The Shunam crouched inside the mouth of a fissure and watched two climbers scramble up the rock face to his right. A man and a woman. The Shuman’s body shivered with glee. This woman was the One he had been waiting for. Her yellow hair, tied into a knot, and her pale face, smattered with small brownish marks, were identical to the picture, its detail and form beyond the ability of any Shunam, that had appeared on the wall of the sacred Mindron Temple.
This Shunam, whose name was Ferdum, had been entrusted, on his 13th creation date, with the task of waiting for the woman. He had been standing at the gate to Shuna ever since. At first it had been a huge honour but now, he was 35 and felt the need of a She. He needed to pro-create before it was too late.
All morning he had chanted under his breath, asking the Gods to bring the woman to him and now, at last, his prayers were answered. When he returned to Shuna with this strange creature, he would be a hero. Every untrothed She in the country would wish to pro-create with him.
Ferdum reviewed his training. He must not frighten these two humans, he needed to lure the female into the fissure, where it was dark. Unlike Shunans, humans could not see in the dark.
Becky Lewis pulled herself over the final lip of the mountain and onto her feet. She wound in her rope and threw it to the ground grinning down at Jack Lucas. Jack’s chest rose and fell as he lay on the ground. His harness, back pack and ropes lay at his side, thrown off in haste so that he could flop onto his back.
‘We made it.’ Becky punched the air, then turned from him and inched back towards the edge of the rock shelf to study their path. ‘I didn’t think I was going to manage that last overhang.’
Jack leapt up and came to stand beside her. She felt his arm clasp her waist. ‘Yeah. I know. I was right behind you remember, dodging crumbling rock?’ Becky took another step forward and his grip on her, tightened. ‘Don’t go too close without your rope.’ He pulled her back and placed chilly lips on hers. She closed her eyes to return his deep kiss. A clammy mist began swirling round them and Becky shivered. Jack held her tighter.
They had climbed well above the tree-line. No life would exist up here without food and shelter, so it was with surprise that Becky heard a faint whimper. Her eyes shot open and her slowing heart upped its pace.
‘What was that?’ She pulled her head away from Jack, her eyes darting to right and left. The ground beneath their feet was more or less flat, and she could just make out, through the low cloud, a large boulder a few feet away. Behind her, the mountainous landscape was invisible unless the wet mist parted to reveal a ghostly peak. Nearby, to Becky’s right, a natural pathway ran around a small outcrop, and vanished into the fog.
‘Jack pulled her towards him. ‘I didn’t hear anything,’ he muttered and nuzzled her cheek.
Becky pushed his chest to free herself, and trudged away, down a slope towards the track, calling back, ‘An animal, I think. It sounded in trouble.’
Her parents had learned long ago that when Becky put her mind to something, there was no point in arguing. From the age of 4 she had climbed to the top of every tree she could find, and conquered every mound or cliff they encountered. Becky’s mother spent much of her life, looking the other way while Becky undertook some reckless feat or other. Her father took a more pragmatic approach and bought Becky suitable clothing and footwear, and taught her how to be safe.
The track Becky took, soon narrowed to a ledge, and scree disturbed by her boots, showered down the ravine as she clung to the side to keep from following it. Behind her Lucas was shouting at her to wait for him because she had left her rope. Ignoring his panicked tones, she struggled on, and in a minute or two his voice was muffled by a bend in the path, and the thickening cloud cover.
The narrow shelf now flattened and widened and Becky squinted through the vapour. A few feet away, a rock face towered above her into the clouds. They hadn’t reached the top of the mountain after all. How could she and Jack have missed this?
When the piteous sound reached her again she cocked her head. It was definitely some animal in distress, but what it was doing this high up, was a puzzle. She pressed on, feeling the way with her hands. Lucas’s scrabbling footsteps were catching her up. She could hear the tap, tap of his hammer. Gravel and small boulders, disturbed by his boots, tumbled and bounced into the abyss to join the ones Becky had sent. Ignoring his cries, she moved on, her eyes straining for glimpses of terrain. The side of the crag was cold and slippery under her fingers and she felt, rather than saw, the flatter area beneath her feet, widening and the cliff edge receding. Still she clung for safety to the wall of stone and it was not long before her fumbling fingers encountered a sharp vertical lip. She shuffled closer and waved her hand around. It met space. Perhaps it was a crack, or maybe there was a drop, ahead. She regretted leaving her torch behind. Never mind. Her phone was in the inside pocket of her coat. She delved for it with her right hand, her left hand fingers clinging to a jutting rock.
