Three Myland hadn’t changed much. It never did. The Vulture Priests lived in the past, rebuilding the dead, brittle concrete structures our ancestors had left behind, donning the thick robes of a colder world, still speaking an archaic dialect of the language that birthed all the languages now spoken in this land.
A woman named Sister Miriam welcomed us and showed us around. She had taken on the job of welcoming initiates, a job unique to this temple because no other temple would permit non-initiates to wander the grounds. She wore no mask and spoke in a mix of trade pidgin and the local dialect. I pretended not to know the layout and the buildings. I followed her lead, looking around as if in wonder, scanning for familiar faces. I saw no faces at all, of course; the other priests all wore masks, and their glassy eye-holes burrowed into me.
In truth, I didn’t know the place in much detail. I had only come here a few times many years ago and never stayed long. Sister Miriam didn’t give the tour for my benefit, anyway. It reassured Robin that her dear old aunt would not rot away here like all the other Vulture Priests. She would live safely cloistered in a scriptorium, painting ancient symbols onto vellum, growing her own garden, sending pigeons out to check on the progress of less fortunate priests at more dangerous temples. She would spend her final days in a peaceful place where she could serve the world in safety.
Sister Miriam took a very different tone with me when she pulled me aside for my first initiation. “How much thought have you given this? You still have time to turn back.” Her dark brown eyes looked even darker beneath her shaved and furrowed brow. “Are you truly prepared to leave behind your family and land?”
I didn’t fully understand that word, “are,” then, but I gathered enough from context to piece together what she meant. “I always knew I would end up here,” I said. “My mother served here.”
“Her sacrifice is cherished. May the ancestors bless and keep her,” Miriam said.
“Yes. Well… I have considered this for many years now. I understand the sacrifice I have chosen to make. I have made ready for that sacrifice. I have exchanged messages with one of your head priests, through the priests at Beaver Valley.”
Sister Miriam nodded. “And this head priest has agreed to sponsor your initiation?”
“Yes, Father William. He expects me.”
“I’ll go and fetch him, then,” she said, bowing at the neck, “while you cleanse yourself.”
She led me into one of the squat, gray, stone buildings. It looked cold and ugly, and stepping inside, I found it even worse than it looked from the outside. It felt too big to feel cozy but too small to feel spacious. I felt cramped and lost at the same time. I felt a twinge of pity for my ancestors who lived in these awful places all the time. I didn’t know what sort of creature might feel at home in such a place, but humans did not belong here.
She led me down dark hallways to the purification chamber, where a flock of priests had already begun filling the stone ritual bath with cold, purging, cassia-infused water. They draped a white robe over the side of the bath and left me alone to bathe. They passed through a door, hard and angular, that swung shut behind them on metal hinges. When it closed against the hard concrete wall, it made a noise like giants knapping flint. The squareness and hardness of these rooms made everything louder. For the first time in my life, I felt sealed off from everything and everyone. I could see nothing but gray: gray walls, gray doors, the swirling gray of the bath.
I dropped my old clothes on the floor. I would never wear them again. But the little bag I had brought from home — that I hid in a crack in the wall.
It seemed a strange tradition, this ritual bath. Why would a person have to cleanse herself before joining an order devoted to the containment of filth? It made me think of the rods that most priests spent their lives bathing in cool water. If nothing else, it helped me to relax.
When I considered myself sufficiently purified, I wrapped myself in the white robe and examined the door. I couldn’t just push it aside to leave. Some sort of metal latch rose and fell to hold it in place. I rested a hand on one end of the latch. The other rose and, as if by magic, the door swung inward. On the other side stood Father William, holding his mask in his hands. He looked older and smaller than I remembered.
“Vervain,” he said. “It’s been too long.”
“Father,” I said.
“I wasn’t surprised to hear of your interest in joining the priesthood. You have Verity’s talent and passion. Though I’m sure you could have waited a few more years. Why have you come now?”
Something caught in my throat. I had no way to soften it. “Pelica died. She and the baby she carried. Radiation leaks from the temple in Beaver Valley. It poisons our family. I couldn’t deny the truth anymore. I had to admit defeat.”
Tears welled up in his eyes. He blinked them away. “Little Pelica… and a baby, you said?”
“Yes. She also has a daughter, Robin, who recently completed women’s initiation. She came with me. You may meet her if you wish.”
Now the tears fell. “I would like that very much.” He cleared his throat. “Why didn’t you tell me about her?”
“Would it have done any good for you to know? I assumed it would only have distracted you and attracted attention from the other priests.”
“That is probably true.” He placed his hand on my back and guided me down the hallway. “Let us begin.”
The first initiation took place outside, so my family could watch. It didn’t involve as much pageantry as I’d expected. Masked priests circled me, chanting in the old speech:
Today you leave the earthly plane.
Today you join your ancestors.
Today you leave your family
And embrace death.
Even though most of the ritual didn’t apply to initiates here, they used the same ceremony as any other temple. Why make an exception for a small handful of monks?
Father William stepped forward, now masked like all the others but with a spot of white at his collar to mark himself as one of the head priests. “Your hair will fall out,” he intoned. “You have no more need of it. We hereby take it from you before the radiation does.”
Two priests emerged from the circle bearing obsidian knives. My dreadlocks fell to the ground like dead snakes. Then, with more care, they closely shaved my head and eyebrows. My head felt light and exposed. A breeze blew. My scalp twitched.
