown into the darkest prison --"
"Is it not too late?" she pointed out. "Most people of Livais know about me, and would expect me to be well and sound when I leave this house."
"True," he spoke then, changing his manner like a serpent. "I cannot have you killed outright. But there are ways to reveal you for what you really are. They will expect certain things of you, I will make sure of that. And when you are unable to satisfy them with the miracles of Ris, they will turn on you. Reverence will become rage. They will tear you apart...."
"We'll see," she replied quietly, this old woman. "But now, I leave you to yourself, Lord Rigaeh who does not believe in Ris. Remember only that in the end truth breaks forth upon the shore."
Outside, Nadir caught up with Grandmother as she left the house. He had waited all this time, hidden in the shadow of the alley, and knew nothing except that this expensive house had a heavy spirit about it despite the outward semblance of opulence, a dark heavy thing of sadness, like stone, like the weight of heartless gold.
"Are you hurt, Grandmother?" he said, walking beside her, easily matching her suddenly old gait. "What did they do to you? What did they say?"
The old woman chuckled, then reached out to touch Nadir gently on the cheek (she never did more than that, knowing his need for dignity). "Let's go and eat, my Nadir. I wonder what Caelqua has in store for us today?"
And thus they returned to the house that was now a Temple, through winding streets, past townspeople who lowered their heads in respect before the old woman, and whispered words of benevolent greeting to Ris.
Inside, the minion of Lord Rigaeh stepped aside, bowing superstitiously, and Nadir followed Grandmother into the kitchen. Here, in the heat of the stone hearth, Caelqua was checking the flatbread and stirring the popping stew. In her zeal to serve Grandmother, she had usurped the place, found stores of onions and potatoes, and had driven the priest to the marketplace, bidding him to return with fresh produce for the table of Ris.
After finishing their meal, Grandmother and her charges cleared the eating area. And then, because the sun was still near zenith, a laziness was upon all.
The old woman sat down in an old chair in the front hall, saying that it had once belonged to her father. Her eyes closed, and she appeared to be sleeping. Caelqua stretched, yawned, and then found herself a place on the fresh pallet upstairs.
Nadir meanwhile, wandered the old house, his spirit wanting to dance for some reason. There was something hauntingly nostalgic in the very walls of this place, a sense of many layers, many worlds. ... Something intimate.
It was drawing him, until the tips of his fingers tingled, and blood raced through the subterranean caverns of his veins like bubbling spring water. Soon, he would draw near enough to find it.
After several quiet days of sun-washed silence, townspeople came to knock at the doors of the Temple of Ris. They were asking for the old woman. Because in the span of those days the waters of the well had receded like never before.
For the first time ever, the surface of the well-water was too distant to see without the help of a torch lowered down into the stone well abyss. A townsman discovered the atrocity when he was unable to lower a bucket deep enough to reach the water, and had to call the well-digger.
The old well-digger came and tied several additional lengths of rope to extend the bucket's reach. When the water bucket came up full at last, it held a mixture of fine gravel and water, for it had scraped the bottom.
At this, both the well-digger and the townsman let out a keening wail, until more people gathered and picked up the cry. The whole thing might have been humorous except that, as surely as the sun burned overhead, these people were indeed doomed to death without water.
Lord Rigaeh was notified. Upon hearing the news -- not to mention the wailing outside -- his dark eyes took on an appropriately stricken and sympathetic slant. He responded to the terrified messengers with a pious suggestion that they go find Ris. For, after all, now that she was here in the flesh within Livais, all of their salvations lay with her.
The Lord did not bother telling them of the good store of water that had been hidden in his own house cellar, and that would last him and his household at least two moons -- more than enough time to leave the town and scramble across the desert to the closest great city to the West of here.
And thus the townspeople flocked to the Temple and called for her loudly, while the sun beat down with cruelty, and bleached to bone-whiteness the limestone of the streets.
Ris came out, dressed in her usual white cotton. She stood facing them all, then said, "Let us go to the well, friends, for I have something to show you."
She led the procession to the center of town, stopping before the stone well. Here, they surrounded her -- women, men, old and young, with one common thing written in their eyes: hope, overlying fear.
