The fisherman hadn’t left the temple after all. I found him kneeling in the ruined hall near the altar, after I’d completed the blessings at the corners. To my amazement, he’d placed his offering in the giant stone brazier—his mud-spattered grass that he’d thought would honor Prashkina. He stacked the straw by handfuls in the sacred basin, like he was building a shrine in the rubble.
I leaned against a broken column, watching him. His lanky brown body reminded me of a grasshopper, paired with the shriveled face of a southern coast-dweller. The frayed hem of his dirty shirt brushed the floor. His hands trembled as he worked, and I felt sorry for him. I regretted my temper of a few minutes ago. It wasn’t his fault there was a hole in my mind where my Goddess used to be, years ago. None of this was his fault.
I cleared my throat to get his attention. The dust turned my false cough into a real one. He turned when he heard me. My robe swished around my ankles as I walked over. I drew the two halves of my veil aside like curtains and tossed them over my shoulders. He flinched at the sight of my ruined cheeks and forehead, but I didn’t hide them. We had no need to be formal anymore, and perhaps seeing my face would help him understand. I envied him in some ways—his simple mind that held such true devotion. I had never enjoyed such simplicity.
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I was harsh in what I said.”
“You were right, Mother,” he said, looking down. “I’m a fool. I always have been. Even in my village they told me so.”
Looking closer at him, I decided he was younger than I’d thought—perhaps half my age, just barely a man. I pictured him out in the bay, sitting on the tall stilts the fishermen used, waiting all morning for his catch. Sun and salt had dried him early. I said, “I wish you could have seen the temple in its full glory. There were a hundred different kinds of fish in the pond. And a wonderful statue of a doe.”
He shrugged. “Prashkina doesn’t need a temple.”
“But the temple needs Prashkina,” I said quietly, glancing at the gouges in the old stone floor. Thieves had looted the gold inlay years ago, leaving deer-shaped holes in the sacred spirals.
He scuffed a bare foot on the smooth granite. “When you said... what you said just now. About the gods. Did you mean all of them? Every one?”
“Yes.” Finally, I no longer cried when I remembered. The memory had dried out, just like his face. “They’re dead. All of them. It’s been seventeen years.”
He squinted at me. “But nothing kills a god.”
“They can kill each other,” I said. “And that’s what happened. They took sides in this awful war and died with their heroes. All the gods, and the goddesses, and the heroes they raised to divinity—they’re all dead.”
“Are you sure?”
My head ached with emptiness. “She was inside me. Now she’s not. And other priests and priestesses have said the same thing, no matter who they honored. Some of them went mad when their deity died.”
“Then why are you here?”
Perhaps because I’m mad. I looked across the straw-filled brazier to the open balcony. Prashkina had ruled love, beauty, and patience. Her temple had been beautiful once, and the breathtaking view remained—but marred with burnt-out jungle and a poisoned river. I had been beautiful once too. I said, “Because no one else is.”
He nodded as though this made perfect sense, though I doubted he truly understood. This fisherman had walked thirty days across a war-torn land just to bring my Goddess a dried fish. He’d come all this way—and he hadn’t even brought the fish. On the way, he’d been tricked into trading it for a chipped arrowhead. Then the arrowhead for a coarse string, and the string for an armful of straw. A simpler man couldn’t be found. But I liked him despite this, because of his devotion. No one else believed anymore, except in the backwater villages like the one he came from that didn’t even know about the war.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Dishu of Rabbit’s Ear, Mother.”
“Don’t call me Mother. That’s finished. Now I’m just Sarayoura,” I said. “What are you doing with the straw?”
His face brightened. “I thought if we relit the fires, Prashkina would live again.”
I laughed. “You think it’s that easy?”
“Well, maybe it is. We could try. I brought this straw. It makes a good fire.”
I knew my Goddess was dead, just like I knew where my ribs were. But I saw no harm in letting the fisherman light the fires. I’d enjoy seeing them again. “All right. There’s wood behind the temple, if you’re willing to chop it.” I turned away, closing my veil.
“Will you bless my work?”
I stopped. Was he truly so simple? Maybe he hadn’t understood anything I’d said. But I didn’t feel like trying to explain again. “Yes, you have my blessing,” I said, looking back at him. “Be careful.”
He smiled broadly, his brown teeth pale against his face. “Thank you, Sarayoura,” he said. “I will build a good fire for Prashkina.”