Two noises made her jump. The first was Lucas, bursting around the corner from the ledge and shouting her name. The second was an ear-splitting yowl, right next to her ear. She pulled the free hand from her coat and raised it to protect her face. Something was very close to her. She could hear its labouring breath. She let go of the rock and tried to run but something gripped her wrist and dragged her into pitch blackness. Becky let out a shriek, ‘Lucas,’ and the world went black.
When Becky had gone off along the track, Lucas, less gung-ho than his girlfriend, took time to re-don his harness and check his equipment before setting off in pursuit. He cursed her as he worked his way round the rocks, hammering in pitons and clipping himself to them. When he reached the spot where the shelf widened and the rock face turned away from the edge, Becky’s yell, and the howl of the unknown creature sent adrenalin pumping through his veins.
‘Becky. Are you OK?’ he shouted, but his words were whipped away. Suddenly a green glow loomed into the fog illuminating two figures against the cliff face. He squinted for a clearer view but they were gone. ‘Becky’ he bellowed,’ Becky are you here?’ He clutched his hammer. Cloud swirled round him and a baleful wind roared in his ears. He was alone. Totally alone.
Becky opened her eyes. She was lying on her back on something hard, and the air around her was filled with the sound of high, melodic voices singing the same, incomprehensible phrase, over and over. Her eyes focussed on a red domed ceiling upon which, weird, painted birds and other creatures were frozen in flight and battle. Perhaps she had died and was in Hell.
The chanting was some way away; it seemed to come from below. She swivelled her eyes to a vast wall to her left and then leapt in shock. A giant effigy of her face looked back at her. It must have been 20 metres high. There was the knot in her hair, and the freckles that had been the bane of her life in her teens. Questions swirled in her mind: How? Why? Where? It was impossible to gather them into coherent order, so terrified was she. She looked back at the ceiling and walked her fingers across the surface of her platform to edges, parallel and precise, the texture of polished marble. They formed a rectangle that left a margin of about six inches all around her frame.
She twisted her head again, trying to see over the edge. She was high above the floor on a kind of pedestal. The hypnotic chanting was rising from an enormous crowd of figures gathered at its foot. This was too much and Becky released a piercing scream. It echoed round the vast space like a siren.
The chanting stopped.
Becky lay in the silence, unable to move but soon, curiosity overcame her fear. She pushed herself up into a seated position, swivelled round a quarter turn and dropped her legs over the edge of the parapet. The scale of the building awed her. From her lofty position, she leaned forward a little to study its layout. An enormous white floor stretched between walls of red and gold. Gathered upon it were, what must have been a thousand beings. Around and among them rose huge golden statues of strange, reptilian beasts, which reached up at her, snapping at her ankles. Their eyes and teeth were formed from coloured jewels that glinted and glared in the light.
The congregation were looking up, their faces almost but not quite, human. Hundreds of pairs of circular, bird-like eyes, stared at her and she jerked back breathing fast. This was too weird. She swivelled her eyes to right and left, up and down, looking for clues to her location. There were no windows up here but a strange greenish light that could have been from outside, bathed the floor and the backs of the crowd.
One of the beings broke away from the rest, and Becky watched him move towards the foot of her plinth. She doubled over to follow his path. He grasped a lever in the floor and tugged it towards his chest, and the platform began to move. She hung on as the fearsome statues and paintings swept smoothly upwards and Becky prepared to meet her destiny.
When she reached the ground without a jolt, she found herself face to face with her lift attendant. He opened a small, red-lipped mouth to reveal stumpy bejewelled teeth, and gurgled in a high-pitched voice, ‘Welcome to Shuna oh Priestess.’
Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would have observed, this fellow spoke her language. She screwed up her eyes and opened them again. She had to be dreaming, or more likely, she was in a coma. She must have fallen from that mountain ledge and was lying in a hospital somewhere, with Jack holding her hand. The thought gave her some comfort. Of course, this wasn’t real. She marvelled at her brain’s the capacity to conjure up such a convincing story. Well if this was a dream then she might as well have a bit of fun.
‘Thanks,’ she replied to the little man, and hopped to the floor. The crowd of beings standing before her were small in stature, maybe four feet six inches in height, and their lilac skin was smooth – you might call it polished. They reminded her of flexible statues. They were dressed in long purple robes and their toes projected from wooden soled sandals. There was not a hair on their heads and their pates shone in the emerald light from ornately framed windows. She stuck out her hand. ‘Becky Walker. Pleased to meet you.’
The character took her hand in a pair of icy palms, then dropped it. ‘You are hot!’ he exclaimed.
Becky grinned. ‘Well thanks. That’s what my boyfriend says.’
The little fellow shook his head in bafflement.
‘Never mind,’ Becky said. ‘Some fell on stony ground.’
There was another shake of the purple head and Becky decided to give up. There was no point in making jokes if they weren’t appreciated. ‘So, where am I? and, by the way, who are you? In fact, what are you?’
The lilac face cleared. ‘You are in the Mindron Temple of Shuna. I am a Shunam priest, my name is Ip.’
‘But why am I here, Ip, and,’ Becky stared up at the huge effigy of her face on the wall, ‘Why the giant picture, ooh, and why was I up there?’ She waved her hand at the place where she had woken up.
Ip bowed deeply, and behind him, the rustling congregation followed suit. ‘Perhaps you would like to freshen up and have something to eat, Priestess,’ he said in his piping voice, ‘Afterwards, we can talk, and I will explain what I can.’
Becky followed Ip into a sleeping room at the top of a tower on the Western corner of the temple enclosure. As the door closed behind them, a key turn in the lock and Becky was consumed for a moment by panic. Then she remembered that this was only a dream.
Ip led the way onto a carved, wooden balcony and for the first time Becky was outside. Straight away, two things struck her. The first was the temperature. Like Ip’s hands, the air was bone numbingly cold. Becky shivered and Ip went to fetch her a blanket. The second surprise was the emerald green sky. ‘It is an optical illusion,’ Ip explained, handing her a downy quilt. ‘There is a layer of toxic gas high above the atmosphere that filters the sunlight.’
The view was stunning. In many ways it looked like home, but the green light that fell on it, gave everything a bluish hue. Not far away was a forest. Some of the trees at its edge were ancient, with twisted limbs. In contrast, others towered over the landscape like battling giants, their pointed tops piercing the horizon. Far in the distance was a huge hill, cleft with a great fissure. The wound was the result, Ip told her, of a massive earth tremor that rocked the foundations of the land, burying thousands and destroying field upon field of crops.
Ip poured them both a drink of something green. He held up his glass and pursed his lips. ‘There is not much of this Ibok fruit drink, left. When it has gone we will have nothing but water.’
Becky took a sip. It was delicious.
Ip settled into a seat opposite her and began to talk.
‘Many shakras ago, at the beginning of time, the Gods decreed that our lives could go one of two ways, depending upon the people. We could either follow the sacred laws of peace, wisdom and kindness to one another, or we could be selfish, intolerant, and greedy. The first route would lead to eternal happiness. Our crops would flourish and the land would be massed with beauty and diversity. The second would result in famine, pestilence and natural disaster, and our land would be invaded by evil tribes. In short, we would exist in living hell.
Priests set up communities among the people, encouraging them to follow the sacred laws, and for a long time, all was peace and happiness. But it is the nature of Sharnams to want more. Some were not happy with their existence and, because most of had become so trusting, it was easy for that minority, to dupe them. The greed and eventual cruelty of these few Shunams led to a loss of honour among most, and our world began to change.
