“The star of my home system has many names and many Gods. Ra, Shapash, Helios, Amaterasu-no-mi-kami, Sunna, Tonatiuh, Surya, and many, many more.” Marjani drew a circle in the dirt with a slim wooden stick, dark red and streaked yellow. The edges of her bright blue shawl dragged in the soil. She darted a glance at the small circle of Hysthaany who huddled in front of her. Late afternoon sunlight slanted through heavy grey clouds, barely illuminating the small clearing in which they sat. Her gaze rose to the naked, stunted trees which surrounded them; to hear elders such as Shthaan tell it, the trees had once been wrapped in thick layers of papyrus-like bark that the ancient Hysthaany had used to create their art and build their homes.
But that had been generations ago.
“Why so many names?” Hhatanath demanded. His indigo eyes, too large for his face by human standards, were narrowed in confusion. The over-sized pointed ears that rose from the top of his head swiveled back and forth.
“Gods?” Thahany interrupted. She scratched her nose with the tip of her black tail and peered at Marjani. “Like what Shthaan talks about? The voices in the wind? And the dancers in the ground?”
Marjani smiled at the kitlings. There were only eight of them. Only eight young. She felt her smile falter and forced it back into place. “So many names, Hhatanath, because there are many Gods who make their presence and blessings known through the sun. But on star charts, the sun is called Sol; it keeps things simple. And yes, Thahany, Gods just like Shthaan speaks of. It was a Goddess — kin to those voices in the wind and dancers in the ground — who brought us here.” She drew three more circles in the dirt, much smaller than the central circle. She pointed at the third one. “From here. This is our cradle world, the planet that gave birth to my species. And, like the star which warms it, our cradle world has many names and is home to many, many Gods and spirits: Gaea, Geb, Terra, Pachamama, Jörð, Mokosh. To keep things simple, though, we usually just call it Earth.”
Aashath, youngest and skinniest of the kitlings, crawled around until she could lean against Marjani. Tucking an arm around Aashath, Marjani pulled the kitling into her lap, careful not to bump any of the sores on the little one’s back; feeling a shiver run through her thin frame, Marjani pulled the shawl from her own shoulders and wrapped it around Aashath.
She drew a fourth circle. “I was born here, on a world of red deserts and steep cliffs. So were Padmini and Luis. I worked at a hospital — like Hyshatii’s medicine tent, but bigger — as a healer and a priestess. It was at the hospital, during a meditation, that I was given a vision of you.” For a brief moment, the kitlings and the forest dissolved, replaced by mounds of bones and ash. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and continued, “I did not understand, at first. So the Goddess kept sending me visions and dreams until I did understand. She sent dreams to Kumari and Eric, too, and Captain Atsadi. She is worried about you, and she wants me — all of us — to help.”
Thahany scooted around and flopped onto her belly. “What does She look like?”
“Well ….” Marjani twisted her wrist, shifting the weight of the light built into her sleeve. “She looks a bit like you, actually. I suppose that is why She wants us to help you. When I see Her in my dreams, She is very, very tall, taller than the ruins of the Haunted City, with the sharp teeth of a hunter and eyes that glow like the hottest fire and fur that is soft gold, and the sun is Her crown.”
“She has a tail?” Hhatanath asked, voice tinged with skepticism.
“Oh, yes, and claws, too. Sharp ones. Sometimes.” Marjani shrugged. She tugged the shawl back into place from where it had dropped low around Aashath’s shoulder. Through the tight weave of her biosuit, Marjani felt Aashath press hard against her chest. “She is a Goddess. She can appear however She wants. Kumari says that the Goddess appeared as a lion cub — a kitling — in her dream. Eric … well ….” Marjani tightened her shoulders. She would not frighten the kitlings with that particular vision.
Hhatanath frowned harder. “Why didn’t She help us before? Or the voices in the wind and the dancers? Why didn’t they stop the wars and the poison?”
