Women in Sandstone

Issue #145

“Your mouth is hanging open like a bell,” the South-East Wind said.  “I wonder, if the wind blows between your teeth, will you clang or chime?”

The general tore her gaze from the temple’s walls.  The tall wine-dark plume on her silver helmet bobbed and swayed in the North Wind | I blow through it and it is like the grass near a battlefield: heavy with the smells of burning and blood and bones | and then it tilted as she removed the helmet, revealing her hair—long and black with white running through it like embroidery, fastened in four thick braids—and the extent of her dark, scarred face.  “I wish to honor your great temple,” she said.

| I blow through the bells, I blow through them all, all thousands upon thousands, I bring them all to song and it is loud and perfect |

The general barely flinched at the sound of the North Wind blowing across the temple’s bells, though she looked up again, wary.  The South-East Wind smiled. 

“Has your military training included work with sandstone?”

“No,” the general said.

“Follow me,” the South-East Wind said, and beckoned the general through the temple’s old doors to the bare, bell-less interior.

| I blow down from the mountains, where stones are stacked in figures for me to scream between: thick limbs full of holes, hundreds together—or one figure apart, tucked in a gully, its holes as numerous as the bones of the empty desert, as graceful as those rib-arcs, as sturdy as a pelvis.  I blow the winged women of the Aĝir people into the snowstorms where they test their strength.  I blow out the fires of foolish foragers, their fur matted with mud.  I blow into the faces of the Saqnaga foxes, their ears thronged with beads.  I blow between the glass spires of the desert city In-barash and devour the meals left on its high roofs.  I blow from temple to temple.  I blow— |

Berenike removed her breastplate with its gold embossing: a woman, heroically nude, stabbing a lion that reared on its hind legs.  It clanged as she set it against the wall—with her helmet, her greaves, her javelin, her small bag. 

The South-East Wind took her to a subterranean room, where river water rushed through thin channels and clothes were set out, and let her turn the channels murky with sweat and dust—then brought her back to the main chamber, where, in her damp clean tunic, she ate the temple’s food: eggs and dates, small sweet lemons, and fish from the river that ran here between the barren hills and the great desert.  The day’s light reached them through apertures in the lower walls of the temple, orange with approaching sunset.

“Are you not curious about the names of your visitors?” Berenike asked.

“I know yours, General Berenike—who led the left flank at the battle of Norete, who carried a shield embossed with a map of the world’s mountains, who vies for control of the land left leaderless when your conquering ruler died.  I know, also, that your horse starved two weeks ago in the hills to the south of this temple, and that you survived this far by eating it.”

Berenike filled her bowl.  “What do you not know?”

“Why you are not afraid of the men crossing the hills after you.”

“Ah.”  Eggshell fell away under her fingers.  She ate the egg in two big bites, then chose a skewer of fish.  “How far are they?”

“A week’s walk,” the South-East Wind said.  “Their horses are dying.  Their water is running lower than yours was—they might yet become bones for winds to blow through.”

“I won’t count on that, not yet.  Metron is among them, no doubt.  And Derdos.”

“Yes.”  The South-East Wind had not blown through those hills since becoming the guardian of the temple for this period, but the South Wind blew there / where the bones drift into gullies like the snow that falls in other lands and I can call through them in a hundred voices, like lizards, like foxes, like men, like horses, like all the animals that have ventured into this barren place and found nothing but the bones of other animals, long emptied of their marrow, the only sustenance in a land where rain never falls and mist never drifts and the bone-shrub must blow from carcass to carcass / and the South-East Wind knew much of what the winds saw. 

Knew, too, that the men following Berenike would later die between temples; their flesh food for the foxes, their bones instruments for the wind.  Berenike would call that the future.  The winds saw such things all at once.

“I do not want to bring war to you,” Berenike said.  “I would dedicate to your temple and be on my way before those men arrive, if that is possible.”

“The deaths of mortals hardly affect us.”

That brought a smile to the general’s chapped lips.  “Still.”

“We will begin tomorrow.”

Berenike slept by her amour and javelin, cushioned by the temple’s blankets, with a knife not far from her hand.  Her dreams were full of winds.

“This is what you will dedicate,” the South-East Wind said.

Berenike crouched to examine the thigh-high pinnacle of sandstone, brought from the desert by the South-East Wind.  “I will carve this?”

“Yes.  Then forge the bell.  Then place the figure on the temple’s walls.  It does not matter how crude or beautiful your work is, only that it is personal: a true gift to the temple.  You may practice on smaller pieces of sandstone if you wish, to gain familiarity with the material, but it is not necessary.”

“No,” Berenike murmured—but she did not ask for the tools until an hour had passed.

Berenike carved a figure simple in form, its whole body a smooth shape like a stele, legless; a suggestion of arms only just discernable at its side.  The South-East Wind had seen and blown among hundreds of these.

