i was lying upon my naked back and staring up at a sky as vivid as a bluejay's wing. clouds decorated the blue expanse; big, fluffy bundles like the goddess had come with a huge frosting applicator and squeezed out perfect little puffs of white frosting.
was the weather always paradise perfect, here in the Valley? it couldn't be Paradise; i wasn't dead. perhaps it was enough to simply be, to feel paradise around me. perhaps it was Her telling me that anywhere is paradise, depending on my own state of mind.
it was difficult to feel, though. the pomegranate priestess' words had pierced straight through me. i reached up and rubbed the place between my breasts, where the other priestess had invoked the blue-skinned, flame-haired vulture goddess aspect within and lain my breast in twain with her sickle.
there should have been a scar there. the wound had rent the bone, leaving my beating heart open to the sky as my life's blood poured into the River Funk. but my skin was smooth and perfect. i had long ago discovered if i brooded too deeply upon the remembered pain --vivid and sensitive as my memory was-- the wound would reopen of its own accord as if freshly cut. if i focused on the lessons learned, the wound closed. if i brooded, i bled.
lesson learned. self-pity and holding onto past trauma injured my body, mind, and soul as if freshly inflicted..and i was the one applying the pain. musings upon the lesson, and the strength i gained while floating half-dead along the River, strengthened me. nourished me.
the skin between my breasts itched. i was brooding, and i knew it. so many questions, and no experience in my entire life was sufficient to lead me to an answer. how to choose among the sisters? how to know to which sect of them i belonged? i felt a kinship with them all.
the vial was its own weight, and dilemma. whom to bless with its contents? who was deserving, or in most need of a baptism in blood? the mystery of turning water into blood was mine, but how? what to do, how to use it? such responsibility weighed heavily upon me, and i could feel it in the weight of the vial itself. it grew heavier by the moment.
to leave Valley-in-the-Glade? its beautiful colors and gently rolling hills were no longer a safe haven for me; i felt it in my blood. the presence of the blood priestess had changed all that. i was free to remain there as long as i wished, but i knew it was time to leave. however, leaving terrified me. i didn't know how to leave, or even if i truly wanted to. i was comfortable there, and all my needs were attended--
...no, that wasn't true. not entirely. something within me ached, but i couldn't name what it was. the longer i remained in the Valley, the more of its bounty i ate and by every pampered night, it would feel emptier and emptier to me. soon i would be starving. but for what?
i closed my eyes and gave up trying. all i was doing was going 'round in circles trying to figure out something that couldn't be solved.
"the last mystery of the Valley," said a voice.
i sat up, startled, and looked around. up above me sat the most beautiful man i had ever seen. for once and all i knew the Valley was not only alive, but aware. how else, then, could it know to show me my ideal man, perfect in every detail to my own tastes from his long hair and stubble around his mouth, to his broad shoulders, barrel chest, kind eyes and broad proportions?
i was breathless. he was naked, as was i, and i was blushing!
cheeks burning, i curled my legs beneath me to hide my sex, and shook my dreadlocks to cover my bare torso.
he laughed. "too late. i already got a good eyeful." at my pained expression, he laughed harder. "but i shall pretend i saw nothing and that my mind is as pure as the water of the pool in which you bathed earlier."
my jaw dropped.
"you're very pretty," he said.
i buried my face in my hands and squealed with shame and embarrassment. suddenly i felt hands around my shoulders, large and warm and gentle.
"come now," he said. "is it so terrible to know you had an admirer watching from the trees? like actaeon as he spied artemis at her bath."
"and was torn apart by her hounds," i finished, face still buried in my hands.
he chuckled, and gently pulled my hands away from my face. "true, but you have a much more generous heart than she perhaps had, and would have mercy on one such as me. i was simply unable to keep silent any longer. and you looked in need of a friend."
i shook my head. "it's nothing," i said. "it's stupid. but it's nothing." i was already burying it deep down, hiding it from him as i had always hidden everything from everyone.
"dear priestess," he said gently. "now don't do that. don't bury it. i don't care what you feel, as long as you don't feel nothing. get inflamed with hunger or justice or sadness or beauty or love," he laughed, "or embarrassment at being caught naked when you thought you were alone. but don't submit to apathy."
...apathy? was that what i had been doing? no, surely not! all i was doing was putting it away, where it wouldn't get in the way of what needed to be done. emotions always got in the way, were painful distractions and conspired against me to leave me tender after yet another betrayal, yet another abusive relationship as the illusion of love disintegrated and i saw it for what it had always been. by shoving them down into the deepest, darkest little corner of my mind, i had made sure my emotions did not rule me.
pragmatism and a refusal to romanticize things had been what kept me from hurting. from wondering why i was so unlovable that everyone i had ever loved had thrown me away. that was what i had been doing...right?
he smoothed the back of his hand down my cheek. "don't let yourself be shunted into numbness. you can't afford to be cut off from the source of your secret self, even if it means having to feel like hell for a while." he leaned in closer to whisper in my ear. i closed my eyes and inhaled his nearness. "and the odd thing is that if you're willing to go through hell, you won't have to go through hell. so to hell with your poker face and neutrality and dispassionate stance."
eyes still closed, i gave a small, wry smile. "be a wild thing, not a mild thing, huh?"
he kissed my forehead. "precisely."