The entire village ushers Bina to The Thousand Skin Tent, the men with their lanterns and grave faces, the women with doughy infants suckling bare, sloping breasts. Children dart between their legs, their eyes glittering and wide. They are silent.
Yagra told her there would be silence.
At the top of The Great Hill, The Tent swells, a bloated dome pulsing ochre into the night. Behind Bina, the villagers churn and she feels their movement like the gnawing hunger in her belly, urging her forward.
Yagra stands at the mouth of The Tent, her priestess robes pale against her wrinkled, ashy arms. There is a fresh patch of hair missing from the left side of her scalp and Bina reaches toward it, concern prying past the hunger, but Yagra takes her hand before she can touch.
Tonight is the last night Yagra will hold her hand.
Tonight, Bina swallows the moon.
You stand at the mouth of The Tent.
Your seedling, your little Bina, is as bright as the sun. For twenty nine days, you have tended her. For twenty nine days, you have watched her grow.
Her hand is so very small in yours and her fingers tremble. You try to remind yourself that she is a goddess. You try to tell yourself she came from a strong seed.
You try to tell yourself it will not hurt.
When she is eight days old, Bina asks, “Why?”
She is sprawled on the floor in the center of Yagra’s hut when she asks this. The pain in her hands isn’t so bad now that she’s stopped growing for the day, so she weaves her fingers into shapes, tossing shadow animals onto the walls of the hut. A butterfly. A spider. A swooping, soaring bird. Bina flutters her fingers and giggles.
“Why?” Yagra’s voice is creaking leather. “Because it’s what goddesses do.” Yagra’s hands are knuckle deep in the pot of chuli on her lap, the smell sour/bitter/strong. Yagra’s mouth puckers. “And if goddesses didn’t eat old moons, the sky would fill up with them. There would be no room for sun or stars.”
Bina inhales, watching her belly grow round and taut. She slaps her palms against it. Patter-pat-pat. A drum belly song on a tiny belly. “I’ll never be big enough to swallow the moon,” she says.
Yagra spits into the chuli and continues to stir. “Eight days ago you were just a seed,” she says. “Look how big you are now.”
Bina remembers the slow, fuzzy awakening in cool soil as her seed shell fell away. She remembers giant, gnarled hands reaching into the jar and cradling her as they lifted her up and out. She remembers Yagra’s face, broad and smiling.
“Soon you’ll be almost as big as I am,” Yagra says.
“But it’s the moon.” Bina rolls onto her belly, palms smooshing her cheeks as she kicks her feet against the floor. “You’re not even big enough to swallow the moon!”
“I’m not a goddess.”
“I’m not either.” Bina has seen the painting of goddesses on Yagra’s door. Little girls, one after another, with golden skin and golden hair, their mouths stretched wide, the moon a sharp sickle between their lips. “I’m not a goddess,” she says. “I’m Bina.”
“Oh, seedling.” Yagra’s voice is soft and sad. “My little Bina.” She pats her knee and scoops a handful of chuli into her palm. Bina ambles into Yagra’s lap, cuddling close to let Yagra rub the chuli onto her arms and chest, to help her skin stretch, Yagra says, so that her insides don’t outgrow her outsides. Yagra kisses the top of Bina’s head and whispers, “You will be grown before you know it.”
All goddesses must be planted.
Every month, you gather sacred soil into your jar of clay and pepper it with the blood of the goddess who came before. You fashion a bead into the shape of the moon and clothe it with the skin of one of your children. A carefully cut slice of what was once a thigh. A strip of kneecap. The tender remains of a lip. You bind that flesh with your hair. Wind it tight. You press the seed deep into the jar and cover it with dark earth.
You imagine what it must feel like to have a seed tucked away deep inside you. A child beneath the throb of your heart, your body swaddling it from the inside. Your heart murmurs and the child murmurs back in a language only your bodies know. Secrets flow between you.
But your body is nothing but a dry husk. It always has been. This jar holds more life than you ever will.
You stir your tears into the soil.
You wait for the only child you can create, this seedling, this goddess, made from earth and flesh and hair and tears, to break its shell and join you in the brightness of the world.
They are always so fragile when you lift them out of that jar. Small as stones, wet skin marbled with veins, mouths like toothless, pink O’s. Some of them wail, voices like spider silk. Some of them squirm and bite. All of them stare through you, though, gaze unfocused and vacant until the end, when the moon hunger begins. None of them speak to you and you learned, long ago, not to name them.
But this little one stretches her limbs like morning unfolding. She opens her tiny black eyes and looks up at you with silent questions. Who? Where? Why? When you stroke her skin, she wriggles and her fingers, so small your rheumy eyes can barely see them, tickle your palm.
