“Complicated” was the theme this time, and honestly it gave me a lot of trouble. I’m such a straightforward person, and I’m certain that shows in my writing. So it was a puzzle how to add complexity in the first place, much less make that the thrust of the story. In the end, this is more a story about complex motivations than complexity in and of itself, but I’m pretty happy with how my little folk tale came out.
Far, far away from here, my darling one, stands the great city of Uru-anoa. If you were to travel there it would take an entire lifetime, and even then you might not reach it. You would need to cross the Bottomless Sea, filled with beasts that could swallow your ship whole. Then you would face the Mountains of Wonder, whose shifting paths and glittering caverns have led many travelers to their doom. At last the Desert Of the Forgotten would stand in your way. But oh, once you finally arrive at that wondrous city you would forget all those dangers, for it is the grandest sight all the world.
My story is not about the wonders of Uru-anoa, great as they are. It is not a tale of its soaring towers of glass and streets of gold-inlaid marble. Nor will I tell of the wise rulers who live there, who take counsel from the Gods themselves, nor the magicians who bring forth wonders daily to the delight of all. No, my story is about a much more humble part of the city.
As bright as the jewel of cities shines, so too does it cast a dark shadow. If you were to leave the broad avenues where the wisest of leaders and greatest of warriors stride, you would first come to the rich homes of the merchants and attendants who serve those most worthy heroes. Beyond that lie the homes of the craftsmen and the artists, who are responsible for the beauty which all take pride in. Deeper still, you would walk among the homes of the commoners, which every land needs, and then the alleys and barrows where the poor live their modest lives. Even a city as great as Uru-anoa will have the poor.
Past all of these, past even the lowest of the hovels, you would reach the very darkest of depths in the shining city. No tales are told of these forgotten places, save this one. This is where the hopeless and the lost dwell, who even the thieves and thugs of the slums turn their backs on. Truly this is a dangerous, forgotten place, hidden deep in the shadows cast by the glory of Uru-anoa.
Deep, deep in the depths of this forgotten place lay a shrine. Few who passed knew it was a shrine, all but the bare stone rotted away long ago. What remained was little more than an alcove, home only to the mold which clung to the walls and the many rats which hid within the cracks. These were fitting residents however, for this was the shrine of Lakhmi, the Goddess of Rats and Decay.
Oh my darling one, this is the story of the shunned Goddess, and how she was saved by the love of a human.
In those days Lakhmi was not a beloved Goddess. And little wonder, for her sacred creatures were frightening and foul. She had no followers and the only prayers she received were from the poor to turn her attention away from them. Even the God of Thieves and the Goddess of Poverty were held with higher regard.
It seemed that soon she would be forgotten entirely, a dreadful fate even to the divine. Yet she endured, as Gods are fated to do.
One day, a worshiper came to her shrine.
The newcomer was not finely dressed, but in that place of despair she was practically a queen. Her appearance was unremarkable, but here she seemed a great beauty. She walked with head high as if down the brightly lit streets of the city above. Out of the shadows, a hundred pair of eyes watched.
“She has come for me,” said a voice from the gloom. It was the madman, fearing the worst.
“You have nothing to come for,” said the robber. “This is clearly a trick to capture me.”
“Perhaps she is a thief herself, here to take the few things we have,” said the poor woman, clad only in rags.
“I do not care why she is here,” said the thug, whose brutality had caused him to be driven from all other places. “She will be my prey.”
But when he moved to attack he found his way barred by dozens of rats, hissing a warning he dared not refuse. It seemed even the Goddess could not resist the mystery the woman presented.
Onward the stranger walked, following an unseen path which even many of those who lived their entire lives in the deepest slums did not know. The way was not straight, twisting like a trapped snake and filled with blind alleys. Yet she missed every pitfall, arriving at last at the little building against the very wall of the city.
Where a hundred pair of eyes watched her as she walked, another hundred waited within. These were the holy creatures of Lakhmi, the many rats who made a home in her shrine. Others would flee at the sight, or simply faint dead away. But the woman smiled at them before doing another unthinkable thing.
What do you think she did, my darling one? Why, without even dusting off the mold she knelt on the stone block before what was once an altar, and she began to pray! Even more incredible, it was no fearful request that the Goddess should spare them but a song of praise and devotion! How could such a thing be?
