Tahua brings rain.
That's what my grandmother told me years ago, and it was always true. For as long as I could remember, every year Ajika and I used to go see the intricate lianas that grew around the demolished walls of the old temple, to see if there were tiny pink flower buds hiding among their hard, waxy leaves. We watched as the tiny balls swelled and grew thick, and when the flowers finally opened and the sweet scent of tahua saturated the air, then...
Then came the rain.
And so it was year after year, as far as my memory went. Grandma had long since been taken by the gods, but tahua was still there, as a fulfilled promise, as a firm order of things. Until the year came when the flower buds didn't unfold – and the rain didn't come.
"This is no good, Navei. There will be no flowers this year," Ajika sighed, plucking a bunch of dry flower buds from the stem. They crumbled in her palm to pink dust.
Ajika blew it to the ground and my heart sank at the sight.
"There hasn't been a year that it hasn't bloomed," I said defiantly. "And my grandmother said..."
"Your grandmother doesn't remember everything. My mother told me that her great-grandfather's grandfather experienced a year when the tahua did not bloom and the rain did not arrive. It is said that there was such a drought that all the crops went away and the herds died; even people were supposedly dying of hunger, and before the water returned, it was a great suffering for all."
I stared at her in horror; the thought clenched my throat like the hand of a murderer.
"That can't happen, can it?" I whispered.
Ajika shrugged and looked up with a thoughtful expression. I watched her gaze, as I have done many times; but have we not all turned our eyes to the sky more and more often lately, foolishly hoping to see dark clouds on it?
But among the twisted branches, the sun shone bright and burning, stabbing in the eyes. Under its glowing rays, everything withered. Ajika and I also bowed our heads and took the buckets again; clear skies did not promise rain, and from the ruined temple it was still a long way to the river. If we are away for too long, parents will ask questions.
We walked in silence for a while, only dry leaves rustling under our feet, and sharp blades of hard, tenacious grass scratched our calves.
"Maybe the gods are angry with us," I said after some time. I didn't look at Ajika and she didn't answer right away, but I could still feel her gaze on me.
"They have no reason to be angry," she finally replied. Something sharp sounded in her voice.
"So maybe they're testing us or –"
"Quiet! Don't talk like that."
"I said that's enough!"
Before I could do anything, Ajika dropped the bucket on the ground and silenced me with a kiss. There was no need for more, I eagerly immersed myself in the sweetness of her lips and suddenly forgot about the drought and all the gods of the world. She buried her fingers in my hair and it was different than usual, there were unspoken words and longing, for me and also for something deeper, more raw. There was a bitter sense of fear in that kiss, and before she moved away from me again, I promised myself that I wouldn't talk about the drought again.
Eventually, maybe the tahua will still bloom, maybe it has been just a little late, and everything will be good again.
But when we were taking water from the river and I noticed that the water level was a bit lower than yesterday, I couldn't look into Ajika's eyes. Nearby, the ripples by the shore toyed with the white inflated carcass of a fish, and when Ajika and I both drank deeply, far enough upstream of the corpse, the taste of mud and salt remained on our tongues.
And tahua did not bloom. The tiny flower buds withered and fell off, and gradually the leaves of the tenacious liana began to wilt. Instead of lush green, the world plunged into shades of brown and arid gray. Spring sowing did not rise, and the river continued to dwindle until all that was left of it were a few brown puddles with helplessly slapping fish dying by dozens in the drying mud.
Even the grass under the hot sun dried up and turned into tinder, so the cattle had nothing to eat. Day after day, the animals became thinner and weaker, although we tried to find them the remnants of grazing; it was useless. Then there was not a day when we did not find at least one cattle dead and the others emaciated to the bone and desperate.
At that time, I couldn't help but notice that even the people were starting to sink into themselves.
That Tamira, at other times slender but elegant, the village's greatest beauty, had hands as thin as chopsticks, and that her legs could barely bear her.
That Ramja's beloved dog suddenly disappeared and Ramja himself, dirty and tangled, almost stopped leaving the house.
That from the neighbors' house the cry of the infant was heard more and more often and harder, until it merged into an endless cry of pain and hunger.
I thought about all this in my head as I was searching for pink flowers among the stiff leaves, and Ajika was holding me around my waist and kissing my neck, and more than once I thought it wouldn't take long anymore.
Still, a few more long weeks passed before the village priest sent for me. By that time, it couldn't surprise me anymore. The question was not if, but when; not if, but whom.
I promised myself that I would be brave. That if he sends for me when the time comes, I will follow him with my head held high. But when my mother came to me with trembling hands and tears in her eyes, something in me, something small and frightened and hidden deep in my chest, sighed and died.
I didn't cry. Just as I was leaving the house, I caught my mother's gaze, and who knows why it seemed to me that this way it was much worse.
The village priest is a reasonable man. This is not to say that we love him. He does what he does because he is commanded so by duty, and he performs it conscientiously and judiciously. He has never abused his power in vain, and the nature of his work does not make him a villain; yet it never enjoyed popularity.