I left him there, stacking dirty straw in the brazier to honor a dead goddess. I returned to my lonely hut down the familiar path, realizing the fisherman hadn’t asked me what happened to my face. It was just as well. He was so hopeful and innocent—I didn’t want to spoil that. Once again, I envied him.
Usually I visited the temple once a week, or once a month in the monsoons. I used to go at every fifth sunrise, but when the bandits caught me there—well, I started to vary my pattern. I know Prashkina would have understood.
The nightmares had mostly stopped now, and my face only ached on hot days. I never looked at myself in the stream, so I wasn’t sure what color the scars were, but my fingertips told me the skin was tough and dead. As for the rest, once I washed myself out with lemon juice, I just went on with my rituals, because someone had to. I tried not to remember. Not to let it rule me. But now that Dishu was at the temple, I felt a little safer. I decided to return the next day to see his firebuilding efforts.
When I got there, not only had Dishu built a large fire in the brazier, but he’d cleared most of the rubble away from the walls. Now the murals showed—chipped, grimy, and missing their inset jewels, but amazing nonetheless. Here was the tale of Zarukha the Wise, who gave the king seven sons born on the same night. And Molosri, the god of playful spirit, who spent a hundred years as a mahogany tree and forgot his true name. These tales, and the others now visible—Prashkina would have approved.
I smiled. “It’s lovely, Dishu. Thank you.”
“There’s more to do,” he said. “I’ll keep working.”
After years of living on my own in the hut, I was as strong as any village woman. “I’ll help you,” I said.
We worked together in silence for a while. He cleared the heavy rubble, and I washed the murals. The jewels were still gone, but at least the walls looked cleaner. The crackling fire felt perfect for this cooler day, and I hummed a prayer song as I worked. I’d cleaned a few things myself in the temple, but most of it seemed pointless without visitors. As Dishu said, Prashkina needed no temple. But it cheered me to do the work.
Dishu and I stopped at mid-day. I’d brought mangoes and rice with stewed lentils to share with him, but he shook his head. “I’m not hungry.”
“Of course you are,” I said, pushing the lentil dish towards him. He shrugged and accepted it, though he ate very lightly.
As we finished our meal, he asked, “When did the gods die?”
“Seventeen years ago, at the Sundering.”
“All at once?”
“No. Some died long ago, of course. But most of them were killed in battles that year. A lot of them.”
“How many gods were there?”
“Well,” I said, smiling at my remembered role as teacher, “I wasn’t highly ranked enough to learn all their names. Some gods prefer to reveal themselves only to the most worthy devotees. At my ranking I honored fifty-four gods, thirty goddesses, and five hundred raised warriors. That must be nearly all of them, though I can’t be sure.”
He looked confused, and I wondered if he couldn’t count that high. “Many,” I clarified. “Lots of gods. Enough to battle each other to death.”
“Maybe they’re just sleeping.”
I tried not to wince. “Prashkina is gone. No force could break our bond except the death of my Goddess. When she died, I traveled to the capital to see if another god would bond with me. But every priest, every priestess I met—the same.”
He shook his head. “But gods are powerful. They’ve always been here. They must be here.”
Just like his village, where everything probably stayed as it had for centuries. I said, “Gods get their power because we believe in them. And without them, this land has changed. Starving bandits roam the jungles, thieves prey on villagers, and foreign pirates steal our people. No one has come here in three years besides you.”
“But maybe if everyone believed in them—”
I smiled and shook my head. “You can believe all you want that you’ll grow younger this year, but it won’t help. Some things even the gods can’t change.”
Dishu looked at the floor. “Don’t you have hope?”
I studied the blazing fire. “I have hope that each of us can make a small difference somewhere. Even if it’s only to one person. I think we each have the power to become more than we are.”
He looked at the fire with me and didn’t say anything. This time, I was fairly sure he understood.
Finally he said, “I’m just a fisherman. I’ve always been a fisherman.”
“Your father and grandfather too?”
He frowned. “I don’t know. I don’t remember them.”
“Don’t you have family to worry about you?”
“I don’t know.”
I looked at him, puzzled. “Doesn’t anyone wonder where you are?”
He shrugged sadly. “I have no wit, and everyone in my village knew it.”
My heart softened for this young man, who might never have heard kind words in his life. “Perhaps so. But I think there’s more to you than that. You’ve changed even since you arrived here. You’re happier somehow. I see it in the way you walk, the way you work.”
