A girl sits cross-legged in the dirt before the unlit pyre, her face dotted with yellow clay and her dark hair unbound. The girl has just seen her ninth summer. The man on the pyre is her father. The old woman at her side, bent and gray, is no relation.
The girl does not cry. She looks at the pyre with coal-bright eyes, her jaw set, her fists clenched. The pyre is covered in the flowers of the season: purple, blue, and yellow. Their scent is carried on the breeze. She fidgets with the curled edge of her tunic as the aurochs horn sounds in mourning, and she knows she will never enjoy the scent of summer flowers again.
The three of them—the girl, the old woman, and the corpse—sit in silence while the sun traces its slow arc across the sky. The girl knows that this silence is expected of her. She is satisfied with it, because if she is not silent then she will scream. She does not know the right word for the anger she feels, the rage and wanting in her heart that threatens to burst from her chest and lay waste the entire settlement and everyone in it, seek out the men who ambushed and murdered her father. There is a word for it, but it is taboo to her people, and never expressed.
If she knew the right word, she would say that what she wants is vengeance.
She sits in silence with her rage in her throat and waits for the old woman to speak.
She knows that soon the old woman will tell her a story, and then it will be time to light the pyre.
Instead of one story, the old woman tells her three.
Every one of our people hears three stories of Agani in their lifetime. You have never heard his name, but he was once a powerful god. To speak of him is to give him power, and power is something Agani must not have.
So it is only three times in our lives that we hear his name: once when we leave childhood behind and become women; the second before we marry and become one with another; and the third when we must face death and send a loved one off to the other world. The stories are always told in order. I had hoped to tell you the first story in the summers to come. It is my sorrowful task to tell you all three, instead.
Agani was born when the Earth was still young and all of the gods existed beyond this world. Fox and Jay Bird were still asleep; Spider and Snake had never spoken. The People prayed to the gods beyond the world, until the day that Bear came down from the caves, saved a child of the People from the swollen river, and gained a soul.
The old gods had never intervened so directly on behalf of the People, and so they prayed instead to Bear, who taught them how to fish and where to gather food for the coming winter. Soon the people forgot those who had created them from clay, and the gods grieved as for the loss of a child.
Only Agani did not grieve. He did not cut his arms or join in the keening. He sat alone with his anger, listening to the prayers of the People, and thought about this new small god who would usurp him.
Bear is but one god. What can one god do, he asked himself, when we are so many? If the Bear God dies, the People’s love will be our own again.
It is hard work and dark magic to become something else. On the first day he hunted in the forest for the things he would need: tufts of fur caught in branches, fish caught from the river with his hands, small animals which he slew and left in the sun. He gathered the things that bears eat and climbed into the hills to find the shelter of a cave.
On the second day he made an ointment of rancid fat, pine needles, salmon scales, and spoor. He cooked it over a small fire at the mouth of the cave, the pungent smell making his nose sting and his eyes water.
Raven came and sat on a rock beside him.
“Agani,” Raven said, “what are you doing?”
“I am becoming a Bear,” Agani answered.
“Why do you wish to become a Bear?”
“So that I may find the Bear God, and slay him.”
Raven hopped down from the rock and examined the ointment that Agani prepared.
“How will you know a god from a Bear?”
“I will know.”
“It is unwise to try to become something you’re not,” Raven said, and flew away.
On the third day Agani woke with the dawn. He cut off his hair and hid his braid under a rock for safe-keeping, so that he would be able to assume his true form when this was over. He ran a blade over his scalp until only uneven stubble remained.
Raven returned and sat again on the rock. Agani ignored him.
Another raven came alighted in a nearby tree, followed by another, and another, until the branches were heavy with birds. But still more came until they surrounded Agani’s small camp, and Raven moved from his rock and joined with them, so that he could not be distinguished from his brothers. All at once they gave their call, so loud it hurt Agani’s ears, and then they erupted into the air, still calling. Above the noise Agani heard Raven ask again:
“How will you know?”
Agani rubbed his body with the ointment, leaving no part of himself untouched. It burned his eyes and nostrils, and tasted bitter on his lips. He longed to cover himself in dust and scrape it off, but he continued until even the soles of his feet were covered. He mingled a strand of his hair with the fur of a bear in a bowl of carved stone. He burned the mingled hair on a small coal from his fire. He breathed in the acrid smoke, and when nothing was left but ashes and soot, he dipped his finger into it and drew the spell down his arms and legs, over his heart, and finally on his brow. Then he lay down on the hard earth under a moonless sky and slept.
