Sarah Beth Durst

Excerpt from Vessel

Chapter One

On the day she was to die, Liyana walked out of her family's tent to see the dawn. She buried her toes in the sand, cold from the night, and she wrapped her father's goatskin cloak tight around her shoulders. She had only moments before everyone would wake.

She fixed her eyes on the east, where the sky was bleached yellow in anticipation. Shadows marked each ridge, rock, and sand dune. Overhead, a few stubborn stars continued to cling to the sky, and a raven, black as a splinter of night, flew into the wind before angling toward the dark peaks of the distant mountains. Liyana felt the wind caress her cheeks and stir her hair. She'd left it loose last night, and she'd counted the strands when she couldn't sleep. The wind stirred the sand at her feet, and it whistled over the dunes and rocks. She listened to it so intensely that every muscle in her body felt taut.

She had wanted to be calm today.

She'd heard a tale once about a man who had caught the first drop of sun. He'd kept it inside his lantern, and he never felt fear again. In his seventieth year, he was struck by a cobra, and he embraced the snake and called him brother -- and then he died. Liyana thought he should have sliced the snake's head off so at least the cobra wouldn't bite the man's family, too, but then again Mother always said Liyana had a decidedly practical streak in her.

On the horizon, the first drop of sun looked like liquid gold. She stretched out her hands and imagined she were cupping it in her palms. As the light spread, it ran up her arms across her tattoos. She refused to look at the markings, and instead she marveled at the beauty of the sand dunes. In the dawn light, they blazed red.

Behind her, the tent flap was tossed open. Aunt Sabisa burst out of the tent, her chest heaving as if she'd run miles instead of the five steps from the sleeping rolls. "You! You want to kill me!"

A goat bleated at her.

"I wake, and you're not there. In, in, in!" Aunt Sabisa fluttered around Liyana, shooing her toward the tent.

Liyana murmured the traditional apology to an elder whom one has deeply wronged, and then she commented, "You have a lizard in your hair."

Aunt Sabisa's hands flew to her head.

Liyana grinned as her aunt shrieked, danced, and flung the tiny lizard onto the ground. She stomped, still shrieking, as the terrified lizard burrowed into the sand and escaped. By the time Aunt Sabisa quit, at least a half dozen people had emerged to watch the spectacle, and another dozen had poked their heads out their tent flaps.

One of them was Jidali, Liyana's four-year-old brother, who was stuffing a corner of the tent flap into his mouth in an effort not to laugh. His shoulders shook, and his eyes watered. Liyana winked at him, then pointed to a bare patch of sand and said in an innocent voice, "Over there, Aunt Sabisa."

Aunt Sabisa pounded the sand, stomping so fast that she looked like a rabid jackrabbit. Jidali broke into peals of laughter that shook his whole body. Aunt Sabisa looked at the little boy who now writhed laughing half in and half out of the tent. She twitched her lips, and then her face broke into a smile. Laughter erupted from the nearby tents, and soon the desert rang with a mix of bell-like laughs and deep-bellied laughs. Liyana laughed with them.

Now that was a far better start to her last day.

Liyana let her aunt shepherd her inside. She squeezed Jidali's hand as she passed, and his face seized up. She knew he'd remembered what day it was. She wanted to stop and embrace him, but as soon as she crossed the threshold, all her female relatives swarmed her, and she was swept to the back of the tent. She let the chatter wash over her -- consternation over the state of her hair, the condition of her skin, the length of her fingernails -- as they pushed her behind a blanket that had been strung up for privacy. Still clucking at her, the women removed Liyana's nightshirt and positioned her, naked, in the center of a shallow, silver basin. Sponges were passed around and then dipped into a clay bowl of milk and honey. Liyana shuddered when the first sponge touched her skin.

"You'll warm again fast," one of her cousins told her.

But it wasn't the cold that caused her skin to prickle. Only newborns and those near death were bathed in milk and honey. She smelled the sweet honey and the oversweet goat milk mixing together in a cloying scent that invaded her nostrils and filled her throat. She closed her eyes and waited for the bath to end.

Dabs of water washed the milky residue off her skin, and she was wrapped in cloth and dried as if she were a child. As they rubbed her so dry that her cinnamon-colored skin developed a pink tinge, her aunts and cousins chattered over her, touching on every topic but today's ceremony.

When they finished, Liyana's mother lifted her chin so that Liyana's eyes would meet hers. "You will wear your dancing dress all day today. Do try not to dirty it." She held Liyana's gaze a moment longer than was warranted.

Liyana understood the message: Don't disgrace us.