“I …. I don’t know. The Gods did not stop the wars on Earth, either.” She tilted her head down at Aashath and gently tapped the kitling’s nose; cloudy indigo eyes blinked up at her. “Not so long ago, my people fought wars, just as yours did. They cut down the trees and dammed the rivers and built terrible weapons, filled the air with poison and drove many of our fellow creatures to extinction. They turned away from the Gods, just as yours did, even forgot the Gods entirely, their names and their rites and their myths. They abandoned the wisdom of the heroes and philosophers and priests and farmers and hunters who came before them. And, in their ignorance and pride, they nearly destroyed themselves and the world that gave them birth.”
Frowning, Hhatanath traced the large circle and the four smaller circles with his tail; it was nearly bare, only a few reddish tufts of fur poking out here and there along its length. “They’re punishing us,” he said quietly.
“No,” Marjani responded, voice just as soft. “There are consequences to every thought and action, and you are living with the consequences of what your ancestors did. They brought this world about and you have to live in it.” She rocked Aashath gently. “But it needn’t be this way, not forever. My people learned to hear the Gods again, rediscovered the ancient wisdom and rites. We turned back from the edge of destruction, saved ourselves, our world.”
Thahany poked at the circles in the dirt with one claw. “What is Earth like?”
“It is beautiful. So beautiful. Green and blue and red and brown and white. There are mountains so high that they disappear into the clouds, and canyons so deep that you cannot see the bottom. There are jungles so thick with trees that no sunlight or rain touches the ground — ”
“Rain?” Thahany squeaked, suddenly jerking upright. She curled in her tail and a shiver spread through the small group.
“A clean rain,” Marjani hastily assured them. “A good, clean rain that feeds the trees and rivers. Not like the burning rain that you know here on Hysthaany.”
“Can we go there?” Thahany asked.
Marjani’s lips curled upward sympathetically. “Perhaps. Earth is very far away.”
“But we wouldn’t be sick there.”
Marjani opened her mouth, trying to think of a response.
Thahany plowed ahead. “We would honor your Gods, sing all their names, do whatever they want if they would let us live on Earth. Where we could breath. Not be sick — ”
The other kitlings were nodding, pointed ears swiveling, tails twitching. A low desperate growly-hiss filled the air, their mangy fur rising into spikes.
“You would still be sick.”
Heads snapped around and ears and tails stilled, focusing on Atsadi as he stepped into the clearing. His dark blue and gray biosuit covered him from neck to foot; he even had his gloves on. His thick black hair was pulled into a tight knot at the nape of his neck. A silver fish pendant swung free on the right side of his head, bouncing gently against his ear, then his cheek. Rocks and dirt crunched beneath his boots as he moved closer. Too many years on a spaceship; he would never learn to walk quietly on earth.
He stopped at the edge of the group and crouched down beside Marjani. He glanced towards her for a moment, face grave, then turned his attention back to the kitlings. “The sickness is deep in your bones, in your blood. It would stay with you, even if you left this world for another, and it would stay with your children, and even your children’s children.”
Marjani shifted little Aashath in her arms. “And the Gods I spoke of are the Gods of my people. Honor your Gods, your ancestors and heroes and poets and philosophers. The voices in the wind and the dancers in the ground. Shthaan can still hear them.” She poked the kitling’s nose and Aashath’s eyes crinkled in a silent giggle. “And I know Aashath can hear them. Work with them, and they will help you heal yourselves and your world.”
A high-pitched wooo-aawwoooo echoed through the trees and around the clearing.
Marjani watched Atsadi rise to his feet, startled to see that the woods around them were nearly dark. “Goddess, but it is sunset already, isn’t it? Very well, up everyone. Time for the evening meal. Hhatanath, you and Aashath lead the way.”
The eldest kitling stood, bare patches of skin a startling contrast against his reddish fur. He held out his hand for Aashath, who only reluctantly crawled from Marjani’s lap, still clutching the shawl. As the last of the kitlings lined up and began to make their way through the trees, Marjani held out her own hands and let Atsadi pull her to her feet. She resisted the urge to take a half-step forward, instead moving to the side and curling her arm through the crook of his elbow; his skin was warm through the double layers of their biosuits.
