The Painted Dog The dove struggled, its wings pushing against the careful cupping of her palms. It was the third one in as many days. Gula carried the little bird through the main temple and deposited it into the cage in the rear nave, latching the door and then checking to make sure some water remained in the bowl. “Did you find one, Gula?” Nika called from the temple proper. Nika was a novice priestess. She floated through the temple to Gula’s side by the sacrifice cage, her bluegrey robes whispering along the stone floor like wings. “Oh good,” Nika said when she saw the small grey dove in the cage. “You always get them, Gula. I don’t know how you do it.” Gula knew how she did it. Before she’d come to the Temple of Nin-Kara four years ago, she’d had to feed herself. Her mother had abandoned her in a southern city. Gula could still remember that awful day: the glaring sunlight, the silhouette of her mother’s figure burned into the back of her eyelids. Gula had blinked, dazed by the sun and the import of her mother’s words. He doesn’t like children; there is nothing I can do. You must stay here. Her mother had disappeared around the corner, leaving Gula alone in a hot cobblestone alley. How big the sky had felt that afternoon, even though she could only see a sliver of it overhead. How empty her belly had been, though that was nothing new. Gula’s had been a hungry childhood. For days after her mother left, she’d wandered the streets, that evergrowing pain lancing her middle. She’d begged at the bread shop, the greengrocer’s, even the butcher’s, but they ignored her. They were inured to the sight of hungry children. Gula had nothing to recommend her; she did not have wide blue eyes or golden hair or any particular beauty to evoke sympathy. She’d been a runty child. At the time, her brown hair had been poorly cut in a jagged circle around her head. Her eyes were brown and ordinary, her skin two shades darker than was likeable. Small Gula learned how to slip into shadows, how to be so quiet not even the rats noticed her. Rats, she’d learned, were cleverer than doves, though neither tasted very good. Gula preferred chicken, but chicken meant she’d have to steal, and she avoided theft. The punishments for it were too severe. Now that she was with the Temple, Gula didn’t have to worry about feeding herself. It was a relief to know her soup would be waiting for her at the end of the day as long as she brought home whatever creature the High Priestess demanded. Usually it wasn’t hard to find what she wanted. *** Worshippers of Nin-Kara sat on wide wooden blocks when they prayed. Gula collected one from the stack near the Temple entrance and placed it at the back of the wide main nave. The priestesses filed in, summoned by the clang of the tower bell. They sat kneeling, shins to the ground, backs straight, with their voluminous pale skirts arrayed around them. Gula remained in the back where any common worshippers might join. She did not wear a priestess’s robes; she wore stained leather breeches like a boy, a wool shirt one of the priestesses had given her, and long lace-up boots she had fashioned herself.
Gula knew she’d never make a priestess of Nin-Kara. The girls who came to the Temple to be trained nurtured a fervent belief in the Goddess. They were devoted in a way Gula could not fathom. They were different from her in other ways, too. Most of them came from rich families and had lived gentle lives. “Bless us, Nin-Kara!” called out the High Priestess, standing before the altar. “Bless us, Lady of blood and life,” murmured the priestesses and Gula in response. “We beg of you, Nin-Kara, hear our prayers.” The High Priestess’s voice softened. “The summer plague has come early this year. Already the city officials have set up quarantine in the foreign quarter. Lady Above All, turn your healing powers towards our city.” The High Priestess moved towards the rear nave where Gula had left the dove and disappeared into it for a moment. When she emerged, she held Gula’s dove in one fist, her hand wrapped so tight around the little bird’s body that Gula thought she might kill the animal by pressure alone. The dove was a very pale grey, strangely unsullied by the usual city filth. The High Priestess took up her ceremonial knife and held it before the congregation. The priestesses all inhaled at the same time. It was impossible not to join in the communal breath. “We offer you blood and life,” she intoned. “Hear our prayers, oh Lady. Heal our sick and keep our city well.” In a practiced move, the priestess sank her blade deep into the dove’s breast, twisted, and pulled down. The bird gave one small jerk and expired. Blood rushed down the priestess’s arm in bright rivulets. She wore a one-sleeved gown for just this reason. The High Priestess turned towards the altar behind her, a small platform that supported a huge stone sculpture of the Goddess: a feral-looking woman wearing breeches and boots, kneeling in the same fashion as the priestesses. Beneath the Goddess’s left hand sat an oddly proportioned carved dog, ears too large, legs too long, and snout too pointed. The High Priestess laid the dove at the statue’s feet and turned back to the congregation. “Let us pray, my sisters,” she said. “Let us meditate on the gifts of blood and life, and let us seek to know the Goddess’s will in this matter of the plague.” She picked up a plate that rested on the altar and walked down the first row of seated priestesses, holding out the Temple’s sacrament to each seated figure. Gula was not offered the herb. Only priestesses partook. She watched as the change came over the women. They began to sway in their seated postures like blades of grass in the wind. The High Priestess, after eating her portion, took a seat facing the other women. Soon she was bowing down so low her forehead almost touched the stone floor in front of her. The women began to make sounds, not singing, exactly, not moaning, either, but some mix of the two. The sound came up out of their throats; they threw their heads back and trilled. All eyes but Gula’s were closed. She’d watched this ritual many times, and every time she wondered what they saw, what they experienced in this state. The eerie song built until they all ululated as one. The High Priestess fell forward, groaning. “Aie, aie, aie,” she moaned. “Be merciful lady, be merciful.” Gula blinked her eyes in surprise. In all the many rituals she’d observed in four years at the Temple, never once had the High Priestess spoken words in her trance. The priestesses moaned together, as if their prayers had revealed something very dire. One of them began to weep; Gula could hear it, though she couldn’t see who it was. Soon all the women shook with sobs, even the High Priestess. They cried for several