“Your skin will rot as you live,” Father William continued. “You have no more need to show it. We hereby drape you in the holy vestments.”
I stood still with my arms out while the priests removed my ceremonial white robe and draped the heavier black one over me. They wrapped my bald head in red leather, gave me leather gloves and leather shoes. I’d felt exposed before, but now I felt confined, almost strangled and already overheated.
“Your face will blister and peel. You will be a horror to look upon. You have no more need of your face. We hereby place upon you the face of the vulture.”
They had not prepared me for how heavy the stiff white mask would feel. The long beak pulled my head down. One of the priests lit the herbs in the beak, and the smoke burned my throat. The glass eyeholes gave everything a greenish, wobbly tinge. Everything looked dark and sick to a Vulture Priest.
“You will shield your family with your body,” Father William said. “Your life matters not, for you are dead already. You are a stick in the pyre, a sacrifice to be burnt for the good of all that lives. You have no more need of your old identity. We hereby name you Veronica.”
“Welcome, Veronica, to the work of the dead,” the priests chanted.
Father William motioned for me to bow. I kept my shoulders straight and bowed my head, at the neck, like a vulture.
“Do you vow never to leave this temple except by final death?” Father William asked.
“Do you vow to remain celibate, avoiding all carnal knowledge from now until your final death?”
I fought back a smirk. Either Father William didn’t recognize his own hypocrisy, or he knew how to hide it. He had many years of practice, after all.
“I do,” I said.
“Repeat after me: I give my life to the Vigil.”
“I give my life to the Vigil.”
“I give my body to the Vigil.”
“I give my body to the Vigil.”
“So long as a single human breathes…”
“So long as a single human breathes…”
“The Vigil must go on.”
“The Vigil must go on.”
“Rise, Sister Veronica.”
“Your sacrifice is cherished,” he said. “May the ancestors bless and keep you.”
“And also you,” I chanted with the other priests.
By the time that ceremony had finished, the sun prepared to set. Father William directed the caravan to a nearby village that would take them in for the night. “The Plain People, they call themselves,” he said. “Very kind, very hospitable. They do much to support our work.”
He kept his mask on, his eyes hidden behind shining brown glass. If he gazed at Robin a little too long or got misty-eyed, no one noticed. For my part, I could still see little. As dusk fell, the glass darkened almost to blackness. But I could still sense enough to slip away, back to the purification chamber, find the bag I’d hidden, and tuck it into my new robes.
I really had planned to give the bag to Robin. I had the perfect opportunity to do so: when she said goodbye, she hugged me tightly. I could easily have snuck the bag into her hand without anyone seeing.
“I won’t give up on our home,” she whispered. “I know you can find a way to save it here. I’ll look for a way too. We’ll heal it, and we’ll have a future.”
My stomach turned. She wanted it. She chose it as I never had. But how much choice did she have, really? When we parted, the bag remained in my robe.
In that, I admitted defeat a third and final time.
Then Glassknapper approached me. I took off my mask so I could see what he had to say, and I took the opportunity to unwrap my uncomfortable leather headscarf as well.
My new gloves felt stiff, but I could still sign with them. “Thank you for bringing Robin into this world,” I signed. “It makes me glad that my sister had one child, at least, and such a good one. I give thanks that she had you. Your love gave her happiness. She didn’t get a long life or as many children as she wanted, but she had a loving husband and daughter, and that brought her joy for the little time she had.”
He sucked in his cheeks. With furious hands, he demanded, “Why didn’t you tell Robin you planned to join the Vulture Priests?”
He took me by surprise. I had tried to end things on a good note and here he stood, picking a fight.
“I didn’t want to hurt her,” I said.
His anger stilled his hands. His chest heaved, his lips thinned, his fists clenched and unclenched. This fury must have risen over the course of the trip. He took one step back and then another forward.
“You failed,” he signed. “You hurt her. She could have had time to mourn her Aunt Vervain” — he signed my old name in a way that seemed almost violent — “with her mother to help her. Now she has to mourn her mother and her aunt. She had pain and shock to deal with, and you added more. What made you think your secrecy wouldn’t hurt her?”
“How could I have known when Pelica would die?” I demanded. “You ask me to prepare for something no one expected.”
“You could have waited. You could have given Robin time to grieve before leaving. But you didn’t. You abandoned her to mourn two deaths at once. If you really cared about Robin, you wouldn’t stand here today at Three Myland with a shaved head and a nonsense name. Not so soon after Pelica’s death.”
I closed the gap between us. He stood too tall over me for me to intimidate him, but I looked right into his eyes to show that, if nothing else, he did not intimidate me.
“We don’t have time to waste. I know it from Pelica’s death. I know it from Ginkgo’s death. And you know it too, or else you wouldn’t stand here today, at Three Myland, heading north to your home.”
He cringed twice — once when I signed Ginkgo’s name and again when I called the Arctic his home. When he lifted his hands again, he made gentler movements.
“What do you think you’ll find here that no other priest has found?” he asked.
I looked over at Robin. She was watching from the boat. “More than I would have found staying home,” I said.
