The ruins of Gobekli Tepe, seen from the perspective of different times
|It’s the little things about Maia that turn me on: the way she’s always got a loop of dark hair falling down her face, flopped over one china-doll eye; the indecisive way she wears her shirt, with one tail tucked in and the other hanging out over her shapely behind; the curve of her tongue when she laughs. Maybe these things are so endearing because she can’t see them herself.
This is what I’m thinking as I follow her down the causeway that hangs out over the archeological diggings, telling her what I see. It’s wide enough that we could walk side by side, but the way is straight, and she gets a kick out of leading. I can always do a little course correction from behind if she gets skewed.
Maia stops so suddenly I almost run into her, and I stop in mid-sentence as she turns. “Caitlyn, darlin’, I’m loving your descriptions and everything, but I might as well be walking in a shopping mall. A shopping mall with seriously fucked-up AC.” We’re here early in the day, ahead of the other tourists, but it’s already heating up. The first sunlight skims the tops of several of the T-shaped monuments up ahead, which overlook a mix of restored earthworks and digs-in-progress.
“This is where you wanted to come on our honeymoon, babe.” I try to keep the distress out of my voice, but I want so much for her to be happy. Maia loves old stuff, and Gobekli Tepe is about as old as it comes.
“I’m not complaining. Nuh-uh.” She flashes an evil grin. “I just want to see something.” And before I have any idea what she’s up to, she’s on her butt with feet dangling over the boards, hands over head to grip the rope handrail. “How far down is it? What do I land on?”
Before I met Maia I always thought blind people would be cautious. I try to make my voice sound like she's not scaring me stupid. “Not too bad, right here anyway. Maybe a three-foot drop, flat at the bottom. You can make it, no problem.”
Which she does, without hesitation. She holds her landing crouch long enough to rub her hands through the dirt, then stands with arms out and turns a full circle. “Hand down my cane, will you? I’m gonna feel me some rock!”
“Come back up quick, okay? I don’t want to get in trouble.” I slide the cane into her waiting hand.
Maia taps around till she finds her stone. It’s not a big, impressive T-pillar like they have in the main part of the site, just a chunk of rock. Only the shape is so regular you know some human hand must have formed it, all those thousands of years ago.
“What does it feel like?”
“Amaaaaazing. I’m touching the same thing some neolithic person touched when they carved it. This stone is warm, like it’s alive.” She drops her hands from it and beams a smile up in my general direction. “There’s some lines on it, too. Maybe a carving?” She runs her hands over it, as if it were braille. “A bird, I think. Man, I can almost hear their voices, speaking Neolithic.”
“That’s pretty cool, but if you don’t get back up here I’m afraid we’re both going to hear some really angry voices speaking Turkish.”
I’m worried it’ll be hard to get her up again, but she’s light, and I’m strong. As soon as Maia and her cane are back on the boardwalk, she leads the way. I hurry behind, describing the circle of standing stones below. “Some of these have carvings. I can’t tell from here what they are– Hey, what are you doing?”
She’s at the edge of the boards again, feet dangling over. “I’ve got to check out these carvings!” Without waiting for any kind of help from me, she slips off.
The ground below is uneven. She misses her landing and topples over, not too hard, but the ground is unforgiving – barren, except for a few tufts of grass and some red flowers. I’m down there in no time, half out of my wits with fear. I don’t see much blood, but she’s out cold.
~ * ~
Achar has so many ideas, but it’s the simplest ones I love the best. Like the handle he devised for this bowl, so I can keep his food warm without burning my hand. Instead of nagging or intimidating his wife like the other husbands, he finds ways to make things easier for me. This is what runs through my mind as I swish the bowl, and sense the departure of the evening light as I await his return.
The weather is fine enough that we can camp out under the stars. My fire is down to embers by the time I hear stones popping out from under Achar’s feet. He lets out a gust of breath as he sits by me. “Do you know what he said this time? Do you know what he told me?” His voice is on my left, so I turn the pan’s handle to that side.
“It would be best if you simply stayed away from my brother.”