When he woke his head was full of pain and his nose was assaulted by unfamiliar scents. In his Bear-mind he struggled to make sense of them. There, the mineral smell of clear running water; there, the alarming scent of smoke lingering from his own fire. All around him, other animals—the oily scents of deer, squirrel, porcupine.
Agani rose and walked off on four legs into the woods, in search of the Bear God. He left his knives behind; he could not use them, but his claws were sharp as daggers and his teeth as deadly.
Birds evacuated the forest in a panicked flurry of wings as Agani-Bear approached. The insects ceased their buzz and hum; squirrels bolted for the safety of the highest boughs. The whole forest sensed the strangeness of him. Only Raven did not flee. He watched Agani-Bear from a broken branch. He said nothing, but Agani-Bear could feel his doubt and disapproval. It worried at him like a thorn, the presence of the silent judge.
He reared up on his powerful hind legs and bellowed, “I WILL KNOW,” but the words of Agani were lost in the roar of Bear. “I will know,” he tried to say again. The growl that came from his throat sounded uncertain. He dropped to four legs again and set off deeper into the woods.
It is difficult to be a quiet bear. Agani found this to be true with every step he took. The cubs, when he came upon them in the clearing, also found it to be true; even in the unnatural quiet they tumbled and rolled through the fallen leaves, kicking sprays of them high into the air. Three cubs: one black, one chestnut, and one pale as river sand.
Agani watched the cubs closely. At first the sandy cub grunted and tumbled with his brothers, but he became aware of their observer and quit the game. He sat up on his haunches and looked quizzically at Agani-Bear; the cub had a look of intelligence, and, Agani thought, of wisdom. Something more than a Bear.
He longed for his knives; he was unpracticed with his claws and the first cub died screaming in the tangled mess of his own hide and entrails. The second, the black cub, was easier, though no more elegant, lifted into the air between Agani-bear’s giant paws and dashed on the rocks. Its broken body looked so small, and the little tongue protruding gave Agani a moment of doubt, but then he remembered the prayers sung and the offerings on the fire, not for him, but for Bear.
The sandy cub had not moved, had not run, had not made a sound. He only looked at Agani as if to ask why—a question no mere animal would ever consider. Agani dispatched the sand-colored cub with a savage slash across the throat.
It had been easier than he expected, but Agani was tired. He looked forward to shaking off this cumbersome body and enjoying again the songs and dances of the people.
His braid lay in the depression where he had left it. He hooked it with one curved claw and let the stone fall back in place. He carried it in his teeth to the shore of the river and waited for the waxing moon to shine its first light on it and restore him.
It is difficult to be a quiet bear, but the female surprised him as he stretched and gloried in his true form. She lifted him high into the air with her powerful forelegs and dropped him onto the rocky ground. Her eyes were black and wide with fury, and Agani knew his mistake when the Bear Goddess roared a curse in his face, her breath hot, withering, and foul.
Agani drew his dagger from his belt just as her heavy paw again smashed into him like a stone. Her claws sliced through his face as easily as a knife skins a plum. He looked up at the towering, frenzied Bear through the blood that streamed from his wounds, and with all his strength drove the dagger into her heart.
This is how Agani came to be known as Slayer of Alien Gods, the name that would forever define him.
Now none may look on Agani’s ruined face, not even the gods themselves. He wears a mask made from the blackened hide of the Bear Goddess. And he is even angrier than he was before.
The old woman carefully removes the curved knife from its soft leather wrapping. It is made from a bear claw, as long as the woman’s hand from wrist to fingertip, and sharpened to a point.
“This is why on your twelfth birthday your father would have anointed you with fat and soot, and you would feel the pain that Agani felt as the bear claw is pushed through your face, and you stop being one thing—a girl—and become another—a woman.”
“I am only nine.”