We Priests, tried in vain to restore what had been lost but as time went on, it seemed impossible. So, we built walls around our temples and removed ourselves from society, trying to live according to the sacred laws. We studied the many mantras of the Gods, and debated their meaning. There were many to read and they were in ancient language, open to interpretation; it took a very long time to get through them but eventually, one of our number, Hy, began translating a scripture called the Sunflower Mantra. As he worked, he realised that it was telling him that what we were doing was wrong. We should not shut ourselves away – society needed us. The mantra stated that there would be a coming – a female to save the planet.
This was anathema to the priests, who had locked themselves away from all aspects of society, including the pleasure of females. There was fierce debate on the interpretation of the ancient language in the tome, and after much study, the High Priest decreed that the idea of a female being sent to change society was apocryphal and that it was bound to be a male.
We tried to follow the guidance of the Sunflower Mantra by sending out priests into the community to preach the old ways,’ Ip told her, ‘But many were murdered, or returned beaten and bleeding.
Meanwhile, the promised pestilence and famine began to hit the land. Food became scarce and earthquakes and plague beset us. We Priests, like the population outside our walls, were starving and we began to fight among ourselves.
Then, an inexplicable event occurred. The picture of you, which you observed in the temple, simply appeared overnight. There was great fear among the priesthood, but Hy, the one who had read the Sunflower Mantra, stood up before us all, and spoke of his belief that this portrait was of a female from another world, who would free us from the evil ways of society. This was his understanding of the mantra that he continued to analyse.
The Higher Priests returned to studying the work, and soon afterwards, announced that they agreed with Hy. They recruited him to help interpret the writings further and with his help they read about a portal to your land.
The priests set a team of brothers to create the great altar upon which you awoke. It was to be the same height as your portrait, to elevate you to the height you deserved. The design and its dimensions were buried into the hieroglyphs in the Sunflower Mantra.
For many shakras since, a Sharnam has stood at the portal, awaiting your arrival.’
Becky stared at Ip. ‘How do you think I can save you? I know nothing about you or your land. I don’t have special powers. If what I think is correct, I’m not even a very good climber.’
‘The mantra states that you will “turn the light, yellow and the flowers, red, and the people of the land will be happy and fed,” Ip intoned, ‘It does not tell us how that will happen.’
‘Oh. Well that’s no problem then, I’ll get out my paint brush and get started.’
Ip shook his head once again, and looked at her. ‘I do not understand you but I feel you are disrespecting our beliefs.’
‘Too damned right I am.’ Becky pounded her knee with a closed fist. ‘I didn’t notice any respect from you for my wellbeing or beliefs.’
Well, I am happy to listen to what you believe,’ the Shunam said. ‘It is possible that your beliefs can help us.’
‘Look.’ Becky leapt to her feet. ‘What I believe is that you should return me to the portal and let me go back to my own land.’ She could not help feeling involved in her own make-believe. ‘You can see that I am not like you. For one thing I am a woman. The only woman here as far as I can make out. I believe that you should live together with women.’ She realised that she was pointing her finger at Ip in a way her mother would have called rude, and she stuffed her hand into the pocket of her trousers. ‘Women – females, are strong and compassionate. Let them bring peace to your society.’
Ip looked amazed. ‘Females?’ He stood up, presumably to meet her eyes, and failed because of his lack of stature so sat down again. ‘Please, take a seat,’ he begged. Becky dropped back onto the chair and folded her arms, and Ip leaned towards her, resting his forearms on his legs. His face, gleamed in the evening light as he looked into her eyes. ‘Becky, our Shes are not clever. They are good for cleaning and serving and for raising children but they could never lead us.’
Ip’s words were so infuriating, so unfair that Becky was afraid to speak in case she hit him. She could probably do the little Shunam quite a lot of damage, maybe throw him over the railings to splat on the ground below. That would show him the power of the female. If this was a dream it was incredibly convincing. She marvelled again at the power of her imagination.
She stood up and leaned over the balcony. ‘Where are the other people in your land?’ she asked. ‘I can’t see any towns or villages.’
‘There is a city on the other side of the Temple. It stretches for several Thakka to the North East. Tomorrow, I will show you.’ He rose to his feet. ‘I will leave you now.’ He tapped on the door with his knuckles and it opened. As he left he said, ‘Sleep well, Priestess,’ and closed the door. Becky stared at its carved panels and the key clunked in the lock.
