Chapter 1: Little Sunbeam
I’m trapped under something damp and heavy. The unseen force presses down on top of me, crushing the air from my lungs and preventing me from crying out. I hear distant screaming, but the only thing I can do is lay there and suffocate.
Eventually the dream shifts.
Now I’m no longer in darkness, but suspended in a flickering diamond of heat and air. Sometimes a strange scent assails me, something woodsy and warm, but I was not sure if what I’m smelling is my own sizzling flesh or something wafting in from somewhere outside of my heated cage.
I know nothing but fire and silence.
Part One: The Priestess and the Loveless Child
Chapter 1: Little Sunbeam
I was not Al-ryah’s biological child. Technically, I was no one’s child. The Loveless were a cursed lot, allegedly descended from a deity who had seduced another god’s wife. Rather than being born from a loving parental union, we were said to be born from the earth, sprouting up from the dirt like unwanted turnips.
I grew up on the streets of various villages, and I did what I had to in order to survive: stealing food from vendors, burrowing into trash piles to protect myself from the elements at night, fending off feral alley cats (who seemed to repeatedly mistake my flesh for food), and eating discarded scraps left on the roadside. Occasionally a kind villager would give me food. It was often half-eaten and sloppy, but I was in no position to be discriminating. I ate anything and took what little charity was given to me.
One day my shoeless, wandering feet carried me to a place called Glaz’tella Village. The first thing I did when I arrived was steal food from a local garden. Unfortunately for me, that garden belonged to the DeVincent family. The boys, Mitch and Leonel, caught me picking at the tomatoes; they chased me down and dragged me into the woods behind their house. They kicked me until I couldn’t breathe and then decided it would be funny to take my rags off and tie me to a tree. I did my best to fight them off, but I was a sickly child and they were strong, hefty boys. They pinned me easily and stripped me naked.
In the endless second when I was sprawled beneath them, quaking in the dirt, I felt their shocked gazes as they stared down at what was between my legs---or rather, what wasn’t. There was nothing but a vertical slit, approximately the size of a human pinky, cut into a small mound of slightly protruding flesh.
“He’s Loveless,” Leonel said. “I suspected it from his eyes, but…” He uttered a low whistle.
“Wow, I thought the stories were bullshit,” Mitch said, snickering. “There’s nothing but a little sliver, you see that? That’s hilarious.”
“How do you even pee, man?”
I tried to use their moment of distracted glee to crawl away, but they grabbed me, slammed me against a tree, and proceeded to bind me to the trunk with rope. They left me there, and as I stood with the sun beating down on my head, I was filled with hatred for this confusing body that earned me such suffering. I wished it would wither away in the scorching heat and free me from its sexless prison.
Eventually someone came and untied me---a kindly old woman who offered me lodging for the night. I ran away from her as soon as I was free. I didn’t trust her words or her kindness.
From then on, whenever Lionel or Mitch would see me in the street, they cried out,
“What’s up, Sliver!”
And then they would collapse against each other, laughing at their own joke, as I fled in humiliation. The name stuck and it wasn’t long before I became known as “Sliver” to the local villagers. I don’t know how many people connected my cursed lineage to the demeaning nickname, but I do know that those who had been previously kind to me started looking at me with fear and suspicion. Many of them stopped giving me food. Thus I stole even more, and was labeled a mischief maker and a degenerate.
The night I met Al-ryah was one of my worst.
It was a particularly brutal winter evening. I broke into the local temple for shelter, not caring if such an act would cause the gods to strike me dead. In fact, I wished they would. My existence was torture, and the only reason I hadn’t ended it was because I was too weak to do so.
I found some cushions sprawled around the floor and made myself a little bed beneath the altar. I curled up into a tight ball and fell into a fitful sleep, trying to ignore the hunger that chewed at my insides.
Al-ryah found me the next morning when she came to make an offering.
She poked me with her foot, scaring me so much I jumped up and hit my head on the altar. My skull felt like it was split in half and a thick layer of tears clouded my eyes. But even through the blinding pain I tried to run away. It took several minutes for her to assure me---over my blubbering apologies and pleas for mercy---that she meant me no harm. Instead, she took me into the rectory and gave me a meal. It was the first time I had eaten anything other than roadside scraps.
“You eat like a racoon,” she laughed, watching me seize morsels with my dirty hands and cram them into my mouth. “Slow down or you’ll choke.”
I glanced timidly at her through my eyelashes, my cheeks bulging with food. I wondered why this strange adult was allowing me to sit at her table. Perhaps she was insane. For a moment the thought made me nervous. Then I decided it didn’t really matter. If she did decide to kill me, at least I would go out with a full belly.
I continued to steal glances at her as I ate. Her inky hair, parted in the middle and exposing the snow-white line of her skull, was pulled into a tight ponytail and secured at the nape of her neck. She was very pale, with a pointed chin and angular, almost gaunt cheekbones. It was a severe face, far from beautiful, but she had the kindest eyes I had ever seen. They were the warm tawny color of acorns in the sun.