Without him, life is hard to imagine; and yet I don't know a man who doesn't look the other way when he passes him on the street.
"Navei," he said, nodding his head like a puppet on a string. "Navei, Navei... you know why I sent for you."
It wasn't a question; yet I nodded. The priest's eyebrows furrowed with regret. It seemed sincere.
"I waited a long time, Navei. But the gods are unbreakable, and men are already at the bottom of their strenght. We can't wait any longer."
But why me? I wanted to scream. My hands suddenly trembled, I clenched them into fists so that the priest would not see it, but I think he noticed anyway. And I said nothing out loud; even when the question hit my tongue, the answer offered itself.
So that it doesn't have to be Ajika.
I took a deep breath and swallowed the words; just as I blinked to ward off the tears that pinched in my eyes. The priest just watched patiently and gave me all the time in the world, just so that he could take it from me in the next moment.
"When?" I finally asked.
"We've been waiting too long like this..."
Tomorrow. Like an iron mallet hitting. A word that turns years into a single day. A word that takes the breath out of your lungs.
I nodded slowly. I thought of the child in the neighbor's house; the way his cries have been heard more and more faintly in the recent days.
For a moment the priest seemed to smile, but sincere repentance triumphed over false pride; at least for that little I could be grateful for. He escorted me out, without fear of not coming back. Perhaps he knew that the thought of Ajika tied my legs tighter than hemp ropes; maybe he just trusted me.
"You're brave, Navei."
I turned and looked into his eyes; and it was he, the village priest, our most respected and powerful and forever unloved man, who looked away.
"It's my duty. Just my duty."
He looked behind me until I walked between the houses. And even then, I didn't speed up. I walked barefoot through the dust and people turned around behind me, knowing my fate. I read compassion in their eyes; maybe we'd hold on for a while, maybe the gods would have mercy. Sometimes I saw anger; we could have reconciled the gods a long time ago, what are we still waiting for and prolonging suffering?
I couldn’t decide which was more prevalent.
I walked through the crowd’s middle, as if I were already carrying a golden crown on my head, and I endured it until I passed the village walls.
And then I started running and I ran and ran until I ran out of breath and the stones of the collapsed temple emerged from the forest in front of me.
I stumbled to a moss-covered wall, on which the slender stems of tahua climbed into the sky. I took them in my hands and immediately flinched again; the stems rattled against each other like dry bones, and the once stiff wax leaves were wrinkled and brown.
Tomorrow, the tahua whispered in the rattling of the dying foliage, and I finally slid to the ground and started crying.
I don't know how long it took for Ajika to find me. All I'm sure is that by then my tears had dried up completely and a portion of my time had been bitten off.
She ran through the trees and stopped when she saw me.
I barely managed to look at her with sore, red eyes, and I was already stuck in her arms like in a wicker cage. She showered kisses on my face and I felt her lips rough and dry and the hands hugging me skinny.
"Navei... oh, Navei."
She didn't ask why or when, and when I put her head in my lap, she still held on to me tightly, as if she never wanted to let me go again in this time and life.
I stroked her hair and drowned in her eyes, and we were silent for a long, long time.
"Run," she finally whispered, and we both knew it was impossible.
I shook my head.
"I can't, Ajika," they would take you, I didn't say. The gods would just stretch out their hand and take another soul instead of me in exchange for rain. It could be any of the village girls; Casia or Jamys or Tiska. Perhaps even the beautiful Tamira, of whose beauty there was not much left. But I knew deep down that it would be Ajika, and she knew it too.
Yet she shook her head furiously, and in that moment, oh gods, in that moment I loved her more than ever before.
"You have to. Please! Let the gods find someone else. They can't take you from me."
"What about all the people in the village? And all the children who will soon die of starvation? What about them, Ajika?"
"Rather them than you."
The stubborn hardness of those words took my breath away. I bent down and kissed Ajika for a long time, because there was nothing more to say. And then we lay next to each other, watching the stars glitter among the bare branches, while nearby the tahua rattled in the wind, and time was less with each breath.
I walked through the crowd with a crown of cold gold, my wrists laden with massive bracelets, and wrapped in a cloak of bird feathers.
Queen of Drought.
Queen of Death.
I walked to the altar on the path of many others long before me. In times of famine, disease and attacks by savage invaders; every time the gods decided they wanted blood, and only when it was necessary. Our priest is reasonable. He's just doing his job.
He greeted me with a bow and I didn't budge on him. I stared stiffly in front of me, under a steely gray sky, while dozens of upset voices sounded behind my back. At one point, they roae and I felt a touch on my hand, a tiny pink flower pressed into my palm. I faltered.
Thunder rattled in the distance.
I lay down on the altar and fixed my gaze on the sky. The gods were pleased, I felt it; they listened to the priest's rants, and I was crushing a tiny flower of tahua in my palm.
The prayer is over. The queen of drought will now die so that the water can return to the people.
Life will go on.
The priest raised his hand with the knife and I closed my eyes.
A small drop of rain fell on my face.