minutes, bodies hunched over, the sound of their sadness echoing around the Temple, echoing over Gula’s head. She did not cry, though she felt a pull towards sorrow. But it had been a long time since Gula had cried, not since that day years ago when her mother had left her alone in the sunlit alley, in that distant city, a city hotter and brighter and more deadly than this one. In that southern city the summer plague had attacked year round. Finally the High Priestess sat up. She tossed her pale hair over her shoulders, straightened her back, and composed her face into calm lines. The other women followed suit. This next part was the reason Gula was here, the only piece of the whole ritual that touched upon her. Now the High Priestess would speak what creature Gula would hunt; she’d reveal the next animal that was to be offered up to the Goddess for sacrifice. The only prayers Gula ever made to the Goddess were that She’d demand something easy. Three days running, it had been doves, common enough finds inside the city. The Goddess liked doves, but She could want anything, Gula had learned. Sometimes She’d ask for a piglet, and all Gula would have to do was go down to the market and buy one from a farmer. Other times it was a rabbit, and Gula would have to leave the city proper and head out into the surrounding grasslands and put her skills to use. In a more serious circumstance, and the summer plague certainly rated as serious, the Goddess would ask for a cat. Cats were tricky. It was a cat that had originally brought Gula into the Temple four years ago. She’d been stalking the animal through the city for hours, but not because she wanted to eat it. No, this cat had a cream-colored coat and lucky blue eyes. It was sleek and pretty, not mangy or ragged like most cats Gula had seen on the streets. The cat had a jeweled collar. Obviously it was a fine lady’s pet. Gula had imagined that if she could catch the cat, she could ask around in the central market to determine the owner. Then maybe the owner (someone rich enough to afford that jeweled collar) would give her a reward. So after the cat Gula went. Cats didn’t like pursuit, and this one led Gula on a wild chase all through the city. Gula spent hours stalking it. A couple of times she even got close, but the cat was elusive and fast. Whenever Gula reached for it, the cat twisted and ran. Gula had dashed after the cat right into the middle of the Temple. She’d been so focused on the hunt that she hadn’t noticed where she was. The Temple was empty; the cat had leapt onto the altar at the Goddess’s feet. Gula hadn’t even looked at the sculpture, hadn’t noticed it was a human figure. What she’d seen was the tightness of the nook that the cat had tucked itself into, its inability to maneuver well in there. Gula pounced, snaking her hands into the crevice and wrapping them around the cat’s body. The cat had come out hissing and clawing, raking Gula’s arms with scratches. Gula didn’t care; she was looking at the collar, jeweled with colored crystals. Even if she couldn’t find the owner, the collar could feed her for days if she sold it. She’d heard a gasp behind her and turned to find a woman in long blue-grey robes staring at her. Gula had frowned at the woman, thinking she’d take the cat from her. “I caught it,” she’d said. “I caught the cat, so I get the reward.” The woman had born down on her so quickly; Gula had felt almost like the cat herself, trapped, at someone else’s mercy.
The High Priestess had believed she witnessed an act of the Goddess when she found Gula standing beneath the statue of Nin-Kara with a cat in her arms. She’d hurriedly pulled Gula into her private chambers, cat and all. “You were brought to our Temple for a reason,” the elegant tall woman had said to Gula. “Nin-Kara sent you as a gift for us. I watched you capture the cat, and I knew immediately that the Goddess called you here. We need someone like you to help us find our animals for sacrifice, someone who can catch little beasts so easily. Someone persistent and clever.” Gula had stared at the tall woman for a moment. “You’ll pay me?” she finally asked. “You’ll pay me to find your animals?” “We’ll feed you,” the priestess had answered. “We can feed you and give you a bed, but the Goddess forbids that we pay for any service.” Gula hadn’t known anything about the worship of Nin-Kara. Her life up until that moment had been too cheap to worry about believing in anything. Belief was a luxury for those who lived less desperately. However, Gula wasn’t stupid. She knew the value of a full belly and a warm place to sleep. She’d handed the cat to the High Priestess without further questions. And so she’d become the Temple trapper-hunter. The priestesses appreciated her. She always caught whatever the Goddess demanded, even difficult cats. *** Gula watched the High Priestess as she swayed. She was taking a long time about revealing the next sacrifice. Maybe she was waiting for the other priestesses to compose themselves. They were all so distraught; something unusual had happened in the ritual today, but Gula couldn’t guess what. The High Priestess’s blue eyes lifted. Her face looked heavy and careworn. A single tear coursed down her cheek. “The painted dog,” she called out. “The Goddess requires a painted dog. This highest of sacrifices alone will purge the city of plague.” Gula waited outside the High Priestess’s chambers. Normally, she didn’t consult with the priestess about the required animal—Gula would go straight from the Temple to do her job, and when the priestesses gathered again for worship, there would be a dove or a squirrel or a goat or whatever was needed waiting in the sacrifice cage. No words needed to be exchanged. But this was different. First of all, Gula didn’t even know what a painted dog was. A dog wouldn’t really be so hard, although dogs were not well liked in the city, and people did not keep them as pets. Dogs were thought to have a devilish power over people’s minds, so they were shunned. Even so, Gula had seen dogs gathered near the outskirts of the city: feral, dirty creatures with matted fur and nasty dispositions. They prowled around the refuse heaps. Would any dog do? she wondered. What did “painted” mean? “Enter,” called the High Priestess. Gula slid through the door in her silent, slippery way. She was good at catching animals because she moved like one. Her time on the streets had taught her how to evade human notice, clinging to corners and slipping in shadows. She knew it was better never to be seen at all.