It was only a few minutes’ walk from the clearing to the Hysthaany village. A dozen round pale huts clustered around a single well, huddled between the edge of the forest and a nearly-sheer cliff, with its crumbling, zig-zagging path. Beyond the ledge of the mountain, the ruins of the Haunted City filled the valley below, glowing bone white. The tallest towers arced and twisted high above them, reaching towards the suffocating clouds.
Marjani and her people had added a handful of habitation and agricultural pods to those dozen huts, crowding the small space. Blue, square, ceramic and metal, they stood in stark contrast to the plain Hysthaany dwellings. Marjani had been unable to persuade them into giving up their huts for the cleaner, safer pods — but Hyshatii had given her a handful of precious seeds. They were enough for Eric to start a small garden of native Hysthaany plants in a modified agripod. Goddess willing, within the year, the kitlings and their elders would be feasting on sumaton and renia and tecketh free of the poisons which contaminated the meal they were now gathering to eat.
One of the agripods glowed a soft azure, a faint shadow moving back and forth across its walls. Eric, coaxing and pruning and cataloging native Earth spinach and amaranth and raspberries and potatoes. No doubt he would have to be dragged away to enjoy some of the very food he was growing.
The long arm of the shadoof rose and fell gracefully as Hyshatii pulled up water to fill the communal bowl for the evening meal. Padmani sat on a stone nearby, her gray hair hanging in thick dreadlocks nearly to her waist. She listened intently, nodding occasionally and jotting a note on her tablet as Shthaan spoke, hissing and whispering, her clawed fingers weaving through the air. Now and then, a hand would drop and Shthaan would finger one of the square reddish stones that ringed her neck.
Hyshatii flicked his ears and rowred in greeting as the kitlings and two humans came into view. Marjani offered a low-throated mrow; the closest a human could get to the sound. Hyshatii’s lips curled back and his nose wrinkled in amusement.
“You’re still better at that than me,” Atsadi assured her. He nodded at the Hysthaany healer as the kitlings collected around the bowl, and they continued on through the village.
Marjani waved at Padmani, who offered only a quick jump of her eyebrows before turning back to Shthaan. “And Padmani is even better. I think she was completely fluent within hours of our arrival.” As Marjani gave a rueful shake of her head, her eyes slid to the cliff edge. The rueful shake turned to a shiver of dread.
Atsadi’s arm tightened and he clasped her hand. “All right?”
“I saw that city so often in my dreams. The buildings made of bones, the clouds of ash.”
His arm wrapped around her waist. “I know. You woke up screaming and sweating more than once.”
Marjani leaned her head on his shoulder and felt him drop a kiss on her temple. His pendant bumped her ear. “Sorry you took me to your bed?”
They stopped a few meters short of the cliff, the Haunted City laid out before them. Spindly, knobby towers soared upwards. Bridges swooped and arced between them, the streets below lost to darkness. According to Shthaan, who learned the tales from her grandmother, the buildings had once been painted in brilliant jewel tones and geometric patterns. Wind and rain and radiation had long since stripped the city of all decoration, and scavengers had stripped it of nearly everything else.
“Never,” Atsadi assured her. “I’m just sorry that I had to wait until my year of mourning was over and my hair had grown back.”
Marjani reached up to tuck a loose strand behind his ear, then ran her palm over his scalp. “I do miss the fish tattoos.”
Atsadi laid his hand atop hers and grunted. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “I’m thinking of getting a new one, my next trip back to Earth.” He turned towards her, dropping his hand to the small of her back. His gloved fingers traced the pattern inscribed there. “An ankh with a red jewel at its heart.”
She smiled up at him, pressing her palms flat against his chest. She could feel his heartbeat through the layers of his biosuit. “Careful. With a mark like that, She may claim you as her own.”
He rested his forehead against hers. “As She claimed you,” he said softly, a hint of sadness in his voice.
“Yes.” She pulled back to meet his gaze, running one bare finger across his lips. “My heart is hers.” She lifted both hands to cup his face. “There is room in my heart for you, too, and Luis and Kumari and Padmani and Eric and all the kitlings and Shthaan and Hyshatii and all the Hysthaany. But She comes first, and always.”
