Qubaataya Ihechio of the spiraling trunk of the water-tree on the bank of the lake where flowers grow reigned from the Shina years 261 to 287-- though perhaps reigned is not the correct word, for the laketop and lakebottom Qubaatayaat work in tandem with the city itself. Like the beating heart, they drum blood through the body, though a heart would be naught without the veins and sinew, and even the body itself: a recursion of existence.
Ihechio was very much human, born on the laketop, and therefore instated as laketop Qubaataya. In life they seemed listless and weary. They had sworn their soul in this incarnation to the very Lake Qitaeb itself and therefore were never to leave. Lake Qitaeb rose high into the sky, the crater of a mountain within the great Makke’uno range, isolated and beauteous. Perhaps this was a source of their discontent, treasured as their task was. See, for a few years into their rule they had asked for the assistance of a traveller, one who followed in the tradition of Qiwahcha, to return to Lake Qitaeb every now and then and tell them of the world. A traveller had indeed willingly come forward: Ma’e ei’wahcha, who was such a part of travelling that they had not even a birthplace name.
“Worry not, Qubaataya,” said Ma’e with a hand over their heart. “The nature of Qiwahcha’s path lies the world bare. There are no return trips, such is the nature of it, but perhaps I will allow you just this. I suppose now I have something close to some--thing, to return to.” Their words were punctuated with a chuckle. “Yes, I suppose.” Ma’e themself was slight, wiry, and slouched where Ihechio held primly. They wore a Buratlit cloak, Muqegaian shoes, an Agatin tunic, all dusted and muddy from use, while Ihechio wore the plain woven accoutrements of their position. Despite all this, Ma’e kept an easy and low tone of voice around Ihechio, their toothy smile biting around a strip of trite wood. “I will grant you my words;” they drew this, a gentle line in the red mud.
Behind the two, in the rest of the Qitaebit Halls, there lay great libraries dedicated to the public, rows of beds for the rest of those in need, much like Ma’e themself; even in the great silence of the Halls’ end, vast and echoing between the two of them, there very faintly could be heard the scratching of quills and the brushing of pens as scribes carved at the world with syllabary, with what remained as history. They stood across from each other, eyes on each other's noses, heads tilted; such a sign of observation in lieu of listening.
Ihechio shifted: a peculiar, contained gesture. Such was the shyness of giants, the stiffness of the figures deemed fit to be illustrated in scrolls of old tales. “I have been told often of Lake Qitaeb by those who arrive here and speak to me. They tell of its greatness, its pleasantness, its peculiarities, its place as a haven-- as if I do not know Lake Qitaeb! They never tell me of anything else, but that is not what I wish to know. It is cities, townships, tiny villages, those I have never seen, that are so enticing.”
“That is perfectly sensible. You are a Qubaataya, are you not? What greater love is there for you but a city?” Ma’e spread their hands out, palms up. Ihechio nodded as they rested their own fingers within each other, right at the base of their lower back, and bowed to the traveller.
It begins as a clearing, in the crook between two mountains. As I knew it, the cusp of the heady evening dyed the world a deep magenta, though the green ferns and foliage seemed to fluoresce. Overhead and distant were the lonely cries of some great bird, and they turned me weary.
First you encounter them by the river. They’re clustered, so at first you think they are perhaps a huddle of friends washing their clothes clean. But as you approach you see the grain of wood, and as they become clearer you see the crudeness of their carving. Their solemn faces peer into the river with little features, only incisions for hair and eyebrows ridged so cleanly like the facial discs of owls. Their sculptor gave them no eyes, only gentle lids, closed, as if they are meditating.
The next ones line the path. They become more elaborate as you continue, first gaining broad shoulders and tender smiles, though they are no more than cuts in the stone or wood of their bodies. They grow arms and hands, though said arms and hands remain glued tight to their sides, lacking wholly any negative space. Luckily for them, it is not long until their clothes have delicately defined ripples and folds, and their arms are able to reach up and out, water collecting in their palms and allowing for moss and mildew. Their faces begin to contort, and it is not long until each and every wrinkle in their face is so well defined that they are able to articulate the sorrow and horror they surely feel.
They mill about around the town’s singular square, frozen in the middle of making bread, or strolling down the street, or greeting their loved one. They are all very still, and they seem not to notice their houses are now ruins.
At the center of the town you may open a door and find a sculptor’s studio. It is not a necropolis, nor a shrine, nor a temple. A half-finished sculpture of imperfect marble just barely has their hands, outstretched in offering, carved away-- you can even see the small incisions in the stone block sketching out their face. At their feet is a body, tools gripped tightly in their hands in rigor mortis and never to be separated from them.
It lies just before the Fal-etl cape, though not in the valley, nor quite in the forest of knives. It’s tucked upon a steep cliffside, the houses and their curved-horned roofs on stilts, as such cities tend to be. People approached me and greeted me as I entered; I was welcome, though everyone had a similar wide eyed horror. Children spoke with the brevity of elders as they warned me of the accursed lands just nearby, rattan ball under one arm while the other pointed to where the cliff seemed to curl in on itself.
To be honest, I did approach the accursed land, if only to be contrarian. See, the cliff that the city straddles is tall and straight like a yunalqi tree’s trunk, while the city crawls up it on its wood stilts akin to a furred caterpillar. The only thing separating the waking from the dream, here, is a wispy waterfall that cascades directly down until the foam twinkles like stars. You reach out to touch them, eyes catching constellations in the dew, until your skin shines.
No, it is easy to tell when the land begins to feel burdened, for the cliff begins to curl. Stone ruins curve like invertebrate shells and thin sheets of slate take upon curvature as they twine. Think of a child, curled up in distress: such is its shape and such is the despair that it renders upon you as you look at it. I could see ancient buildings in the cliff’s thrall, of stone, yes, but I could also see the maqin fungus growing eagerly on old, rotted wood, feeding off of magic. The soft blue glow of the munq dispersed across the cracks and aching corners; though, I could not see any for myself, even with the assistance of my monocular.
I returned to the city as the sun began to set in the cool, balmy evening, thoroughly unnerved-- I do not dream, after all, Qubaataya. Imagine, if you will, then, the stilts. You can hear them and the equally wooden streets creaking as you approach. Perhaps it is confusing, concerning even, until you hear the footsteps. They tamp together but slightly out of time. If you strain your ears you can even hear the hooting and the laughing.
Think now, Qubaataya, and imagine all the people of Lake Qitaeb running-- or swimming-- around just the shrine of Sutomeq, or the one of Satarakke, all at once. That is what I saw, and as I saw that, the thought struck me that we truly must be descended from the lumbering herd animals of the far steppe, or that perhaps me and my rusaiab, who is always craving the unquestioned company of other rusaiabaat, have much more in common than at first glance. They run around the city’s central shrine, all together, and when asked what is happening blurry faces cry one word at a time: "We must run, at any point when the sun touches the horizon, or the accursed land will overwhelm us all."