“This smells wonderful, Lekah.”
I’m proud of the stew, and see no reason to hide it. “Tamar shared the fresh herbs she gathered, and I tenderized the gazelle meat with the special hammer you made.”
“It is good,” he says, savoring a mouthful. “You are wrong about Chebar, though. I can’t just stay away from him. Can’t just allow him to lead our people into darkness.” He pauses, puts a hand on my arm. “Pardon, Lekah. I do not mean ‘darkness’ as any insult to you.”
“I know well enough what you you mean.”
“It would be easier to avoid your brother, not better.”
“Fine, just tell me what he said.” Sometimes my husband thinks so much, his words outlive their sense.
“He wants to slaughter the herd. Hunting has been poor, and he thinks mammoths are good for nothing but meat.”
“Why would he say that?” I'm a little shocked that my brother would go so far. The herd allows our tribe to move camp over much greater distances, carrying tents and tools we might otherwise need to abandon. Other tribes can’t carry nearly as much as they follow the game, and can’t go so far in search of food. Achar is the chief mammoth handler, an honored position among us.
“He has decided we are to stay in one place, and thinks we won’t need them anymore. If you ask me, though, he's just trying to make moving more difficult. To narrow our choices.”
Achar has forgotten his food. I grope for the handle and place the bowl back on the embers.
“He says it’s what the ‘gods’ told him. Can you believe that? He’ll use his position as shaman to make us do this stupid thing, and people will let him because he puts his own words into the mouths of gods that don’t even exist!”
“Most people believe in the gods, and want to hear what they say.”
When my husband is convinced of his own ideas, he hasn't much patience for contrary viewpoints. “You can’t see, Lekah, but you observe the world more carefully than anyone I know. Have you ever found any gods? Heard them, touched them? When Chebar says he ‘communes’ with them, do you have any sense of their presence? Of course not! He says what he thinks, and oh, yes, that just happens to be what his gods think too. It’s a way of controlling people, nothing more.”
I’m glad we’re at the edge of the settlement, where no one will hear. Achar's persistence in this matter has won him no friends. “I’m not so sure, my husband. I may be blind, but sometimes I see things. I can’t explain how, and often don’t understand the things I see. I don’t know; it could be messages from a god.”
It is wrong to argue with one’s husband, but Achar doesn’t scold me. Now, I’m glad to notice, my words calm him down a little. “I’m sorry, Lekah, I don’t want to argue with you. But think what a tragedy it would be if Chebar gets his way. Everywhere we’ve traveled, the mammoth herds our ancestors depended on are gone. I’ve never seen one in my life, aside from the herd we keep. What if there are no others?” I hear the scrape of the bowl coming back off the coals, smell the stew as he stirs. “You left our skins last night, went for one of your walks. The night was cloudy and dark – the kind of night when your eyes shine strangely, and you say you see things.”
I lean against him. “It was hard to understand. As if I were looking down on some strange camp where all the people lived in huge blocks of stone. Carved stone, with every corner perfect. I slapped at my arm to know that I was real, but I felt the slap on feathers, not skin.” I slap my arms again, lost in my own description. “All around strange things moved and growled. I have no words for them. Even the people were strange, with colorful hair and clothing.” There was a lot more, but I'm out of words.
He says nothing, but he’s chewing his food slowly, as he does when he thinks.
~ * ~
Maia doesn’t open her eyes, just gropes for me. When I reach out to take her hand, she starts talking. “I smell hospital.”
“You've got a damn smart nose, babe. The Sanliurfa Academia Hospital, to be exact. You fell and hit your head on a rock. I went down after you, swearing like a pirate queen, but you were out cold. I called the tour company, but they wanted to send someone all the way from Urfa, so I told them to forget it. A local guy, a worker at the site, helped me get you to the car. I made some frantic calls to the embassy and managed to find this place. It’s mostly a mamas-and-babies hospital, but they’re taking good care of you. You had a concussion and needed a few stitches.” I’m so excited to have her awake again that I’m running off at the mouth. “Tell me, Maia, how the hell have you managed to survive to the ripe old age of twenty-three?”
