written by S. Zainab Williams
art by Robert Burrows
I watch the dragon larvae gyre in the salted earth, their pale bodies fat, submerged rings. I think about Nu’ala’s obsidian hands at the spinning wheel, working the worms’ silvery fibers into spun silk. I remember those same hands at her swan’s throat, blood molten jasper. Red as the sea closing in on the sect’s island. Pouring over her fingers and down her citrine robes. Disfiguring the pattern of flickering fans.
It was in Nu’ala that I chose to bury my secret. She pried it but tenderly, unwittingly from my gated heart. It was the High Minister who bled it out of her.
Nu’ala and I joined the sect in the same class of recruits, enlisted for our empty throats and still tongues. The voices of God are born without a voice of their own, so said the High Minister. Most in our class wrung their hands, smiling their excitement, but with eyes where fear gathered.
Our families raised us to expect the day of our enlistment after our thirteenth cycle. They taught us to meet this day with gratitude. The sect’s prayers called the water for the dragons, feeding them, encouraging the cycle of reproduction. Bringing about the larvae that webbed our desert with fibers during harvesting season. This was Sulta’s famed silk–supple star of the trade routes; our main export besides the red salt and dried eel meat that fetched small coin.
Mothers and fathers and grandparents repeated the story of the dry times when dragon scales rained down from the sky as the creatures grew sick and the exposed seabed crackled beneath the radiant planets. This was before the High Minister arrived from a faraway place with his wagons bursting with rolled parchment all blotted and inked by great plans.
He had heard of Sulta’s struggles and had traveled far to beckon God into our barren firmament. He unraveled his plans and formed the first sect with the blessing of our desperate mayor. God found his voice in the members of the sect. His song activated the High Minister’s secret machines running on holy ground in the caverns below the temple.
The people of Sulta felt the thrum of the otherwise obscure God machines deep below their feet. And then the miracle. Water flowed up from the depths. By the third day, the sea was full. Over time, the eel eggs seeded in mud cakes split open to unleash a new generation. The dragons ate and grew strong again. Once more, the desert teemed with their larvae.
While we understood our importance as members of the sect, we also understood the price of our faith. Separation from family and friends, hard work, chastity, a lifestyle founded on needs, barren of wants.
On the first day of my induction into the sect, as I and the other new recruits disembarked from the painted longboat to mark the sacred banks of our new island home, the High Minister reminded us that the world exists in a state of impermanence. The sea would disappear; the city would fall to dust without the sect. We were the strings that held our world together. And when the High Minister deemed us individually ready to command God’s voice, we would be allowed access to the holy ground and the God machines. We would leave the fold forever to join in God’s song and raise the sea from the land.
I looked at the faces of my adopted sisters and brothers to check their faith. I found the strength of my own convictions mirrored, glittering in another girl’s eyes. Nu’ala’s. That moment of shared ecstasy tethered our souls to a common anchor. We became friends and remained so even after accepting our oath to be as islands in the sea–a company of recluses living only to sleep, eat, work, and, above all, serve.
Without the secretive nature of my friendship with Nu’ala, I may not have entrusted her with my truth, but we became sisters of the shadow and night, drawing our thoughts into the twilight sand glowing white-hot beneath the jewels hanging low off evening’s neck. While our family slept, we gave darkness a home in the lines of our picture-words.
Through our silent language, Nu’ala told me she was born of privilege to a family of trade magnates. I knew of them from conversations between my father and grandmother, spoken low into the steam snaking from the thick, black khave they sipped as darkness warmed to day. I had also seen Nu’ala with her family before we joined the sect. The light caught in the stones encrusting their fingers and dripping from their ears as they walked the market and bazaar. But this was a rare sight. They had muslin-wrapped servants to buy their salted fish and flatbread, their peppery herbs and browned spices.
Traders visited their sprawling earthen home to deal in the finest spun silk. From the stout wooden box where grandmother stored the dried herbs and grains–where I hid to fill the cool, dry space with my dreams and silence during these infrequent conclaves effected by my father’s brief homecomings from the trade routes–I overheard him describe the lush oasis blooming in the family’s plaza. There, guests sipped cold, honeyed mint tea with polished gold straws while discussing business and sharing news from the outer lands.
My father claimed that, so immense was their house, a dragon once stretched herself out, snout to tail-tip, across the warm, clay shingled spine of the family’s northeast rooftop to enjoy the breeze from their garden, and had room to spare.
Nu’ala confirmed all of these tales but claimed not to miss the luxuries of her past life. She had led the lonely existence of an only child. She lacked an Anan’kin as sister and friend. I wanted to tell her the same was true for me, but some words existed without need for expression, and Nu’ala had eyes that searched out souls. Eyes so black, they could not help but take in more than you gave. They showed me then that she knew my feelings already. She had seen love lying in wait when our eyes tugged toward each other to meet above the heads of our siblings that first day on the island.
Nu’ala’s eyes learned the truth about the High Minister while I and the others blindly trailed after him.
Read the rest of the story at my new site, szainabwilliams.com.