"I must attend to the goats." Mother strode out, knocking aside the privacy blanket. Aunt Sabisa readjusted the blanket, and in the minute that followed Mother's departure, no one spoke.

Liyana broke the silence. "And I thought the dress was for Jidali." She knew it was a pathetic joke, but it was the best she could manage today. As if they knew that too, her aunts and cousins broke into gales of laughter. As they laughed, Liyana wondered if she would be spending today comforting her family, instead of the other way around.

She was presented first with the finest undergarments that she had ever seen. She fingered the fabric. It was as light and white as a cloud. "My work," her aunt Andra claimed. Everyone cooed over the intricate weave. Liyana lifted her arms, and the slip was pulled over her head. It floated down around her body. She felt as if she were wearing a piece of the sky.

Next, the ceremonial dress. Aunt Sabisa brought it from the chest where it had lain, sealed against the desert dust. Everyone gasped as she displayed it, though everyone had seen it many times. Over the last year, every woman in the tribe had added seventy stitches of gold thread, and every man had tied seven knots, completing the pattern that matched Liyana's tattoos. Liyana forced her face to curve into a smile and she put as much enthusiasm into her voice as she could muster. "It is more beautiful than the sunrise."

Everyone murmured in agreement at this, and Liyana fought the urge to grab the dress, run outside, and thrust it into the clan fire. She felt her face grow hot, even though no one could hear her thoughts. Truly, the dress was beautiful. The bodice was a masterwork of embroidery, and the skirt was composed of twenty panels, twice the usual number, each dyed a brilliant, jewellike color. It would swirl around her when she danced. The sleeves would billow as well, her dress magnifying her every movement. Slits in the sleeve would cause the fabric to fall back and expose her decorated arms when she reached toward the sky. It fit her perfectly, and by tradition it would never be worn by another. Hers was the only skin it would ever touch. "The sun and the stars will be jealous of me," she declared.

Her aunts and cousins liked that compliment, and Liyana saw only smiles as the dress was pushed over her head. She was caught inside the fabric, momentarily alone in a swirl of blue, red, and green so deep and rich that her head swam. It smelled of sage. A moment later the dress was cinched around her waist. Aunt Andra fitted shoes on her feet. They were of the softest leather but strong for dancing. Like the dress, these were finer than any shoes her toes had ever touched. She felt as if her feet were being caressed. She hoped the goddess wore these shoes often. They'd never cause a blister. That thought calmed her. She'd prepared her body well -- her limbs were strong, her back was straight, her teeth were healthy -- and now she wore fine shoes.

"Hair!" one of her cousins cried.

"Watch for lizards," another said.

More laughter. Even Aunt Sabisa joined in.

Pushing aside the privacy blanket, the aunts and cousins swept Liyana to a stool by the cooking fire pit. All the men, including Jidali, had left the tent during the dressing. Six hands grabbed chunks of her hair, and Liyana did her best not to yelp as they raked combs through it. Once every knot was yanked to everyone's satisfaction, more hands dove in to braid. By the end, Liyana felt as if every strand had been plucked out of her scalp. She touched her head to check that she still had hair. She felt dozens of braids. Each braid ended in a tiny silver bell. She jiggled her head, and the braids danced around her face. Her hair sang as crisply and clearly as a bird in mating season. "I am a hunter's worst nightmare," Liyana said.

One by one, her aunts and cousins kissed her cheeks. She'd be left makeup free so that the goddess could see clearly what her new face looked like. Liyana clenched her hands together on her lap as she received the kisses.

She would not allow a single tear.

Others would come soon, and she would not disgrace her family. Positioning herself on the stool, Liyana spread her skirt to display the elaborately embroidered panels so that her family could admire it as they departed. Two of her cousins flung the tent flap open and secured it on either side. Already, men and women milled outside. Her relatives filed out of the tent.

As the others left, Aunt Andra knelt next to Liyana. "You will be asked by many to take messages into the Dreaming. Do not accept, but do not refuse."

Liyana nodded. She knew this.

"But if you have the opportunity, please... tell my Booka that his herd fattens well and his son... Tell him we are well, and we miss him."

Liyana swallowed. Her throat felt thick. "I am certain Uncle Booka is waiting for you."

Aunt Andra half smiled. "Of course he is. That man never did anything without my permission, except die." She left the tent, the last of the aunts and cousins to exit.

Liyana was alone.

Chapter Two

The tent smelled thick with her family's sweat and the greasy tinge of last night's dinner, partially masked by a layer of burnt sage. Her own skin smelled sweet, and she felt stickiness behind her ears and in the pits of her knees where her relatives had missed rinsing the honey milk. She'd been left these few moments to meditate, but instead she fetched a damp rag from her bath and wiped the last of the sticky bits away. She'd never seen much point in meditation anyway, and she saw zero point in attracting flies with dried milk and honey. When she finished, she resumed her position on the stool.