"Give us back the water, Ris!" someone cried out. And with that other voices picked up the keening. Some came down on their knees, beating their foreheads against the ground, kissing the sand at her feet.
"Enough!" rang out the voice of the old woman, carrying farther than imaginable out of such a wizened frame. "There is only one here who can return your water to you. It is Lord Rigaeh."
At that point the Lord himself was seen approaching, and the crowd parted for him and his armed retainers. Lord Rigaeh wore a coat of the palest sun-satin and a head-wrap of silk and gold braid.
"I am here, good people of Livais," he said with a look of pasted-on surprise. "Has this old woman who claims to be Ris performed her miracles for you and raised the waters yet?"
"Nonsense. Where is the well-digger?" Ris said. "I ask you all to witness. Have him climb down into the well, and look for any sign of an opening or outlet in the walls of stone."
"What then, old woman?" Lord Rigaeh said. "What would you do even if you find such an outlet? What would that prove?"
Nadir and Caelqua, standing in the front of the crowd, looked with concern at Grandmother.
For a moment, Ris said nothing. And then she motioned for the old well-digger to proceed.
The well-digger dropped in the water bucket filled with stone-mason's tools, climbed over the stone rim of the well, and started to lower himself down along the length of rope. After about five minutes of silent anticipation, high desert wind, and the beating sun, they heard his muffled yell to bring down another person who would serve to verify what they saw, and to bring down a torch.
Someone pushed forward a spindly teenage boy, and someone else came running with a lit torch. Holding the torch in his teeth, the youth climbed into the well like a monkey, and disappeared. Several minutes later, they heard the noise of hammer against stone, and then the sound of released gushing water.
Then the youth's head popped out from the well's opening, followed by the rest of him, while the well-digger still grunted behind him. The boy was wet from the waist down. He began to chatter immediately that yes, indeed, there had been a plugged pipe of some sort, but that, when they opened it, there was only so much water. The inflow did raise the water level, but only so far, to his waist. The rest of the water was nowhere.
"You see," said Lord Rigaeh smoothly. "What do you say now, old woman? It is no secret that there is a reserve chamber, built at the beginning for dire circumstances such as this, to give us just enough water to survive. If you were indeed Ris, as you claim, you would have known that."
The old woman looked at him intently, while voices of displeasure sounded from the crowd.
"We have gold and coins for you, Ris!" someone cried. "We give it all to you if you give us back the well!"
"Fill the well, Ris!"
The old woman turned to the crowd, her eyes quickening with a passion, and she pointed a finger at the Lord. "He has your water, what is left of it!" she said. "And he has the rest of your useless gold! Search his house, and you'll find the water!"
"Halt!" exclaimed Lord Rigaeh. "If you are Ris, then fill the well anew! Show us indeed who you really are. And if you're an impostor, we will punish you as you deserve."
A pause of silence.
Then the old woman said softly, "I cannot fill the well."
At which the crowd wailed.
"But," she continued, "although your well is indeed drying inevitably, there is far more water left than you are led to believe. He truly has your water! And his deceit has been robbing you of your livelihood for all these years. The gold that you bring to the Temple of Ris he puts in his pockets! Ris needs no gold, no worshippers! Open your eyes to the simple truth!"
But they no longer heard.
"The hag is obviously a nothing and a nobody, people of Livais," Lord Rigaeh said. "And she can do nothing for you." And he directed his retainers to take the old woman.
"Come with me," the Lord said to the people. "And we shall go together to the Temple of the true Ris in supplication. We shall offer gifts to Ris, and once again our prayers will be heard."
The crowd surged around him.
"No!" the old woman cried. "Do not listen, people! How many times must you offer gifts and still lose water? Think! Your water has been fading gradually, even after your so-called prayers are answered. Every time there is less and less of it --"
But her final words were muffled, for she was struck on the face.
A few steps away, Nadir wrestled like an afreet in the grasp of an angry townsman, while Caelqua whimpered, seeing Grandmother's face bleed.
"Bring them also," Lord Rigaeh said, pointing at the children. "They are hers, and all will be punished together for blasphemy."
And with that, the three were taken, and the townspeople followed Lord Rigaeh like sheep to the Temple of Ris.
