The Goddess in Him



Kurghan groaned at having to suffer another day of stifling urbanism as he shuffled along Saint Laurent Boulevard to pick up his son from school. He wore his laptop case slung stubbornly across his hip, in the same position he used to carry his quiver, and thought back to his fellow blacksmiths, the ones who’d fled to Greece. Had he left Scythia all those summers ago, the year before the Roman legions struck, he never would’ve been forced to immigrate to this sterile new century, with all that he had loved preserved only in the amber of his memories.

It was true—he and Tamura had built a life in Montreal these last twelve years. Their son attended French school and they’d raised him with all the amenities Kurghan’s Scythian jewelry business could afford. But lately, he’d been regretting not joining his friends.

He and Tammy could’ve been catering to the tastes of olive farmers and philosophers. What had made him stay behind another year to tend to his people’s cattle? It must’ve been his own stubbornness that made him stay. A resistance to the least bit of change. His false courage hadn’t served him in the end, though. Dropping his bow to the packed earth of the hut, he’d begged the Enarei priest to call the goddess’s serpents from the sky and save him from the legions’ carnage.

A trip down the throats of the beasts, and next thing he knew, he’d found himself now. In the Ukraine at first. Then, after filing for refugee status, in Montreal.

The twenty-first century had turned out to be not so barbaric. Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood might’ve been a far cry from the plateaus of his youth, and jewelry here might be printed rather than forged on an anvil, but he could still design rings and bracelets on his laptop and keep the Scythian arts alive. His beard blended with the bushes of the Mile End hipsters and beatniks, and the Mongolian restaurant down the street always had a jar of kumis to glut his thirst.

Still, there were days when he longed to ride on the wide, open plains. And this was one of those days.

The brood of elementary school children shrieked and giggled in the school playground. His son Altai thumped a basketball, playing as one of their kind, his scalp shorn like the backside of a sheep.

A weight dropped into Kurghan’s stomach. He no longer looked like any son of his. He looked...Canadian.

Only last evening, Altai’s florid locks, uncut since his birth, had hung in great curtains down his neck. The haircut must’ve been his wife’s doing. Ever since they moved out of the apartment building they called “Little Scythia,” wreathed in cannabis smoke and packed with old men who still told boastful tales of their leopard hunts through the old country, she’d been talking about needing to fit in. She’d been the one to suggest public school for the young wolf. “He must adopt to the ways of the local tribes,” Tammy had said. “We cannot teach him to adapt; he must do so himself.”

Kurghan had acceded to her wishes. Tried to make do in their small apartment above a jewelry store. Perhaps if he made enough money in this land of plenty, he would be able to buy enough hard metal to trade it back home for a flock twice or even three times the size he’d had.

But this? It was like Tammy had bred the Scythian out of the boy. He would have a word with her. Face her headstrong Sarmatian attitude head-on.

He spoke to his son in French. “Come with me, young wolf. I wish to speak with you alone.”

“Where’s mom?” asked Altai.

“Working.”

Altai cradled the basketball like a goat’s bladder, the kind his ancestors had thrown from horseback. On the plains, this shearing would be unthinkable. A warrior displayed his pride in the span of his locks. Yet there he stood, clothed in synthetic twenty-first century fabrics. He would never know the glory of riding on the hunt, of pulling a bowstring taut to bring down a leopard.

The river linking Kurghan to his old country had flooded over and become impassable, stranding him on the farther shore. The bowstring in his bag might be the only way to bridge it. He brought out the taut line of woven hemp wrapped around his fist to show Altai. “When a young man becomes old enough to fight, he is presented with an heirloom,” he said. “This was my father’s bowstring. It was mine. Now it will be yours. You must take it now and learn the ways of the warrior.”

“Your dad is so weird,” said one of his friends.

A bout of laughter from the other kids made Altai blush. He stomped on the asphalt. “Dad, do we have to do this now?” 

 “We have much to discuss, my son,” said Kurghan.

Altai sighed. He bounced the ball back and said goodbye to his friends as they ran off to play on their own.

In time, he would understand. “You must walk the warrior’s path as prophesied.”

“Why?”

Kurghan flashed eyes at him. “Because it is our way.”

“It’s just a stupid piece of string. Besides, what if I don’t want to be a warrior?”

“Your mother’s been talking to you again.” He caressed his son’s scalp, grabbing a tuft of his shorn hair. “When did she do this to you?”

Altai followed him out onto the sidewalk. “I asked her to. All the other kids made fun of me, dad.”

Kurghan turned back to stare at the children, absorbed in their game. “Why should they matter? Are you not proud to be a Scythian?”

