The Goddess Who Dreamed of Pomegranates
Submitted by Leem. Originally published in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine #18, Winter 1993
Text scanned using TextBridge Classic, edited in HTML using Word 97
The sand skittered across her crumbling toes, gusted over her stone back. One arm had fallen to the wind, her nose was beginning to scale, and a rock had cracked her kneecap. If she allowed the sand to bury her as it buried the artifacts of her people, her statue would last longer. But she didn't want that. Someday, some how, her stone skull would split and she would escape.
Centuries ago she found the statue. Though mortal small, it was perfect in shape, as if the woman who had made it had seen her, or as if some witch had magically produced her body in sand for the woman to copy. Faithful even to the mole on her shoulder, to the dimple in her buttock, the statue was her, the Goddess Maruta, naked and flawless. How could she resist?
Invisible, she had drifted to the village and inspected the idol. She circled it, sniffed it, stroked it, watched over it at night, and all the time she wondered, how would it feel from the inside? How would it be to let herself be held up, cradled at every joint? Could the statue do that for her? She had to find out, so she insinuated her Goddess self inside.
Ah. Cool quiet, restful. She could still hear, but the sounds were muted; still see, but the colors had faded. The statue offered her peace. She would visit often.
But as she was about to leave, she heard a crashing of drums and feet. A woman chanted an invocation. The statue seemed to shrink, to press against her soul, and Maruta couldn't breathe. Frightened, Maruta pushed against the stone, but all the cracks were sealed and she couldn't escape.
Where had the mortals learned such spells? And what was that odor? Cedar? Burnt over an open fire? Maruta howled, for the stench weakened her.
Furious, she rocked against her cage. Her statue teetered and would have fallen, but the people caught it and held it until their witch could weave a spell to bind her still and stable forever. Why had they done this? Why?
She swept their souls, listened to their hearts, read their words, and learned. So. They feared earthquakes, fires, typhoons. All the miseries of earth and storm, they wished them gone. Well, she was a weather goddess. She could do those things. But did they really think she would? Risk the balance of her planet to save a few mortal lives? Impossible.
But then she felt it, first a stiffening in her back, then a clamping of her shoulders. She felt the witch's magic creep up her neck, stronger now, fiercer. Not content with caging Maruta's body, the witch was trying to cage Maruta's will. She had gone too far.
Fools, mortal fools. No, Maruta couldn't fight the magic, but she could certainly fight the witch. With a shriek of power and rage, she struck the witch dead with lightning. Maruta's limbs, her very spine remained rigid as stone, but at least her will was free, her skull open to the sun. Now, if she could only crack the statue's skull...
But she could not. Not even her lightning bolts could smash that stone, for nothing of her own could pierce their magic. Only a mortal could help her now and these mortals were not moving. Even the children had stopped playing. Maruta listened, holding her breath, and the wind itself was still.
Then the village burst with voices. The people began to argue.
"What have we done?"
"It was your fault."
"Why did we listen?"
"What do we do now?"
"Yes, what do we do now?"
Maruta waited to find out.
"A gift, perhaps," said one.
Yes, a gift, a gift. But what did they have? What could they offer that would appease a Goddess?
"Oh, here, look," cried a girl. Her yel low gown shimmered in the sunlight as she reached into a pomegranate tree, snapped a fruit from a branch, and tossed it into the fire. Another copied her, then another, until the tangy odor of sizzling pomegranates obscured the resin of the cedar.
It was lovely, sweet, and it calmed Maruta. Yet she was sad.
"You might have thought to free me," she said, but no one heard her.
Instead, they danced, sang, begged her forgiveness, and the pomegranates sparked into the night. The acrid fruit reminded Maruta of her home, of her sisters, of her pomegranate garden. When her people went into their huts and slept, Maruta stayed awake, listening to her sisters sing, to their feet pounding as they danced above her in their world of fountains, and Maruta keened. She tried to flee, tried to squeeze her soul so she could force her way through holes that weren't there. But the binding spell was powerful and she gave up, exhausted.
