"Little daughter, it's time! Hurry! You're late! Hurry!"
Jaini's head jerked up from her pillow and her eyes flew open, her heart pounding.
"Ma?" she called. "Ma, did you say something? Am I late?"
"What?" her mother's voice came from the other room.
"Am I late?" she yelled.
"No, darling. We have to leave in an hour or so. Breakfast is ready. Is something wrong?"
Jaini gave a deep sigh. "Nothing, nothing. I was just dreaming." She sat up, stretched, yawned, and rolled from her sleeping pallet onto the floor of her cocoon. She gazed up at the multihued designs on the ceiling for a few seconds, then stood and began to rummage through her storage cubbies, looking for a comfortable robe. Immediately she caught sight of her nude body in the glass and frowned.
Fat! she thought to herself. I'm so fat! She smoothed her hands over her full breasts, her generous hips and thighs. Well, today's the day I get rid of all this - chubby baby breasts, stomach, all of it! She smiled at her face in the mirror, imagining the hollows in her cheekbones that would appear, thinking about what it would be like to see her ribs, each outlined against the skin. Wonderful. She sniffed. Breakfast... hot fried kannah, she thought.
She hastily donned a maroon robe and, swinging her legs over the side of the cocoon, scrambled down the ladder to the main room. She shivered as her feet touched the cold stone.
Mati and Pati were already at the table - Ma perched at the end, near the kitchen area, and Pa balancing on his bar, to her right.
"Ah, happy eighteenth birthday, little fat one!" Pa called, the rapid beating of his wing-tips reflecting the smile on his face. He stuffed a piece of fried kannah into his mouth.
"Soon you won't be able to call me that any more!" Jaini grinned as she clambered up the rungs of the chair. "And I won't need _THIS_ any more, either!" she said, patting the chair. Even with its boost, her chest barely reached the top of the stone table. She filled her plate with kannah, then scooped a large spoonful of jingvir into her bowl.
"Oh, I forgot the juice," her mother said. She turned on her perch, then, with a few strong shoves of her wings, flew over to the counters and got the juice. Pa helped himself to half the plate of kannah.
"I know children don't ever eat much," her mother said, returning to the table with the pitcher and a platter of kangi fruits, "but I still can't help thinking you're starving to death." Jaini's plate was half the size of Ma's.
Pa grabbed a kangi fruit and popped it into his mouth. "It'll be a relief to your mother to see you eat normally," he said, a trickle of blue juice running down the side of his mouth.
"I'm really not hungry today," Jaini said, pushing her food around her plate.
"Worried about the TayAnDing?" Pa said, slurping down some jingvir.
"Hermark! You'll just make her more nervous, and while she's eating too," Ma scolded.
"It's okay, Ma. Tell me again, Pa. I want to hear it again."
"Obstacles and difficulties are given to us to make us grow.
Everything in life - everything, Jaini, not just the TayAnDing - is there because you want it there. You brought it there. Your problems and pains are your gift from the universe. From yourself. Face the TayAnDing with a bright heart and remember that this is your choice. Rejoice in your obstacles and accept that you are the cause of your difficulties. Then through that suffering you will grow."
Jaini felt a thin finger of coldness run down her spine. Suffering. The pain of the TayAnDing was legendary. Don't think about it.
"Can we go soon?" Jaini said.
"We've got plenty of time," said Pa.
"I don't want to be late," Jaini fussed.
"Don't rush your Pa through his breakfast," Ma said.
"It's okay, Chinnat. We can go when everyone is ready."
"I'm ready now!" Jaini climbed down from the chair and rushed towards the cave mouth.
"Wash your face and hands, at least," Ma said as she cleared away the breakfast things. Jaini went to the washroom, hurried through her tasks, then went back to the mouth of the cave. She poked her head out and breathed the fresh dawn air. The first fingers of day were just beginning to pull apart the dark sky as the sun appeared over the horizon. She could easily see the cliff face around her, but far below, the valley slumbered in darkness.
"Anda!" Jaini shouted out of the cave mouth.
A few feet away, a stir of movement. Then Anda's bright red mop of hair appeared. "Jaini. Going today!" Anda scrambled out of her cave and descended the ladder to the ledge that connected their two homes. Jaini climbed down her ladder as well, and they met on the ledge. Companionably they wrapped their arms around each other's waists and leaned together, head against head.
"I'm sooo jealous," Anda said.
"Not long for you. Don't be jealous, anyway. What if I can't stand it? What if I fail?"
"You won't fail. Remember, spring will never fail to come. Whatever happens, it will pass."
"Jaini! Go on now! We'll follow after!"
"Yes, Ma!" Jaini and Anda kissed each other affectionately.