Glassknapper stepped between me and the boat, blocking my view of Robin — and Robin’s view of our conversation. “I will never understand you and your mother,” he signed, his movements stiff with barely contained fury. “You never knew how to person, how to care for your families. The land must have gone bad long before the temple failed, to make a family so untrusting of each other.”
I ran my fingers over the bag tucked into the waistband of my robe. The bag my mother had given me on the day she left to join the priesthood. The bag I had filled with seeds and spores from home and taken to Christmas and Three Myland, all in secret, all without telling anyone. If I had truly meant to give it to Robin, why didn’t I just give it to her before we left? I had gotten so used to keeping secrets — always with the best of intentions — it had become a reflex. I got that from my mother.
All I could do was shrug and say, “Perhaps it had.”
I covered my head with my black hood and walked away from the shore. The other priests watched me. I put my red head wrapping back on and hid my face beneath my mask. The world went dark and sick. I knew that behind me, Robin pulled away. My mask hid my tears.
Long ago, in my childhood, my mother would disappear into the forest as if to go gathering, but always return with an empty basket. She never spoke of where she went or what she did there, at least not to me. So one day I followed her, silent as a deer. I followed her through the forest past the blue painted standing stones that warned us to turn back. I paused for a moment but followed her lead, now more curious than ever. The land past the standing stones looked no different than the land in front of it, after all, and as a grown-up, presumably she knew her business.
I began to notice more and more oyster mushrooms popping up the further we walked. My mother stooped to examine them sometimes, but never picked them. Finally, she stopped and looked around. I watched her drop her basket and fill it with mushrooms from a particularly thick patch. She plucked them up from the stems, uprooting them completely, and once she had filled her basket to the brim, she carried it with some difficulty to an area even further away and more remote. An enormous pile of rotting oyster mushrooms lay in a pit lined with clay. She dumped all of her newly-picked mushrooms on the pile and covered them with more clay. I had never seen anything stranger. How often did she come to this feast and never bring any back? How much work did she put into pulling mushrooms out of the ground and putting them back in somewhere else? How did all these oyster mushrooms come to grow here in this forbidden place, anyway?
My stomach growled. I resented my mother for wasting all this food. Almost as much to spite her as out of hunger, I reached down to pick an oyster mushroom growing at my feet. I’d nearly popped it into my mouth when she shouted, “Stop!”
I jumped so dramatically, I dropped the mushroom. She hadn’t even bothered to turn around and look at me. She must have known I had followed her the entire time.
“Why can’t I eat it?” I demanded. “Why do you pick all these mushrooms just to throw them in a pile to rot?”
Only then did she turn around and meet my gaze. “Everything eats something,” she said. “Mushrooms eat a lot of things that hurt us, and they take those things inside of themselves. Out of the soil.” She gestured to the field. “Our ancestors poisoned this place. These oyster mushrooms can live off this poison — thrive on it, even. I scattered their spores all over. And when they grow all filled with poison, I pick them and I put them all in the same place. A smaller place, a pit lined with clay. Entomb the poison, give our people more space to live, more safe water to drink — this gift the mushrooms can give us, if we know how to ask.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me this?” I asked. “You help people. Why would you keep it a secret? Even from me?”
She shrugged in that maddening way of hers. “You never asked.”
My mother never acted very warmly towards anyone, not even me. She didn’t talk much. I grew up knowing that I would have to unravel the mystery of her on my own, silently collecting whatever clues she happened to drop when she deigned to.
Even long after she left, I remained, trying to carry on her work and save our family’s territory. In leaving to join the Vulture Priests, I had admitted defeat for the second time. I spent my life trying to heal that land and only now could I finally admit that I had done nothing to save my family. Our lack of descendants proved that. Pelica’s death proved that.
I had thought about joining the priesthood for a very long time. My pride never grew so great that it blinded me to the possibility that I’d failed, but I always hoped that things might change. Pelica had, too. She kept trying to make babies in the hope that she could give them a future. In the end, she produced one child, possibly the last child of our family. I could have taught Robin the work as my mother had taught me. No one else would inherit it. If I didn’t pass it on to Robin, it would die with me. Instead, I kept her away from it. Now I understood that I had really admitted defeat then for the first time, long before I ever spoke to the priests.
We hadn’t always lived where we lived now. Our people spread out from Pittsburgh, moving further and further north and west until we hit the southern bank of the Ohio River. To our south, fellow yinzers, too many now to move back in that direction. To our north, the families who used to live in this land before we arrived. We knew little of them but the fragments they left behind. They wandered more widely than we did, hunted more, cultivated less. They avoided confrontation. We took their land almost by accident. They gave us a wide berth, and we took it. I suppose we accidentally saved them. They moved further away from the temple, after all. Perhaps they looked at the poison gripping us and saw it as just punishment to befall those who would usurp their territory.
At that time, the Ash Flats marked our western border. My mother changed that. She had always taken an interest in growing things. She knew all the healing herbs and just what they did, knew the best ways to coax food from the soil. She would taste the soil sometimes, roll it around in her mouth and tell from that what it had to offer this or that crop, if it needed more of one thing or less of another. She spoke to soil like most speak to people, and it spoke to her. She communed with the fungus that wound through the soil like an endless woven net beneath our feet. The oyster mushrooms told her they could eat the ash, so she spread their spores. They reached down through the ash and built a new web there, holding it in place, and atop that web she planted vetiver and arrowroot and comfrey.
