Blessings by the Shade

They still tell stories about the day I was born, of how a lilac comet streaked across the stars and the volcano ceased spitting fires to the heavens. They call it omens but I call it a conspiracy of convenience. This is what made me High Priestess, because I am blessed. The volcano is Lua Pele and Lua Pele is the volcano, and only the High Priestess of Lua Pele can soothe her. She gives us ebon earth for sustenance; she takes our lives with vermilion lava.

The Altar of Lua Pele is not ordinary. While the High Priestesses before me have studied it for lifetimes, I stand before it but once a day. It is not marble, because what marble glistens like the flesh of dew-drenched coconuts? They have only given me the knowledge I need. I am to go to the altar once a day, they whisper, and no more. To my left, on the altar’s top face, are hieroglyphs wrought in bronze; those are for the incantations and they are always first. For the sacrifice a spike rises from the middle, pale as the rest of the altar and thin to a point beyond my observation; that is for the sacrifice’s head and not the heart. The altar needs no cleansing. Its surface drinks like a stranded mariner. I never could find out where all the blood went. The basin to my right is for washing my hands last, its waters redolent of ‘?helo berries that replenish without human touch.

There is a legend of a High Priestess once who had cleansed her hands, made the sacrifice, and then chanted the incantation. On the panel that faces me the altar’s seamless surface has the thinnest crack dark as charred kukui oil. It is the altar’s only flaw. The High Priestess vanished by night, but the legend says no more. I would that I could be so bold.

Sometimes my sister visits me in the night. I have guards and priestesses to keep my privacy, but she enters my chambers unannounced. Even though she is only Queen and I High Priestess, they follow her orders before mine. There were no comets and the volcano did not stop when she was born.

“Sweet sister,” she asks, resting her face next to mine on the pillows, “whom have you sacrificed today?” She knows the answer, but she asks all the same. Her crown is a chain of polished aventurine links, wrapped around her skull thrice, and from it a single black pearl the size of an eye dangles over her forehead.

I tell her. It was the merchant who charged too a high a price for lapis lazuli sweet sister, it was our cousin who tried to usurp you one time too many sweet sister, it was the baker who burned your bread sweet sister. And while she asks for details, she runs her fingers through my hair. Mine is soft and long as hers and the strands shimmer jet violet in the candlelight because we are of the same seed, the seed of Lua Pele, and we are blessed. She strokes my cheeks and rubs her thumb to my lips and nothing more follows when I am good. She does not mind my shuddering.

“Good, sweet obedient sister, blood of mine by half,” she whispers when she leaves, still with the moons high in the sky or as night gives way to dusk. I draw the curtains around my bed to lie still and weep. To her I am always half-sister and never elder-sister.

Every day begins as the last before it. I only have a precious few moments to myself before the priestesses enter my chambers by the time the rays of the risen sun crack over my balcony and kiss my cool marble floor.

On the underside of my desk there is a false bottom, and in it each morning is a new note inked on papyrus long as my hand and rolled slender as a finger. The colours of the wrapping ribbon are always different, never once the same shade. Incarnadine, henna and obsidian, amber and lapis lazuli, alizarin streaked with absinthe, saffron spots on silver, beryl that fades to ochre that slips into coral that ends with calamine. I would collect each ribbon to count my days but that might make them suspicious for they are always watching me. For as long as this has been my home, she writes.

Because of her I know the world outside the temple changes. A new isle is discovered on the distant seas. Locusts destroy the barely crop this year. There will be a competition for composers in two months. No detail is too much for me, not what she has eaten, or her favourite gown, or her journey to the bakery. I need to know it all. She tells me where she last saw me. Sometimes she even mocks my guards and attending priestesses and I have to stifle my giggles. Because of her, I know I am loved.

Her words are drenched in beauty vivid as her ribbons. Sometimes when I am alone I whisper what she has written to me, and their sounds taste sweeter on my tongue than the juices of any ‘?helo berry. She is my soul’s manna.

I write a response on the letter’s back, but never too much to make them notice a difference in my ink pot, tie the ribbon back and slip it into its hiding place. I do not know her, she will not give herself away, but I am in love with her words. I do not need a face, a voice, the smell of perfume or touch of soft fingers. I wonder if she is a priestess or a guard who has access to my quarters when I am not there, or a woman with power enough to bribe both their delivery and their silence while she watches me from afar.

Today she writes to me, This sunset I will stand by the Column of Second Victory, the one etched in hawks holding whales in their talons, dressed all in azure but for a flaxen veil over my hair. From my lobes I shall wear the silver curled earrings you once slipped into the scroll for me. I have seen you all these years, but you have yet to see me, distant as it will be. Do not let your eyes linger on me, we have loved too long beneath anyone’s notice; we mustn’t make suspicion.

My images of her I have shaped a thousand times in my mind, misted and changed again and again. She is anything I wish her to be in that moment. I wonder if to know her finally would betray my fantasies or fuel them. I have until sunset to decide if I will gaze upon her.

Knowing what she looks like, that can be change too. Today I pen no answer.

