I wrote this short piece back in 2017 when I was working through worldbuilding for the main universe I write in.
Most of the stories I write are related to a specific set of story arcs. “The Waterfall Commune” and this piece, “Longing for Water,” however, are one-shot pieces that are a bit like character/cultural sketches for the world.
This one is about a swim competition at the festival of a Goddess, Karyika, on one world in a binary planet system, and a competitor’s crush on one of the religious officiants running the festival. It’s not the kind of thing one could submit to a lit mag, so it’s an ideal piece to share on this blog. I also liked looking at it again because it highlights how much I have grown as a writer since I last edited this (roughly) 2,000-word piece in 2018, but it is still cute and fun for me, and I hope for you.
Today is the day of the swim race for Karyika, the Goddess of the sea. Karyika has blessed our bay with the smallest tidal change on Laseå, and we are the only city she has blessed with a close-in port. We come to Laku Hill each summer when the air is thick and stagnant to give thanks before bringing her image down to the sea.
Her hymns say that the bay once had immense tides. When Karyika decided to become our patron Goddess, everything changed. The Goddess wove a garment of thin sea-silk hued like sunset over water. She caked her body with mud, clay, and earth and traveled to the mid-ocean rift to seduce Lasåka, the ground-shaking Goddess whose tectonic expertise extends from Laseå’s core to its mountain peaks and volcanoes. Their lovemaking’s earthquakes set down a seabed that makes our bay good for trade. We have prospered.
The swim races on this day test unmarried women for endurance, strength, and grit. They are the Goddess’ main offering. I have trained for a year, waking up early before my studies to swim and do drills. This is what unmarried women do when we need husbands to produce heirs and have no interest in meeting men socially. My mother approves for this reason, but we have different goals.
The most beautiful person in our city is Paya. Paya will hand out the medal. Le was engaged to Karyika when le was nine and confirmed the marriage at fifteen. As an adult, le has had three children with people in town and numerous relationships. Paya has wide, child-serious hips, braided hair, and the most handsome smile I have ever seen. Among all of Karyika’s zolyi, Paya captivates me the most. The entire time we are preparing, my stomach feels like churning gravel anticipating our encounter.
I catch a glimpse of lim during the procession down. The sun beats down on my dark hair, and my mouth is dry. The pavement’s heat burns the soles of my feet. The breast-binding swimsuits, according to a something I read last week, increase anxiety — but I think I’d be anxious this close to Paya even in something breezy. We have ritual powder all over us, which has gotten into my nose, and I don’t want to sneeze because how unflattering would it be to sneeze and have Paya turn around from the head of the procession? Or one of the other religious officiants with those streaming video cameras?
The Goddess’ statue brings thronging crowds out to the balconies and sidewalks. They cheer. Dried and fresh flower petals catapult through the air down at us. Somewhere along the route, my mother watches. My mother has prayed for months and dreams of a well-funded son-in-law. If I swim well, someone will volunteer to give me sperm. If I swim superbly, many might apply. We will have our pick, and a marriage alliance with an influential man will open many doors.
I do not want anyone but Paya. A woman as young as me should think about continuing the family line, not pleasure. Pleasure is something for after I have my first child. Paya is a zolyi who has caught me in ler snare.
The pavement gives way to beach dunes. By now, all of us long for water. Those of us swimming line up along the shore. We will go out to the First Marker and back, a dangerous thing that only strong women can do. Out in the bay, medical boats patrol. Last year, one of the swimmers drowned. Each of us wants to win this race. Some want it too much.
I swear that I make eye contact with Paya, that le smiles at me. It sends my stomach into chaos. I don’t want lim to notice me now, unproven and just standing here on the hot sand. Besides, le may not even remember who I am.
Paya doesn’t have econ exams and lectures or swim races to run. Parents of zolyi never plot for sperm or complain to neighbors about a marriage-reluctant child. Zolyi select whom they like because each has already married a God. Zolyi learn to be water, to break open boundaries like meandering rivers, because they must be all things to a God.
Paya is a prism through which Karyika radiates. Whenever I see Paya in town and le looks at me, I can hardly move. I am just an econ student. I’ve always been shy. How does someone court someone so handsome?
We ready ourselves for the race. When the head officiant touches a burning torch against the water, everyone moves at once.
It is chaos to race with the waves fighting against you. One of them catches me in the face, and seawater comes into my mouth. I spit it out. The saltwater stings. It is only the first of many encounters, each a cruel setback. I see at least five people ahead of me. I need to move faster. I do. Four people. The current nearly takes me. I resist. I am nearly at the First Marker. A shimmering white fish lunges at me from below, and I kick it away.
Something hits me. I nearly go under, but I kick again and keep moving. When my head comes up, a streak of red and orange rushes past me — the medical boat heading for a screaming swimmer. Maybe I see red in the swells? I don’t know. If I gawk, I lose. I take deep breaths and do not stop until I get to the perimeter buoy and net.