I couldn’t help but join. It was a peculiar euphoria that came over me as I ran, and the burning in my lungs gave way to nothing but pure sense of the cliff air. They still run, you know, and they will always run, for the more ritual they attend to the safer they will be-- it is those many moments of breathlessness stretched out into eternity, and thus is the truth.
The first thing one may notice, here, is that there is no birdsong. It is right on the coast, you see, where the Bugetiy’aguto meets the Central Seas and the channel between this continent and our neighbor, the Sekhenakhen; and where those meet the wider ocean; and where that wider ocean meets the mouth of the White Sea. Descend over a crest of hissing flora, mouths open and drooling eagerly with sweet-scented syrup, sure to attract a guileless insect, and there you will find it.
The lack of birdsong creates a quiet stillness, as if the whole city is frozen in time. People move through the streets, and the horn sounds at the curve of the sun through the sky, but it is like trapped within amber. The world is a sickly syrup at the peripherals of your vision and then you realize why: the quiet.
Instead of any birds there flies by the ebek-- you know, Qubaataya, it is the Natera word for the kind of squid-- and they leap out of the ocean to sail through the coastal breezes as they migrate through the Central Seas. By the shore you can see hunters and their apprentices pointing at some as they fly, reaching back with taut muscles, harpoons in hand, and throwing with deadly accuracy. Those who miss chuckle self-deprecatingly and try again, but those who do not land their firm mark. But still, yet remains a stillborn silence, for an ebek makes no haunted cries as it is plucked, bloody, out of the sky.
Their pride and joy is the garden of poisonous plants, for it is all they have. The village is tucked away deep within accursed lands-- these people’s ancestors had somehow survived the touch of qaulem’diyama, you see. And with that old fellow’s touch came the munq, and the bounty of magics held within it, and there soon came maqin and other such magic-feeding growths and beasts-- but when I arrived, each and every villager denied the idea that their land was ‘accursed.’
The gates of the garden are carved of stone, and I recognized easily the visages of Satarakke and Sutomeq within its tender curves. There are blood-sweet flowers with tender petals that are assured in their ability to kill, there are tongues with the tiniest creatures stuck to their sticky poison, there are gemshorn-like sprouts that bleed from every orifice-- ah, all the most tender and terrifying wonders of the world, lovingly tended to and cultivated just here. The desire to reach my hands out of my pockets and touch these beauties, delicately, was utterly awful. I knew better, yes, but that did not stop my base sensibilities.
At the very center of the garden of poison is a small dwelling, carved in situ like the center of a funnel or target. I presumed, then, that this must be whoever nurtures this very place, and that subsequently this person should be very important.
“It’s medicine,” they told me, when I walked in. “People here are so needy, so fragile.”
Indeed, in this town you will surely meet the local healer, who takes no apprentices despite their complaints of their age-- though they did not look very old when I saw them, skin largely smooth of the wrinkling of time. They will most likely bid you to take a bottle of physic, as they did to me; and though I was hesitant to take from their good will, later as I had left the town and watched the sun set over the weeping land, I drank it all before succumbing to a quick and dreamless sleep.
I think I do understand the people’s urge to defend their land and its integrity-- with all that they have, with all that their home contains. I’m sure you know, Qubaataya, of god after god that saved just one piece of this sacred world from the path of the qaulem’diyama and the munq it wrought hundreds of years ago, like your own Qitaebate, and snatched us precious safety as accursed lands stretched between us like sinew. But I remember walking across that city and seeing, just by its boundaries, clots of blood as wide as these Halls. Here, we remain.
I do not know how many times this city has been rebuilt on top of its own aging corpse. It sits right at the foot of a spitting volcano, you see, one who is prone to vicious episodes. There once was a city in this very spot before it was overwhelmed by ancient fire and rock-- until a new one was built again, and that one was buried as well, and the next, and the next. The recent incarnation of this deathless city holds many a tale of the volcano itself, along with stories of the distant, unattainable glamor of its own predecessors.
What drives them indeed? I saw clusters of birds enjoying the new trees and plants growing from the lush soil, and from the dyes on the locals’ clothing I can see they do so similarly. I heard the comforting rustling of the jungle-- the whispers of Satarakke and Sutomeq, engaged in spousely gossip, if you are inclined to superstition-- and I felt a great peace. And yet, the townspeople speak of their home in almost derision compared to its past, its beautiful, glorious, perfect past, when the city was almost a utopia.
I think of the rich black soil. I think of the bright green buds that sprout within its wrinkles, reminding much of why the Bugetiy’aguto got its name. I think of the miraculous salty pools of a deadly yet tranquil teal. In its hot waters I can see the bubbling reflections of the three moons. The volcano’s old detritus has created incredible sculptures, like that from the mind of a nurtured genius, that bend and swirl and cake in gently wrinkling layers under my feet. In my mind, in that memory, there is nothing but beauty.
Someday, perhaps very soon, the volcano will erupt again, belch out its fiery innards, and this city will once again be buried and entombed in the body of Sutomeq. And, once again, its next reincarnation will speak tales of this old, plain thing with reverence and longing.
The shadows of the previous cities linger, perhaps, like the gnawing of termites. It is a wonder the munq has not turned its fibrous eyes here yet.
At the foot of this necropolis you may find a qala. She sits at her post, calmly whittling an idol, so you may not notice at first the lack of undecayed flesh upon her extremities, or the pale blue munq growing in fibrils from her exposed ribs. When she notices you approaching, she’ll look up at you with bloodshot eyes and wave. She will not judge you for wishing to visit the dead. She sits just on the cusp, yes, but she has no obligations, and cannot deny you entry.
It is ancient, this necropolis, perhaps from before the qaulem’diyama. The graves are strange: made of stone, placed in rows which have now turned crooked from the warping of the earth. High columns decorated in glyphs no one can understand any longer hold up no ceiling. And when the rain begins to fall from the sky, it falls unbidden to the overgrown floor. It is a city for the dead, but it is full of life: the grass rustles underfoot, and birds cry love songs to each other, while puffy seeds float delicately through the still air. The painted vase, placed long ago in front of a grave to hold offerings, now bears a rodent’s burrow.
And still, the qala sits, calmly whittling, right on the precipice. “Be thankful you will die when supposed to,” she may tell you, but it is up to you on whether you will obey her.
Their shared heart lies within a tree. Right at the cusp of the town, of the shared meadow, where both people and creature unite and come to feast and take their leave. All the locals tell of it in their hushed words, their quiet chirps, their gentle hooting.