He closed his eyes for a moment. “I know. I knew that when you stomped up to me at EarthPort and ordered me to escort you to my ship. Because some Goddess had commanded it.”
“Stomped? I do not stomp.”
“Oh, yes, you most definitely do, and did.” He grinned down at her. “Still covered in red Martian dust, hair a mess, poking at me and snapping. Kumari and Padmani following along behind you, and Eric with his tomato plant, and Luis dragging those huge cases. I thought he was going to collapse. Or rip his arms off.”
Marjani snorted a laugh.
“I thought you were mad, and beautiful.”
“And I declined — ”
“Mmmm.” She pursed her lips, mouth twisting from smile to frown and back again. “Quite rudely, as I recall.”
He brushed a thumb across her eyebrow. “Last time I was ever rude to you. Not fun being eaten by an angry lioness in my sleep.”
She smoothed her hands across his chest, wiping out imaginary wrinkles. “No, no, it is not — ”
Curses and annoyed huffs and puffs rose up over the edge of the cliff. Marjani caught the sound of rocks tumbling and breaking and then Luis heaved himself up the last few meters of the steep path and onto the ledge. His biosuit was stained with pale dust and darker dirt, and a respirator covered the lower half of his face. He bent beneath the weight of his pack.
Marjani stepped out of Atsadi’s arms, careful to keep one hand tucked through his elbow. “It’s well after sunset,” she reprimanded.
Luis stumbled to a halt in front of her, nodding. He turned, gesturing as Kumari topped the cliff, just as dirty as him, straining and sweating beneath her pack. Hheshaath and Thaanath came last, twitching to shake loose the ash which clung to their black fur. Bolts of pale cloth wound round and round their heads and faces; breathing tubes from the antique air scrubbers on their hips disappeared beneath the fabric in the general area of their noses. Kumari was working to adapt the respirators, but, until then ….
Luis motioned again, then twisted to dump his bag. He ripped off his respirator and bent over, coughing hard. He spat, coughed again, and slowly straightened. “Sorry, Mother. Distracted.”
Marjani mrowed at Hheshaath and Thaanath, then added a grateful moowwand hiss. The two Hysthaany returned the greeting, twitched their ears and tails, and headed towards the village.
Kumari dumped her bag and collapsed onto her bottom. Her short dark hair was plastered to her head, sweat and ash mixing. Her chest rose and fell too fast, but she seemed to be grinning behind her mask.
“Distracted by?” Marjani prompted. From the corner of her eye, she could see Atsadi grimacing. His arm stiffened beneath her hand, and she realized he was glaring at Luis, almost angry.
Luis crouched, then tipped over and fell down beside Kumari. He dragged his pack closer as she giggled and slowly pulled off her respirator. She coughed and spat, too, but her smile never wavered. Luis poked around inside the bag. “This,” he said, and carefully lifted out a dark red square object about the size of his head. His gloved fingers left smears all over it. He turned it slowly, revealing the small square hole in the center of each side. “A memory box. Just like Shthaan described it.”
Marjani gasped. Her fingers tightened around Atsadi’s arm for a moment, then dropped away as she stepped forward to peer at the treasure. “Is it functional?”
Kumari nodded, running a hand across the top of her head. Her hair stuck out in spikes and her normally copper skin was pale. “It has a charge, Mother.” Her voice cracked, and she lifted her water bottle off her hip. She took a quick swig, swallowing. She blinked rapidly and swallowed again. “Not much. But, if Shthaan is right about it being solar powered, and we set it under the lamps in the modified agripod for a while ….”
“We might be able to read Shthaan’s necklace,” Marjani finished.
Luis was nodding. “The necklace she inherited from her mother and grandmother? The grandmother who escaped the Haunted City before it became the Haunted City because a voice on the wind told her to?” He swiped Kumari’s water bottle and nearly emptied it, swallowing hard and fast. He wiped his mouth. “She didn’t bring much with her, but she made sure to bring those stones. Have to wonder what’s on them. Poems? Histories? Sacred rites?”