But Berenike lingered on the figure’s chest.  First she carved small breasts, shaped as though bound for fighting.  Then she used the edge of a broken stator to groove jewelry from neck to navel.  Her sure hand spoke of memory, not invention.  Ovals and circles appeared to hang on thin lines.  Jewels?  Metal?  Between the breasts hung a large disc, detailed with birds.  Smaller discs at the ends of the thin lines depicted a woman’s profile, her hair bound in braids but more complicated than Berenike’s. 

The South-East Wind stepped closer, curious.

“My mother’s jewelry,” Berenike said, in a hard voice.  “Or so I am told.”

In the head, Berenike hollowed out a mouth—a space for the bell—gouging, into the roof of the mouth, a hook.

Eyeless, noseless, earless it remained—but Berenike carved four long braids down its back.  Around its head she carved a band.  The South-East Wind supposed that usually the headband would be patterned with embroidery or metal discs, but Berenike filled it with her letters in four lines.

“That will wear away,” the South-East Wind finally said.  “We winds are not gentle.”

“If I write of myself on a hundred surfaces, only one will survive the winds, or the rain, or the masons of the future.  Only one.  Perhaps two.  Three.”  Berenike stood, finished.  “I must write of myself on five hundred surfaces.  Then I will be remembered.”

It was Berenike that the South-East Wind now looked at, amused.

“Do I make the bell now?” Berenike asked.

“Yes.”

“With what?”

“Those that can, give some metal of theirs: an heirloom, a weapon, coins.”  The South-East Wind glanced at Berenike’s amour. 

“I have coins,” Berenike said.  “How many for a bell to fit the mouth of my figure?”

“Ten, perhaps.  It will depend on their size.”

Berenike nodded and walked to the amour and her small bag.  From it she took a clinking pouch.

“Silver stators,” she said, holding them in her palms for the South-East Wind to see.  “From my own issue.”

The woman’s head on the obverse of these coins wore a helmet—the same plumed helmet resting against the wall—with thick curls of hair over her forehead.  Her long braids hung at the back of her neck.  On the reverse, the coins depicted a seated god and two words: King and Berenike.

“You should not judge me by these,” Berenike said.  “They are clumsily made, but they are mine.”

“They are fitting,” the South-East Wind said.

“One day I will wear the diadem and sit on a throne.”

“Is that so?”  The South-East Wind knew how quickly mortals’ aspirations turned to bones in the desert—like the man whose hair Berenike’s coin mimicked, with those short curls above his eyes that Berenike, whose hair was straight, did not possess. 

“It will be so.  Where do I make the bell?”

“Follow me.”

The forge sat at the other side of a courtyard, away from the main temple building.  Under the awning of dried palm leaves, the South-East Wind directed Berenike in heating the charcoal and melting the coins, in choosing the mould for her bell, in pouring the glowing-orange silver.  Berenike stood in silence as the bell set.  When it was ready, she attached it to the hook in the figure’s mouth with a slim length of cloth.

The South-East wind led Berenike up stairs inside the temple’s wall, up, up, to the highest door.  Berenike’s detailed work deserved that honor.  

Together they stepped out—but Berenike stopped, staring, at the ankle-high, knee-high, life-size figures surrounding her, carved and blown smooth by the wind, and the bells, gleaming and dull, chiming, tinkling, ringing, banging in over a thousand mouths as the little winds of the temple played through them.  The figures clustered on the sloping pinnacle of the temple.  They stood scattered around the high walls; they covered the lower walls, all the way to the ground, far below.  They filled Berenike’s eyes.

Her figure, held in her arms, began to chime, its bell high, strong.

“Follow me,” the South-East Wind said, and Berenike did, on a well-worn way between the figures like a sheep-trail on a mountainside.

The North Wind gusted suddenly past, bringing all the bells to song.  Berenike flinched—it was so much louder among the bells than at the temple’s door, so loud that no other sound could be heard—but did not try to put her hands to her ears.  A general of many battles knew cacophony.

“Here,” the South-East Wind said, in a quiet lull.

They stood by a narrow rectangle hollowed into the wall: a perfect fit for Berenike’s figure.  Berenike knelt.  The South-East Wind had told her to make mortar.  It took some effort to push the figure into place—but then it stood, fixed by the mortar, unshaken by the North Wind’s final gusts, its bell chiming, chiming.  Berenike touched the fingers of one hand to her lips and bowed her head: not a gesture of honor her mother would have recognized, but the one her hands knew from childhood lessons.

The North Wind blew elsewhere.  Little winds of the temple returned, playing in turn ~ see how it is so full of strength, see, see ~ with the new bell.