As one approaches the tree you may be awed at its size. Its trunk alone is large enough for a ring of thirty or so people, hand in hand, and its leaves reach up high above the rest of the jungle canopy. Rich fruits with dark and sanguine black skins and sweet flesh grow up the trunk eagerly; looking at it, one would almost think that buboes were a medical miracle. Near the nape of the trunk there is an area which seems almost to be hollowed out-- it is certainly curved, and one could take a pleasant nap among the bends of its bark, if one did not mind the bed company of wildlife.
What is truly marvelous though is if you lean in close. Press your hands against the bark and feel its roughness, press your cheek to its brown skin and close your eyes. Bathe in its intimacy. If you listen close enough, then perhaps you can hear the heart’s gentle beating.
I love you, it says. You are a part of me and I am a part of you-- all the past and present and future that is you, and all the infinite vastness and grasping, luminous arms of my corpus, it cries. It is surely true, then, that love lies within bounty.
Ma’e had returned to the lake just in time for No’ondiqitaebate: that is, the yearly holiday honoring Qitaebate, the patron god of the lake. So the story goes, it was soon after the birth of qaulem’diyama and the munq was greedily consuming the memory of the world, wrapping around it like growths of mold or fibrous crystal-- which is how it got its name. But Qitaebate, blessed Qitaebate, gave her body to bless the crater lake which now bears her name. From her came the tapatiin as well, who became amphibious in her blessing. Now Lake Qitaeb exists like a mirror, and on the day of No’ondiqitaebate, this day, the tiny motes of light captured in the mirror’s reflection dance atop and below it.
Despite the festivities, Ihechio kept to the Qitaebit Halls, where Ma’e currently rested. The two stood at a doorway and watched the ceremonies from afar; though Ihechio stood, Ma’e had unwrapped their leg cloths and was dipping their bare feet in the cool, clear water. In one hand was a slice of ruqen, and with their other hand the wanderer gestured extravagantly with a dessert skewer.
“Oh surely!” the wanderer crowed. “We of the Bugetiy’aguto have our shared gods, of course, for sure-- may Sutomeq and Satarakke be blessed-- but there are countless more local gods I could never recall the names and purposes of. It is beautiful, yes?”
Ihechio raised a thin cup of nekkaibe, foamy and strong, to their lips. Their left ear, the better one of their two, was tilted to the traveller; there was perhaps not familiarity in the motion, but instead a sense of eagerness, a readiness to listen. “I suppose there are some none of us will ever learn of. Gods worshipped by ants, or by great whales. There is not a mode of communication that could bridge the gap to the point of shared godhood.”
“Perhaps,” said Ma’e. “But have you ever heard of the Orchestras of the Center Seas? They work the mail between here in the Bugetiy'aguto and over to the Sekhenakhen, but also of the central islands-- I'm sure you are acquainted. They may pilot but ancient bones, but those bones come alive with the blessing of flight. With music the Orchestras sail alongside birds-- ah, Balamtak! That is the name of the god. The birds knew Balamtak, but it is the musicians who listened. Ah! There is also the Natera of Zarakhi, who, upon death, feed their bodies to the earth butcher and their masks to the termite--”
“You make a good point,” the Qubaataya conceded. They watched as distant figures paraded down the wooden streets, people leaping out of and into the Lake to join each other. “But I cannot imagine that it is so uncommon.”
“The gods themselves are not human. They were, once, maybe, but not anymore. There are not many of those alive who know Qitaebate and her corpse better than you, Qubaataya, but to you, the rest of the world is silent. Pardon, it is not an insult. It is a fool's task to make fun out of one who wishes to learn, but permit me to laugh-- if only a bit.”
They said they were blessed by Satarakke. I thought so as well, for upon entering my vision was blessed by brilliant fountains and canals. Centipedes and harbingers dance elegantly in their bodies of marble. Their eyes are inlaid with pearls that tear up from the sheer bounty of water that spills up and out of the fountains. Others bear no sculpture, but the water that bubbles up from their deep stone wells is said to be so deep no one has found the bottom. The canals, as well, are almost eager to overflow and salt the mud with eager moisture. It is no wonder that they claim to be blessed.
Claim to be blessed? No, perhaps I am being rude or facetious. I remember leaning forward and taking the water, crisp and clear into my palms, washing it over my face. My rusaiab was more concerned with citrus than any masterpiece fountain, but they did not mind when I used this holy water to cool their back. When I visited the city’s shaneq, the wood of their shrine to Satarakke was stained dark with offering. But, still, I hesitate. But...
But the sun did set, eventually. I saw the budding growths of maqin within the cracks in the well stones, and I saw the children laying, ashen-faced, in their beds, and I knew something was very wrong. But what?
This city passed by me while I was resting. No, Qubaataya, I do not lie. I had taken my rest deep in the jungle, with no one to accompany me but my rusaiab and the hollow footsteps of the trail I had just departed, at the foot of a traveller’s grave. I felt the presence of their spirit heavy at my back as I left a marble in offering, raised my beads to my lips to pray. And then I rested, as people do.
I was first awoken by my rusaiab, who heard the dull echoing of faint, thudding steps far better than my own ears. But as I came to my senses it neared, and I felt it more in my chest and bones than my ears.
Looking up at the great city that passed on crooked legs above my head, I felt viscerally reminded of old folktales. You know, Qubaataya, the Lipelaya of the far steppe speak of a wandering city along the coast of Yaano. They say it is made of bones and munq and houses a populace of wide-eyed cicada fellows, and perhaps is the child of qaulem’diyama themself. I understood those stories in that moment, but also those even older tales of the world-splitter, the bringer of munq to our world, those hushed things whispered over fires and in the waning of the evening, of great horrors and a giant body silhouetted against the swollen sun.
Perhaps it was foolish, but I did feel like the world was ending like it had those years ago. And though it took a precious few moments, I did eventually come to my wits. I have seen many a body-- the ceyuiin of the Orchestras, old accursed corpses on mountainsides and weeping into valleys, the mud of Sutomeq and the water of Satarakke that we of this continent live on.
I stared up at it. As its great body swayed, I saw houses and streets, towers and spires, cradled in its great ribs. Picture the weavings for a child, or a hammock within the bowels of a ship that sways on the ocean waters. Imagine a city within that swaying hammock.
I waved my hello, stupefied, though I do not believe anyone saw me, a little speck amongst the noise of the jungle.
Here the trees have turned straight and pointed, and soften from the bright greens of the jungle to something richer, darker. If you step improperly, or with the toothed sandals common elsewhere in the Bugetiy’aguto, you can feel your feet sink into the soil. It’s like a cushion, almost, like a balloon filled with water, or a delicate bubble. One wrong step, like a puncture, and you fall and lose a shoe that most likely took a craftsman hours of their life. Yes, Qubaataya, perhaps I am a little bitter about it.