The first visitor entered.

Kneeling at her feet, the man -- her mother's third cousin -- turned her wrists over to view her tattooed arms and then kissed her palms. "You will be honored in the Dreaming, and we will not waste your gift."

By tradition she was not required to respond, but she tried anyway. "Thank you. It is my honor and my joy to know you and yours will thrive."

He squeezed her shoulders and kissed both her cheeks as if she were his closest relative, instead of merely a distant one who he had spoken with only a handful of times. Tears were bright on his cheeks, and he scurried out of the tent without another word.

Her hands shook, and she clenched them tightly together. For the next visitor, she merely nodded her acceptance of the ritual words. After two more hours of farewells, she was grateful for the tradition that allowed her silence.

Others like Aunt Andra had messages for loved ones to take with her. A few of them shared memories they had of her so she could take those with her too. She'd forgotten that she'd burnt her first flatbread so badly that her cousins had used it to knock dates out of a tree. Also there was the time she'd wrestled a boy twice her age and won because she'd dropped leaves down his shirt and he'd thought they were a snake -- this was several years before her dreamwalk had determined her fate and she was no longer permitted to risk herself in such games.

The children, having completed their morning chores, were allowed to visit her next. She endured their questions without throttling a single child, which she considered an achievement, especially since their questions included "Will it hurt?" and "What if your soul doesn't reach the Dreaming?" Some of them were old enough that they should have shown more discretion, and she privately hoped the rich feast tonight would cause them massive indigestion. But in truth, the children were hardest because Jidali was last among them.

Escorted to the tent by their mother, Jidali walked inside alone with the measured pace of a grown man. His chin was lifted high, and his shoulders were flung back so far that Liyana half expected him to pitch backward. He knelt at her feet and kissed her palms exactly as tradition dictated. She felt a surge of pride followed quickly by a sharp pang. She'd never see him as the man he would become.

All of a sudden it was hard to breathe. The air in the tent felt stiflingly hot. It pressed against the inside of her throat. She touched her brother's still baby-plump cheek, and with a cry, he flung himself forward and wrapped his arms around her waist. She bent over him and hugged his head and shoulders. He sobbed great, heaving sobs. His body shook against her. She didn't trust herself to speak.

At last he quieted. He sucked in air and then exhaled. His body stilled, though his hands were fists against her back as he continued to hold her. His voice was muffled by the fabric of her dress. "Why you?"

Liyana stroked his hair, soft as the finest carded goat's wool. He knew that she had been born in the first Year of No Rain, and he knew that her dreamwalk had showed her connection to the Dreaming. But that wasn't what he meant, and she knew it because she'd asked that question too, silently in the night, over a hundred times since the day her fate was tattooed on her arms -- the tattoos that said she was a vessel. "Did I ever tell you the story of the spider who wanted to fly?"

He shook his head and then sniffled.

She didn't dislodge him. No one would notice that a child's tears had dampened the elaborate embroidery. "She spun her web in the branches of a tamar tree, and day in and day out she watched the birds fly to and from their nest with food and water for their young. When she laid her own egg sac, she determined that that was how she would feed her children. If she fed them only what her web caught, then a mere quarter would survive. But if she could fly and fetch the scorpions and beetles that scurried on the desert floor, then more of her children would survive. Perhaps even all."

Jidali curled up at her feet and lay his head on her lap. For an instant, her voice caught. He'd done this a thousand times, and this would be the last. She got control of herself and continued. "And so, the spider spun herself wings from her finest thread. She wound them around her back legs, and she stretched them with her front legs. When she was ready, she climbed to the top branch of the tamar tree, and she spread her silk wings. The wind blew against them, and they puffed behind her. Pushing off the branch, she leapt into the air."

She heard a rustle in the doorway and glanced over to see her father. It was his turn next. Liyana nodded to him so he'd know she'd seen him, but she kept stroking Jidali's hair.

"But the desert wind battered her wings with sand, and the threads broke apart. She fell down, down, down into the tamar tree, and she died as she hit the branch where her egg sac lay. At that moment, the egg sac hatched, and with the food from her web and the food from the mother spider's own body, all of her children survived."

Jidali lifted his face toward her. "That is a horrible story."

"Of course it is," she said, "for the spider. But it's good news for you."

His cheeks were stained with tears and smeared with the dye that had leaked from her skirt. "What do you mean?"

"At least you don't have to eat me."