So we called her Deathweaver. More than gathering, more than mothering, more even than healing (and she knew that as well as anyone in Pittsburgh), this gave her life purpose: the weaving of death back into life.
She always seemed secretive and strange, but I suppose it takes a strange person to do this kind of work. Fungi stranged, and she stranged, and she bore a strange family. Even Pelica, the normal one with normal aspirations, married a stranger from a distant land and lived in a house of meat.
In any case, our family didn’t move north purposefully. We drifted there, driven by our growing population. By the time we had figured out that the further north we went, the sicker we got, we could no longer turn back. Deathweaver tried to do the same for the radiation that she had for the ash, cultivating the untouchable oyster mushrooms of my youth, but these poisons behaved differently. Maybe she knew that. Maybe that explained why she joined the priesthood when she did: like me, she finally admitted that she had failed.
Did she understand our doom? Did she know her daughter would die? That her grandchildren would die? That her family would sicken? Should she have stayed? Would that have done any good?
Did leaving do any good?
I thought about those clay-lined tombs of rotting oyster mushrooms as I turned away from my family for the last time and walked into the clay houses of the Vulture Priests.
My real initiation took place after sundown, after all the uninitiated had left the island. Three Myland had four great towers with no roofs. When the sun fell, the priests lit great bonfires in each tower, one by one. Smoke wafted out the tops, tinted orange by the fires below.
Father William led me to the first tower, a chanting procession behind us. When we stepped inside, the heat pummeled me. Now, in the face of blinding firelight, the green glass of my mask helped me see the many spiral symbols that covered the wall.
“We come now to the first tower, called Atziluth,” Father William said. “We come to the Emanation, and the Emergence. Drink.”
Another priest held out a cup of something viscous and foul smelling. I tipped my head back to fit it under my beak, pulled my red head wrapping under my chin, and drank it as quickly as I could. It tasted even worse than it smelled. I gagged and retched, but managed to force it down. The other priests continued to chant, quietly, as Father William began to tell the story of this tower.
“In the dying days of the Fourth World, Hopi missionaries ventured out from their home far to the west. They traveled the continent, telling the lost and starving souls of the Emergence, reassuring them that the world just passed was not the first, nor would it be the last.
“Our order had gathered at Yucca Mountain. We were among the first to receive them. They told us that the Fifth World had dawned. And because we already knew much of these five worlds, we grasped the truth in their words.”
He spoke of fire and the brain, the change in unchanging Divinity and the paradox of the perfect divine will creating imperfect beings. Halfway through the story, the spirals on the wall began to swirl and dance. The rhythm of the chanting lulled me not quite into sleep, but into weakness. I became faint and tipped back into another priest’s arms. One priest stood on either side of me, holding my arms to help me balance. Another behind me placed a hand on my back. Together, they walked me in a circle around the fire, along the wall of the tower. I ran my finger along the wall. The spirals scattered and reformed themselves like ripples in a pool of water.
When they guided me outside, the darkness and coldness shocked me as much as the heat and light inside had when we’d stepped in. I did not even see the second tower until I had entered it, and another wall of flame attacked me. I felt it much more strongly this time. I felt certain my robe had caught fire, but when I tried to look down, I could see nothing but a bottomless pit. Only the priests holding my arms kept me from falling down into the infinite darkness.
“We come now to the second tower, called Beri’ah,” Father William said. “We come to the Creation.
“In the beginning there was only Adam, and Adam was the whole of humanity, united in wholeness, in oneness. But one day in the Fourth World, Adam split himself in two. Adam Kadmon rose into Heaven. Adam HaRishon sank into Earth. And there was chaos and death and destruction everywhere. The world is in ruins because of Adam’s sin, and it will not end until the sin of Adam is undone.
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear: Adam is humanity, and humanity is Adam. If we may reunite Adam Kadmon and Adam HaRishon within ourselves, so too might they be reunited in Heaven and Earth, the sin of Adam may be undone, and the world may be made whole once more.”
As he spoke, I could see it all happening, dancing across the walls: Adam ripped apart, the two halves pulling away from each other, the loud death that exploded in mushrooms the size of storms and the quieter death that seeped into the waters and poisoned slowly. I could feel the pain and anguish in Adam as each side groped in darkness and sickness and pain for his missing half. I could feel the pain and anguish in us all, torn apart by our incompleteness. I began to cry.
I felt gentle tugging on both my arms, and allowed them to lead me around the fire, back outside into the painful dark. As soon as I had begun to adjust to the outside again, we entered the next tower.
“We come now to the third tower, called Yetzirah,” Father William said. “We come to the Formation.
“The final reunification, when Adam Kadmon and Adam HaRishon again become one, will take epochs. Not until the next world — at least — will that happen. Until then, the pain of the Splitting of Adam will haunt the world. Our ancestors knew this. They knew that, while the Fourth World ended and the Fifth began, some things would remain, bleeding from the old world into the new. So those who knew traveled from all across the world to gather at First Temple, Yucca Mountain, and formed our priesthood and began our vigil.
“For as long as there has been life, there has been death. For as long as there has been death, there have been scavengers to clear away the remains so that new life can form. The vulture is ugly, but it serves a noble purpose. So, decided those first priests, would we.
“We would keep vigil over the remnants of the Splitting. So long as a single human breathed, we would be the vultures clearing away the corpse of the Fourth World, letting life arise from death.”
