The Sour Thread of Doubt

Jamie Lackey


Mayu, High Priestess of the Great Temple, purified her body in the stone fountain at the base of the temple complex. The water was glacier-cold, and stung then numbed her thin, wrinkled skin. She plunged her head beneath the frigid stream and let the crystal-clear water strip away her physical impurities. Her body shuddered, but she stayed in the water until she was certain that her flesh was pure.

Today’s meditation would be an important one—Mayu could feel it in her bones.

She climbed out of the fountain. Her whole body ached from the cold, and her long, gray-streaked black hair was heavy against her back.

She sank into a deep, dynamic meditation, and she sorted through the emotion cords that coiled in her mind. She pulled each taut and examined them one at a time. She noted the tiny color variations, weight, and length of each cord.

For Mayu each emotion thread also had a taste that tickled the roof of her mouth as she examined it. The deep contentment that she felt for her life was the deep blue of the night sky, with purple tinges of security and green flecks of happiness. Its warm, spicy taste filled her mouth.

She coiled it around the core of her being. She trimmed back the bitter black tendrils of anxiety, rooted out shreds of flat gray boredom. She destroyed all unworthy emotions with a twist of her thoughts. She arranged her feelings like a neatly tied quipu, her people’s record of numbers in strings and knots.

When she was ready, she drank the sacred infusion that waited for her in a delicately painted cup. The woody scent of wyra caspi bark tickled her nose. To her, it smelled like hope. She drank it in one long, slow gulp. The liquid burned down her throat, to her empty stomach. She dropped the cup and crushed it beneath her heel. She sat and waited for her vision to begin.

***

The vision came fast, and swept away the peaceful afternoon. The sun, the air, and the garden all vanished. She fell into cold darkness, impacted against jagged ice and hard-packed snow. She lay still for a long time, pain flowing through her body, as omnipresent as blood.

Eventually, she crawled away from the ice. She left a trail of blood—there were no colors down here, and her blood was a dark smudge against the icy shadows. When she reached the rocky wall, it was warm against her fingers.

She had fallen—or jumped—into the volcano.

She wedged her fingers into tearing cracks in the rocks and started climbing, dragging her naked flesh across the jagged surface.

She fell, and her ankle twisted. When the pain abated, she tried again. And again.

The volcano rumbled. The cavern shook, and rocks tumbled around her. One the size of her fist slammed into her shoulder. Blood trickled down her breast.

Hunger gnawed at her belly, and she ate handfuls of bitter snow that tasted of despair.

She tried again, and finally reached her destination—a narrow shelf halfway up the cave wall. There was no snow here, and her thirst grew unbearable. She sucked on a regret-flavored volcanic rock.

She curled on the shelf and prayed. The gods touched her, gathered her soul in their hands. The volcano cooled as her body did. The rocks grew still—lulled to sleep by her sacrifice.

***

Mayu jolted out of her vision. Her lungs labored back to life, and she fell to her side, hacking. Tica, her granddaughter, helped her up and pressed another mug into her hand. Flowery steam tickled her nose, and she sipped gratefully. Tica’s sense of emotion cords matched her own, and the brew was soft comfort tinged with love.

“Was it a hard vision?” Tica asked. “You thrashed and cried out.”

Mayu hesitated. If she lied, no one would ever know.

She pushed such unworthy thoughts from her mind and described the vision. She spared Tica the worst details, but the girl’s face still paled.

“What does it mean?”

Mayu sipped her tea. It was one of the most straightforward visions she’d ever had. She gathered her strength, knowing that saying the words aloud would seal her fate. “I must sacrifice myself to the volcano. I must reenact my vision to quiet the mountain’s rage.”

An angry frown creased Tica’s face. “That isn’t fair.”

Mayu agreed. But she shrugged. “It is the gods’ will.”

“What if you’re not strong enough to climb up the cave wall?” Tica asked.

“I was strong enough in my vision.” She tried not to remember the pain, the hunger, the hopeless despair.

Tica took her age-worn hands between her own supple young fingers. “Let me sacrifice myself instead. I am strong, and a good climber. I know that I can appease the gods.”

Uncontrolled emotions twisted in Mayu’s mind. She loved Tica, and wanted to protect her. But the honey-sweet relief that surged through Mayu’s heart surprised her. Tica was right—her youth and strength might be the difference between success and failure—the difference between a sleeping volcano and the deaths of thousands.

Mayu closed her eyes and examined her feelings. A strong, dark cord had entangled itself around her contentment. Its metal tang filled her mouth. Fear. She was afraid of starving to death alone on a rocky ledge.

Mayu knew that Tica’s offer was sincere—the girl was too young to truly fear death.

She was a good, devout girl, and would be a wonderful priestess someday, if Mayu could resist the temptation that lay before her.

