In my ‘Meet the Cast’ post about Horace Seaman, I mentioned one of the things I tried to do when writing WHEN SHADOWS FALL was to give each of the characters their own unique voice. Part of the reason I wanted to do this was also because I wanted to write characters who were not only easily differentiated from each other, but also from me. You see, I am part of that group of lazy writers who tends to inject a great deal of themselves into their characters rather than
WHEN SHADOWS FALL (The First Book of the Small Gods)
doing the work to think up something new (I like to think it’s the good parts that come from me, but that’s still up for debate). No where in the book is this more apparent than with N’th Ailyssa Ra.
Ailyssa is a woman in her mid-fifties…I am not. She is a Mother in an order of the Goddess…I am not. You see the differences? I actually did research with my mother-in-law to make sure I got some of the details correct. I don’t know about everyone else, but I found it just a little awkward discussing the ins and outs of menopause with her, as wonderful and open a woman as she is. Something about me, I guess.
More than any other character, Ailyssa grew out of my planning of the world. As I delved into the Goddess religion, I realized I needed to have a character who could help me put across some of the ideas without having to do the hated info dump, and Ailyssa was born. She came to me like an actress I couldn’t bear not to put in the movie, so it’s almost like I wrote the part for her. When I started, I didn’t realize how important her role would be.
Ladies and gentleman…N’th Ailyssa Ra.
III Lines of Chalk
The chalk quivered in N’th Ailyssa Ra’s fingers as she raised her hand toward the wall, preparing to inscribe the ninety-eighth line. Never had she drawn more than thirty-two, except when a child grew within her, and most times never exceeded the twenty-eight chalk lines expected between bleeds.
She closed her eyes and expelled a shuddering breath, reminded herself she’d been aware this day would come, as it did for all Mothers, all women. But she’d imagined it differently, thinking she’d move from Mother to Matron and be an elder of the church, like had happened for N’th Adesi Ra no more than four moons ago.
N’th Adesi Re, she corrected herself.
Ailyssa opened her eyes and took the last step toward the wall, pressed the flat end of the chalk against the stone. With a final sigh, she drew it downward, marking the ninety-eighth rising of the sun since her last bleed.
More than three complete turns of the moon.
With her last coupling five moons gone, far too much time had passed to be carrying a child and not showing signs. Sometimes the blood might fool you and continue to flow for moons after conception but, at her age, the belly couldn’t conceal its secret for long. The times she’d been with child, her heart had been aware of the little soul’s presence before her body announced it to the world.
N’th Ailyssa Ra set the nub of chalk on the ledge beneath the marks, wiped its dust from her fingers on the front of her smock, and tilted her head back to observe the scores on the wall above the chalk lines. These ones had been scratched into the stone, meant to be permanent, not erased every twenty-eight sunrises—give or take—as were the spotty white smudges she drew each morn.
It took her a moment to count them, though she knew how many she’d find: fifty-four. She’d been counting them often of late. The more chalk lines she drew on the wall, the more she counted the carved marks, it seemed.
The twelfth line was wider and deeper than the others, indicating her first bleed, the day she earned the title N’th. She recalled it as though there were not more than forty other lines drawn in between it and the last. Her joy at waking to find her bed sheets spotted with the Goddess’ will that morning had been nearly enough to overshadow it also being the last day she lived with the woman who brought her into this world. The next day of her birth—her thirteenth—marked the first time she carved a line in the wall herself.
She traced the mark with the tip of her finger, remembering N’th Pedra Ra who gave Ailyssa life. They’d followed the Goddess’ wishes, and Mother and Daughter were separated after Ailyssa’s first bleeding, and she often wondered what became of the woman who birthed her. Did she go on to become N’th Pedra Re? Or did Ailyssa’s lack of Daughters, and her Daughter’s lack of Daughters, lead to her expulsion?
Perhaps Pedra bore other Daughters who brought honor to the order and the Goddess.
Ailyssa moved her hand away from the deep wound in the stone and blinked back a tear. Her fingers hovered over the next row, where circles ringed three of the marks, the first crossed out by two lines. She kept her touch and her gaze away from this one, knowing tears came easily at its sight, but she rested her fingertip on the second. This one recorded the birth of her Daughter, Claris, when the Goddess had seen fit to bestow upon her the title of Ra—Mother.
Thirty-four marks had been carved in the wall between that circle and the last line, and still N’th Claris hadn’t been blessed to become Ra. Ailyssa heard word of her now and again when one of the Matrons traveled and brought back news, and they’d told her that the Goddess did not yet judge her Daughter fit to give birth to a Daughter of her own.
Her hand moved to the final circled scar, one separated by thirty-two similar lines from the most current mark carved fewer than two moons ago. No other circles disturbed the rows between, and this last one represented Ailyssa’s greatest pain. When she’d given birth to her first son—her first child and the first circle on the wall—it seemed natural he be taken from her, and she knew no different. She’d drawn the line through his birth circle without second thought; it wasn’t until she held her second child in her arms that she understood what she missed with his absence. Before then, she’d never thought to wonder what became of him, it simply was what was: the will of the Goddess.
The last circle represented her second son, also taken away as a babe; a child she’d not seen since and never expected to see again. His birth had been the most difficult for her and, at times, she’d wondered if the struggle was the reason she’d birthed no more children in honor of the Goddess. Though it may be, she realized the circumstances of his birth were also why she mourned him so. Unlike when her first baby came into the world, her young daughter still nursed at her breast when the third came, and she knew what it was like to love a child.
The pain of his loss wounded her, leaving a scar on her heart far deeper than the one on the wall—a pathetic representation of a child whose fate she’d never learn. She’d been unable to bring herself to inscribe the mark of ‘son’ across it as she’d done the first, unable to act as though the birth and the child it brought never happened.
Ailyssa had memorized the writings as did every Daughter before they became N’th: do not mourn a son, for they are worthless. But, even after carving thirty-two lines in the stone, sleep eluded her some nights, leaving her to lay awake, wondering…wondering. She couldn’t even bring herself to look upon the first circle.
Her hand dropped to her side and she counted marks again.
Ninety-eight since her last bleed.
Thirty-two since her last child.
Forty-two since her first drops upon the sheets.
That meant near forty-two times thirteen moons she’d wiped the chalk markers from the wall and began anew. She hung her head, wishing for her blood to come and allow her to erase their menacing implication one more time.
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