We sat in silence for a while. I calculated how much I could stuff into my mouth before she threw me back out onto the streets. I never doubted that she would eventually do so. After all, I was sure she could tell I was Loveless. My eyes, a marbled swirl of navy blue and white without pupils, were the most obvious hint. Then there was the lack of masculinity between my legs that the DeVincent boys had already discovered---and which I desperately hoped she wouldn’t ask to see.
“No need to rush through your meal, little one. You’re more than welcome to stay here for as long as you like.”
“Al-ryah?” I said, speaking thickly around a loaf of bread in my mouth.
I pointed at her. It was a word I had heard on the streets, and it was always used to refer to women dressed like her: in robes the color of twilight, with white sashes tied around their waists. She stared at me for several seconds. Then understanding dawned on her face.
“That’s the Axecoma dialect,” she said. “Are you from that village?”
I tried to remember the name of the town I had lived in before I’d wandered into this one. I looked at her, scowling, and then shrugged.
“You understand me though, yes?” I nodded. She pointed at herself. “Al-ryah.”
I nodded eagerly. “Al-ryah!”
“Do you know what that means?” When I shook my head, she said: “It means ‘priestess.’ And what shall I call you?”
I was silent, unsure how to answer. The only name that had ever been applied to me was “Sliver” and I was eager to live that down as soon as possible. After a moment Al-ryah reached across the table and ruffled my dirty hair, pushing it away from my forehead as she leaned forward and scrutinized my face. Her bony fingers were rough with callouses, and they touched me with a gentleness that made me feel uneasy. A warm flush seared across my cheeks as I blinked up at her in dazed confusion.
“We can come up with something together then,” she said, smiling. “Let’s see now. Are you a boy or a girl? Do you have any names you like?”
Again, I was silent. I had alway been referred to as “he” by passerby and so I supposed there must be something about me that looked at least a little masculine---despite my distinct lack of the most valued trait.
Al-ryah’s smile widened at my silence. She gave my head a final pat.
“Lilith-a ma sol,” she said warmly. Years later, when I was more educated (thanks to Al-ryah’s militant tutoring), I learned that she had been speaking the language of her birthplace, Mesmora Village. Lilith-a ma sol meant “little sunbeam.” She had been describing my unusually bright-colored hair. It was such a pale blonde that it was almost white; it flared into frost in the sunshine, and seemed to glow softly in the dark.
A strange fever took hold of me when she uttered those words; the one that stood out to me the most was sol, and the look on the kind priestess’ face as she had said it. It filled me with an intense longing for something I could not name.
“Sol,” I announced, pointing at myself.
She grinned and then pointed at me too. “Nice to meet you, Sol.”
The next time Leonel called me Sliver, I swung my tiny fist into his mouth and cried,
I paid dearly for my moment of defiance. He and Mitch chased me down and gave me such a brutal lashing that I couldn’t walk for days. Al-ryah didn’t ask me about it, but she stayed up all night pouring healing potions into my bleeding wounds.
After I moved in, I tried to help Al-ryah in any way I could. In the mornings, I would venture into the woods to gather the specific materials Al-ryah needed for her ritual offerings (twigs, sheets of moss, dirt taken from the roots of certain plants, cups of water from a stream only partially exposed to sunlight, bark from a tree that was at least one-hundred years old, and other such odd requests that I did not, at that time, really understand).
These excursions were exhausting and often frustrating, but I found them delightful anyway because it meant I got to see the forest spirits. I had only ever heard stories about them and I’d always assumed they liked to keep to themselves. Not so. As soon as they saw me coming over the hill, they would swarm towards me, appearing as balls of pink and orange light that were mesmerizing to watch. They had voices (I often heard them singing) but no bodies---at least not from what I could tell. Perhaps they simply moved too fast for my human eye to see. As I went about my business, they would play with my hair, sing nonsense into my ear, or drop tiny kisses, light as air, onto my face. In their more mischievous moods, they would steal the items I had collected from my hands and giggle when I got annoyed. At other times, they helped me find what I needed, guiding me down secret secluded paths that I never would’ve been able to locate by myself.
Once I had finished gathering ingredients for Al-ryah---sometimes it took hours---I would head off to the temple to start my chores. I didn’t enjoy this part of my day as much as my romps in the forest, but I nevertheless found myself impressed by the homes that the gods apparently built for themselves. I had never seen anything quite like the temple.
The exterior was made of gold that burned so bright it hurt to look at it. It had been built on the edge of a cliff, and the path leading up to its front doors was steep and winding. The eaves of its roof projected beyond the front and side of the building, creating the appearance of gold-tipped wings. It was surrounded by a wooden porch made of dark gleaming wood.
Inside, the temple was no less grand.
