Breathe on Me
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I’m hungry.

Which, I must admit, is kind of the point. If fasting does not make you hungry, you are probably not doing it right. Even so, it makes me envious, to watch my little sister and brother scooping up the haws and munching - they broke their fast earlier this morning, but both are right at that age where they’re growing fast as bindweed, and I suppose that takes a lot of energy. Mother assures me that I was like that too, at their age.

Right now, she’s over talking to our family friends, evidently satisfied with her ministrations to all of us this morning. She’s been in such a flap since before sunrise - making sure the little ones had their proper breakfast, and their boots on the right feet, dragging the comb through my hair despite my protestations that I am a grown woman now and can comb my own hair, because apparently a single tangle, a single strand out of place would be unthinkable today. I almost started wondering if she would have enough time to prepare herself, the way she was fussing over us. And then we arrived here at the temple before anyone else, and it became clear that she hadn’t needed to fuss that much. We’ve been waiting a good long while, and especially since it’s still cold it seems longer.

I run my fingers along the embroidered poppies, wheat heads, and stars that line the hem of my good tunic, and poke a bare toe at a decomposing haw, releasing the smell of fermentation. No boots for me, today; my bare feet are meant to be an outward and visible symbol of my inward attitude of supplication. My sister can have them, when she grows.

Slowly, other families trickle in - it’s not everyone, and mostly grandparents, mothers, and their children, as most of the men and the young women are still out on yesterday’s hunt, or with their herds. It’s a little humbling, actually. Most important day of my life, save perhaps when Mother bore me, but it won’t be, not for everyone else.

Although, of course, that isn’t the point. The point is to serve the community, to be guided by what we need rather than what I want. The point is the glory of our lord Ion, and everything else flows from that.

Just under where my ribs give way to softness, Visi twitches just slightly in his sac, distracting me from these thoughts back towards him. I drop my hem and lift my hand to press it over where he rests. Yes, yes, I think at him, I know you are hungry too. Very soon though, you'll understand what we're doing. He is a part of me, after all, and it is assuring to know that at least he shall remain with me forever and ever, through everything the ages I cannot forsee and face with only faith might bring.

Everyone gets quiet suddenly, and I let my hand fall and look up. Karcist Qum has arrived - I was so interested in the haws and in Visi that I didn’t even notice - and with him, his võlutaar Synéka, and so now we can begin. No, I don’t necessarily feel ready yet, but on the other hand: finally. Both of them I have known well my whole life; Synéka even was present at my birth, as she also is skilled as a midwife, and likes to tell me stories about my babyhood when she can. It only gets more embarrassing the older I grow. As always, he has with him his pouch and official sash and ceremonial knife, and she carries with her the bronze cup. Synéka catches my eye and winks. Behind me, I hear people shuffling into attentiveness and Mother hissing at my little brother to be still.

Karcist Qum smiles at the circle of us, gathered here in the misty morning, and then opens his palms and begins to speak the introductory tale.

While he speaks, I look behind him at the temple. It is grown of living branches, the red of cedar and the yellow of larch, and takes the shape somewhat of an upturned boat, with a central ridgeline running from the front to the opening at the rear, where we all stand. Over the years, the branches have grown so tightly together that hardly any light can pierce up to the shrine alcove, and that is potentially why Mother and Grandmother complain about lessened attendance from their time - they bring candles in with them when we go. In addition, the yearly dumps of snow every winter snap off peripheral branches, every year, leaving jagged heartwood scars about the entrance and along the join where roof curves into walls. It is still too soon after winter to repair them, so there they stand out today, great slashes of pinkish-red and chestnut over the grey-brown of the rest of the bark.

And I am here to mend it.

The tale concludes, and we all make the response. Karcist Qum looks around at our gathered congregation. “Welcome,” he says to us all. “We are gathered here this morning for the consecration of our new temple, to be raised to the glory of our Ozi̮rmok and as a home for all our town.

“Come forward,” he says to me. And I do.

“Do you,” he asks me, “understand the task you have chosen to undertake?”

“I do,” I say.

“And is this your freely-willed choice?”

“It is.”

“And do you profess, before all gathered here,” he asks, “to perform your chosen duty to the fullest of your abilities, for as long as you may endure?”

“I do,” I say. Of course. For my town, that we may have a place of worship that is worthy, that can encompass our entire population, and our children, and our children’s children, for generations to come, and for the glory of Ion Orjo̯zi̮r, who would not?