Berenike roamed across the wall, admiring the figures, then continuing, looking, looking—and the South-East Wind knew what she would find.  Knew the life-size figure with the bell of gold.  Knew, from the North Wind | I blow across the face of a man who goes tirelessly into the desert | blowing long ago, of his journey.

The South-East Wind sat in front of Berenike’s figure.

| I blow across temples with walls of blue and white, such images for a wind to savor, such variety, nestled in oases where the water flicks at their supporting struts like a fish’s tongue |

From the South-East Wind’s mouth came the south-east wind \ rushing, a high whistling \ and the bell rang longer, longer.

As they descended the stairs in the temple’s wall, Berenike asked of the lands beyond the temple: the endless desert and the temples within it.

“It is not endless,” the South-East Wind said.

“Where I have lived, we say that it is where the world ends.”

The South-East Wind smiled.  “There is the rest of the world beyond it.  First you will find mountains, rising from the desert, and in their heights live the snowchangers, who still sing the arias of the long-dead Aĝir women.”

“I have never heard of them,” Berenike said, with quiet wonder in her voice.

“And they have never heard of you.”  So it would surely remain.  The South-East Wind gestured Berenike to the table, where the general gratefully received another meal.  The sun’s light was orange again, thick with the end of the day. 

“It is strange,” Berenike said, while squeezing a lemon over her fish and eggs, “to think of the many places where even my name will not be known.”

“Tell me, truly, why are you here?” the South-East Wind asked.

“My fortune has wavered, has it not?”  Berenike smiled: a tight gesture, like the final stretching of a bowstring before its release.  “I come to offer supplication and sacrifices to the gods of this land, to see if they will favor me as the gods I know clearly do not.”

“We winds are not like the gods of your land, prone to assisting mortals.”

“You are only one wind,” Berenike said.  “I hear there are at least fifty.”  Fish bones piled under her steady fingers.  She spoke as if of the price of grain or the location of high ground; as if of an army’s organization.

The South-East Wind saw a great number of things: | I blow between the glass spires of the city In-barash and shatter them, I blow heavy and sharp, I scratch the bell-mouthed figures | from the scarred cheek of Berenike’s wind-worn figure after a storm thirty years beyond this moment to | I blow with a storm wind, tangled like braids | desert weather and / they stumble from the barren hills, their lips dry with the dust of a thousand bones, their hair thick with it, their tongues still alive, their voices still capable of demanding, at the bell-loud door, the location of the general who trod before them / visitors : the foxes offer one of their beadless young in return for shelter between the bell-figures : and ~ poor bell-less thing, how does it sing? ~ a future visitor \ over her chest she wears an ornament of silver and carnelian, tipped in bells, each ringing in me with a different note \ but not everything.  Not Berenike’s destination.

What a wind saw was as unpredictable as its path.

“How far is it to the next temple?” Berenike asked.

“Four days’ walk.  Directly north.  I advise you to walk at night—”

“By the stars.”  More eggshells joined the fish bones.  “May I replenish my water skins here?”

“Yes.”

“Then I will set off tonight.  I thank you for your hospitality.”

“I thank you for honoring this temple.”

Wearing her breastplate and greaves once more, carrying her javelin and several skins of water, the general Berenike walked from the temple when the moon filled the bell-mouthed figures with silver shadows.

\ she crouches in front of the sandstone figure, her short hair catching the south-east wind, and examines its chest with the intensity of a person reading even though there are no words there, just the jewelry-lines so like the jewelry on her own chest \

The South-East Wind watched Berenike, frowning with un-sated curiosity.

~ The North Wind blows through the bells and it is loud, loud, loud, too loud for us to endure, too loud to remain, too strong. The North Wind abates and—oh, it is our quieter ringing that is heard then, it is the play of the smaller winds, it is—

Words?  Not on the figure’s bell, no, that is smooth silver, so full of strength, but on the body, the beautiful body—they are never beautiful, they are never secretly a woman—women, two women—three: a palimpsest of women, mother under daughter, granddaughter like a scarf around them both.  Words run around her—their—head like a game for a twisting wind.

I play, I play, I play.

Who is this Berenike? 

Victorious general of the battle of Norete, besieger of Tel Garat, founder of Berenikia.  Daughter of Kesty, of the women who live across the sea of grass, and of Ariston, a Makad, who met in paid service fighting for the conqueror Kandros, who both fell in the battle at the river of milk.

Who is this Mirtun who places her name at the figure’s base? ~

The winds raced around Berenike.  The moon-silver desert stretched out, marked with dry, thin-stemmed plants and the stone-filled gullies of flash floods and, always on the horizon, never closer, the darting forms of foxes.  They stopped moving just long enough to look over their shoulders at Berenike : in my West Wind body I tie bells the size of fleas to the offered fox’s ears so that it is as close to its beaded cousins as a temple upbringing can manage : before running on, chasing rats or frogs or each other.  Their huge heavy ears flapped in the winds.  Their yips punctuated the winds’ susurrus on the sands.