The thread of protective love shimmered deep red and tasted like clean water. She braided it with her weakened contentment, and used the strength it gave her to eliminate her fear. She banished her shameful relief, then her overripe-guava-flavored shame.

Tiny, under all that, was a shred of rancid possessive pride—the gods had given her this vision. She was their chosen vessel, how dare anyone suggest that she might fail?

The emotion was hard to grasp, slippery and small. It took longer to destroy than the great fear had.

Mayu bent her reordered mind to the problem.

The vision had not shown Tica in the cave. Even if she managed to climb to the ledge, would the gods be appeased? Or would Mayu’s cowardice anger them?

Mayu kissed the smooth skin on the back of Tica’s hand. “It has to be me.”

Tica shook her head. “No, Grandmother. I—I love you. Please, at least think about it.”

The pain in Mayu’s heart wasn’t something she wished to cut out, so she smiled through it as best she could. “I will think,” she said. But her mind was made up.

***

That night, Mayu went to the purifying fountain. Her feet knew the path well, and she didn’t stumble in the faint light from the sliver of moon overhead.

Her reflection was a distorted shadow, but she could see the wrinkles around her eyes, the dark spots on her cheeks. When had she become so old?

She clutched the cold stones and let the tears come. They tasted like resignation, and their ripples wiped her reflection away.

***

Mayu gathered all of her priestesses. She stood before them in her simplest robe—thin blue cotton edged with silver threads. She could find nothing plainer in her wardrobe. She told them of her vision, of its interpretation. “I will go to the volcano,” she said.

Tica cried out and fell to her knees. “No, Grandmother! Please, let me take your place!”

“The vision came to me. I saw myself in it. I cannot allow anyone to take this burden from me.”

“But the temple needs you,” Tica said. “Your wisdom, your experience.”

“The temple needs your youth and passion,” Mayu said. “My decision is final. I will follow the will of the gods.”

Tica slumped, but she nodded. “As you say, High Priestess.”

Mayu thought of her vision—of the dark memories that loomed in her future. Fear’s metal tang spread over the back of her tongue. “I will go when the moon is full.”

***

The days slipped by, despite Mayu’s attempts to savor them. She named her successor—not Tica. Tica was still too young. If Mayu had another ten years, then maybe—she pushed the thought away. She didn’t have another ten years.

She taught her successor the deepest rites, showed her how to perform the most sacred of the high priestess’s duties—how to block harmful memories, coax a mind back from madness, and most importantly, encourage true loyalty to the emperor and the gods. The woman’s sense of emotion cords was vastly different from Mayu’s, and the lessons were difficult. Mayu slept only when necessary.

She ordered two acolytes to watch Tica, to keep her from sneaking off to the volcano.

Tica made her attempt the week before the full moon, and the acolytes brought her to Mayu’s sleeping quarters.

Tica had darkened her face with ash, and her cheeks were streaked with tears. “Please, let me try,” she sobbed.

Mayu took her granddaughter’s head between her hands and examined the girl’s emotions. They were a tangled mess, like a quipu that had been thrown on the ground and trampled. The taste made Mayu nauseous. “Meditate with me,” Mayu said.

Tica bowed her head. “I don’t want to feel tidy and controlled,” she muttered. “I want to save you.”

“Please, love,” Mayu said.

Tica closed her eyes and sank into the sea of her feelings. Her face twisted. “It tastes terrible.”

Mayu helped her to examine each thread. Thoroughly, without judging. They untangled love from pride, thirst for glory from fear and possessive anger. They pulled her deep blue faith away from cords of sour doubt, and uncovered a tiny, bitter-cacao brown twist of hatred, directed at the gods. Mayu could have destroyed all of the dark feelings easily—given Tica peace and serenity—but she let Tica decide what to keep, what to prune, what to weave together.

Tica destroyed the pride and thirst for glory, but kept the anger and fear. She considered the doubt and the twist of hatred.

“What if the gods are not real?” she asked. “They speak only through vision, act only through us. What if it is all a lie? What if your vision was nothing more than a dream?”

“The gods gave us the gift of emotion weaving. If they did more, then faith would be meaningless.”

“But what if it really is meaningless?”

“You don’t think that,” Mayu whispered.

“There is no logic in this,” Tica said. “I always thought that the gods had reasons for everything, but there’s no reason to demand that you sacrifice yourself to stop a volcano. None.”

Tica’s faith withered, choked out by her growing doubts.

Mayu could not allow that. She reached out and nourished the dying threads and uprooted the doubt and hatred. She did it gently, and left Tica feeling that it had been her own decision.

When they were done, Mayu held Tica as she cried. She stroked the girl’s long hair and wished she had more time.

***

Finally, the day before the full moon, all of Mayu’s tasks were accomplished.

She went to the garden. She listened to bees buzzing, to the wind in the trees, smelled the green, bitter herbs and the sweet flowers. She sat and enjoyed the sun on her face, the soft grass beneath her legs. She did not think about emotion cords. She breathed in and out.