“Kneel,” Karcist Qum tells me, and I do, skirt puddling over my calves. The sun is nowhere near high, and so the ground is still cold, the grass pressing against my shins and the tops of my feet chilly with dew. I fold my hands neatly before me, well aware of all the eyes directed at the back of my neck. Karcist Qum lifts the flap of his pouch and draws out the small vial that contains the oil, unstoppers it, and tips out a large bead onto the pad of his thumb. With it, he marks as required my forehead, cheekbones, lower jaw, and the arches of my neck. The oil is sticky and drags on my skin, and a shiver runs up and over the back of my skull at the touch. “May these symbols be a token of your vow, and may Ion count you as worthy to enter his service and receive the transformation you ask,” he intones. Yes, I think. Oh my lord, my asur, grant that I may be made right for you. Any inadequacy I might have now concealed behind the markings and the holy oil, I raise my head, and watch Karcist Qum re-stopper the vial and return it to its rightful place at his hip.

Synéka passes the cup to him, and he turns back to me with it. The liquid inside is straw-coloured, and shines in the sunlight. I want to take the cup with my own two hands. It feels strange to let someone help me, at least when I am healthy, when I am fully capable of drinking on my own. But I am no longer the active one, no longer the hunter, from now on I may not do the taking any more. So I let Karcist Qum put the rim against my mouth, part my lips, and drink.

It tastes sweet, rich, better than any ferment, better than the blood from a winter’s hunt still hot, and leaves a tingle over my lips and warmth curling up in my belly. Visi shifts happily just below my diaphragm; he must be able to taste it too. He takes the cup away far before I am satisfied, returning it to Synéka’s dutiful grasp, and I try to surreptitiously suck the last drops away from my teeth.

“Graciously we pray that your offering here be accepted, and that you be sustained and granted the strength for the holy duty you have taken.” Karcist Qum places his hand on my head, and his fingers curve almost all the way over to my crown. His palm is warm, and dry, and in that moment is both his and another’s, my heart stirred into sudden wakefulness at the touch.

“Be free,” he whispers to me. “All blessings, child.”

The feeling starts at the centre of my forehead, and spreads out in ripples. I shudder, but manage to keep my hands folded and shoulders straight as it runs down over my neck, shoulder blades, follows down the line of my spine. And at my shins it springs my nerves into sharpness, and I start at the sudden sensation, the extra sensitivity that allows me to feel every blade of grass pressing against the tops of my feet, the moisture in the soil, every grain and the interstices between. And that is where I enter in, the barrier between my skin and the world thinning, dissolving, and my limbs stretching into those spaces as filaments, into the water and coolth and clarity. That threshold breached, the rest of my body joins, my lungs clawing at the air for material and my ribs stretching to accommodate, my organs being degraded and reconstructing in foreign yet marvellous configurations. I feel Visi’s skin split within me, and his blood join mine, and had I jaws and larynx still I would cry out with the shock of that, he something strange and new and beautiful to my sense; even after so many years together, I never realized all his depths, the precision of his existence. We are here, we are alive, we are, we are, and the glorious agony that is being floods over us, strikes us like metal on the anvil and tempers us again and again, twist of bone and fusion of integument until we are perfect for our purpose as a sword is perfect for wielding.

I am full, I am so, so full that I am certain I shall overflow with it, my rapture shall pour over this space behind my sealed-shut eyes - the dome of my skull, the universe entire - like the tides on the coast, like the rains that fill the rivers and feeds, in time, all the eels, the fish and caddis flies and eventually all the fields and trees, in the loop of fall and flow. And my lord’s hands are everywhere in it, and I perceive that that is true: I do stand but on the tide-washed edge of the ocean that is his sacrifice, and his being, and his truth.

Take me, I think. I give this all to you, lord, all my joy, my living sacrifice, only let me know you like this forever.

And he is there, I know he is, and he agrees, I know he does, for his presence comes nearer and enfolds me, as daughter-sister-bride; I am gloried in it, and feel all of myself stretch towards it, reaching as the green shoots of the grain towards the sun, the white threads of fungus deeper into the wood that sustains them. Surely my soul where my body now may not must weep for the depth of this love. Surely I shall feel nothing but this joy, through all the ages, for as long as I am.

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