“Cait, you are not going to believe what happened to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I just saw. It was in-cre-di-ble.” That last word stretches out.
Maia has a thing about the words “see” and “look,” words implying vision. She has no point of reference by which to understand sight; her blindness is congenital and complete. But Maia is Maia, and she won’t let that stop her.
“So you had a dream or something?”
“Only it wasn’t like a dream. I was walking around, and I could see everything. I remember looking down and there were these flowers, and lots of grass, and only then did I notice I was walking barefoot. Can you even believe that? I saw my feet before I even felt that I didn’t have shoes on. My feet must have been really tough.” She sits up in bed so quickly I have to untangle her from an IV. “And there were these animals, huge ones. Woolly mammoths, a herd of them. I just knew that, like I was someone who spent a lot of time around mammoths.”
I’m still trying to untangle her arm from the tube. “You must have been dreaming about ancient times. Was it Gobekli? Did you see the standing stones?”
“I told you, it wasn’t a dream.” She snatches the tube out of my hand. She doesn’t even sound like herself. “It wasn’t a dream, and yes, it was here in southern Turkey, but no, I didn’t see the stones. I mean, mammoths -- are you kidding me? They must have been extinct when Gobekli was built. If I was having a dream… I mean, I know better.”
I’m baffled about what I did to make her angry. “I’m sorry if I--”
At that she’s back to being Maia. “Oh Caitlyn, no, I’m sorry. I’m being a bitch, aren’t I? It was just so... intense. So real.” She fumbles around for my hand, and I give it to her. She holds it with both of hers, absently twisting my wedding band. “And I knew all this stuff I couldn’t possibly know. Like about the mammoths, and that there was a settlement nearby. But what was really amazing? Cait, I saw things. How could I have imagined vision?”
~ * ~
Men and mammoths grunt with effort, and the animal smell of them drifts up to the camp. Many times in the past Achar has used mammoths to fetch wood or move things, but today they’re working away in the same place, a little ways out from camp. I spend the early day helping my daughters, Berith and Chanah, dry meat and fruit for storage, then come back to my camp to prepare our meal. Our husbands are away until after dark, and we can’t even guess what they’re doing.
My brother comes looking for the men to plan a hunt. He asks what my husband is up to. I tell him I don’t know, but that I hope his eyes will tell him more than my ears.
“You’re a good wife, Lekah, not to question your husband. I’ll go have a word with him.” And with that, he has no more use for me.
When the men come back to eat, all Achar says is, “I’m making something for Chebar. Something he will want.” But he won't explain further, and I learn no more from what little my daughters’ husbands say. All I know is that they’re digging something.
I worry that Achar is so secretive. I worry that “something Chebar wants” is not the same as something he’s asked for. More than anything, I wish my husband and brother would stop bickering. But I say none of this.
Their work goes on for the next few days. Only my husband and sons-in-law take part, which worries me. If Chebar endorsed this work, wouldn't he ask others to help? Otherwise, men are afraid helping Achar might mean crossing Chebar. The three of them come back to camp every evening hungry and exhausted, but with very little to say.
One evening, after we are alone, Achar is in no hurry to sleep. “Lekah, come with me. It’s time to show you.”
He takes my hand to lead me away from our camp circle, but once we’re away from the reach of any light he falls behind and lets me lead, since I can navigate just as well in dark as light.
“Careful here, the ground’s uneven.”
“Yes, I’ve heard the digging and the picking.” Men and mammoths have disturbed the earth all around; I edge my feet into and out of footprints and other rough places. I feel the presence of the great stone before I touch it. Both my palms go to it, circle the surface of the stone, but find no end to it. Slowly I walk around, a finger grazing the surface, tracing the sides. Corner, shorter side, corner, longer side, and so forth until I’m back beside Achar.
There’s no point in asking questions. I wait for my husband to speak.
“If we are going to stay in one place as Chebar wants, we’ll need to build things, not just wander until we find them. And we can build things, even things the people have never seen before. Anything we can think, we can build. Men have the minds to imagine how to build anything, and our mammoths have the strength to help.”
