We saw a kind of shadow moving from beneath one of our Causeways. It must have been an animal of some kind, bigger than any animal we've seen at night. It looked more like one of the Creature-People we sometimes watch during Gray Time. We could not tell if it was misshapen. They saw the sky last night but it was as they have never seen it before. It was covered in a big color they have no name for. Then slowly other colors they have no names for filtered up into the first color but colors so bright it hurt their eyes to look at them. They could not see where these colors came from. It frightened them because there was no gray and the sky is always gray. They thought the world was coming to an end. We are said to be more beautiful than anyone else. Because of this we are to be wed to the most handsome Captain of the Imperial Guards. Sometimes we try to picture out betrothed with a misshapen head and with one arm longer than the other, like the baby our sister gave birth to last week. We will look upon it once more before its removal. They had not meant to be out beyond their hours. They had slipped on a rock under the arch of a walkway they were repairing and hit their head. This put them into a deep sleep. When they awoke they saw the gray was gone from the sky which meant the great beasts that roam after Gray Time had come out. They knew they would be killed and eaten and there was no way they could get to a place of shelter. So they lay down and waited for the beasts to tear them apart. Then they saw the sky become another color as the gray seemed to float away and then still more colors crept along where the sun was going. They could not force their eyes from what they saw though soon the beasts would rip their eyes out. Great shadows were crawling along the sky's edge opposite where the bright unnamable colors were and slowly covered the fading colors till a dark shadow covered the whole sky. And then they could barely see. They happened to look up and saw a person standing on the walkway they had fixed. This person seemed to be looking down at them. They turned and left with their eyes strangely coming to see their path the closer they grew to their home. We watched this shadow run swiftly from beneath our Causeway until the night swallowed it up completely. We wished for that moment the night could be the great after Gray-Time beasts our leaders warn the Creature-People about and that we could watch those beasts tear it to pieces. And we could pretend for that moment it was the beautiful body of our betrothed, and that it could be put back together as misshapen as our sister's child.
They said nothing at first when they returned home. Their family knew it was them and that they had been outside after Gray-Time. For a long time they sat wondering how to tell their family what they saw. They decided first to show their family how dark the sky had become but when they went to the small window and reached to pull the heavy dark curtain aside their family began screaming and pulled them from the window. Their family looked at them like they had gone mad being outside past Gray-Time and asked if they had been made so quickly to forget the great beasts and if they wished these beasts to gaze upon their home and family and then break down the door and eat their whole family. They had no answer to give so they retreated to their bed to sleep until Gray-Time came again.
The Removal ceremony proceeded as prescribed by our rules and customs. Our family's circle of families assembled at the eastern end of the Grand Causeway. Slowly we proceeded along the Causeway, our family banners flapping gently in the evening breeze beneath a crystal blue sky. Our high priest led the procession; following was our sister's husband in the white and gold Captain's uniform prescribed for marriage ceremonies, carrying the deformed child in the traditional red silken bundling; our sister walked four steps behind, attired in a pure white wedding dress. The rest of our family and our family's entire circle of families, all twenty families, trailed behind the bride and groom. When the procession reached the end of the Grand Causeway, our high priest turned and made a sign over the deformed child then motioned for our sister's husband to step forward and slowly unfurl the red silken bundling, letting the child slide from it over the edge and into the river below while the rest of the procession turned away so as not to see the deformed child's final removal. That was when we secretly held our glance sideways a few seconds longer trying to see the child once more before it disappeared over the edge. We could hear sounds of great activity below as if something in the water was devouring the deformed child. Then our high priest completed the marriage ceremony, which, now that all evidence of our sister's failed first marriage to the Captain of the Imperial Guards had been removed, could be sanctified.
They came to the place again where they had witnessed the sky change the night before. They sought out a place of hiding amidst the bushes beneath the walkway so they could see if the sky would again change. Slowly the gray began leaving the sky and this other color filling where the gray left. When all the gray had gone they heard a great noise farther down the walkway and when they looked up they beheld a long line of people coming closer. They did not wish to be seen so they hid but they wished they could warn these people above that the time of the great beasts would soon be at hand. They kept an eye out for any sign of activity within the great forest just beyond the Great River. Then the line of people stopped at the very edge of the walkway. They could hear some words being spoken then all of a sudden something fell from the walkway and landed in the water. They thought it must be a piece of furniture but it moved about and cried out. They came closer and saw it was a baby, its arms fluttering as it squealed. Thinking it had fallen by mistake they ran and dove into the stream and came up to it and grabbed hold of it then turned to call out to the people that one of their children had fallen off the walkway but the people were all retreating. And then they remembered that they too should go back inside now that they had a baby to make warm from the night air. So they made their way toward their home within the small village as quietly as they could. Suddenly they heard rustling in the trees. Thinking it must be the great beasts they hid again among the bushes. Then they saw something emerging from the forest. They could not at first believe their eyes for it was not any kind of beast but their own kind. It was the Elders of their village. They were about to rise and warn their Elders when they heard one Elder ask where it was. Then another asked if they did not just hear it fall into the water and all agreed that that was what they heard. They all spat and said one word and that word was liars. Then the Elders returned to the Great Forest. They hurried home with the child they had taken from the stream. When they arrived home and their parents saw what they were carrying their father turned a ghostly color and their mother began to cry. Their father said they must take this child from their home and return it to where they found it. They asked why but neither their father nor their mother would say. But they reminded their parents that they could not go back out now that Gray-Time was done and could not abandon the child or else the great beasts would find it and eat it. Then they told their parents of seeing the Elders in the forest and that the Elders were looking for something in the river. Their mother let out a cry and their father began shaking their head back and forth and moaning. Their parents both said they could not put off till the return of Gray-Time to return the child to where it was found but must go now even at the risk of being killed by the great beasts. Their father opened the door and pushed them and the child they were carrying out into the colorless night then shut and locked the door behind them saying not to return till it was done.
Out of the corner of our eye as the marriage procession moved back toward our family's villa we caught sight of something moving from the river beneath the Grand Causeway. It hid amidst the thick bushes along the shore line and seemed to be carrying something. Though it appeared only as an outline, we concluded it to have been one of the Creature-People who live below. We had a strange feeling it was the same one we had witnessed moving beneath the Causeway the night before. Of course we could not know that for certain since all the Creature-People look the same, even the females, except for a slight difference in their attire. We often come here during Gray-Time to watch these Creature-People toiling beneath the low hanging clouds. They amuse us with their coarse looks and soiled clothes and dirty hands. We never point at them as others within our family circle do, or laugh when they fall from their burdensome labors. We try to imagine what it would feel like to have to live as they do, in their ugly world filled with nothing but trees and bushes and streams and soil and grass and rocks, where everything is either brown or green or gray, all laid out beneath a dingy sky covered in thick gray clouds that take these creatures' entire allotted time outdoors to burn away so that the glorious blue of the true sky shines through. We pity these unfortunate Creature-People who in their eternal dullness never know the beauty and majesty of the late day sky, or the sunset, or the eerie smooth night sky filled with the lights of a million stars and a moon that goes from empty to full every cycle of The Days. But it is their lot in life to be incapable of seeing or appreciating the great beauties of this world. They are born ignorant and ugly and go through their days oblivious to anything beyond their miserable perspective. But sometimes, for just a moment, we wonder how it would feel not to live in a world where beauty surrounds our every moment, where nowhere we turn is not beautiful, where we cannot even think or dream but in the most beauteous shapes, colors and images. Sometimes we even imagine, for just a fleeting instant, that beauty has run amok in our world and is not as we were all led to believe.
They fled into the night from their parents' house carrying the child they found in the Great River. The sky had almost turned black but they dared not look up at it for they had to be watching for the great beasts. They proceeded with haste unsure at first where they would go. Then they remembered an old abandoned hut they had once found far into the woods. After searching for hours they finally came upon it. They knew it would be empty for it had always been empty even if they could picture a time perhaps even before they were born when they lived there. The old door creaked as they opened it. Inside was round and small and was once a birthing place. They could see nothing at first for there was but one small window. In time as they stood holding the child a piece of light from something round high in the sky began to filter its way through the window until it touched the floor. They saw nothing to sit or lie upon, so they sat on the floor and leaned back against the wall until they fell asleep. A noise in the night awoke them. A sound of screaming but it was muffled by the thick forest so they fell asleep again and only awoke early the next morning when the child they were carrying began to cry.
We watched as one of our family's families formed a procession beneath the full moon. In the midst of this procession was a very old woman who could no longer fix her hair or dress herself properly and a man, much younger, who had been stricken with The Disease and had grown ugly as his body slowly wasted away, revealing sore places on his face and arms which oozed a terrible smell. This procession slowly made its way along the Lesser Causeway to the east of the Grand Causeway, until coming to the steepest point. There, four members of the Imperial Guard took up the old woman and diseased man and, after the Final Priest gave The Removal his invocation, hurled them from the Lesser Causeway into the dark water below. Even from where we stood we could hear them screaming as the procession turned and started back from The Final Place. These screams continued another several minutes before all grew quiet again. We went back inside our family's villa just beyond the Lesser Causeway. No one else was home, this was the Imperial Guards' Bayonet Ceremony Night; and, our brother, our father, our Betrothed and our sister's husband all being members of the Guard, everyone else in the household was in attendance. We had excused our self, saying we would be still involved in planning our wedding dress for our ceremony next month. Now that we were alone, we lost all interest in our wedding dress or our upcoming ceremony. Instead, we wandered alone through our villa, visiting each separate room, inspecting each piece of furnishing, each tapestry, each drape, each rug and each bed cover. We could find no fault, no flaw in the arrangement, not even so much as a tuft, a seam, a thread out of place, or a single scratch anywhere. Finally, we went to the Portrait Room to look at every portrait of every member of our family. All the portraits had been carefully re-arranged since the last time one had to be taken away. We barely remember what the old woman once referred to as our Grandmother looked like. Five years ago she had to be taken to The Final Place, barely a year after the old man referred to as our Grandfather was taken. We can't remember our Grandfather at all. Looking at these portraits made us recall a time last month when our mother fumbled trying to fix her hair, and failed to get the last strand in place. We came up behind her before anyone else noticed her grave error and smoothed the wayward strand against her head. Now we watch carefully whenever our mother fixes her hair. She is too young to be taken to The Final Place.
They had to find something to feed the child. They knew a child this small needed milk but they had none so they went to look for some. They came upon a milk shed where animal milk was stored. They slipped in and found a jar and filled it with milk then hurried back to feed the child. Standing inside the hut was their mother holding the child. Their mother saw them enter and reached out to take the milk then took out a cloth and placed it over the child's mouth and poured the milk a little at a time onto the cloth so it could slowly seep into the child's mouth. Their mother finished feeding the child and when it fell asleep told them about coming here because this was where they were most likely to bring the child. They asked their mother how she knew that but the only answer they got was that mothers in their village know about such places. They asked how mothers knew but their mother turned and walked out leaving behind the cloth so they could use it to feed the child. Then their mother returned to the hut once more to tell them never to let the Elders learn of the child. They knew there was no need to ask why for ever since they had seen the Elders in the woods after Gray-Time they understood that not everything in their village was as it seemed to be.
One of our family's family extended us an invitation to the Feast Day held in the atrium of one of the biggest villas in our circle of families. There was a cool north breeze all evening; the lit fireplace at one end of the atrium refreshed our senses, as did the sound of crackling logs and the hypnotic swirl of flames. At the appointed hour the servants brought forth a plate of steaming food, a huge slab of roasted meat surrounded by vegetables, chestnuts, cheeses and breads. We stood apart as everyone else took portions off the plate; finally we approached and collected one small piece of each delicacy. The meat was tough, as it often is at these Feasts; and though we find something distasteful about meat, it would have been ungracious to refuse eating it. We noticed our mother struggling with her piece of meat, as if it were choking her; but we don't think anyone else saw, so there was nothing to censure. New tapestries made with strands of clothing, some silk, some linen and some wool, hung from rafters at the southern wall. We remember seeing pieces of this fabric draped about the old woman who disappeared off The Final Place. When the Feast Day came to an end at midnight, our family thanked our hosts and returned to our own villa, content now that the breach of etiquette at having no meat to serve at our Feast Day when our sister's baby was removed had been at last amended.
They decided the only thing they could do was return the child to where it belonged. They could not continue putting off their tasks till one of the village mothers could care for him. The trusses and beams supporting the system of walkways needed constant maintenance from the first minutes to the last hours of Gray-Time each day. Their fellow workers had already noticed their several absences during the day and some had reported them to the overseers. So one evening when Gray-Time was gone and their fellow workers returned home they went to the hut and gathered up the child and carefully made their way up the trail that led to the Servants' Walkway. All the servants who live above had left their special walkway to return to their rooms within the many villas that lined the series of hills overlooking the Great River. With no one to hand the child over to they began wandering the maize of walkways and stone roads channeling many paths amidst this end of the Great City. Way in the distance under this sky that was no longer gray they could see the tall spires of the Great Building and like tiny streams of ants the parades of Imperial Guards. There was a time when they believed all the people above like those below went into hiding each evening when Gray-Time was gone. Now they knew this was not so. Still carefully moving along the walkways and roadways they came to a place where people had gathered within an open square. They removed the cloth covering the child and set it down just within sight of these people then crouched low to await the child's discovery. But to their amazement the people among the group who first saw the child instead of coming to its rescue screamed and ran in horror from it. They heard someone yell to get the Imperial Guard to come destroy a vile creature that had crawled from The Great Pit into their city. In another moment the remaining people had taken up the screams and likewise ran away in horror. They hastily retrieved the child and made their way back to the Servants' Walkway. There they encountered a beautiful woman of the city and it was the same woman who had watched the night they got stranded beyond Gray-Time. They offered the child they had rescued so this woman too would scream and run away. But to their surprise this woman came closer and looked for several moments at the child. Then the woman told them to take it back where they had found it or it would be destroyed. They asked why it would be destroyed. The woman told them it was an ugly child with a misshapen head and arms that were not even in size. They removed their cap and held out their arms to show that they too had a misshapen head and arms not even in length. The woman bent down and kissed the child's head then turned and walked away.
We made sure the Creature-Person from below and our sister's child it had rescued had already started down the path leading from the Servants' Causeway before turning back to watch. We found this being intriguing, partly because we knew it to be the same one we had watched on several occasions, but also because it held a mysterious charm we had never before encountered up close. It had a coarse, even sullen, appearance that repelled us, yet at the same time a familiarity, both to our sister's child and to our Betrothed. We had heard a dark, forbidden rumor that this the most handsome of the Imperial Guards had had a twin brother, born with a head misshapen and arms out of balance and had had to be removed. But since one baby born of the Twinling had been a normal beautiful child, the marriage could not be annulled and had to be re-consecrated by the Imperial High Priest using special incantations, after which both parents were removed and the beautiful child, now our Betrothed, was given to the Imperial Guard to be raised as a ward of the State. This Twinling was said to be one of the rarest events in our people's history, so rare and ominous an omen that, had the ugly child not been immediately removed, it could have brought our entire way of life to ruin. This was, of course, only a rumor, told among the servants, which we happened to overhear as a child. It felt strange to us and somehow enchanted to be, alone among our entire race, in possession of such a dark, foreboding tale. We never shared it with anyone, and, until now, watching the Creature-Person disappearing into the night, never wished to. But we were resolved to find a way to spread this rumor into the world beneath us, to see if perhaps it were true. Perhaps even to go into the nether world, disguised as one of the Creature-People, to try and find our Betrothed's Twinling, if it, like our sister's child, had survived its removal.
Sometimes they would look upon the High Plateau from many different points. They would do this in the Gray-Time in moments of rest from their work sometimes even taking their entire lunch time to follow the river back as far as they could to see as deep into the High Plateau as they could. It surrounded the Great River on both sides of the river bank, rising up from only a few feet to many hundreds of feet with great walkways bridging the river at several points some walkways even following the river's path for hundreds of feet before linking to other walkways. They always stood in awe before the High Plateau no matter where they looked at it from and they always wondered how many hundreds or even thousands of people lived up above, since there was enough land for a hundred villages like theirs. Their village had four hundred homes they had counted plus seventy small huts on the edge of their village like the one where they took the child they had rescued. They knew not if these numbers held any special meaning but they were told that on the High Plateau the people put great store in knowing all kinds of different numbers and not merely one plus one plus one. Some of their Elders even said the people on the High Plateau used numbers to help build the walkways and the great homes along the walkways and even the great palaces and buildings far beyond the river bank. Every time they looked up at the High Plateau they wondered which numbers the people of this above world had used and how the people knew which numbers to use. And they tried to imagine how numbers could be used not only to count homes but to build homes also. They began to devise plans for putting numbers together in such a way that they could build a house using these numbers instead of mud and straw and thatch. But they could find no way so they resolved to go above one day and hide among the homes and walkways until they could discover these magical numbers.
We often wonder if there will be another Time of Disharmony like those our Imperial Historians speak of, and if our Betrothed will be killed putting the Disharmony right as many of the Imperial Guard had been killed restoring Harmony in past Times of Disharmony. We don't wish our Betrothed killed, nor do we wish for Disharmony; but this part of our history intrigues us. We cannot imagine what a Time of Disharmony would be like, nor can we fathom what might lead to such a time. None of our histories make it clear exactly what happened, only that our Imperial Guard acted with the greatest valor to restore Harmony, and that those who gave their lives in the great cause are honored once a year on our Day of Harmony. Somehow the Disharmony seemed to have involved the Creature-People who live beneath our world, but it is not clear what their involvement was. There is a small marker along the trail leading down from the Servants' Causeway. We have seen this marker, though we are generally forbidden to go so much as a single step beyond it unless we are gathering flowers to make our villas even more beautiful. It contains words which indicate that They were driven back at this point. It doesn't make clear who They were, but They must have been the Creature-People, since no one in our world was ever called They, and They has always indicated a lesser breed of beings. So the Creature-People must have attempted to ascend into our world and, in so doing, created a Time of Disharmony which the Imperial Guard was called to set right, and which resulted in the deaths of many Imperial Guards. If there were to be another Time of Disharmony and if our Betrothed was killed restoring Harmony, then we would go through life with no hold on our family or our family's circle of families or any part of our Imperial Society. We would be like a ghost moving silently and unseen through our world as we slowly worked our way to the Place of Ghosts at the farthest reaches of our world, where we would remain all our days and never be looked upon again.