It is beautiful, though. Mist is nearly always present, and coats the distance like a gentle memory. The world seems a quiet grey, almost, though the grass underfoot is the loud color of rust. It was here, right along here, that I found this peculiar city of crevices.
The buildings of this city are curled upon each other, clearly mimicking the forms of aquatic shells and their creatures within. Ramps spiral upon each other, their sides encrusted with pearl mosaics, though small holes seem to be bored through them. Indeed, there lay broad-shouldered sculptures upon the curled building walls, but their sandstone faces seem to be gnawed at, forming holes not unlike cheeses or volcanic rock. There are many such nooks and crannies here.
I remember I walked down an alleyway, bottle of drink in hand, and looked down to find tiny faces sculpted down the center of the floor. I leaned down, peered close, saw the little holes that created their wide eyes, their mouths that cried out silently. I then frowned and thought nothing of them, until--
I kept noticing the crevices. Holes in mortar, smoothed out of stone, chewed out of wood. In the evening, when I was to retire at the town's shaneq, I asked the priest there about the holes, the blistering wind. They bowed to me and told me of their gods: so incredibly small, like motes of light; they all need homes, do they not? They hold well wishes. If you go to bed with your eyes open, you can see them spin their webs and smile.
Stands and booths line the streets, huddling together and in intimately close quarters. You could reach out your hand to admire a brooch, and your palm would land on a ripe hizeman fruit. In exchange for a gourd which I carved myself I received a belt buckle of fine quality-- see it here, such delicate curves and lines upon curvilinear lines. Indeed, this city is a place one could linger forever. But at the edge of your vision, the very peripheral, haunting the edges of your eye, the shell is always there.
Make the trek alone; such is the nature of it. I left my rusaiab back by the city’s shaneq, they were quite dearly exhausted, and I went on foot, completely alone. The cicadas in the bushes and all around me raised their fervent chorus to a crescendo as the world’s wheel turned and the day turned to evening.
The shell, and the corpse that pours loosely from it, is beautiful indeed in the heady, musky dark of the evening. It is huge-- one finger on that decayed hand is thicker than I am tall-- and the shell shines in soapy iridescence, even brighter for the sky’s blackness. And just above yonder, in the gentle crook between the body’s shoulder and neck, was the longhouse.
“They do not remember it, nor do I,” said the elder as they handed me a cup of moqe tea, “but this world was once the gods’ kingdom of orphans.” A kingdom, yes; you hear of kingdoms in old tales passed down by hushed song, but the idea of owning land itself is foolish. Only the munq, if anything, owns land.
“Those of the Huiz’diyon tell tales of Hiqael’a, who felt so deeply and wept so greatly that the hizeman sprouted from his tears. She is much the same.” The elder made a slow, sweeping gesture to the dead god right outside their door. I looked at the generations who slept in their mats at the end of the longhouse.
“In the dream there are cities upon cities, superimposed on one another. They shift from one to the other; fluid, like water. They hold each other in their arms. I guarantee you, ei’wahcha, humans have been lining their stands and booths to commune with each other since the first stand and the first booth was strung together.
“I spoke to her, too. At the time, I did not yet realize gods were born of the dream. She told me she yearned for me. I wonder why she said that.”
These Walls were once grand, momentous. I suppose those of Lake Qitaeb care not for the affairs of the Walled Cities, but it is a matter of great intellectual and political discussion around the White Sea, you know. Yet another instance of the desperation of the old gods in the face of qaulem’diyama, of viewing the turning of the world's great spindle wheel and feeling such exquisite desperation, as gods tend to do. Certain cities cradled holy cornerstones, of the 'god of the cornerstone'; and with the god’s promise that they were exceptional, that they could live, they built their bulwarks and their Walls. I can understand it; I imagine it must have seemed like the world itself was ending, that this great world's frantic dancing was turning for a course of devastation. But--I always thought it pathetic.
Yes, these Walls were once grand, momentous. You can still hear turbid whispers from the remaining stones, if you press your ear to them. In their crumbling monuments to themselves, you can sit upon benches and gaze at dusty, browned artworks. The ash looks like snow.
The townsfolk avoid this corpse, though they live just nearby. I stayed at their shaneq and played yua with eager children-- though I am not very good at it, for the only way I seem to be able to kick is downwards. “Slums of those banished, our ancestors, began to grow around the Walls; grow and grow,” a young inkprinter told me as they lined up their woodblocks with blunt fingers. They peered up at me from behind their lenses. “There was a revolt, ei’wahcha, and now the city is no more.”
A revolt! An ardent fury. A holy ascendance. I can hear their burning voices even now.
You can know if you are approaching when you can see the bells, the softly tinkling instruments dangling from the tree’s branches. It is a lovely forest of qaatqinaat, with trembling branches and straight backs, a single qaatqin reaching to a canopy the near height of dozens of homes. Their lower branches, their trunks, seem to be lovingly strung with beads, rope, trinkets, dolls. Like a child's bedside, the rich brown bark hoards little nothings. The city itself, at the very center, seems to revel in their place in the world. I saw the people sing as they held large pestles with two hands, as they gently cut stewarded waterweed from gentle ponds, as they pressed gently against the red soil and thanked Sutomeq for blessing them and their god.
Their shaneq was up in one of the trees; quite appropriate indeed. As I moved to rest I closed my eyes and felt, in some fool’s notion of a dream, the intricate web of roots connecting the entire forest into one great god. The forest: one great being, that branches out and trembles her leaves as one. Sutomeq cradles her as they do us. If you pull back a strip of soil, you can see the nigh-blind worms writhe among the roots in communion.
It was Ihechio, Qubaataya of the laketop, who had entrusted this task of exploration to Ma’e. It was Ihechio who bid Ma’e, who walked with a limp and held a loose grip on the reins of their rusaiab as they entered Lake Qitaeb’s gates for an uncountable time, into the Qitaebit Halls, to sit down, to rest, and to tell them of cities vast and far away. The moqe trees were blooming, petals falling softly upon the water like wrinkled glass. Though each petal swayed and swooped, as if unconcerned with greeting the lake’s waters, each one nonetheless gave its own hushed voice to ripple upon the reflections.
But it is known that there are two Qubaatayaat, and there always have been since Qitaebate gave her body to bless the lake. And so, Duane of the clear fish eggs clinging to the waterweed fronds under the lake where flowers grow emerged from the watery Halls. They were, perhaps, Ihechio’s reflection, and they regarded Ma’e with only trepidation in their black eyes. They rubbed their finger along the ridge of one of their gills, which grew out the sides of their cheeks, and greeted the traveller.