I nod, but I’m not sure whether he can see me. “Yes.”
He takes my hand and leads me to a flat place where we can sit. “I’ve been imagining problems – problems and possibilities. Here’s one: what will we do with our honored ones who have died?”
“We’ve always offered them to the Sky God.”
“But of course there is no Sky God, nor any other god. We take the one who’s died to a high rock and leave them for the vultures.”
No one speaks this way about the gods. I feel a heaviness in the air above my head. “The Sky God has helpers.”
“If we’re to stay here as Chebar says, if we are to become men who stay home tending grain and storing harvests, we won’t have the freedom to take our honored ones to a mountain for the birds. So I, we, all the herders and our beasts, will bring a mountain to our people.”
“I don’t understand. How tall is this rock?”
“Right now, lying on the ground, not so tall. We’ve carved out two blocks of stone, and made harnesses for many mammoths. Tomorrow, we will make the stones stand up. Not so tall as a mountain, but tall enough. With a flat place on top, where we can secure our honored ones.”"
The problem of the dead hadn't occurred to me, let alone a solution. “How did you think of such a thing? It’s so much work – you’ve already missed two hunts. Does Chebar really approve?”
“He hasn’t tried to stop me.” Achar caresses my hand, the way he used to do when we were young. “I got the idea from your vision. The way you talked about people living in a settlement of stone – I could see it too. I couldn’t sleep, thinking why people would stand so many stones up like that. It made me think of the high rocks in the mountains where we leave our honored ones.” Achar doesn’t mention the Sky God. To him, it’s an offering to no one.
“In that vision I felt like a bird myself, so high above everything. I saw everything, but understood very little.” Another possibility occurs to me. "If we stay in one place, as you say, we may build whatever we want. Of rock, which lasts forever. Under the hands of many generations, the settlement would grow higher and higher."
"A vision, then, of another time. Of a settlement so grand one must look at it from above, like a bird." He has grasped my idea and seems intrigued by what it implies. “Have you had any more visions?”
“Only the same one, with different details.”
Achar stands, yawns, ready for sleep himself. “Soon, perhaps, something more will come of them.”
~ * ~
A thin scream wakes me, and I’m up like a shot. The hotel bed shifts and creaks under us, as I try to shake Maia awake. She won’t stop making that high, birdlike sound. “Maia, Maia honey, wake up! It’s just another nightmare, babe, nothing but another stupid dream.”
It takes a full five minutes of shaking, shouting and kissing to wake her enough to sit up in bed. I switch on the bedside lamp, puff up a pillow behind her back, get her a glass of water. Her eyes fix straight ahead on something I can’t see, and they’ve got that weird silvery glint. She’s panting.
I hate hearing about these dreams. I wish I could make them stop, though I feel a little foolish for wishing it. They exhaust me. But I know Maia needs to talk about them. “Was it mammoths, again?” I ask, slipping back into bed.
“About a thousand of them. Running. It was deafening, the pounding. I was right above, like a bird following them and watching them go over.”
“What do you mean, 'go over'? Go over what?”
She turns to me, buries her face in the curve between my shoulder and my breast, so that her next words come out muffled. “Over the edge of the world.” A pause. “Don’t laugh.”
I’m not laughing.
“This baby was screaming, and it was deafening. He was tied up. At first, before I got scared and flew away, I was very close. So close I could see his little pecker and knew it was a boy. He was tied to one of those pillars, and birds were tearing at him. Blood everywhere. The poor little thing was all trussed up and just screaming and screaming and screaming.” She sobs, gulping for air. “The mammoths stampeded and thundered to the edge, and then just fell off into a void of black. It was like a night sky with no stars.” The muscles of her arms go rigid, and she pulls away from me. “I know the world’s not flat, for Jesus sake. Why am I dreaming the world is flat?”
“The first time you had one of these, you said it wasn’t a dream. You were pretty insistent about that.”