: it is true that the Saqnaga foxes hide their beading underground, where even the winds cannot reach, so that none know how they create the beads and tie them to the short hairs of their ears :

Berenike considered whether she could get one with her javelin. 

Deciding against the attempt, for now, she ate two of the dried fish that the South-East Wind had given her and sipped at one of her water skins.  The South-East Wind had described the small watery night-flowers of the artiq plant, saying that they had saved several travelers in the desert—and adding that they were so rare that many missed them. 

It would not be a comfortable march, but Berenike had experienced far worse.  At just five years old, in the baggage train of Kandros’s army, she had survived the desert of Šammuramat.  At seventeen, after her second battle, the disaster of Kuš, she had fled into the high mountains where people with partridge bodies were rumored to live and had drunk the blood of an ibex to stay alive.  At twenty-three, at twenty-eight, at thirty, at thirty-five—the decades since Kandros’s disappearance had been a chaos of victories and defeats, riches and privation, joy and fear.  Some of the older soldiers told of unending victories with Kandros, of enemies falling like wheat under the scythe.  Berenike listened, never speaking her doubts: that these were just stories. 

A single memory of Kandros: in the desert of Šammuramat, how Berenike had rushed forward to the single stream they had found and scooped water in a greave, her mother’s, the only item left to her when the soldiers divided her battle-slain parents’ spoils.  She had sipped carefully from the narrower end.  “See that little girl,” Kandros, standing nearby, had said.  “She is the future of our army.”

Berenike’s soldiers liked that story.

They had followed her to fortune in the past five years, to success in battle and to the stability of Berenikia, to further conquest.  Then Lysikos had claimed those lands, claimed their city—her city. 

Berenike kept walking, though her body wanted rest and more food than a pair of dried fish; though the sun started to rise, sending the foxes underground.  Eventually she found a gully with an overhang of rock and slept there, sweating in the shade.  At dusk, she returned to her feet.

There were no foxes.

: there are nights when they never emerge from their dens, when no winds know what they do :

Smaller winds spun in the sand, waist-high.

( it’s very sweet that you think that )

: am I to believe winds that are born and die in a moment? :

( can’t you hear them? )

( singing, singing! )

( oh, you don’t know that foxes can talk? )

( truly? )

A fierce gust scattered the spinning sands.  Berenike shivered: certain, for a moment, that someone was shouting all around her.

: I admit that I imagine, sometimes, the foxes gathered in their dens, beading one another’s ears and sharing tales old and new :

No foxes emerged for the entirety of the night, nor the next, nor during the hot day following that, in which Berenike walked under the sun knowing that she drew close to her destination.

: I wonder how the bell-eared fox fared in those first months when it returned to the desert, its time at the temple done :

Berenike smelled the oasis before she saw it.  The wind blew sweetly around her, suddenly green and fresh, and Berenike quickened her pace—and then, over a rocky rise, saw the tops of date palms, and the circling of a pair of water birds, and the tall temple, covered in blue and white images unidentifiable at this distance.

: I wonder what tales it told to its bead-eared cousins :

The sweet wind stilled as she walked among the foliage towards the temple.

A wind did not live in this temple.  It was inhabited by human guardians: a pair of women, who Berenike found wrestling at the edge of the oasis.  Their muscular arms and backs gleamed with sweat.  Their grunts accompanied the oasis-winds among the palm leaves, the high cries of birds, the whine of insects.  Berenike watched approvingly.

“Oh!” one suddenly exclaimed.  “A visitor!”  They broke apart, grinning. “Welcome to the Iṣranah temple.”

“Welcome!” said the other.

“I am glad to be here,” Berenike said.  “I come to honor your temple.”

“Then we, too, are glad that you are here.  I am Iriṣ.”

“I’m Hatah.  Do you want to wash first?  You must be sweaty and dusty.  We’ve got some water here for drinking as well.”

Berenike gladly drank from the clay vessel, which was shaped like a smaller version of the temple, then stripped off her clothes and joined the women in the oasis.  The feeling of fresh water against her skin brought a sigh of pleasure to her lips.  Iriṣ and Hatah combed each other’s dark hair, then swam to the water lilies growing across the lagoon to draw up the long thin stems: a small harvest, a fraction of the plants coating that part of the oasis with green and soft pink.  Berenike watched hungrily.

Cleaned and clothed, the three women carried water together to the temple, to be boiled for cooking and drinking.