“Scyths get beaten up for no reason. I’m sick of it.”

Kurghan frowned. “If you were Scythian in truth, you would repay the insult.”

Altai looked down at his feet. “That’s not the only thing they call me,” he murmured.

Ignoring this last remark, Kurghan knelt before Altai and enveloped his meaty hands around his son’s smaller ones, tightening them into a bond. Altai glanced back down the street, as if he feared to be seen with his father. “All Scythian men must learn to fight,” he said. “It is tradition. You will learn their ways, so long as you live under my tent.”

Altai clacked his tongue, his mother’s gesture. “You mean ‘under my roof.’ We live under a roof, dad. Not in a tent.”

“You, your mother, and I—we are from the steppe. Never forget we always belong in the same tent.”

Altai groaned. If he had anything else to say, he kept it to himself. He told Kurghan nothing more about his classes, his teachers, or his lessons of the day. He just scratched at some red ink on his fingernails and followed Kurghan’s bulk down Saint Laurent Boulevard.

Kurghan almost asked him whether he’d had a test that day but then let it drop. The young wolf did not need this public school, he thought. What he really needed was to learn how to ride a horse.

#

When Kurghan returned home, the bow whispered to him from the hidden compartment in his closet. Most days he almost forgot it existed, but today it hissed at him, asking him why he had let himself go out to pasture, why he hadn’t used it in twelve long years.

It asked him how he had let himself get so fat. 

The taunting distracted him as he designed a 3D model of a pectoral harness on his laptop. It haunted him while he slept.

In his dream, Kurghan rose from bed. He ripped the closet door off its hinges and seized the bow, running his hand over its recurved shaft of smooth bone. He felt a surge of electricity. Instantly, his paunch sucked away. His chest and sinews grew as hard as rocks. He raised his bow to the sky goddess and bellowed a primal roar.

Then he woke up.

The next day, Vesta’s office at the immigration clinic plunged Kurghan from an antiseptic hallway hung with Van Gogh office paintings into the mystical lair of a Scythian priest. A whiff of cannabis hit him—an overpowering, transporting aroma that brought him back to tranquil nights spent under stars.

Vesta, his kohl eyeliner Cleopatra-like and sharp as an asp’s fang, sat on a pillow around a low table. A rouge smile broke across his lips as he rose in all his sacred femininity to greet Kurghan. The goddess Argimpasa lived in him, as she did in all the Enarei priests, and the countless stylized serpent tattoos that covered his arms and bare shoulders showed his devotion to her.

The bronze snakes coiled around his wrists had been Kurghan’s gift. It brightened his dismal day to see him wearing them.

“How are you, Kurghan, my bear?” said Vesta, his voice rising like the shriek of a hawk.

“Not too well, Holy One,” said Kurghan, his own voice a snare drum deep in the throat.

Vesta had secured his passage from the first century A.D. At the flick of his knife, blood had gushed from the throat of an unblemished bull onto an enchanted broach. Agrimpasa’s serpents had spawned from the darkling sky, a pregnant Tammy’s wet, nervous hands folded in Kurghan’s.

“Want a drag?” said the priest, fluttering his eyes as he exaggerated the last syllable. He passed Kurghan a joint. “Don’t worry. The others can’t smell it.”

Kurghan took a puff of cannabis and settled down, wishing it had been so easy to settle down into a new life. He’d realized, when Vesta first wore lipstick, first started speaking with a certain flare, that this century treated people like him much kindlier than the last one. He envied him his independence, his ability to self-style. No young ones tied him down.

The willow bundles Vesta used in prophecies lay in a case nearby. “Did you not tell me once, O Holy One, that I would raise a child whom I would train in the ways of the warrior?” asked Kurghan in Scythian.

Vesta made a gravelly sigh. “I did,” he responded. “What about it?”

“Altai refused the bowstring. His mother has shorn his hair. This is not how it was meant to be.”

“Sometimes the willow branches fall where they fall.”

“Cast them right now.” Kurghan narrowed his brow. “I don’t know what to do. But perhaps the goddess does.”

“I’m a priest, Kurghan, not a parenting guru,” said Vesta. “You cannot force a child to become what the goddess does not wish for him to be.”

Kurghan smiled sadly. “Whatever happened to taking your father’s profession?”

“If that were true, hon, you’d be looking at a cattle herder.” Vesta rolled his eyes in disgust. “Ugh. Thank the goddess I have clean nails.”

Kurghan growled. “It was different for you.”

“Not as different as you might think, kid.” Vesta tapped the joint over the ashtray.

“I did not agree to come to a time such as this.”

“Uh, lemme see—actually, you did. You wanted a future for your kid. And now you got one.”

