Every Sennesday, there’s a market inside the ruined agora above Crestfall Gorge, an hour’s ride out of the city. Stalls sell glass jewelry and tin god statuettes, their awnings too bright and crisp against the time-bitten columns buried in weeds.
I hate that I like it. I like the smell of frying dough, the bird-like chatter of tourists, even the inevitable wail from a child protesting the injustice of a denied treat. I could imagine the same in the distant past, when my people built the original city and had never heard of foreign gods.
The crumbled walls around us bear a design that resembles stylized eyes, turned vertical. Each an ellipse with sharp points up and down and a circle inside it, etched on columns, toppled walls, recreations of the long-removed vases and baubles. It’s not a Casu symbol, it’s from my people, though I don’t know any more of what it means than the Casu businesswomen from the city who are haggling over prayer chalk.
I’m watching my friend Kai’s booth in exchange for the cart ride down here and a meal. I haven’t sold any of his stylus stands all morning. His mother is an upholsterer, and he makes the stands from bits of spooling and scraps tied into flowers or fruit. His awning is patchworked of odd lot ends in rich colors. I’m not sure, but I think he’s hoping I’ll flirt with him. He sits closer every time he returns to the booth. Casu men are exhausting. They expect the woman to make not just the first overture but all of them.
Kai leaves to get his lunch, so I’m alone when a burly man pauses over the trays of merchandise. He seems surprised when he sees me. “How appropriate to have a Sanadaru here!” He leans uncomfortably close. “You should wear a native costume, for the atmosphere.”
We do not call ourselves “Sanadaru,” and my grandmother had been beaten as a girl for wearing “native costume.”
I don’t say anything. The man’s smile fades. He doesn’t buy anything. I try to regain my focus on the lazy festivity around me, on the carved eyes peering from an enigmatic past.
The booth across the way sells the eye design in glass and clay, to hang for good luck. Senne is the god of the moon, and as this is her day, I wonder if I’m looking at isn’t an eye but a drawing of the full moon peaking between its waning and waxing crescents.
But Senne is a Casu god. I am Ainchu, and our one god is not a woman.
Kai comes back and fumbles a few well-worn copper coins into my hand. He isn’t used to giving money to a woman. He looks away as I fish out my coin purse.
At a stall across the market, I purchase a rootmeat on a stick, flavored with peppergrass. It’s way too hot to eat but smells enticing. A vegetable monger has set up in the center of the agora, by what once was a public fountain, its original design a mystery of disconnected and displaced blocks. Revestre is standing there, the Casu harvest god, in her guise as an breathtaking woman, pregnant, glowing a soft gold, stroking the stacked gourds with her long tapered fingers. Did someone summon her, or did she wander in on her own, attracted to the harvested goods like a beetle? The crowd parts reverently around her, and one Casu businesswoman scowls in my direction, waving for me to clear out of the way, lest the god see my non-believing self.
I’m no longer hungry. I hand my lunch to a beggar on my way back to Kai’s stall.
When I was a child, fresh from my first day at school, a Teleday, I raced to the kitchen reciting, “Wennesday rise the sun, Dariansday week’s begun, Telemune says—”
“We don’t name days,” my mother snapped, not looking up from the dark egg dough she was kneading. I knew by the emphasis on “we” that I’d stumbled once more into breaking her heart.
In my head, I finished the song: Teleday, Dionelday, Sennesday. I drew myself up on the sideboard next to her. She wouldn’t look at me. “Well, what do we name?”
She paused and shook her head. Four more hard twists of the dough, and she turned to tuck the bread into its mold. “Every time a person walks a path, her feelings remain in her steps. When many walkers share one emotion, the path has a name.”
“Oooh, like Sorrow Street and Hopeful?”
She dabbed my nose with flour. “We named every street.”
I felt proud, then, that the hard reality of bricks and plank-lined paths belonged to us, but even still, I yearned for the ephemeral possession of days.
The Casu break life into a pattern of five days with every first day set aside for rest. Not for everyone. I’ve never gotten a Wennesday off.
The day after seeing Revestre in the market at the ruins, a Wennesday, I’m in my mother’s bakery, working dough into molds shaped like other people’s gods. I hum my mother’s song about Xu and Shem, who created the world in a series of gifts to each other before they became our one, genderless god.
And what will you give me for my ocean wide?
I’ll give you a beach that’s long and dry.
And what will you give me for my beach long and—
Bitter envy stops my breath as another Casu god walks by my window. She shines metallic blue, and the shadows curl into fanciful shapes in her wake. Customers abandon the shops, following her.
My dough is too sticky, and the smell of the yeast suddenly makes me ill. I want the day off from seeing other people’s gods. I search for the towel I use to carry the hot loaves, my flour-coated hands before me, and try not to think what I’m thinking:
Does XuShem not exist? Is that why they never appear?
On Dioneldays, my mother and I go to our Ainchu temple; it’s a low-ceilinged, plain building, originally built to be a fuller’s workshop. The sacred flame sits in a round pit that once held a vat to treat fabrics, and the walls are stenciled with those sideways eyes between the mounts for removed drying racks. These eyes look hasty, not a natural part of the room.
I think bitterly of the glittering murals on the front of the Casu temple on Mercy Street, a shrine to Dionelatar, whose day this is, covered in cunningly wrought waves and sea birds with mirror chips shining like droplets of water on their wing tips. Dionelatar is the ocean’s daughter, whatever that means.
My mother and I shuffle up to the sacred flame in a dreary queue not unlike that at the census office. We’re here to drop the scraps of paper we’ve used in our lives this week, our worries and hopes drawn on them, secrets tied in knots. I usually find it pleasant to watch them uncurl as they burn. Today I have a hard time keeping my mind here, on this, on the shape of fire.