The temple stood tall and sturdy on the shore, like a vast and beautifully decorated post: blue and white rising out of the greens and browns of the oasis foliage.  Steps angled around the temple’s exterior.  Berenike craned her neck, seeing the images more clearly now: an array of unidentifiable creatures, part human, part constructed, part animal, part wind, all flying in swirls and gusts that were—Berenike squinted—each made of countless tiny creatures.

“Do you paint the walls?” she asked as they climbed the many steps to the door.

“Yes,” Iriṣ said.  “We renew them often.  It is our greatest offering to the winds.”

They led Berenike inside, where sunlight filtered through small square gaps in the brick walls, arranged in the shapes of animals.  Hatah set a pot of water to boiling, then hurried outside.  Iriṣ cleaned the water lily stems in another pot of boiling water.  A short while later, Hatah returned with six eggs and a trio of apricots.

Berenike’s mouth started to water.

As they shared the meal, Iriṣ asked about Berenike’s journey.  Berenike recounted only parts of it.  The two women only saw—or heard, or felt, or experienced—the blowing of the wind they had each been married to: Iriṣ to the West Wind, who was fond of the desert foxes, she said while smiling with a fondness of her own, and Hatah to the North-West Wind, who blew from a sea far to the north-west, where the ghosts of whales swam in the bitter black water.  Berenike found it refreshing, after the South-East Wind at the temple of the bells, to talk with people who did not know everything.

“We were each married to a wind as children,” Iriṣ explained as Berenike chewed on the sweet lily stems.  “Our lives are spent guarding this temple—or another of the temples of the great desert.  If guardians do not enjoy one another’s company, they obviously cannot live together.”

“We’ve managed thirty years,” Hatah said, coiling a length of Iriṣ’ dark hair around her finger.

“Yes.”  Iriṣ pretended to bite Hatah’s finger.  Hatah leaned forward and kissed her on the lips.

“Marriage to a wind does not prevent you from enjoying human pleasures, then,” Berenike said.

Hatah laughed. 

“The winds do not care how we spend our time,” Iriṣ said, “as long as the temple remains beautiful and all other honors are given to them.”

“Besides,” Hatah said, “some of us need to have children.”

“My sister has four,” Iriṣ said.  “One each from different visitors to her temple.”

“How long have these temples been here?”

“Oh, the oases shift,” Iriṣ said, “some going dry, some opening like lilies, so that each temple has only been in its current location for hundreds of years, but there have been temples in this desert for thousands of years.  There have been offerings for longer—for as long as there have been people here.  That is a very long time.”

“And before there were people?”

“There were no winds,” Iriṣ said.  “How could there be?”

Berenike knew this story; it had drifted across the hills and towns and harbors until it reached her, a girl learning a warrior’s skills, and when years later her city was taken by Lysikos she had followed it, like one of a pair of snakes leading her across the desert.

“What do you mean by that?” she asked.

“Without people, the winds cannot be as they are,” was all that Iriṣ said, smiling over the last of the water lily stems.  “Now, it will be sunset soon.  You should prepare an offering.”

“Yes.  What must I do?”

“The West Wind is blowing here at the moment and prefers food: a fruit, a poem.  You must pick the first and compose the second.”

Iriṣ and Hatah showed Berenike where to find fruit.  Then, on learning that she could write, they gave her a metal stylus and paper made of dried palm leaf and left her on the steps of the temple. 

Berenike wrote a poem of war: women riding into battle, with winds in their long braids.

“You must give your offering to the wind on the temple’s roof,” Hatah said.

“It is dangerous to linger there,” Iriṣ said.  “Place your food, then leave.”

“I will.”

She climbed the steps.  She trod on the flat, un-patterned roof: five paces, ten, a bow to place her offering.

The wind tugged at her skin.  It hurt; like a hundred fingernails trying to pry her skin free. 

Breathing sharply, she turned and hurried to the stairs, to the temple’s cool, quiet, still interior.  There, the three women passed the night with wrestling and caresses, shouting often with joy.  There, they slept through the next day.

In the cooling evening, she left, with water lily stems and more dried fish and boiled eggs still in their shells and a live—for now—chicken.  With no sign of her pursuers at her rear, she walked north, to the next temple.

\ the woman speaks names into the winds: Kesty and Mirtun, the sandstone figure’s, and her own \

Berenike made an offering at the next temple: her blood in a bowl of rodent-bone, poured into the sand-thick front of a desert storm, which laughed and flashed bright with lightning and scattered her blood in fine drops across the desert for a day’s march in every direction. 

Afterwards, the storm-scarred man at the temple drew water and blind white fish from the well.  Provisions for her journey.  He told her, as the fish dried, that almost forty years ago a man had gone into the desert from here and never returned.  Berenike nodded, pleased.

Then, finally, Berenike began the walk of almost two weeks to the central temple, where the winds were born.