The sun shone angrily from above upon them all.
"I don't want to die, Grandmother..." Caelqua sobbed quietly in the darkness of the place where they had been thrown. Despite the unmarked passage of time, it must surely be evening by now, thought Nadir. His eyes had been keened to the dark, and he could just barely make out Grandmother and the girl.
"You will not die, child, hush ... I promise you..." sounded the voice of the old woman, stubborn and strong as always, while soft echoes came to dance all around.
Eventually there was only coagulating silence. Nadir felt the slick mildew of the cold stones around them, smelled the rank vapors of this prison.
"I only regret one thing," Grandmother said suddenly. "And that is that I've brought you two here, to this accursed town of my birth. I'd forgotten how it was, forgotten the lies and the fools willing to live with them."
"Are you -- are you truly Ris, Grandmother?" The voice of Caelqua trembled. "I believe you are! You can save us then!"
"Oh, my girl," the woman said tiredly, sounding ancient for the first time. "It's true that I was once called Ris. But it was such a very long time ago...."
"Tell us, Grandmother," Nadir said.
"Very well," the old voice responded.
And Grandmother told them of a slave child of the house of Kharaan -- a kind man, who, after her mother died bearing her, had brought her up as his own. It was Kharaan who had named her "Ris" in honor of the One who was known to appear to those in dire need, and it was he who had taught her the nature of justice. And as he lay dying, the old man had spoken words that remained when he was long gone: "If truth is ever obscured or distorted, give of yourself in whatever way necessary, to end the injustice." Inspired by these words, Ris had assumed the identity of her legendary namesake.
"But, if you are not divine, how did you know of the injustice of Lord Rigaeh?" Nadir persisted stubbornly.
"That, I did not." The old voice chuckled in the darkness. "It was merely easy to guess. For, anywhere one goes, children, there is injustice. Assume thus, and you will know what to look for, and how to recognize it."
"Then I will fight injustice too, Grandmother," Nadir said. "When we get out of here, I will grow up to be strong and wise like you."
"But I am scared, Grandmother," said Caelqua. "Unlike you, I am not strong, I am not Ris. I am good for nothing...."
"Who or what is Ris indeed, children?" the old one said suddenly. "What do you think?"
"I think," Caelqua said softly, "Ris is either a god, or has the blessing of the gods, and thus a power over waters. You tell us this story, Grandmother, but I know there's more to it that you do not say. You say you are not the same Ris, and that you only pretend to be. But this is what I think. You, who are divine, are locked into this human shape, so that you can be here and love us, for we have none but yourself...."
And with that, Caelqua buried her face in the darkness against the breast of the old woman, and wept with loud rasping sobs.
"My poor child, I wish I were," Ris said, stroking in the dark what she knew to be the radiant hair of the girl.
"Why did you take us in, Grandmother, if it were not for that reason?" Nadir said suddenly.
"I told you already, little demon," the old woman replied. "You stirred my curiosity. Besides, you were filthy as soot, your sweet dark brown skin all covered up by the stain of the gutter, your head full of lice, and I had a great urge to scrub you clean."
"And I?" Caelqua said, quieting her sobs. "Why did you take me?"
The old woman began to laugh. Her chuckles echoed back and forth among stone, and in the dark Nadir felt a tremor, a vibration against the palm of his that was resting on the cold floor.
"Silly, silly questions, my dears," she finally managed to speak through her laughter. "Must there be a reason? Well then, I will tell you. I took you both because I was lonely."
"But Ris is a god!" Nadir marveled. "Can even gods be lonely?"
"Pah! Did I ever say I was divine? Ask the same silly questions and receive silly answers," the old woman said. "Now, enough maudlin nonsense. Go to sleep, both of you, for tomorrow, Ris or no Ris, one way or another we shall be free of this place. And I promise you, no one here shall die."
"I believe you, Grandmother -- Ris..." Caelqua whispered. "Whoever you are...."
In the darkness, Nadir thought he heard faraway sounds of subterranean waters. And as he rested his head in Grandmother's lap, they seemed to be rushing nearer and nearer, like blood coursing through his temples, into his very mind.