That night, and for many nights after, the seas quaked, the winds stormed, the skies opened wounds and howled. The land for miles around was devastated, but Maruta spared her people, for there was still a chance that one would set her free.
None ever did.
Years passed, decades, and still Maruta stood as though lifeless in her cage. Her sisters had come and gone, trying tricks and spells, but they, too, were powerless against the mortal magic. Soon they wearied of the effort and went home. Yes, they sang to her each night, but they would not return to touch her and Maruta could not move to embrace them. Her body ached with anger, so she turned on her people for revenge. She flooded their valleys, cursed them with drought, struck their straw huts flat with wind and lightning, and they hid and cried and begged forgiveness until she wearied of rage, and she left her people alone. The quiet was like a blessing to them, and they created a new legend around her. Priestesses offered her rosemary and blessed thistle and young men stroked her, caressed her. Their touch soothed her skin and gave her pleasure. And, because it appeased her before, the villagers burnt pomegranate seeds on the pyres of their dead until, eventually, pomegranates came to mean death, though the juice was also dribbled in a newborn's mouth.
Foolish mortals, Maruta thought, to so confuse death and life.
But that was long, long ago. Her people had died of plague, deformity, wars. The village crumbled. Maruta grew lazy. She allowed the winds to change until no rains came off the ocean and the endless sun killed trees, parched rivers, blew sand and salt over the rotting boards and hides that remained, until everything her people had built, everything they'd made, was hidden. Everything but her. Endlessly she swept the harsh sands from her body, leaving her rocky form open to the sun, for only that way could she hear her sisters' feet as they danced. It seemed she could remember the gold shimmer of sunlight on the water droplets and the scent of cypress branches. Or had the cypress been here, in this village? She didn't know. It was long ago and she was bored.
In her boredom, she spread her vision and searched the hills nearby. She struggled and pushed for years until finally she managed to see: desolation, quiet. Where had the people gone? When one died out, did they all die out, like lightning bugs come frost?
But no, wait, what was this? Over the mountains there was a valley, green, honey-scented, and in it lived people. People! Black, brown, some with hints of grey, but all with the long brow, the sharp chin, of her own people. Yet Maruta could not be sure, so she waited. Waited to see girls in yellow plant seed in a pomegranate grove; waited to see an old woman rise before the tribe, story stick in one hand, cedar flame in the other. Yes, these people were hers. Maruta could call to them. They would listen.
Into their valley she sent storms such as there had never been. Tornados whipped the trees from the ground, rains gushed down the mountain, and hail stones bruised the people when they went outside. Yet every night the world grew quiet and Maruta blew a gentle wind through the old woman's hut so the woman might recognize her.
And, finally, she did.
She bolted from her hut one morning and stomped across the clearing, an axe clutched in one hand. A young man staggered after her, stumbling over broken branches in his haste. At the foothills, he caught up with her, wrested the axe away and threw it down. He argued with her, pleaded, begged, and from the doorways of the other huts, faces peered and a few villagers spoke, but not one ventured outside.
Through it all, the woman was silent, and when the man stopped speaking, she bent down, picked up the axe, and walked on.
Stuttering, arms thrashing, the man dashed after her. He reached to grab the axe again, but the woman's face when she turned to him was so bitter that Maruta was not surprised when the young man cringed away.
The woman spoke two words, then turned and climbed into the mountains.
The young man hesitated, then scurried after her.
Maruta thrilled. Someone was coming. And not just anyone, but a woman with an axe.
Yet it seemed forever before they reached her. Through the long day, Maruta watched them clamber up the rocks. The man never ceased his chatter and the woman never answered. He reached once more for the axe, but the woman hissed at him, and he turned away, raising his arms to the skies as if to call Maruta herself down to help.
But Maruta could not move. Not yet. It was another day, then two more, before they finally reached the salty dunes where Maruta dwelled.
"Go to her, yes," Maruta heard the man say even before she could see him. "Worship her, offer her gifts, anything, but if she knows you mean to kill her..."