“You are both here,” Ma’e said hushedly. They closed their eyes, heard the distant chatter, the gentle lapping of waves upon the shore, the wild laughing of jurati'ei'iin-- happy ones. “Then, well-- then I must speak of duality, should I not? There is much one can say about the multiplicity of cities, and there are many cities that are more than the sum of their singular being.”
“But ei’wahcha,” Duane said, their voice roughened from the dryness of the air. They breathed out through their nose jewelry, casting out a soft, mournful whistle through its tiny pinprick holes. Their third lids blinked, muddying their milky eyes, as they watched the wanderer closely. “Is a city itself not a uniting of a single banner?”
“Think, Qubaataya!” Ma’e cried. “Think of this very Lake-- the body which you guide-- the laketop and the lakebottom are surely duality within itself. But no, that is not quite right. Farther than that: I say, for a city of a thousand there are a thousand cities, and for a city with a million-- though I could scarcely imagine such a thing-- there are a million cities. There is a city for every person who lives and has lived and will ever live, and for every traveller there is an infinite land. Is that not correct? Perhaps, instead of uniting, a city divides?”
“Ei’wahcha speaks truth,” Ihechio said, turning to their reflection, who was smiling. “Our Lake prides itself on multiplicity, does it not? Then such a conclusion is simply natural.” They turned their ear to Ma’e and tilted their head, shadowed under the high woven ceiling of the Hall. They did not smile, they never truly smiled, but nonetheless a single new crease was born, nurturing themselves, beside each of their eyes. Under their attentive ear, the traveller straightened their posture, just a little, and began, once again, to speak.
Yawning jaws part the town in two, buildings perched on harrowed sides like rows of teeth. If Bugetiy'agit mountaineer's bridges are already famed, out of necessity for our tremendously thin valleys, then these are the work of once in a lifetime masters, as if dozens of reincarnations have awoken their spirits and raised their hammers and went to work in one body. Their two bell towers sing love odes every noon, harmonizing from across the great chasm.
In any other circumstance, save gazing into the black of the ocean, I would say that I do not particularly fear depths. Even in all my years of crawling upon steep mountain sides of the Makke'uno, glaring with deep envy at the ease at which nearby mountain goats prance up those very same cliffs, such concern never truly registered in my mind. But here, even across bridges created by the greatest masters, I stared down into the black depths that grew like munq up flaking cliffs of stone, the occasional stubborn tree clinging to the side, and I despaired.
At the other side of the bridge, on a dusty city street, I met a stand, in which lay a huge pot of soup; the cook spooned some in a gourd for me and wheeled around the stand to hand it to me. I thanked them, sat on some old tree stump to take delicate sips of the broth. Hearty, filling. I watched as steam billowed up, turned my neck back, back, to watch it drift up into the sky and into the immense stone mountainside at my back. The sky was a pale blue, the sun blinding. I wondered if there are those alive afraid of feeling small.
This city lies at the very top of the world, if there even is one. Those who dream speak of the ocean red and bloody, whales drifting between kelp forests of mountains in serene beauty, a sky of rock and a ground of pale mist, whispered gossip of the dead and dying; here, then, is my dream, where Sutomeq and Satarakke meet in their liaison with the great sky, and where breath runs short in favor of clouds that billow and snake and writhe, to the ears nothing but beauticious silence.
Even my own cheeks and nose, described as a sallow brown by myself and others, turn ruddy in a cold this fierce and lonely. I remember how my teeth chattered and how my breath billowed, white, in front of my face as I walked. The bone of my snow goggles pressed against my brow and cheeks until they left dents.
It was all endless white, a pale infinity, the bright hair of an elder with their laugh lines like carved stone, until it wasn’t; the sunset showered a myriad of brilliant colors upon the snow, upon me, upon the stone cliffs that I picked and hacked at. And from on high, the amber tones of fires in hearths, and a distant, fur-clad figure calling out to me.
I rubbed my brow, feeling the dents that my snow goggles left behind. I remember how my cheeks burned hot and dry as they were, in a sense, defrosted. In my hot palms was a bowl of thin soup, steam wisping up eagerly into my face. Heat pricked at my fingers and nose like a dozen little fires dug themselves into my skin. The ceilings were low, the walls covered in pelts; I sat cross-legged on carpet and fur to tell any listening neighbors of whatever news I could remember. The heady, sweet air felt almost like that of the jungle, the rainforest, the breathing lungs of the gods, that heralded the beginning of my great climb, a lifetime away, down in the foothills.
You’d recognize easily the mechanisms behind the Shina calendar’s in these fellows’ whole livelihoods. It is called Shina for a reason, after all! The marshy wetlands do as they will, of course, with rhyme but no reason, flowing as they are; but spotted between, like hot oil creating a treasure map upon a countertop, are the bastions of precision.
You look at their streets, and you watch as every carefully laid brick and board aligns with a solstice and a sunrise; you look and see wondrous art of shapes twirling like dancers into two’s, three’s, five’s, nine’s; you see peculiar instruments of lens and brass with ball joints that click and chitter. There is a statue, not of a mere body or scene but of the world itself, of arcs that gleam; one can see the seven stars of luck and the three moons both in the sky and in the city’s grandiose map. It is not unlike the complex reed maps of the Iyajarmin and Xuanin and Xemateruti-- you’ve seen them, Qubaataya, I am sure, the stratifications of the great ocean’s churning currents into dried fiber strips-- but of the vast night as we know it, hanging above our heads. It is easy to comprehend, then, that these are the people who threw their peapods across the ground in announcement and declared: “It is now that the world will begin again,” those two-hundred three-score years ago, and have counted the years ever since.
I remember strolling in, gait light and easy, spotting a grub on a citrus tree and plucking it off for a snack-- unbothered by time, though perhaps that seems a bit overly typical, for a traveller. I watched the clock, with all its magnificent craftsmanship and twining wood and shell parts, while slowly blinking and with a prim hand on my hip, ever less cognizant of the time.
“Come with,” said the town, grabbing my hand, a smile on their face and their brow soft; I was swept up in their passions. We stepped off the platform together, kneeled in the mud, and the town’s hands of a thousand generations carefully picked fronds of waterweed, berries of ekkechi, with callouses in one hand and a watch--how novel!--in the other. The sun rose and set and projected brilliant tapestries of shadow upon the streets, the spaces between-- all as determined. Yes, Qubaataya, it did quite disorient me-- mati’ei’wahcha, the days come as they go.
It’s easy for them, I suppose, to quantify what they give and take and live and die, to count the spokes as the wheel of fate turns. At the end of it, they know when the turn of the seasons arrives, as anyone should. It is how they love the world-- though love is inherently irrational, which is, precisely, what makes it so precious.