She sits back now, thoughtful, and I watch the delicate pulsing of a vein in her neck. “Now I’m not so sure. I think… I think maybe it’s a dream. But not my dream, you know?”
“Um, no. In fact you’ve totally lost me.”
“I think I’m having someone else’s dreams.”
This is all crazy, and I'm starting to lose patience. “Whose?”
“Don’t know, but I need to give them back.”
“Give them back? How do you give back a dream?”
“She needs her dreams back, Cait.” All at once she lifts off the covers, swings down her legs and goes to the chair where her clothes are precisely laid out. “This is our last night in Urfa. I want to see Gobekli Tepe again. Drive me, okay?”
It’s not quite three AM. We have a plane to catch later this morning. After the accident, the folks at Gobekli Tepe strongly suggested we not come back to the site without a guide. For all those reasons and more, this sounds like a bad idea. "I really don't think so."
"No? Really, seriously, no?" Her surprise gives way to temper, as if she'd assumed I'd go along with any crazy thing she said. "Then I'll just have to walk by myself."
I bite back a curse, wrap my fist around the keys and follow.
~ * ~
The pillars have been a great success – a surprise to me, given the friction between my brother and husband, which feels thick as a summer storm. What started out as one pillar has become two-hands-minus-one-finger, with another being built. The newer ones are carved with designs, often pictures the Sky God’s birds.
The gods have told Chebar we must erect a new pillar for each soul. Building the pillars is a lot of work, but other men now participate, so it doesn’t all fall on Achar.
The longer we stay in one place, the more natural it seems; we keep our tents pitched in a little valley just below the pillars, and graze the mammoths on the hills. A few smaller wandering tribes join us.
The ceremony for sending our dead to the Sky God is beautiful to observe. Once the mammoths pull the pillar into place, Chebar and the soul’s nearest relative carry the corpse to the top, using a special ladder Achar devised. The women weave a rope, which they wind around the top part of the pillar: one rope for the ankles, one for the wrists. Then Chebar leads the people in chants, and his wife, Mairah, sings a special song for the soul. When we’re done wishing the honored one farewell, the birds come.
Chebar says the birds take the honored one’s soul to the next world. Achar says they’re merely eating meat, with no more thought of souls than we have when we eat a sheep. But at least for now, they refrain from arguing with each other.
For several years, life is good for everyone. Achar is happy that his mammoths have proved their worth, while Chebar and his gods are happy to preside over their rituals. I am happy my vision is of some service to the tribe.
Sometimes I walk in the night to visit the stone settlement that lives in my visions, flying among stone blocks full of people and lights. So many lights; so much noise! I wish my dreams would tell me more about my own family and tribe, but on these matters they are silent. I fly above, wordless stories tell themselves below – stories of someone else's world.
I’m still not sure what to think about way my own life is changing, let alone these visions of the lives of strangers.
~ * ~
I’m glad I’ve got a flashlight, because the site is completely dark. Of course this doesn’t faze Maia, and she makes for the boardwalk as soon as I stop the car. It takes a minute for me to park, so I'm two dozen steps behind. I just catch sight of her swinging her legs off the boardwalk in the beam of my flashlight before she jumps.
“Maia, wait up! I mean it!” I run to her, panting and sweating, but relieved to see she’s okay.
“I'm fine. It's a short drop here.”
“At least take your damn cane.” I'm on hands and knees, dangling it over the side.
“No, you hold onto it for me. I just want to have a look around. I won’t go far." She looks straight at me, her silver-shot eyes undisturbed by the beam of my flashlight. "Don't worry, I promise to be careful.”
“Fine. Two minutes. Two fucking minutes.”
"Jeez, Cait, keep your shirt on." She knows I'm upset, but that's not going to change her plan.
I sit cross-legged on the boards and switch off my flashlight, looking for stars, but finding none in the overcast sky. As a city girl I find this level of darkness weird, almost disturbing. It presses up against me like some indecipherable being, bearing a message that can’t be translated into words. Maybe Maia can embrace the darkness, but it’s all too foreign for me. Some kind of bird passes overhead -- an owl, most likely, though it's too dark to see. The breath of its wings makes me shiver, as if I were prey.