“Only for our ways to die out.” Kurghan’s anger came to a point, like a barbed arrowhead. Poignant. “I believed your prophecy. Did the goddess lie?”

The Enarei toked his joint, his expression unreadable, and recited: “You will live in a city of steel carts on a plateau overlooked by a mountain. But do not fear, for your wife will bear a child who will be brought up in the golden sun of tradition.”

“I know the words,” said Kurghan. “Is there no way I can go back? To teach my son our ways?”

Vesta frowned at him. “That would be a bad idea. A very bad idea.”

“But there must be some way. Tammy still has that magic broach. Maybe...”

“Absolutely not. I’d need the blood of an unblemished bull. It’s the only sacrifice that could appease the goddess, apart from a human being.” In his vehemence, he lapsed back into French. “And where would you find livestock of that size nearby? Jean-Talon Market?”

But Kurghan smiled. “So, it is possible, then?”

Vesta sighed deeply. “I’d need your wife and son to sign off on the papers, but yeah—I could send you back. Let’s just shy away from the whole human sacrifice thing, okay?”

Kurghan could almost smell the steppe grass again.

#

The next day, he climbed up the stairs from the jewelry shop early. Altai would not return until three and Tammy until five. On a trophy in the apartment's entrance hall, his old, bronze-tipped arrows were mounted. Beside it hung the sacred broach, which displayed a deer in flight, golden and stylized.

He seized it and lifted the arrows from their mounts.

He could leave here, leave now. Go back to riding bareback over the plains. Tammy would oppose bringing Altai to the steppe, but she wouldn’t be able to stop him.

They could find a bull for sale online, a virile angus, pack it in a truck, and haul it into an open field for Vesta to slaughter. Though Vesta would have to wield the knife, he would make sure his son witnessed the deed. A man mustn’t be squeamish around such basic facts of life. Altai would learn what had been done to propitiate the gods. 

Then the steppe’s primal beauty would impress itself on Altai. It would drive away all memory of Montreal’s horseless carts and restless electric lights. The land was in his blood, after all.

They would chase the gazelle together. He would teach him to nock an arrow. The time had come to show his son how it was done.

His bow called to him from across the hallway. It drew him forth as he lumbered past Altai’s door into the master bedroom where a chaotic spill of clothes covered the floor. Kurghan paused, knowing the bedroom had been clean this morning. Tammy’s makeup kit lay sprawled across her dresser, her gowns covering the bed, her high heels and sandals removed from their boxes. Had his sweet meadowgrass played dress-up this morning?

He frowned. It was most unlike Tammy to leave such a mess behind. He ignored it for now, pushing aside his suits in the partly emptied closet to reveal a vertical wood panel.

He unlocked it. His bow hung there, along with its original string, quiver, and arrows. He placed the arrows from the hallway in the quiver to complete the set of nine and then stepped back. The bone was a little unpolished, the leather grip cracked, but it was better than any specimen you could find in a museum. With a little wax and leather sealer, it would be usable again.

He touched the smoothly sculpted sides of the bow. Twin serpents etched into its upper limb met just above the grip to become the arms of Argimpasa. He ran his thumb over their finely etched scales, then lifted the unstrung bow from its hold.

The weight of the weapon in his hand made him feel strong. It felt...right.

He strapped the quiver around his waist. With some sucking in of his stomach, he managed to tighten the belt around his bulging gut. But then he grew aware of a noise he had not heard before. 

In the quiet of the apartment, frantic movement came from Altai’s room: elastic bands snapping, clothes being pulled off and on again.

Kurghan froze, as if ripped out of a trance. Wasn’t Altai supposed to be at school?

He held the unstrung bow as he stood behind his son’s door, frowning. On the steppe, there had never been any privacy. Tents had no doors; his people had no place for shame or shyness.

He knocked. “What are you doing?” he demanded.

“No! Don’t come in!”

“Why not?”

“Uh...I don’t want mom to know I skipped school.”

The less time he spent in that awful school the better. “She isn’t here. Now let me in at once.”

“Can you wait, like, five minutes, please?”

Kurghan sighed and forced open the door. “Just a sec!” cried Altai, but it was too late.

Altai, standing in his jeans without a shirt, shrieked in protest, and kicked something beneath the bed. He shielded his eyes with his arm as Kurghan stepped inside. “Do you mind? Don’t look at me!”

Kurghan took in the sight of his half-dressed son, wondering what he’d been changing out of. “Why? Do you fear me?” he said, grip tightening on the haft of his bow. “You mustn’t hide anything from me, child.”