The woman laughed, a biting laugh that made Maruta shiver. So cold, this small creature. So angry cold. "Do you think, truly, that I can kill a Goddess?" she asked. The mortals reached the crest of the largest dune and Maruta saw them tramp across the sands, stumbling in their haste. "If you think so, boy, then you are a fool."
"But she will destroy you, Mother. If she knows your intent..."
"Ayyah!" the woman howled. "Enough!" She hurled the axe into the sand and whirled on the man, hands outstretched and curled into claws. "For four days I have listened to you. For four days I have been silent. But Yarro, Yarro, truly, do you think she does not know already my intent?"
"She is waiting, Mother. She is thinking perhaps I can dissuade you. Oh, please," the young man wailed, crumpling his body into the sand and wrapping it around the axe. "Please, go to worship her, not destroy her."
The woman looked at her son. Her body quivered with rage, one arm trembling back as if to strike. But suddenly she dropped her arm, she drooped. Her body shook, but not with anger, not with tears. With laughter. Howling, shrieking laughter that reached to the mountains and crashed there like waves. Then her laughter stopped. The air froze around them, still and silent and deadly, and into the silence the woman spat her words.
"Am I not keeper of the stories?" she hissed. "Do I not know who she is, and how, and why? The prophecy speaks of this time. It shows us the blessing upon our people when I set the Goddess free. Would you argue with this?"
"A blessing on our people, perhaps, but a curse on you."
The woman shrugged. "It is part of the cycle, Yarro. The prophecy calls for a death. That is all right."
"No, Yarro. I am old. Let me be."
Yarro hesitated. He looked over his shoulder at Maruta, his eyes as sharp as pain. Then he rolled off the axe and lay flat, his face turned toward the sky that was large and white with clouds. The woman snatched up the axe and strode down the hill to the foot of Maruta's statue.
Yes, yes, Maruta cried inside her soul. Strike me.
But even as the woman planted her feet before her, even as she firmed her grip, Yarro hurtled down the hill. Yelling, he threw himself across Maruta's body.
"No, Mother, no! I cannot let you destroy yourself."
"It's a statue I've come to destroy, child. Now stand aside."
But Yarro would not move. Maruta could feel his trembling, could smell the cloying stench of his fear, but he did not move.
"Kill him," Maruta cried out. "Knock him down."
But the woman didn't even try.
Incensed, Maruta called the lightning down yet again. But this time, instead of killing the mortal, the blast turned him into glass. Glittering shards of crystal he was, vibrant with the color of sky and sea and the wind chimed across his back. The woman gasped and Maruta could un derstand why, for she, too, was awed and shocked by the beauty of the man.
Then the woman wailed.
"Yarro!" she cried, and flung the axe aside. "Yarro!" The woman threw her self against the brittle legs of her son and clung.
"Forget him," Maruta said. "He is gone. Do what you have come for."
But the woman paid no attention. She wailed, cried, tore her clothes. She rolled on the sand and pummeled the young man's stiff body until her hands bled, and it struck Maruta for the first time that mortals missed their dead. That is what it meant to be alive.
Something in Maruta shifted and she felt the woman's pain. If she could have moved, she would have bowed and begged forgiveness. But she could not, for even still the woman raged and mourned and would not break her, and at last Maruta could stand no more and she screamed.
"Enough," she said. "When will you release me?"
And the woman raised her face and answered, as if she had heard Maruta's cry.
"Never," she said. "Stay there forever. I care not for you now." Then she scrabbled over to where the axe lay, half hidden in the sand, and Maruta had the wild thought that now, now the woman would strike her, that her words were but taunts. Yet when the woman brought her axe down, it was not on Maruta's head. It was on her Yarro's.
Maruta watched the young man's soul drift from the shattered glass. She watched it lean over, kiss the woman who had been its mother, and sail off. Wretched, Maruta stared.
The woman didn't even glance at the Goddess before turning and trudging back up the hill toward her home.
Maruta stared, trying to comprehend, to understand what had happened. She would have killed the woman, that instant, but for the chance, however slight, that the woman would return to smash her, too.