I'm not thinking about dreams or archeological ruins or any of the rest of it. I'm thinking about living the rest of my life with an extremely strong-willed person. How will I handle it? Is being in love worth taking the crap? Because right now I feel more used than loved.
Still, marriage means something: Maia and I share our life. A vow is an act of will, and our vows mean we belong to each other. But that doesn't mean I have no will of my own. Or at least, it doesn't have to.
My flashlight comes on, and I train the beam in the direction Maia walked, to the right of a big chunk of rock. A flick of the wrist moves the beam in a circle of the area, and I see her shape. But when I shine the light on that shape, it's black, black as a hole in the dark fabric of night. A Maia-shaped hole. My blood feels like it's been replaced by ice water.
A dozen steps and I'm on top of the blackness. It slithers out from under me as if it had never been there. Instinct tells me to attack, but I can't find anything to grab or hit. I'm right on top of the shadow, but it refuses to behave like anything real.
Maia comes stumbling, trying to run. "Cait, what…? Oh! You're here!" That last sentence isn't directed at me.
I'm with one person but also two: lover and other, and that other so far outside my experience I don't know what to make of it. I want to knock its head with a stone, want to kiss it, want to strangle it... Compelled to act, I'm torn between possible actions and impossible ones, torn by extremes. Emotions gather around me like a flock of frightened birds.
I grab Maia's arm, turn her chin so we're facing each other. She can't see me, but she sees something, I know it. In the weird, upcast light of my dropped flashlight, my own vision has gotten tricky. I'm so used to depending on sight, but now, here, it only confuses me. I shut my eyes.
Something like cold fingers touches my ankle. A shiver runs through me. The shadowy presence moves. Its cold creeps up my body as it straightens and stands; a stiffness in Maia's muscles tells me she feels it too. Impulsively, I grope for the coldness and hold it. It's no more substantial than it was before, but this time I grab something -- some cold essence which struggles madly to free itself.
Everything is silent, except for Maia's breath and mine. I'm holding the shadow still, barely, and hanging onto Maia at the same time, her thick hair smooth against my neck. There's no sound or substance to the shadow, but I'm more aware of it than I've ever been of anything in my life. I'm certain Maia feels it too.
"Caitlyn, help." Maia's voice is scratched with fear.
And I think, maybe I can. I don't know why their dreams got crossed, but I know when. Maia didn't just hit her head on a neolithic carved rock, she somehow fell into their world, and somehow two people got jammed. Two things can't occupy the same space at the same time; maybe that's the necessary impossibility. What if I can force the two of them together again? I'm scared, but I've got to makes something happen.
With all the strength in my arms I hold them, both of them, and both struggle against me. Four arms push, four legs kick; fingernails scratch my face, though I can't tell whose. Then they fuse; for a moment both of them are in the same place at the same time. My arms ache with the strain of holding them.
Behind my closed eyes swim visions of two worlds. I'm watching mammoths graze under standing stones, and at the same time I'm a bird flying over Manhattan. She was right; they're not dreams. Visions, and more than visions -- part of a tandem existence. For a few seconds, I'm part of them too.
Then it's done, and I'm holding only Maia. Exhausted, I let my arms go slack; I can barely hold myself up. But Maia pulls me to her, and won't let me go.
~ * ~
The winter hasn’t been harsh. Spring so far is fertile and the people healthy, so we’ve had no Sky God offerings in a year. Achar and many others, both men and women, find ways to encourage useful plants to grow near our settlement, especially grain. Mixing mammoth dung into the earth helps things grow, and the beasts also help us build stone structures of many kinds. Achar feels he has proved their value, and this makes him happy.
My daughter Berith grows large with her second child. When the grain is ankle-high she goes to the women’s tent. The child come in the night – a small boy, easy to birth.