They saw shadows moving past the clearing into the woods. They smelled smoke. All at once their hut where they had taken the child they rescued burst into flame. They watched it burn to the ground. They were glad they had taken the child with them to the High Plateau or it would have died in the flames. They went at once in search of another hut. They searched long past the Dark-Time before they found one remote from every other home in their village and remote even from all the other huts. There they settled into sleep until just before Gray-Time when they went to get milk for the child. They fed the child through the cloth their mother had given them then the child had fallen asleep again and Gray-Time began so they left to go to their work for that day. They had many thoughts as they worked. Whose shadows had they seen? And why was their hut burned? They had heard of times when huts were set ablaze and any creature within burned to death. These were times when old and deformed and diseased people who had been thrown into the Great River from the walkway were sometimes rescued and some of them taken in by their village and many new huts built to house them. These were said to be dark times for their village when people in bright uniforms from the High Plateau descended and began attacking villagers and even killing them. It was said among the Elders that these were the Times of the Hut Burning. That was when the Elders declared that no villager could ever again rescue any of the people thrown into the river. That was when the Time of Screaming began and the villagers always knew when people had been thrown into the river. They thought about all this and wondered if their hut had been burned to remind the villagers of those terrible times and as a reminder to never again rescue the people thrown into the river. Then they thought again of the child they had rescued and wondered if they had disobeyed their Elders by rescuing it. They thought surely their Elders' edict could not apply to a creature so helpless as this child. They decided they must go among the Elders and ask yet they dared not reveal the child to their Elders. So they decided to ask a made-up question to make it seem they were seeking their Elders' wisdom what to do in case they were ever present when a child was thrown into the Great River.
Our mother appeared at dinner with numerous loose strands of hair and with a button missing from the sleeve of her gown. Our father arose from the dinner table and made the rest of our family leave until our mother's place had been cleared. When we were again summoned by the harmonious chime of the dinner bell, our mother was, of course, no longer in the dining place, having been confined to the Place of Solace until our family's plight could be taken up by the Great Council in our society's Imperial Building. It was our custom that once a family member was confined to the Place of Solace we could only visit with that person one time during a daily cycle and never more than half an hour at a time. If the Great Council ruled that the breach of etiquette was irreparable the person would then be confined to the Place of Remorse, a dark room deep within our villa where the person would remain until the Final Place would be made ready. None of us was ever allowed to visit a person confined to the Place of Remorse. We visited our mother each day of the week she was confined in the Place of Solace. We asked how she had come to be so careless of her appearance but she could not say, only that her mother and father both had been so afflicted, both at the same time, and both at the exact number of years our mother had attained. We did not ask what the Great Council had decided regarding our mother's father and mother because we remember attending their Removal, though we were just a girl then. We knew from that what the Great Council would decide regarding our mother and we were saddened because we remembered how kind she was and how beautiful she looked as we were growing to our maturity. Every hair was perfectly in place, every button sewn tightly to every sleeve of every gown. Now here our mother was, a disgrace to our family who must soon be removed from our world. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we remembered beholding the mother of one of our family's families at the time of her Removal. Every single strand of her hair was out of place and every button on both sleeves had been torn off, and she was screaming at everyone in the procession to the Final Place, telling them they were fools if they thought they would ever feast on her flesh. And when she was taken up by the High Priests and hurled from the Causeway into the river below, we listened and listened and, even when the procession had returned from the Final Place, we kept listening but we heard no screaming. All we heard was the rustling of leaves followed by someone muttering one single word: liars. And at that family's Feast Day, just as at ours when our sister's baby was removed but was saved by the Creature-Person, there was no meat served and that family had to await another family's Feast Day to have the breach of etiquette amended.
They went to the village square where the Elders gathered at noon time each day to take care of village matters. They stood in a line of other villagers who had come to seek the Elders' guidance. When their turn came they were summoned to sit upon the speaking stone. When they were seated they posed their made-up question if a child were thrown into the river from the walkway could it be rescued. The Elders grew angry at their question and answered that it was as much a violation of their edict to rescue a child as to rescue an old or a sick person. Then their Elders asked why they had asked such a question and how they could even know if a child had ever been thrown into the river. They at first did not know how to respond till an image came to them from when they were still a boy. It was an image of an old woman they remembered seeing wandering through the Great Forest hiding behind first one then another tree. This woman's hair was wild and stringy and this woman's clothes were torn and dirty. They related to the Elders how one day they had come upon her and how she began raving about people being thrown into the river so their families could have meat for their Feast Day and how even children were sometimes hurled from the walkways only she called them causeways. They said this woman's words had stayed with them all these years and that they had resolved to one day present those words to the Elders. This explanation lessened the Elders' anger but their answer remained that to rescue even a child was the greatest crime a villager could commit and any villager violating the edict would be banished from the village to wander the Great Forest until eaten by the great beasts. They then asked what would happen if a villager banished to the Great Forest ever returned to the village. The Elders said such a villager would be taken to the High Plateau to be tortured and blinded and killed by the Imperial Guard. They thanked the Elders for their guidance on this matter and arose from the speaking stone to go. Before they left the Elders told them that a hut at the edge of the village had been reported to be burned to the ground. They acknowledged the news and departed the village square.
We walked the Grand Causeway to the very center of our city. It took us three hours. Our intent was to visit our Betrothed in the Imperial Building, to ask him to intercede on our mother's behalf. We feared he could not hope to succeed, but we wished him to try nevertheless. Though he was not Supreme Commander, only a Captain of the Imperial Guard, because of his unique position as a Twinling, who had been raised in the shadow of the Imperial Court, we knew he held great influence. When we finally completed our journey and were admitted to the Imperial Building, and led through to the Great Courtyard where the Imperial Barracks stood alongside the Imperial Armory, we stood looking at the sky changing from gray to bright blue while we awaited our Betrothed. This was our favorite time of day, as well as the most favorable time to conduct the business of state. Every day, as far back as we could remember, the sky changed from gray to blue at this hour and we knew we would be safe from any Disharmony. This had been so since the time our Historians warned the Creature-People about the great beasts that roamed the Great Forest when Gray-Time ended each day. We were so engrossed watching the sky we didn't notice our Betrothed approaching from the Imperial Armory until he was almost upon us. We exchanged greetings then he asked why we had come this far from our villa. We told him of our family's plight then asked if he could intercede on our mother's behalf. His glance was angry. He asked how could we dare ask a thing so against our traditions. We reminded him of the exceptions built into each of our customs and rules by the Imperial Congress. He, in turn, reminded us that these exceptions were intended only for members of the Imperial Court; but we protested that there had been cases of exception made for those living outside the Imperial Compound, so our request was not without precedent. He softened his glance a little and said he would consider the matter and that we were to return in three days to give specific details on our mother's state of deterioration, advising him how many hairs became loose and unsightly each day and how many buttons had come undone. We did exactly as he said. In three days we reported to our Betrothed on our mother's condition. Since he could not know whether we reported truthfully and accurately, he said it was a good sign that in three days' time no more hairs came loose or buttons undone. He agreed to present our family's petition to the Imperial Court for consideration. We thanked him and returned home, pretending not to notice the Creature-Person watching our every move from below. We were annoyed that one so lowly dared spy on us; but at the same time we were excited to know we had so completely captivated its attention.
They knew they would be followed after presenting their made-up question to the Elders. They knew the Elders suspected them of harboring a child intended for destruction. But their knowledge of the Great Forest as well as every trail leading to and from their village and the Great River allowed them to maneuver their way to the distant hut where they kept the child without being seen. When the Gray-Time ended and they knew everyone would be locked inside their homes to keep from being eaten by the great beasts they took up the child and once again set out for the Great River with its networks of walkways above as they had done each day since rescuing the child. They could not say why they were so drawn to the walkways except that almost every time they were there beneath them they had seen the woman they showed the baby to who said it was this woman's sister's child. Perhaps it was because they hoped this woman could be persuaded to take the child and care for it in its rightful birthplace instead of this below world. Yet each time they saw this woman at this time they forgot the child they were carrying and thought only of the woman but could not say why this was so. They had never seen any person as beautiful as this woman and as they considered the matter they realized that not even the sky they had discovered the day they hit their head and fell asleep was as beautiful though they could not say how it could be that a mere woman could ever be more appealing to their eyes than the sky above turned an array of colors they could not even imagine. They had seen women before those below who wore hand-made clothes and wore their hair loose as well as those above who walked in the great processions along the walkways and even those who were thrown into the Great River to be destroyed. But they had never seen the sky such colors. Yet their eyes made them wish to turn away from the sky whenever this woman walked above. And their legs made them wish to climb the Servants' Path to stand before this woman. And their arms made them wish to reach out and take hold of the woman. They wished there were some person somewhere they could speak to of these things. But the only person they could think of to speak to was the woman herself. Perhaps if they told this woman of their eyes' and their legs' and their arms' strange wishes the woman could tell them what it meant and what could be done.
On the day before the Imperial Court was to decide what must be done with our mother, we were out walking along the Servants' Causeway. We were not thinking of anything, or on our way anywhere in particular, nor had we chosen this causeway for any special reason, other than that it was usually deserted this time of evening. As we came upon the place where the Servants' Path meets the causeway, we noticed someone ascending from below. We knew it would be the Creature-Person who had been watching our every move since that first evening we saw it beneath the causeway. At least we assumed it was the same Creature-Person, but for all we knew or cared every one may look exactly alike. This time it did not have the child in its arms, of which we were glad. It beckoned to us as if it were in a great misery and needed our help. We held up our hand to indicate it must come no closer. It stopped in its tracks but then it began speaking to us, asking us the strangest questions we had ever heard. It wanted to know if there were any help for three unusual conditions. It said its eyes had become fixed on one object alone and could not turn away. Then it said its legs carried it constantly to one place only. Finally it said its arms ached to reach out and touch but one thing out of all the things in the world. It wished to know if we had ever encountered anything like this and, if so, what, if anything, could we offer to help correct these three conditions. We told it of certain of our laws that might be of help, although we could not say if the laws below were the same as ours. We told it that in our world there were very definite remedies for those who broke our laws. If someone beheld anything that was prohibited to behold, that person's eyes were plucked out and the lids sewn shut. And if someone approached too near something that was a prohibited place, that person's legs were broken and bound with ropes to prevent the bones from mending properly; or else the person's feet were cut off. And if someone reached out to something that was prohibited to touch, that person's hands were cut off. We said we hoped our answers would be some help and would satisfy the Creature-Person's curiosity. It thanked us and retreated back down to its own world.
They thought for a long time about what the woman had told them. Each word they considered separately to better understand how they all fit together to make a law for the people of the high plateau. The law was so different from the law the village Elders had handed down to the village people. The woman spoke of things prohibited just as their Elders had done but the things were different as were the punishments. In the woman's world if a person saw or touched or came upon something prohibited that person would be blinded or with hands cut off or with legs broken or feet cut off. In their village the only thing prohibited was to rescue a person thrown from the walkway and the punishment was to be banished from the village. Then they began to examine each of the things they had done and wished to do. They had looked upon this woman more beautiful even than the sky after Gray-Time but how could this be prohibited? Did not others also look upon the same woman as she walked above? They had gone above to stand before this woman but could this be prohibited? Had not others gone up the Servants' Path and stood before the woman also? They wished to pull the clothes from the woman's body and loosen the hair from the woman's head so they could behold the woman's naked body but could this be prohibited? Had not others seen this same woman's naked body and even touched that body and perhaps held that body near and felt the warmth of that body? So how could these things they wished so hard for be prohibited? The more they thought about it the more angry they became at the woman's words because the answer given to their question answered nothing but only made the question more urgent. They vowed to go again to stand before the woman and to look upon the woman again and this time to reach out and touch the woman even to remove the woman's clothes. But first they would have to remove their own clothes to stand naked before the woman so they could show that they meant no harm in removing the woman's clothes because they had removed their own clothes and nothing had happened to harm their body. This is what they decided to do on the very next day as soon as Gray-Time had ended and they had tended the child they rescued even though in rescuing the child they had violated their Elders' prohibition and might one day be stripped of their clothes and sent beyond the Great Forest to live their days running naked through the forest seeking food and shelter and hunting for leaves and twigs to cover their naked body.
On the day the Imperial Court decided our mother's case that our Betrothed presented on our family's behalf, a strange thing happened. It was mid-day that we returned yet a third time to the courtyard and asked to speak with our Betrothed. A few minutes later he appeared before us and told us that the Imperial Court had decided that morning in our mother's favor. We were thankful and expressed our gratitude to our Betrothed for having interceded on our family's behalf. Our Betrothed then told us to have our mother readied by evening to be taken to the Place of No Persons, almost as distant from our world as the Place of Ghosts. We would have liked to accompany our mother the entire way to the Place of No Persons, but we were only permitted to go as far as where the Great Causeway ended and two smaller and very dark causeways branched off from it, both nameless. One causeway led to the Place of No Persons while the other extended far beyond to the Place of Ghosts. Standing watching our mother being led down the nameless path to the Place of No Persons, we remembered our thoughts the day we wondered if our Betrothed might be killed some day should there come another Time of Disharmony and how we would be made to go to the Place of Ghosts. Knowing now that our mother would be a short distance away made the thought of becoming a Ghost less woeful, even though neither Ghosts nor No Persons could ever leave their Place to visit another. It would still be some comfort knowing our mother was closer than our family's villa at the other side of the Imperial City. It was nearly dark when we neared our family's villa, and the Great Causeway, as every other causeway, was nearly deserted. Suddenly, from out of nowhere the Creature-Person that had been watching us from below each evening leaped from behind a post and, without a word, removed all its clothes, throwing them off the causeway to stand before us completely naked. It turned around slowly then back again to face us. They it slowly approached us and reached out as if to remove our cloths as well. We backed away. It gave us a puzzled look and said to us how it had shown there was no harm in removing its clothes, so there could be no violation of any prohibition or rule. Again it beckoned us to remove our clothes. Again we backed away. Yet it approached farther. This time it reached out and began trying to remove our clothes itself, even trying to loosen our hair. We were too shocked to say or do anything or even move away as it slowly removed all our clothes and finally loosened our hair. It said to us that, as in removing its own clothes, in removing ours as well nothing harmful had happened so there could be no violation of any rule. It stood there for a long time beholding our naked body as parts of its own body began changing their shape. It bent down and picked up our clothes and was about to hurl them off the causeway when it heard someone coming and handed us back our clothes then took off running back down the Servants' Path. We hastily got dressed and fixed our hair but instead of turning to go back to our family's villa we walked to the edge of the causeway and stood watching the Creature-Person standing still naked as the dark of night slowly surrounded it and returned its parts to their former shape.
They gathered up their clothes they had thrown off the walkway and put them back on once the woman had retreated from the walkway. Then they returned to their hut. They had a strange feeling that they were being watched but as they looked all around they could see no sign of any person and they knew the Elders of their village would not be out after Gray-Time as they had been at the times there were processions along the walkway. Finally they reached their hut and went in. Though it was small and with only one room they began looking and searching in every corner for they could not see the child they had rescued. They searched again and again but still could find no trace of the child. They knew a child so small could not possibly open the door to the hut yet they went out and began searching the woods surrounding their hut for some sign of the child but could find nothing. They grew desperate to find the child for they were afraid if they lost it they could not continue to go each day after Gray-Time to look upon the woman whose naked body and loosened hair they had finally seen because the woman would be sure to ask them what had become of the child and would never again allow them to look upon the woman's naked body and loosened hair. They went back into their hut so filled with despair that they began to cry and moan and wail long into the night till they finally fell asleep. After sleeping many ours they were awakened but not by the morning light. They heard sounds outside their hut and began to smell smoke. They hurriedly got up from their straw mattress and after searching the hut one final time just in case they had only dreamed the child's disappearance they ran outside to see what was happening. There at the edge of the wood stood their Elders holding torches. Upon seeing them the Elders approached and saying nothing set their hut ablaze. They stood watching their hut burn to the ground then turned to the Elders to ask why their hut had been burned down. But instead of giving an answer the Elders turned and retreated back into the Great Forest still carrying their torches. Watching the Elders disappear into the Great Forest they still despaired at losing the child they had found but were resigned now that it had been lost for otherwise it would have been burned with their hut or if they had carried it to safety it would have been taken by the Elders back to their village and perhaps never seen by them again.
We cursed our ways. The dress the Creature-Person removed from us on the Servants' Causeway became our favorite of all the dresses we had ever worn; but according to our custom we could never be seen wearing it again, nor were we even allowed to keep it. Every dress worn had to be taken to the Imperial Mill to be ripped apart and its material sewn along with the material of many other dresses into a new fabric, except for the dresses whose buttons had come off, which had to be worn, as our mother's dress was worn, continually for one week to see if more buttons came off. We were expected at the end of each day to turn our dress over to the servants to be taken with the dresses of every family in our circle of families to be dispersed. We had to be very careful coming home after our encounter with the Creature-Person that no one saw us, especially the servants, who would then know that the dress we turned over to them was not the dress we had worn. For it was our intention to save this dress and pretend we had worn another that day. We wished to keep it and wear it when we were alone, at night, in bed. We were sure no one saw us enter our family's villa; but, even so, the servants gave us an odd look and one even said it was sure we had had on another dress that morning. We asked how it was that a servant questioned their master's daughter or, worse still, implied we had been careless in our observation of the Imperial Dress Code. We reminded our servants what happened to those who spread wicked lies about those they serve. Their tongues are split in the middle and sewn fast to their mouths so they may never again speak ill of their masters. Then we retired to our chambers to put the dress we had worn back on and lie down in our bed for the night. We kept our favorite dress on because next morning was Prayer Time and we knew that while we were with our family at the Imperial Cathedral our servants would go through our clothes to make sure none of our gowns had become frayed. So they would be bound to notice the dress we had worn the day before and report it to our Betrothed, who would then demand to know why we had failed to turn it in at the end of the day as we were required to do, and who would then exercise his right to end our betrothal to him. We were careful to hide every piece of its fabric beneath the gown we chose to wear for Prayer Time; but somehow, in arranging our gown to cover our favorite dress we had snagged a thread and it stood, loosened from its stitched place along the high collar. One of our servants noticed the loose thread and advised us to change to another gown but we refused, insisting that one loose thread did not go against the dress's beauty or violate any prohibition. We knew our servant would go to the Imperial Courtyard to report this loose thread to our Betrothed. But we did not care.