By this point, I could no longer see the paintings on the wall — or if paintings even lay there to see. I couldn’t see a wall, or fire, or priests, at all. I had traveled, in moments, to the grasslands of the west, or what I imagined them to look like, at the foot of a great mountain. The mountain looked red, the grass yellow, and the sky white. I felt the heat of the sun as though it sat right on top of me and then I fell inside the mountain and darkness swallowed me up. And then I burned more painfully than I had with the sun on my scalp. My hair fell out. My flesh bubbled and boiled and cracked and rotted. I became weak. I coughed up blood. Every part of me disintegrated in the burning darkness, leaving only a skeleton.
Then that skeleton floated up out of the mountain, through rock and salt and barrels, and into the sun’s blinding light once again.
“We come now to the fourth and final tower, called Assiah,” I heard Father William’s voice say. It echoed through the mountains.
I opened my jaw to call out to him: “My father, my father,” but I had no muscles to form the words. I had no joints to keep my jaw attached to my skull, so it fell off, clattering down the mountainside.
“We come to Action,” he said.
One by one, my bones detached from each other and followed my jawbone down the rocky cliffs. They gathered in a pile at the bottom of the mountain. I had one hand still attached to an arm, and I used it to put myself back together again, feeling my way across all the little bones — now sun-bleached from centuries floating above the mountain — and arranging them in the grass lying down, on my back.
Then I woke and found myself lying on the floor of the tower, still wrapped in muscle and flesh and vestments and that vulture mask. Sweat fogged up the glass of my mask’s eyeholes. It trickled down into my eyes, burning them. But still now I could see the paintings on the walls, vibrating dangerously. A cat appeared in one box and disappeared in another. Two spotted snakes spiraled around each other. A structure that seemed round instead had sharp, crystalline edges, and the edges burned.
“Our vows mean nothing if we do not fulfill them. If all we had to do was die, to throw our bodies on the fire, that would be nothing. The Vigil is not death; the Vigil is what we do while still alive. The Vigil is the action we undertake to prepare the way for Adam’s reunification. You may think that because we don’t contain radiation here, our Vigil must be easier. But it is harder. It demands more of you. You must not merely watch, but understand. You must not merely contain, but create.
“You have taken the vow of all Vulture Priests, but now you must take the vow of Three Myland. Do you vow to devote yourself to learning the mysteries of Adam?”
My lips were cracked, my tongue dry, my throat sore. Still, I managed to whisper, “I do.”
“Do you vow to master the old ways, to make a new path?”
“Rise, Sister Veronica.”
I couldn’t. The priests around me lifted me up.
Somehow I got from there to a room where they had laid out many sleeping mats. The mats rested on wooden platforms that elevated them off the ground, like yinzer houses. A cone of wispy netting shrouded each one.
I only know this because I woke up there later.
I tried to walk my mother’s path, but smoother. I cleared the brambles on the sides and pulled up the grasses and stomped down the dirt. I walked it so well, I thought, but I still ended up in the same place. Pelica went in the other direction, fleeing towards normal village life, and ended up dead.
It seemed so dramatic and mysterious, this business of death weaving. You serve people by abandoning them, by keeping your distance and finally running off to join a priesthood that will quickly kill you. A dramatic sacrifice, a death that comes as a relief, seems so much easier than the quiet sacrifice of living side by side with your people, doggedly keeping the world going. The rest of the world does the duller, harder, more confusing work. They never know if they’ve given more than they’ve taken, not for sure.
I felt like a child for wanting to die, wanting to perform the easy sacrifice and give myself back to the web beneath. How many young people did the Vulture Priests turn away, trying to join the priesthood on impulse after someone broke their heart? The old priests told them to come back once they’d finished living their lives. But how much separated an old woman like me, really, from those heartbroken youngsters, aside from a few wrinkles and gray hairs? Anyone who chooses to die has already found something broken deep within her.
“Well-adjusted people don’t save the world,” Deathweaver told me once. “By definition they adjust, even to things they should never adjust to, even to things that no one should ever adjust to.” But what does it even mean to save the world, if not to allow well-adjusted people to live normal, boring lives in safety? And what do the strange ones do then, once the world no longer needs saving?
When I took up my mother’s mission, I imagined myself making this sacrifice so Pelica wouldn’t have to. So she could live a normal life in safety. It gave me purpose, but I resented her for it. And now I hated myself for resenting her. My sacrifice accomplished nothing, and I didn’t know how to lead a normal life anyway.
Patterns repeat themselves. You follow your parents’ path, or you flee in the opposite direction. I followed, Pelica fled. Glassknapper fled, Narluga half wanted to follow and half wanted to flee, so hen sailed in circles around hen’s familiar North Pole, always moving but never really going anywhere. Robin seemed ready to flee her mother’s hard-won life of quiet respectability, which, since her mother herself had fled in the opposite direction, led her right back onto her grandmother’s path. And on and on it went. It reminded me of a dog chasing its tail, or a snake eating itself. Did any family ever really change? Or did we live out the same cycle again and again? If an ancient tree had watched us the whole time, could it trace the shape of these spirals back into the Fourth World? Into the Third?