He smiled again. “It makes me happy to do this work.”
“You should eat more,” I said.
“I’m not hungry. I shouldn’t take your food.” But at my insistence, he accepted a mango and ate it. I watched him clean for a while, noticing the lightness in his feet as he swept sand into buckets and took it outdoors. I closed my eyes and hugged myself. He made me happier too. With Dishu here, I wasn’t afraid.
By the end of another week, we’d swept the floors and scrubbed the edges by the walls. We’d planted seeds in the garden and cleared debris from the pond. Dishu kept the fire burning in the brazier. It felt like home again.
As the temple returned to life, I nearly forgot about the bandits. They were from my past—something Dishu’s presence banished, like demons at my door. But my body remembered. One morning while we worked, I felt queasy and I couldn’t place why. Then I heard metal clanking outside. The Temple held almost no metal anymore. My body had known they were coming back, and they would destroy everything we’d done here. Someone shouted outside. My scars throbbed.
“Quick, come to me,” I ordered, clutching my robe tightly.
Dishu obeyed, looking surprised. I took his sleeve and dragged him to the door. “The bandits are here,” I said. “There’s just enough time to get you out. Take the back path down the mountain. I’ll slip out the other way. Good luck. Thank you for your help.”
“What about the fire?” he asked.
“The fire? Oh, the temple. They’ve looted everything there is to find.”
“No, the fire. It shouldn’t go out.”
“We can’t worry about that now.”
“We have to keep the fire burning.” Dishu tugged loose and ran to the brazier. He scooped logs into his arms and threw them in.
I ran to him, grabbed his arm, and turned him around. I flung my veil open. “They did this. Last time. We have to go!”
He pulled away. Stubborn man! The bandits shouted to each other outside—already close to the doors. We had to hide. I dragged Dishu with me to the floor. “Hush!”
We crouched together behind the altar, which suddenly felt too small. Sweat soaked my robe. I held Dishu close, smelling the dirt in his hair.
Boots stomped on the stone. I didn’t dare look. It sounded like at least a dozen men talking among themselves. They swore with curse words I knew mixed with those of the North. They’d come here to steal, but nothing was left. The bandits had ignored the altar fires so far. Maybe they only sought wealth. Desperate hope filled my heart. Please, I prayed, knowing no one heard me, please don’t let them hurt us.
Dishu tore out of my arms and jumped like something had bitten him. He stared at me, eyes wide and mouth open. “Down!” I hissed. I pulled him to the floor, but too late—someone cried out. I tried to run, but the bandits raced around the altar and caught us. They pulled us apart. Dishu struggled and threw off his captor. A man grabbed my hair and threw me against the altar. I screamed. My veil fluttered near the fire. The Northerner grinned and said something to me that needed no translation. He licked his lips.
“Run!” I yelled. Dishu had to escape. Someone had to tend Prashkina’s fire, and this time I feared the bandits would kill me. I struggled and kicked, but couldn’t break free.
The Northerner drew a knife. I closed my eyes and went limp. This time, it wouldn’t be so bad. Dishu would keep my work alive. He’d walked thirty days to bring the Goddess some straw. He’d come back to her temple, even after my death. I knew he would.
The stench of burning flesh ripped through my nostrils. My captor shouted something incoherent and released me. I slid to the floor. Startled, I opened my eyes. Dishu hovered above the fire, floating in mid-air like a dragonfly. His skin crackled and charred. His bones crashed to the woodfire below. The flames rose higher, and my soul flared with passion—hope, hope like I’d nearly forgotten—
Some bandits ran. Others begged. Some crumpled to the ground, rocking on the floor like hurt children. Dishu burned with a white flame so bright I averted my eyes. I didn’t know what was happening. But I felt peace—the certainty that no matter what happened to me, the fire would continue.
A shy presence appeared in my mind, knocking gently as if I might be asleep. Hello, Sarayoura.
Hello, I said, my heart racing.
I’m sorry. I forgot who I was. I hid from the war when it started. But your prayer woke me. I heard you speak to me.
Who are you?
I’m Aradishu, called Hope. The last hope, once all other is lost. None can harm those who believe in me. But I’m still the fisherman too. Will you bond with me?
My answer surged without words. Hope entered my mind, and we bonded.
Now I knew Aradishu, the flaming dragonfly. I fell to my knees, weeping at my newfound fullness. The air smelled fresh, like childhood. I opened my eyes, ready to change my world.