From the doorway, her father roared with laughter. Her brother started to smile, just a little. "Liyana, you have the strangest sense of humor ever," Jidali said.

"I love you, too, Jidali," she said. She hugged him again, wiped his face, and whispered into his ear. "I'll wait for you in the Dreaming. You will never be alone."

He wasn't crying when he left, and she knew the clan would pretend not to notice the puffiness of his eyes or his dripping nose. He could remember the day with pride at his strength -- and at hers.

After Jidali left, it was her father's turn. He knelt and kissed her palms.

"It feels strange for you to kneel before me," Liyana told him.

"I will honor you every day of my life, as I always have." He kissed her cheeks and then departed. Her mother entered the tent next.

Mother halted by the cooking fire pit. She put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips. Unlike the others, she didn't kneel. Instead, she nodded briskly once. "You'll do," Mother said, as if approving a cut of meat for dinner.

"Of course I will," Liyana said. "I'm your daughter."

Mother's lips twitched. "A valid point." Solemn again, she studied Liyana a moment longer. "I am proud of you." She then swept out of the tent before the tears caused by that unexpected compliment could prick Liyana's eyes. Liyana blinked fast, sucked in the increasingly hot air, and composed herself to face her family's midday meal.

She was given a lunch of sugared dates, flatbread, and dried mutton. Aunt Sabisa added Liyana's favorite yogurt to dip the bread and meat in, and one of her uncles contributed his finest tea, steeped in mint water. Her cousins draped her in napkins, which turned out to be a good thing since it caught drips of the tea and a smear of yogurt. Every time she thought of anything but eating, it became impossible to swallow. So she focused with deep intensity on the gritty sugar in the dates that stuck to her teeth and the spices in the yogurt that pricked her tongue. Clustered around her, her family ate sparingly. They'd feast tonight, after the ceremony was complete, to welcome the goddess to their clan. The feast would also serve to remind the goddess of what it felt like to eat and that she would need to feed her new body in order to live. Liyana wondered if someone would have to show the goddess how to chew. Or how to perform other basic functions. She doubted that deities in their transcendent form ever had to pee.

She got herself through the day that way, thinking of mundanities and focusing on the needs of the moment. At times the heat inside the tent threatened to choke her and ruin her careful placidity. At every opportunity, she drank water from a silver pitcher that a cousin continually refilled. She did not have to ration herself today.

At last it was dusk. Talu, the clan's magician and Liyana's teacher, came to claim her. Liyana's knees creaked as she stood -- she'd sat for too long. She was more used to scrambling after the herds, hauling water from the well, and helping out with the myriad of tasks that kept the camp functioning. As a vessel, she had no specific responsibilities aside from preparing for the summoning ceremony, so she had poked her nose into everyone else's business. She'd never had a day like today. But then again, she supposed that no one in the clan had ever had a day like today, at least not in the last hundred years.

Talu rushed to Liyana and clasped her hands to her own heart. "Oh, to think I am here to see this glorious day!" She hooked Liyana's arm under hers and led her out of the tent. "I was there on the day you were born. You nearly died. The cord was wrapped around your neck." She drew a line across Liyana's neck to indicate where the umbilical cord had strangled her. "I sliced it away. Your first breath was an indignant scream. You were so angry that the cord had dared to stop your breath that you screamed for three hours. Your poor, tired mother nearly put you out with the goats so she could sleep."

"What calmed me?" Liyana asked, even though she had heard the story at least a dozen times. Up ahead, she saw that the torches were lit in a ring. Voices drifted through the evening air, as if buoyed by the heat that still filled the breeze.

"A sandstorm," Talu said with a chuckle. "You heard the wind batter the tent and the sand wolves howl, and you fell fast asleep."

Picturing her mother threatening her with the goats, Liyana was able to smile as she was led to the heart of the oasis. The entire clan waited for her around a bare circle of sand. Her smile faltered as she stepped into the circle, ringed by everyone she knew and would ever know.

"Breathe, child," Talu whispered in her ear. "You are strong. You are ready." She kissed both of Liyana's cheeks. "Honor us."