You do not know why she is different from the others. Maybe your tears were stronger, or the soil deeper this time. The only thing you know for certain is that you want, very much, to understand her.
You speak to her as you would speak to a human child and on the second morning, she wraps her hand around your smallest finger and smiles. She crinkles her eyes and squeals. She opens her tiny mouth.
And says your name.
You call her Bina.
One evening, after Bina has watched the sun fade to violet and Yagra is sleeping, the village children creep to the low window of the hut. From her sleeping mat, Bina can see the round caps of their heads.
“Look how big its mouth is!”
“Look how ugly its face is!”
“Mama says it talks.”
“It can’t talk, stupid. They never talk.”
Their voices are like the wind, hushing and shushing and too quiet for Yagra’s old ears, but Bina can hear them just fine. She makes a game of pretending to sleep, but finally she sits up and says, “Hello.”
In a flurry of gasps, the children scatter and Bina dashes to the window, blanket tangled around her. Her ankles are already throbbing from night time growth, but she climbs onto the sill and watches the children disappear into shadows. Yearning unfolds in her chest. She wants to be like them, to play and laugh and run run run!
“No little one,” Yagra says the next morning as she braids Bina’s ever growing hair. “You have to stay here with me.” Yagra slathers chuli gently over Bina’s face and shoulders.
“I promise I’ll come back,” Bina says, tugging her braids and craning her neck to look out the window.
Yagra sighs and moves to kneel between Bina and the outside world. “You are not like the other children,” she says. “They won’t understand you. You are a goddess.”
But Bina has seen the other children. They are small. Their voices are high and reedy and they laugh like birds singing. Can they really be so unlike her?
And so that afternoon, while Yagra is drawing water from the well, Bina decides to find them. The air outside the hut is soft. There are insects with sunlight in their wings, damp smells here, dry smells there, sweet smells traveling on unfamiliar breezes, but Bina doesn’t have time to follow them. She moves quickly, dropping low and crawling past a huddle of old men at the neighboring hut, their voices rough as pebbles rubbed together. She darts under fences full of goats and warbling chickens. She slips around a knot of women in the shaded grove near the well. They sift golden seeds in long baskets. Shh-shhek. Shh-shhek. Bina wants to make a drum song out of their rhythm, but Yagra is there so she hurries past.
Bina finally finds the children crouched in a clearing on the other side of the grove. Their backs are to her and they are clutching long sticks in their hands and whispering as they prod at a dark shape in the rust colored dirt between them. Curious, Bina squats to peer between their legs and sees the upturned body of a small bird. Its beak is broken and parted around a ribbon of tongue. Damp feathers cling to its motionless breast. There are ribs, exposed and white as new teeth and wings like broken hands. One tiny, dislodged eye stares at her and in the empty socket, Bina sees maggots. Worms.
Bina holds her breath and shuffles closer. A twig snaps beneath her bare foot.
The children turn, startled.
“It’ll eat us!”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Look at its face.”
For a moment, they are still but then a square jawed boy, bigger and broader than the rest, slowly stands. “Why’d old Yagra let it out?” he asks, his legs planted wide.
A girl with knotted hair joins him. “She didn’t let the last one out,” she says. “Not ever. Not till . . . ” She tips her head back, gulps an imaginary something, fills her cheeks with air and makes a wet, exploding sound between her lips.
The children laugh.
The children stop.
The square jawed boy edges closer to Bina, but when she begins to say hello, he prods her shoulder with the stick in his hand. It hurts. Bina has never seen the children do this to each other before. When the boy frowns and does it again, the other children gather around him.
“It’ll bite you.”
“You’ll get in trouble.”
“We’ll get in trouble.”
“You’ll hurt it.”
The square jawed boy crosses his arms and laughs. “You can’t hurt it.” He puffs his chest. “Besides, Yagra will just grow another one when this moon is gone.” He glances at the girl with the knotted hair and then, grinning, hops toward Bina with an animal growl. Bina smiles back, curious about this new game she has never played, but he dashes around her. He beats his chest. He howls. One by one the other children join in, until they are a blur of willowy legs and laughter darting around her, their bare feet thundering.
Bina giggles and stands. She stomps her feet to her own rhythm as they kick orange dust against her legs. She turns and turns. She laughs. She plays.
The square jawed boy stops abruptly and the other children collide, a staggering jumble that unfolds around her. Bina is breathless, still stomping one foot, when she tips her head and howls. But it isn’t at all like the boy’s howl. Her sound is booming and deep. It’s as big as the moon and for a moment, all is still.
