I stand between two doors, beneath the Arch of the Temple. The Arch is painted white, with golden symbols, meanings lost in the tide of the centuries. Right above me, a symbol I do understand: a red tear.
One door leads forward, the other back. One door is easy. I choose the other.
The Arch room left behind, I enter a great Hall, decorated all around in golden vines, interspersed with markings of color. More red tears, white circles, black shapes of people. Not people. Women.
The hall has a rhythm, dictated by immense stained-glass windows. Five pairs of windows, set on either side, filter the white light from outside, paint it in color and mark the sections of the great Hall.
A figure waits for me ahead, draped in black, hooded, with eyes barely visible. The skin is pale, but that is all I see before I lower my gaze and kneel. I don’t know how much I am allowed to see.
“You have made your choice, daughter?” The figure calls from a distance.
“You will call us Mother.”
“Rise and come close, daughter. These halls are now your own. You should explore them, learn them, love them, since you shall never leave them.”
I stand before the council of Mothers, all clad in robes of deep, lush colors. Black, red, purple, blue, their hair painted to match. Long blonde curls, beside short cropped brown. They are neither young nor old.
Beside me wait others as well, all dressed in gray. All with heads shaved, and red tears tattooed in place of hair. Some are younger than me, with tears in their eyes, but maybe it will be easier for them to forget the other life.
But maybe it will be harder, since they have not seen, felt, what lies ahead for them in the world of man.
The dark is terrifying. It could be small, closing snug around me, or it could be vast, limitless, eternal, rendering me null. Merely an absence. There is no way to tell where the darkness ends and where it begins. No shadows break its fall, nor silhouettes; it pours endless over me.
The first trial.
To stand alone amid the dark, and not let darkness in your mind. There is no food, and little water, stale, trickling beside me. It is an act of trust to drink. I do, for thirst will not be denied.
I don’t know where I am. Am I in one of the great Halls? I doubt the radiance of those windows could be blinded so extremely, made somehow to reflect entirely the light of life from outside.
Although the light has given us life, the heat is now what kills us.
In the place where I was reared, shade is a luxury. Now I have darkness enough to share with all the generations, so that none would walk in light.
To be beneath the sun, direct, is punishment. If left long enough, the verdict is death.
Our homes have no windows, to spare energy for cooling, energy for filtering, to keep as many as possible of us alive. Alive, but at what cost?
The darkness roars in my ears, as it trickles closer to my thoughts. The floor is cold and hard underneath, it keeps me grounded, it keeps me safe. As long as my fingers touch the porous stone, I am still here.
The cot where I sleep, slept, in the room of Free Women, is neither hard nor soft. It is enough to ensure rest after a day’s service, and strength for a day more. What comes after, we shall see.
I was issued my cot on the day I became a Free Woman. We are Free because we are untaken. Beside me sleep other girls of similar years, but it is never dark completely, never so dark that you cannot get up and serve immediately if duty calls.
The darkness presses on top of me, forcing me into the ground. Are my eyes open? They cannot be, for I see glimpses, I see long hallways and gray skirts, white light flickering, tall men. I see, and feel, the cane, the whip, the tears staining the dress. The floor. Here, the only time you stop seeing is when you sleep in the Underhall, when your service is done.
My service is done.
A soft line of light cracks ahead. The earth and sky have split, and, in the fracture, I see heaven. A figure in red floats towards me.
“I am the Mother of Red, daughter. I am here to escort you to your second trial, if you wish to continue.”
We are naked together. The room is painted blue, red horizontal lines splitting the walls into equal sections, from the floor to the ceiling. Mosaic creatures play beneath our feet amid reeds and algae, I recognize the algae, it is what we eat. I do not know the creatures, long and gray, metallic blue, round snouts with small, black eyes. Or no eyes. No arms or legs either.
When the water first comes, it tickles my toes.
Water is a rarity, given through a straw, through a port in the wall. It must be deserved. Earned. There is never enough to quench the thirst of all, no one alive can remember not being at least a little parched. Maybe the tall men.
Cleansing is done by powders.
The other girls look down at the rivulets forming between our feet and smile, stoop, fill their cupped hands. They drink and pour it over their bald heads. They splash one another, giggling.
The room is filled up to the first red line.