They sat all night on the ground beside where their hut had been before the Elders set it ablaze still wondering what had become of the child they rescued. They were resolved to go as deep into the Great Forest as they must to try and find it for surely even the Great Beasts that came out and roamed their world after the Gray-Time each day though in all their comings and goings they had seen no sign of any and surely these beasts would not have entered their hut to pluck up the child and eat it for were the people of their village not always told they would remain safe inside their houses with the windows covered and since their hut had no windows the child would have been kept from harm. The moment the morning light signaled the arrival of Gray-Time they arose from the ground to begin their search for the child they had rescued and had shown to the woman on the walkway before deciding to remove the woman's clothes to show that no harm would come from it. They went deep into the Great Forest even farther than they had ever gone before. They found many old trails that had grown over in time as no person ever came upon the trails. They had to work their way through the thick bushes and the fallen branches of overhanging trees till eventually they came to a clearing where the trees parted and the bushes did not grow. They remembered hearing stories when they were a child about a place the people of their village called Where All Began. It was said to be a field where nothing grew ever again since giving birth to all that ever was or ever could be. This clearing was as barren as the field Where All Began. They fell to their knees to beg forgiveness for coming upon what no person alive was ever supposed to witness. Then as they were bent over in prayer they felt a tap on the top of their head. Thinking it was The Beginner which was the one being that their people said had plowed the field till so many things had come to life that the field grew barren and The Beginner itself was rent into three Divine Entities they lifted their head skyward. They beheld an old woman with every hair loosened and blowing in the breeze. They asked if this old woman was The Beginner but were told The Beginner had died and was buried deep beneath the field. They cried to learn that after The Beginner became the Divine Trinity it suffered so terrible a fate but the old woman told them to leave all crying to those who lived on the High Plateau for it was the people above that had caused The Beginner to die and be committed to the field. They were even more horrified to learn this of the people above than they were saddened to learn The Beginner had died and been buried in the field. Then the old woman motioned for them to arise and follow so they did.
As we knew would happen, our Betrothed visited our family the very evening of our Prayer Time. He explained to our father that our servant had reported a loose thread on the dress we wore that morning to Prayer Time. Our father looked to us for an explanation. We admitted that during the opening prayer we had felt a slight sensation against our throat and had reached our hand to our collar, thinking perhaps a small bug had somehow gotten on our dress, but it turned out to be a loose thread. Our entire family was horrified to hear this and our Betrothed demanded an explanation. We said that our servant had come up to us to help smooth our collar, which seemed odd to us because we had been careful to smooth out every wrinkle in our dress gotten in putting our dress on. We then accused our servant of deliberately picking a piece of the collar's fabric but not telling us about it so as to spread malicious gossip about us. Our Betrothed then asked why a servant, whose only task was to make certain our attire never violated any of our rules, would do such a thing. We told our Betrothed that our servant had been dismayed because our mother was sent to the Place of No Persons instead of being Removed, as was the general custom. Also, this meant a second departure from our family that the servants had been unable to help prepare our Feast Day to celebrate. And since our servant knew it was because we had interceded on our mother's behalf, our servant had set about to disgrace us at Prayer Time and cause our betrothal to be terminated. Our Betrothed promised to present our side of the event to the Imperial Board, though he reminded us that it was unusual for the word of a servant to be challenged and that it was even more unusual for the word of a patrician to carry greater weight than that of a servant, whose only task was to ensure the rules were never violated. We acknowledged our understanding of our customs regarding the enforcement of our rules, but held fast to our accusation of our servant. When our Betrothed had left and it was our sleep time, and we lay upon our bed with our favorite dress on, we began thinking of every possible place we might hide our favorite dress, but no place was safe from our servants. We began to despair, knowing we could not keep wearing our favorite dress or we would surely be discovered, when all of a sudden the image of the Creature-Person who had removed our dress came to us, and as we watched his parts change their shape we knew that our only hope of saving our favorite dress was to give it to the Creature-Person to keep for us; and whenever we wished to wear it we would have to seek out the Creature-Person and be led to a secret place where no servants could find us or watch us putting our favorite dress on, a place so secret that only the Creature-Person could ever see us wearing our favorite dress.
They followed the old woman far into the Great Forest past everything they had ever seen and even as far as where the Elders said the great beasts lived. But they saw no beasts. They asked if the old woman had ever seen these beasts but the old woman only laughed. They followed the old woman long into the night till finally coming to a hillside which appeared to be part of a range of mountains they had heard about as a child but these mountains were said by the Elders to be only a stand of very tall trees at the very edge of the Great Forest. The old woman suddenly disappeared as if the hillside had swallowed her whole but she returned carrying the child they had rescued. They stared in disbelief as much at the sudden appearance of the child as at the old woman's return from within the hillside. Then the old woman beckoned them to follow back inside the hillside. They were frightened because this old woman must surely have been a witch to appear and disappear so easily but they followed because the old woman still carried the child they had rescued. Once they entered the hillside the old woman beckoned them to sit on a rock near a fire burning in a circle. When they were upon the rock the old woman handed them the child then sat down on a rock across from where they were seated. They asked where the old woman had found the child and was told the child had been stolen from their hut so it would not perish when the Elders came to burn the hut. They asked how the old woman could possibly know what the Elders had set out to do and were told that the Elders had been seen gathering in the woods and had been followed to the hut where they entered and looked upon the child then left again. The old woman told them the Elders meant to return at night and set the hut ablaze. They asked how the old woman could possibly know that and were told they had done so many other times. Then the old woman mysteriously told them that there were many things the Elders did that they knew nothing of and that at another time they would be told of these things as well but for now they must go and find another place to hide the child. Then the old woman came and again took the child and told them it must remain here till they had found a safe place so they quickly left to begin their search.
We carefully put a new dress over top of our favorite dress the next morning, making sure no threads were showing. Then we announced to our servants that we were going for a walk along the Grand Causeway and would not return till evening time. Once we were away from our family's villa, and the prying eyes of our servants, we settled into a slow, casual walk along the Grand Causeway. It was too early for the Creature-Person to come alongside the Servants' Causeway to look for us, for it never came till Gray-Time had ended. Even so, we could not resist heading to the spot along the Servants' Causeway, just at the top of the Servants' Path, where we had always seen the Creature-Person. And though we were tempted to go down the Servants' Path and seek out the Creature-Person, we dared not do so while it was still Gray-Time, since the people of the Imperial City never descended into the lower world until all the Creature-Persons had gone into their homes for the night; and even then it was rare to encounter someone on the way down or returning from the lower world, and almost never did one encounter a woman, only a man, for it was said that some men from our city visited female Creature-Persons to engage in unspeakably lewd activities. Though we wandered many hours along the causeways of our city, we always came back to our special spot along the Servants' Causeway. Finally, very late into the day, we spotted the Creature-Person we sought, but it seemed not to have noticed us. We grew alarmed for we dared not keep concealing our favorite dress beneath our new dress any longer. We were emboldened by our resolve to save our favorite dress so, after looking around and seeing that no one was watching us, we hurried down the Servants' Path and ran after the Creature-Person, calling to it till we finally got its attention. It turned to behold us in its world for the first time. It motioned for us to follow as it led us to a place beneath the causeway hidden by large rocks and tall bushes. Once we were safely within the Creature-Person's hidden place, we told it of our wish to leave our favorite dress in its keeping so we would not have to let the servants turn it in to have its fabric separated so that another dress could be made. It seemed greatly puzzled by our request and asked why we did not simply tell our servants we wished to keep this particular dress, but we explained that that was not our custom and that it was a very great violation to ignore our customs. The Creature-Person then told us that this hidden place was not its home, but only a temporary place until it found another hut to replace the one its Elders had burned down in their attempt to kill the child it had rescued from the Great River. We pleaded with it to let us remove first our new dress then our favorite dress so we could leave it here in this hidden place and then, when the Creature-Person found a new hut, it could take our dress there. The Creature-Person agreed and we removed our two dresses. Then, to our surprise, it removed its clothes as well and, as before, its parts began to change shape. It reached out and began touching us, and we too reached out.
They wanted to show that no harm would come from their hands touching the woman's body. The woman in turn took hold of their body to show that no harm would come to their body.
We thought the Creature-Person's body would be coarse and dirty and vile to the touch but its skin was soft and so warm our hands at first let go but then returned to stroking its soft heat.
They touched all parts of the woman's body but no matter how much they touched they yet wanted more to touch. They began looking at a part of the woman's body that was different from their parts. They saw that it was like a tear in the ground so they reached to look deeper but still could not see within. They knelt down to try and look inside but still could not see.
We reached down and helped the Creature-Person rise, so we could better see its features. Our hands then ran over the parts that had changed shape. It came very near to us and sought to look inside our mouth.
They could see inside the woman's mouth. They could even slip their tongue and their fingers inside. They wondered why they could not see inside the other opening on the woman's body. They decided this other place was too small to look inside so they sought a way to open it farther. Then they thought of their part that had grown so big looking at the woman's body. They began to push this part into the woman's small place to try and open it farther.
We felt dizzy and almost screamed when the Creature-Person pushed his part that had changed shape into our woman's place. We could feel a rush of blood from somewhere inside, then we felt the rush of something else that seemed to flow far into our woman's place.
They thought their part that had grown big had exploded. They desperately wished to cry out but dared not for fear of being discovered here in their hidden place. Then their part slowly returned to its normal size and came out from the woman's body and they felt faint as if they had fallen into a trance. Afraid they might fall they lay down and fell asleep.
We lay down beside the Creature-Person and fell into a deep sleep. We saw our self and the Creature-Person lying naked on the Grand Causeway surrounded by all our family's servants, who had summoned our Betrothed. We awoke in a panic and hurriedly got dressed and left the Creature-Person's secret hiding place to return to our family's villa, content that our favorite dress was at last in a safe place to which we could return anytime we wished to wear it.
They awoke just as Gray-Time was beginning finding only the dress the woman had worn lying beside them. For a moment they wondered if they had only dreamed that the woman had been with them but then how could the woman's dress have gotten here beside them otherwise? They knew they did not go among the woman's family and steal the dress nor did the woman remove the dress at the Servants' Path and give it to them so the woman must have been here beside them and they must have used their part that changes shape to look deep inside the woman's body and their part must have exploded when it was inside and the woman must have laid down beside them. They took up the dress the woman gave them to keep safe and held it very near to their body then set it gently onto a rock and got dressed to begin searching for another hut where they could bring the child they had rescued and then return for the woman's favorite dress so that when the woman again wished to wear it they could watch as the woman removed her other dress and put this dress on then take it off and return it to them again to keep safe.
Our Betrothed brought three fellow Imperial Guardsmen and three officials of the Imperial Council to inspect our dresses for any sign of loose threads or smudges or something spilled on any piece of fabric. For six hours, as prescribed by custom, one dress after another was taken up and passed along to each of the six inspectors, each dress carefully scrutinized by each inspector. At the end of the six hour period all six inspectors agreed that every one of our dresses was in perfect alignment with our society's Rules of Clothing. The inspectors then conferred among themselves for exactly six minutes and decided, unanimously, that as unusual as it was, our servant was clearly at fault in this violation and that, according to our Rules of Violations, she must be taken from our villa to the Imperial Prison to await the execution of her sentence. Six days later our servant was returned to our villa with her tongue split in the middle and her mouth sewn shut. For six days, as prescribed by our customs, our servant was kept in her room within the servants' quarters until she died from dehydration and starvation, being unable to eat or drink. Her body was then taken to the Servants' Causeway and thrown into the Great River to float downstream from our world. We stood long into the night watching our servant's body float beyond our view, knowing that the Creature-Person was watching us from its hidden place and that it would be holding our favorite dress to its naked body as its parts changed shape. We longed to go put our favorite dress on, but we dared not for the was The Night of No Servant, when we must be at home to ourself hand over the dress we wore this day to the Taker of Old Clothing, who came around at midnight to collect what was worn that day. Again we cursed our customs, because this dress too had become special to us; but we dared not attempt sparing yet a second dress.
All day as they searched for an abandoned hut far removed from their village they thought of the woman whose favorite dress they promised to keep safe. They thought so much of this woman they had trouble concentrating on finding a safe place to live so the child they rescued would not be taken by the Elders. As the day wore on they began to resent the child they had rescued for keeping them from watching the woman and they wished they had let it drown. They even thought about moving into a hut near their village so the Elders could come one night and burn the child inside the hut but they knew they could not do that for even though they no longer needed the child as a way to meet the woman they always saw on the walkway they had come to care for it and would be saddened if it were burned by the Elders. So they kept searching for a safe hut far from their village long into the night until at last they found the hut they sought which would be safe to leave the child and to safeguard the woman's favorite dress. They stayed the night in this hut then set out at the beginning of Gray-Time to where the old woman kept the child they had rescued so they could bring it to their new hut then return to their secret place to retrieve the woman's favorite dress and take it also to their new hut.
We were determined to see the Creature-Person on the day following The Night of No Servant to make sure our favorite dress was still safe and well hidden from the Elders of its village, who were well known to our Imperial Court because of the many favors done on our people's behalf. We doubt if the Creature-Person had any idea how well its Elders served our people, or that its Elders knew as well as we did of our rules concerning Gray-Time and how all the Creature-Persons were forbidden to be outside after Gray-Time ended, and were told by their Elders that great beasts roamed the Great Forest and would tear to pieces any Creature-Person who ventured out past Gray-Time. Or that these Elders knew as well as we did that there were no such beasts but that the Creature-Persons were not permitted to look upon the beauty of the blue sky that opened each day after Gray-Time or the magnificence of the blazing red and gold late evening sky. These were meant for our people's eyes only, and the Creature-Person we gave our favorite dress to safeguard was the only of its people except for the Elders to ever look upon our beauteous sky, and if our Imperial Guard ever found out it had seen the sky its eyes would be plucked out and the lids sewn shut. We wondered how the Creature-Person would look to us with its eyes, which were beautiful and dark, not light like ours, sewn shut. Would it frighten us in its ugliness? Or would it excite us even more when it reached out to touch us to know it could no longer see our beauty nor even find us if we made no sound? We almost wished for it to have its eyes plucked out so we could tease it with hiding and stepping away or to the side to avoid its touch while we watched as it grew more desperate and angry and its parts changed their shape almost to bursting and when it finally caught us it ravished us like a wild beast and perhaps even beat us or choked us or murdered us in its fury. Or would it instead raise its head and cry out like a wounded beast and stand there howling and begging us to come to it and tease it no more? And would we relent and go to it or stand silent watching it becoming uglier and uglier as the despair in its soul ravaged its body. It suddenly became the greatest temptation to us to go tell our Betrothed about the Creature-Person so we could bring about what we longed to behold. But we fought this temptation with all our strength and vowed never to knowingly lead our Betrothed to where the Creature-Person kept watch over our favorite dress.
When they reached the cave where the old woman had taken the child they had rescued for safety they found it empty. They were very puzzled by this because even if the old woman had gone out to find food the child would have been left behind in the cave. They began to wonder if the Elders had followed them to the cave and when they had gone came in and stole the child. They were about to go from the cave to begin searching the Great Forest when they head the sound of footsteps approaching so they hid behind a stand of large rocks until they saw that it was the old woman who had entered the cave. The moment they made their presence known they asked the old woman where the child they had rescued was. The old woman said the child was dead and that it had been burned by the Elders. They began to cry but the old woman came up to them and whispered in their ear that the child was only dead in the Story World but not in the Real World and that they had been told the Story World version to make them realize how foolish they were to imagine that the new hut they found was any safer than the hut their Elders had burned down. They were told that the Elders would find the new hut as easily as they had found the old hut. They asked the old woman if any hut in any part of the forest was safe and they were told that no hut anywhere was safe and that they were foolish for seeking out any place ever built by their people to hide the child. Then where they asked could they hide the child they had rescued. The old woman told them they would have to find a cave or some place beneath the ground. They asked if they could stay in the old woman's cave but were told that they could not because with their coming and going so they could watch the woman on the walkways they were sure to lead their Elders to this cave one day and then the old woman would be burned along with them and the child they had rescued so they must find their own cave or else go beneath the ground. But they reminded the old woman that The Place Beneath The Earth was only something of the Story World but not the Real World. But the old woman said this was not so and that The Place Beneath The Earth was of the Real World. They asked how the old woman knew this and they were told that the old woman had seen this place and walked its paths and looked inside its houses. They asked where it could be found and they were told that the old woman would lead them to it. They asked when and they were told as soon as they had finished looking upon the woman on the walkways after Gray-Time and were ready to sleep they could come to the place where the Great River fell in a torrent to the lowest place in their land and the old woman would be waiting for them with the child they had rescued.
We were beginning to grow anxious for the Creature-Person and, at the same time, angry with it that it had failed to show at its usual spot beneath the Causeway after Gray-Time ended. We imagined it being torn apart by the Elders of its village, or burned over a raging fire in the Feast Day Pit, and we grew terrified for it. Then in the next moment we resolved to report it to the Imperial Guard for daring to gaze upon us from its inferior position beneath our world. We were tossed back and forth between these two paths open before us, unable to fix upon a plan when, as if from nowhere, it appeared, holding our favorite dress up to our view. Then it took its pants down to its knees and began rubbing our favorite dress against its parts that changed shape, and softly moaning. We looked around to make sure no one was watching; then we hurried down the Servants' Path and followed the Creature-Person to its hiding place, where it removed the rest of its clothes and bade us remove ours. We did, and the same scene that had played out two nights earlier again played itself out. When we had finished the mating of our bodies and both lay down upon my favorite dress, this time, instead of falling asleep, the Creature-Person began telling us of its plan to seek a new hiding place for the child it had rescued in The Place Beneath the Earth, which it said was of the Real World and not the Story World, as everyone believed. It told us of the old woman who had been thrown from the Grand Causeway many years ago and that she had found The Place Beneath the Earth and would show this place to it when the Blue Time and the Golden Time had gone and the Dark Time came again. Then it arose and lifted us to our feet then proceeded to replace its clothes and bid us replace ours. It looked at us a very long time before picking up our favorite dress and setting it on the same rock where it was always kept, then it came very close to us and put its mouth against ours, finally turning and leaving its hiding place. We retraced our steps along the Servants' Path to the Causeway, and saw something approaching us from a distance that both puzzled and frightened us.