Later, after washing, she sank into the embrace of her bed. As her eyelids dropped to her cheeks she realised that she hadn’t thought about Jack all evening: a bit rude as he was probably sitting beside her in the hospital.
The city was laid out below them. Becky and Ip leaned on the balcony edge, a mirror image of the one that led off Becky’s quarters, and took in the noise and activity on the streets below. Becky was interested to see small, brightly coloured vehicles passing up and down roads – roads marked with a line along their centre, much like the ones at home. These vehicles had no wheels and appeared to float, just above the surface, zipping along silently and hovering at junctions. At each intersection stood a Shunam, directing the traffic and allowing residents to cross. Down one street was a market. It’s stalls were not rich with produce. There were a few, knobbly fruit and vegetables, some clothing and tools and even what looked like books. Becky wondered if there were any ibok fruit down there. ‘Not one,’ the priest told her. ‘All our crops were destroyed in the great quake.’
She frowned as something occurred to her. ‘I can’t see any women.’
‘Shes and children are not allowed on the main streets, they would get in the way of business,’ said Ip.
‘Where are they then?’ Becky strained her eyes to more distant streets and could just about make out movement.
‘There may be Shes in those streets you regard,’ said Ip. ‘If there are, you could not see them properly because they wear mist-gowns.’ At her puzzled expression, Ip went on, ‘Mist-gowns are exactly as you would imagine. They cover the female from head to foot in a fog-like material. The She can see out but only her special He can see in.
The edge of the balcony, bit into Becky’s palms from the pressure of her grip. She remained silent for a moment. ‘And how many adults live in the city?’
The Priest pursed his lips. ‘Many. I do not know exactly. I suppose, in your language, several million.’
‘How many are ‘Shes?’
‘We do not count Shes.’
Becky arrived at a decision. She straightened up and looked Ip hard in the eye. ‘I am sure I can help you,’ she said. ’And you need to let me go out among your people.’
Ip nodded. ‘I will have a mist-gown made for you.’
She was about to object but thought better of it.
There was a soft tap on her door and the sound of the key, turning. A young She, the first Becky had come across, bowed herself in. A garment was draped over the She’s arms, it shimmered and smoked in the dim air. With her circular eyes fixed on the ground, the She halted just over the threshold and the solid door swung shut.
‘Hello.’ Becky kept her voice low, afraid to frighten the quivering female. On tiptoe she approached the she and lifted the mist-gown from her outstretched arms. It was almost weightless.
She studied the Shunam in surprise. She was tall; taller in fact than Becky. Her skin was the same gleaming lilac as that of the priests but she had beautiful, thick waves of pure, white hair that descended to her waist. The front was caught up into an elaborate knot, keeping it from her face. Her muscular body was clothed in an ochre coloured tunic, divided into culottes that reached to her calves.
Her subservient demeanour was making Becky uncomfortable. She floated the mist-gown onto the bed and said, ‘Thank you so much for this. I thought I would need an extra-long one as I am so much taller than these males, but I was wrong.’ She smiled at the She. ‘Are all Shes as tall as you?’
The girl remained motionless, and stared at the floor. Perhaps she didn’t understand. Becky approached her and touched a cold shoulder – huh, it gave a new meaning to the phrase. The She flinched but did not move. Becky crouched lower and looked up into the girl’s face. ‘Please. Talk to me. I am so lonely here with all these men.’
The eyes swivelled to meet Becky’s. ‘I am called Mita. I made your gown. I hope it fits.’ Her voice was different from that of the priests. No warbling and piping at all, but deep, musical tones, very like Becky’s own.
‘Well, Mita. I ‘m pleased to meet you. Do you think we could stand up and talk face to face?’
Mita raised her face to Becky’s and they both straightened up, laughing.
‘Come and sit down with me.’ Becky opened the balcony door and after a slight hesitation, Mita did as she had been asked and sat down, shuffling around in the chair, ill at ease.
There was so much to learn about the women of Shunam and Becky was longing to know how these physically superior beings had allowed themselves to become subjugated to such an extent.