The morning sun poured its scalding essence down upon Livais. In the center of town, near the well, stocks were erected. The old woman was made to kneel, face down, her neck restrained, her feet bound together, and her hands placed into the wooden contraption. Next to her, the children were tied upright to a wooden post. All three were bare-headed, without protection against the raging sun. And, by the will of Lord Rigaeh, they were to remain thus.
They were to have no water.
Townspeople passed by and spat at the old woman, spat at her gray hair dragging in the dust. They struck and pinched the dark boy, and pulled the radiant hair of the girl, ripping her poor tunic. Urchins kicked and taunted them, bringing cups full of liquid just to their lips, and then drawing away, laughing. Eventually, another old woman hobbled by and shooed the urchins away, shaming them that they were wasting the precious dwindling water in this town with their games. The hag then used her stick to strike another blow at Ris, who remained silent and motionless.
"Damn you," the hag hissed. "They pray even now in the Temple of Ris for forgiveness of your blasphemy, so that Ris will return to us the well, in exchange for all of our gold! Even now, I go to carry the last of my coins to the Temple."
Ris did not argue the illogic of the statement. But Caelqua, sweat pouring down her face, whispered, "Grandmother didn't do anything except point out the truth..." only to receive a jab of the hag's stick.
Nadir remained silent, while sweat also beaded his date-brown skin and glistened in the tight black curls of his wiry hair.
At high noon Lord Rigaeh's men appeared, and, grinning, began to untie the children.
"Lord Rigaeh spares your lives. He'd rather you walk through the desert," one of the men sneered, pulling Nadir by the ear.
The old woman was made to rise, her feet unbound, her neck and wrists freed of the wooden stocks. With Nadir barely supporting both his sister and Grandmother, Rigaeh's men drove them past the well, and outside the gates of Livais, unto the burning sand....
It is said that the desert sun brings delirium. And that sand, mixed with wind, tastes like blood....
Nadir did not know how long it was, this burning eternity. He lay face down in the scalding powder, and finally a fire in his mind brought him enough awareness to lift his head and see Caelqua lying in a heap at the feet of their Grandmother.
Nadir crawled. He would not remember how long it took him to crawl those few feet, while the wind howled like a horde of jinn and cut him in the eyes, forced him back every inch. At last, he could touch the two sprawled figures. He drew himself close, and covered his sister's head with his body, acting as a shield against the sun. Next, with supreme effort, he tugged his thin pale tunic from his upper body, baring his dark back, and wrapped the cotton around Grandmother's forehead and eyes, shielding her too from the sun.
He lay thus for an eternity, sinking in and out of this world. And each time as he resurfaced, he felt the hell upon his back, the agony, until the sun began to lean in the sky toward the West.
It was sunset.
They had been denied water for only one day. And yet, because this was the desert, and because they had no shelter against the molten gold overhead, death would be very near....
As the sun bled orange upon the Western horizon and the wind cooled, Caelqua regained consciousness with a shudder. She moved, feeling the small thin body of the boy pressing against her forehead, savoring its odd coolness. Nadir's cheek was pressed against the sand, and he was half-buried by a moving dune. Grandmother lay only a little away, barely breathing. Caelqua burrowed out of the stifling powder.
"Grandmother! Nadir!" She choked on a mouthful of sand.
The two piles of humanity began to stir. Nadir shuddered, resurfacing, while Grandmother barely moved her head to the side and squinted. And almost -- just almost -- her lips smiled.
And at that Caelqua reached out toward Grandmother, and then began to quake with dry tearless weeping.
"...Pray, my child..." whispered Grandmother's faint voice. "You must pray to Ris..."
And Caelqua continued trembling, for as she wept she was also burning up with fever.
They found that Nadir could not move. When Caelqua touched his back, the skin peeled away, and dark blood welled at the place where her fingers had touched. At her touch and its agony, Nadir cried out.
"You too must pray, my Nadir..." croaked Grandmother. "It is time. ... And I will pray with you ... also."
And then her eyes closed again, and her lips fell motionless in their final soft smile.
The sunset burned and faded.
There were dreams interspersed with prayers, in the darkness of the moonless night.