They did as the old woman told them. When the woman arose from beside them and got dressed and left their hiding place they went to where they could see the woman walking back along the walkway. They watched for a long time as the woman kept walking until meeting a man on the walkway. The woman stood talking to this man for a long time but they could not hear what was being said. Then the man took the woman by the arm and together the man and the woman walked away. They became angry watching the man and the woman walking away and they spat up at the walkway and began kicking the rocks that lay along the bank of the Great River. They even picked up a few rocks and hurled them into the water. They would have liked to hurl them onto the walkway but they were afraid because they did not dare break the rule that forbade them from desecrating the walkway with any debris from below. When they returned to their hiding place they were still angry and would have torn the woman's favorite dress to pieces but they dared not for fear that the woman would never come to them and get undressed and lie beside them. They were glad they had told the woman only of their plan to hide the child they rescued within The Place Beneath The Earth and not of their plan to hide the woman's favorite dress in the same place for now that the woman had met with this Imperial Guard they greatly feared that the woman's favorite dress would be taken away from their safe keeping and hidden someplace they could never find it and they grew even angrier. They began to cry at having no way to express their anger at seeing the woman walking away with the man on the walkway and possibly having this man take the woman's dress as well. They held the woman's favorite dress to their face and cried into it until their anger had subsided then they carefully folded the dress and left their hiding place for it was time for them to sleep so they hurried off to meet the old woman where the Great River fell into a deep chasm. When they arrived the old woman was waiting for them with the child they had rescued. Without a word the old woman motioned for them to follow along a narrow path that ran behind the Great Waterfall. Soon the old woman led them through an opening in the place where the water fell and from there into a great chamber that seemed to fill the whole earth from the ground to the sky but was so dark and ran for such an endless space that they could see almost nothing. Then the old woman reached for a long piece of wood and using a fire starter from the place above lit the end of the wood. Even this light could not reach far into the chamber but they now could see houses and paths. The old woman led them to the first house and bade them follow her inside then told them that this was where they must now live with the child they had rescued. They thanked the old woman and said they would search the chamber once the Gray-Time came again but the old woman held up a hand and told them they must never venture deep into the the chamber for it was haunted only not by ghosts but by real people who had descended to The Place Beneath The Earth from up above through a secret passage the people taken far from their families had found. They asked if these people were dangerous but the old woman told them that these people's danger lay in telling others of this Place and reporting seeing someone living here for even though these people had become No-Persons their stories of escaping underground would be investigated by the Imperial Guard who would turn the child they had rescued over to their Elders to be cut up and burned then returned up above. They thanked the old woman for this warning and promised never to venture into the chamber. The old woman then handed them the child they had rescued and left and they lay down beside the sleeping child and fell asleep too.
Our Betrothed almost never came this far from the Imperial Courtyard. For a moment we imagined he had been spying on us and followed us to the Servants' Causeway. When we saw the look of despair on his face we knew it was not our visit with the Creature-Person but something much graver that brought him here. Our Betrothed said he had been looking everywhere for us because he carried news of the most serious nature. We asked what news of such a nature could possibly be and were told it concerned our mother. Then he took us by our arm and led us away from the Servants' Causeway toward our family's villa. He told us as we walked that word had come from the Place of No Persons that our mother had left the compound and had gone into hiding and it was believed by the Imperial Guard that our mother might have gone to our family's villa. We asked why she would be supposed to have gone there and were told by our Betrothed that it was a common occurrence for ones who had become alien to our customs and rules to try and return to a familiar place. Our Betrothed then reminded us that if our mother had indeed returned to our family's villa she would be taken to the Imperial Court and incinerated in one of the ovens that heated the Palace. When we arrived at our family's villa, our Betrothed searched every room and asked every servant if they had seen our mother since she was sent to the Place of No Persons; but there was not, nor had there at any time been, any trace of our mother at our family's villa, so our Betrothed left. Before he did, we asked where our mother might have gone, but he was unable to say, unless somehow she had gone to The Place Beneath The Earth. We asked if a search would be conducted but our Betrothed said he did not know, since The Place Beneath The Earth existed outside of our rules and customs and was therefore rarely visited any longer, though exceptions were sometimes made when No Persons were believed to be in hiding there.
They slept peacefully knowing that the child they had rescued was sleeping beside them again and knowing that the Elders would not come and burn their house down. For it was a house not a hut as they had slept in and kept the child in when they lived in the Great Forest but they could not tell what kind of house it was because it no more resembled the houses in their village than it did the huts in the forest. Though it was dark when the old woman led them to the house and the light from the old woman's torch did not reveal more than the outline of the house they could tell it was not made of the same material as any house in their village or any hut in the forest. It seemed to be of stone not wood and thatch and straw. When they awoke and had gathered food for the child they had rescued and soothed the child into a nap they went outside and began to examine the house in the light that filtered in from behind the waterfall though even this light was too dim to reveal very deeply into the chamber. They felt of its walls and confirmed that it was made of stone. They managed to climb to its rooftop and felt what the roof was made of but they thought it was not thatch or straw but some sturdy material not quite like stone but more like stone than thatch. They knew from the old woman's warning that they dare not venture deep into the chamber in fear of the child's safety but they were determined to find out more about this Place Beneath The Earth. For a long time they stood and puzzled over what might lie beyond where they could see and over what could possibly be deep in this chamber that would cause their Elders to be able to cut up and burn the child they had rescued. For if it was possible for them to be discovered and the child taken by wandering too far into the chamber was it not also possible for whatever was there to wander to where they sheltered the child in this house near the entrance behind the waterfall? So must this danger not be sought out and examined and assessed before it became too late to safeguard the child from it? With this resolve in their mind they set out while it was still light enough to guide them at least part of the way to where the danger the old woman spoke about lay lurking in the dark recesses of the chamber.
We were so greatly troubled by our Betrothed's news of our mother's disappearance that we vowed to seek out The Place Beneath The Earth despite its being outside our rules and customs. Our rules and customs had caused sufficient turmoil in our life already to make us despise them as an insufferable crushing burden we wished only to throw off once and for all, though of course we could not do so without losing our place within our family and within our world. At the very first appearance of Gray Time we arose and, after preparing our hair and picking out our dress for the new day, which we summoned our new servant to help us put on, we announced that we had important business to conduct and would be away most of the day. After feigning to proceed along the Grand Causeway toward the Imperial Courtyard, for at this hour the Servants' Causeway was filled with our people's servants conducting their daily routine tasks, we doubled back and, when the servants all returned to their respective family's villa, we stole down the Servants' Path and sought out the Creature-Person's hiding place where it kept our favorite dress. But there was no sign of it, nor could we find anything of our favorite dress. We grew angry at the Creature-Person and, at the same time, anxious for our favorite dress. Had the Elders discovered the Creature-Person's hiding place and confiscated our dress and perhaps even arrested the Creature-Person, we wondered. And we grew even more vexed with it for being so careless as to let its hiding place be discovered. We could not help hoping the Elders had taken it to the cooking pit far from the village and had cut its body into pieces to be cooked and eaten, even its parts that changed shape, which were our favorite parts of its body. We sat down on a rock and waited, for the Servants' Causeway had once again become crowded with our people's servants, now engaged in bartering with the village Elders, trading goods and cloth for food and water. We sat waiting in the Creature-Person's hiding place for two hours before the Servants' Causeway again became clear. We ascended the Servants' Path and were about to make our way home when the Creature-Person we had come to see emerged from the Great Forest and came to its hiding place. We crouched low to keep from being seen as we watched to see what the Creature-Person would do when it discovered our favorite dress missing. But to our shock and dismay it made no reaction at all, as if it no longer cared what had become of our dress, and only picked up some tools and left again, disappearing once more into the Great Forest. We were determined to follow it to learn where it had gone so we could then find a way to report its whereabouts to the village Elders so it could be punished for losing our favorite dress. We were careful not to be detected as we followed the Creature-Person deep into the Great Forest until it came to a place where the Great River fell in a torrent over a great cliff and disappeared far below. We watched as it descended a steep path and onto a ledge which took it behind the waterfall and into a great cavern. We too worked our way down this path and along this ledge and into this cavern.
The Gray-Time kept the light from filtering through the waterfall into the chamber so that they could not explore the chamber as they hoped to first thing in the morning. They decided to wait till later in the day perhaps even as late as when Gray-Time ended to explore the chamber. They made the child they had rescued comfortable then set out for their hiding place beneath the walkway to gather their tools which they used for their daily work and to take these tools with them to their new house in the chamber now that they were sure they could remain in their new house. As they stooped down to gather up their tools they felt that they were being watched. They were relieved they had taken the woman's favorite dress with them the night before so that there was no danger of anyone who might be watching them to see the woman's dress folded and placed on a large rock. This way no matter who might be watching they would only be seen doing their assigned task. Once they had their tools they arose and left their hiding place perhaps for the last time and made their way into the Great Forest and hurried through it to the great waterfall and then behind the waterfall into the chamber. They had the feeling that they were being followed but they could detect no one so they concluded that if they were being followed it must be the old woman watching to see what they were doing because no one else could have moved so carefully through the Great Forest as to go undetected by them. They put their tools inside their new house and played awhile with the child they had rescued till it fell asleep. Then they once again set out to explore the chamber now that Gray-Time had finally begun letting enough light filter through the waterfall though they still could not see very deeply into the chamber. They walked past many houses on their way farther into the chamber and took a moment to stand outside each house to listen for any sounds within but they heard nothing. Each house seemed to be made of the same materials as the house the old woman had bade them move into with the child they had rescued though some were smaller and others much larger. The pathways were more like the walkways above than the ground around their village or the floor of the Great Forest. They moved as far as they possibly could until the light shone no farther into the chamber but still they heard no sounds and detected no movements so they began to wonder if perhaps the old woman only imagined such sounds as had been reported to them. They were about to return to their house when something reached out and touched them from behind. They turned around and grabbed at where they were touched. They found themselves clutching a woman's arm but because of how the light shone they could not see this woman's features. They assumed it must be the old woman and were about to ask why the old woman had followed them even though they already knew it was because of the warning not to wander into the chamber. But before they could speak a voice rang out in their ears asking what they had done with the woman's favorite dress. Then the woman that had spoken began running deep into the chamber so deep they finally gave up following her and returned to their house. The moment they opened the door to their house they stood as if stricken with a dead silence for standing in front of them holding the child they had rescued and wearing the woman's favorite dress was the woman they always beheld on the walkway after Gray-Time ended. They felt suddenly as they had never felt in their life and all at once rushed the woman and took the child and placed the child in its own room then again rushed the woman and tore the dress from the woman's body and pulled their pants and thrust their part that changed shape so violently into the woman that blood flowed but they did not care for they could not bear the agony they felt to go unrelieved for even a single moment longer. Then they shrieked and the woman cried out and both were silent again.
We lay on the floor of the house in The Place Beneath The Earth bleeding from our hidden place which the Creature-Person caused to unnaturally shed its secret encasement before the appointed time. We were vexed by this untimely shedding for we would have to make up a story to explain to our servants why we could not make use of the Shedding Place as we were required to do one day each month. Perhaps we would say we fell into a gorge, only then our servants would ask why we had strayed so far from our family's villa when we knew the Shedding Time approached. Or perhaps we would say we were attacked by a creature that one of the Creature-Persons from the village beneath our world had carelessly left unattended, but then our servants would demand to know which Creature-Person it was so that it could be given the punishment meted out to all those who interfere in any way with the performance of our duties. The one thing we dared not say to our servants was that we were in any way careless or remiss in our timing of our monthly Shedding, for then our servants would report us as negligent of our duties and we could be sent to the Place of Shame where all those who neglect their duties out of carelessness are sent, a place almost as far from our way of life as the Place of No Persons or the Place of Ghosts. While we lay considering our plight the Creature-Person sat watching us to see how badly we were injured. It had wrapped a piece of cloth around its parts that changed shape and was pulling it so tight that the parts turned an ugly purple. We asked what it was doing and it told us it was preparing its parts for the ritual of engorgement if we died from the wound its parts had caused. We asked the Creature-Person what this ritual was and it told us that this was done whenever a Creature-Person's parts brought shame to its village. The parts were tied so tightly they could never come loose until they became so swollen and diseased that they eventually separated from its body. We then told the Creature-Person that we would not die from the shedding of our blood and that it could release its parts. We then reached over and took hold of our favorite dress and demanded to know why the Creature-Person had torn it from our body when it knew the dress to be our favorite. The Creature-Person reached out and likewise took hold of our favorite dress and, seeing what it had done to the dress, buried its face against the fabric and began sobbing and begging our forgiveness and trying to explain that it knew not what it was doing. We took pity on the Creature-Person and arose and went to it to comfort its agony of sorrow and regret. We took it in our arms and it sobbed on our breast for a long time. Then it finally looked up at us and asked the strangest question we had ever heard.
They asked if the woman's favorite dress belonged as well to another woman but the woman looked at them as if they had gone crazy and asked them if binding their parts that changed shape had caused their mind to become deranged. They said the binding had not prompted their question but rather something that happened while they were exploring the chamber before returning to their new house. They had trouble telling about the woman they encountered deep within the chamber because this woman said a word to describe the dress that they had never heard before. They explained to the woman that it was a word that made a sound like a growl. They tried saying the word but at first the woman could not understand. Then the woman repeated the word more softly and recognized its sound. The woman said the word was called her. They asked what it meant and the woman said it was a word for the woman and a name that identified the woman but the only identity they knew of for the woman was woman. They said that this could not be and that a word called her sounded nothing like woman and surely could not mean the same thing. Yet the woman insisted that this other word was also an identity and also identified the woman. They then asked if this woman was a witch to have two separate identities bearing two separate words but the woman said they were both the same identity and that the woman was both woman and her together. Then the woman told them of yet a third word that was also an identity. The woman called this word she. They arose and backed away from where the woman sat still without clothes in the middle of the biggest room of their new house for they had suddenly grown afraid of this woman who could have three separate identities. But the woman beckoned them to return to where they were and the puzzle would be explained. Reluctantly they obeyed and sat again on the floor beside the woman who then asked if they were not a Creature-Person and they said they were. Then the woman asked if they were not also called it and again they said that they were. The woman asked how this was different from the woman's situation but they answered that they had always been a Creature-Person and that a Creature-Person was always called it by all the people of the village. Then the woman said that her and even she was how the woman was called by the people who lived above. Then the woman bade them call the woman she and in turn her but they could not and they cried out that they would never call the woman by anything but the name they had always used. The woman raised up and reached out to them and took hold of the cloth they had wrapped about their parts that change shape and pulled it so tightly they cried out and pushed the woman away. Then the woman spat upon them and cried out that they could call the woman whatever they wished because there would be no answer ever again until they called out the other name. They wailed mightily for they could not continue to exist if the woman never again spoke to them so they screamed out the other two names the woman wished to be called. Over and over they screamed these two names until they broke down and wept for they knew they had sinned the greatest and most unforgivable sin of all by calling a person three separate names when only their people's god may ever be called by three names. They knew they had condemned themself to everlasting torment in the Place of the Wicked in a moment of frenzy. They beat their chest and pulled the cloth so tight around their parts that change shape that they shrieked in agony and fell into a death-like state and could not move or see or hear or talk.
We carefully arranged our dress to hide the places where the Creature-Person tore the seams in its haste to mingle with us. We knew the Creature-Person was alive for it still breathed and its chest still heaved. We went and looked one last time at the child then left the Creature-Person's new house to return from The Place Beneath The Earth to our own world above the Great Forest and the Great River. We knew that nothing we could say would ever make the Creature-Person understand that we were not a witch to possess three names or that it was not a sacrilege to pronounce three names upon a single person, so we decided simply to leave it to its foolish beliefs and resolved ourself that if it had so injured its parts that change shape in its mad frenzy over its mistaken belief that it could never again mingle with us then we would never go to it again. It could keep our favorite dress to draw whatever comfort it could from it. As we traversed the narrow path behind the waterfall leading from The Place Beneath The Earth we could only shake our head in sorrow at the Creature-Person's steadfast belief that any such thing as a three-being god could possibly exist. Our Imperial Priests have proven once and for all in their Rule of Deity that a three-being god is a metaphysical as well as an epistemological impossibility and that there can exist only one being in god. Yet the Creature-Person and its entire race still cling to their hopelessly outdated belief, a belief our Imperial Historians tell us in their Imperial Archives that our people once long ago believed as well until we were shown the truth. And as we made our way through the Great Forest back to the Servants' Path and onto the Causeway we fixed in our mind the story we would tell our servants to explain how it was we experienced our monthly shedding away from the Place of Shedding. We would say an old woman we encountered on the bank of the Great River while gathering some flowers threw stones at us and chased us deep into the Great Forest, where we fell and in falling precipitated our shedding before its appointed time. We knew our servants were already suspicious of us because of the incident with our dress but their memory of the fate of the servant who reported us to the Imperial Guard would hold their tongues in check.
The first thing they saw when they awoke was the woman's favorite dress carefully folded lying on their table which had no legs for they had only gathered lumber but had made no legs for the table to sit on yet. They loosened the cloth they had used to bind their parts that changed shape and arose from the floor. They went in to see if the child they had rescued was sleeping and it was. They had no idea what the time was so they went out into the chamber to assess the light but there was no light so they decided it must still be night. They came back into their house and sat down in the middle of the floor to try and assess the terrible plight they had brought about by letting the woman talk them into calling out all three separate names that the woman wished to be called and thereby committing the gravest sin of all among their people for it was blasphemy what they had done and blasphemy was of all sins unforgivable. So they knew they had condemned themself to the Place of the Wicked for all of time. But the more they thought the more they decided there must surely be a way to atone even for so great a sin and since they had acted in madness because of their fear of losing the right to ever again speak to the woman they had not intended to blaspheme their God of Three Beings by placing this woman above their god. They thought and thought and finally decided to visit their Elders and ask how a villager might atone for the sin of blasphemy but they dared not imply their own guilt so they would pose the question as if it were only a part of their attempt to learn all they could about their people's beliefs so they might prepare to some day become an Elder themself even though they knew their assigned role was to be a worker of stone and wood and metal so their Elders would discourage their pursuit of such knowledge. So when it became Gray-Time they put on their work clothes and left the chamber by way of the path behind the waterfall and hurried through the Great Forest to the center of their village where the Elders were assembled in the square to hear the villagers' petitions. When it came their turn they presented their dilemma to the Elders and though as they knew the Elders spoke harshly against their attempt to stray from the path chosen for them the Elders answered their question by informing them that only by sacrificing their most revered family member which would be their first born son if they had one such and by no other way could so great a sin as blasphemy find atonement. They thanked their Elders and left the village square and hurried back to their home to take up the child they had rescued for this child was as if their first born and sacrifice it that they might atone for their great unforgivable sin. But along the way they began thinking that as the woman was more revered to them than the child they had rescued and as the child was innocent of any hand in causing them to blaspheme their God of Three Beings should they not sacrifice the woman instead of the child. But their horror at the thought of harming the woman reminded them that their Elders had called upon the first born to be sacrificed so they again resolved to take up the child in sacrifice. Yet how could they visit such a thing upon this helpless child. But there was no other way. Unless they began to think unless they chose to accept their fate and spend all the rest of time in the Place of the Wicked. But would it not be an even greater blasphemy not to seek redemption and atonement than the original sin itself. Would that not be an Unholding of Their People's Beliefs. And would that not be of all things the most unthinkable.