When the grain is hip-high, Chanah, Berith and I bring the boy to my brother for first naming. Chebar now lives in a home made of stone, not a tent. Men and mammoths built the home last autumn; Chebar calls it a symbol of our not-moving life. The new home has a room for his magic fire, where he goes into his trance. Mairah stays busy collecting trance-weed, and Chebar seldom comes out of his new home. His gods must be giving him many visions.
As for me, my visions are again my own. I don't understand what caught me that night. But since then, the land where people live in blocks of stone has gone far away, where it belongs. Instead, I dream about Achar and me and our family, wandering again with our mammoth herd.
Mairah welcomes us, brings us soup. We women talk about plants, children, and our growing settlement. The baby fusses, nurses, goes back to sleep.
I’m becoming restless. “Where is Chebar?”
“He said he must prepare himself for the naming.” Mairah’s words are tight, and I realize she hasn’t sounded comfortable all morning. “I’ll see if he’s ready.”
I squeeze Berith’s hand, and we wait while voices buzz in the other room.
“You have brought the child?” Chebar’s booming voice wakes the baby, who begins to fuss again. “The gods have had much to say. Let me see him.”
When Chanah passes him to Chebar he howls, but Chebar walks circles around his home, chanting over the baby, and soon the crying stops. We’re all quiet; there’s something mesmerizing about the chant. Achar may not believe in my brother’s magic, but I’m not so sure.
When Chebar comes back to the center of the house where we sit, he hands the child to Mairah. “This child does not need a name.”
A cold wave of shock falls over me. “He is alive and healthy for the length of three moons. A strong boy.”
“Sister, the baby is blind.” He puts his hand on my arm, and it’s all I can do not to pull away.
“Blind, like me, but healthy and strong.” I mustn’t argue with my brother, but the way he’s talking frightens me.
“No harm for a woman to be blind, but a man is different.” Chebar has all the power in this situation, yet his voice sounds defensive. “Besides, we’ve had no offering for too long. The gods grow impatient.”
I’m shaking all over, fighting the desire to take the baby and run. “No, Chebar! Women have occasionally exposed babies born deformed, but only if the family decided–”
“I am family.”
“–only if the family decided the child wouldn’t survive!”
We’re on our feet, face to face. Both my daughters weep, and I think Mairah does as well.
“The gods have told me how it will be. Next winter will be hard, and food should go only to productive members of the tribe. If the Sky God takes him to live with the ancestors now, he will suffer less.”
“I’m sure you remember that some of our ancestors were themselves blind. And productive? Babies are never ‘productive,’ blind or not.”
“You know what I mean, sister. A blind man cannot farm, or make tools, or raise stone pillars.” Chebar shoves me away from him, and I stagger, almost falling backwards. “Ask your husband. I have no more time to argue with women. The gods have told me their wishes. The Sky God offering is good enough for our honored ones, and it’s good enough for a flawed child.”
I’ve gone too far already, and my words are useless. I have no answer to his anger, only tears.
Chebar makes himself calmer, his voice hard and determined. “The stone is already cut for the pillar, ready to be raised. I will keep the baby to prepare him, make him holy. Berith will come only to nurse him. This is no longer her child, but the gods’.”
After that, there’s nothing to do but go. My daughters hold each other, still crying, and as we leave we hear the baby wail.
I can’t even bring myself to go home and cook for my husband. When it grows dark, Achar finds me in Berith’s tent.
When I tell him, Achar is incredulous. “He thinks the pillars give him power. He thinks they make him special to these gods of his, that they favor him over anyone else. And of course he’s seen to it that this all happens when our daughters’ husbands are away hunting.”
Chanah has prepared some food, but no one is hungry, not even the children. I comfort Berith, who can’t stop weeping. The children bicker. Chanah fusses over them, fusses over the uneaten food. Achar says nothing.
For a time there is no sound at all but the crickets outside. Then Achar says, “I won't let him do this thing.”
"How will you stop him?"
"I'll talk to people." His statement is firm, but its words contain a wobble of doubt. "The tribe will follow reason."
"No, people will follow Chebar. They're afraid to argue with the gods. As for you, my husband, you've spit your doubts upon the gods for everyone to hear. No one will follow you now."