Let me tell you, it is no small matter to take a God by surprise. In all the stories of grand Uru-anoa, of which there are many, only a few of the cleverest heroes have managed to do so. And yet this ordinary woman, merely by walking and raising her voice, had achieved this feat with ease.
The Goddess knew the woman’s name was Sabella. She was the daughter of a stonemason, of a well-off family who owned several workshops. They were not wealthy, but they lived reasonably well. These are things which every God knows about their follower, as all are aware.
What many do not know is that there are things are unknown even to Gods. Most are mysteries beyond the ability of any mortal to even name. Some are cosmic questions which lay beyond the reach of all who dwell in the world. But one mystery is within all of us. That is the human heart, which no other may know. Nay, not even the Gods.
So it has been from the creation of the world, ordained by the mighty Aduk when she created both men and Gods so that one may not be puppet to the other. A God knows who their followers are, as they must. But they may not know why they worship. So it was with Sabella.
To another God this might not matter. Those whose followers choke the temples on the Avenue Of the Holy need not concern themselves with each one’s reasons. But Lakhmi was a God without followers. For her, there were only rats and the mindless things who tear down what men have built.
Sabella completed her prayer and left without a word, for there was no one to tell it to. None of those who lived in the darkness dared approach, knowing she had drawn the attention of the feared Goddess herself.
The next time she returned, the woman brought a small hand cart, the only sort that would fit through the narrow ways, loaded with supplies for cleaning the shrine. She washed the mold from the stone and scraped away grime which had persisted for decades, if not centuries. She added a new wooden top and drapery to the altar, which now looked the part for the first time in the lives of even the oldest human. The stone kneeling bench was padded, and candles were placed here and there. For the first time in generations, the bowl meant for washing each worshiper’s feet stood in its traditional place. There was even a dish with a few little treats for the rats. Again she prayed and again she left, the Goddess knowing no more than before.
Every seven days she came to pray and maintain the shrine, which by now truly looked the part. It was a wonder, and filled the Goddess’ heart with feelings she barely remembered. A faint memory stirred, of days when people would gather long ago. A holy day in her name. Could it be that this was the same day which Sabella attended to clean and pray? It seemed impossible, for how could she have known?
And so it went for months, which you would think would be a mere blink of the eye for a Goddess. But the Gods live in time just as we do, even if they live as long as the world itself. And while a God may lose track of that time, they very much feel it when they take a particular interest in something. So it was with Lakhmi and Sabella.
For the latter, it was a busy time. Sabella worked hard to rebuild the shrine, repairing stone work long since pitted and cracked, while leaving spaces for the rats to freely come and go. Her skill was no less than expected from the daughter of a stonemason. Further, cleaning and maintaining the shrine had to be done often, since the Goddess encouraged the decay of all things. She was a surprising woman who appeared to enjoy toil in the service of her chosen deity.
Those who lived in the warrens were curious about the newcomer, but none so much as the Goddess herself. For Gods have always been weak to a good mystery and she was no exception. And so, for the first time in centuries, she left her little temple to seek counsel from the other Gods.
First she approached Lan-Tir, the God of Masons, who knew Sabella’s family. “I have heard they are a well-regarded clan, and respectful of tradition,” he said. “But there was a short time in this generation when they did no work. Perhaps they had some trouble?”
Then she asked Anuapti, Protector Goddess of the City. “There has been no unrest from their precinct, nor have they had trouble from thieves. Perhaps they suffered an illness?”
Finally she spoke to Shalicue, the Goddess of the Hearth. “They family has been safe and well,” she said, “and have not been subject to plague or epidemic. I do recall that they had some distress about a year or so ago, but that is a long time for humans. I doubt it has to with your visitor, since they were back to normal quickly. Perhaps you should speak with Chacan, or perhaps your sisters?”
The idea was not attractive. But even among Gods family is not easily denied.
She came before her siblings, “Forgive me sisters, for I have allowed too much time to pass. All the same, I have need of your counsel.”
“This is about your mysterious little lamb, is it sister? You are always part of our group of three, and we shall always provide our help,” said Lakema, the first born.
“It is true, sister,” said Latulka, the youngest. “Our hope has always been that we should be reunited, even for a little while. We should be grateful to your new friend.”
“I have spoken to other Gods, sisters, but none have been able to shed light on why this woman should devote herself to the most unloved of Goddesses. I was told that you might have insight for me.”