Our servants, as expected, were greatly agitated upon our entry into our family's villa. They knew at once something was wrong but could not at first tell what it was since we were wearing our favorite dress and not our Day's Dress when the incident that precipitated our untimely shedding transpired. Consequently no blood had flowed onto our Day's Dress. But when our servants bade us prepare for our evening bathing they could detect clear signs of dried blood about our thighs and loins, which sent them into a frenzy. One of our servants was immediately dispatched to report the incident to the Imperial Guard, as we expected. But as we had our story ready to tell, and as our story in its implication of assault on a patrician by a lesser being from below would render our servants' account libelous for its suggestion of our grave infraction of the Rule of the Time of Shedding when in fact we were the victim of an unprovoked attack which hastened our shedding, our overzealous servant would suffer the same fate as the servant who reported us as slovenly and careless of our Rule of Attire. So when we were summoned the next day before the Imperial Guard to explain our violation of the Rule of the Time of Shedding, we gave our account, just as we envisioned it in our mind, of being attacked with stones by an old woman as we attempted to gather flowers along the shore of the Great River to lay before our mother's vacant room according to our custom, and having to flee into the Great Forest in fear for our life and stumbling into a deep ravine and becoming unconscious and then finally waking up to find ourself at the start of our Time of Monthly Shedding, so we lifted our dress's skirt to protect its fabric from becoming bloodied lest our servants accuse us once more of slovenliness and carelessness of the Rule of Attire. Two days more, as we languished in our family's villa, unable to go beyond our front door till our case was decided, the messenger of the Imperial Guard brought news of the decision. We were exonerated of any wrongdoing and, accordingly, our servant who had hastened to report our infraction was taken to the Place of False Witness, as was the other servant, and prepared according to our custom. In another six days this servant too was dead, and we were obliged to remain at home to celebrate yet a second Night of No Servant.
They had almost decided not to seek redemption by the time they reached their new house in The Place Beneath The Earth. They could not even begin to imagine how they could take up the child they had rescued and commit it to flames or drown it in the Great River where they had found it or spill its blood upon an altar of their making. It was still so small and so helpless they could not imagine its death being the only means of their salvation. Yet the Elders had told them that alone would atone for their great sin of blasphemy so there was no other way. Still unresolved to do what their people's customs prescribed they opened the door to their house and entered. They were surprised by what they failed to see. The child they had rescued and must now decide whether to kill had strayed from the big room of their house. They knew it could not reach the latch on the door and wander away from their house so it must have crawled back into one of the little rooms. They wondered if perhaps it sensed their murderous thoughts and was hiding in a corner somewhere. The thought that the child had grown afraid of them brought tears to their eyes and convinced them finally that they must choose everlasting damnation for they could not betray its trust in them by sacrificing it. They went to find the child and take it from its hiding place and show that they would not harm it. But they could not find it. They looked everywhere but there was no sign of it. They grew frantic and thought perhaps the Elders had come and taken it away. But then they realized this was not possible for they had come to this place directly from their visit with the Elders in the village square. So where had the child gone they wondered. Or who had taken it. Then they remembered the old woman who had brought them here with the child. They decided this woman had taken the child so they left The Place Beneath The Earth and made for the cave where the old woman lived.
We had not seen the Creature-Person for days, until the Night of No Servant had been fulfilled, at which time we made for the Servants' Causeway, where it always stood looking up at us. But we saw no sign of the Creature-Person. Perhaps, we thought, it really had so injured its parts that change shape that it was ashamed to look upon us further. Then it would be foolish for us to continue coming each day after Gray-Time to the Causeway to stand in wait. We would come no more, we decided as we turned to return to our family's villa to while away the evening lounging upon our assigned divan until our servants informed us it was our time to retire to our room for the night. But before we even left the Servants' Causeway a most troubling thought came to us, for though we had made up our mind to seek this Creature-Person no further we began to grow alarmed over the fate of our favorite dress. How would it fare with us no longer able to look after it? And had not this Creature-Person, beastly vile thing that it was, already tried to rent its fabric to pieces? God only knew what odious treatment may befall it without our intervention. A creature willing to injure its own parts so that they changed shape no more, and all for the sake of a three-being deity which could not possibly exist, was capable of the most insidious treachery where an inanimate piece of clothing was concerned. We could not bear the thought of our favorite dress being used for rags or as a bottom linen for the child the Creature-Person had rescued. We had little choice but to make the arduous trek through the Great Forest all the way to the place where the Great River fell in a torrent and cross the narrow path behind the waterfall to enter once again into The Place Beneath The Earth one final time so we could rescue our favorite dress from the clutches of this beast who ripped it off our very body in its mad frenzy to rape us. We would sneak our way into its new house, grab our dress up, and carry it away to find a safe place to hide it in, a place where the loathsome vile beast that stole it from us would never again be able to set its hands upon it or rub its parts that change shape against its soft silky fabric to leave a noxious wet stain upon it. At last we were standing behind the waterfall almost within reach of our most prized possession when we came face to face with the very creature whose vileness we sought to thwart.
They found the cave empty so they decided to wait for the old woman's return. They waited half a day almost till the end of Gray-Time and still the old woman did not return to the cave so they left the cave to go in search of the old woman. Though they were growing anxious to find the old woman they did not fear for the safety of the child they had rescued for they knew the old woman had taken the child to a place of safety from the Elders before so they believed the child would still be safe in the old woman's cave. But as the day grew dark and the night approached they began growing fearful for the old woman and the child. They returned to the old woman's cave but still it remained empty so they finally returned to their house in The Place Beneath The Earth thinking perhaps the old woman had come there. But there was no sign of anyone entering their house so they had no choice but to begin their Time of Sleep until the first light of Gray-Time woke them. They hurriedly got ready for the new day and once again made for the old woman's cave but as before there was no sign of the old woman so as they had done the previous day they again went in search of the old woman and the child they had rescued returning many times throughout the day to the old woman's cave. But as before they found no sign of the old woman so they returned as before to their house to start out again the next day. This same routine they followed for several more days as they grew more fearful and desperate until finally they decided the Elders must have taken both the old woman and the child they had rescued and were holding them until the next Feast Day above. So they went into their village to inquire among their people if the Elders had found anyone hiding in the Great Forest but every person they asked reported that no one had been found. When they left their village they began to wonder if perhaps the Imperial Guard of the above world had come into the Great Forest in search of food as they sometimes did and had taken the old woman and the child they had rescued. They decided this must be what happened so they resolved to go onto the walkway and begin searching among the people who lived above for some sign of the old woman and the child they had rescued. They decided first to go one last time to the old woman's cave to search once again before venturing onto the walkway. And there this time they finally encountered the old woman. But the child they had rescued was nowhere to be found so they stared in disbelief at the old woman and demanded of the old woman what had become of the child but the old woman said the child had not been seen for many days since the old woman left it with them in their new house. They said this could not be but the old woman said it surely must be because someone within The Place Beneath The Earth which the old woman had told them they must avoid encountering must have taken the child while they were away. Then they told the old woman of their encounter with the woman in the cavern and what this woman had asked them. The old woman shook her head and said it must have been a person escaped from the Place of No Persons and that it was now too late for them ever to find the child again. They then demanded to know where the old woman had been for so many days that they had searched and were told that there was another part to the cave and that the old woman sometimes stayed there when the Elders roamed the Great Forest in search of food stuffs. They finally bid the old woman good bye and set out for their house determined to search every inch of The Place Beneath The Earth until they had found their child.
The vile odious Creature-Person who had taken such liberties with our favorite dress dared to address us in the manner of an equal. It had the audacity to demand of us what we had done to the child it rescued. As if we had any need of our sister's castoff deformity. We would have like to have slapped its disgusting face and gone about the business of rescuing our favorite dress from its clutches, but we half feared it would become so enraged as to attack or maybe even kill us; so instead we simply told the Creature-Person we had done nothing with its child. This seemed to calm it down enough that we made bold to declare our intention of removing our favorite dress from its new house to a safer location, known only to ourself. It asked why and we told it we feared it would submit our dress to all manner of disgusting use; but it swore to us that our dress was second only to its child as its most precious possession and it would do nothing to disgrace or soil our dress for that would be as a sacrilege. Then it fell to its knees and pleaded with us to let it keep our favorite dress in its new house, for that was its only assurance that we would come to it. We said we would consider the matter after we had seen for ourself what state our dress was in, so the Creature-Person led us to its house and showed us how carefully it had placed our favorite dress in a safe place. We were surprised the Creature-Person did not ask us to put our favorite dress on. We assumed therefore that it had indeed, as we suspected, so injured its parts that changed shape as to render them numb in our presence. We decided to allow the Creature-Person to keep our favorite dress, for now, and started to go when we turned back and asked the Creature-Person why it no longer wished to see us wearing our favorite dress. It told us that it longed to watch us pull our favorite dress over our naked body but that it could not allow itself such an indulgence while the child it had rescued was still missing, and that it intended to begin a search of The Place Beneath The Earth until the child was found. We asked if this meant its parts no longer changed shape upon watching us getting dressed. In answer it pulled down its trousers and showed us its parts changing shape just by standing so close to us. In response to seeing that its parts had not been damaged by its violence we lifted the skirt of our dress and moved closer still, until we stood so close that its part had nowhere to go but inside us. Then both stood apart and we let our skirt fall while it pulled its trousers up.
They were greatly puzzled how it came to be that they spent so many moments with the woman and even pulled their trousers down while the woman lifted the skirt of the dress the woman wore when they had before them the task of finding the child they had rescued. They concluded they had set the task aside until the last light of day disappeared but now they wondered why such a strange thought had taken possession of their mind. They told the woman of their plan to begin searching The Place Beneath The Earth but knew not how to respond when the woman asked to accompany them for the old woman had warned against exploring the great cavern and even said it was dangerous to do so. And they did not wish to risk harm to the woman but the woman insisted saying that they would have a better chance of finding the child they had rescued in the company of another so they agreed to allow the woman to accompany them at least for awhile. They went and got a strong torch that would keep its flame for a long time then began working their way ever more deeply into the cavern accompanied by the woman. At many places and at many times they thought they saw shadows flickering against buildings and houses that they neared but whenever they drew near there was nothing that might have cast a shadow. The woman told them there was a person in this place known to the woman and that if that person was encountered the whereabouts of the child might become known. This greatly pleased them and excited them to continue searching long into the night but no sign of this person known to the woman was found nor was any sign of the child they had rescued seen nor did any more shadows flicker against any building or house. And as their torch was beginning to wear down they had no choice but to cease their search for now and return to the entrance to the cavern so they could accompany the woman back through the Great Forest and to the land above.
We walked in darkness and silence beside the Creature-Person through the Great Forest all the way to the Servants' Path. The sky flickered through the tall branches of the forest and the moon took turns behind dark clouds high above us. This was the first time that we wished our Betrothed walked beside us instead of the Creature-Person, for we could speak to him of the sullen beauty of our journey from The Place Beneath The Earth to our own world whereas such a lowly one as this Creature-Person, raised up without anything grand or beautiful or sublime, or any noble thought whatsoever, would never understand our way of looking at such things as the sky or the moon and stars, which was why our Imperial Philosophers had long ago declared such things beyond the comprehension of those who inhabited the lower world and so these wondrous sights became prohibited to them from then on. Yet still we longed to speak of our rapture at beholding the great beauties of the night and so it was that we did so just as a wave of sky clouds uncovered the moon directly above. We spoke aloud of the magical confluence of night skies, stars, tall branches, gathering clouds and the golden light at the top of the sky. Momentarily the Creature-Person spoke as well of the vista above us, but it was only to observe that the flutter of clouds covering and uncovering the moon distracted from the task of keeping our chosen trail through the Great Forest. We had hoped for something ethereal to bind our souls as its parts bound our bodies, but no such binding came forth from the Creature-Person, which reminded us why it was that these beings inhabiting the lower world were looked upon by our people as inferior. We spoke no more of the night or the sky or of anything sublime. All we said before we parted company with the Creature-Person and ascended the Servants' Path to the causeway was that we would come to The Place Beneath The Earth when Gray-Time came again and that we knew of another way into that place and that this way was above, in our world, but was fraught with many dangers and could only be taken as the last resort.
They thought all through the night of the woman's last words before parting company to return to the above world. They even dreamed how such a place as the woman spoke of might exist and where such a place could possibly be. An entrance to The Place Beneath The Earth from above that people could get into it from? This seemed incredible but the woman swore there was such an entrance. But it was said to be filled with danger and should not be used. Yet if such an entrance did exist it was a way for whoever stole the child they had rescued to escape detection no matter how well they searched the Great Chamber. And they shuddered to think what might befall the child they had rescued were it to be returned from the cavern to the above world from where it had been thrown into the Great River so they resolved that if they failed to find the child tomorrow no matter how well they looked throughout The Place Beneath The Earth they would venture above to seek out this entrance no matter how great the danger. Otherwise the child they had rescued and cared for and saved from the Elders' burning of their hut and almost decided to sacrifice to atone for the terrible sin of blasphemy would surely perish and they would not even know of its fate. So the next day at the very first appearance of Gray-Time they set out to meet the woman who pledged to accompany their search. Halfway through the Great Forest they met up with the woman but another was present as well so they remained well hidden until the woman and this other person had passed by then they followed the woman and the other person the rest of the way to the Great Waterfall. Silently they proceeded behind the waterfall along the narrow path at a distance to keep from being detected should either turn around. They watched as the two entered the Great Chamber and followed at a distance far enough not to be seen or heard but near enough to listen to any words being spoken. As they followed and listened they came to realize that this other person accompanying the woman was of the Imperial Guard. They could not help supposing the woman guilty of the most treacherous betrayal of their trust and they began plotting all manner of revenge until the conversation suddenly changed its tone and meaning and they became consumed of an unearthly rage that it took all their power to keep from inflicting upon both the woman and especially this Imperial Guard for it became clear to them that this Imperial Guard was not a person the woman had summoned to apprehend them but was the very Betrothed of the woman who had demanded to accompany her - HER - for they said in their mind the abominable blasphemy for the first time since she - SHE - had made them speak it. This Imperial Guard had demanded to accompany the woman and though unknown to it it would pay for this sacrilege with its life for it had no place within The Place Beneath The Earth and was itself guilty of a great blasphemy for being here where it did not belong. But they would bide their time and continue to follow and watch and listen before making their move.
We kept our Betrothed distracted as we moved through the Great Forest on our way to the hidden path behind the waterfall, for we knew we were being followed by the Creature-Person and did not wish it to confront our Betrothed. We knew as well that the Creature-Person must have thought we had told our Betrothed of The Place Beneath The Earth and had led him to the secret entrance. But we had not done so, for it was our Betrothed who led us to the path behind the waterfall, which we had not thought that he might know about. We were surprised to find our Betrothed outside our family's villa as Gray-Time began its daily creep upon our world. We asked if he had news of our mother but he said he did not but that he would lead us to The Place Beneath The Earth to search for her. We asked if it would not be better to enter this world beneath our world from the same entrance as our mother had but he told us there was too great a risk taking that route because there was greater danger but also because our mother might behold our entry into this place and seek out a hidden spot from which we could not find her. We expressed our concern at entering the Great Forest ever since our terrible ordeal during our Time of Shedding but our Betrothed assured us we would be safe in his company so we continued along, still expressing our fear of encountering once more the old woman who threw rocks at us. But again our Betrothed reassured us that he would protect us from all harm. Though we accepted his assurance of safety we continued talking to keep our Betrothed continually distracted from the Creature-Person stalking us through the Great Forest. Finally our Betrothed brought us to where the secret path leading to The Place Beneath The Earth lay hidden behind the waterfall. We then expressed a very great fear of continuing our journey as there did not appear to be any way around the Great Waterfall and we feared being drowned by the cascading river but again our Betrothed assuaged our fear with his assurance that the danger we perceived was but an illusion. Then he led us to the path behind the waterfall and from there into the Great Chamber that our Imperial Court had declared The Place Beneath The Earth, which was from that day forth prohibited to all the people of the Imperial City. We reminded our Betrothed of the prohibition but he told us that there were denoted in the Rules of Prohibition a number of very specific exceptions, among them the need to retrieve No Persons who had found the secret entrance and fled their just punishment. And since we had come to this place to seek our mother that she might be returned to the Place of No Persons to finish out her punishment we fell within the guidelines of the exceptions. We asked what would happen if our mother again escaped and our Betrothed told us she would again be returned. We then asked what would happen to our mother if she escaped yet a third time and were told that in such a case she would be taken up to the Grand Causeway and thrown into the Great River and our family would celebrate its Feast Day three days hence. We were horrified at hearing this and resolved that our Betrothed must not find our mother, not this time, nor a second time should she again escape, and most of all not a third time should she escape for the final time.
They kept their distance to insure they would not be detected as they continued to follow the woman and this Imperial Guard they had sworn to kill for the sacrilege of invading The Place Beneath The Earth. But they dared not kill this Imperial Guard too soon or they might ruin their plan to find the child they had rescued. And if it should be the case that the woman's mother was the one who had taken the child they had rescued there would be an opportunity to again rescue the child once the woman's mother was caught. Unless the woman's mother had hidden the child and did not have it at the moment of being caught. Then they would have to search out the child from every hiding place within the Great Chamber and it may die from hunger before it could be found. So they resolved to watch for the woman's mother's capture and then move swiftly to kill this Imperial Guard so that when the woman's mother escaped capture they could follow and discover where the child was hidden. But the longer the woman and this Imperial Guard searched the angrier they grew for it did not seem the search would be successful and that the woman's mother would remain un-captured. And they would lose their chance to kill this Imperial Guard until another search was begun for they dared not take their vengeance while the woman's mother remained un-captured. And this Imperial Guard had been trained to hunt as all the Imperial Guard had been trained and it was known that the Imperial Guard never stopped a hunt until its object was captured. Finally hour upon hour after the hunt began this Imperial Guard told the woman it was too late to continue and that the hunt would have to resume the next Gray-Time and then the hunt would commence at the secret entrance above to The Place Beneath The Earth. So the woman and this Imperial Guard turned and left the Great Chamber and retreated through the Great Forest to the walkway. They followed the entire way and as they stood watching the woman and this Imperial Guard ascend to the walkway they resolved to be ready at the beginning of Gray-Time to follow into the secret place above and down into The Place Beneath The Earth to resume the hunt for the child they had rescued.
We knew the whole time our Betrothed searched The Place Beneath The Earth for our mother we were being followed and watched by the Creature-Person. We were greatly relieved when our mother was not found, not just for her sake but for the Creature-Person as well, for we feared that if our Betrothed discovered the Creature-Person following, he would confront it, order it from this place and if it refused he would be compelled to kill it for disobeying his command. And though our contempt for the Creature-Person had grown greatly since its pitiful display of metaphysical ignorance imaging the Divine could ever be a Trinity but especially since its attempt to mutilate its parts that changed shape, still we did not wish it killed like some beast of the field to be served up to our people for Feast Day whenever one of our family members disappeared from the Grand Causeway. But there loomed perhaps an even greater threat to the Creature-Person now that it knew our Betrothed's plan for the next Gray-Time, for we feared it would make so bold as to follow us and our Betrothed into the secret entrance from our world into The Place Beneath The Earth, the very entrance our mother had taken in escaping the Place of No Persons. And if it dared follow us and our Betrothed from our own world, where it had no right to be, then most certainly it would die at the hands of our Betrothed the moment it was discovered. This is, unless it were caught by other members of the Imperial Guard, who regularly patrol our causeways, before it even reached the secret entrance. We knew it would begin following the moment our Betrothed came to our family's villa at the start of Gray-Time to get us, so we resolved to set out even before Gray-Time and meet our Betrothed along the way, giving the Creature-Person no one to follow to its destruction. And we stuck to our plan, leaving our family's villa well before Gray-Time began next day, but to our great alarm the Creature-Person had already ascended the Servants' Causeway and lay in wait for us outside our family's villa.
