The raucous calls of the flock saturated the air every bit as much as the humidity that made her sweat gather beneath her black robes. She stood in a patch of shadow tinted green by the rich life around her and felt both hot and cold. Aamaal lifted her gloved hand and pressed the back of it to the beads of sweat that formed on her brow. Perhaps it was the movement that exposed her, perhaps she’d been exposed all along, but an orange bird overhead pulled in its wings and sped down towards her. It threw out its wings at the last moment, the rush of air startled Aamaal as much as the motion and she threw up her hand to shield her face, a hand which the bird obligingly took for a roost.
Her gasp of surprise was joined by a silken laugh, not mocking but merry and sweet. Out of the green undergrowth flowed a small figure in an orange robe a shade or two darker than the birds that now slowly gathered around them, dropping from the sky like petals from a spent flower to land on branches around them. It seemed impossible that such a bright shade, in such contrast to the verdant forest around them should have approached unseen and yet until the woman laughed, Aamaal hadn’t seen her. Was it magic or some trick of the priestess’ who tended this temple?
“They are opportunists,” the smaller woman said, her face young, untroubled and full of the joys of life as Aamaal’s had never been. “They will settled for branches if nothing else presents itself, but they seek to raise themselves up by being different.”
She smiled ruefully and plucked a bird off of a nearby branch. It was silent as it flapped its wings and settled in her grip though Aamaal couldn’t help but note the hint of caged panic in the creature’s eyes.
“You are Aamaal and you wished to speak with us?” the woman asked, not offering her name. She stopped before Aamaal and looked up at her, her face smooth, untroubled around dark eyes that were deep and inscrutable.
“I do.” Aamaal said, finding her voice was slow to come from a throat gone dry. What she was about to ask flew against the customs of her people, the very customs these women were the wellspring of. The bird perched on Aamaal’s hand shifted, flapping its wings before settling, though its grip on her hand loosened as if it were readying itself to fly.
The priestess gestured for Aamaal to proceed and Aamaal found the words stuck in her throat. Her husband was three days dead and she mourned him now no more than she had three days ago when he’d taken his leave of this turn on the wheel. Three days and he now lay on his pyre, awaiting the dark of night so that his light would show the heavens he was ready to try again. She, Aamaal, according to custom must join him or join these women. She wanted neither. She tried to swallow but all the words that she wanted to say, words filled with wants that could not, should not be spoken, made the effort painful.
“You do not wish to join your husband?” the priestess said gently, her mouth curving into a sympathetic smile as if she’d had a great many such conversations and had seen the signs in Aamaal’s grim visage.
Grateful for another moment to collect her thoughts but frustrated at her inability to speak Ammaal shook her head.
“No.” she managed at last. “I do not wish to join him.” For to join him on his pyre was to cement herself to him for another turn around the wheel. He hadn’t been cruel, he hadn’t beaten her, but neither had he loved her. He had been indifferent if anything, no more invested in their union than she was. Only he could leave the house, he could move freely and make choices of his own. Aamaal had wed him when she was just past girlhood and so her choices had been taken from her. This moment, standing before the priestess was the first choice she’d had in over a dozen years, to burn or to serve. She wanted neither.
“I do not wish to join your order either.”
The priestess was still and then took a long, deep sigh. Her face, which had seemed so young and untroubled before suddenly seemed lined with the weight of the world. Her dark eyes seemed so ancient, so sad.
“I see.” She said and the bird in her hand made a soft little noise. “There is a third choice.” She said into the heavy silence that had fallen over the forest, a silence so thick that the birds around them seemed loathe to break it.
Aamaal’s heart skipped, her breath caught and then she breathed, “There is?”
The priestess nodded. “There is.” As she said this she let her fingers open and the bird in her hand flew free, spiraling up through the canopy and vanishing. The sounds of its wing beats were frantic like a racing heart.
Aamaal nodded, certain she understood. A great welling of gratitude filled her as she turned and began to walk away. Her motion set the bird on her hand to flight. She lifted her eyes to watch it fly and did not see the priestess move. She did not see the flash of light as the sun caught on the honed edge of the blade before it plunged into Aamaal’s back. Aamaal made no sound as she dropped to the floor of the forest, a spent petal whose body would feed the plant that had sprouted her.
“There is always another choice,” the priestess said as she knelt by the woman’s side and began the prayers that would see her soul back to the wheel for another try.