The High Priestess looked so tired, so burdened. She had not fully recovered from the ritual, though she’d changed her dress and washed her hands and arms clean of blood. She shook her head despairingly. “I am afraid the Goddess has set you an impossible task, Gula,” she said. “I know not what to make of it.” Gula shrugged. She was not concerned. “What is a painted dog?” she asked. “I know where to find dogs. But what is a painted one?” The priestess’s shoulders sagged. “A painted dog is no common cur. It is a wild animal, an animal of the savanna woodlands. You will have to go far afield to seek one.” The priestess turned deeper into her room, opened a chest, and pulled out a book. Gula had only ever seen a few books before: the book of Nin-Kara that sat in the alcove in the Temple, and once a bookseller had come through the city, and a book had fallen off the back of his wagon. Gula had caught a glimpse of the leather cover embossed with cryptic markings before he’d snatched it up. “Is that the book of Nin-Kara?” Gula asked as the priestess leafed through her book. “Yes,” the priestess replied. “You must study this image carefully. By it you will recognize the painted dog.” The priestess offered the open book. Gula took it, holding it as carefully as she had ever held a captured dove. She looked down at the picture on the page. The dog was standing rather than sitting, but she recognized it as the kind of dog beside Nin-Kara in the Temple sculpture. It had a small head in relation to its deep ribcage, very long, slender legs, large alert ears, and a tufted tail. The image in the book was illuminated with colors, bright colors that showed exactly why this dog was painted. The dog’s coat was made up of three colors, all splashed about in haphazard patterns. Brown mottled its body, and a dark blaze ran between its eyes. Then there was an almost white, creamy color interspersed with the dark. Finally the dog’s magnificence was highlighted with gold, real gold leaf paint, right there in the book. The insides of its ears glowed gold, and little spots and splotches glimmered all over its body, even its eyebrows. “So this is a painted dog,” Gula said, never taking her eyes from the image. “Indeed,” said the High Priestess. “But I have never seen one living, and I know not where you could find one.” The woman looked over Gula searchingly. “When you came here, Gula, I knew you were destined for great acts. You were a gift from the Goddess; I knew because I found you at Her feet with your own blood running from your arms. I will never forget that day. I know you were brought here to help us with just this task. You must find the painted dog for our sacrifice. If you don’t…” the priestess shuddered, “…if you don’t, there will be so much death. Only a painted dog will stop the plague.” The High Priestess said that the painted dog would be found in savanna woodlands, and though the city born and bred priestess did not know where to find such a landscape, Gula did. When Gula’s mother had left her, it had been in the southern city of Karrak, a tough, poverty-riddled place crawling with orphans and beggars. Gula had quickly realized it was not a good place to be abandoned and alone, so she’d set her feet upon the muddy road out of Karrak to walk north. As the road had dried out, so did the landscape. The distance between Karrak and the Temple city was long and difficult. Gula had spent days alone in nature. She had traversed a long expanse of grasses that was surrounded by spindly dry trees: savanna woodlands.
So when she left the Temple city to look for a painted dog, she headed south, thinking of that stretch of road surrounded by yellow grass and skinny trees. She filled her pack with food, and she carried a large bladder of water, recalling how dry the journey had been all those years ago. Her cloak, provided by the priestess Nika, was long and warm, tight woven wool that would protect her from the elements. It was the pretty grey-blue color all the priestesses wore. Gula had never had such a fine item. She carried a knife at her belt for her own protection and a coil of rope in the bottom of her bag to secure the dog when she found it. It was the beginning of summer, so the road was dry and dusty. Gula was glad to leave; the priestesses’ dire predictions of summer plague had cast a pall of fear over the city. Everyone knew a painted dog had been demanded, but most people thought a painted dog was a mythical creature, so they assumed the city was doomed to the full ravages of the plague this year. The Goddess was wrathful. The priestesses had faith that Gula would find a painted dog. “But you must be quick about it, Gula,” Nika said on the eve of her departure. “Your search for the dog cannot take weeks and weeks.” “It should take me only a little more than a week,” Gula said, more confidently than she felt. The area where she meant to hunt was a three day journey from the Temple city, at least, that was how long it had taken Gula to get from there to the city last time. This time, Gula was in better health and fitness; she figured she might be able to shave a day off either end, giving her three days to hunt the savanna for a suitable dog. That was the part she was nervous about, finding the dog. Gula voiced her concern. “I’m just not sure how to find the dog.” “Nin-Kara will guide you,” Nika replied. “You must have faith.” *** Privately, Gula had trouble with faith. Was it because she had come to the Temple too late, too old to be shaped into a true believer? Even when she first arrived, Gula had had her doubts. The priestesses always said she was a gift of the Goddess, brought to them for the sole purpose of finding their sacrificial animals. But she didn’t feel like a gift. Sometimes she felt like a burden. They said Nin-Kara’s hand moved in her, but she never felt anyone but herself moving her, even when she went hunting for a dove or a cat, even when the cat was hard to catch. In fact it was when her quarry eluded her that Gula felt the most alone. She had to figure out how to catch the cat on her own; she had to solve the problem. It never felt like there was any divine assistance at all. Gula always worried that if she did not come back with the required sacrifice, the priestesses would turn her out. She did not want to be alone on the streets again, and she did not see their benevolence extending past her failure to do as she was bid. As soon as she left the city gates, Gula could feel tension lifting from her shoulders; her sick, doubtful feeling evaporated into the air. On the road, she felt free. As she walked, she thought. Gula did her best thinking while walking. Her body and her mind both felt lighter. Temple life did not cultivate a carefree mind. To the priestesses, every action was significant, every choice reflected one’s faith in Nin-Kara, one’s commitment to see Her will prevail. When Gula had first come to the Temple, she hadn’t cared at all about such matters—it was enough that they’d fed her and given her a