Before our ancestors burned the world, they had known a great many things about how to live that they had to forget, and their descendants had to relearn. Did our ancestors know this once? Did some other way to live still hide out there, another piece of knowledge we had yet to rediscover, reinvent, rebuild? Our forgetfulness, one more bit of poison left over from their madness?
Every day began and ended with the Vulture Priest mantra, chanted in unison:
We give our lives to the vigil.
We give our bodies to the vigil.
So long as a single human breathes,
The vigil must go on.
Life at Three Myland had an oppressive sameness to it. We all wore the same robes, ate the same foods — bland stews of corn, beans, and not much else — and went through the same rituals every day. Between reading lessons, I worked in the garden. We didn’t have a forest garden like back home, just a simple Four Sisters garden. This gave us most of our food, plus whatever herbs or fruits or meat the Plain People gave us. It didn’t offer us much spice or variety, though. The Plain People lived up to their name. Like us, they wore dark, body-concealing clothes and covered their heads, though they faced no more threat from radiation than we did. Sister Miriam said they had no musical instruments but sang in perfect harmony. I longed for hot peppers, but it seemed everyone in this land restricted themselves to the absolute basics, in service of one faith or another. I wondered if the food’s blandness meant to remind us that our lives no longer belonged to us. Our pleasure had become unimportant, subsumed by the task at hand.
Sister Miriam would shave my head again every time my hair grew too long.
I always had so much to do and such a hard time understanding. The priests insisted on speaking to us only in the old speech. It had a word — a word the old books used a lot — for a concept that no longer existed in English. I had the hardest time grasping what it meant. It could mean “exist” sometimes, but not always. Sister Miriam tried to explain it over and over again with a banana. “The banana exists.” That made sense. But “the banana exists yellow.” That did not make sense. So it could also mean that the banana looked yellow, but it didn’t strictly mean that. It also didn’t mean that the word banana meant yellow, even though you could use the word in another context to mean just that.
I gradually figured out that this word made no sense to me because it assumed no perspective. I couldn’t say anything in my people’s language without saying how I knew it, whether I saw it or someone else told me about it, or otherwise making clear that someone’s fallible perspective played its part. What did it mean to say that a banana was? It took me, and my view of the banana’s yellowness, and my perception of the banana’s presence, completely out of consideration. It took the banana out of its place in a world filled with creatures perceiving it. It took me even more time to see in this the answer to so many mysteries about our ancestors and their bizarre behavior: they saw the world as discrete objects rather than relationships. They would focus on the dancers, rather than the dance. They believed that things had an inherent essence or nature, apart from their relationships, and they sought to understand only those essences. That pursuit led them to see a cold, mechanical world, and their language reflected that back to them.
I discovered in written letters a strange and powerful magic. Different symbols to draw represented different sounds to speak, only sometimes two symbols shared the same sound and sometimes only two symbols set side-by-side in a specific order could capture a particular sound. All of our ancestors knew this magic. It intoxicated them. They could summon up the words of their ancestors, though long-dead, and hear the voices of people far away. It made them think they knew everything, even while they forgot that a greater world lived and breathed all around them. They could hear the voices of the past, but they could no longer hear the voices of their fellow creatures.
I found myself occasionally slipping into the very same traps. I could feel my own connection to the world becoming more and more strained as I spent more and more time living in human worlds of human ideas expressed in human sounds. The Vulture Priests of Three Myland put themselves in peril, capturing their voices on paper. But then, that lay in the very nature of the order, didn’t it? To stand guard over demons sealed away in old temples? To raid death’s kingdom for ancient power with which to keep the world alive?
Life at Three Myland revolved around the copying and recopying of ancient books. Over time, the ink would fade and the books would decay, so priests forever recopied them. When we completed a new copy of a book, we would scrape the vellum of the old and use it to copy a different one. Some priests would create new pages of vellum and press them into new books. Our efforts could never keep up with the gnawing maw of entropy, though. We always fell further and further behind.
It took years of training — first in reading and writing, then in science and engineering, to truly understand the symbols. We could copy them without understanding them, as I did, but it took less time when you understood them. The books preserved our ancestors’ words for me to hear, but they had no breath of life to animate them. They hadn’t changed or grown in all the centuries since those ancient writers had set them down. They couldn’t. Their old magic wouldn’t let them. They were dead. I felt sorry for the words — and I envied them. Again, here I had become Deathweaver, arranging the remains of words with ink on vellum. The priests whispering the words to themselves filled the scriptorium with a sound like flowing water. I practiced my reading and writing this way, and learned quickly, scribbling the corpses of thoughts from people long dead.
When she left to join the priesthood, my mother refused a living funeral. Instead, she came to me in private, opened my hand, and placed in it a bag of seeds and spores. She looked into my eyes and gave me the sort of genuine, warm smile I’d so longed to receive from her but learned not to expect.
“Keep it growing,” she whispered. “You know how. Continue my work.”
I said nothing. I didn’t know how to feel. I still don’t. A part of me felt relieved, I suppose, but I another part felt unnerved by the finality of it. I would never see her again. Her body wouldn’t even come home to the spirits.
In part, I resented her for saddling me with this bizarre duty at such a young age. And yet, I did continue her work. I grew the oyster mushrooms and uprooted them and buried them all in clay-lined pits. I did the same for the vetiver grass and the arrowroot and the comfrey. I grew communities of healing plants and buried them in mass graves lined with clay and marked with painted cairns. I did it all exactly as she had taught me, perhaps because I didn’t know what else to do with my life, perhaps because I didn’t harbor quite enough petty resentment to abandon a project that meant so much to my family.