“Yes,” she says sadly, “but your father is here now, and he won’t be when you are twelve.” She lifts the girl’s chin up with a strong but gentle hand. “And you are already braver than girls many years older than you.” She pinches the girl’s lower lip hard, and the girl knew fear. “Agani tried to become something he was not, and could not tell a bear from a god. We do this to remind us that we do not know more than we know and cannot be more than we are.”
Almost faster than she can believe, it is over—the sharpened point of the claw punches through her flesh; blood runs down her chin and pools in the dirt. “We do it to warn against anger, jealousy, and hate.” Another sharp pain and the smooth, small piece of bone is in place, a bright blue stone embedded in the end.
“Prayer is the most important thing to the gods, isn’t it?” she asks. Her lower lip is swollen, and speech is difficult, but she wants to understand.
“Yes, prayer is to the gods as food and water are to the People.”
“So wasn’t it right that Agani killed Bear? Wouldn’t the gods have died if he hadn’t?”
The old woman’s jaw tenses beneath the soft lines of age.
“You have heard the story too soon. You will understand when you are older.” She wipes the drying blood off the girl’s chin and looks at the sky. “We haven’t much time. I will tell you the second story of Agani.”
You know of the cruelty of the Otrava—they were less than human; the death of an enemy was not enough for them. This is because their goddess fed on pain the way that our gods feed on dance and prayer. All gods survive on the love of their people, and for the goddess of the Otrava, pain was love.
So when the sun baked the life out of the land, we danced to appease the gods; when the sky remained clear and the rains did not come, the Otrava made war on the People. There were more of them, and they were fierce and deadly fighters. There were few of us left of fighting age; most of our men and women killed or captured, staked to the ground and brutalized for the pleasure of their goddess.
Our gods wept for our losses. They were afraid, also—afraid that with none left alive to worship them, they would return to the dreamless dark and perhaps never again awake, which is as fearful to a god as death. They begged Agani, the Slayer of Alien Gods, to help them—and so did we, dancing the ritual of darkness and despair, of outrage and anger, the godsworn priest in his black mask like Agani’s crying out so that even the creatures in their burrows felt it in their bones. It was enough to give Agani strength, and he set out toward the Otrava lands.
The goddess’s messengers are the wasps and bees, the humming stinging things of the air. It would be difficult to reach her without her knowing and impossible to surprise her and cut her down swiftly. The goddess must come to him. So Agani set a trap, a trap so sweet that a creature who thrived on pain could not resist.
Agani sat on a hilltop on the edge of the Otrava lands. With a long, thin blade he sliced into his flesh and made a cut up the side of each leg, deep and long, and let his blood run out upon the ground. He did the same to his chest, and each of his arms, leaving his wounds open wide. He bound his ankles with leather thongs to stakes he drove into the ground, and bound one wrist the same—for the remaining hand he asked Badger for help, and Badger took the leather cord in his teeth and tugged it tight.
Badger took all but one of Agani’s knives and hid them in his burrow. The last—the smallest and sharpest, curved like the hook of Badger’s claw—remained hidden beneath Agani’s bound wrist.
This goddess had such a taste for the suffering of others that pain sang to her and blood smelled to her like the nectar of the sweetest flower. Agani’s pain floated in the air and drew her up from her valley, where she found him, bound and bleeding, his wounds open like the mouth of a lover, waiting for her kiss.
Even in his suffering he could see that she was very beautiful, with eyes the color of rich honey and skin as smooth as river rock. She laughed in delight as her wasps descended on him, cutting away pieces of his flesh and stinging him over and over while his body writhed from the pain of it.
She probed his pain like a butterfly probes a flower, delicate fingers prying open his skin, hot tongue searing his flesh. He endured this agony, praying silently for the strength to hold on until the goddess’s desire overcame her sense.
Her fingers painted crimson lines down his mask and throat, and she toyed with the laces that tied it tightly to his scalp and hid his ruined face. She whispered words of longing as she took in his pain, and her eyes became soft with desire. “Hold me, lover,” she said and untied his wrists even as she tore his flesh with her teeth. “Come to me, your bride.”
He reached as if to touch her face, and the leather cord fell away, leaving a raw, seeping ring where it had cut into his flesh. She did not see the knife in his hand.
She died in ecstasy, never knowing she had been betrayed.