Three people are ahead of me, swimming back towards shore. The first of us to run up to the Goddess and make a gesture of supplication will win. The second of us, like the last of us, or like that girl the medics might save, will receive nothing. I cannot be second.
It gets harder to swim the more I try to push myself. There is a current, but not a bad one. I am a strong swimmer. I have trained for this. The waves now surge me forward. I am running through the sand. Two women are running ahead of me. One limps from a bite wound, and blood is trickling into the sand. That one collapses.
I recognize the other woman, Osa, who has trained for this just as hard as me. The sand slows both of us down. If I had to imagine someone else infatuated by Paya, it would be Osa. Osa has spent dozens of hours running over the painful, prickly seaweeds drying all over the beach. It takes skill. The seaweed barbs numb our feet, and we stumble as if we were drunk. Only one of us will win.
Karyika’s statue looms ahead of us. We keep going. I fall, Osa falls, each of us gets back up. My hands are numb. I do not run with my hands, which makes that extraneous physical feedback. Paya will touch my head and my shoulders when I win, anyway.
We reach the pedestal at the same time. My eyes still sting with salt. It seems like Osa and I pass through each other when we reach for Karyika. My left hand lands on Karyika’s knee below Osa’s, and Osa’s right hand lands on Karyika’s knee beneath mine.
It is a tie. Ties don’t happen in these races. Karyika always chooses a winner. Neither I nor Osa will lift our hands from the Goddess’ knees because neither of us wants to admit defeat.
Paya approaches us. Le puts ler hands over ours and lifts them from Karyika’s knees. I am on a cloud, and Paya is smiling at me. I love that smile. Paya kisses my hands before le kisses Osa’s. I am dead, my heart is beating so fast.
“We will break the tie with a die roll,” Paya says. Le kisses each of our hands again.
One of the officiants brings out an ornate box, which holds a single die made of titanium. It has ten sides and lies cushioned in the velvet, a treasure of the Goddess. A weight in my throat makes it hard to breathe.
Osa picks up the die first and casts it while murmuring prayers to Karyika. It lands on a 6. The die passes to me, and my hand is shaking so badly that I nearly drop it.
Because Osa has prayed to Karyika, do I pray to Karyika, too? Is it selfish to pray that I want Paya’s attention just as much as I want to bring glory to the Goddess’ racing day? I might as well, so I do.
It lands on a 6.
Osa casts it again. 8.
I cast it. 3.
It is all I can do to keep myself from bursting into tears. Paya sees my face, but everyone else has erupted into cheers because Osa has won, and Osa is brought up to the dais where Paya will crown and medal Osa. The reporters turn their cameras on Osa.
It is an achievement to stand aside and hold back tears. In the crowd, my mother is jumping up and down, her hands in fists in the air. Our eyes meet. Almost winning — the sign from Karyika that I am nearly as favored as Osa this year — means that our family will have so many applicants.
When the ceremony finishes, the city sacrifices livestock and spits the meat for barbecuing right on the beach. We will feast until dawn, and all I want to do is hide in my room beneath a thin blanket, fan on full blast. My mother finds me as soon as the crowd breaks open. The hugs and enthusiasm and pride are too much because I have lost. Osa and Paya remain near Karyika, and I will join the losers among the throngs of worshippers who did not train for a year, who do not have a crush on Paya so strong that they risked venomous bites and stinging seaweeds to catch ler attention, who will not remember coming so close to winning only to fail.
I walk down to the water and let the remains of the waves suck at my feet in the damp sand. There, our sister world Ameisa sets, a hurricane in its northern hemisphere. I took an interplanetary culture class in cohort school. Their marriages are not like ours, with bids for sperm from male visitors during a young woman’s prime. I am not ashamed to be Welåden. Their young people do not, however, have all of this pressure. That freedom must be luxurious.
Osa lingers in a throng of reporters. They will broadcast these interviews to the other worlds, too, but I’ve never been a great public speaker. Osa can have that. Not wanting to be where she is doesn’t stop the sobs I have bottled in for hours from erupting.
“You swam well today.” That voice is Paya’s.
The hair on the back of my neck stands on end. “Not well enough.” I mean it.
“Sixty swam today. You were second.” Paya comes to stand next to me, and le extends ler hand. In it, le holds an intact redfruit. “Zapa, you did really well. I often went down to watch you practice. You are strong.”
I close my palm over lers. Le doesn’t move ler hand away, which means favor. My face burns. I am so self-conscious. It could be the aftereffects of the swim, but I hover outside of myself. Ler presence doesn’t feel real until our hands clasp, and the redfruit bursts between them. It is blood-red, sticky, and tingly. What do I do now that Paya has shown that le likes me? I just freeze.
Paya is a zolyi, six years older, and le knows. Our hands separate. Ler sticky palm lands in the narrow of my back. Le pulls me close. We kiss.
Perhaps coming in second is not the same as coming in last.