The priestesses arrive and remove my robes and I bathe in water carried scalding fresh from hot springs that sprout at the volcano’s feet. They scrub me with soda until my skin is raw and run bronze razors over it until it bleeds and is hairless as a newborn’s bottom. My first duty is to be clean. Only alabaster white flowers are allowed to bob in my pool and scent its steams, plucked fresh from the kapaoa shrub that is the first to flourish over Lua Pele’s lava flows, and for that they are sacred.

When the priestesses remove their brushes I arise, dripping, from the pool and they pat my body all over. They rotate the priestesses who attend me so that they do not grow too fond of me, but their faces always look the same. I am still as they massage ointments into my flesh, glistening my chafes, and whip linens around my body. Twenty-two folds, nine knots, and thirty-four wraps the dressing takes. My linens are always gold-dusted solferino, one shade crimson shy of violet. They braid my wet hair in coils around my skull to fit beneath my headdress. I am told that this is made only of gold, but for all the pain in my neck it might as well be limestone. The cap at the base seals in any loose strand of hair that might escape, and two horns rise above each of my ears to clasp a disk between them that is studded with garnets set like rivulets of lava. When I stand in the sun, sometimes the reflection of my ridiculous headdress blinds those nearest to me. I try to make it appear an accident.

My quarters have always been as I remember them, though I know that before my time they were not always thus. Before they were mine someone had chiselled out several figures in the frieze, hurriedly because they had not had time to reset the clay and paint them anew. I have the time to study them. The vandalism is not random. The chiselled figures are usually the tallest, taller than the Queens even—that means they are important—and they never wore headdresses like mine. Otherwise, they could be me.

I eat my haupia pudding alone. Of course I am not alone, but no one speaks to me. I sit at the table on the high dais, in the throne of the High Priestess, and there are no other chairs at the high table. Three guards stand to either side of me, and all I need do is sit and my food is brought to me. I can watch the rest of the priestesses eating below me and talking amongst themselves, but that is soon tiring because I barely hear their words. Sometimes they notice my gaze and go quiet. These days I more often study the walls. Every frieze here shows a feast, and at each feast a tall, erased figure sits at head, only she is not alone but surrounded by her priestesses who are merry. They should have chiselled out more. I am not stupid.

Our mother, the last Queen, had two men. The first, my father, was a prince from two vales away, born to a taller people with coppery skin and hair wispy as the fronds of ‘ama‘uma‘u ferns and nearly as green. They are not blessed, but they are wealthy. When I was eight he raped a priestess and our mother had him sacrificed. They whisper that my face is his and that is why our mother eventually sent me away to the temple. My hair is not his, I tell myself, and neither is my skin.

The second, my sister’s father, was a distant relative still of the seed of Lua Pele, but his hair was only jet without violet, dark as his skin like the rest of our people. They said that with him our mother cleansed herself of foreign taint.

After I finish my pudding, my escort brings me to the courtyard garden that is shaded by wiliwili trees. Their lower branches are pruned, but the higher ones are left wild to run in a knurled, rust-barked mess. If it is summer then their leaves are in small jade clusters, and in autumn their hairy flowers blossom, milky and auramine. In the courtyard’s centre there lies a cage of ‘apapane honeycreepers with scarlet bright feathers. All they have to do is flutter in circles, sit, or nestle within the cage. Sometimes they fly at the bars, and I fancy it is madness driven by boredom.

Every morning I find flowers cut fresh from the koa trees in a watered vase beneath the cage, within view but out of reach. I take the branches one at a time, and I slide them into the vase within the cage to fuel the birds’ feeding. They sink their bitumen black beaks into the flowers like hooks. Only I can feed the ‘apapanes. “The birds are well,” I say. A messenger runs off to the palace to tell the Queen and then announce to the rest of our valley in the shade of Lua Pele that the High Priestess has today pronounced, “The birds are well.”

“The birds are well.” It is all they have ever told me I needed to say. There are times when I try to emphasise a different word, sequentially in the sentence each day starting with “the” and ending with “well”, then working my way back to “the”. I might say it a little faster, a little more slowly, perhaps with sounds from my throat deep, a whispered utterance or even a squeak. There are only so many ways one can pronounce “The birds are well” without tiring of it too quickly.

I must retreat indoors after my pronouncement, for afternoon is when the sun is at its hottest. Too much sun bleaches my fine jet flesh, they whisper, and I must not strain myself. From my chambers my balcony overlooks the valley. The balcony is shaded this time of day, of course. There I set aside my headdress to let the winds blow through my uncovered hair and I crack my strained neck. I lean against the parapet. If there were sun here my hair would also shimmer violet, to show that I too am blessed.

Inside the temple is always sleepy, but my scant view of the world moves and I can see the city below. Between homes of mud brick painted sallow, citizens carry two jugs of water each, which dangle from ropes fastened to the staffs across their backs; or they lead their fattened cows to the slaughterhouse where joints of fresh meat hang outside from the windows. Just outside the temple walls there is a brewery and bakery complex. If I am lucky the sweet smells of fermenting dough and baking cakes carries to my nostrils, but if not I only hear the unending whack from grain grinding, the crack of the overseers’ batons, and the scrapes of pokers on iron ovens.