Seated north of the circle, the elders beat drums with the heels of their palms. Slow and even, the drumbeats spread across the darkening desert. With measured steps, Talu walked in a circle around Liyana. Liyana rotated with her, watching as Talu dragged her toes to etch a line in the sand, symbolically separating Liyana from the rest of the clan. As she turned, Liyana saw familiar faces. Cousins. Aunts. Uncles. Friends. She lingered on a boy's face, Ger's. He'd also been born in the Year of No Rain, but his dreamwalk had showed only desert horses racing across the sand. He'd been apprenticed to one of the riders, and she'd heard he rode well. Beside him was Esti. She and Liyana had been friends as children. They'd chased sandfish lizards in the shade of the date palm trees, and they'd made necklaces of woven dried leaves for each other. Liyana noticed that Esti held tightly to Ger's hand. She'd heard they planned to announce their claim at the next festival. She should have remembered to wish them well. Continuing to turn, she focused on other faces in the crowd, family and friends. She wanted to shout over the drumbeats. She regretted her silence during the farewells. There were so many things she hadn't yet said! She'd thought she'd had time before, but now it didn't seem like she'd had any time at all. Days had slipped away. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to think of one day, an ordinary day, and fix it in her memory: waking in her sleeping roll in the cold dawn, breathing the scorched air of the afternoon, playing ball with Jidali by the goat herd, taking lessons with Talu, sharing the evening meal with her family, tasting the night tea. She imagined holding that day inside her as she opened her eyes.

Talu had completed her circle.

Oh, sweet goddess, I'm not ready! Liyana felt her muscles lock. She'd trained every day. She knew the steps in her sleep. But she looked into her mind, and it was a void, as if the memory of one sun-drenched day had seared away all her training.

In the center of the circle, the magician lowered herself to her knees. She crossed her arms and began to chant. "Bayla, Bayla, Bayla. Ebuci o nanda wadi, Bayla, Bayla, Bayla. Ebuci o yenda, Bayla, Bayla, Bayla. Vessa oenda nasa we." Around the circle, the clan joined in the chant, repeating the ancient words to summon the spirit of the goddess Bayla. Their voices didn't matter, though. Only a magician's voice could reach the Dreaming, the home of the spirits of the clan gods. "Come and breathe the desert, Bayla," the words said. "Come and be. Your vessel is ready for you."

The drums beat louder.

Listening to them, Liyana felt her muscles loosen. Her feet, encased in the soft shoes, rocked forward and then back. She lifted her arms, and her sleeves fell to her shoulders, revealing the markings. She flicked her palms toward the darkening sky. The air was still hot on her skin, sucking out moisture and wicking away the sweat left over from a day inside the stifling tent. She swung her hips.

Thud, thud, thud. The drumbeats were footfalls. She matched their pace. Forward two steps, back one, she danced around Talu. The woman's voice was as strong and clear as a herder's horn. "Bayla, Bayla, Bayla. Ebuci o nanda wadi..." Liyana spun, and her skirt spun with her, spreading like a bird's wings. Blue, red, and green flickered in the torchlight, and the gold thread glittered. Forward two steps, back one... forward and back. Arms raised, she spun faster. "Ebuci o yenda, Bayla, Bayla, Bayla!"

Her clan, her family, cried to the sky. "Bayla, Bayla, Bayla!"

She was the dance. Her body knew it; each step had been drilled into her muscles by hours of daily practice. Her legs whipped beneath the skirt as she spun, arms open wide. Her feet flew over the sand.

Faster... thud, thud, thud. "Vessa oenda nasa we!"

Overhead, the sky deepened to azure, and the desert darkened. Stars materialized as if someone were flinging shimmering droplets across the sky. Liyana's breath burned in her throat, and her lungs ached. She felt her muscles strain, but she welcomed it. She'd danced to this point and far beyond in her training. She had only begun to dance.

The bells in her hair sang between the drumbeats. Her feet beat staccato on the sand as her arms beckoned the goddess's soul. She sang the summoning words with her people. "Ebuci... ebuci..." "Come! Come! Your vessel is ready!"

As the hours passed, her feet felt the sand cool through the soles of her shoes. She had ceased to notice the faces outside the circle. The drums continued to beat, and Talu continued to chant.

Stars watched cold from the sky above. The torches threw their light into the circle. Her feet stabbed the cold sand, worn from the pattern of her dance. She heard whispers between the drum beats, voices from beyond the circle.

One carried itself to her ears. "She hasn't come."

Liyana's feet faltered. Quickly she caught the step, and she twirled and spun in time with the drumbeats. But the words wormed themselves into Liyana's mind. By now, the goddess should have come. Her soul should have filled Liyana's body, and Liyana's soul should have been displaced. She should have been drawn to the Dreaming while the goddess breathed her first breath with Liyana's lungs.

Talu's voice was hoarse, but still it echoed across the camp. Liyana noticed that someone had draped furs around the old woman's shoulders. The night wind whipped past the tents and chilled Liyana's skin. Her bells continued to ring, and she continued to dance, but each move felt stiff. She hasn't come, Liyana thought. She should have come!

The moon etched a path across the sky. Still, Liyana danced. And still, her goddess did not come.


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