\ she says: “The day I stepped onto the sea of grass, Grandmother Kesty, I was recognized as your descendent, as having a face and a fierceness of gaze so like yours.  I heard your stories.  How you rode away for glory and silver.  How, before that, you taught the youngest girls to draw a bow and ride a horse in full gallop and sing louder than the wind, so that they could fight to defend themselves from any who would claim them.  How you taught them to button their coats with the finely carved bones of their enemies.  How you taught them to know the winds like siblings.  I came for that knowledge, glimpsed first in my mother’s tales, then in my aunt’s.  My aunt.  Ah.  I would wish to have been taken in by no other woman!  She didn’t expect me: daughter of an older half-sister she had not known, whose life after leaving the sea of grass is its own epic.  Derent who rode to the sun!  My aunt called me beloved niece and finished the teaching my mother had begun, and I loved her.  I would wish that her maps were smaller, that she took less pleasure in founding cities, that I did not have to learn how to oppose her.  I came to the sea of grass for its winds and found so much more: a family among the women who live across the sea of grass, a lover, a home.  But my aunt is a wind, unceasing.” \

There were no people in the central temple.  There were no winds, only the still, hot air.  The temple’s walls were bare stone, its floors un-patterned, its rooms empty of offerings.  Berenike walked among them, frowning.

“We do not often get people here.”

Berenike spun, already poised to hurl her javelin.

A person stood just an arm’s length from her.  A wind.

“Which one are you?” Berenike said, lowering her arm.

“Why are you here?”

“Why do you think?”

“This is an empty temple,” the wind said.  “Abandoned.  It belongs to no wind.”

“I know the story.”

The wind’s expression did not change.  “Surely a general fighting and conquering in the name of Kandros knows how often stories are true.”

Berenike couldn’t stop a small smile.  “The men and women fighting for me tell this story: soon after her marriage to Kandros, the queen Roshanak received an envoy from the women who live across a sea of grass.  My mother’s people.  The envoy said that some young warriors had heard of a great army gathered on the western edge of the steppe, and they wished to try themselves in friendly combat against its soldiers, and perhaps join it, for a share of its wealth and glory. 

“Roshanak and Kandros arranged athletic games outside the grand city of Roshanak’s birth.  The young warriors arrived, arrayed in embroidered jackets and trousers, jangling with the silver of their jewelry, and won prizes in sports from archery to wrestling to sprinting.  Their request to join the army was granted—but women who fought were rare, so it was not always easy for the warriors.  Many returned home.

“My mother, however, found a man among the soldiers whose true aim and agility and singing impressed her, and she decided to have a child with him, certain that his traits would combine well with her own.  Then the triumphs and trophies of the campaign distracted her from thoughts of home.  Then she died in a battle, as did my father.  What a marvelous story!  My soldiers boast that both of my parents were fierce and strong.  I am not certain that any of them think it is true.”

“And because this tale is true—”

“Here is another story.  In the desert of Šammuramat, far to the east of this desert, the army of Kandros ran out of food and water.  Thousands died.  Then we found a stream, a pathetic thing, that killed yet more soldiers and camp followers who drank too much, too quickly.  Among them, I stood, only five years old, drinking slowly from a greave that had belonged to my mother.  Kandros was drinking nearby and, seeing me, said that I was the future of his army, because I was five and already carried a greave.  That story is true.

“So is this one: eventually I left the water and walked towards some of the camp children I knew, to sit with them, but suddenly a wind kicked sand at me.  It turned into a person, taller than me, very slender, so that I assumed I was looking at a woman or an older girl, although I now suspect that none of the winds are women or men, even when shaped as people.” 

The wind smiled, briefly. 

“That wind said, in the only language I knew then, ‘I am the edge of a storm raging in the mountains far from here.  I am a person who once lived here.  I am telling you to leave this water now, before the flash food comes and sweeps your people away.  I am not bothered by the deaths of soldiers, but people like you do not need to share their deaths.’  Then that wind blew away. 

“Kandros, who had been standing nearby, called me to him and asked what I had seen, for he had seen it too.  I told him.  Why would I want more soldiers to die?  Kandros thanked me and called me blessed, for a god had come to me, and he advised me not to tell anyone of it.  I realized why, a few years later, when he disappeared into the far north-west after his soldiers would follow him no further: here.  I realized what the storm wind had said: a person, who once lived here.

“And this is from a song I heard in the women’s quarters, where I continued my mother’s warrior training with many other girls under the tutelage of Roshanak: in the great desert, of which Šammuramat’s desert is only a tributary, there are hundreds of winds, there are dozens of temples, and there is a temple in its heart where the winds are born.”

Berenike smiled again, and added, “There are as many untrue tales of Kandros as there are stars across this sky, but that does not prevent some of us from keeping hold of true ones.”

“You would not be who you are now,” the wind said.