blanket to wrap around herself in the cold northern night. The question of her faith in the Goddess had not needed consideration. But she’d quickly seen what was expected of her in exchange for her acceptance of their charity: belief and worship. Every morning at sunrise she had to pray with the other priestesses in the Temple. Every afternoon at sundown, she was expected to observe the ritual sacrifice to Nin-Kara. At first, she’d simply sat there, an observer of the faithful, watching, not even considering what they did or why they did it. The praying priestesses had been just another panorama in a wide world of such mysteries. “Why do you all pray so much?” Gula had asked Nika finally. Nika had come to the Temple half a year after Gula, fresh from a life as the youngest daughter of a wealthy city magistrate. “In prayer, you become still inside. Don’t you feel it?” Nika had answered. “Still inside?” Gula did not feel that when she prayed. She normally felt like her attention wandered. It was hard to keep her eyes closed, hard to keep from squirming on the uncomfortable seat of her wooden block. If anything, when all the priestesses prayed, Gula felt as restless as a caged animal. “That stillness is what you must cultivate in prayer,” Nika explained. “You must quiet your mind, quiet the urges of your body. When you find the stillness, then you have found the doorway. You open the doorway so that Nin-Kara may enter.” At this point, Nika’s face had gone rapt, a certain expression Gula associated with the ritual of sacrifice. All the priestesses wore this expression, a smooth-cheeked, open-eyed look of pure ecstasy that was as much a mystery to Gula as the praying. When the High Priestess wielded her knife, Gula’s instinct was to look away and squinch her eyes. “Nin-Kara enters you as you pray,” Nika had gone on. “Remember, we do not pray to Nin-Kara so that we may make demands of her, but rather so that she may make demands of us. We can only hear the whisper of her voice when all else is quiet.” “You hear her?” Gula asked. “Like a voice inside your head?” “Nin-Kara does not speak to me in words,” Nika said. “Some others, she might, but she prompts me with a feeling, a knowingness. She fills me up inside, all the way to the chambers of my heart. When I feel her in my heart, all my doubts die, and all my questions are answered.” Again, Nika gave her rapt expression, as if already she was in that still place, as if already she felt the Goddess within. Gula listened to Nika, she did. She listened to the High Priestess, too, and she tried to pray. But she was a perverse creature, or so she imagined, because almost as soon as her seat hit the wooden block, her legs began to cramp, her eyelids began to flutter with the effort of keeping them closed, and a spot on her back would begin to itch. Gula wondered if it was because she did not take the sacrament like all the others. Did that help? But the High Priestess said the sacrament was only for the ordained priestesses, not for someone like Gula. Gula could have voiced her troubles to the High Priestess, but some part of her didn’t want to. She felt shame for not believing; she knew what they all would say. But Gula, can you not see how the Goddess has taken you in hand? She brought you here, to her very altar, a gift. She saved you from a terrible life of poverty in the streets. She feeds you; she clothes you. Gula did not want to see the disappointment in the High Priestess’s face. Gula was her personal miracle. How could the miracle not believe?
*** Gula kicked along on the dusty road. Her plan was to walk late into the night to speed her way to the savanna woodlands. She would pass through a densely wooded area that began about an hour’s walk from the city. She’d been in the woods before, on occasions when Nin-Kara had called for some woodland animal for the offering: a rabbit or a fox or once, when the high city magistrate had been deathly ill, a fawn. Gula hadn’t liked taking the fawn, though it had been easy. She hadn’t been able to watch the High Priestess kill it. At the last moment, she closed her eyes and offered, for the first time in her life, a genuine prayer: Let her not need to kill it. Gula’s prayer had not been answered. The High Priestess had slit the animal’s throat, and Gula opened her eyes to a cascade of blood running down the Priestess’s arm and a Temple full of ecstatic women. But later Gula had pulled Nika aside. She’d needed to know how it all worked; she didn’t understand the need for the sacrifice. “Why is the Goddess so bloodthirsty?” Gula asked. She knew that wasn’t a very good way to phrase her question, but the truth was, the whole ritual had made her feel uncomfortable. She couldn’t get the image of the High Priestess’s triumphant face and raised arm dripping a river of blood out of her mind. Nika had frowned at her and remained silent for a moment, thinking. Nika always tried so hard. She always took care to answer Gula’s questions in a thoughtful way. “It’s sort of like praying, Gula,” she said. “From the outside, looking in, people mistake what it is about. People think we pray to ask favors, and they think we make sacrifices to pay for them. But the sacrifice is not just a payment, it’s a symbol. It shows the Goddess that we understand that balances must be kept, that life is fed by death. So we ask for her to grant life and health; we make the offering of the animal’s life to show that we understand that all life is maintained through death.” Nika scrunched her eyebrows together. “I’m not explaining it well. It’s like eating, Gula. You have to eat to survive. When you eat, the things you eat die, even if it is just a carrot or a head of lettuce. Whatever life energy is in that thing, it goes into you and sustains you, but the thing itself is finished. So in the ritual, it’s as if we are asking the Goddess to eat; she grants life to the sick person who would otherwise die, but in order to do so, she must consume the life of something else.” “So the fawn’s life was exchanged for the magistrate’s?” Gula asked. “More or less,” Nika replied. *** Gula came up to the verge of the woods. The road wound into the trees, darkening before her. She plunged into the woods, chewing on the problem of the fawn’s sacrifice. She’d understood what Nika meant, even saw the sense in it. She never felt bad about the chickens they made into soup, never even considered the sacrifice of a potato when she ate it for supper. So why did the fawn bother her so much? It might be the eyes, Gula thought. The fawn, which she’d found not far from where she now walked, had looked at Gula so sweetly, so knowingly. It had trembled in fear when she’d tied the rope around its neck, as if it knew that she dragged it to its doom. That was it. It