At some point, Nadir thought he heard his own voice crying, and there were shameless tears running down his cheeks, like needles of broken pride, as he called out hoarsely, mindlessly, the name of "Ris," the Mad Sovereign of Wisdom. And he thought he had crawled forward and leaned his head over the body of Grandmother, and let the boundless tears mixed with his sweat drip down like a burning torrent onto her dry lips, washing her face....
And, at some point, Caelqua felt some other's voice come wrenching from her gut, strong and new, calling upon "Ris," the Bright-Eyed Liberator. And she felt her teeth sink into her own wrists, tasting her own blood which then became water. In a maelstrom of agony and night, those bleeding wrists she offered to Grandmother, held them at the old woman's parched lips, letting her drink endlessly from the vein....
The crescent moon arose briefly after midnight, spilling a silver glow upon the world. And it seemed the very sand dunes were in reality cresting waves of a great ocean, while the desert spilled around them with the cold oceanic currents of the night, liquid and boundless. ... The waters of the night ocean swelled into giant forms, and they moved all around them, licking the very walls of Livais, scaling them, and filling the town to the very brim with liquid metallic moonlight....
At dawn Nadir awoke just as the sun showed on the Eastern horizon. There was fever in his mind.
Grandmother and Caelqua were gone.
He looked around, thinking that maybe they'd moved in the night. And then he began to dig, clawing at the sand, for he thought that a roving dune had advanced in the dark and buried them with its whiteness.
"Grandmother!" Nadir called, his voice as quiet as a scorpion's, his lungs dry and parched with sudden anger.
"Caelqua! Stupid useless girl, where are you?" He dug wildly, crawling on his knees in the sand.
And yet, as the sun came up higher, beginning to scald, there was no trace of the old woman -- his Grandmother whom he knew as Ris -- nor of the girl with hair like flames.
Nadir stilled suddenly, and whispered into the face of the morning wind, "She is gone ... She has left me ... And you too, my sister...
"No!" he croaked then, his little dark face crinkling into a grimace of sand and pain. "No! No! Keep digging! No!"
And then something prompted him to glance away from the sand before him. He turned away, mesmerized, and stared behind him, where only a little away stood the town walls of Livais.
And as the sunlight danced on what had once been stone, it reflected back metallic, for the walls had turned to blazing gold....
The gates of Livais stood open. Nadir moved slowly like a sleepwalker in a daydream, and looked around him with parched eyes at terrifying marvelous gold.
It was everywhere -- gold buildings, gold cobblestones, gilded palm and date trees, people frozen to precious statues, and everywhere, golden dust....
In the center of town stood the well, gilded at the rim. When Nadir approached it, staggering, he discovered the rope was also gold, and so was the bucket.
And instead of water there was only solid metal, stilled forever in a golden blaze under the sun.
"I must go from here..." he croaked to himself. "There is nothing here, only the judgement of the gods. This place is cursed. I don't want to die here, so let me at least go into the clean desert --"
"Why die, my Nadir?" came a familiar voice.
He turned to see Grandmother, standing upright, with bright eyes and a clean face, with not a trace of sand on her white cotton robe billowing lightly in the wind.
For an instant, Nadir was speechless. And then a wild smile contorted his small dark face, and he rushed forward to hug her.
"Grandmother! I thought you'd died! Or left us!"
"What nonsense! How can I ever leave those who are mine? Come, and I will give you water to drink -- water, without which there is no life, and because of which this town perished in their folly."
"But where is Caelqua? And how --" Nadir was speaking foolishly, words just tumbling out of him like droplets of water.
"Come along, hurry now!" the old woman interrupted, and began walking with quick strong young strides. "We will go to my House, the House of Ris."
Inside the old house, there was no gold at all. And the outer walls too had remained gray stone. It was an untouched island amid the golden desolation.
Nadir recognized the strange sensation of immediate intimacy, the feeling of living rushing water. And now he knew whose spirit was within these walls. The same spirit had pulled at him before, had quickened the living waters within him, his very blood, his sweat, his tears -- his truth.
Grandmother sat in the old chair that had belonged to Kharaan, and watched Nadir madly gulp down the water from the large wooden cup she had given him, heedless of his manner.
"You have grown and learned," said the old woman, smiling.