Fear crept under her breastplate like a knife—but she thought of the South-East Wind, of the storm wind in Šammuramat’s desert, of the wind standing in front of her now.  They were people.  “What should I fear?”

“A wind is not a person.”

“Will I remember my goals, my life, myself?”

“You will be much more than those things.”

“Stop giving me these useless answers,” Berenike said, firm, though the fear remained.  If she lost sight of her plans and never returned south, if she slipped from the memories of soldiers and storytellers—she was no Kandros, to be remembered despite her disappearance.  She knew that.  Before long, her soldiers would join another general’s army, and eventually the spoils won in new wars would erase her name.  The storytellers would turn to fresher exploits.

“Every wind is different,” the wind finally said.

Better the risk than sure obscurity.

“I will do this,” she said.

The wind laughed, arms spread in a wide gesture encompassing the ruined temple.  “There is no rival general or beast here to be slain.”

Berenike ignored the wind, returning to her exploration of the temple: its featureless rooms, its smooth floors.  No wind blew past her.  Above her head, the sun shone bright through the great holes in the roof.  Broken steps went nowhere, scattered across the floor like forgotten votives.  Berenike eyed the walls.  Smooth.  Too smooth. 

Outside, the temple’s walls were equally useless, but Berenike walked twice around the perimeter, looking for details.

There—in shadow, a wall not plain but carved in pristine snake-curls and fox-points.  Berenike hoisted herself up it with ease.

What remained of the roof was flat, a plain like the desert beyond it.

Winds blew around her, buffeted her, drove her gasping to her knees, winds hard and sharp and slicing and pulling—it was agony; it was torture. 

It stole her screams. 

It blinded her. 

It tore her skin from her body, it strung out her innards, it ground her bones to dust. 

It tried to rend apart her thoughts.

I am Berenike, daughter of Kesty

Unrelenting.

founder of

It split her self open, it scattered her.

A woman who knows the name of the sea of grass, leader of men who love fighting on foot, and I will win this war

It could not dissipate the pieces that were Berenike.

The wind blew harder.

\ she says: “Grandmother Kesty, I don’t know what you would think of her.  Would you be proud?  Afraid?  Both?  I am.” \  

I am

The wind blew across the desert, unsure, uncertain, like a new horse, trying to see • seeing a city that can’t be real, seeing a caravan of men with golden machines for hands, seeing rivers and lush forest, seeing the desert south and east of the ruined temple, full of tall rocky pinnacles that hide caves behind their small mouths • trying to focus on the pinnacles, trying to blow between them, inside them, looking for evidence of the man who had gone missing in the desert almost forty years ago, of the great conqueror who had failed to achieve what she had just done.

What were those other deserts?  They looked as real.  Future deserts?  Past deserts?

Trying to blow in a single direction, trying to plan a route, trying to think, to hold a thought, to be • I am blowing strong, strong, strong

Being a wind was • strong, strong • easy.

no

The wind concentrated on the desert, the pinnacles.  • I am Berenike, daughter of Kesty and Ariston, victorious general, founder of Berenikia, a wind •  The wind blew into the pinnacles • why are they full of grain-sacks • which were empty and not empty • what are these swarming men with dog-heads, what are these shining buildings with caves in their bases, what are these bones

A person’s bones, poorly arranged, bitten and broken by fox-sharp jaws. 

Fabric flapped in the wind • I know this fine weave, this golden thread • hanging on the ribs like sails.  Disturbed sand revealed a knife, a leather pouch, a pair of coins among the messy bones of one hand.

How could bones be carried?  How could the shape of the person • Kandros • be held?  How could it be presented, how could it be believed to be him?

I need to just pick them up like a wind carries sand or a person carries several javelins

The wind turned.

The wind twisted in thoughts of bones, of the poor condition of this body • my wind-body • and how • how will I appear to them • how • how can a wind lead an army with a bag of broken bones • how to • where am I, how do I • become a person again, how to be what the winds tore apart • how • how to be • I am Berenike • the other winds said nothing, though they blew nearby • I am Berenike, I am Berenike, I am

Berenike spun out into her human body, gasping, gasping so hard that her breath disturbed the sand at her feet.  

Still her body, unchanged.  Still wearing her greaves and breastplate and tunic, still battle-scarred and strong.

The bones fell around her like rain.

“I am Berenike.”  Her voice, too, was unchanged.

“It is not good to hold onto your former self so tightly,” said the wind from the last temple, suddenly standing in front of her.  They were not far from the cave where Berenike had found the bones of Kandros; its sunset-long shadow stretched to her feet.  “You are more than Berenike.”

“I am Berenike, a wind.”

Her whole body shook, exhausted as if from a days-long march.  How long had she been blowing? 