On the waxy sheet that had wrapped a bundle of peppers, I wrote, “Why do we have weekly rituals when the Ainchu didn’t name the days into weeks?” It doesn’t feel like the right question, and I can’t bring myself to believe an answer will be delivered in my slumber.
I’m still angry when I wake the next day from a dream full of seabirds with razor-sharp beaks full of forgotten school texts.
The way to conjure a god, they say, is with chalk and praise. I’ve seen my Casu friends pray. I draw the square as they do, on the splash-stone in the alley behind the kitchen window. “Senne, on your day, come to me. Senne, beautiful, clever, um...” Can you call a trickster god “good”?
I’m still trying to come up with a new compliment when she steps around the waste-pit. She is less beautiful, more individual than the other Casu gods I’ve seen, and her glow is subdued silver. She tilts her head, studying my face. “You don’t believe in me; why do you call me?”
I hadn’t planned for success, for the part where I would get to ask my questions. Why do you exist? How do you exist? What does it mean, to be worshipped? Where does that silver light come from?
Instead, I blurt, “Show me XuShem.” As if Senne might have my god like a chatelaine in the folds of her godly robe.
Her curious expression falls. She starts to reach for me but stops herself, eyes canted with sorrow. “I can hear your worries, but Xu and Shem are as real as—”
“As the figure standing here, talking to me?” Her wavering light falls like reflected water on the uneven brick edge of the waste pit.
“I’m not Senne.” She holds up a hand as I draw in a breath to protest. “That is, I am, but it’s more as if no one else is more Senne than I am, and a god isn’t what people think she is. I’m ...” She shakes her head, clearly frustrated in the lack of appropriate words. “I’m as much XuShem as I am Senne.”
“No, you aren’t.” I point at the chalk square. The very Casu design of it, in thick melon-colored chalk smoothed by the dampness of the stone.
She looks at my drawing a long time. The space around us is cramped, a cross-section of four alleyways, four house-corners, two kitchen stoops, and one struggling tree in a patch of hard-packed dirt. Against this, somehow, the shimmering god looks vulnerable. “I suppose you’re right.” She pauses. “We’re not ... I can’t...” She reaches again, hesitates again, waits for me to nod before she takes my hands. “All we can do is see what is. Let me show you.”
Her fingers are cool and hard, like smooth stone, and then I’m hearing minds, everywhere, across the city. It’s loud, it’s frightening. There are so many! I’m not enough to contain them.
Oh, XuShem, oh ancestors, oh dying hope. This is real magic. This is the Casu being right. Every smug snotty boy who said I couldn’t understand because my god wasn’t real was right.
Senne narrows the focus of our sight, pulls me from my despair. A weaver is singing a song in his head, reciting the old month-names of my people as his fingers coax the shuttle through taught threads. His calm infuses me. His mind is all Ainchu, and we are one with him and his steadily raveling design.
Will I hear Kai? Is he really interested in a woman my age, still living with her mother, working for her?
Senne is amused and chagrined that we share the helpless pull of wondering what a man might want. Hers is an atheist, a house-servant. She shows him to me, his orderly mind on his duties.
There’s a touch of Casu smugness in her affection for him, the delight a dominant person takes in being ruled by their subordinate. It’s not like that with me and Kai. Moreover, I’m not attracted to him, but even so, I want his attraction to me, his heart like a trophy.
She understands that, too.
I just felt a god’s innermost thoughts, and they were no grander than a simple weaver’s.
Senne is not offended.
Near the wharf, a child plays a seed-jumping game on a calendar stone, twenty-seven neat dimples to express a month. This excites Senne. She wants me to see something here.
These calendar stones are the most common artifact of my people, used these days as lintels and hearthstones throughout the city. Some Ainchu still keep one by the front door, a colorful bead to mark the days, but most leave them to fill with grime or for children to invent amusements like these.
The girl’s babysitter is telling her a myth I’ve never heard. “Before you were born, you were like Xu and Shem, only half of a whole, uncertain what you would become. A baby needs nine months to learn itself, and that is why the ninth month is called ‘Asikar’ for ‘self-knowing.’” She then stoops to correct a move in the child’s game.
The seed-game, I realize, isn’t the child’s invention. It’s as old as the stone.
This is important. It is most of what Senne wanted me to see, but then something else stops us, me and the stranger-god both, with the horror and delight of a prayer answered.
In Sorrow’s Market, near the archway onto High Street, an old, old Ainchu woman is seething with mean delight. She sees a sideways-eye pendant in a shop window. “Sanadaru Luck Eye” the label reads. She knows, one of the few who do, that in our forgotten language “Casu go home” sounds like “open vulva”, and that this symbol is not an eye, nor religious at all.
She tells a handsome Casu man browsing the various versions “You should buy that” and cackles on her way, imagining her private insult hanging in his bedroom.
Senne is XuShem, after all. I feel their oneness, their wholeness. The way these thoughts echo from the old woman into what I took to be a Casu god and change her from the inside. The vulgar and the divine, the specific and the universal.
Senne-XuShem’s hands leave mine. Their joy breaks like the sun through dark clouds. “Happy seventeenth-day of Asikar, blessed child,” they say, and they melt away, robes becoming light, hair becoming cloud, until all that is left is their ageless Ainchu face, until it fades, too, like color left long in the sun.
I am left standing alone on the old wash-stone, its age-flattened twenty-seven dimples partially full of chalk.
The world now belongs less to them and more to me. I pick up the Casu prayer chalk, and with it I draw on the lintel post the first of what will be very many sideways eyes.