was the knowingness. A potato did not anticipate its death in terror, or if it
did, Gula had no way of comprehending it. That still didn’t explain why Gula felt just fine eating a chicken, however. Chickens did get scared; they squawked and ran and kicked when you brought them to slaughter. Maybe, thought Gula, maybe the problem isn’t with the scenario of eating the chicken for dinner. You have to eat, and it’s as Nika said, all life requires deaths to sustain it. Maybe the problem is in using feeding to explain the ritual. Because the explanation Nika gave for the ritual sacrifices only worked if you believed. It only worked if you thought the Goddess was real, if you thought that the Goddess really was using the life of the fawn to feed the magistrate, if you believed she had such power of transmutation. It all came back to Gula’s lack of faith. The woods got thicker and the trees, their branches beginning to intertwine, began to block the summer sun. Gula never came this deep into the woods, hadn’t since she’d crossed all the way through them on her journey to the Temple city. She heard the sounds of squirrels in the branches overhead and the rustle of leaves in the wind, or the breath of the Goddess, depending on whom you asked. Had the magistrate survived? Gula wondered. She could not remember, or perhaps she had never been told one way or another. She did know that they did sacrifices every summer to ward off the plague, but the plague came through the city regardless, taking many lives with it. The doves and cats and rabbits and foxes did not seem to slow the spread of the disease, although the priestesses claimed the ravages of the plague would be much worse without their rituals. Gula shrugged her shoulders several times as she walked. She had a little stitch in her side, so she took a sip of her water. She’d hoped she could walk all the way through the woods before darkfall, but it already felt like nighttime, what with the thick layer of trees overhead. After a while, Gula decided it must be time to stop. She curled into a ball in the exposed roots of a tree and slept easily, without dreams, as she always did. Gula knew it must be morning, but the sun did not penetrate the trees. She got up and continued, glad she could follow the road in the dim light. The lives of the priestesses were really all Gula got to see, living in the Temple, and so their concerns often occupied her mind. But as she walked through the morning, she thought about finding the painted dog. Gula could not recall a time when she’d not caught creatures. Before her mother left her, Gula used to do it for fun. She liked the animals, the catching of them was just play. After her mother left, Gula had done it to survive, and she’d done it well. Even so, she was nervous about trying to capture the painted dog. For the first time that she could remember, she wasn’t sure if she would succeed. Finally the woods started to open up, and daylight filtered down onto the road. Good, Gula thought. I’m making better time than I imagined. The woods transitioned into pure savanna. Gula had to cross this expanse to get to the other woods, the ones where the High Priestess said the painted dogs might be found. Gula became increasingly anxious as she walked the savanna. What if she could not find any dog? What if the painted dogs were just a myth? It wasn’t like the High Priestess had ever seen one. All she had was a picture in a book.
Gula walked through the whole day and just kept going after dark. The moon was bright, and there were no trees to obscure it. When she finally rested, she was again at the edge of woods, but these were much different than the thick, forest-like woods near the Temple city. These were sparse, bushy woods, with large gaps between the patches of trees. Gula could not stay asleep past dawn. The sun already glared too brightly to ignore. Gula felt a measure of success—she’d made it to the savanna woodlands. The easy part of her journey was done. Animals would likely be found far from the road, so Gula left it. To keep her bearings, she created a map inside her head, working away from the road in broadening circles, finding unique trees and bushes to mark her place in the dry savanna woodlands. The savanna opened up into a wide basin on the far side of the spindly trees. In the distance, Gula thought she saw sun reflecting off water, though it was hard to tell. She decided to investigate, so she walked all afternoon in the direction of the tempting glint. It was a marshy lake, and on the far side, she saw a herd of deer watering. That, she knew, was a good sign. Deer meant there would be other animals around, animals that hunted deer. Gula walked around the edge of the lake. At one end the rangy trees thickened, and Gula plunged through them even though she constantly had to push aside branches. Suddenly, she heard a noise, a guttural scream. The trees were too dense for her to see beyond them, so Gula did the only thing she could think of to do: she climbed the largest of the nearby trees, scrambling all the way to the top despite the precarious feel of the branches, and looked out along the lakeshore. What she saw in the distance mesmerized her. The herd of deer she had seen was racing along the shore towards her stand of trees. Some of the deer leapt into the water; Gula heard the sounds of their splashing. Behind the deer, Gula counted ten slender shadows coursing at high speed, darting and circling in a deadly choreography around the deer. For a moment, the whole panorama left Gula breathless—it wasn’t just the deer or the racing hunters behind them, nor even the fields that stretched into a wide blue sky—it was everything, the motion, the edge, the anticipation, the seething life of the chase. One of the dark shadows jumped an unbelievable distance to snap at a trailing deer’s haunch. Another shadow joined in, while still another circled to the front, going for the throat. Gula heard chirping, squealing sounds as still more of the hunters descended upon the deer and pulled it down. She saw the moment that the deer gave up, its surrender stark and graceful. She watched, fascinated and horrified, as the hunting creatures bit at the deer’s belly, snapping and yanking until they disemboweled it. The innards came out in long, red, dripping ropes. All ten of the creatures gathered and ate of the deer’s flesh. Gula shuddered as she watched; she almost vomited the water and biscuit she’d eaten that morning. “They’re just feeding,” she whispered. “They have to eat.” After a time, the creatures had eaten their fill. Four of them loped away together, coming towards Gula’s trees. As they approached, she got a better look at them. She recognized those large alert ears, the thick ribcage above skinny legs. As they turned to enter the wooded area, she caught glints of the sun hitting their coats, revealing sparks of gold.