Her fear and her sorrow grew long in her mind, but she fought them back. She focused on the moment.

It was all she had.

***

Mayu stood at the edge of the volcano dressed in her finest robes. Tica stood at her elbow, and the rest of her closest priestess stood a few steps back. The world stretched away below them—orderly, well-planted terraces in shades of gray climbed every moonlit hillside—even the steep slopes of the volcano itself. It was a beautiful view. A symbol of her hardworking people. A symbol of what she would die to protect.

She stripped. Goosebumps lined her arms. She folded the outfit, except for the heavenly soft vicuña wrap. Vicuña wool was sacred—allowed only to the royal family and highest clergy. She pressed the wrap into Tica’s hands. “Keep this,” Mayu whispered, aware that the wrap should have gone to her successor—and aware that no one would countermand her dying wish. “I want you to have it. To remember me.”

“I don’t need anything to help me remember you, Grandmother.” But Tica took the gift and clutched it to her chest.

Mayu kissed the girl’s cheek.

“Are you sure you have strength enough?” Tica asked.

Mayu wanted to shrug. “I must.”

She looked at the priestesses. Their faces were pale smudges in the moonlight. “Leave me, now,” she commanded. Her last command. “Go, and be well.”

The priestesses bowed, and left. Tica hesitated, and glanced back many times, but she went with them.

Mayu heaved a sigh of relief. Then she looked down.

***

She had been born and raised in the temple, as Tica had been. She had lived a life of faith and devotion. Those solid emotions had been the first she’d tasted—they were like roasted potatoes and boiled quinoa. Staples in her life.

Now, standing and looking down into the blackness, she remembered Tica’s words. Pale green, sour doubt wound through her being. The cord surged through her, destroying everything it touched.

The month had given no signs of the volcano stirring. If an eruption was coming, why were there no signs?

And why would the gods demand such a price from her? Had she not been loyal? Had she not served them well?

What if there were no gods?

What if she had wasted her entire life on a lie? What if she had betrayed Tica when she bolstered the girl’s faith? What if the girl had only been seeing the truth, and Mayu had doomed her to an empty life of meaningless devotion?

There were no chains holding her. No one stood by, ready to throw her into the pit if she wavered. Nothing stopped her from walking away.

She was old, but she was not weak. She could work on a farm. She would have to hide her emotion weaving, but she had valuable knowledge of healing herbs, and she had a fine singing voice. Any farming family would be happy to take her in. No one would ask where she had come from.

But she would be throwing away everything she’d ever been, declaring her whole life a meaningless joke.

The bitter bile of anger joined her sour doubt. She could have ordered any of the priestesses to take her place. Only one had offered.

She wondered if Tica would be willing to run away with her. Far away, where the volcano couldn’t reach.

She closed her eyes and brutally cut the doubt from her heart. Pain stabbed through her temples—she hadn’t caused pain with her weavings since she was a small child.

She felt hollow. Her faith had withered to a thin thread. Her contentment was gone. She refused to allow fear to grow. All she had left was sweat-salty resolve.

If she abandoned her duty and volcano did wake, then she could die anyway, along with countless others. If she betrayed them, the gods could catch her feet as she walked away, and she could tumble down the mountainside. A failure. A coward.

She jumped.

***

The fall slammed the air out of her lungs, and something in her chest cracked. She lay in the snow, dazed. The cold settled into her bones.

Hot tears slid down her cheeks. Mayu tried to ease her despair, but destroying her doubt and fear had used most of her mental strength.

She had already killed herself. Why wasn’t that enough for them? Why did she have to climb up to the ledge? What kind of cruelty could lead to such a demand?

Why had she dedicated herself to such cold gods?

Her resolve pulled her forward. She couldn’t give up now. She moved forward, and jalapeño anger surged in her belly and fueled her arms. She still had some physical strength left. She pulled herself toward the wall.

The stones were as cold as the snow, and she could see no ledge.

She refused to think of what that might mean.

She wedged soft fingers and delicate toes into rocky holds and climbed. And fell. And climbed, and fell. Her skin scraped away in patches that stung against the gritty cave floor. Her anger faded. She imagined an eruption burying fields, burning her temple. She imagined Tica choking on ash.

She ate handfuls of bitter snow and ignored the mingled tastes of doubt and despair. Her ripped fingertips left behind dark streaks of blood. She managed to braid her waning resolve to her withered faith, used them to keep her body moving.

The moonlight slipped away, and darkness engulfed her. She felt her way up the wall, searching for the ledge.

There had to be a ledge.

Tears coursed down her cheeks, and cold defeat choked her heart. She saw no ledge, no shadow against the dark rocks. She thought of Tica, following in her footsteps, bound by Mayu’s own hand to gods that might not exist. “Please, let there be a ledge.”

She climbed.