After the priestesses set my second meal in my rooms, I slip back inside. They leave me baked breadfruit and steamed kalo roots, and if the season permits it bananas and ‘?helo berries, goat cheeses to nibble on, and honey-thick wine to drink. Beneath my cheese there is a scroll wrapped in sharkskin. The names on it are different, but they all mean the same. I unveil it after I lick the last of the breadfruit from my fingers. Today I am to sacrifice one of the Queen’s viziers. She disliked the Queen’s proposal for higher taxes on trade from a neighbouring vale.

Before the sacrifice there is the incense as two priestesses precede me down the colonnade, pendulating nacre censers. It hazes the air so thick I would not know which way to walk but for the tight escort of guards who match my steps. Priestesses fuss about me, straightening my ridiculous headdress so not a wisp of hair escapes, adjusting the golden bracelets that curl around my arms, dabbing my lips of all moisture as I try not to cough, straightening my linens so that I am everything proper once the blazing beams of setting sun pierce the incense and my vision clears to the roar of the square that yearns for death.

The Altar of Lua Pele stands on the edge of a drop where the square far below, speared with columns to commentate centuries of our valley’s victories, fills with people who watch and holler. In the square’s centre there is a raised throne of polished sandstone, gargantuan and the one thing level with the altar. Only the Queen can sit upon it, but today my sister has deemed the sacrifice not important enough to watch. Even when she is absent the same number of guards circle the sandstone chair.

I keep my eyes lowered, so as to not look at the Column of Second Victory. I have not yet decided if I should behold my secret lover. I shuffle up to the Altar of Lua Pele. I begin to read the incantation. The reading is long, but I have it memorised. I look at it for show, the bronze letters liquefied like fire in the sunset, etching light into my eyes. I blink away, and as I chant I look to the distant Column of Second Victory. My heart flutters like the caged ‘apapane birds.

There she stands on the eastern side, slightly elevated above the crowds. A breeze catches at her azure robes, and while I chant I wish the words held power, true power, enough for the breezes to lift her flaxen veil so that I can see my beloved’s hair and know if she too is blessed. That is my one wish, but all I say are empty words as I turn my gaze back to the hieroglyphs, dimmed now and less blinding.

They march the sacrifice from an archway to my right, always from the right, with her hands bound and her head in a sac of beaten m?maki bark. They force her to her knees with the Altar of Lua Pele and the spike between us.

I do not like looking in their eyes, even for a moment. I do not want to know the sacrifices are human, like me. I do what they tell me and try not to think. That is how I survive. I pull her hood off quickly, deftly, with practice. A sound issues from her throat, a word cut short as I grab the back of her head in two hands and thrust her face-first into the spike. For my first few sacrifices I was fascinated at the sight of a spike that plunged up from the back of skulls and stayed undamaged day after day, and by the way the Altar drank their blood. Once or twice I missed and got the neck, but not any longer. Now I dread my duty and try not to look.

I wash my hands in the basin of waters smelling sweet as ‘?helo berries and it stings sharp as their juices. It hurts a hangnail on my left thumb, and I keep my eyes downward as I wash. I want to glance up at her on the Column of Second Victory, one last time, but I will not allow myself the second temptation.

A flash of reflection to the left, not bronze like the hieroglyphs but silver, catches my gaze. Before I can school myself I look at the sacrifice. Her hair is fallen forwards to expose each of her ears, and around their edges curl the silver earrings that I have given her.

I take a step back, then a second, and before I crumble in front of the entire square my escort usher me back into the temple through the colonnade, dark and smoky with ash.

My sister awaits me in my bedchamber, clothed in the most wicked of smiles and azure robes. She throws the flaxen veil back to show her hair shimmering jet violet in the candlelight. There is no crown today. The door booms shut behind me, leaving us alone. She sweeps her arm across my breasts and under my arm, pushing us both back onto the bed. I stare at my flinty canopy and had eyes for nothing more.

“Tell me, sweet sister,” I whisper between my teeth, breathing hard from her weight on my diaphragm, “did I truly sacrifice your vizier today?”

“Does it concern you who she was?” she asks me, tilting my chin up in her fingers. They dig deep into my flesh, straight to my bone. “I can feed you lies and you will never know if she even existed, sweet sister.”

I sink into the bedding, letting the back of my skull rest on the pillows. No matter what I feel or hear, I close my eyes to lock the greyness within and keep my body as still as she allows it. Only when I feel the sun pound the back of my eyelids I open them to the daylight and I am alone.

I am alone.

I go through the bathing and the dressing, the eating and the birds, the fruit and the cheese, a name and a reason on sharkskin under the cheese, incense and incantations. To my right the sacrifice stumbles in his taupe kilt, and then kneels before me in submission, the spike between us. I lift the m?maki sac from his head, and stare into his slate eyes, which is difficult because the setting sun is to his back, making him a shadow against the blinding light.

I pull off my headdress and toss it down, deep into the square to throngs of outstretched hands, letting my beautiful tresses spill free over my shoulders. “After the sacrifice, remember to wash my hands,” I tell him and plunge my skull onto the spike.

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