“Painted dogs,” whispered Gula. If she had been more devout, like Nika, she would have recognized her good fortune as the favor of Nin-Kara. As it was, Gula just assumed she’d gotten lucky. She shimmied down the tree, moving as quietly as possible. Fortunately the four dogs were moving at a sedate pace: she’d seen how fast they could move, and Gula would never have been able to stay with them had they run. She followed them deeper into the shrubby trees. How was she going to catch one? The question played around in the back of her mind, but she was so curious to watch the strange creatures that she didn’t fret about her task. The four dogs began to chortle in their throats. Somewhere deeper in the woods, higher pitched squeaks answered. Gula maneuvered herself so she was parallel to the dogs. The calls intensified from both directions. The dogs picked up their pace. Finally, they burst into a protected clearing. There lay one more of the painted dogs, surrounded by her litter of splotchy small puppies. Her teats were swollen, and she had an exhausted manner as she rose to her feet to greet the returned pack. The arriving dogs continued to nicker to the bitch while the puppies flurried around them. The adult dogs began to vomit, leaving red piles before the puppies, which they did not hesitate to consume. More calls came from the trees as the other six painted dogs came into the clearing, working together to drag a hunk of the downed deer with them. The new mother fed from the carcass, and the others ate some more while the puppies scrambled around licking and tasting and making nuisances of themselves, or so it appeared. Gula remained frozen in place, hidden within a thick shrub that made her skin itch. What she had to do was get a puppy, much as she hated the notion of sacrificing one of the squirmy little things. The bigger dogs were too powerful, too fast, and too strong. She simply had to be patient and wait for her opportunity. She settled in for the wait. She ignored the itch of her skin and the rash emerging along her forearms as she watched. Like Gula, the dogs were vigilant through the night. The following morning, the hunting dogs went out again. The bitch was left alone with the puppies, a seemingly vulnerable position. Even so, Gula waited. Obviously these dogs could do lethal damage. Gula didn’t want a fight. Gula observed the puppies. It wasn’t long before she’d marked the runty one, the smallest of the litter, the most helpless of the bunch. The puppies were restless, squeaking around the mother’s teats, fighting for access. The littlest puppy kept getting shoved aside and knocked over by its siblings. It made a pitiful little mewling sound each time it fell over. Suddenly a rustling in the bushes behind Gula made her freeze. It was too loud to be anything but another large animal. Very slowly, Gula turned her head. The animal was not looking at Gula as she’d expected. It was staring down into the clearing at the puppies and bitch. No, it was staring at the carcass that remained from the meal the dogs had brought back. It was a large, ugly bird, a carrion-eater with a beak made for ripping flesh and a thick powerful chest. It waddled forward. More rustling broke out behind it. Four more carrion birds approached. The bitch lifted her head and growled. She stared directly at the lead bird as she came up to her feet, bared her teeth, and darted forward.
The bird flapped broad wings and hopped back, but the others behind it proceeded forward. The mother dog launched herself, snarling, to push the other birds away. Every time she hedged one back, the others moved forward. The birds were gaining on the carcass. The puppies came to their feet, chirping and shrieking, flowing towards their mother. The largest bird sprang forward, snapped with its beak, and gouged a bite of flesh from a puppy’s back. The puppy yelped and fell over. The bitch turned towards her fallen pup, picked it up softly in her mouth, and carried it away from the birds. In the meantime, another puppy darted forward to valiantly replace its mother guarding the carcass, and it received the same snapping wound from the bird. The birds converged past the second injured puppy and fell upon the carcass in a mad swarm. Meanwhile, the bitch turned and ran, giving up. She carried the first injured puppy in her mouth; all the others followed. The pups dashed after their mother, all except one, the second one to be bit, Gula’s runt. The birds made short work of the old carcass. One of them lifted its ugly bare head and looked around, sourcing the whimpers of the abandoned puppy. Oh no, Gula thought. It’s going to eat the puppy. All at once she surged out from her hiding place, snatched the puppy from the ground, and tore away from the clearing. The carrion birds screamed behind her. Gula’s shoulders hunched protectively over the wounded puppy, and even though she could not swing her arms, she ran. Gula ran all the way back to the lakeshore before she paused. At the water, she dunked the writhing puppy to wash the blood from its back. The wound was nasty: two punctures. The puppy fought her ministrations with every mote of energy it could summon. Gula held it by the scruff of its neck and flushed the wound again and again. All she could think about was the foulness of a carrion-eater’s beak. “Don’t die, puppy,” she whispered. “You can’t die.” After a thorough washing Gula sat down, tucked the puppy under one of her thighs, and used her knife to cut a long swathe from her beautiful blue-grey cloak. She tied the cloth tight around the puppy’s body to keep the wound clean and to prevent it from bleeding. All the fight had left the puppy; it laid its head on Gula’s leg and let her bind the wound, closing its eyes in private misery. It let out low, keening sounds that twisted in Gula’s ears and jerked tears to her eyes. She knew those sounds; she’d made them in her heart as she watched her mother walk away, the universal laments of the abandoned. “Shhh, shhh,” Gula crooned. She brought the puppy up against her chest and used the remains of the cloak to make a sling to carry the dog. There was still plenty of daylight, so Gula found her way back to the road and began to walk. For the first few hours after witnessing that melee, Gula was in shock. Gula’s world had shifted on its axis in the moment when she’d watched the dogs take down the deer. The mercilessness of the hunt, the final gentle surrender of the deer to its fate, the subsequent carnage and feeding and blood, the fight over the stinking carcass, all of it shocked Gula into a state of mental sharpness that she’d never known. The world’s edges scraped over her senses; every little sound pricked her ears and every little motion on the horizon sent her heart racing. She felt alive. It was as though someone had finally pulled