Behind the children, Bina can see the women in the grove drop their baskets. In the center of them, moving more quickly than Bina has ever seen, is Yagra, shoving and sprinting with her uneven, ancient legs across the field toward Bina, priestess robes a billowing, pale cloud.
But Bina is still too excited from the game to mind Yagra’s worried face. She hops up and down to show her. Look! She is one of the children! Look! She is playing! Yagra only runs faster. Maybe Yagra doesn’t understand the game? She is creaking leather and dry skin, after all. She isn’t a child.
Bina laughs and howls again.
Some of the children scream and dart away from her. Some clap their hands over their ears. But the square jawed boy grips his stick in both hands. He marches, nostrils flared, toward Bina. He draws his stick back.
He hits her.
Pain, sharp and sudden, lances through Bina’s side. The boy strikes again. The stick cracks across Bina’s thigh so hard it splinters and her knees buckle. Dust plumes over her and the children converge, arms swinging, sharp branches whistling through the air.
They hit her.
“Get it! Get it!”
“It’s going to eat us!”
“Look it’s bleeding!”
Over and over again, they hit her.
“Look! It’s crying!”
Yagra shouts in a voice Bina has never heard before and the children’s weapons clatter to the ground. Bina looks up in time to see them scrambling, their mothers snatching them by the arms, swatting their backsides, chasing squealing strays into the grove.
Then Yagra is kneeling and gathering Bina against her, a world of crepe-y skin and chuli smells, familiar and safe, her grip so tight it hurts. “I told you not to,” Yagra says and when she pulls away, she is angry. “I told you not to!”
Bina cowers, hands over her head as she crumples to the earth. Because if Yagra hits her too, she will shatter. She will break into a thousand, thousand pieces.
Yagra only sighs. “Oh, little seedling. My little Bina.” She strokes Bina’s cheeks and lips, her arms enfolding her as she rocks her gently back and forth, back and forth.
“Why did they do that?” Bina eventually asks, her face pressed against Yagra’s shoulder, her throat clutching at her breath with tiny fists.
“Because you are very special,” Yagra says, “and that scares them.”
Bina closes her stinging eyes and whispers, “I don’t want to be very special.”
Twenty nine days is a lifetime.
You have known this since you were a girl and you counted moons on the wall of your mother’s hut. You followed the arc of their cycles and night after night you waited for your body to swell and bleed in the sacred rhythms women understood. You waited.
You did not want to be special.
You did not want to be a priestess, sewing seeds into jars of clay. You wanted to be like the other girls. You wanted to be normal.
But you never bled.
Instead, you learned to mourn.
Your children grow and die so quickly. When you prepare to bury their bones, you have only begun to know them. In this, Bina is no different. But you know the curl of Bina’s hand, gentle in your hair, as you never knew the others’. You know the trickle of her laughter. You know the tiny whimpers of pain she makes in her sleep as her body lengthens and muscles and organs expand, the goddess inside trying to shove out of her skin. You know the tears Bina sheds even though she waits until you are outside the hut to cry.
When you find her, she is always huddled in the farthest corner, hands over her eyes.
You wish you could tell Bina that you understand the way she scrubs her fingers over her face and pretends to smile. You wish you could tell her the rage you once felt at being different. You wish you could tell her how many times you’ve wanted to smash that jar of clay and let the sacred soil tumble onto the dry, barren earth, to end this cycle of moons and death you have been forced to cultivate.
You wish you could tell her how much you love her.
But twenty nine days is never enough.
The children do not return to Yagra’s hut, and that night when Yagra sleeps and Bina crawls to the window, she does not look for them.
Instead, Bina looks at the moon.
It is miserably bright against the clusters of stars. None of those stars will ever understand the moon’s strangeness or what it’s like to be so big, to be solitary and doomed to change every night. The stars have each other to play with, after all. They don’t really care about the moon.
Bina reaches one hand up and covers the moon with her thumb and for the first time, she imagines what it would feel like to touch it, to let the moon slide between her lips like the painted goddesses on Yagra’s door. She imagines it slipping down her throat and flowing into all the lonely pockets inside of her.
Sometime before dawn, as she lies beneath the window, her face bathed in moonlight, a deep part of Bina groans. An ache she has never felt before sucks at the insides of her belly.
Like a slow tide, the hunger begins.
You knew this day would come, when your little seedling would turn to the moon and want. When you would touch Bina’s shoulder and she would look at you fevered and frightened. When the night would stretch on forever and the moon, slim as it is at the end of its life, would suddenly fill the hut with its light and weight and size.