Confusion is most likely what would hit the stranger as they come into town. Understandably so, for it feels less like a city and more like a mockery of those wars of old. You have your homes, yes, your shaneqiin, your tailors and your leathersmiths and your carpenters, indeed-- but a bitter seed seems to perfume the air, and the city center has been stopped down the middle by blockades. Children throw stones, yes-- that is their nature-- but so do adults.
I met a young person, gangly in their proportions but not quite a child, ragged and quiet, huddled and eating diraqi'yema'gon with their dusty hands in between glaring daggers at someone who was surely their rival. “Ei’wahcha,” they said to me, “did you know the third moon is an egg?”
“Yes,” I answered, because it was true, “who does not?”
They huffed, and tilted their head in the direction of their rival. “Mat’e thinks the baby was qaulem’diyama, but I don’t think that’s true, because all the elders say qaulem’diyama came out of the ocean, and the sky isn’t the ocean, and up isn’t down, but most importantly because Mat’e is stupid.”
So I asked: “but do the two of you have to involve rocks and sticks in your argument? Academics fight all the time, over tables, and over tea.”
They waved me away with a laugh of derision. I bowed to them and crossed the town center, to where the kid who was presumably Mat’e crouched with a bat in hand. They were scruffy, a child of the earth much like their rival; their brown skin was ruddy with excitement and their cheeks were dotted with acne and pocks, much like their own town.
I greeted them. “How fare your winds?”
“Torrential,” they replied, with half a grin. “Have you spoken with that fool Staukke? Did you know they believe the yolk of the third moon became our oceans? How can that be! Yolk is not water! Down is not up! They’re so wrong!” They proceeded to tap their bat against their palm; feeling its weight, its physicality, how well it could hit foliage, mud, skulls.
“But yolk gives life, much as our ocean does, is that not right?” I asked them. Tossing back their head like a rusaiab losing its long and syrupy temper, they snorted, as if I was the fool. Elsewhere, a cook tried to climb the barricade, and a weaver stepped away from their loom to launch themself at the cook. I remember hearing laughter, and I remember a smile crawling onto my face of its own volition. Perhaps I was the fool.
With a tender caress, this city kisses the sea. It leans out into the water, nearly yearning, and it is understandably so. Upon the water the boats sail out or hug the creaking docks; and the homes, though perfectly standard Bugetiy’agit homes, with their roofs like horns, seem now to be capsized and deformed hulls of woven straw. The people here are happy; yet, the air is thick and heady with the harrowing spaces between: between people, between buildings, between clasped hands, between the folds of tunics and shawls, between the sea and home--the sea that is home. You can feel, that is, the people who have departed for the great ocean infinity in the hollows twain.
You see them standing there, upon the black beach, bending down to collect shells and clustering together, hand in hand, to dip their legs into the salt sea. Shells and carapaces, occupied or not, lay pale against the sand: once ash, once great rock. The older teach the younger to swim. Hold them out in offering to the sea, but quickly reel them back in. All they can do, really, is watch as the corpses of sea creatures wash up on the dark sand, eyes gaping wide, bones hot under the sun, guts spilling out like a miniature world, and hope that their loved ones, singing their songs in those silent spaces between, escape such a fate.
I heard tell of this city many-a-time before I had seen it with my own eyes. Whispers across gourds of nekkaibe, over plates and flatbread, between strange faces at crossroads. Take the myriad of pale images created by such fragments of marbled stone and pare it down, chip at it with blades and cloth, and you have a perfect image of a disparate city that will never exist.
Such a process is known to any traveller, and I have encountered many who advise meditation to clear your thoughts, let such expectations drip, drip, drip out of your mind like an aspergil. Anyone who moves has expectations of other places they have never seen as they approach such places, but it is unadvised to followers of Qiwahcha. Nonetheless no one is perfect, no one is beautiful, and nonetheless I held these thoughts between my lungs.
I came right at the turn of the seasons, and so the community was just about finishing hauling its lowest neighborhoods farther up the hill. The days were caked in sweat, and in the lull of the tides we passed cool gourds of water amongst each other. I had been told of density, of huddling like birdflock; the lowlands were sprawling and empty like a cracked plate inlaid with molten gold. Intaking breath, I smelled a sweetness I have never known and could not describe, had not been described. The belltower reliefs passed from lips to lips promised the work of masters, darkling rivulets and figures that pried themselves from the stone walls and out into the tower, into our realm, to clasp their cold, porous hands and weep tears of dolomite. The belltower reliefs of reality-- well, any attempt of mine to speak of them would only result in the belltower reliefs of Ma’e’s chest, and the belltower reliefs of Ihechio’s thoughts.
There are two suns at sunrise, on Lake Qitaeb. Watching the sunrise, watching over the rush of time as light returns to the quiet world-- one limned in swamp's greens and the orange-hot fire of the sun's hearth, the three moons departing on their paths under the horizon, one by one. From the mountain crater views one can see accursed lands and lit paths alike, the chattering of teeth and the hissing of clouds and their idylls. Pluck waterweed gently from the ponds, and those left behind will grow better the next season’s turn; such is the way with all things. On their lonely places, side by side, in the Qitaebit Halls, stood Ihechio and Ma’e. Ihechio held their arms behind their back, hands clasped in each other. Ma’e whittled a little Qiwahcha with calloused, brown hands. See-- if all gods were born of the dream, then they surely took all forms incomprehensible; if Sutomeq had a million grasping hands, then Qiwahcha had two, and if Satarakke had a face with a thousand teeth, then Qiwahcha had a thousand faces, one for each stranger. If the Natera gods of the dry mountains have animal’s heads in the dreams of their mask-wearing peoples, then Qiwahcha has the head of someone you almost recognize. And so, when Ma’e whittled; they whittled a hat, a headscarf, a shawl, cut creases into soft wood to create wrappings on their arms and legs, two sandals with two teeth each on their undersides-- they hid the god’s face, gentle and true, among the imitation folds of fabric, and then placed the little Qiwahcha into the water of the lake. The idol sank, sank, and some tapat’ei, a weaver or farmer, caught it and turned it pensively in their webbed hands.
“Ei’wahcha,” said the Qubaataya. “Have you ever left the continent? I know some have, on their own paths.” They leaned forward, watched as their city awoke, above and below. Behind Ihechio, scribes scratched away at their storybooks, young ones learned to write; in front of Ihechio, the citizenry held hands as they harvested and cooked food for one another; by Ihechio’s side, a stranger closed their quiet eyes and leaned their head forward, just a little.