The two sisters smiled together at Lakhmi’s words. “We would be delighted to explain, dear sister,” said the eldest.
“Indeed,” said the youngest. “But we shall not.”
Lakhmi was puzzled. “But why, sisters? If you know the truth, then I beseech you to tell me.”
Both shook their heads. “Telling you would be such a waste, when you have better ways to learn,” said the eldest.
“Just so,” said the youngest. “You will be better served discovering the reason for yourself. After all, you have the power to simply ask her, do you not?”
Oh my darling one, do you know what the Goddess did next? Why, she did as countless divines have done before her, and disguised herself as a mortal just like Sabella. Such is the way of Gods since time immemorial, to test the faith of common people by walking among them.
On the next holy day, Sabella was met by a beggar woman. She was the most beggarly woman in the whole of the great city of Uru-anoa, of that let there be no doubt. Her rags were the most torn of rags, their stains the deepest and grimiest of all stains, her gauntness was so very gaunt it was a marvel. Oh, one could not mistake her for anything but the truest of all beggars, the poorest of all the poor. Such was the Goddess’ disguise, perfect in every way.
They met outside Lakhmi’s shrine that day, and Sabella was suitably surprised.
“How unusual to meet someone here,” she said as she hung the ceremonial shawl over the doorway. “Are you here to worship the Goddess with me?”
“The Goddess you say,” said Lakhmi. “I am Faraza, a humble wretch who has known these alleys her entire life, but I have never seen anyone worship a Goddess here.”
“Surely you know that the great Lakhmi is enshrined here?”
“I know of the shrine, but it has long been a cursed place, as long as anyone may remember. It is a dark Goddess who resides here, who brings naught but ruin. Who but a villain would worship such a thing?”
Sabella drew herself up with pride. “I am no villain,” she said. “And yet I worship her all the same. She is the Goddess I have chosen to devote myself to.”
Faraza looked doubtful. “It seems strange to me that you should not fear a Goddess who pulls down the things humans have built. But perhaps you are from somewhere different from these depths, where such things plague and harm us daily. To those not free of such things, she is only to be feared, and we pray she does not turn her attention to us.”
“You need not fear,” said Sabella, her voice soft and kind. “For she is more than people know, and as worthy of respect and praise as the Forger of Souls or the five Gods of the Winds. There is more to her than what we fear, and a purpose to even that much. We must trust in her goodness.”
“Is it blind trust then, which brings you to this place?”
“In part,” she said. “But that is not the whole of it. There are things I know which lead me to trust, but there is another reason I kneel at her altar. A much more personal reason.”
“Will reveal your reason to me, even though I am but a humble beggar, less than the dust beneath your feet?”
“I shall,” said Sabella. “But not to Faraza the beggar woman. Rather I will tell the true self which you cannot hide, the Goddess Lakhmi herself. To you, I say simply this. I love you. Not as a Goddess, but as a woman.”
With these words, she turned away, leaving the shrine and the dark warrens behind. Behind her she left a Goddess, in utter shock for the first time in her long existence. Not merely had her perfect disguise been penetrated with ease, the words Sabella said left her shaken. She left no doubt that the love she spoke of was not the chaste love of a human to a deity, nor a child to their parent. Her tone was clear, that this was a much more passionate sort of love.
The beggar woman briefly known as Faraza vanished, leaving only a stain of mold on the ground to mark her passing. The Goddess herself retreated to her shrine to wait and try to think.
The next week, on her holy day, no one came to the shrine. Nor the next week. Soon, Lakhmi began to wonder if she would see the woman again, and the thought saddened her. She had brought a sort of life to her altar that had not been present in a very long time. More than that, Sabella’s absence saddened her on a more personal level. She had become accustomed to seeing her, hearing her voice in prayer, watching as she busied herself with maintaining the banners and adding fresh water to the washing bowl. She did not realize until Sabella was gone that these things were dear to her. The thought that they could be lost for good made her sad, as surprising as that realization was.
On the third week, a letter came, delivered by one of the rats which had been watching for Sabella at the edge of the warrens. The letter, only slightly chewed on the edges, was simple. “My dearest Lakhmi, Goddess of Rats and Decay,” it began. “Forgive me for neglecting my duties. I have needed time to prepare my thoughts. I hope you will forgive me. Expect me on the next holy day. All shall be revealed.”