Mita was not as articulate as Ip, which was hardly surprising, but as they talked, her inner strength became clear. This She, and others like her, had not allowed themselves to be truly to be oppressed. It became clear that the Shes, with their more powerful physiques, had built the houses and roads that Becky looked down upon earlier. Furthermore, the mist-gowns, far from defeating them, offered an opportunity for secret activities. There were clandestine organisations of women in different trades: builders, wood workers and seamstresses for example, and these groups had achieved an amazing sub-life in an underground maze of secret passages and meeting rooms, unsuspected by their Hes.
‘Mita. Do you know why I am here?’ Becky was curious to know whether the effigy of her face had appeared anywhere else in Shuna. ‘The Priests were expecting me because they had read ancient manuscripts that predicted my coming. They found their way to my land and brought me here.’
‘We Shes know your face.’ Said Mita. ‘We have been waiting for you too. I did not know that the Priests were expecting you, but it makes sense as they, unlike us, can read.’
‘Can your Hes read or is it only priests who are educated?’
‘Of course Hes can read. How else could they conduct business?’ Mita stared at Becky as if she were stupid. ‘Our He children learn to read at their school. Our She children learn a trade at theirs.’ Mita’s words faded into thought and Becky watched the inequity of this arrangement dawning on her.
‘So, your male children learn to read?’
Ip called on Becky the following morning. ‘You have your robe, I see.’
‘I do. I’ve tried it on. It’s amazing. I can’t tell I’m wearing it. Can you check it works?’ She raised the gown over her head and it floated over her. She could not feel it, even if she stretched her arms out to the side.
‘It is as it should be,’ Ip reported. I cannot see you but you can see me. Is that not so?’
‘Indeed,’ Becky said. ‘So, when can I leave?’
‘I will assign you a guard,’ said Ip, his face a mask.
Behind the mist, Becky’s face dropped. She swallowed and forced away her disappointment. ‘Thank you. I will need a guide.’
‘The guard will lead you through the main streets so you do not interfere with the trade. Where, then, do you wish to go?’
‘May I not speak to your traders and business Hes?’
‘They will not talk to you. You are a She. You have no place there.’
‘Fair enough. But will my guard be welcome in the back streets?’
‘It does not matter if he is welcome or not. He will go wherever he must, and will remain with you at all costs. You are our promised one and must be protected.’
Becky removed the robe and looked straight at IP. ‘I will think about where I wish to go, and let you know in the morning. Meanwhile, I would like to see Mita again. I would like her to do my hair before I leave.’
Ip bowed his head. ‘I will see to it immediately. Be ready to leave the compound at sunrise.’
The dawn threw green light in at the window as Becky donned her mist-gown and followed the guard from her room. Her mind was reviewing the directions Mita had given her and the escape strategy they had devised. She spoke to the guard. ‘Do you have a name, Sir?’
The guard did not answer. His face was stern as he held the door for her to pass through and closed it behind them both. Becky hesitated in the corridor, unsure of where to go, and the guard led her along long purple and golden passage ways, down wide flights of stairs with bannisters engraved with creatures, and eventually into the domed hall. The eyes in Becky’s portrait, followed her progress, and her footsteps whispered off the walls. A movement caught Becky’s eye and Ip stepped out of the shadows.
‘Priestess, I wish you every fortune in your quest to save our world. I have faith that you will succeed but I warn you.’ His eyes opened wide and he leaned his face into hers. ‘If you forget that you have a duty to us all; if you run away and try to escape back to your own world, I promise that you will fail. The only way for you to return to the man with whom you climbed the mountain, is to make the sky yellow and the flowers red.’ He stood back. Still looking at her. ‘Do you understand?’
Demonstrating more certainty than she felt, Becky nodded. ‘I do, Ip. I understand and I will achieve my mission.’
He nodded. ‘Good. Then fortune be yours, Priestess.’ He turned to a massive disk, set in the wall and with both hands, leaned on it. There was a rumble that echoed round the temple, and green light poured in through a towering crack in the wall.
Becky stepped out into the icy air. Well dream, she thought, where will you take me next?