Then Anda hurried back to her cave and Jaini began the trek across the ledges, working her way from the ledge that ran by her home, down a short switchback, then another ladder, then to the wide ridge. As she pattered along, she greeted the neighbors, out on their perches, enjoying the warmth of the morning sun. Other flyers wheeled across the valley. One group of four began a screamingly fast descent into the darkness, plunging towards the earth.
Hunters, Jaini thought. What must it be like to come so close to the valley? She shivered. Valley of darkness. Valley of failures.
She reached the main ladder, wide enough for two children to pass each other on their way up or down. Up - to the top of the Mountain. Down - to the valley.
It's not too late! Run! an insidious voice whispered. You could save your life! Better to live your whole life as a fat child than as a deformed monster. Or an idiot. Better to live than to die.
Oh, but what a way to live! Down there, in that patch of darkness. With the other fearful fat children and the deformed and the blind.
Better to die. I will triumph over the TayAnDing. Or I will die in the attempt.
But what if it makes me a monster?
I'll just throw myself from the top of the Mountain, she thought.
What if it makes me an idiot?
If it makes me an idiot... well then I won't know the difference, will I?
She started up the ladder, ignoring the nagging fears in the back of her mind. Climb, climb, climb, climb. Hurry, hurry, hurry.
"Jaini!" came a shout from behind her.
"Yes, Pa?" she said, not turning.
"We'll meet you at Stannit Gott!" She felt a slight breeze from his wings as he swooped by.
Climb, climb, climb. I'll be glad to finally soar.
Aeons later, she dragged her aching calves over the top of the Mountain.
Stannit Gott, the building, was directly ahead, strange, shiny sides blinding in the full morning sun. Her mother and father perched on bars near the door, their long, skinny calves dangling from under their robes, wings beating lazily as they balanced. The old man, Stannit Gott, sat with them. Well, really he was a fat child like herself, but somehow it didn't seem right to call someone with a long gray beard and a face full of wrinkles a fat child.
And who, after all, was the Holy Place.
In a way.
"So, you've come to meet the TayAnDing," the old man cackled.
"Yes, sir," Jaini swayed on her feet, still breathless from the climb.
"Are you ready?"
"I will have the strength of General Stone Tiger." Jaini said in a burst, surprising even herself.
"Very well then. Let's go." He flung the door wide.
Jaini turned to her parents. "Pati." She flung her arms around his knees and put her cheek against his bony legs. "I'll never forget - when I was small - the times you took me out flying over the Mountain. And I won't forget anything you taught me. I'll make you proud. I love you."
She felt his thin, steel-strong fingers brush through her hair.
"I love you too, little fat one."
"Mati." She embraced her mother. "I love you." And then, in a whisper, "I'm scared."
"Don't be. You're my brave girl. You've always been bold."
"Are you going to wait until you're 19 to meet the TayAnDing?" the old man asked.
"I'm coming!" Jaini roared.
She strode through the open door, glanced over her shoulder at her parents, one last time. Then the old man stepped behind her and closed the door with a slam.
She shivered. The hall was dark and she paused, unsure of which way to go.
"Straight ahead!" the old man grumbled, giving her a shove.
She tripped over her own feet, recovered, and walked into the darkness. A few more strides and her outstretched fingers touched stiff sisal matting. The Stannit Gott elbowed her aside and pushed the wall, which opened, revealing a long, dark, narrow room full of cabinets and boxes, studded with levers and wheels and small, twinkling stars.
Jaini stared, her eyes wide in amazement.
"We made this, you know," the old man said in a mumble. "Couldn't do it now, I'm sure. Why? Don't know. How? Don't know that, too. Don't know any of that. The council...people ought to learn, to study. Just hunting now. Ridiculous, living like cliff-tigers. Hmmph. Should be living like men!"
His words flowed over Jaini like water over stones. She simply stared at the holy secrets that were revealed to her, in all of their shining, flashing intricacy.
"Well, you don't care, do you, little fat one?" the Stannit Gott grumbled. "All right, let's get on with it."
He did something to one of the boards, and the wall above the cabinets opened, revealing a glass panel. Beyond that, Jaini saw a small room, with a metal perch jutting up from the solid metal floor. The other walls were glass, too, but through them, she could see only blue sky.
He made another adjustment and then those walls slid down into the floor, so that the small room was open on three sides.
The old man led her into the other room, which seemed even smaller now. It was a balcony, a ledge in the sky. Jaini felt dizzy.
"The top of the Mountain," he commented. "Ready?"
Jaini took a deep breath and nodded.
"Put your hands on the bar," the old main directed. Jaini wrapped her fingers around the cold shining metal.
"Now, child. This is your last chance. You can leave here and walk down the Mountain. It's not such a bad life in the Valley, you know. And there is danger here. Your life is at hazard. Do you want the TayAnDing?"