“Me? Oh--” the traveller chuckled softly-- “no, no I have not. The sea and the sky do not agree with my constitution. I once attempted to accompany a ferry to Xuane; the whole ride I felt as if my head was an incense burner of the munq’s fumes, and my stomach roiled furiously. Not even the tangiest bowl of ruanaxati-- that is, Qubaataya, lichen spore soup-- prepared by the kindest elder could part the clouds from my most dreadful mood; though it was a pleasant drop of honey in the angry storm of my delicate health. ‘Never again!’ I thought, holding my hands by my mouth on the return trip-- at least the sailors amused themselves at my suffering.”
“I should not ask you to go, then, however as the scribes have written on this and translated that for the good of the people--”
“--on your support and encouragement, is it--”
“--yes, yes; there have been the most delicate words and blossoming poetry written on those very lands I know not. Us, the Sekhenakhen, the isles in between, the White Sea, the far north and the Lipekay-Budva river that nourishes it! Oh, our world is immense! How does one ever know it all?”
A meeting of palms, the curling of fingers around each other; Ma’e chittered out a laugh. It was quite strange, not unlike the tinkling of hail almost large enough to dread; wheezing and tucked deep in the throat. “One does not,” they supposed, “one does not at all.”
At this, the Qubaataya bowed their head; Ma’e-- turned away to look out of the lake, an attentive ear facing Ihechio’s tenuously working chest-- only knew this from the faint chime of jewelry, of beads on metal on wood.
“I could not tell you of the Sekhenakhen,” Ma’e poured out, agonized, like slow molasses, “or any isles, any seas, or the distant steppe; not from my own seven senses-- but what I do have are the words of others.”
Ma’e did not look up at them, wrapped in their accoutrements; standing, always standing, never sitting. They did not even glance to see if Ihechio was looking at them head-on or with their ear, attentive and kind; they did not know which possibility they wished to see. All the while, the sun in the sky and the sun in the water drifted slowly apart.
“I-- I suppose I treasure-- no, no. Ei’wahcha, tell me those words of others you know. I wish to have them. I wish it dearly-- above all else.”
The Nabhekhita mountains are much greater than ours, and much more substantiated, but where the soil runs a red not unlike our own-- a cracked dry it may be-- the triangular peaks give way to flat cliffs and mesas not unlike tables and your own Hall floors. Thus is born a most darling idea; that of entire cities cut into the sides of cliffs that run in rows atop each other. They look like holes bored regularly into stone for smithing, or perhaps the punctured clay of potters. The cliff is a flat face, striped of reds and oranges, akin to thread in a loom that has not yet been twined around itself by skilled hands; lining along its snubbed and flattened brow lines are its many little eyes. Such cities rise above lake sinkholes or river basins, but this one lies within a great canyon, carved into the surrounding earth as if with a knife.
The entire city is one long street, wrapping up and up the canyon sides like a noble snake, sidewinding in the desert sand. You can hear the gentle songs of chimes blowing in the wind harmonize with the strumming of an embutabek and the accompanying soulful voices that spill out old tales in rhymes and verses. Children pick designs into the walls with little tools, and so do their parents, and grandparents, until their tucked-away canyon homes are united into one immense relief mural.
In the morning, the light of the sun crests over our lonely horizon, and its rays slowly crawl down to eventually illuminate the highest city street; the people wake, and they smile.
In the temple at the end of the island you can hear a great mournful call. Perhaps the great throat of the sea herself? Well, see-- the front doors align with the rise of the sun, and its main central room is covered in the most brilliant mosaics, encrusted with shells and seastone alike, of the bounties of our good nature, centered around a raised map of clay; stretching along either side under magnificent clerestories rise the rows of xiyonoet, as they say, for the dead. But out in the back, approaching the water, there stands a high ceiling, a floor that falls away to caress the lapping, a-foamed waves of the sea. Up rise a series of tubes, sweet stone and pearl, and with every wave’s crest, rise and fall, inhale and exhale, the tubes cry out their vast song.
It is called an exigan-- or exyigan, I cannot quite remember which. How beautiful and melancholic it must sound, that half-built bridge across the endless chasm between language of man and language of the dream. I had always thought it peculiar, the belief that the ocean is no god, nor holds no gods; but I could almost think that I would understand, if I were to hear the exyigan’s song. The sea ruins all landed things; that is its preciousness. Perhaps that is the exyigan’s function; though godless, perhaps the ocean, that all-dissolving mindless mind, wishes to be heard. And it is within this city you can hear it.
The stories told by the Abisekhet-- spilled from those dialects abstaining from writing, as is tradition-- constitute a canon possibly greater than our own. Old memories of a bygone world writhe not in obscurity. They know as little as we, naturally, but there is a tenderness that seeps through every sung and whispered tale of craftiness, cunning, daring-- strange as they may be. It is how we know there was a world, before the birth and rebirth of that world-splitter, as murky as it may be.
It is not uncommon to see a story remembered solely through the mouths of “my cousin who told me--” “my neighbor who told me--” “my friend who told me--” “my sibling who told me--” this and that. And so it became tradition, to remember great orators and skalds of old as my cousin this, my cousin that. Relation does not matter, Qubaataya-- see, you know, my cousin told me the most interesting tale the other day. And so! Let it be known to all the scribes of the Bugetiy'aguto: it is from the words of my cousin Noukha that this city emerges from the mists of time.
Their houses have flat tops, see, as I believe they lie in the middle Sekhenakhen plains-- I imagine those living in the upper or lower Nabhekhita would not have flat tops; what with the snow and all. Flat tops and such elaborate arches in their doorways, their larger rooms! They curve round, yes, but then up into a point; serpentine, or perhaps in the manner of buqe beans. Flat tops, corners of walls; they entwine in a graceful dance with these curves and points.
They say the arid inland wept once, cried and cried until its soil broke and shivered. At the turn of the seasons, from tall, pale windcatchers of curvaceous frames and sandstone, one can see the gentle fires being stoked by tending hands. Ash in the soil, laughter in the long streets; at a certain hour one can see the kids holler and cry excitedly down into the town’s center as those able return with a foraged and hunted bounty, perhaps once tentative but now eager and sweet.
I hear there is grass-- grass and other such low hanging plants, for as far as the eye can see. The horizon may sway and tilt with slight hills, as if in a dance with a sky just as expansive, or be wholly flat. Dotting this eternity are many such cities-- they have houses of dry wood frames and skin walls, rounded and cozy. They lack no comfort; their people spin rain shawls out of intestines-- which, if I may add, Qubaataya, is very clever, and if we do not do so here already then we should start-- and furs, cook for each other, sleep entangled in one another, kiss each other’s noses, play music together. It is always warm, however cold it might be outside with the grass, the herds, and the great open sky.
What they do lack, that is, is any idea of permanence. A city like this will last no longer than a meeting of two moons before being dismantled and reuniting itself elsewhere. Like the flitting of an insect, careful and true, from leaf to delicate leaf. They are not so unusual, I suppose-- every city has an end. But what other sort of city returns as it dies like we do?