"They don't need to follow me, only to use sense."
How can someone so smart about farming and building have so little idea how people work? "You're so sure you are right, you think your certainty will convince others. It won't. And if others don't back you up, why should Chebar do anything but swat you away like a fly?"
Achar's anger is contained, yet plain enough. "If you believe I have no chance, if you think I should not even try, I'd like to know what you propose instead."
I step back, shocked at how completely I've overstepped my bounds.
Achar takes my hands and pulls me to him. "Lekah, I didn't mean… If you have something, some vision or idea, tell me."
All I can do is shake my head, biting back tears.
Achar speaks with passion. "Lekah, don't you see? The 'gods' who declare women's ideas worthless are the same ones decreeing an innocent child must die. Or that a blind visionary is less worthy than a man infatuated with his own power. If you must believe in gods, Lekah, you owe it to yourself at least to choose ones who do not hate you."
I think how Achar has always treated me with respect. I've always worried what my brother and others think of my husband; I've tried to smooth over our differences with the rest of the tribe; I've despaired when my husband, insisting that he is right and others are wrong, has refused to profit through compromise. But I've never really considered what his beliefs would mean if practiced. Could one born blind and female ever be as valuable to the tribe as a seeing man? Maybe, but not until someone like Achar first made people believe it was possible. Achar could have been a great leader, but it's too late for that now.
Yet I've dreamed a world where we walk together -- a world that includes Berith's blind boy. And I remember the wonder of that other, faraway world as well. Both things give me faith in our future.
“We have to leave the tribe.” My own idea stuns me, but sure of its rightness. “Our family will make a new tribe. We know where the hunters went. We’ll go in the night -- find our sons-in-law, and when we’re together we’ll keep going until we’re too far away for anyone to follow on foot. Since it’s summer, we don’t need to take much. We can make new tents when we’re far away.”
He considers. "It is a good plan, perhaps the only plan open to us. Still, Chebar will choose some other victim. He may lose us, but in the long run he'll get his own way."
"We'll take the all mammoths."
"Ah!" A pause while he considers. "And no pillars will be raised unless Chebar's gods do the raising." I hear a smile in his voice, though I'm far from cheerful myself.
“When Berith goes to nurse, she can say the baby won’t sleep without her. Then when Chebar sleeps, she’ll steal him.” I’m incredulous at the idea – a mother stealing her own baby?
Achar’s hand is warm over mine. "Now we’ll eat this wonderful food Chanah has prepared, and make ourselves strong for our journey.”
We eat cold stew and plan, until Mairah comes to fetch Berith to nurse.
~ * ~
“I had a dream.”
“Oh?” We’re back in our walk-up on a Sunday morning, lounging in bed with coffee and newspapers. Maia has a subscription to an audio news service, but she likes it when I read her interesting bits from the Times. We won’t go out for brunch until hunger conquers inertia. “It wasn’t another seeing dream, was it?”
“Yes, and it was in Gobleki Tepe. But it was my own dream this time.”
“What was it about?”
“I was flying over the site back in the time when people were covering it up with rubble. Thousands of people gathered together, like… I guess like a football game, or a concert.”
“That's way more people than ever lived in Gobleki Tepe, I'm pretty sure.”
“Come on, Cait, it’s just a dream.” She drains the last of her coffee. “So I flew down and landed on one of the pillars. They were talking their own language, of course, but I understood them. Dream logic again. Anyway, they believed it was an evil place. I don’t think they lived there; it sounded like all the people who once lived in the area were gone. Something bad happened, but I never found out what. Then somebody saw me and threw a rock, so I flew away.”
“Did you see her with them? You know, the woman?”
“Nope.” Maia gets out of bed, stretches, uses her feet to look for her slippers. “This would have been way in the future, for her.”
“Maybe. Or maybe when she died, she became the vulture.”
“Mmm, I hadn’t thought of that. I love you when you’re being mystical.” She kisses me on the forehead. “Now haul your ass out of bed before I start eating the pillows.”