Kumari grabbed her bottle back. “Grocery list?”
Luis rolled his eyes at her.
Marjani drew a breath, trying to rein in her impatience. “Tomorrow. Now, clean up, grab some food from the agripod, and join the evening meal. Padmani and Eric, too.”
Kumari heaved herself to her feet, grimacing. “You, Mother?”
“Atsadi and I — “ Marjani blinked, looking around. Atsadi was gone. Marjani tightened her jaw. “I’ll join you soon,” she finished.
Holding the memory box carefully, Luis stood. “Extend my thanks and blessings to the Captain, Mother.”
“Mine, as well,” Kumari said. Grabbing both packs, she stumbled towards the village, legs shaking. Luis followed.
Frowning, Marjani flicked on the light built into her sleeve. She swung her arm around until she found the trail off to the left. It led through the woods, running parallel to the cliff for a short ways before veering down to a small meadow. That clearing was just large enough and level enough for the shuttle.
Shthaan had been waiting for them when they first landed, arms high, dancing despite the pain in her joints.
Marjani soon caught sight of the shuttle through the skeletal trees. Bright green, trimmed in dark yellow and dusky pink, it was an oasis of color, visible even in the weak light that slipped through the clouds from Hysthaany’s twin moons. Marjani paused at the edge of the field and clicked off her light, waiting.
Atsadi stepped out from behind the craft, running his left hand along its side. Soft red and blue lights shone from his right wrist, sweeping across the hull in slow arcs. He bent, flicked at something, stood.
Arms tight at her sides, she strode across the meadow, stopping a few meters away. He kept his back to her, finger tracing a pink curlicue. “I have to prep the Tsulu for departure. I’ll leave orbit in the next five hours or so. There were some postings about courier jobs in the Algol system.”
She rested a hand on his shoulder. “Atsadi?”
He sighed deeply, but did not turn around. “Seventeen months. I welcomed all of you aboard the Tsulu. Carried you from one star system to the next, from one oracle to the next, following visions and omens. Ate with you. Survived plasma storms and raiders. Loved you.” Another deep sigh. “Luis is already sick. When Eric left the agripod the other day, he had an asthma attack. Padmani … I doubt she would survive a trip back to Mars. She will die here.”
He tipped his head back and stared up at the thick clouds. His silver pendant bounced across her fingers. “Your Goddess asks too much.”
“No. No more than I am willing to give, and able. We do good work here, for Her and for the Hysthaany. We can save them, help them save themselves. She has faith in us. And I will not disappoint Her.”
He was silent for a long moment, fingers running around one curlicue and then another. Finally, he turned, eyes intent. “You are being careful, yes? Taking care of yourself?”
She offered him a reassuring smile. “Anti-rad pills every day, I only drink water from the scrubber — not the well — and only eat food from the agripod. And I spend every other meditation cycle in the decon chamber.”
“A year,” he said suddenly, grasping her hands. “Maybe a bit longer, but not much. I hope.”
She stopped, eyes wide and fixed on his face. “You … will return?”
“Yes. A few jobs so I can stock up on supplies. Habitation pods, hydroponics beds, seeds, medication. You said” — he cleared his throat — “you said there was room in your heart for me, too. Tattoo or no, I doubt I will ever be as devoted to your Goddess as you are, and the others. And I understand that She will always be first. I can accept that. I can. If you can make room for me, too — ”
She threw herself into his arms, burying her face against his throat. He lifted her high, arms wrapping hard around her. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, yes, yes.” And he was kissing her, lips running across her cheek to her mouth.
A multi-throated roar echoed through the night, bouncing off the trees and the towers of the Haunted City. Kitling and elder and human voices mixed together as the Hysthaany announced the end of the day, and called the wind to bless them with sweet dreams.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there. “Hysthaany” was previously published in Daughter of the Sun: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Sekhmet, and in The Serpent in the Throat, and Other Pagan Tales. It is being offered here free for all to enjoy.]