But continuing her work came with a price. I permanently took her place in the eyes of my family. I became an outcast, somewhat admired and somewhat feared, like a wizard but with no magic: the husbandless, childless healer at the edge of the village. Keeper of strange secrets. Weaver of death. Gardener of poisons.
I brought that same bag from home, filled now with my own seeds and spores, the descendants of the ones my mother had placed in my care. I carried the bag with me to Christmas, and I carried the bag to Three Myland. I kept it hidden beneath my skirts and told no one — at first because I still didn’t know if I would join the priesthood after all, and later because of something Robin told me on the way here.
We sat on the back of a wagon that rattled down the road. “I want to find a way to heal our home,” she announced. “Permanently, I mean. Not just contain the radiation, not just throw bodies at it forever, but really get rid of it for good. If I have to search the entire world, I’ll find an answer and bring it home.”
Something in her stubborn confidence reminded me so much of Deathweaver. I ran my hand over the lump in my skirt where the bag lay hidden. I could have given her the bag then, passed the work on to her, but I didn’t.
I had one last chance just after my public initiation, as I said goodbye to her forever. I had the bag tucked into the waist of my new Vulture Priest robes. She had to have felt it as she hugged me tight, though of course she didn’t know what strange things priests might conceal under their vestments.
“We’ll find a way,” she whispered to me.
She already had more seasons than I did when my mother started teaching me. She wanted to inherit the work. She would have treasured that bag in a way I never did. It would feel lighter in her hands without all the resentment. I grew up with the knowledge that the work denied me a normal life. She never had a chance at a normal life, and knew it.
I still didn’t give her the bag.
Everywhere I looked in Three Myland I found signs of my mother. Oyster mushrooms grew in the shade around the island. She had kept herself busy here continuing her experiments. I kept finding pieces of her unexpectedly — her spirit guiding me, I supposed. Reasserting itself here, in the land it had made its home. Reminding me that I would always live in her shadow. Or begging me not to make her mistakes. I could never tell.
Priests did not normally write original material except in messages carried by pigeons. Vellum took too much to produce to use frivolously. But on the ragged scraps left over after cutting the skins into neat little squares, I found notes that she had made. She’d tied the scraps up and stuffed them in a crack in the wall of the scriptorium. A bouquet of ribbons. A frustrated collection of scribblings. It had all come to nothing, or nothing more than she’d had before she came.
Many written symbols lived at the monastery, and I learned to interpret almost all of them — the written words and the pictures painted on the walls — but one room still confused me: the pigeon roost, with its mural looming over the cages. It showed ragged edges, but they did not form fractals. They did not look like animals or gods or microbes, or anything in any of the worlds great or small. Though one shape did sort of look like an upside-down water drop with a curling tail, if you squinted and looked at it just right. Scattered across the mural I saw dots, most white, a few red. They clustered together in some places, mostly towards the top and center. They made no clear pattern that I could tell.
I enjoyed the days when it fell to me to look after the pigeons, even if they stank and I had to collect their droppings. They had beautiful, shimmering necks and soft feathers. They sometimes let me pet them. Their coos comforted me.
I couldn’t send them off with messages — I hadn’t yet mastered reading, and still couldn’t copy more than a few simple pages in the scriptorium. I watched the pigeon-keeper, Brother Andrew, with great curiosity as he received the pigeons, unrolled the papers from around their legs, and held them up to the window to read. His lips moved, and I wished I’d asked Glassknapper to teach me what he knew about discerning the meaning of words from moving mouths when I’d had the chance. Brother Andrew also wrote messages, attached them to pigeon legs, and sent them off. Somehow, they always knew where to go.
I returned to the pigeon roost regularly in my cycle of chores. Every five days I returned. One day Brother Andrew received a message that disturbed him so much that the vellum fell from his shaking hands. I went to steady him. His skin turned ashen, his hands cold.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“Fessenheim Temple has fallen,” he said.
That day, I learned what the mural meant. Once Brother Andrew had managed to collect himself, he walked over to the mural, ground some red pigment into a shallow dish of water, and pressed his finger over one of the white dots. When he removed his finger, the dot had become red.
“This is the world as God sees it, from far above it,” Brother Andrew said. “Within these lines lie land. Beyond them, water. And each dot, a temple.” He pointed to one red dot in a cluster of white. “This is where we are. The red ones have fallen.”
I looked at the mural with new eyes. Ours was red because it was one of the Four, of course. It had fallen before the Fourth World did. “What do you mean when you say a temple has ‘fallen’? Did Fessenheim explode?”
“No. These days most of the fallen merely crumble until they might as well not be temples at all. More and more radiation leaks out, and the priests can do less and less. The falling is a formality, really. The priests just… leave. They put up cairns around the territory to warn others away. But Fessenheim… it lies on a river with two other temples. The other two won’t last long.”
“How often do temples fall?”
Brother Andrew bit his lip. “With every generation, it happens more and more. We’ve kept a close eye on your own Beaver Valley Temple. It’s one of many we fear will fall within the next generation.”