You want to spirit your little seedling away from that moon, to hide her in your arms, to keep her on the earth for just one more day, and then another and another. You want to hold those tiny hands in yours forever but she is growing and there is no stopping that now.
You planted her and tended her and loved her and she won’t stop growing until she is as big as the moon.
You knew this day would come.
You knew this day would come.
As Yagra guides her into The Thousand Skin tent, Bina feels the pull of the moon, the hunger like a murmur or a moan. The walls of the tent curve like the palm of a hand above them and Bina cranes her neck to see, to distract herself from the pain in her belly, but Yagra guides her gaze back to her with a gentle touch.
“Look how beautiful you are,” Yagra says. There is a tightness in her voice Bina doesn’t understand as Yagra pulls her to the earth in the center of The Tent and sits across from her.
Bina’s bones are creaking. She feels fevered. Sick. “Where’s the chuli?” she asks.
“You do not need the chuli anymore, seedling.” Yagra leans forward to smear gold onto Bina’s cheeks and forehead.
“It hurts inside.”
“You must be strong. Here. Let me paint your hair.”
Bina draws her knees to her chest as Yagra smooths gold onto her braids. Deep in her ribs, something is swelling and changing and Bina suddenly, desperately, wants to go home. She wants to be Yagra’s ‘little Bina’ warm and snug in her arms. Maybe if she is good, maybe if she is strong, if she doesn’t cry, Yagra will take her back to the hut. Maybe later, when Yagra is done painting her, they can go home and make shadow birds together.
But, oh, the hunger is growing inside of her and with every pulse of it, the walls of The Tent seem to glow brighter. Bina tips her head back, hand on her belly, to see if it’s true, if the pain and the light are the same and there, high above on the ceiling of The Tent, are the faces of little girls, stretched out, pulled flat, distorted and sewn together in patchwork. Their mouths and eyes are stitched shut, and there is gold paint on their cheeks and foreheads. Little girls like her, little goddesses, all sewn one into another, their bellies and thighs, the soles of their feet woven into the walls, glowing brighter and hotter. Brighter and hotter.
She needs to go home. She needs to run, to hide. Her skin is boiling. She hurts. Her bones are screaming. Run. Hide. Run. Bina jerks to her feet, but Yagra snatches her before she can dart out of The Tent. One hand clutches Bina’s arm, the other latches around her waist. “Hush, little seedling, hush,” Yagra says over and over. “Soon you’ll be as big as the moon.”
Bina has never wanted to be as big as the moon.
She shrieks but Yagra wrestles her back outside and into the night where the people of the village stand, waiting.
The moon is shining slender and silver. Need ignites in Bina’s chest, her head, her groin, her toes, her tongue. Her insides throb. Agony radiates from the base of Bina’s spine, whips around her lungs until there is no place left for air to go. She gapes. Gasps.
The moon is so, so beautiful.
Bina hears her skin rupture a moment before her body rips apart. Her shoulders dislocate. A wet pop. Bones flare outward. A crackle of pain. Her skull wails. Her scalp splits. New legs burst through the meat of her, pulp chasing marrow, growing and growing and growing and her arms aren’t arms anymore, they are wings and they are as big as the night sky and everything is fire and golden light. Bina heaves and lurches away from Yagra, away from the villagers and The Thousand Skin Tent. She springs away from the earth. Blood-slick and new, she wings toward the horizon, her eyes fixed on the moon.
Her mouth unhinges.
You watch the moon disappear. You watch the goddess you created sail toward the horizon until she tumbles into sunrise. You watch the people of the village raise their hands in prayer and return to their huts.
Alone, you gather the remains of your child. You cradle the skin and bones of your little Bina in your arms and you try to remember the seedling in your palm, the child smiling.
You begin to do what you have always done. You undress what is left of her, slicing her tattered skin away to dry so that you might stitch her into The Tent someday. You cut a strip of flesh from her tiny palm. You wrap it around the bead you have so carefully fashioned into the shape of the moon. You swaddle it with your hair.
But her bones, small and wet and broken, you do not bury. These bones you lay aside. You sit beside them as you prepare the jar of clay as if those bones could somehow speak to you as she once did. But your Bina is gone. Your little Bina is gone and the silence of her bones is the loudest thing you have ever heard.
You raise your arms to cover your face, but you drop the jar of clay instead, letting it shatter against the dry, barren earth. The sacred soil scatters.
There is a strip of flesh in your lap. A knot of your hair. A seed the shape of the moon. You gather it into in your palm as morning uncurls and settles its golden arms around you.
You are crying as you lift the seed to your mouth.
You are laughing as you swallow it whole.