back a veil that had covered her eyes. She saw the world clearly; every leaf and branch sparkled in the daylight. Every breath she took had meaning. Gula had crossed half of the woodless savanna by the time she decided to rest for the night. The puppy, exhausted by its ordeal, had curled into the sling and slept for hours. It woke almost as soon as Gula sat down, flicking open golden brown eyes and bleating at Gula as if she could answer. It squirmed in the sling, so Gula let it out, still holding its neck. The dog immediately squatted to relieve itself in the fashion of a female. Gula situated the puppy under her leg so it would not run away as she rummaged in her pack for her rope. She tied a loop, put it over the dog’s head, and cinched it. Almost immediately the painted dog began to fight. It flung its head side to side to try to dislodge the bind around its neck, making little puppy snarls as it fought. Gula tugged on the rope, thinking to hold the pup against her body until it calmed. She didn’t want it to tear the wound on its back further. The puppy dug its heels into the ground, sank into its haunches, and fought her efforts to move it. It yanked and thrashed, and even though it could hardly weigh more than a year-old-baby, it had unexpected coordination and strength. Gula had to concentrate; she had to use her muscles to finally bring the dog to her side. The misery in the dog’s amber eyes was obvious. The dog was in pain, abandoned by her kind, and caught. Gula had been in that place before; that was exactly how she’d felt that day in the Temple when the priestess had found her beneath the altar. The cat had left bloody scratches up and down her arms that stung enough to make her eyes twitch. She’d had a year to adjust to the reality of her mother’s abandonment, but Gula was not sure any child could ever fully accept her parent’s complete failure. Until the puppy, she’d never considered that third feeling, the feeling of the closing down of the world upon her. The Temple had narrowed her life; she’d felt it then like a rope around her neck, pulling her into the unknown. Gula scratched the puppy behind the ears. She made inarticulate sounds, croons and whispers, to soothe the dog. Finally, the tension ebbed from the animal’s legs. The puppy leaned into Gula, nosing at her insistently, demandingly. She wants to eat, Gula thought. Gula took out her food and broke apart a biscuit, holding it out to the puppy in the palm of her hand. The dog snatched at the food, gobbling it up like it was the last sustenance on earth. Gula offered the puppy water, the precious liquid poured into her hand from the bladder in a small amount to avoid spillage. The puppy lapped delicately, as if she knew the liquid was too scarce to waste. To sleep, Gula tied the puppy close to her body, fearing she would try to escape in the night. Gula woke to the puppy snuggling into her abdomen, probably trying to get warm, as the night had taken an unlikely chill. The little creature was all legs, and when she curled into a ball, she packed down to a tiny size that fit neatly into the crook between Gula’s thigh and belly. Once situated to her liking, the puppy gave a deep, satisfied sigh, and tucked her snout beneath her tail. Gula did not move, afraid to disturb the dog in her lap. She liked the weight of the dog against her body, felt the reverberation of that dog sigh all the way up into the chambers of her heart. Gula let one hand fall gently over the puppy’s neck. The dog occupied Gula’s mind as she tried to rest. If she took the painted dog back to the Temple city, it would be killed in the ritual. That much she knew. She sank her
fingers deeper into the fur around the puppy’s neck. She did not want to bring the dog back to the city. It did not belong there. The city was hostile to dogs; the people there believed the animals were cursed. But more, Gula did not want to bear the responsibility for its death. She certainly did not want to have to witness the High Priestess plunging a knife into the puppy’s belly with ecstasy on her face. Gula had saved the puppy’s life; had she done so only to take it in a fashion somehow more barbaric than the death nature had planned for it? Gula tried to think. She knew she wasn’t good at these deep questions. Nika had despaired of her once, saying, “Gula, you are better off not thinking about these matters. Just concentrate on finding the still space while you pray. These other questions, they are not for you. I think you were shaped to act, not to contemplate. Leave the thinking to people like me.” This advice had irritated Gula. She knew that the priestesses had been happy to find her, for they did not like acquiring their sacrifices for themselves. They considered it a lowly duty, so they’d been glad to have Gula lift the burden from their shoulders. To the priestesses, she was like a donkey or a shovel. She was a useful tool, designed for a certain task, but she had no other purpose. She was not allowed to take the sacrament. She was not holy like them. The puppy stirred and all in one motion sprang to its feet. She rubbed the side of her body into Gula, trying to dislodge the bandage and the rope. Gula brought the rope up away from the puppy, loosening it from her own body so she could hold it like a leash. Gula was used to animals that didn’t take well to a leash; cats hated them, but Gula had learned the leash was better than trying to hold the cat with its sharp, needle-like claws. The puppy spun around in a circle, confused by the tension of the leash. It danced and darted, trying to escape. Gula tugged on the rope to direct the puppy towards the road so they could resume their journey. As soon as Gula pulled, the puppy shifted her weight back against Gula’s tug, thrashing her head to try to get the loop of rope from her neck. Cats don’t do this, Gula thought. This puppy is smart. As she battled to convince the pup into forward motion, Gula recalled a language she hadn’t thought of in years: the language she and her mother had spoken just between them, some tongue from a foreign place, she didn’t even know where. It had been their own private language, and the word for smart in that tongue came into her head now, vinshe. The pup was still resisting, head pulled back, sitting on its heels, so that when Gula tugged, the pup slid across the dirt all in one piece. The dog came to her feet, shook her coat out, and looked up at Gula. Gula stared into the dog’s amber eyes; when she looked, she felt something inside her body change. From the top of her head to the base of her spine, she felt a hollowing, an opening, an awareness of her center. She saw the being behind the dog’s eyes. Gula became connected. The world opened into her, and she felt, for the first time in her life, the stillness that Nika had described. Gula stood frozen there for quite some time, until the dog whimpered and jumped up on her legs. The dog gazed up at her expectantly, wagging its tail slightly side to side. “Vinshe,” Gula said, giving the dog a name. “Are you hungry?” Vinshe wagged her tail wildly at Gula’s words. Gula reached up into her pack and held a biscuit down towards Vinshe, who snatched at the food like a starving creature. She almost took one of Gula’s fingers with the biscuit.