When the water reaches our midriff, the giddiness evaporates. Some girls still study their own reflection, crouched down in the tepid pool, their faces swimming above the vivid mosaic. Others look around, as if seeing their surroundings for the first time. The bare floor, the bare walls, the ceiling, closer and closer.
Water has swallowed half the red markings, and is now around our shoulders, inching towards our necks. Swimming is something abstract, a word heard in stories, legends, myths. Fish swim. What are fish? The shorter ones are standing on their tippy toes.
As the first girls go under, panic sets in. Screaming, clawing, climbing. Nowhere to climb but on top of the weak.
I propel myself off the floor and catch a breath of air. As I sink back, water invades my ears, my eyes, my mouth, though I purse it shut. It does not ask for permission to go inside, it enters as it pleases. It does not need consent.
Whatever else we have lost since the world has gone inside, the men still need our consent. Our tacit approval. They can go inside our bodies against our will, but not inside our souls. We must be the ones to split those open. We have to choose. Either stay in our cot, in the room of Free Women, and then grow our bellies large, in the bed of a tall man, or we can choose to walk through a door.
By the end, we all float. Few belly up, eyes closed, still breathing; most belly down, eyes open and not. There are scratches on all bodies, alive or dead, and on some souls. Mostly the ones of the living.
The water is drained slowly, bringing us back to the ground, off our backs and on our feet. The girls that come down are different from the girls that went up. As we are led outside, no one looks back at the girls who remain horizontal, though the water is gone.
The second trial is over.
In the great Hall with tall windows, five tall-backed chairs wait at the front, facing the wall. More than five girls escaped the water room, but they chose not to have to escape again. They knew, I think, that the door beneath the red teardrop only opens one way.
We sit in the chairs allotted us. In front of us stands the council of Mothers; behind us the sea of daughters passed through trials, stamped with teardrops, waits as one.
“You have survived the darkness and the water, and have left them behind,” says the Mother of White, bright as a star, shining before us.
“Now,” she continues, “you must survive the self, and leave it behind.”
She paces from wall to wall, her white robes so radiant, they leave a trail of light behind.
“Only knit together will our power strengthen, as in spirit so in body. Each must lean on the sister beside her, or else fall. To add a link to a chain, first the link must break, then fit in place and be welded back together. With each link, the chain grows stronger, longer, able to wrap around its enemies. To force together. To strangle. The links understand what it is to be broken and mended again, and, so, they do not fear.”
She faces us.
“Will you be welded to our chain?”
On a small table ahead, lie three cards, face down. Painted on the back, the red teardrop on a background of black. It looks more brown than red and irregular.
By the cards is a metal tray with instruments that appear medical. Sharp, steel, repugnant. The Mother of Blue has plastic gloves and wears an apron above her robes.
My chair is second. The girl before me raises from her place, takes small steps to reach the table and chooses a card. All color vanished from her face, she visibly trembles. Tears drop, unrestrained, but she walks back and sits down.
The Mother produces an implement resembling a saw, but much finer, as well as a small, sharp knife.
The girl screams at first, when the Mother sinks the knife into the flesh of her right arm. As blood pours over her brown garment, the screams subside to sobs. She begs, as two Mothers hold her down. I hear them whispering in her ears, “The Daughters of Man shall rise.” Soon, white bone glints beneath the red. Before the saw touches her, she faints.
When it is over, she is taken away. Away to be welded.
It is my turn to choose a card. I walk as through a dream, legs heavy as with fever, arms numb and fingers tingling. My insides have long since turned to stone. Long before I walked beneath the Door of the Red Tear.
The cards all look alike, though the tears are asymmetrical. The shades of their color are also different. But what does a smaller tear mean? Or a darker one? Can a body live easier without a leg or without a tongue? Does it matter if it has ears?
I let my hand decide which card to lift. A blue eye stares back at me, roughly drawn, with long black lashes. I fight the violent urge to faint.
Though my eyes see no more, my mind is full of light. I see a world above the earth, where light doesn’t burn to destroy, where water runs freely, imbuing the earth with life. People walk this world, delivered from the tall men and Free Women.
I am held up by my sisters. Each hold one of my arms, guiding me forward. Together we sing, “The Daughters of Man shall rise.”