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Heart's Ease

My dear friend Jaya despaired. She broke her back, and could no longer practice her craft of pottery. Her daughter was molested by evil-minded boys at school. Her house was poisoned by irresponsible insect-eradicators; she sickened at the smell of the irritating miasmas that waft from the thoughtless, greedy producers of shoddy merchandise. Her husband lost his employ, raged against the world, and became a tyrant at home.

Her life seemed to be cursed. She searched everywhere for relief. Down the little-known alley that runs behind the great street of Medicine, she shopped at one disreputable establishment after another. She tried eating pickled toungues from those sly-speaking lizards of Yon who inspire children to run away; bathing in the moonlight in that hideously costly oil made of heartsease seeds; and being massaged by sphinx’s feathers.

Down the shadowed by-way between that alley and the Temple, she begged at the tents of foreign gods. She sang the eerie keening incantations to Baal that some say madden men; she danced on the edges of sharpened knives, as prescribed by Iza; she practiced obscure rituals said to be required by the gods of the new land rumored to have risen from the sea to the east.

Still her nights were torn to rags by pain. And so eventually she sent her daughter to her sister and set out on that dangerous quest forbidden by the Temple but known of old by every woman born.

She baked the bread and cut the cheese. She sewed the cloak. She gathered the herbs, and the coin. Provisioning herself according to the unspoken custom, she dressed in men’s clothes and slipped out of her house on a night of the full moon.

The path out of the city was empty, the watch asleep. She climbed into the foothills to the crossroads. Go to the old, broken mountains, that women had slipped away to since they were tall fanged peaks? Or to the new land rising in the eastern sea? Three steps down the path to the east, back and three steps up the path to the heights. The wind picked up dust from the path, and whirled it around like smoke, which rose into the heights and drifted across the face of the moon. The mountains drew her, after all.

She would never tell what she found there. When she returned, a year later, she was gaunt, but stronger than she used to be. She still had pain, you could see it in her eyes. They were hooded now, and brooding. Her husband wanted her back, and so she went, but she did not obey the routines of a wife. She wore men’s clothes when she felt like it, old and shabby ones even. She did not go to Temple, or to the tents of the foreign gods; to the great street Medicine, or to the alley behind it. She built a hut in the corner of her garden, and slept there often.

I visited her there one afternoon. I brought her lilies and cake. She thanked me, and planted the lilies, but she would not eat the cake. I asked her, Why do you not practice any of your former disciplines? How do you stand the pain?

I don’t, she said. I hate it, I fear it. But I would rather let myself be, hating and fearing it.

I don’t understand her. She is bitter and withdrawn, and proud in her strange strength. When my time comes, I will try the road to the east.

©2001 Catherine Holmes Clark