It was a single room, but as spacious as a cave. The floors were made of crushed blue and white stones, and a towering white statue of the goddess, Isamandias, was erected in the center. At her feet was a stone altar surrounded by clusters of blue glass candles, which people would light for prayers.The torch sconces hanging on the wall were made of the same gold as the temple exterior, and one of my jobs was to make sure they were lit every morning and to blow them out each night when visiting hours were over.
I was also entrusted with sweeping the sanctuary floors, scrubbing the porch, dusting sconces, and washing the statue of the goddess. Then I would collect the offerings left on the altar---though only after I had rinsed my hands in the blessed water, which we kept in a basin at the foot of the statue. Isamandias, Al-ryah informed me, was the pinnacle of purity, the queen of the healing deities. It would be a sacrilege to approach her with unclean hands. Even worse would be to handle the offerings with an unclean heart, and so in addition to washing my hands, I also had to recite the Prayer of Purification: Create a clean heart in me, O Goddess, and infuse within me a righteous spirit.
After visiting hours ended, I swept the offerings into a blue velvet bag (blue and white were the colors of the Cult of Isamandias) and then gave it to Al-ryah. Non-monetary offerings (such as prayer beads and flowers) remained on the altar.
In the afternoons, I tended to the temple gardens in whatever small way I could. Most of the time I just kept everything watered, taking multiple trips to the well as I struggled to carry a bucket that was almost as big as I was. Sometimes Al-ryah let me help her pick vegetables for dinner, or plant something new in the moist red-brown earth. The disciples of Isamandias followed two sacred rules: cultivation of the land and compassion towards all beings. Since eating meat was considered a violation of the latter, we adhered to a vegetarian diet, and had to keep to a rigorous planting schedule in order to ensure we would have enough food throughout the year. We only picked and cooked what was needed; second helpings were considered an excess, and for Al-ryah, eating food simply for pleasure, rather than out of need, was almost as unforgivable a sin as killing an animal.
“You’re quite the worker for such a little thing,” she said one day after she had witnessed me weed the whole garden in under an hour.
My cheeks quivered with indignation. I lifted both my arms straight into the air and scowled at her defiantly.
“I’m not little! I’m this big.”
“Nah.” She held her hand up to her waist. “You’re like…here.”
“I’ll grow up to be bigger than you, just wait!”
“Please do. I sure could use someone to fix the roof.”
In between our daily chores, we had meals together at home. I eventually learned that this“home” was a rectory reserved for the presiding priest or priestess. Al-rayah didn’t own it herself (in fact, she owned nothing). The building was paid for by donations from worshippers, and their continued financial support is what kept it maintained in the event any repairs were needed.
The rectory was situated directly across from the main temple. The two buildings were separated by the garden, and they could not have been more different in appearance. The rectory was a modest cottage, constructed of gray, weather-worn wood. Though it also had a porch, there were quite a few planks missing, and one had to tread with caution. There were only two rooms inside: the main space, which served as the dining room, kitchen, and sitting room, and the sleeping quarters. The furniture was sparse: there were a few chairs in the sitting area and a kitchen stocked with mismatched cookware. There was also a low dining table, donated to the temple years ago by a foreign businessman. It only rose a few feet off the floor, so we had to sit on cushions rather than chairs.
There was no bathing area to speak of, but we made do with a large wooden bucket that was situated in the woods by the well. When it was warm the cold well water was welcome; in colder months it was torture. But my priestess considered warm water an unnecessary luxury--as well as store-bought soap. She made all our soaps by hand from her own cabinet of herbs and elixirs.
The sleeping arrangements were also simple: Al-ryah slept on a mat in the sitting room. She wanted to be close to the front door in case anyone came in the night searching for shelter, or asking for alms. This meant that I got the only bedroom to myself. It had its own window, a small desk, and cushioned mat to sleep on. With blankets. I didn’t even know how to comprehend such luxury.
I’d been living in the temple for about two months when Al-ryah casually asked me during breakfast if I’d always been able to move objects without touching them. I stared at her for a moment, scowling over my bowl of eggs. (Al-ryah kept some hens in the garden. Their names were Meech, Screech, Tuffles, and Scurs. They were good girls, if not a bit territorial.)
“When did I do that?” I asked.
“Just now, little sunbeam. You passed the salt to me without even reaching out.”
My scowl deepened. It hadn’t seemed that way to me. I had simply handed her the salt. Had I not given it to her directly? I couldn’t remember. Al-ryah put her teacup back into its saucer with a gentle clink, and then leaned forward with her elbows on the table.
“Do you think you could do it again?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled, flustered by the intensity of her gaze.
“Pass me your spoon.”
I put down my bowl of eggs, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, and then gazed down at the spoon lying next to my plate. To my surprise, it slid across the table of its own accord until it bumped against Al-ryah’s elbow. She stared down at it for a few moments, her severe black brows knitting together.
“Never do that in front of anyone but me,” she said. She handed the spoon back to me.
She had an odd look on her face. It was only years later, when I reflected back on that moment as an adult, that I recognized the expression. She was afraid of me.
Or perhaps it was for me.