Perhaps its beauty lies in its moribundity; it sustains the earth as it sustains itself. I hear there is nothing more beautiful than waking up early morning; feeling the last shades of venerable cold blues wash away on the dew and in the morning mist, making way for the deep, brown grasses of the steppe eternal; walking up the crest of some small ridge and watching as the sun’s rays draw magnificent designs against the rippling of the world; hearing the low rumbles of a líkerpse or ohap nearby as they wander in their herds; breathing in an air both dry and potent, the scent of herbs and other such flora alighting the world in a mild haze. What a wonderful thing to experience.
The Sekhenakhen gets its name from the aridity so potent that the grass is less green and more golden, yes. And yet! Tucked just away-- between the upper Nabhekhita and the land bridge, the rib of the White Sea, separating the steppe from the rest of the continent-- there lies a great swamp. Yes! A swamp, in the Sekhenakhen! What a world we live in.
This town lies in that very swamp, tucked on stilts amongst the trees and the mist. One could almost say there is no coast, for the transition from land to sea is a gentle and gradual thing. Follow the wood planks over the water, around the curving roots like the legs of centipedes, through the mist, and you will find a village like any other. It is not so unusual, is it not? Their people forage, they bake in their kilns, they kiss their loved ones. They hail those returning in thin canoes and their fisherbirds who hunt so dutifully. They play card games in low lamplight over stew. When the chills arrive at the season’s turn, shawls are draped over shoulders most tenderly.
Oh, I have heard much tell of their mists, Qubaataya. Like the dream itself, I hear-- though that does not mean much to me. It hangs low over rust-red grasses and black mud and saltwater trees, delicate, turning the horizon from a firm line to the soft blooms of light that march like prophets upon the darkness behind your eyelids.
Their god of death carries them away, you know. Yes, we have the spouses that swallow us, the lower Sekhenakhet have their butcher and their termites, the middle Sekhenakhet pray to the sky, the Lipelaya dance upon the steppe earth-- but the Yakha’ai have a boatman. They call them Ulu. When the dead are ready for rebirth, Ulu allows them to step upon their boat and be ferried into the distant ‘land of mists’-- though to me it seems as if they are returning to it.
But the living? They dance, they cry, and they sing. In this town, at the very least.
For all the eye can see from all directions around this great stone fortress there is nothing but the ash of skin and great fires. They move and shift in trembling, fickle dunes, and they soar up as the bitter wind gusts to block out the sky and stars. Bastions, they call them, and I hear there are few left in the Crater. E i’khebe, I believe is the Abisekhenakhet word-- you know of it, surely, that accursed place between the lower Nabhekhita and Muqegaia peninsula. Yes, it is tragic.
I have always thought it cruel to have the descendant pay for ancient wrongs long after said wrongs have been forgotten-- but the world operates in tiny justices, if anything at all, and there is nothing we can do but live. I hear the cold burns, the wind stings and can carry toxins for nearly weeks at a time. Thus, this bastion has its windows closed, and its windcatcher is only opened when it is most confirmably safe.
Generations of craft have survived under almost isolation, and fear is written into their very veins. The largest room is for cooking, naturally, and the scent of cultivation wafts through the air there just as it does here, between you and me.
What the people of this city anticipate more than anything else are Confluences-- yes, they are movements in the stars, but in the Crater they hold a special power. As these townsfolk huddle under roofs of ancient stone, the violence that trapps the Crater within itself parts like folds of skin, just a little. Dreamers leave, and they return before a Confluence’s end with hope-- hope and food and delicacy. If it were not for the moons and stars I imagine we would not know of the beautiful people that live and die under the stifled, dust-choked sun. This city survives-- a good thing indeed, for they say that other bastions, long abandoned, cry lonely dirges with a grief so irreparably overwhelming. This city lives.
Ihechio startled, giving Ma’e pause. “You speak of cities of twinkling bells, of mourning, deep ache, of arid mesas, of inevitable falls, of water and soil, blood and eyes-- yet in my mind’s eye I can see the lake, the Halls, the spine of Qitaebate. Is it thus, that you have looked upon Lake Qitaeb as you ride in on your rusaiab, and told me of my own city, again and again?” Their expression was almost a pout. “I rather pointedly told you not to.”
Ma’e smiled, and it was not quite symmetrical, vanishing quickly. “Perhaps I have, perhaps I have not-- how would I know? Perhaps every single city I have been describing since you prescribed me to this task is just me forming my words around this Lake again and again. How would I know? You belong to this city, do you not? You are one of its beating hearts, yes? Perhaps there is, little by little, a Lake Qitaeb welling up in each and every city I try to describe. Perhaps, in all the infinite places I speak of, Lake Qitaeb is all you hear.”
The Qubaataya frowned, a look well acquainted with their bowed cheeks. “You seem hurt. Do you not follow the tradition of Qiwahcha? Is your journey not holy? I see it so often described as a roadless path to enlightenment, but--”
“Oh, Qubaataya,” sighed Ma’e, “I do not claim to be enlightened. Enlightenment is not a moment, it is but many. But if I am to establish any doctrine-- if doctrines were ever okay to be established-- then I would say it is from this deep ache that the holiness is birthed.” They gently rested their calloused fingertips upon their chest and by their heart. They did seem hurt.
Discontent painted their face, and Ihechio stepped closer, reached out-- though their hands hovered in the air and gently retreated. “This cannot do,” they said, half to themself. They turned away from the wanderer’s sideways gaze. “Would it be possible for you to... stay for a while? It is not as if Lake Qitaeb lacks wonders; you may peruse the Halls library all you like, or assist with the chinampas, or walk the streets, the amphitheatres-- I know of a pub that you may like. It is called Satarakke’s Palm, and the fellow who runs it is--”
“--And there is your virtue,” Ma’e interjected, voice quiet and deep and strange. The Qubaataya froze; the wanderer’s tone was wry, though perhaps their smile was melancholy, if anything at all. They folded their palms like a dark-winged bird. “You ask me to speak of strange wonders untold, and yet I will never know a single city.”
Soft lines of age creased Ihechio’s face. “What do you mean?”
Ma’e laughed that little sharp snicker of theirs. “I can espouse you of beauty and terror and rebirth and community until the sun smokes out their hearth or qaulem’diyama wakes again, and what?” Their hands parted as they spread their arms, palms up.
They said nothing as the Qubaataya reached out across the chasm of silence to gently clasp those calloused, mud-crusted fingers and kiss where knuckles met palm. Though, perhaps, their breath did catch. How would one know? What happens between the folds of parchment and bamboo wood strips, caught in the twain, is never written down on Lake Qitaeb, for all its innumerable annals and scribes. Perhaps it does not need to be.