They suspected the woman and the Imperial Guard might set out for the secret entrance to The Place Beneath The Earth before Gray-Time so they had come into the above world when the sky was still dark and waited beside some bushes outside the house where the woman lived. Though they remained hidden when the woman left the house they were discovered anyway even though the woman proceeded along the walkway as if they had not been seen. They kept a fair distance and kept close watch for any activity along the walkway for they knew the start of Gray-Time was the time the servants who lived among the people of the above world left the people's houses to gather food and to trade goods with the people of their village and to visit with the families the servants had left to go live in the above world and serve the people who lived there. They knew that even though the servants were from among their own people and of their own village once in the above world the servants obeyed only the rules of the above world and would report any person that did not belong among the people of the above world. So they took even greater pains to avoid the servants performing the daily tasks of servants than to avoid the patrols of the Imperial Guard making the daily rounds along the walkways. And their stealth was rewarded with their being able to follow the woman and at the appointed time the member of the Imperial Guard all the way to the secret entrance to The Place Beneath The Earth without being detected. They waited several minutes just beyond the secret entrance to allow the woman and the Imperial Guard to begin descending whatever pathway led down to The Place Beneath The Earth then they rushed through the entrance and began their own descent through this dark dank and vile smelling passage which was littered with what seemed to be bones and even pieces of rotting animal or human flesh. Finally they came to the end of this awful passageway and stood at the farthest corner of the Great Chamber.
We knew this horrible place existed halfway between our beautiful clean world and the darkened Place Beneath The Earth for we had heard stories of it as far back as we could remember; but it was always described to us, whether by the servants or our story tellers, as simply a long tunnel leading to the underworld, where often someone would escape from the Place of No Persons or even the Place of Ghosts and at a very rare time even from the Imperial Dungeon where criminals were housed awaiting a final disposition. No one had ever warned us of the terrible foul and fetid air or the bones and flesh of creatures that perished along their way to the underworld or the wet slimy walls that we dared not let ourself brush against for fear of all manner of contagion. It troubled us greatly to know that our mother had recently traversed this very same passageway, and perhaps many times so if she returned to our world in the dead of night, perhaps seeking food or the company of the other No Persons in their Place. Where before we wished not to find our mother for fear of her escaping a second then even a third time, we now fervently hoped to be able to find our mother and convince her to return to the Place of No Persons and remain there and to never again visit this most disgusting passageway. So we looked as eagerly for our mother as did our Betrothed, and tried every way we could think of to determine where in this Great Chamber she might have taken residence. This Place Beneath The Earth was far greater in its dimensions here at its far end than it was nearest its entrance behind the Great Waterfall. And the buildings were correspondingly greater in their dimensions as well, not small or even modest houses but huge places like the villas of our family and our family's circle of families and many larger still, as large as the Imperial Palace, the Imperial Chamber, the Imperial Guard House with its great Courtyard. This was in all respects a city like our Imperial City, in some ways like a reflection of our Imperial City. We asked our Betrothed how this could be, and how there could be any chance of finding our mother amidst such extensive ruins. He told us this Place was well known to the Imperial Guard because of the many great battles fought over many years before the people of this Place had finally been driven from their city into the Great Forest. We asked our Betrothed who these people were and he told us they were a hideous, monstrous race of creatures with ugly features, misshapen heads, and with arms of differing lengths, and that they were given to the most vile and disgusting habits, and that they feasted off the flesh of anyone they captured during their raids upon the villages above, where our ancestors lived. We thought of the Creature-Person we knew still followed us, and of his misshapen head and asymmetrical limbs. We thought too of our sister's child, the same child the Creature-Person had rescued, and wondered how such a child could ever be born of our race of beautiful, perfectly formed citizens. We asked our Betrothed if any of the creatures driven from The Place Beneath The Earth had survived and were told that many had escaped no matter how many times the Imperial Guard was sent to destroy them and that even to our most recent times they occasionally mounted a rebellion against our citizens. We then asked if any of these creatures were ever seen in this Place and were told that as recently as but a few days ago such a creature was reported by another member of the Imperial Guard looking for a No Person other than our mother who had escaped. We said we hoped they find this creature and destroy it for surely it must be the most loathsome, devious beast imaginable. And when we spoke that curse we heard a deep plaintive moan somewhere within the ruins.
They felt the woman's words to this Imperial Guard as if daggers were piercing their head for they could not believe their own ears that the woman could call them the most loathsome and devious creature imaginable. They would have liked to rip their ears from their head for having delivered such terrible curses to their mind but they dared not or else they may never find the child they had rescued since they must continue following this Imperial Guard and this woman and must continue listening for any sound that might indicate the presence of the person that had taken their child. So despite their great sorrow at having been cursed by the woman they continued following and hearing such comments as the woman and the Imperial Guard might make even if these comments were directed at them. For many more hours for as long as Gray-Time remained the woman and the Imperial Guard continued searching for the woman's mother but found no sign or trace of the woman's mother so the search was halted as the search of the previous day had been halted and the woman and the Imperial Guard returned to the secret hidden passage which led to the above world. This time they did not follow the winding passage filled with all manner of foul odors and sights but instead they made their way to the other entrance behind the waterfall and from there set out to find the old woman that had shown them the entrance to The Place Beneath The Earth. They searched many hours among the caves that led from the cave where they had first encountered the old woman before finally coming upon the old woman for they remembered from their last encounter that the old woman had told them from time to time a new cave had to be sought out to elude the Elders. They were invited by the old woman to sit at a fire and they related the tale of their search for the child they had rescued and how they had followed the woman and the Imperial Guard but no trace of the woman's mother had been found. The old woman said no trace would ever be found unless the woman's mother decided to return to the above world then the old woman asked them why they had wandered so deep into The Place Beneath The Earth when they were warned not to. They told the old woman that it was only to find the child they had rescued they had disobeyed the old woman's warning. The old woman's head shook back and forth and a scowl appeared on the old woman's face. They were told that the old woman believed it was as much to follow and spy on the woman and the Imperial Guard as it was to find the child. They were stunned that the old woman could see so deeply into their mind as to make such an accusation so they did not try to deny that following and spying was a part of why they pursued this course so zealously. The old woman then told them that this Imperial Guard must surely be the woman's Betrothed to take such an interest in finding the woman's mother since rarely did any member of the Imperial Guard search for a No Person that had escaped from the above world. This knowledge greatly troubled them for they did not wish to think of this woman being betrothed to this Imperial Guard. But they said nothing to the old woman. Instead they kept their thoughts quiet and resolved to look into this possibility further. They then told the old woman of the secret passage and of all they had seen and smelled and told as well of what the Imperial Guard had told the woman. Then they asked if the old woman knew anything of this.
We began to wish we had not conveyed our anger at the Creature-Person to our Betrothed in the manner we had, for even though we felt a great contempt for its spying on us and our Betrothed we did not entirely mean that it was as loathsome and devious as we said, nor did we truly wish it to be butchered for its spying and following. But at the time we said those things to our Betrothed our words perfectly expressed our feelings toward the Creature-Person, especially when it began whimpering and moaning like a dumb injured animal caught in one of the traps its Elders would set to capture foodstuffs for our Feast Days. But now that our Betrothed had returned us through the horrible passageway and brought us safely to our family's villa for the night, we took pity on the poor Creature-Person for its keen sensitivity to our words and even our idle threats; for, in truth, its attitude toward us was a refreshing change from the way our Betrothed regarded us. We were one day to become his property, to wile away the rest of our life dressing for his dinner and insuring no hair came loose while he was offering us a child of his making. We of course knew very well the rules of our Imperial Society and what our responsibilities, especially as the wedded of a member of the Imperial Guard, would be; and we fully accepted our place in our society and had every intention of fulfilling our responsibilities to the very letter. But, even so, and despite our great relish of our Imperial Way of Life, we were nevertheless pleased, even thrilled and more than a little excited at the Creature-Person's great fascination with our person, even if it was incapable of any discourse more sublime than concern for the well being of the child it had rescued - our sister's discarded misshapen and deformed child, which because of its defects, besides being imperfect and therefore unsuited to our society, could never hope to master anything more than the simplest concepts leading to the simplest tasks, tasks worthy only of those who, like the Creature-Person, dwelt within the village situated between the Great River and the Great Forest. We began to wish as well that our Betrothed had not filled every hour of Gray-Time searching for our mother in The Place Beneath The Earth, for we would have liked to go to the Creature-Person's house to tell it we were sorry for our words said to our Betrothed in its hearing, even if it deserved to hear them for its loathsomeness and deviousness in following us and spying on us. We began, too, to concern ourself with the condition of our favorite dress, which we had foolishly left in its keeping, for in its desperation it might rip our favorite dress to pieces, thinking it would never see the dress worn again. So even though it was late into the evening we resolved to seek out the Creature-Person's house behind the Great Waterfall to once and for all reclaim our favorite dress and hide our most prized possession in a safe place where no one would ever find it, not even the old woman the Creature-Person had told us of who was gifted with an ability to find anything and who knew of every coming and going in the below world - even if she did not know where our mother had taken the child the Creature-Person had rescued.
They were surprised by the old woman's response to what they had overheard the Imperial Guard tell the woman. The old woman told them to believe only part of what the Imperial Guard had said for there was much more to the tale of The Place Beneath The Earth and how it came to be abandoned. The old woman told them that the Imperial Archives contained only what the people of the above world wanted known but not everything that had happened. They asked how the old woman could possibly know of things that were not part of the Imperial Archives and they were told that the old woman's family was part of the Circle of Historic Families and had access to vast stores of information that was constantly studied to see how it fit in with the Imperial Archives and that any information that did not fit in was discarded but that some of the families within the Circle of Historic Families had kept the discarded information in secret places and that the old woman knew of these places and had seen this discarded information. Then the old woman told them something that they could not believe and nearly raised their fist to silence but held back from doing only because it was one of their villagers' greatest sacrileges to ever raise a hand against a person from the above world and that such a terrible offense must be punished by having the hand cut off and sometimes both hands and even the feet that carried the hands to where the person of the above world was attacked and sometimes the eyes that beheld the sacrilege and the ears that heard the person's cries. What the old woman told them that nearly caused them to raise their hand was that the people who long ago lived in The Place Beneath The Earth were the ancestors of both the people of the above world and those of their village but that a great battle ensued among the people of The Place Beneath The Earth and that half the people were forced to abandon the Great Chamber and move to the above world then over time tried to regain the Great Chamber and eventually drove the people that had remained behind out of The Place Beneath The Earth and into the Great Forest but that those people that were driven into the Great Forest kept coming back so the people that regained the Great Chamber finally gave up any hope of remaining there and returned to the above world to build great walkways and Imperial Buildings and all the villas where the people in the above world lived. The old woman then declared all the peoples of the entire world those above and those of the villages just beyond the Great Forest to be related. Then they asked how could that be when both peoples looked so different but the old woman told them that both peoples looked the same except that those of the above world fixed their hair and wore beautiful clothing while those of their village let their hair run wild and wore plain clothes and that it was to show how alike both peoples were that the old woman had started wearing ugly clothes and letting the old woman's hair run wide and that was why the people of the above world had thrown the old woman from the walkway. Then they reminded the old woman that none of that explained persons like them and the child they had rescued that had misshapen heads and one arm longer than the other and they were told that these persons were a throw-back to an even earlier race of people that once lived in this entire world and that was why such persons were so especially despised by both the people of the above world and the people of their village. The old woman called this race that lived in this entire world The Holders for they held everything that existed as a gift from the Divinity. But then they told the old woman that there were Three Divinities in One and that they had blasphemed against it and would have to sacrifice their first born to be forgiven. But the old woman laughed at this and told them their Elders had played a very grave trick on them for all they need do to be forgiven was to ask the Divinity. The old woman then asked them if that was why they sought the child they had rescued so desperately but they shook their head and said they had resolved not to sacrifice this child and had resigned themself to their fate. The old woman did not laugh at this but instead a look of great joy came upon the old woman's face and they were told that this was exactly how the ancient archives depicted The Holders as being serene in the acceptance of fate and unwilling to do harm to another person for any purpose. They pondered these last words of the old woman as they made their way from the caves through the Great Forest to the Great Waterfall along the path to the Great Chamber and back to their home.
We made our way through the Great Forest to the path behind the Great Waterfall without encountering the Creature-Person, who we expected to find waiting for us in the place beneath the Servants' Causeway it had always stood in wait. We were grateful for it not being there and for it not following us to its house in The Place Beneath The Earth because we feared that our pity for the misery we had caused it might soften our resolve to remove our favorite dress from its keeping. Once we were safely inside the mouth of the Great Chamber we proceeded with great care to the Creature-Person's house, watching as best we could in the faint evening light and listening for any sign of its approach but we detected nothing so we cautiously proceeded to its house and stood listening outside the door. We could hear nothing stirring so we decided that if the Creature-Person were within, it must be asleep so we silently opened the door, entered the house and shut the door behind us; then we proceeded to where we remember it having left our favorite dress the last time we were here. The dress was still exactly where it had been left. We took it up and retreated from the Creature-Person's house and had just closed the door and turned to go when all of a sudden we stood face to face with the Creature-Person. It saw right away that we carried our favorite dress with us and demanded to know why we carried the dress and where we were taking it. We answered simply that as it was our dress we were not obliged to explain its being in our possession or what our intent in taking it was. This both saddened and enraged the Creature-Person, who told us it knew that we considered it a loathsome and devious creature that was not worthy nor could be trusted to watch over our possession. In anger we expressed our agreement with its self-assessment. Then, in a great rage, it grabbed our favorite dress from our hands. We expected it to now rip it to shreds but to our great horror what it did was even more loathsome than if it had reduced our dress to rags. It stripped itself of all its clothes and as we watched in disbelief and utter revulsion it proceeded to put our favorite dress upon its own body. We shrieked for we could hear the seams of our favorite dress tearing apart. We began hitting at the Creature-Person and calling it the most loathsome, devious and foul blasphemer imaginable for desecrating our most prized possession, our only possession save our own person that we cared anything for. But the vile Creature-Person pushed us back so hard that we fell down, fell right beside where it had discarded its own clothes. On a mad impulse, shrieking and cursing the Creature-Person, we did as it had done and stripped ourself of all our clothes then took up its vile clothes and one by one dressed ourself in its clothes. It jumped back as if from a terrible beast and we hurriedly looked behind us to see what had frightened it but there was nothing lurking behind us, so it must have been the sight of us in its clothes that panicked the Creature-Person.
They had never witnessed nor even imagined anything so unnatural as what they beheld standing before them. The woman was completely covered in their clothes. They were terrified as if the world had turned inside out and would break open or burn away. Then they remembered that they too had performed in their rage an act so unnatural that nothing could save the world from ruin for just as the woman who they began screaming at and calling she and her over and over had taken on the clothes of a below person so too had they taken on the clothes of an above person. They vowed they would kill the woman for this sacrilege but even as they were thinking of how best to carry out their threat their parts that changed shape had grown to such enormity that the woman's dress stood away from their body which had become so loathsome to the woman as if they carried a child under the dress. In a rage they lifted the hem of the woman's favorite dress to show the woman they did not carry a child enfolded in its skirt. Then the woman opened the crotch of their pants and let the hidden parts of the woman's body be seen. They shrieked that they would surely kill the woman and tear the woman's body apart if the hidden parts should start to bleed over their crotch as those parts had at the Time of Shedding. The woman then shrieked back that they had nothing with which to stop the hidden parts from shedding if the hidden parts should choose to do so. And they shrieked back that they would find a great staff to put into the hidden parts to stop the shedding. Then the woman spat in their face and called them a loathsome devious wretch that could never find a staff big enough to stop the shedding. This so enraged them that they grabbed the woman and thrust their parts that changed shape through the crotch of their pants as deep into the woman's hidden parts as they could until they cried out in agony and the woman moaned as never before. Then both they and the woman fell to the ground outside their new house and began panting and heaving sighs and finally shedding tears that began flowing over one another till they and the woman fell asleep.
We awoke still next to the Creature-Person, who was not yet awake. We still wore its clothes and it still wore our favorite dress. We arose and stared down at the rips in the seams of our favorite dress and though we knew the dress was now ruined and we could never wear it again we still yearned to have it back and to put it in a secret place known only to ourself. But we had no means of removing the dress from the body of the Creature-Person without awakening it; and we had no wish to ever speak to it again, if even just to demand the return of our favorite dress, for our Betrothed had informed us during our last search of The Place Beneath The Earth for our mother that the Imperial Court had set the date of our marriage for the next full moon, which meant that from this day forth till the day of our marriage we may not leave our family's villa, not even for the Time of Shedding, for a special Place of Shedding had been set aside in every family's villa for such a time. After this final day of being outside we will not be seen again in public until the day of our marriage, which was ordained to take place in the Imperial Cathedral along with the marriages of ten other members of the Imperial Guard, after which we would only be allowed in public in the company of our husband and only on such occasions as the rules of our world permit. So we removed the Creature-Person's clothes and put the dress we had worn the day before back on then left the Creature-Person and our favorite dress lying on the ground outside its house and walked away from The Place Beneath The Earth knowing we would never see this place again, not the Great Chamber or the little narrow path leading behind the Great Waterfall or even the Great Forest. None of this would we ever look upon again. And deep in our heart we cursed the Creature-Person for having no power to alter what was ordained by custom. Yet at the same time we pitied it for all the times in the rest of its life that it would come and stand beneath the Servants' Causeway and look up expecting to find us standing there awaiting its glance and perhaps stand there looking for us long into the night before turning away and retreating back to its own world. We screamed once while deep within the Great Forest, a shriek so loud we feared the Creature-Person would hear and come running to us. But no one came, and we never screamed aloud again.