He had done what the gods had asked of him, but Agani was not satisfied. He closed his wounds with porcupine quills, piercing the flesh on each side, crossing the quills to hold it tight. The wasps still harrowed him, confused and without direction. He lifted the body of the goddess in his arms and walked all day to the Otrava village.
This is what the Otrava heard:
A hum, low at first, so subtle, so much a part of the air itself that at first they were uncertain that they heard anything at all. Then the sound rose in pitch, and they could feel the thrum of it, the dizzying vibration of it in their blood, in their eyes. As the sound grew louder they felt in their marrow, in their guts—their stomachs revolted and their bowels betrayed them.
This is what the Otrava saw:
A faceless monster with a head of blackened hide, whose arms, legs, and torso bristled with spines, carrying the figure of a dead woman, attended by swarms of every flying stinging thing he had passed on his journey. They swirled around him like smoke and flame, and as he approached they filled the air that stank of shit and vomit. The air was so thick with them that the people were afraid to breathe. They flailed in fear, angering the insects, which sought out the warm tender places: mouth, nostrils, groin.
Agani carried their dead goddess to the center of the village and left her there in the dirt, while her people swelled and turned black with poison and died all around her, too late to save her or themselves with their offering of pain.
Agani stumbled back out of the village, near to death himself. He fell to the ground and crawled, dragging himself as far as he could, hoping that the Gods would find him and spare him, for all that he had done for our people.
Agani was on the precipice of death....
“But Agani is a god,” the girl interrupts. “He cannot die.”
“Agani was once a man,” the old woman says. “But that is a story that is too dangerous to tell.”
The girl realizes that she has stumbled upon a secret.
She looks up at her dead father in the light of the setting sun and wishes that she could bring the wasps down on the people who killed him.
“Do you know it?” the girl asks.
The old woman does not answer; only studies the girl for a moment with her watery eyes and then continues.
Agani was on the precipice of death as his life’s blood drained from his open wounds, now ragged from the attentions of the wasps. He could not sit up, he could not see the treetops above him, or the sky—only the edge of the cliff of life, and the chasm of death below.
The gods came to him, and said: “Agani, we hear the cries of dying children. What have you done?”
“Saved our own children,” he answered.
“Agani, we hear the screams of suffering women. What have you done?”
“Spared our own women,” he answered.
“Agani, we hear the voices of a nation falling into eternal silence. What have you done?”
“Only what you should have done,” he said, and the gods turned their backs on him and left him to heal or die in his arrogance and pride.
“Agani seduced and betrayed the goddess, and a nation died. Seduction and betrayal even among the People can poison and destroy a community, as it did the Otrava. This is why on your wedding day you will feel the sting of the wasp, so that you may never feel the sting of your husband’s betrayal, and the poison of it will never harm the People,” the old woman concludes.
The girl has not thought of taking a husband and does not understand the meaning of such a betrayal. That is many years away. The part that she does understand worries at her, and while she knows she should keep silent, she cannot.
“Agani only did what the gods asked him to do,” the girl says. “He saved the People from the Otrava. Why did the gods leave him? Why do we not pray to Agani, who saved us all?”
The sting of the old woman’s hand as it strikes her face brings sharp tears to the girl’s eyes.
When the old woman speaks again, there is a new edge to her voice, a high note that was not there before. To the girl it sounds like fear.
“The sun has nearly set. Hear the third tale in silence.”
It was the last of Agani’s great feats that caused him to be outcast, cursed forever to walk our world, never again allowed among the gods. Agani’s curse is our own, for now he turns his rage against us.
Agani’s wounds were too great, and his will was gone. He went down into the earth and waited for the starless night to come. But instead of the end to pain that he longed for, Agani suffered visions of mortal death and decay, of corruption and horror, of desiccation and rot. The visions tormented him, and Agani cursed the gods for abandoning him and hated the People for worshipping them.
He woke in autumn sunlight. A full season had passed. Even Death had rejected him—but from his visions he had learned much and had gained power that none should possess.
His wounds had healed, but his mind was broken.
Agani had tried the gods’ patience; always misguided, always proud, always seeking to be greater than they were, wanting always the gods’ place in the hearts of men. He believed he had earned that place; he believed that he had done right while the gods stood by and did nothing. His resentment and jealousy consumed him.