“We’ll have to work on that, Vinshe,” Gula said. “I need all my fingers.” Gula knelt and offered water. Vinshe lapped eagerly, and when she was done, she leaned her body into Gula’s lower legs in a way that Gula felt was already growing necessary to her. She rubbed behind Vinshe’s ears, and the puppy leaned in closer. Vinshe opened her mouth and yawned, making a sound of pleasure and excitement as she did. They were nearly halfway back across the savanna lands. Dread curled in Gula’s stomach, but she didn’t know what to do. The duty the High Priestess had given her got heavier with every step closer to the city. After about an hour of walking, Vinshe had gotten more comfortable on her leash. She still ran ahead as far as she could go, running right up until the rope pulled taut, then she’d get snapped back, turn in a rapid full circle, and dart back around to the other side of Gula’s legs so that Gula had to untangle the two of them. Vinshe had a lively gait, much more efficient than Gula’s own. The thick woodlands rose up out of the horizon, a dark, hulking blur that Gula did not really want to see. Instead she concentrated on the strange feeling that was there, still inside her from when she recognized Vinshe in the animal’s eyes. What was it like? It was like carrying something inside her body, something both weighty and light, something precious. There was a physical feeling associated with it, and this surprised Gula the most. In her head, she’d never considered that a god could be a true physical presence in the body, something you could feel. That’s what she named this thing, this long column of strong air inside her body: a god. Who are you? Gula asked the newfound space, remembering Nika explaining that Nin-Kara made things known to her during prayer. There was no spoken answer, nothing rising up immediately to make itself known. But Gula felt a change with the question, giddiness in her belly. Laughter rose in her throat. The thought didn’t come from inside her head; it came, if anywhere, from her pelvis, rising up through her innards into the newly shaped column of being, and then into the center of her skull. You are your own god. You need no rituals. You make the world yourself. The gods are just ideas that help you shape it. Gula stopped walking, the magnitude of the thought making her feet impossible to move. Vinshe, who’d finally settled in to the reality of the leash, stopped as well, looking back at Gula almost with reproach. As if to say, you silly girl, how did you not see that the only god is life itself? Vinshe rolled her eyes and rolled her head. “We can’t go back, Vinshe,” Gula murmured, looking at the bulk of the forest only about an hour’s walk away. “We can’t go back there. They’ll kill you, and that will kill me.” Vinshe darted around Gula’s legs, wrapping the rope around her ankles as if to materialize the connection between them now. She looked up at Gula, begging; already Gula knew the look. Vinshe wanted some more biscuit. Gula obliged, enjoying Vinshe’s satisfaction with feeding. Gula stood on the empty road, looking at the different horizons as she faced north, west, south, east. The road ran north to south, and Gula didn’t much like either direction as an option, knowing what lay at either end.
Despite her dwindling supply of biscuits (she’d refilled her water at the lake) Gula knew their only route was south. If they went back to the Temple city, the priestesses would find them. There was no way Gula could hide a painted dog in the city. Gula felt the choice like a wedge inside herself, turning away from one life, heading into another. She was glad to have Vinshe at her side. The puppy, after a day of trauma and terror, was now perfectly settled in, frolicking around Gula’s ankles, happy as long as her belly was full. Gula knew that simplicity; she’d lived it. Maybe she could live it again. They walked back the way they had come. *** Gula and Vinshe ate the last biscuit that night, even as Gula worried. Vinshe didn’t know it was the last biscuit, so she did not worry. Vinshe was blessed with an ample supply of universal trust; she didn’t fret about the future, she encountered it. Vinshe turned three times and then fell into a coiled ball to sleep. Gula wrapped her own body around Vinshe. Trust this, Gula thought. Sometimes the unknown is better than the known. Gula slept easily, certainty coming over her like the night. Everything would turn out well. The next morning, both Gula and Vinshe sprang to their feet. A sound had woken them. Gula turned to face the north. A small dot was visible against the grey sky, moving closer. The sound intensified, rattling and rolling. As the dot grew, its details emerged: a rattling brick red wagon pulled by two large grey horses. Gula stepped to the side of the road, pulling Vinshe on her leash. Vinshe grabbed at the rope with her mouth, thinking it was a game. The wagon pulled to a stop before Gula. The driver, a man of indeterminate age, tipped his hat at her. A girl a few years younger than Gula sat on the driving deck on his far side, peering around him to stare curiously at Gula and Vinshe. “Which way are you headed?” the man asked, looking her up and down. His eyes fell on Vinshe, where they stuck for a moment, taking in her painted coat, her wild demeanor. “South,” Gula said firmly. “That’s good,” he said. “We’re headed that way, too. You want a ride?” Gula didn’t hesitate, not with her empty biscuit bag. “Please,” she said. “We haven’t any food.” The driver nodded. “That’s fine. We’ve plenty. Is your dog…trained?” “She’s a puppy,” Gula said. “We’re working on it.” “Very well. You just make sure you keep it on the leash. We cannot have any creatures out of control on this caravan. If you can control your dog, you may come.” Gula scooped up Vinshe and tucked her under her arm as she pulled herself onto the seat beside the girl. Gula was pleased when Vinshe curled up in her lap easily and rested her head as if she would sleep. “How…how was it in the Temple city?” Gula asked the driver, dreading what he might say about the ravages of the summer plague. She felt guilty for abandoning them in their need. Who else would be able to find a painted dog for them? “I heard there was plague there.” The driver turned his head and looked at her. “They thought there was, but it turned out it was a false alarm. We heard the rumors of the plague. I’m a healer, of sorts, so I
figured I would have some work when we came through the city. But there was no plague. The people that got sick, theyâ€™d all eaten in the same tavern. Turns out it was just a touch of food poisoning, nothing to worry about at all.â€? The man flicked his reins, and the wagon began to rattle southwards on the road again.