They stood under the walkway for three days and three nights watching for the woman but she never came. They watched the moon come into the sky then go out again three times. They watched the Gray-Time open up and cover everything in a fog then disappear and admit a clear blue sky which turned red and gold then dark then black as they stood in their place looking up to where they had always seen the woman before but they saw no one and nothing for she never came. They stood so still not even the flying bugs of the evening saw them or flew around them. They watched the dark turn to gray then to blue then back to dark again, and still the woman never came. Then at the end of the third day for they had always heard stories of how the Divine Trinity had given their people three days to watch and to wait for anything they wished to see they turned and walked from their place under the walkway. When they were far from their place and far from the Great River and deep within the Great Forest they stopped and lifted their head to the dark sky and let out a shriek that they knew must fill the entire forest and even reach up through the highest trees and into the sky above. Then they made their way in sorrow and in silence to the caves where the old woman lived. They were drawn to her fire and came close and sat down. They did not tell her or anyone ever that beneath their clothes they still wore the woman's favorite dress which they had meant to return to the woman if they had seen the woman standing on the walkway. Instead they told the old woman about how the woman they had always seen on the walkway had not come in three days to stand in a certain spot. They then asked if this meant the woman was dead but the old woman told them it meant the woman and the woman's Betrothed would now soon be wedded together for it was the custom of the above world that a woman must remain within the family's villa until the day of the wedding which would be at the next full moon which they knew was now but three more days away. They asked the old woman if after the wedding they might then see the woman again on the walkway but they were told that once the wedding was done they would never see the woman again for it was the custom of the people of the above world that when a woman was wedded that woman never came out in public except to attend other families' Feast Days and would be accompanied by her husband. They thanked the old woman and left for now they were more resolved than ever to return the woman's favorite dress before the next full moon.
Day after day we sat, or stood, or lay upon our feather bed, but we put all our effort to resisting sleep, for we were already beautiful and had no need of such a great period of sleeping to make us look our best as our customs prescribed during the Time of Preparing, to ready ourself for the solitary life of a wife to a member of the Imperial Guard, a life almost without contact beyond our family's villa, where we would see or be with or speak to no one but our family and our servants and our husband's family, although our Betrothed had no family since his mother and father were hurled from the Great Causeway into the Great River with their deformed child, twin of our Betrothed, who even though his handsomeness was renowned throughout the Imperial City just as our beauty was, which was one reason we were paired with our Betrothed, had become as loathsome and hideous in his appearance to us as the Creature-Person, who we hated above all else in existence for having ripped the seams from our favorite dress in its horrible mockery of our dress and the entire natural order of things by putting a thing so delicate and beautiful upon its huge laborer's body and then making it to look like the big wrap a mother-in-waiting wears when her child has fallen close to the Place of Birthing, as no doubt will be our fate once our husband has performed his duty to his wife then returns to his duties to the Imperial Court, such as seeking our mother in The Place Beneath The Earth, though we hope he never finds our mother, or the child the Creature-Person rescued from the Great River, the deformed child our sister had given birth to and was hurled from the Great Causeway, even though since it was not the twin of a healthy child its parents need not be hurled from the Great Causeway along with it as our Betrothed's parents had been for giving birth to a deformed child which would one day grow to murder their healthy child were it not removed from our world, though we wished with our whole heart that such a child had been saved, like the child the Creature-Person saved, so it could return to murder our Betrothed even if he were the most handsome man in the Imperial Guard, for doing to us what he must when we become his wife and spend the rest of our days fixing our hair and straightening every crease of our dress before appearing before our family and our husband and our servants, but we refuse to sleep out of spite for the rules that make our beauty the most important thing of our existence, because we need not sleep during the Time of Preparing to make us more beautiful than any other woman of our world when the full moon arises and our servants place us within our wedding dress of pure white with its veil and gloves and shoes to match so that we may be led to the Great Cathedral where our Betrothed is waiting to stand with us before the Priests who will declare our union proper and in accordance with our rules and customs then send us home to our wedding bed to complete the marriage ceremony as three servants whose heads are covered in hoods with tiny slits for their eyes to behold every movement to affirm that everything was done in accordance with our rules and customs and then our marriage will be sanctified and duly recorded in the Imperial Records and we will spend all our days seated or standing or lying asleep in our room within our family's villa along one of the minor causeways until finally we are found dead in our bed or else, if our hair has become undone, we will be hurled from the Great Causeway or, as our mother, sent to the Place of No Persons to either die there or escape to The Place Beneath The Earth where we will sleep forever in one of the Houses of the Holders
They watched what they had come to know as the moon which was a thing they had never seen before in their life until the day they were hit by a falling debris and made unconscious and did not awaken in time to be indoors before the Gray-Time ended as they were supposed to be. Every night they watched from beneath the walkway as the moon grew slowly greater in size and brighter in color day by day the closer it came to being what the old woman called Full and said was the time when the woman would be wed to the Imperial Guard that brought the woman through the secret passage to The Place Beneath The Earth. They came to hate the moon the greater and brighter it grew because they knew that its growing kept drawing the day that the woman would wed nearer and because they came to hate the moon they stood each night all night long beneath the walkway cursing the moon and calling it a devil because what right did the moon have to say when the woman would wed when the moon did not even exist it was no person or even a thing it was only a light that grew bigger and brighter each day until it went black altogether and disappeared until the time came again for its appearance once more in the sky after Gray-Time ended and the blue and the red and gold left the sky in blackness until the Gray-Time came again but they no longer cared anything for the blue or the red or the gold that they had once been drawn to watch night after night until they saw the woman on the walkway looking down upon them and all the colors of the sky as they had never seen it before became a thing of holiness and beauty but now became only smears of color no more wonderful to behold than the evil monstrous moon moving slowly across the sky as it grew greater and brighter to mark the day the woman would be wed and if they could they would climb the highest tower in the above world and try to reach the moon and tear it from the sky and take it to The Place Beneath The Earth to hide it there forever because of its great sin of telling the whole world that the woman would soon wed the Imperial Guard that they hated and cursed as much as they hated and cursed the moon and that they would tear the Imperial Guard in as many pieces as they would tear the moon and they would bury the Imperial Guard in the darkest place within The Place Beneath The Earth or else in the secret passage that reeked of death and was filled with the bones of the dead so they resolved that before the moon grew great enough and bright enough to mark the day the woman would wed they would seek out the Imperial Guard and carry out their revenge and in that way save the woman from the monstrous evil of the moon before it was too late
We heard something. Our Place of Preparing was in the middle of our family's villa, surrounded by rooms on three sides and a long corridor leading to the fourth side, it was the most isolated and insulated place in the entire villa, with no window and only one door. Yet still we heard something outside our family's villa, the sound of steps surrounding its walls and scratching at its doors and windows. We knew no one else could have heard because no one else was listening for what might be outside, everyone else was engaged in bathing and fixing their hair and straightening their clothes, and the servants were taken up with their evening tasks of making certain all members of our family performed their rituals of cleansing and adornment according to the requirements of our rules and customs. We were not supposed to know our family's schedule of rituals for we were locked away in perpetual darkness with no access to any other part of our family's villa and no way to perform any of our family's rituals. This was what the Place of Preparing was, a place to understand what all our rules and customs and the attendant rituals were for, a place to understand what our existence would be like without the rituals prescribed by our rules and customs, a place to purge ourself of any and all resistance to accepting our place in our Imperial Society. The entire Time of Preparing was spent in total isolation without any means of bathing or fixing our hair or straightening our dress or performing our ablutions. Within the Place of Preparing was a small bed, a small chair and a small table on which sat food sufficient to our Time of Preparing, but nothing more. We knew tales of women who went mad all alone in the Place of Preparing and acted out the most vile deeds of smearing their Dark Deposits on their dress and their hair and of even eating their Dark Deposits in their frenzy of madness; these woman were taken out with their heads covered in sackcloth when their Time of Preparing came to an end and thrown into the Great Deposit Pit where the Dark Deposits of all the families' villas in the Imperial City were sent by means of pipes which ran along the underside of the Great Causeway. No one ever spoke of these women again. All the other women, once their Time of Preparing had come to an end, were taken by the servants to be cleaned and fixed and dressed for their wedding, their minds, their hearts and their souls filled with perfect understanding and acceptance of our rules and customs. But we knew it was outside, the Creature-Person, creeping about our family's villa like a beast stalking its prey, slowly clawing its way inside to us. So we waited, and kept ourself as unblemished by our ordeal as we could, knowing that soon the time of our delivery would be at hand.
They knew the woman knew they were here outside this house and they knew the woman was desperate to get back the dress they wore under their clothes. But the woman never appeared at any door or any window so they concluded the woman was being held prisoner within the house and they resolved to somehow set the woman free so they could return the dress the woman had left at their house in The Place Beneath The Earth. Then once they had returned the dress to the woman they could continue their search for the child they had rescued. So while they moved from place to place around the house where the woman was being held careful to remain hidden behind the trees and bushes that surrounded the house they tried to devise a plan for rescuing the woman. They knew that the longer it took to rescue the woman and return the dress the harder it would be to find the child they had rescued from the Great River so they grew more desperate with each passing hour to find a way inside the house till finally they saw where a servant had carelessly left a door unlocked so they carefully made their way through the maze of bushes at that obscure part of the house and when no one was watching from within or anywhere near the door they silently opened the door and entered where a tiny room gave way to a long dark corridor which they slowly and carefully began making their way down going deeper and deeper into the house with every step they took. Finally the corridor ended at a dark heavy door which they tried to open but could not for it was locked and also chained shut. They knew this was where the woman they had come to return the dress to was being held. They thought about trying to slip the dress under the door but they could see there was no space under the door. They began carefully shaking the door handle to see if there was any way of forcing the door open without alerting any of the servants but the door would not give way so they were forced to ram their body against the door to force it open for they had grown so desperate to return the woman's dress and resume their search for the child they had rescued that they ceased being careful. But still the door would not give way even though they tried ramming their body against the door time after time. Soon the entire house was filled with noise as the servants all came running to see what was happening so they retreated down the corridor back to the tiny room where they had entered. They heard the servants unlocking the door of its chain and opening it to look inside. They heard one of the servants cry out that the woman was sleeping so the banging could not have come from inside the room. Then the door together with its chain was again locked while the servants continued searching for signs of an intruder so they hastily opened the door they had come in through and went back out to crouch behind the bushes in wait for another chance to return the woman's dress so they could resume their search for the child they had rescued.
We knew the Creature-Person had managed to get inside our family's villa somehow. We could hear it roaming the dark corridor leading to the Place of Preparing. We could sense it standing before the door. We heard it rattling the chain that held us within as it attempted to ram the door open. But we knew it failed when it turned away and ran from the Place of Preparing back down the dark corridor as our servants began gathering about the room that held us prisoner until the full moon signaled the day of our wedding. We then heard one of our servants unlocking the chain and opening the door so we hastily lay down and pretended to be asleep until the servant retreated and we were again imprisoned in the Place of Preparing. We suspected that our servants thought it was us shaking the door trying to free ourself but we proved them wrong, for it was a great infraction of our rules to attempt to leave the Place of Preparing before our Time of Preparing had ended; and many woman had been severely punished for such an infraction by being made to clean the Place of Preparing following their release until it was spotless and without odor and the effort then verified by the servants to be successful before they were permitted to be cleaned and dressed for their wedding; and if their efforts were unsuccessful or if in completing their task they left too little time to prepare for their wedding they were taken to the Place of Torment, where their features were disfigured so that no one could ever identify which family they had been part of and disgraced. But it had never happened in anyone's memory that a Creature-Person had broken into any family's villa and attempted to rescue a woman from her Time of Preparing. So the servants concluded it had been an archangel sent by the Divine Being to signal the upcoming wedding as a great omen for our family and our family's circle of families and even for the entire Imperial City. We could only imagine what the Creature-Person would think if it knew it had been mistaken for an archangel. So amusing was that thought in the final days and hours of our Time of Preparing that we despaired of not ever being able to relate the preposterous tale of mistaken identity to it. And we began devising plans for somehow relating the tale to the Creature-Person once we were wed.
They went to the old woman's cave one last time before the full moon stood in the sky as on an invisible mountain top sending down its demands on its rays of yellow light. They told the old woman of their attempt to return the woman's dress and of their entry into the house where the woman was held prisoner behind a door locked and chained which they shook with all their might but could not break open. The old woman told them it was good the door held fast for if they had breached it and entered the Place of Preparing the wedding ceremony would have been desecrated and the woman's Betrothed would have been compelled to slit the woman's throat and watch while she bled to death. They grew mad with hatred for the woman's Betrothed at hearing what evil the Imperial Guard was capable of and their resolve to tear that Guard apart became stronger than ever. But they did not tell any of this to the old woman for they did not trust the old woman not to warn someone. Then they asked what they had come to the cave to ask which was where the wedding would be held when the time came for the moon to be at its fullest and they were told that the wedding would take place in the Great Cathedral which was located in the very center of the above world across an open courtyard from the Imperial Palace and that sometimes even the King and the Imperial Court attended when there was said to be something unique and greatly auspicious surrounding the circumstances of a particular wedding. They asked the old woman what kind of event would mark such a wedding and were told that there were many favorable events but of them all by far the most favorable was a visitation by an archangel of the Divinity to the Place of Preparing and that in rattling the door a very great significance was said to surround and sanctify the wedding. They were outraged by what the old woman told them for they knew the Great Trinity had banned all earthly visitations by all heavenly beings and this made their determination all the greater still for they now had to avenge the Great Trinity from this blasphemy against it as well as destroy the woman's Betrothed for the evil lodged in that Guard's heart. They thanked the old woman and left the cave returning once more to their house at the end of The Place Beneath The Earth to gather up a blade they had carried with them all the days of their work as a stone cutter. They debated if they should first remove the woman's favorite dress before carrying out their vengeance against the blasphemers and the Imperial Guard but they decided to keep it on beneath their clothes for its feel against their skin would keep their courage and their strength in harmony. They then made their way through the Great Forest and onto the walkway to the center of the above world to stand outside the Great Cathedral in wait for the wedding procession now that the full moon was upon the world.
We emerged from the Place of Preparing unscathed by our week long ordeal. Our servants were shocked at how little our person had changed since the morning we were locked inside the small pitch dark room. Our dress was barely wrinkled and had no bodily stain anywhere on it; our hands were clean and sweet smelling; our skin as fresh and supple as it always was; and, best of all, not one single hair had fallen loose from our normal hairstyling. We knew that before the end of Gray-Time on this Day of the Full Moon word of our remarkable return from the Place of Preparing will have spread throughout the Imperial City till the Great Cathedral will have been filled with not only our family and our family's circle of families but a great multitude of people eager to glimpse us in, and be part of, our moment of triumph. We spent the day being bathed and perfumed and making sure our hair was perfect. Then the moment came to stand absolutely still while our servants draped our wedding dress about our body and fixed our wedding veil into our hair, after which we stood perfectly still as one after another of our family proceeded to inspect our wedding attire. When everyone in the household, both our family members and our servants, pronounced their satisfaction with our appearance, we were led to the front entrance of our family's villa while the rest of our family lined up behind us waiting for the wedding procession to begin. Finally, at a signal from one of our servants standing just outside our family's villa waiting for the first appearance of the full moon upon the horizon, the front door was opened wide and we stepped upon the causeway to begin leading our wedding procession to the Great Cathedral, where our Betrothed stood at attention awaiting our arrival.
They did not crouch low or hide behind the bushes that surrounded the Great Cathedral but stood their ground in front of the steps waiting for the wedding procession to arrive. Their courage and strength was made invincible by their knowledge that this entire wedding was a blasphemy before the Great Trinity. They detected people approaching from beyond the Great Cathedral that were not part of the wedding procession but still they stood their ground as if to indicate their right to be present. One of the people that approached they recognized from The Place Beneath The Earth as the Imperial Guard that had accompanied the woman whose favorite dress they wore beneath their clothes and had helped the woman search for the woman's mother. They knew by the conversation between the woman and the Imperial Guard that this was the woman's Betrothed and though they hated this Imperial Guard and had sworn an oath to cut the Guard's heart they felt no desire at the moment to carry out their plan for all their rage was focused on those among the people of the above world that had blasphemed the Great Trinity with talk of heavenly visitations on the eve of the Full Moon. But when the wedding procession finally drew near and they began looking for signs of priests and other officials to take their wrath upon the woman's Betrothed noted their presence to the other Guard standing there and laughed and said even the lowliest of servants could not resist an opportunity to be part of a wedding blessed by the visitation of an archangel. This monstrous sacrilege of including a Keeper of the Great Trinity's Great Truths in the wedding procession to become part of the blasphemy already committed so enraged them that they could no longer contain their rage until the priests arrived and they drew their knife and lunged at the Imperial Guard the woman's Betrothed for having spoken such blasphemy in their presence.
We could not believe our eyes. We walked at the head of the procession, absolutely serene in our undisputed position as the recipient of a heavenly visitation, something spoken of only in the Imperial Archives but never witnessed by any living person in memory, our gaze focused upon the full moon just rising above the Great Cathedral as we walked. Our wedding procession was the focus of the entire Imperial City, people lined up on either side of the Great Causeway as far as the eye could see, all the way to the steps of the Great Cathedral, where our Betrothed waited. The priests were all assembled deep within the Great Cathedral, before the Great Altar of the Divinity, awaiting our arrival to commence the wedding ceremony. We were within sight of our Betrothed when all of a sudden our eyes were drawn to a ragged figure entirely out of place at such an occasion. We knew before we drew near enough to identify this incongruity that the figure was of the Creature-Person in whose care we had entrusted our favorite dress. How it came to be here, before the steps of the Great Cathedral, standing barely an arm's length from our Betrothed, we could not imagine any more than how it came to imagine itself worthy to stand in greeting of our wedding procession. But strangest of all was our Betrothed's apparent sufferance of its presence almost beside him, as if it were merely one of his fellow Guards come to honor him in the time of his wedding. We even perceived what appeared to be an exchange of words between the two, or at best an exchange with our Betrothed's Man of Honor that seemed to include the Creature-Person. Then, to our absolute horror, a look of rage overtook the Creature-Person's visage, and it drew from its pants an unspeakable blade of steel and, so quickly we had no time even to cry out a warning, it lunged at our Betrothed, the profile of its monstrous form hiding from our view what horror it had set upon our Betrothed to effect.