When the People met the enemy in battle at Three Lakes, we prayed as have always prayed, for victory and the lives of our warriors. Agani watched from the shore, the names of the gods crackling like hot coals in his ear. The battle was hot and fierce, and many of both nations died.
Dawn came and with it came the survivors, ours from the North and theirs from the South, to gather the dead and face the enemy as honorable people must. The Earth did not care whose blood painted the ground red; the blind and empty eyes that stared up at the rising sun belonged as much to their people as to ours.
On this field of pain came the wife of a fallen warrior. She closed her husband’s eyes, washed his body and prepared the litter on which she would carry him back to the village. Her bent back was still strong enough for this saddest of duties, the last thing she would ever do for her mate. As she bound his hands together with red cloth, her eyes met the eyes of another woman across the meadow doing the same. The woman was bent as she was bent; she grieved as she grieved, and she saw not the wife of the enemy, not the woman who had cooked for the man who had killed her husband, but only her sister in pain.
Agani saw that they had forgotten their hatred. The people had forgotten that they had lost this battle. They had forgotten how they had called on the gods and the gods had not spared them—these broken, bloodless bodies, hacked and spattered across the meadow.
He hated the gods, and he hated us.
The women fell back to tending their own dead and did not notice when the first chalky body rose from the ground on unsteady legs, its head lolling to one side. They did not see the second, as it lifted its head from where it had lain face down, or see its black eyes snap open—unseeing smoky holes in the mask of mud that covered its face.
The dead man lurched toward the living, and others began to rise. Their wounds from battle were horrifying to see, and their eyes looked nowhere, but they turned toward our people as if they could see their loved ones or smell them as the animals do. Soon a battlefield of risen dead stood and faced the people, their hands on their weapons, on spears and knives, axes and stones. The grotesque army of Agani’s puppets began to walk. Their families screamed and ran for their lives, chased back into the forest by the very people they had come to mourn. And the enemy, seeing this, grew bold and chased them too, shouting their anger and grief at the retreating backs of our people.
But this was not the end. The dead turned back, and as the enemy survivors followed them into the forest, the dead struck them down, while Agani laughed.
When nothing was left alive beside the Three Lakes, the dead went into the hills, where the enemy lived. The enemy was afraid at the sight of the lurching dead, and they prayed to their own gods to save them. The mouths of the dead opened, and they spoke, saying, “Pray to Agani, greatest of all the gods,” before they struck down all who remained.
“And this is why when our people die we send their spirits into the afterlife on the smoke of the pyre: so that Agani cannot raise our own against us.
“We tell this story to remind us that all nations grieve, all nations feel loss, all widows mourn their husbands, and somewhere there is a girl like you who misses her father.”
The old woman stirs the fire as the last rays of the sun disappear behind the hills. “It is the burden of all men and women to know these stories, to understand them and keep them safe. It is a much heavier burden for a child such as yourself, who has not known your first blood. But you are marked now as one braver than the rest: you are a woman before your time, and you will light the pyre. Your father’s spirit will go safely into the next world and dwell there forever, and it is your honor and your duty to send him there.”
She has listened with the all dutiful attention she can manage, but something about the stories troubles her.
“But Agani always did what was right,” she says. “He did those things to protect us.”
“Agani took matters into his own hands, child. He did not heed the wisdom of the gods. He thought he knew better than they did. He rebelled, and so he was outcast. This teaches us to listen to our elders, and always heed their counsel.”
But they were wrong, she thinks. Why should he heed them if they were wrong? But she can still feel the heat where the old woman struck her before, and this time she does not speak.
Her father’s body lays on the pyre, still and ashen, his arms resting at his sides, his knife on his chest, wildflowers tucked amidst the kindling so that it almost looks as if he floats on a cloud of petals, already on his way. She thinks that she would give anything to see him sit up and smile again, to reach for her and call her by her name—even if it is only Agani playing a trick, even if her father were only a puppet.
The girl touches the torch to the pyre, and the air fills with the scent of burning pitch and blossoms. She watches the flames rise, and her father’s body disappears behind them.
She thinks about how she begged the gods to not let her father die, and how they did not answer.
She thinks about the story that is too dangerous to tell, and wonders if the old woman could tell a girl from a god.
Unheard in the crackle of the fire, she whispers a prayer to the only god who matters.
In answer, from a distance: the roar of a bear.