“She is new,” said another wind, unfamiliar to Berenike, “and the manner of her birth is not typical.”  Looking directly at her, the wind said, “The East Wind forgets that we were born over ten thousand years ago.  You are not us.  You are not a storm, born from a baby abandoned on a hillside or plain, raised in the high places of the sky, swooping down when conditions are right.  You are not a sand spinny, as short-lived as a mouse.”

“How long will I live?” Berenike asked, unable to comprehend the number ten thousand, unable to imagine—

A few centuries, she had thought.  A life of legend.

“It is difficult to say,” the wind replied.

“One of your kind blew out in a mere decade,” the East Wind said.  “Another is still blowing, two thousand years later.”

“And did that one hold onto their former self?” Berenike asked, shocked again.  A decade!  If she had stayed in the south with her soldiers, she might have survived another decade.  Two thousand years!

The East Wind looked away, at nothing in particular.

“There is no pattern,” the other wind said.

“Then my strength will keep me alive for centuries.”

The East Wind frowned, but the other wind smiled, saying, “Know that you will change.  Know that you are Berenike, but you are more than her, too.”

“I’ll save that thought until after I’ve defeated my enemies.”

And now it was the opposite of her need to wear her human body; now the wind tugged at her, ecstatically sharp, and • I will be remembered for this • the wind blew on with the bones of Kandros.

| I blow far from the desert.  I blow in a land where an army marches along the coastal plains.  I blow between the high, tiled walls of the city of Berenikia, where every dawn a singer on a high tower ululates in joy.  I blow, stirring the short hair of Berenike’s niece, preparing herself to meet the legendary general for the first time.  I blow, knowing that there is another wind here—and there, there, blowing at the head of an army, bearing the bones of Kandros like a banner, laying the opposing forces low with fear, turning into General Berenike the person and celebrating victory after victory with thousands of soldiers. |

The South-East Wind knew when Berenike became a wind, knew—felt it, gusting past the temple, sending the bells into song—when the wind blew south.  The bones here of the men who had followed her to the desert and to its temples made fine songs as the North Wind chased the new wind, blowing further south than ever before, curious | I blow between the high, tiled walls of the city of Berenikia, where every dawn the wind called Berenike still blows along the shore, still is depicted on the city’s coins, still sits at the head of the city’s council, hundreds of years after the city’s foundation | but though the South-East Wind now knew something of Berenike’s centuries of life, other parts of those years remained yet to be seen when the South-East Wind once again blew among the bells of the temple instead of guarding them in a human form. 

\ Mirtun speaks to all of the winds, at their temples or out on the sands where bead-eared foxes run and an old vixen with a single, wind-worn bell on its left ear watches over the kits, and what Mirtun asks for is not transformation but knowledge: how to make offerings to the winds blowing across the sea of grass, how to work with them—knowing that their ways will be different to the winds of the temple desert but hoping that the knowledge will aid her in the defense of her home \

\ before she leaves, Mirtun re-carves the jewelry on the sandstone figure’s chest with careful attention to every original detail, adding tulip-swirls only where the winds have erased the old styles—and she leaves her name at the figure’s base like an offering \  


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Alex Dally MacFarlane is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, researching Alexander III of Macedon in Classical Armenian historical literature. In their spare time, Alex writes SFF; look for recent fiction in Clockwork Phoenix 5 and nonfiction in Interfictions Online and Letters to Tiptree. Follow @aghvesagirk on Twitter for more.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Fox Bones. Many Uses. by Alex Dally MacFarlane
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9 Comments on “Women in Sandstone”

9 Responses to “Women in Sandstone”

  1. […] week my novelette “Women in Sandstone” was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. A general crosses a desert of living winds to outdo her […]

  2. […] Dally MacFarlane’s “Women in Sandstone” is about a general making a pilgrimage to a series of temples dedicated to the winds to make […]

  3. […] of love: I love, love, love, love Alex Dally MacFarlane’s story “Women in Sandstone” in Beneath Ceaseless […]

  4. […] Women in Sandstone by Alex Dally MacFarlane (Beneath Ceaseless […]

  5. […] in the Sunglare’ and ‘Our Fire, Given Freely’ by Seth J. Dickinson, ‘Women in Sandstone’ by Alex Dally MacFarlane, ‘The Breath of War’ by Aliette de Bodard, ‘The Day Papa […]

  6. Alex Conall says:

    This is stunningly beautiful. I adore Berenike.

  7. […] “Women in Sandstone” by Alex Dally MacFarlane, Beneath Ceaseless Skies (novelette) — secondary world fantasy about the winds, and pure poetry. […]

  8. […] ‘Women in Sandstone’ by Alex Dally MacFarlane (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2014). Mythical, half-historical, all women. […]

  9. […] Women in Sandstone by Alex Dally MacFarlane […]

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