Oh my darling one, what a change came over the Goddess. She became filled with anticipation, and a feeling of joy spread not only through her but her creatures as well. Rats ran through the alleys and warrens that week, not hunting but playing, and clearing away what debris and filth they could. Edible mushrooms appeared in the homes of the poor and starving, many of whom had never felt a full belly before. Quieting spores spread through the air, calming the thugs and bringing restful dreams to the mad. Even the thieves noticed the change, and how small, glowing fungi helped light the once-dark ways they preyed upon.
There had never been a time when those forsaken ways was so pleasant. For many, it was the first time they had experienced simple happiness. All thanks to the Goddess, without her even meaning to.
At last the appointed day arrived, and as promised Sabella appeared just as she always had. She did not hurry as she walked to the shrine, nor as she carried out the regular tasks. Indeed, she took longer than usual, fussing over things she normally wouldn’t. As at last she knelt to pray, Lakhmi’s impatience had grown sharper than the deadliest blade. But she kept herself in control. She needed to hear what her worshiper had to say, and there would be no forcing it.
Her prayers completed, the woman turned her face upwards, above the altar. “Great Lakhmi,” she began, “I would speak with you of many things. May I be granted your presence, for ease of conversation?”
In reply, motes began to appear in the air, drifting toward the altar. Soon, the tiny spores gathered together to form the softly glowing shape of a woman. Not the humble Faraza this time, but the true Goddess, as regal as her station could muster. Her figure was generous and dressed in what appeared to be light silken wraps, highlighting her voluptuousness. Her face was graced with expressive eyes and full lips, which now formed into a smile. Sabella caught her breath. The vision before her filled the little shrine, seemingly too big for the space to contain. The air itself filled with the tiny lights of airborne fungi, quietly drifting about the room. She looked about herself in wonder, but was inevitably drawn back to the Goddess herself.
“Speak child,” the divine apparition said, her eyes locked to Sabella’s own. “You have my full attention.”
The mortal swallowed, hesitating as anyone might in the presence of a Goddess made manifest. She gathered her courage and spoke clearly. “I have said before that I love you, my lady. This is the truth. But there is much I need to explain.”
“As you doubtless know, my family is old and respected, having a hand in building parts of this very city. Much like all old families, and value tradition highly. Among the women of our clan, much knowledge is passed down from mother and daughter, which are then taught to their own daughters in turn. For many centuries has this been so, even before we kept records of it.”
This the Goddess knew, for much faith in the divine was passed on this way. Most traditions were trivial, household subjects or rituals to maintain family harmony. But some included valuable lore which kept the love of the Gods alive. For all Gods need the love of their followers to remain a part of the world.
“One of our traditions, which we guard in secret, is about you, my lady. We have long kept the lore of the Goddess Lakhmi, who is the patron of rats and decay. But this is not the whole of her nature. The world may have forgotten, but we know you also as the Goddess of Rebirth and Renewal.”
Now Lakhmi was truly shocked. It had been so long since she was worshiped for her full self that even she nearly forgot this truth. Of her two complementary aspects, only the negative was remembered and so she had fallen in the eyes of humanity. She as well had experienced despair, distancing herself from the world and the other Gods of her own volition, to the point of nearly disappearing entirely.
No mortal knows what happens when a God drifts so far into obscurity they are no longer thought of. Perhaps not even the Gods themselves know. But the truth is that none who vanish ever return, a fate which nearly befell Lakhmi herself.
“You are also the Goddess of Candles, for some reason,” Sabella continued.
“Forget the candles,” said the Goddess. “I am amazed that you, or any mortal, should know of these matters. What other wonders are yours to tell?”
“Well, there was your marriage to Chacan, God of Harvest…”
This brought a groan to the Goddess’ glowing lips. “Please, do not mention that again. It was purely symbolic, and I’d rather just forget about it.”
“I also learned you have two sisters, who are responsible for Purification and the Cycle of Rebirth. You were the middle of the three, I think. They were more than mere sisters in the stories however, but your lovers as well.”
By now the Goddess’ eyes were wide with shock that she should know of such things. It was true, her sister-lovers were dear to her far in the past, when humanity was new. It was a beautiful time, and she chided herself for letting them end. It was all her doing, she was the one who distanced herself from humanity. As they forgot who she truly was, so too did she put the same distance between her and the other Gods. Even the two who loved her most, who still welcomed her when she asked them for counsel. All this time they never blamed her, even though she blamed herself.