The mural stayed with me. There, on the wall, clearly painted, was the proof of our helplessness, our inadequacy, our failure. I wondered if my mother had seen it — but of course she had — or dug enough to find out what it meant — but of course she had.
I seized at the first opportunity I found to speak with Father William alone. I found him just outside the crumbled ruins of the reactor building, tending a fire beneath an elephant-skin canopy. The afternoon thunderstorm beat the canopy like a drum. His mask lay by his feet. I squatted down by Father William’s side and placed my mask beside his. The wind blew the rain’s mist onto my knees, but it still felt warmer by the fire than inside, trapped within the cold, dead walls.
“I heard about Fessenheim Temple,” I said. “I didn’t know it was that desperate all over the world. I came here hoping that perhaps Three Myland was developing something new. But all we do is copy the old manuals, send out the same instructions to bathe the rods and polish the metal and slather on more concrete.”
Father William gave me a sly smile. “Is that all we do? Keep the sky from falling? I would think you of all people would appreciate the importance of our work. If not for us and our brothers and sisters across the world, every place would be Beaver Valley, and worse.”
“It’s not enough,” I said. “Not in the long run. We’re only postponing the inevitable.”
“When the inevitable is this dark, postponing it is the most noble calling there is.” Father William sighed. “Sister Veronica, I understand your disappointment. Every priest begins to struggle with it, usually starting a few months after initiation. They say they knew the work was hopeless going in, but they never truly grasp the meaning of their vows until they’ve been here for a while. Once you’ve served for a year or so, you’ll see. You won’t find the hope you’re looking for, but you’ll learn to live with the hopelessness. You’ll face it as we do, as we must: with patience, with stoicism, with gratitude for the time allotted to us in spite of it all.”
I shook my head. “The world has healed from so many other wounds. I’ve seen it. Why would this one alone be impossible to heal? There has to be some way.”
“Sister Verity searched for that,” Father William said. He hoisted himself to his feet and slid his mask back on. “Come with me. Let me show you what she made.”
He led me inside and down some ancient stone stairs into a dank, dark basement. The smell of mold nearly overwhelmed me. Father William lit a torch and the shadows became varieties of mushrooms, all black, lining the walls and floor.
“She read about a black mold that grows in the heart of Chernobyl, in the Sarcophagus. It not only survives the radiation, it eats it. It thrives on it.”
“But it doesn’t destroy it,” I said.
“No. But Verity thought perhaps she could breed one that would. Any dark fungus can live off of radiation, so she started this garden.”
“I’m guessing she didn’t find what she was looking for,” I said.
Father William shook his head. “No. I doubt it’s even possible. Radiation decays in its own time. You can’t speed it up. But your mother… well, you know your mother. She was stubborn.”
“Did anyone continue her work here after she died?” I asked.
Father William was silent, and for a moment I thought maybe he hadn’t heard me. Then he said: “No one has maintained this since she departed. She intended to come back.”
“Come back?” I said. “She left?”
“Sister Verity broke her vow, yes, but for a noble purpose,” he said. “She planned to travel to the Svalbard Islands. In the waning days of the old world, our ancestors sealed many seeds in a vault there. She thought perhaps they had different varieties of fungus she could use. Maybe a foreign breed, cross-bred with these, would work. I received her last pigeon a decade ago.” His head hung low.
“Did she make it to Svalbard?”
“I don’t know. The pigeons stopped coming long before that. She was old, traveling alone, and her journey was long. Any number of things could have happened to her. She could have died at sea. She could have twisted her ankle and died of exposure because she had no traveling companions to care for her.”
I looked out over the basement of black mushrooms. There could be something there. This could have led to the salvation of the world, the end of the Vigil, if not for a hurricane or a twisted ankle.
I made my decision. “I’m going to Svalbard.”
Father William grabbed my wrist. “Veronica, no,” he said. “Not now. I finally have you here with me. I never got the chance to know Pelica, and my Verity is gone. You made your vows. Don’t betray them now.”
I ripped my arm out of his grasp. “You vowed to give up your family. You swore an oath of celibacy. And then you snuck in a woman from the west every few years. And here I stand, living proof of your broken vows.”
I thought I saw him cringe, but between the darkness and the flickering light of the torch and the mask and the robes, it was impossible to tell.
“Those vows are for priests at other temples,” he said. “We aren’t dying here.”
It did not escape my notice that Svalbard lay in the Arctic, just past the Nares, where Robin was headed. Was there a connection there, some subtle plot my mother had laid years ago? Was it purely a coincidence? Was some spirit or fate guiding our family to this place?
It gave me an excuse to see my niece again. It gave me an excuse to break my vow. It gave me a righteous justification to do something I wanted to do anyway, and that’s far too convenient to trust.
But what else could I do? The map haunted me with its constellations of temples, each one a star slowly burning out. I’d come here to find answers, but they had no more answers than I did. My mother had come to the same disappointing conclusion before me. Maybe she hadn’t found anything at Svalbard, either. Maybe she had died before she reached it. But to go there was no more or less useless than staying here.
Yet again I found myself following in my mother’s footsteps. Pelica had done the same, in her own way, by marrying a man from the Arctic. If we were all somehow destined to play out the same story, I supposed there was no use resisting it.
I harvested some spores from the basement garden and added them to my bag.
And I broke my vow and headed north in the night.
Patterns repeat themselves.