They thought of the woman in the Time of Bleeding as they struck blow after blow upon this Imperial Guard with their blade for having included them in the great blasphemy committed against the Great Trinity. They struck the first blow so fast and so hard that they could barely pull their blade free but they prayed to the Great Trinity to give them the strength to complete their vengeance upon the blasphemers and before their prayer ended they pulled their blade from where it had struck the Imperial Guard's body which was on the shoulder nearest to where they stood. They could sense the other Imperial Guard coming at them from the other side of the woman's Betrothed so they struck a blow in the very center of this other Guard's forehead then swiftly removed their blade to strike the woman's Betrothed again this blow to the chest just below where the heart sits. They pulled their blade from the Imperial Guard's chest and struck a blow to the groin to the place where the woman's Time of Bleeding happened. Finally just as the wedding procession was reaching the steps of the Great Cathedral they pulled their blade from the Imperial Guard's groin and slammed their blade squarely into the part of the Guard's chest where the heart was said to sit. They felt the Imperial Guard falling after this final blow so they let go of their blade and stood over their vanquished enemy that had blasphemed the Great Trinity and had included them in the blasphemy. They watched all the blood pour from the Imperial Guard's body then they bent down and pulled their blade free then they turned to face the wedding procession and held their blade before them as they asked where the priests that blasphemed the Great Trinity were among the procession but they were told that the priests were not in the wedding procession but were already within the Great Cathedral. They looked the woman in her wedding dress at the head of the procession in the eye then turned again and ran up the steps and into the Great Cathedral to wreak vengeance upon the great blasphemers inside. They saw six priests standing before the alter awaiting the wedding procession and they ran the full length of the aisle to where the priests stood with their blade outstretched. They lunged and fell upon the priests and before any could escape they struck each in turn with their blade. And when all six priests lay bleeding before the altar they set their blade upon the altar in offering to the Great Trinity in retribution for the great blasphemy and sacrilege that had been committed in the above world this day.
We kept our pace, neither slowing nor increasing our step, instead keeping to tradition, despite what we witnessed ahead at the base of the Great Cathedral. We could sense members of the wedding procession growing anxious to arrive and offer their assistance, but as we, not they, led the procession, they were bound by all our traditions and customs and rules to remain behind she who was to be wed. We saw the Creature-Person draw a blade from its shirt and watched as it lunged first at our Betrothed then at his fellow Guard, who was to serve as his benefactor in place of his parents who had been removed for having breached our rules by giving birth to a deformed child side by side with their normal child, our Betrothed. Then, as blood poured from our Betrothed's shoulder and from his benefactor's forehead, we watched the Creature-Person fall three times again upon our Betrothed, its blade striking first his chest below his heart then his groin then his chest where his heart sat. We watched our Betrothed fall in a heap upon the Great Causeway beside his benefactor. We then watched as the Creature-Person approached our wedding procession with its blade held before it and demanded the priests be identified; and though we took time to answer that the priests were not among our procession but were awaiting our arrival in the Great Cathedral, we still maintained the prescribed pace. The Creature-Person looked us in our eyes and turned back toward the Cathedral, running up the steps and busting open the door. In another moment we arrived at the stairway leading to the Cathedral and heard the cries of the six priests chosen to sanctify our wedding to our Betrothed. Slowly, walking past our Betrothed and his benefactor, we ascended the stairway, never once falling out of step, and entered the Great Cathedral, followed by the members of our wedding procession. We continued down the sacred aisle, where the Divine was said to have trod on that holiest of days when all three of the Divine Trinity became a single Divinity. We ceased our steps upon reaching the altar, before which lay all six priests soaked in blood. Upon the altar lay the blade used to slay our Betrothed, his benefactor, and the six priests intended to sanctify our wedding. Standing to one side of the altar was the Creature-Person, with its head bent low as if in prayer. Then it raised its head and turned to us and said the Divine Trinity had now been avenged. It turned to go but we never once looked back. We stayed perfectly still until the allotted Time of the Wedding had ended. Then we too turned and retraced our steps along the aisle and back down the stairway, to stand beside where our Betrothed lay covered in blood.
They prayed in silence before the altar of the blasphemers asking the Divine Trinity to forgive them for being within the church of a false god even though they had only entered so that they might slay the priests who blasphemed against the Divine Trinity. When their prayer was ended they turned to the woman whose Wedding Day had caused the great blasphemy and said that the blasphemy had been avenged. Then they left the cathedral and walked away but they were stopped along the walkway by a squadron of ten Imperial Guards that fell upon them and bound them with heavy ropes then led them deeper and deeper into the heart of the above world until they stood before a dark and ancient looking building made of thick stone slabs mortared together and with narrow slits of windows covered with heavy bars. They were taken inside this fortress by the ten Imperial Guards and thrown into a dark and damp cell to await whatever the customs of the above world dictated to be done to someone that avenged the Divine Trinity by spilling the blood of those that blasphemed against the Divine Trinity. And since the people of the above world worshipped a false god none would ever come to see the righteousness of what they had done. But they did not care if the people of the above world condemned their actions as wrongful or set upon them with all manner of mayhem for they knew their heart and their soul was pure and that the Divine Trinity would comfort their afflictions and would take them up to stand before the Throne of the Trinity to be rewarded for the vengeance they had wreaked upon the blasphemers. Their only sorrow concerning their fate was that the woman's favorite dress which they still wore beneath their own clothes would be torn from their body and destroyed and would mock their pledge to the woman to take care of the dress as long as it was in their possession thereby making of them a liar. They shed tears while locked in their cell for the beautiful wondrous dress that was the woman's favorite. Then they had a great vision wherein they were commanded by the Divine Trinity to remove the woman's dress and hide it amidst the loose stones cobbled into the floor of their cell. So they did as they were commanded and found a place where the stones could be most easily lifted and they smoothed the precious fabric of the woman's dress until it slowly disappeared beneath the stones as they were replaced one by one. They knelt beside where the dress lay buried and whispered a prayer of thanks to the Divine Trinity for having shown them how to keep the woman's favorite dress safe from the blasphemers.
We did not return to our family's villa when our Time of the Wedding had ended, for we knew that the Creature-Person had closed to us forever the place we grew up in; nor did we remain beside our Betrothed until the People of the Death Place came to remove his body, for his final breath severed forever our link to him, so that he was no longer our Betrothed, but only a man lying dead at our feet. We knew our customs. We knew that the rest of our life would be spent wearing this our wedding dress, no matter how worn and tattered it became, and residing in the Place of Ghosts at the farthest reach of the Great Causeway, even beyond the Place of No Persons, where our mother had been sent but had escaped to live out the rest of her life hiding within The Place Beneath The Earth until such time as she might be found by the Imperial Guard's periodic searches below. We wondered what the rest of our life would be like as we moved the solemn pace prescribed to those women whose Betrothed was taken from them before their wedding had been fulfilled; we maintained this pace the entire way to the Place of Ghosts, while everyone who happened to be anywhere along the Great Causeway turned away from us the instant they perceived our wedding dress and the direction we took. It was very late into the night when we arrived at the white stone building shaped like a mausoleum, with no windows and but one door, in front, a tall iron grated door without a lock or a handle, a door that had to be pushed very hard to open and, once closed, could only be opened again from the outside. But, just as everywhere else in these forgotten places, there were many secrets and many ways of escape.
They were led in chains from their cell where they had stored the woman's favorite dress down a long corridor and out the back of the building where they had been brought by the Imperial Guard. It had become very dark outside and great clouds began covering the moon which was still full after three days and nights had passed. They were led in chains down an ancient looking walkway which they had never seen before from above or from below to a big dark building that almost looked to be built into the hillside. It had a strange set of doors which opened not by pulling the doors forward but by sliding the doors from side to side. Inside was at first pitch dark until the Imperial Guards lit torches that were set into the walls to guide them along a wide corridor toward a second set of doors which like the first set slid from side to side. They were led into a large room that was filled in every which way with strange looking pieces of equipment some looking like large metal hooks some like heavy braided chains some like racks from which many kinds of knives hung low over several large metal tables which had grooves running all around them. The air in this room was cold and with a putrid odor that came from nothing and nowhere in particular but seemed almost to be covering the walls the ceiling the floor. They again thanked the Divine Trinity for revealing a secret place to hide the woman's favorite dress for the Imperial Guards approached and tore their clothes from their body and the thought of the woman's dress being torn from their body too and cast upon the fetid floor almost made them sick. Once they were stripped and stood naked before the Imperial Guards they were taken to a big table in the center of the room and made to lay down upon the cold metal which made their whole body begin to shiver. The Imperial Guards fixed them to the table with heavy rusted chains which held the same putrid odor as the wall and ceiling and floor then the Guards left the room. For a long time they lay chained and shivering against the big metal table when a door at the back of the room opposite the door they were led into the room and the Imperial Guards had left the room through began to slowly open and some figures which they could not identify at first began to emerge from the dark behind the door into the dim light of the room where they lay chained to the big metal table.
We found, from among the many rooms situated to either side of a long corridor, one particular room that appealed to us. Not that it was any different from any other room we looked in but we chose to act as if it were special and unlike any other room; in that way we bestowed upon it a uniqueness that segregated it from the others and thereby made it not just a room we spend the rest of our life in but a room specifically designed for us alone, tailored to our every need and whim, though it was but one of dozens of identical rooms, some with their doors shut to denote occupancy by another woman whose Betrothed had died before their wedding could be consecrated by the customary six priests. We had heard stories in our youth of woman whose entire lives were spent not just within the Place of Ghosts but shuttered behind the closed door of their room till the day they died. We had no intention of spending our days and ending our life locked away from even this blank corridor, though we knew that as Ghosts we could not look upon or speak to or in any other way interact with another living soul for the rest of our lives, not even the other Ghosts of this place. We had no desire to pay any recognition to the other Ghosts or, for that matter, any other citizen of the Imperial City. If some day we escaped the Place of Ghosts, as we knew we would, our only wish was to find our mother, who had escaped the Place of No Persons and gone into The Place Beneath The Earth. Least of all did we have any wish to ever again look upon the Creature-Person whose madness had turned us to a Ghost, even if it were possible to recognize it after the punishment for its great crime was meted out to it. Night after night we fell asleep to the wailing of the other Ghosts until in time we grew so accustomed to their wailing that the sound lulled us to sleep. Till one day, and we could only try from memory to discern when Gray-Time had come, when it had gone, when the sun set or when the moon and stars rose; on this one particular day, chosen for no particular reason, we decided we had been a Ghost long enough and we sought a way out of the Place of Ghosts.
They could not believe their eyes when the shadows cleared away from the figures they saw entering the chamber where they lay naked upon the cold metal table for the ones that emerged from the shadows were not Imperial Guards or Executioners in long black robes as their people's legends tell. These figures moving upon where they lay chained to the big table were their Elders and carried many knives and blades and other sharp tools which they knew from their stone cutting. They asked if their Elders had heard of the great blasphemy they had avenged and had come to set them free but they were told that their Elders were not here to free them but to carry out the sentence as prescribed by custom and by the rules. But they reminded their Elders that those customs and rules were only of the above world but not their world below but their Elders said it was their assigned task to carry out every sentence decreed by the Imperial Court as well as to provide for the Feast Days of the above world. When the first blade was drawn and came at them an image sprang into their mind which they had been struggling with since they were brought to this chamber for they had been trying to place its location in relation to the other walkways which ran back and forth above their world when suddenly the glint of light upon the first Elder's blade made them see clearly where this chamber was. This was directly over the Sacristy of the Divine Trinity. They cried out in a horror greater than the agony of the first cut of the first blade upon their body. But how could that be they wondered while they cried out in agony as the second cut of the second caused their blood to spurt as if from the waterfall which hid The Place Beneath The Earth. The Sacristy was the most sacred place in their world a place so sacred that no one but their Elders may enter. One of their Elders as he came to help cut off their foot confirmed that this chamber was indeed directly over the Sacristy and that a hidden staircase led from the Sacristy to the chamber. They accused their Elders of a very great blasphemy for allowing any place with the above world where they believed in a false deity to come in so close contact with the holiest place in their world. They swore they would reveal their Elders' blasphemy to the people of their village but their Elders told them they would soon have no tongue with which to speak such words. They then said all the people of the village would see in their eyes the great blasphemy they had learned but their Elders told them they would soon have no eyes with which to convey to their people such images. The next Elder to join in the cutting of their body told them something that horrified them even beyond the gnashing of their teeth as their tongue was cut away from their mouth for this Elder said the child they had rescued from the Great River would soon be found and when it was found it would be offered up to its family for the family's Feast Day. They wept bitter tears at being told this tears so bitter and so many that their Elders had to take up a cloth and dry their eyes before plucking them out and sewing up their eyelids. But then they thought of the woman's mother and of the old woman and even of the woman herself and grew again peaceful for they knew that one or another of these three women would have rescued and saved and would protect and hide the child they had rescued from their Elders. When their Elders had cut away every part they had come to take from their body and they could no longer see or speak or even hear for their ears had been cut away as well or could they reach to feel or stand and hold their own weight they could yet smell for there was an odor of burning and charred flesh and they knew either their wounds were being cauterized by their Elders or else they had died and were burning in the eternal fires of hell but since they had avenged the Divine Trinity on those who had blasphemed against it they knew they could not be in hell so the burning was but temporary and not eternal. Then all sensation stopped and they fell either into sleep or into death for they could not tell which it was.
It was not difficult for us to locate a secret pathway that led from the Place of Ghosts to the remote stretch of causeway that ran to the side of that place. Before we dared make use of this pathway we had to make sure that its doorway was not the reverse of the doorway entering into the Place of Ghosts in that it opened only one way and that once we had escaped we could never return. So we carefully tried both sides of the doorway before leaving; and only once we were satisfied we could return did we leave, for we had nowhere else to go and no other dress but our wedding dress, and as it was forbidden to ever leave the Place of Ghosts we must always return or risk being discovered out where we must never again be or else going into some permanent hiding place as our mother had, perhaps within The Place Beneath The Earth, which we meant to visit again in hopes of finding our mother and remain together forever hidden from our people and their customs and rules which made of everyone an ornament rarely taken from its package to be displayed at special occasions, such as our family's Feast Day, though our family had not had a Feast Day since our grandmother and grandfather were removed, a horrible breach of our customs which had left our family in disfavor until the special circumstances of our wedding, with its great omen of visitation by an archangel, would have returned our family to its rightful place except for the intrusion of the Creature-Person. But then it was the Creature-Person, and not an archangel, that visited us in our Time of Preparing, so it was perhaps needful that the Creature-Person should keep the visitation from restoring our family's place within the Imperial City. And the doorway we found worked in both directions so we could come and go as we pleased, though only at night very late, just before Gray-Time, when no one was about save those who had no right to be outside at any time, like ourself, but who defied the customs and rules of our Imperial City. But we kept our first venture outside brief and we stayed within sight of the Place of Ghosts, each subsequent venture growing bolder to remain outside longer and to stray farther, until, after many tentative gestures of movement, we finally decided to seek out The Place Beneath The Earth. First though, before descending the secret passage to The Place Beneath The Earth, we carefully made our way one night to the place along the Servants' Causeway where we used to stand and watch the Creature-Person looking up at us. And we had no words for what we saw from our old vantage point.
They never moved for weeks at a time from the place where their Elders had propped them against a strong post in the ground. This was the same place where they would stand for hours on end and watch the woman on the walkway. Their Elders told them where they were being put and that it was a reminder to all the villagers to keep away from the above world. They were bound to the post to keep them from falling since they had no feet on which to stand or hands to stop themself from hitting the rocks along the banks of the Great River if they fell. They were fed by a woman of their village every third day and they were washed every couple weeks and given new clothing to replace their soiled clothes. They slept upright against the post and would awaken often when their head had slumped to a painful position. They spent their days and nights thinking and planning and feeling their body grow stronger. And they were coming to know when it was Gray-Time when it was evening and when it was night. They can never again look upon anything for their eyes were taken. They can never again hear anything for their ears were taken. They can never again speak to anything for their tongue was taken. They can never again touch anything for their hands were taken. They can never again walk upon anything for their feet were taken. All these pieces of their person were taken for their crimes against the Imperial People. What they still could not understand was that their Elders were summoned to take their parts. Sometimes they sense the woman looking down upon them from the walkway and they know it is very late at night or the woman would not be out from the Place of Ghosts where they were once told that brides without their new husbands must go. Sometimes they now call the woman she in their mind for they are no longer troubled by her having three separate names. They are coming to sense everything about their world that once they only knew by looking upon or listening to or touching or going to or speaking of. So too are their arms and legs growing stronger as their limbs heal from the wounds inflicted by their Elders. They know that one day they will be able to stand firm enough on their legs to begin walking and that their arms will grow supple enough to help them move through their world. And when they know they are ready they will make their way to the Sacristy at the heart of their people's village and lie in wait till noonday when the village square is filled with their people. Then they will enter the Sacristy while all their people stare in wonder for none but the Elders must ever enter that holiest place in their world. And they will work their way to the same stairway their Elders used to ascend into the chamber where they had been chained to a great stone slab. And when they descend back into their world from the above world and go out from the Sacristy their people will see and will know that the Sacristy is for all the people and not only the Elders. Then if they are not stopped which they believe the people of their village will be too stunned to stop them they will leave their village and their world forever and they will go through the Great Forest to the path behind the Great Waterfall to live out their days in The Place Beneath The World in the house they had found or maybe to move farther still into the Great Chamber to one of the great stone dwellings where they will make their new home to be their final resting place.
We looked down, as if from habit, and we saw what we at first took to be some kind of thing made perhaps of straw and covered in what could be a man's clothing, a thing tied with heavy ropes to a wooden post. We thought it odd that such a thing, made without hands or feet and without ears and with its eyelids sewn shut, should have been placed among the rocks along the bank of the Great River. It seemed at once comical yet sad. We watched for several minutes before we turned to retreat from our vantage point when, all of a sudden, this hideous thing moved to lift its head and faced the spot on the Servants' Causeway where we stood watching, almost as if it were looking up at us. Then, at last, after many minutes of our standing perfectly still, half turned away from it, a sudden recognition jolted us to our very soul, for we knew all at once that this thing we had taken for a poorly made replica of a man was the Creature-Person. It was the Creature-Person. And though we knew we would likely not recognize it if we ever saw it again after the sentence prescribed by our rules and customs had been carried out, even so we were startled at seeing it as if it had been something not real but created for some unfathomable reason. We could not bear to look upon it further so we finished turning away and swiftly retreated back to the Place of Ghosts, which for once looked to us like a place of comfort and safety. But we could not keep away from the terrible sight so we ventured to our place along the Servants' Causeway night after night, always to the same scene being played out, with the Creature-Person suddenly rousing and lifting its head to us, followed by our hasty departure in a kind of terror, for each visit brought us a step nearer the edge of the causeway, as if we were being drawn toward the Great River and we found ourself wondering if we leaped one night into the river would the Creature-Person spring from its perch to rescue us as it had our sister's child. Then one night several months into our mad adventure we almost fainted from what we beheld, for there was nothing below, only the wooden post and, lying as if wrapped around it, the ropes that had bound the Creature-Person to the post. But the Creature-Person was no longer there, so we returned to the Place of Ghosts one more time, vowing that now we would descend the secret passage into The Place Beneath The Earth, where we would seek our mother and, in our wedding gown, live out our life, wondering perhaps what ever became of the Creature-Person as we wandered the abandoned city beneath our world, which would one day become our final resting place.