“My lady?” asked Sabella, seeing the pained look on Lakhmi’s face. “I did not wish to cause you distress.”
The Goddess’ features softened, transforming into a melancholy smile for her faithful follower. “It is all right, child. You have simply given me many things to think about. Please, I would hear more, if you have it.”
This time, Sabella hesitated. “You now know why I worship you. The last thing that remains, blessed Lakhmi, is why I love you. Will you hear me out?”
“I wish nothing more in this world,” came the reply.
Sabella nodded. “I am not as other women,” she began. “despite appearing the same. I trust you know that I am well into marrying age.”
“Indeed,” said the Goddess. “I confess to curiosity why you have not started your own family, rather than coming here.”
“I was betrothed, against my wishes. But I was not able to love the man. I am not able to love any man. You must understand, having experienced that closeness with your sisters, how I feel towards other women. My feelings toward men are just the opposite.”
The Goddess brightened, quite literally, as the numbers began to add up. “So the disruption to your family a while ago?”
“I punched the groom,” said Sabella, a bit embarrassed. “During the ceremony. It caused a bit of a fuss.”
This brought a laugh from the Goddess, amused at the thought of the woman’s show of spirit.
“His nose was broken as it turned out,” she continued, unable to suppress her own grin. “Both families were in disarray while they worked everything out. The nice part was that they stopped trying to find suitors I would accept. Which gave me time to think about you.”
“I am beginning to see, but there is more to the story, yes?”
“Just so,” said Sabella. “I heard the stories, and knew them to be true. Your forgotten aspects, your sister lovers, even the candles.”
“Forget the candles.”
“All of these showed me that you were indeed a fine Goddess, and one very much worthy of my faith. I also learned that women could love each other and be fulfilled. Your example was an inspiration. But all of this was not enough for love. That took one final element.”
“Please continue,” said the Goddess, leaning forward attentively.
“I was…” Here the woman hesitated, glancing at the expectant deity. “I was visited by dreams. The most vivid I have ever known. They were of you, my lady, in the shape you are now but made of flesh. They were…romantic dreams. Very romantic, in fact. The sort of romance where clothes are removed, if you follow my meaning.”
Sabella paused, her cheeks flushed and her eyes downcast as she waited for Lakhmi’s reaction. There was a long pause, and then the Goddess began to laugh.
“Those rogues!” she exclaimed, helpless with mirth. “I should have known they were behind all this! What a gift they have given me, after all I’ve done!”
She gazed down at her follower, who was lost in confusion at the outburst. “Ah, my child. Do you not see? Those were not merely dreams you had, but holy visions, granted to you by those who care about me most. My very own sister-lovers!”
Sabella’s eyes widened at the realization. “Oh no, I’m so sorry Goddess. Then this was all a trick by the other two?”
Her serious tone sent Lakhmi into another round of laughter. “Not at all, dear Sabella. This was not a prank, but a present! Those are two who understand loving well, and they would not mock it. You were granted a rare opportunity to bring salvation to a Goddess on the brink of oblivion, and you have accomplished that goal marvelously.”
The Goddess then descended to the ground and stood before her worshiper, taking on a solid form to gently touch the woman’s cheek. “I have one question left to ask. I am Goddess and you are mortal, and love will not change that. You shall perish, while I shall continue until the world itself falls to dust, cherishing your memory. The day you fall, you shall succumb to the very decay over which I hold sway. Have you the resolve to love in the face of this destiny?”
This time Sabella replied with confidence. “Yes, my dearest Lakhmi. I shall become a part of you, which is a grander fate than I could wish for, to always be part of the woman I love.”
With that, the heart of the Goddess was truly won, and the two shared a lover’s kiss sweeter than any wine.
Oh my darling one, their story continued for many decades, filled with love and happiness. Worship of the Goddess spread to all of that greatest of cities and beyond. Lakhmi rejoined the trinity with her sister-lovers. As foretold, when Sabella, the lover and saviour of the Goddess of Rats, Decay and Renewal – and Candles, but forget the candles – finally passed away, her body became a feast for rats and mold, holy creatures of her beloved.
May we all meet the same fate with joy, for it is a fine one indeed.