"Do you want the TayAnDing?"
"Do you want the TayAnDing?"
"Yes." She nodded, and shivered, at the final yes.
"Very well." He took a deep breath. "This will hurt. Take off your robe. " Jaini jerked the soft cloth over her head and gripped the bar again.
"Throw it away."
She glanced at him, slightly puzzled, then tossed it over the edge. The wind took it-- a maroon butterfly, a wisp floating down, down, down.
"Very well. Say your meditations. And don't let go." He walked back in to the cabinet room. The door slammed shut with a thud. Jaini gripped the bar and gazed out across the valley to the cliffs on the other side. The sky was blue, so blue. The breeze stirred her hair, so slightly, so lightly.
I devote myself to the Mountain. I devote myself to the Mountain.
The first jolt hit her like a blow, nearly knocking her off her feet. A knife, in the bowels of her stomach, the flesh wrenching and tearing itself. She glanced down, expecting to see her guts in a bloody puddle at her feet, but there was nothing, nothing but smooth flesh. She winced, wanting only to double over and wrap her arms around her waist. But she kept her grip on the bar.
Obstacles and difficulties are given to us to make us grow.
Fire now. Starting at her feet, licking and burning. She closed her eyes, sure that she smelled her flesh scorching, the skin blackening, bubbling, peeling back to reveal pink muscle and white tendon beneath, all the way to the bone, the bone, the fire at the very marrow of her shins and thighs. She glanced again. Her feet seemed to be collapsing in on themselves, the flesh shriveling and drying, the toes elongating, the skin like webs between the narrow bones. And then it began to creep its way up her shins, an invisible monster working its way up her body, eating her flesh, stripping her fat and lean both, consuming her from the inside.
She threw her head back and screamed.
This is my choice. I grow through the pain. I devote myself to the Mountain. I devote myself to the Mountain.
And now there was no pain. No sensation whatsoever. She floated in a void, a vacuum, no feet no hands no face. She opened her eyes and stared at her hands. They were still gripped on the bar but she couldn't feel them. Blue sky beyond them.
Grip, she willed them. Grip. Hold on. Grip. I devote myself to the Mountain. She watched her hands shrink and narrow, grow bony and beautifully skeletal.
And then with another explosion inside her head the pain was back. In a clap of thunder her guts collapsed, shrinking and tightening and narrowing. She couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe.
Rejoice in your obstacles. I devote myself to the Mountain.
In her back now, the worst pain yet. It was exploding. Her back was exploding. She heard the bones crack. She bent almost double over the bar, her palms slick with sweat, sobbing aloud now as the joints and naked bones rubbed against each other, sharp like sticks, sharp like swords, sharp like death. Noisy. Louder than a symphony of drums.
I can't do it!
You chose this. This is your gift to yourself.
She sobbed. A string of saliva trickled down her chin.
Through that suffering you will grow.
Her eyes dimmed with tears, she stared straight ahead at the blue sky.
Then the worst began. It was a hollow bubble in her chest, her heart turned to lead, a vacuum like death inside her heart, a dropping thud in the pit of her stomach, a wave of sadness rolling over her like the waves in the air. She bowed her head, the pain in her heart keener than any she'd ever felt. Loss. Lost and empty, alone, zero at the bone, fear and solitude and a heart bare like an fireplace, ashy and black, burnt-out, nothing left no one nothing...
She gripped the bar. I devote myself to the Mountain.
And then it stopped.
She straightened her back, inhaled, still wary and unsure, still gripping the bar, still poised to resist the onslaught. She blinked, widened her eyes, and realized for the first time that she could see the old man through the glass. He waved, nodded, smiled, made hand motions, as if he were releasing something.
She relaxed, then tensed again. It could be a trick. She renewed her grip on the bar.
With a sigh the old man stopped his motions and stomped over to the door.
"Look at yourself, you obstinate fool. You're finished."
She looked...at her hands, so thin and bony and light. At her forearms, her feet, her ankles, all slender and proper and neat. And...she turned her head slightly backwards...there they were. The wings, arcing over her head, strong, brilliant with feathers.
She released the bar and reached up to touch herself with her newly formed fingers. Chest, broader and stronger, thick with muscle. Wings...feathers...she shivered, feeling the breeze for the first time, really feeling it...ahhhh.
She looked at the old man. "Can I?"
"Go," he said.
With a broad grin she gathered herself. Two steps to the edge of the room, and then...she launched herself into the welcoming morning sun.
Crispin tells us she is a writer of code by day, a writer of fiction by night. She's currently working on a script for a puppet show -- an English version of the Ramanyana. She's a former Peace Corps Volunteer (Thailand, 1990) and an active Buddhist; her writing is heavily influenced by Asian folkways and philosophies.