Still the woman climbed on.
"Come back," Maruta cried. "Come back and free me." And an eddy of sand swirled around the woman's feet
It seemed the woman stopped, considered. Maruta was sure her head flicked back, ever so slightly, that her eyes grazed the skies if only for a moment
"Yes," Maruta said. "Yes, come back." But the woman didn't, and Maruta became afraid.
"You must come back," she shouted. "You must Do you hear me? Or have you forgotten what I can do?" And Maruta filled the sky with thunder and swept sand into the woman's eyes.
The woman stopped. Slowly, she turned. She rested the axe head on the sand and shook her head.
"Ah, yes, Goddess. Your powers. So I must complete my task, after all. But let me tell you, and this I mean with all my heart, if I had only myself to consider, I would see you trapped in stone forever. But for my people, I must see you free."
Then she raised the axe above her head and started running. "Ayyah!" she shouted and hurled the axe into the statue's cheek.
Maruta felt her head snap from her neck, felt it fly, felt her face shatter. For an instant, the pain gripped her, clung to her with teeth and limb, and her soul wailed. But the light poured through in fistfuls, warming her, until her agony was gone. Collecting herself, Maruta streamed through the hole in her neck and soared toward home, forgetting the woman even as she flew.
It was wonderful. The air felt crisp and sharp, the colors shimmered and thundered so bright were they. Her ears were clear again, so clear that she could hear the tunnelling of a rabbit beyond the mountain. She felt new again. Alive. She dipped and turned, relishing the feel of wind against the lights and colors of her true form. She'd known a mortal woman's shape, felt her pain. Now she also knew a mortal's delight. When before had she felt her world so keenly?
Elated, laughing, Maruta flew through the clouds, danced across the atmosphere, sailed up, up until she reached her home. She rolled onto the soft grass. Tears splashed her cheeks. What shimmering skies, like a room full of crystals.
Her sisters poured over her, kissing her and chattering. They smelled of dove and hibiscus and told her everything, absolutely everything that had passed in the eons since she'd been gone. Maruta leaned back against them, breathed in the cypress pollen, and let the lilt of their laughter soothe her, lull her, until she began to forget. Had she ever really lived among mortals at all?
But there was a pomegranate tree that grew in the garden. The pomegranates were sharp ripe the day a sister plucked the fruit. She brought it to the others, who lay sprawled in the meadow grass, and dribbled a bit of juice onto Maruta's tongue.
"Sweet, isn't it?" the sister said, giggling.
But Maruta could not answer, for suddenly she remembered all she'd lost, and the memory was sharp and sweet as pomegranate juice. She cried out, appalled.
"What is it? Maruta, sit back." They tugged at her arms, pulled at her hair, but Maruta would not lie down again. Gently she separated herself from her sisters. Though they cried to her, she wandered away, taking one last look around the garden she'd dreamed of for centuries. Then she walked to the end of the grassy knoll that marked the edge of her world and jumped.
She fell, arms at her sides, hurtling down, faster and faster, dropping through the clouds so fast she ignited. Her body flared in the sky as she fell even faster, the air melting around her And so she dropped to earth; plummeted into the ground until her body was buried even above her head.
She was a Goddess, of course, and could not die. There she hung, encased in glass in the earth. Oh, she could tremble the ground, perhaps fling her crystal body from it like lava. But even now, she could feel the hum of the world as it rumbled across space, feel the gentle rocking as the planet turned, and she laughed aloud.
Her laughter sounded within her crystal tomb like music.
[Original biographical note by Rachel E. Holman:]
BARBARA STEVENS GRAYBEAL lives in Austin, Texas. This is her first sale to FANTASY Magazine, and since her cover letter was extremely brief (these are my favorites, actually, since lengthy cover letters from newcomers, complete with gushing compliments, narrative biographies, and a complete description of the story plot, often serve only to convince me that you aren't a professional writer yet), we don't know much about her. (Can you tell I'm vamping to fill up space? [grin - REH])