He grabbed Altai’s arm and gently lowered it from his face, revealing the shadowy, purple makeup around his eyes. A fresh layer of red paint coated his nails.

Kurghan let go. He stepped back, confused, and flared his nostrils. Was that Tammy’s perfume? It smelled nothing like the musk and grease his people used. To find such an aroma on his son—it unsettled him. “What did you hide beneath the bed? Is it your mother’s?”

“I’m sorry, father,” said Altai in Scythian. “Don’t hurt me.”

Kurghan frowned, though he was pleased his son had not forgotten his native tongue. “Hurt you?” he said, stepping forward. “Now why would I do such a thing?”

Altai’s voice shook as he stared at the weapon in his hand. “Because you’d think I’m a sissy.”

Kurghan paused. The mockery he’d reported at school, the bullying, the clothes on his mother’s bed—even the polish on his nails, which Kurghan had taken for red ink yesterday. It all made sense now.

He lifted the black gown stashed beneath the bed. Tammy hadn’t worn it for a long time, but the mermaid cut looked smooth on her. Now why had his son worn it? He found no answer in its frilly lining or in the pearls woven into its V-neck collar.

He sat down beside it. Massaged his head. The room swam around him as if he’d been drinking too much kumis.

“Son...”

“I’m not in trouble, am I, dad?”

Kurghan sighed. “There is much that you have hidden from us.”

“No,” he said. “Not from mom.”

It took a moment for him to feel the impact of that remark. “Your mother...knew? About this?” Tammy had said nothing about this to him. But then again, they had not been speaking much lately.

Altai nodded.

“Why not tell me?”

“I thought mom was the only one who could understand.”

Kurghan knew tears were coming; he remained silent and let his son speak through them.

“You keep pushing me to follow the warrior’s ways,” said Altai. “But those ways aren’t for me.”

“I...I didn’t realize.” Kurghan stared down at the shag carpet, wishing he could take back his words. But not even that could undo the fact Tammy had kept this a secret. “Is that why you shaved your head?”

“Kind of,” said Altai. “I was sick and tired of them calling me names. They said I looked girly, so...I asked mom to do it. I could always wear a wig if I wanted to anyway.” Altai managed a smile. “If only they could see me now.”

Kurghan still stared at the black gown with a vague disgust. He thought about how it had hung in the closet all this time. How his son must’ve pushed past his suits aside to grab it off the rack. It was as if his son had lived a double life.

But Altai was not alone in keeping secrets in the closet, was he?

Altai sat next to Kurghan on the bed and flattened the black gown’s wrinkles, sighing. Kurghan remembered how he had once woven a string in and out of two pieces of leather, tightening them together to make a quiver. A motion not unlike tightening a blouse.

“Is this who you are?” asked Kurghan. “Is this who you were meant to be?”

Altai fingered one of the pearls woven into the collar. “Yes,” he said. “I find it lets out the goddess in me.”

And that was when Kurghan peered into his son’s mascaraed eyes and recognized in them what he had not seen before. They sparkled with an otherworldly glow. Like two moons. 

The goddess’s light.

Kurghan shuddered before the numinous. The path of the warrior had never been Altai’s to walk. He’d just been too blind to notice the signs, so convinced the same traditions would be handed down as they’d always been.

He dug his hands into his scalp. “I...I did not realize,” said Kurghan. “Argimpasa has chosen you for her own?”

Altai nodded.

He wanted to pull his hair out. “Oh, goddess, forgive me for leading this wolf of yours so wrong.” He had dared to go against her divine will. And because of his obdurate pride, his own son had been afraid to tell him about his great gift.

“Her ways are mysterious,” Kurghan told his son. “But she never chooses wrong.”

Only men do that, he thought. Men such as I.

“I have something for you,” he added.

He presented the bow to Altai. His son gripped it, running his manicured hands over the intertwined serpents, brushing dust off the goddess etched in bone. “This is nice,” he said. “But I told you I don’t want to be a warrior. I mean, I can’t look at blood without throwing up.”

“You do not have to kill with it,” said Kurghan. “I have not used it myself in a long while. Consider it a gift. A gift from me—and from the goddess.”

“But isn’t it only for warriors?”

“Sometimes,” said Kurghan, smiling, “traditions must change.”

Kurghan patted his son’s shoulder. His heavy longing for open fields still burned within him, but, as the days went by, it would become bearable. His blacksmith friends were long dead now, ashes in the ground. But the Scythian ways would survive. Maybe not as they always had, but they would endure, nonetheless.

One day soon, he’d bring Altai to see Vesta. Then he’d take him out to the Mongolian restaurant to celebrate. They would drink kumis together, he and his son in his black gown.




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