"Oh, yes, Grandmother! I have learned abandon! And that water is more precious than gold!" Nadir gasped between swallows. And when he was done drinking, he again rushed forward to bury his face in her old sunken chest, unashamed of his display of emotion.
"Good." Grandmother chuckled, hugging him tight.
"But -- what happened here?" he ventured at last. "What odd blight is this? Why are we and this house the only ones unaffected? And what is the source of this new water? For I've seen the well of Livais, and it is dry!"
"This is Ris's House, and you are hers also. You prayed to her, and her blessing rests on you. As for the water -- come with me and I will show you."
And then Grandmother winked and motioned with her hand. Nadir wordlessly followed.
They came outside once more, covering their faces from the blaze. As he walked, Nadir wondered that he could no longer feel the agony of his scalded back. As though the very water that he'd drunk had healed him of the last day's injuries.
They walked through Livais, looking about them at the golden statues, at the townspeople frozen in various aspects. At the house of Lord Rigaeh, they paused. The Lord himself stood at the door, frozen to fiery metal, ready to mount a tall pack-beast that was also now a statue. The packs held great filled water flasks that contained water no longer, but shimmering solid metal.
"Some day, people will return here and marvel at the riches of this place," Grandmother said. "Eventually it will all be mined and sacked, and there will be no trace of this town, only a memory. The House of Ris alone will stand, a solitary reminder of Golden Livais."
At the town gates, Grandmother paused. Nadir noticed their old covered wagon unhitched and abandoned. However, not too far away was their pack-beast, loaded with a bag of supplies, standing idly and looking rather well fed and ready to depart this place. Grandmother led the pack-beast out through the gates, and then handed the reins to him.
"What are you doing, Grandmother?" Nadir asked with a sudden premonition.
"Seeing you on your way, of course." The old one smiled, wrinkles crinkling at the corners of her bright young eyes.
"But what about Caelqua and you? And what of the water?"
In reply, Grandmother took his hands and held them tight in her wrinkled own. And then, still holding, she pulled him, and they walked fifty paces through the sand to the place where they had lain hopeless the night before.
There, in the very spot where Nadir had dug with his bare hands, was a welling of blackness, a rich surfacing of moisture, a large flat spot. Already, a number of snakes and beetles were seen scuttling around.
Grandmother reached into the folds of her robe and pulled forth the same cup from which he had drunk. She bent forward slowly, and dipped the cup in the sand, and it came away full of bright, slightly muddied liquid. When the liquid settled, they saw water, fine and radiant like crystal, flashing like mirrors of persimmon fire in the sun.
"This is the new well," said Grandmother. "And you, my children, have caused it to be. They, the people of Livais, tried to make water from gold, but only gold comes from gold. And thus Ris gave them the truth of what they asked. You alone brought water to Livais, for you sacrificed your very own water -- sweat, tears, and blood -- and quenched my own thirst when I was most in need. I drank of you, and now you will always drink of me, and never lack for water. Now, take this cup and be on your way -- don't be afraid, it will be full for you always...."
"But what about you, Grandmother, how will you remain here all alone?" Nadir whispered, receiving the cup, while water welled in his eyes, because he already knew the answer.
"I will remain, my beloved, because this is my House. And yet I will always be with you, especially when you dream. Just as you will always be here with me. And this well -- she is a part of you...."
"Then you are Ris, the Bringer of Truth and Water!" Nadir exclaimed.
But suddenly he felt a pang of a different agony come to him, as his soul broke asunder, and he understood and cried, "This well! Caelqua! Caelqua my sister, what has become of you?"
In answer, the old woman -- or someone else -- who had been his Grandmother for so long, only smiled. Ris the Wise, the Just, the Trickster, leaned forward then, and kissed the boy on the brow. And where her lips had touched he felt a seal of warmth, then coolness, like a breath of a faraway ocean.
He blinked, and Ris was gone like a mirage. All around him stretched only the incandescent desert, while to the back of him stood ajar the bright gates of the town of dead gold.
Leading the pack-beast, the boy breathed through his mouth, through his tears, and without ever again looking back, started to cross the desert.
© Vera Nazarian 2002.
Dreams of the Compass Rose is published in the USA by Wildside Press.
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